They say that two people can have the same kind of childhood--raised in the same crazy, dysfunctional environment--and one can become a psychopath while the other grows into a normal, functioning adult. The distinguishing factor is that the normal person had a witness as a child. Without a witness, abuse or neglect will drive a person over the edge.
I made it to adulthood intact because animals were my witness. Not that there weren't bumps along the road to my healthy, functional behavior, but always the animals were there to witness my every step.
I was forever escaping to the lake down the road or into the woods behind our house in search of peace and a place where I mattered. I would sit on the leafy ground under the trees and wait for the wild bunnies to come see me. They'd sniff at me and eventually hop into my lap, and I'd spend hours talking with them and petting them. My absence from the house was rarely noticed, except on my return, when my mom would call for me to change out of my filthy clothes before dinner. I didn't fit the mold that Orthodox Judaism had cut out for me--I was to help my mom with housework, grow up to have lots of babies, and keep my mouth shut. It didn't seem fair that my brothers never had to help with the dishes or that their voices were acknowledged while mine was ignored or silenced. The only ones who noticed me were the babysitters. Two of our babysitters were young men, and they paid far too much of the wrong kind of attention to me. One made me sit on his lap when I didn't want to, and the other would wait until my little brothers were napping, and then he'd take me into the bathroom where he said he had something to show me. He would take down my pants and force me onto the cold tiles. I learned very quickly how not to look at him, but instead to look out the window to the trees, to the sky, to the nature that held me close. Out there I was free. When he was done, he would give me little plastic animals. My reward for not telling.
When he set me loose, I would run to my beautiful lake with my Australian shepherd, Simon, where we'd muck around in the shallows and all was right again in my world. Simon and I would watch the tadpoles turn to frogs and track salamanders so I could hold their cool, slimy bodies until they wriggled away between my fingers. I loved that lake; it was my sanctuary, just like the field behind our synagogue and the woods behind our house. But on one particular visit to the lake, something different happened. A man I had never seen approached me and gave me candy and money to do things a seven-year-old girl should never be asked to do. I'd been taught by the babysitters to say yes and wait patiently until it was over. So that's what I did with this man.
When I got home I told my brother, who told my parents. My father was furious--not at the man, but at me. He banned me from ever going to the lake again. No one ever thought to hunt the man down; I was the one to blame. For me that was the day my father joined the other side, the adults who did me wrong. The young men used me, my mother didn't know what to do with me, and now my father had gone from merely favoring my brothers to shutting me out entirely, and on top of it taking away the one place that could give me solace. Without my lake, the emptiness inside me was too vast and too bleak. There was no one to love me and nowhere to turn, and I knew I must be horribly broken to be so invisible. The only solution I could come up with, the only thing I had the power to do, was to leave this world for good. Maybe then, I thought, they would notice me in my absence.
But I didn't know yet what it took to die, so I failed miserably at trying to leave this world. First I tried to smash my head in with a shoe; needless to say, that didn't work. Then I ran sobbing up to the second floor of our house, intending to jump out the window, but I couldn't break the glass. Frustrated and hopeless, I went down into the garden for refuge. As I sat crying on the brick path, I received a message that would change the course of my life. A hummingbird dove to within inches of my face, and there he hovered for minutes upon minutes, his thrumming wings filling my ears with vibration, his eyes--tiny beads of ink--taking in my face. It was as though he were suspended in time, allowing me to absorb every one of his shimmering colors. Gold, red, purple, blue, green. An entire rainbow rolled up into one tiny being, and this one being was seeing me, was interested in me, and was reminding me that I was anything but alone. The world surrounding me was teeming with life--life that noticed me and beckoned me to stay.
It was this diminutive messenger who gave me the courage to tell my mother everything. That the babysitters had been doing things to me for a very long time, wrong things. I even told her about the plastic animals.
"Oh, don't be ridiculous," my mother said, her shrill voice a slap in the face.
"But it happened," I insisted. "It did happen. It happens all the time."
My mom went back to cleaning up the house, doing the laundry, her jaw set on edge.
I followed her around, trying to explain--no one ever saw, the baby-sitters made sure of that. "They told me not to tell, but I'm telling you."
She put down the laundry basket and held up her hand: Silence.
The discussion was over. There was nothing more I could say. Nothing more she would hear.
I fled to my room, slammed the door, and sprawled on my bed sobbing, irate. "It did happen!" I yelled. I pounded the bed with my fists and kicked at the wall, yelling at the top of my lungs. One very hard kick sent my foot straight through the plaster. Seeing the gaping hole in the wall, I jumped from my bed and ran outside, ran until I was sure no one would find me. Out of breath, I fell to my knees under a birch tree, the leaves crunching under my weight.
I was wrong that I wouldn't be found; moments later my dog, Simon, was licking at my tears. I threw my arms around his neck. "It did happen, right, Simon? It happens all the time. You believe me, don't you?"
He nuzzled at my face, and I felt a little less alone. A little less crazy. Simon always seemed to know when I needed him most. Just when I felt the most alone, he would find me and lift me up out of my darkness.
Although nothing more was said about the subject, we only had female babysitters after that. The young men would never again make me sit on their laps, never force me onto the bathroom floor, banging my head on the shower tiles. I would never again have to hold my breath so I wouldn't cry out. It was over.
For years I wouldn't piece together the cause and effect, that my telling had had anything to do with the disappearance of the young men. I felt my mother had dismissed me, and I hated her for it. She hung a poster over the hole above my bed and told me it was our little secret. We didn't have to tell my father I'd ruined my bedroom wall.
For the next several years, my life was a series of camouflaged holes. Chunks kicked out of the fabric of my life and hastily patched over. My mother brushing off my protests with annoyance. "Ellie, stop your nonsense." My heart broken again and again.
On the occasion when my parents remembered my birthday I got to pick out my gift. A trip to the pet store was my default. I'd walk up and down the rows of cages housing hamsters and lizards and finches, and I'd feel a magical sense of possibility filling my being. I'd gaze at the animals and wait until one of them seemed to call to me, silently asking me to choose him or her. By the time we got home, that animal would have a name. I'd set up a cage or aquarium with soft bedding or water and sand and sit with my new friend for hours, letting them crawl all over me, and feeding them special treats. My hamsters were like little powder puffs they smelled so good, and a dove I got for finding the afikomen at Passover would fly to me when I cooed to her. One year I was even given riding lessons at the stables near our house. I bonded deeply with all these animals, better than I ever bonded with humans. I'd run home after school and go straight to my new animal or I'd go to the stables, and the horses would greet me with a toss of their head and we'd say hello by breathing each other in.
Inevitably, though, the pets disappeared--sometimes after a few months, sometimes after only a couple of weeks. There was never a warning and never an apology. My mother simply would grow tired of them, and the animals would be gone. Even the riding lessons were taken away when I made friends at the stables with a non-Jewish boy. I'd sob and I'd mourn but, with a sweep of her hand, she would issue her pronouncement: "Ellie, stop your nonsense. They're just animals."
One very cold winter night, a couple of weeks after I'd received two bunnies for my January birthday, I brought the rabbits into my room before bed. Except for our dog, Simon, animals were not generally welcome in the house, but I would sneak them in whenever I could. And on this particular night I knew it was far too cold outside for these young bunnies.
"Ellie," my mom said from my bedroom doorway. And she pointed to where the cage was almost hidden behind my bed. "Out."
I pretended not to know what she was talking about.
"The rabbits. Outside."
"But they'll freeze," I said.
"They'll be fine. They're animals. They live outdoors."
"But Mom, it's too cold tonight."
She marched into my room and lifted the cage. I ran after her to the front door, pleading with her to let them stay inside just for this night. She opened the door, and I screamed, "They're going to die! Please just let them stay in the living room."
"No. They're going on the porch."
"Just inside here," I pleaded, and pointed to the spot next to the front door. "It's almost the porch."
With the door open, the frigid air filled the front entryway and I hugged myself for warmth, tears streaming down my face. My mother set the cage down outside, then looked at me and said, "Enough. Now go to bed. You'll go see your rabbits in the morning."
I hardly slept that night, and as soon as my window glowed with the faintest morning light, I ran out onto the porch.
Both rabbits were on their sides, little furry blocks of ice.
When my mother saw me sobbing and shivering over the cage, she stood in the doorway and said, "Ellie, what's wrong with you? You're going to freeze out there."
"They're dead!" I screamed.
"You're being ridiculous. They're just rabbits; we'll get you more. Now stop your nonsense and come inside."
The force that drove me to be with animals defied all reason. I was compelled to have them near me no matter what. I began feeling little whispers deep inside--not in words, just in knowing. Go to the stream. Cross the bridge. Now turn right. I would follow this invisible force right to a bird who had fallen from her nest or to a turtle in the woods who had cracked his shell, and I would nurse those animals back to health the best I could, sneaking them into my room and making a nest out of straw and mud or setting up a box with a bowl of water and lettuce pilfered from the fridge. It never occurred to me to question how or why this guidance came. For me it was just like breathing or feeling hungry. I didn't question how or why I needed to breathe; I just breathed. When I was hungry, I followed that hunger to food. In the same way, I followed my inner knowing to the animals that needed help. The shock would come later when I learned that others did not experience this type of connection to animals. I had thought it came with the package--sight, smell, hearing, inner whispers from the animal world.
One time the whispers led me to the lake, where a whole flock of ducks had frozen in the ice-covered water. Only one duck remained unglued to the surface of the lake. That big, white duck bobbed and weaved her head as she stood on the shore, clearly distraught by the loss of her whole community. I dug in my pocket for the bread I'd grabbed on my way out the door and I fed her tiny pieces, luring her all the way home.
I named my new duck Snow White and made a nest for her in the garage. Everywhere I went after that, Snow White came along. Simon would be on one side of me, and this big, white, waddling duck would be on the other. The Three Musketeers, traipsing around the suburbs of St. Louis.
But of course, Snow White's story ended no more happily than all the others. My parents forced me to take her back to the lake and, after much protest, I grudgingly obeyed. The next morning, when I ran down to check on her, I found her on the frozen shore with a halo of red snow around her head. The neighborhood gang of rogue boys had found her before I did.
"It's all your fault!" I yelled that evening as my mom hurried around the kitchen preparing dinner. "You're the one who's making all my animals die."
"Don't you talk to your mother that way," my father called from the living room. A moment later he appeared in the doorway to the kitchen. "You apologize right now."
"You keep sending them away and making them die!"
"That's it. Out you go," my father said, and he grabbed my arm and ushered me out the back door and locked it after me.
Excerpted from My Gentle Barn by Ellie Laks. Copyright © 2014 by Ellie Laks. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.