As if it Didn't Happen
by Maggie Claire, 2009. ISBN 978-0-557-15501-9.
Reviewed by Mary Jo Doig
Posted on 03/22/2010

Nonfiction: Memoir

Childhood sexual abuse—the ultimate betrayal of a child's innocent, fragile soul—encapsulates the child in a powerful vise of denial, terror, and secrecy, while simultaneously stealing the gifts of laughter and happiness, safety and security, and an environment that gives healthy intellectual, spiritual, and emotional growth. Telling the secret of abuse is the singular pathway to healing, health, and the hope that it will help others become more aware. Yet telling the secret is the hardest thing to do.

The first-born and only daughter in a family of seven children, a beautiful, blue-eyed, curly-blond-haired child, Maggie quickly becomes her mother's small helper, learning to change diapers and give 3 am feedings. She soon hears her mother tell neighbors what a good help Maggie has become and then works harder to do better because it feels so good to be noticed. For, on the inside, Maggie feels deeply sad and empty.

In her first chapter, titled "One Big Happy Family," we might expect to meet the author's parents and siblings. Instead, Maggie introduces us to some members of the family of personalities who reside within her as a child. She allows us to enter her world of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), where two or more personalities exist within a person and, in some situations, take control of their behavior and activities. Most studies show the primary cause of DID is traumatic childhood abuse and that these children have often been the prey of sexual abusers during their early life. This is Maggie's story.

As more sons are born, Maggie's mother appreciates time alone when her children can visit Aunt Betty and Uncle Ken's nearby house. Yet it is there that Maggie's horrific sexual abuse starts at about age three and continues with unremitting frequency until she is 16 years-old. A trio of sexual predators—Uncle Ken (a seemingly jovial toy salesman), his son Kenny, and neighbors who pay Uncle Ken so they can sedate and use Maggie for sex and pornography—steal her tiny psyche.

Maggie is able to cope and survive by using dissociation and she is absolutely unaware of her several alter personalities until she seeks therapy many years later as a depressed adult. By the time she begins school Maggie shows some problematic signs, but these pass unrecognized by teachers and other adults in her life; her splintered interior life remains invisible to all who might help her.

Uniquely, in this writing, Maggie's alters tell their own stories using their individual voices and sketches that speak as powerfully and poignantly as their words. We meet the small twins, Cathy and Catherine, who endured agonizing abuse that Maggie could not possibly bear and the little four-year-old boy named "4," who tries to protect Cathy and Catherine with his bravado and sword, realizing he's unable to and goes on to master the art of running away. Small, helpless Isabel arrives. Three of her heartbreaking words echo from the pages over and over and long after I finished reading, poignantly capturing the ultimate outrage of childhood sexual abuse. At the same time Isabel is cruelly abused by Uncle Ken, she wants to please him. "I be good, I be good, I be good," Isabel softly sobs to Uncle Ken when he harshly tells her she's being bad.

Subsequent personalities are born as new traumas arrive. Maggie herself is fully present one day in third grade where students are called daily to the board to solve arithmetic problems. Those who answer correctly, as Maggie always does because she is very bright, are told to return to their seats while those who have made a mistake stay at the board to receive kind attention on how to solve the problem correctly. This day Maggie completes her arithmetic and leaves the room for lunch. Then she realizes that if she makes a mistake she can stay at the board and receive some of that kind attention she longs for. She races back to the empty classroom and changes her correct answer to an incorrect one. But another student sees what she's done and tells the teacher, who calls Maggie to the front of the room and scolds her for cheating. This humiliation is more than Maggie's fragile psyche can bear. In the brief moments when the teacher tells her to turn around and before she spanks her and will devastate her before her classmates, the self-labeled "mad girl," gutsy Vicki is born and takes the devastating spanking. Monnie bears Maggie's depression, hopelessness, and despair, and often contemplates suicide. Monica, Monnie's twin, on the other hand, is strong, competent, and moves quickly through her "To Do" lists.

As Maggie meets each of her alter personalities in therapy over the months and years, and each tells a story heretofore unknown to Maggie, what happens to them then? Do they leave? Stay? Change? For those complex and moving answers, I now step aside to let you read this extraordinary story of a healing journey in which the author's honesty and courage is so evident on every single page. Maggie Claire is, above all, a woman to be deeply honored and her book a celebration for one woman's breakthrough of both the paralyzing secrecy and perceived shame of sexual abuse.

Maggie Claire has written one of the most courageous memoirs I've ever read.

Reviewer's Note: It is unfortunate that several small, yet needed editorial fixes exist throughout the book which may be a distraction from the excellent content of this memoir. Hopefully, these will be resolved with the next printing.

Maggie Claire wrote her book for several reasons: to heal, to provide validation and understanding to others who have been traumatized, to educate, and to save other children. She also appears on YouTube every few weeks to talk about her book and that "rather mysterious, rather scary, rather unbelievable disease" named DID. The author still has short, curly blond hair and her blue eyes are serious as she tells her story. She is soft-spoken, yet in that quiet voice one also hears a strength of character that rises from a woman who has individuated from childhood wounds. It is deeply moving to listen to her. As she concludes her words, Maggie begins to smile and her eyes start to sparkle as she says, "I looked like any other child. I had no childhood, but here I am. I have hope now—that I'll be happy." Then she smiles broadly.

(See another review of this book, here)

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