Once When I Was Eleven

Through my work at a cancer support center, I have met a number of people who ponder why they got cancer or why they got a particular cancer. So many cancers seem to be random.

I recently heard a doctor talk about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which are:

“stressful or traumatic events, including abuse and neglect. They may also include household dysfunction such as witnessing domestic violence or growing up with family members who have substance use disorders. ACEs are strongly related to the development and prevalence of a wide range of health problems throughout a person’s lifespan…” (SAMHSA)

The presenting doctor said that adults who have serious health issues can find the information about ACEs helpful. ACEs might not explain everything, but they can offer insight into the possible connection between childhood trauma and adult health issues.

That night, I had a dream and woke up with the words from the song 7 Years by Lukas Graham running through my mind: Once I was eleven years old. I don’t remember the dream, only those words. Odd, I thought, except that I had recently read the short story Eleven by Sandra Cisneros and wondered if there was a connection between the song and the story.

I believe dreams can carry a spiritual message—as in the Bible when God conveys messages through dreams. So when I have a very clear dream or wake up with a clear word or phrase, I try to pay attention to any possible messages.

Once I was eleven years old, I repeated to myself throughout the day, trying to remain open to any significance.

Then I remembered something that happened when I was eleven: I witnessed a girl being raped. I did nothing to stop it, and I didn’t run for help (the man had told me to stay put). I waited for it to be over and then offered her comfort. The next morning, I suggested we tell someone what had happened. “What?” she asked. I reminded her about the man and what he had done to her. “I don’t know what you are talking about. Nothing happened last night,” she insisted.

We did not speak about it for more than twenty years, and then she asked for my help. She was in therapy and her therapist suggested something bad had happened to her as a child. She had no memory, just a feeling that I might know something. I did, and I told her.

It never occurred to me that being present when she was raped had any impact on me—until I read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. Spoiler alert: a child is raped and another child is witness to it. The witness did nothing to stop it and is forever plagued by guilt.

Guilt? Did I have guilt for having done nothing to stop the rape I witnessed?

Had my life also been affected by the rape, even though he did not physically touch me?

These were questions I had not pondered before, and when I had the opportunity, I went to hear Khaled Hosseini speak about The Kite Runner. It turned out that the book is semi-autobiographical. During the Q&A, people asked about many parts of the book, but no one asked about the rape. I wondered if people would have asked if it had been girls instead of boys. Or is asking about rape taboo?

Why has all of this come back to me now?

Sandra Cisneros wrote:  “…what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one.”

Although I am no longer that eleven-year-old, she remains a part of me, and she helped shape the woman I am today.

Is my eleven-year-old self in need of healing? And is God inviting me to reach back to her and offer her compassion?


TLH photoMadeline Bialecki grew up in Detroit and recently returned after living in Philadelphia for twenty-eight years. She began writing about her spiritual journey and faith life after the death of her best friend in 2012. She likes to read, knit, bake and garden. She shares her spiritual journey here.