When I Was Six

When I Was Six (WIWS) is a public exhibit exploring the effects of violence in the early lives of homeless women. Sponsored by The National Center on Family Homelessness and a major grant from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, the exhibit traveled to east coast cities including Boston, MA; New York, NY; and Washington, D.C. Using oral histories, photographic portraits, and a series of ‘memory images,’ WIWS profiles ten women who experienced abuse at the age of six, and highlights the programs crucial to their restabilization in the community. 1996.

The texts accompanying the images below are excerpted from longer narratives.

“The backdrop to this project was the new welfare-to-work legislation rolling out nationally. One of my hopes for “When I Was Six” was that viewers would gain appreciation of how devastating it can be when abuse and neglect are part of someone’s childhood experience.”

Pamela

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The biggest thing I could tell you about my childhood is being alone all the time. Loneliness. I was always off somewhere reading all by myself in the woods. It is so peaceful out in the woods, you know. It’s all pine trees and it has that smell, and all you hear is birds and the wind and the trees. I always pictured myself as Snow White, where the animals would come and sit with me and sit on my shoulders, and the birds would come to me when I answered them. All the animals loved me and nobody could bother me, and I could live in the woods forever.

I am not comfortable with hugging and all that, so (the shelter’s staff members)—they wouldn’t hug me. I was afraid to tell them because I thought it would hurt their feelings, but they were fine with that. Even with my kids: they hugged me sometimes and—I hate to say it, I love them and everything—but it’s hard for me to hug them back. I’m better at it now. I think the biggest thing for (staff members) Joan and Sara was the day I left, I gave them both a hug. Affection is…I like affection, but it is not a normal thing for me. It feels very strange.

Julia

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My mother, sometimes to punish me, she would put me out on the porch to sleep at night. I had to be between five and six. It was dark, but it was peaceful. It was like that porch was my little world, and actually that’s about the best thing she could have done for me. I didn’t have to worry about getting a beating. I didn’t have to worry about taking care of my brothers and sisters. I’d just curl up and go to sleep.

Bruises go away from your body. But in your heart, those scars don’t go away. They play over and over in your head. Any time I make a little mistake, it comes up in my head: “You’re so stupid.” It’s like those things become a part of you. I know from personal experience that the things I say to my kids could hurt them for a lifetime. And I don’t want my children ever to feel like I did.

Joan

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My mother, sometimes to punish me, she would put me out on the porch to sleep at night. I had to be between five and six. It was dark, but it was peaceful. It was like that porch was my little world, and actually that’s about the best thing she could have done for me. I didn’t have to worry about getting a beating. I didn’t have to worry about taking care of my brothers and sisters. I’d just curl up and go to sleep.

Bruises go away from your body. But in your heart, those scars don’t go away. They play over and over in your head. Any time I make a little mistake, it comes up in my head: “You’re so stupid.” It’s like those things become a part of you. I know from personal experience that the things I say to my kids could hurt them for a lifetime. And I don’t want my children ever to feel like I did.

Rhonda

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When my father would get in his moods I’d put my hands up – I knew I was going to get hit in the face. As soon as I’d see my father it was like an automatic reponse: so I wouldn’t see him coming, so I wouldn’t have to see it, you know? I would do it constantly. Anybody would come near me and I’d flinch and block my face.

She said, “You’re going to be okay. We’re going to help you.” And that’s what they did; they took very good care of me. I think it was the first time in my life that I was surrounded with a whole bunch of people that really cared about me, and showed me that there were other ways. I didn’t have to be involved in abusive relationships for someone to love me; if someone loved me they weren’t going to do that to me.

Cathy

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It was like my bedroom window was calling me. I would look and I would look away. But I would have to look again. The window was offering me a way out, but to escape was scary. It was unknown and I knew home – I didn’t like it, but it was known to me. Darkness was more the feeling of the window than actual physical darkness. Like overwhelming types of forces, and none of them were good.

Once I was at Dulles Airport and the flight go delayed and I had only five dollars on me. There were two kids to feed, so they split a hot dog, and a woman from Lexington overheard us talking and asked us if we wanted some money. I said, “No, no no,” but she was insistent. I said I would take it if she took a check for the money, so I wrote a check for twenty dollars. A little more than a week later I got my check in the mail with no return address, just my check ripped in half in an envelope. I think of her often: a stranger that met you and gave you twenty dollars because you needed it.

Mary Ann

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We had this little hole in our wall. Me and my brother would play house, and we would make believe that we came from this nice family and everybody liked us. We created our own little family, called the Mouses. and some lived in Texas and some lived in California. And they’d come over and visit. Me and my brother would play for hours in my room with these invisible mice.

There’s a totally different side to me. I walk out, I can smell the air, and I look up at the clouds. It’s like a bowl of cotton candy—you can let your imagination go and create things with it. And you look at the trees, and it’s like magic how they change colors and their leaves know when to fall. And the flowers—when the spring comes and they bloom—and the animals…It’s just everything. My therapist asked what keeps me alive. And it’s that so many things out there are so beautiful.

Cindy

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I’d never take a nap until my grandmother came home. And she’d always bring me a danish and bribe me to take a nap. She’s a very special person, and it made me feel special when she did that. It was just something she did for me; it’s not something she did for the rest of the family. I don’t think there was ever a time when I didn’t fall asleep when she did that.

I started to write a poem, but I never finished it. It was something to the …“I wonder what people will see when they sit there and they look at me. I wonder how they’ll feel when they hear what is real…” I hope they’ll see a person who’s come a long way, who’s had to fight but can overcome. And learned that they can overcome a lot. I hope they see me as a person who was willing to open up my life to try and help other people. I guess that’s what I hope they’ll see.

Elizabeth

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My life was so miserable when I was six. The same feelings that I had when I was a little girl, I feel today. Desperation. Hopelessness. Sadness. It’s like my life is the same. The same track. The same road. Nothing’s changed. Even though I’ve tried hard to make a change in my life, I seem to be in the same corner. It’s a place you cannot get out of, you know?

In the future I want to work with people that are dying of AIDs—people sometimes don’t want to get close to them. I want to be with them in that moment, to help them die and eveything. People are supposed to have somebody when they are dying, someone to hold their hand and try to be gentle. Some people don’t have anybody. They are alone dying, alone, and that is not fair, you know?

Serach

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We went into this little room, and my uncle said, “Do you know what happens sometimes when people go to the hospital?” and I said no, but I lied; I knew. I knew that they died sometimes. And I said, “But my mother didn’t …,” and he said, “She already has.” That was the most we talked about it. I was six. I remember looking up at the sky and thinking, “What is going to become of me?” There was no one there. Just the sky. Just an empty sky and nobody that’s going to take care of me.

Some kind of spirituality is important, to heal your spirit. It’s like joining the chain of people that have fought for justice going as far as you can go into the past. Whether it was against slavery or for the women’s movement or the gay movement, or Jews trying to stop the Holocaust, there’s a chain of people that have resisted that goes back as far as you can imagine. If you feel connected to other people who have lived before and you feel connected to the trees and nature and rocks, you can feel, “These people that hurt me—they’re not the whole of the world.”

Patrice

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I came home from school sick one day, and my mother had made a cake. I came in, and it was on the floor. Crumbled, all ruined, all on the floor. I feel bad because my mother worked so hard … it’s her favorite, and it’s my favorite too. Chocolate frosting. And she’s at work – she tries hard, but … it was like, “I just can’t stop this from happening.” I couldn’t put it back. I couldn’t fix it.

Hope exists, for others, for lots of others. If everyone wrote me off…I don’t know how to say what I want to say. There’s hope for everyone. Well, I don’t know if it’s everyone. But most. Certainly, most.

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