WARSAW — The Southern U.S. has long been known as a region where family is honored as a source of strength and nurturing, where the ties that bind serve to both protect and maintain values and traditions developed over generations.
But those ties can also serve darker purposes, ones not generally discussed in polite company—to cloak secrets and actions of the most heinous, soul-deforming nature.
Sandra Pope is living testament to the damage families can inflict with those secrets. Sitting in the living room at her home in Warsaw, her pale blue eyes reflecting the early evening light spilling in through the blinds, the 65-year-old mother of two discussed the events that led her, five years ago, to write a book detailing the sexual and psychological abuse she suffered at the hands of family members as a young child. The book also recounts the years of soul searching and recovery that would eventually lead her back to the community where so many of her most troubling memories still linger.
In her book “Growing Up Without The Goddess: A Journey Through Sexual Abuse to the Sacred Embrace of Mary Magdalene” Pope vividly recalls her early childhood years growing up in Greensboro and the central Tennessee mountains in the 1950s with her mother and stepfather. The book moves through Pope’s teenage years in the Duplin County of the late ’60s and continues on to describe her attempts, as an emotionally troubled adult, to free herself of the confusion and self-destructive habits arising from her past.
Pope’s story eventually leads her back to the land of her father’s family, Warsaw, and the decision to revisit her past by setting it down in book form.
“I think I was drawn to write it because there was so much dysfunction and confusion in my life,” explains Pope. “I just reached a time, after I came here and I had revisited many of the places that had been a part of my childhood and a part of my wounding, that I just felt it was ready to be told, that my personal story had places in it that many people would intersect with.”
Pope alleges, beginning at the age of seven, that she was raped repeatedly over a period of nearly four years by her brother. As an adult, she would come to believe that she had been sexually abused at an even earlier age by her birth father, who died when she was an infant.
The book also recounts physical abuse Pope suffered at the hands of her stepfather, in the form of beatings that would leave her bloody and bruised.
Though the early chapters of “Growing Up Without the Goddess” graphically detail the circumstances of Pope’s sexual and physical abuse, they also offer vivid and lovingly rendered evocations of the Southern landscape — woods, rivers, favorite trees — where the budding bookworm and nature lover would seek refuge from her often harrowing family life.
In the book, Pope is also frank about the ambiguous nature of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her brother, who she admits to loving unconditionally throughout her childhood.
“I was able to lose myself in school and nature during the day, but at night, I lost myself in him. By then, it felt natural,” she writes.
In the fifth grade, Pope found an outlet that would prove to be key to her future peace of mind and process of self-discovery — writing.
“I’ve always found that it’s a way to, not just tell a story, but to figure things out,” she asserts.
At the age of 11, Pope was separated from her brother and sent to live with her paternal aunt and uncle in Warsaw — called “Wisteria” in the book — after a court battle in which her mother was declared unfit to care for her.
Pope describes her high school days as “the numb years,” a time when she attempted to forget the disturbing events of her past by focusing on academics and presenting herself as a “proper” young woman.
Though she strained to conform to the wishes of her religiously conservative relatives, the knowledge she had gained far too early in life as a result of abuse set her apart from her peers, leaving her uniquely aware of the suffering and hidden intentions of friends, family members, and strangers.
After graduating from James Kenan High School in 1966, Pope attended the University of North Carolina in Greensboro but dropped out after one year, turning her back on two full scholarships.
Having left college, Pope embarked on a life of political activism, working as a community organizer for Lumbee Indians and African American populations in Greensboro and Fayetteville. She describes her persona at this time as “a hard core politico, not an alternative life style flower child.”
According to Pope, this period in her life was marked by an inability to form lasting relationships with men, and by the almost unconscious transformations she would undergo in order to better accommodate each new partner.
“What happens when you’re abused is you form other personalities, you dissociate, and I was quite clever at that all my life,” she explains. “If I was with a man who was a comedian, I could very quickly develop my talents that way; if I was with a political activist, I was an even better political activist. But there was a hollowness that I wanted to fill.”
Pope eventually landed in California, where after several divorces and the birth of twin daughters, she would finally begin seeking answers to the emptiness she sensed inside herself.
Pope said the birth of her daughters, Ana and Dani, when she was 32 coincided with her realization that something profoundly disturbing was beginning to rise to the surface of her consciousness. Shortly thereafter, she began attending guided imagery sessions, a form of therapy in which a facilitator uses descriptive language intended to psychologically invoke mental imagery, often involving several or all of the senses, in the mind of the listener.
She also became a practitioner of Jungian therapy, named for the Swiss psychiatrist who developed the concepts of extraversion and introversion, archetypes, and the collective unconscious.
Twenty years after leaving North Carolina, Pope would reunite with her mother.
“I was searching for the missing parts of my story that might explain my brokenness,” she writes.
She would also discover that her father had abused his own sister, Pope’s aunt, when they were children.
“There were invisible forces at work in my life, suddenly pulling me in directions I had not planned to go,” she remembers.
At age 54, Pope reconnected with a man she had dated during her senior year in high school, Bill Rollins, and returned to Warsaw. Pope and Rollins would eventually marry, a bond that has provided a haven for her to delve deeply into the past, with all its attendant shadows and traps.
“It’s not the positive story that anybody wants to hear so that’s been hard,” admits Pope, “but I’m okay with that now because I know consciousness is medicine, it has been for me and I know it will be for other people.”
After a four year process of writing, editing, and rewriting, “Growing Up Without The Goddess: A Journey through Sexual Abuse to the Sacred Embrace of Mary Magdalene” was published in 2008.
Discussing the title of her book, Pope explains that the Goddess, as personified by the figure of Mary Magdalene in the Christian religion, represents the sacred feminine energy that acts as a balance to masculine aggressiveness at work in the world. Pope argues that any society that does not value and respect that feminine image will ultimately accept and rationalize sexual abuse.
According to Pope, the act of recalling past events brought about many of the same feelings and reactions as the original experiences.
“I was lucky that I was and still am in therapy, because I would get to a certain part of the experience and start to describe it and I wouldn’t be able to breath easily. I would have to go do something else. The thing about emotional landscapes is that when you revisit them it’s as though it’s happening in present time, so I would remind myself that I wasn’t eight anymore, or 11 anymore.”
Pope describes the book as her attempt to unearth a certain aspect of male dominated culture that allows men to mete out abuse on the women in their lives with impunity. “That part of our culture is still active. It may not be as active but it’s still active and there’s still people, both the perpetrators and the victims, who are stuck in that dynamic.”
Pope stresses that her book is not meant as an indictment of any particular region or people. “I don’t think it’s a damning story. I think it’s a historical phase where there are parts of a culture that need to be exposed so they can die off and a new cycle can begin. And I don’t think it’s just limited to this area; of course it isn’t. But this is where it happened to me, this is where it grew from for me and this is where I am.”
Though she has held readings of her book across North Carolina in the five years since it was published, Pope says she has only now begun to feel comfortable publicizing it in her home county.
“I hadn’t been doing much writing so I went back to my book and started reading it, and I realized my story is everybody’s story, even if they haven’t been personally abused. I realized I was egotistical not to let this story go, to pretend that it’s just mine.”
While the raw details of the book read like a Southern Gothic novel, the facts as Pope recalls them are all too familiar to thousands of women throughout the U.S.
“According to the statistics, one in four women in the U.S. has been
abused. There’s a really big cesspool there that has to be cleaned up.”
Pope says she believes society as a whole has made significant gains in educating its citizens about sexual abuse. Many young people, she believes, are now more aware of the potential dangers from would be assailants.
“It’s not as easy for perpetrators to groom their victims over time because of information about what’s appropriate that is out there. It still happens and it still happens way too much but I think the whistle might get blown a little sooner and there might be help available a little sooner.”
Pope says she has come to understand the perpetrators are often victims themselves. “That doesn’t mean I want to be around them. But it means that I understand that it has been a part of the culture that needs to be brought to light and needs to be changed.”
According to Pope, she has attempted to contact her brother since returning to Duplin County. Though she has spoken to his daughter, a reunion seems unlikely. “Does he fear me?” asks Pope in the book. “Does he feel the shadow of the past fall across the path of the life he has built so painstakingly since he closed the door on our dark deeds decades ago?”
Asked to describe her present state of mind concerning the trauma that was visited on her as a young girl, the strength of will that allowed a seven-year-old child of the South to carry on in the face of her own terrible knowledge rises from beneath Pope’s composed, seemingly fragile exterior.
“I’m in total non-acceptance. I’m in total recovery and healing and resistance to the ways of being that I learned in order to survive that weren’t right for me. I will hold my peace; I will hold my tongue most of the time. But there are times when I won’t. There’s no other way for me to be.”