• Leslie Johansen Nack
  • [SWP: Behind the Book] Being European, an Excerpt from Fourteen, A Daughter's Memoir of...
This blog was featured on 08/27/2016
[SWP: Behind the Book] Being European, an Excerpt from Fourteen, A Daughter's Memoir of Adventure, Sailing and Survival

“By the fall of 1973, nearing my thirteenth birthday, I transformed from a little twelve-year-old girl into a five-foot-six-inch, curvy young woman. I was going to junior high with Monica now. I hated seventh grade, and dreamed about the day we’d take off sailing to exotic islands and could stop going to school altogether. Being only one year apart, Monica and I were in the throes of puberty together.  Monica was tall—five-foot-eight inches—and skinny. Her breasts developed slowly and were A-cup sized. My breasts blossomed fast and soon were C-cups. Most people thought I was the oldest.

Monica and I rode the school bus every day to Jefferson Junior High with the military kids who lived on Camp Pendleton. The bus picked us up and dropped us off at the top of Harbor Drive, by the back entrance of the Base.

One day after we got off the school bus we walked lazily down the hill, stopping off at the Candy Kitchen to see if Forest, the manager, felt kind enough to give us a piece of chocolate that day. He did and as we walked toward home chewing our chocolate gift, I saw Dad talking to a man in the parking lot. “Hey, Leslie come here a second,” Dad yelled out.

Monica punched my arm lightly, smiled and said, “Bummer,” and continued to the boat.

I walked toward Dad, watching his eyes travel up and down my body, as my sandals went flip, flip, flip. I looked down at my thongs, the most interesting thing in the world to me, trying to ignore him.

I waited by his side as he finished up his conversation. We were taught never to interrupt, never! Children were to be seen and not heard—that was the motto in the Johansen family.

“Why do you wear your bathing suit top to school?”

I had on my blue and white striped string bikini top under a white t-shirt. It was visible through the T-shirt and I thought it looked good – like I lived at the beach.

“I don’t know. I like wearing it,” I said.

“It looks like a bra to me,” he said, “my girls don’t wear bras. Only pregnant girls need bras.”

I stared at the pavement. “All the other girls at school have bras.” “All the other girls aren’t my daughters. We are European and European girls don’t wear bras. Besides, you look beautiful without one—natural, like a young woman should look.”

Across the parking lot, a surfer walked up from the beach, his wetsuit shining in the afternoon sun, carrying his board under his arm. I said nothing, knowing it was a losing battle.

“You’re not shaving your legs or underarms, are you?” Before I could answer, he bent over and ran his hands up my shin, then lifted my arm to look underneath it. “Good girl. Don’t be like all the other girls. Be a Johansen. Be proud to be European.”

I spaced out, put up the invisible walls around me, the ones that had always protected me when he got too close into my space. My eyes looked ahead but everything around me was blurry, unfocused. I yearned for something I couldn’t verbalize: the day my body was my own.

“You can go now. Get your homework done, then I have chores for you,” he said.

He kept a close watch on me for the next few weeks, making sure I didn’t wear my bathing suit top under my clothes. Monica didn’t have to worry about any of this, she barely needed a bra and I was sure she didn’t want the fight with Dad. She stayed quiet and never insisted on getting a bra. For me it became a game. I tried stuffing the tiny little string bikini top into my backpack but he found it. He never said anything to me, it just disappeared. I also tried stuffing it into the front pocket of my cut-offs, but he saw the bulge and just reached into my pocket on the dock before we left for school and pulled it out. He threw it in the dock box that held our ropes and extra sailing gear, daggers flying out his eyes at me. The silent war had begun. I had no choice but to go to school feeling vulnerable and naked.” page 8-9    

I learned to protect myself from an early age by tuning out and putting up invisible walls as my father continually encroached on my physical space. Any moment he could use his authority over me or my sisters, and put us in our place, humiliating and embarrassing us.

While taking away my sense of ownership of my own body, like in the scene above, he would, at the same time give me some super important new responsibility which he had convinced me I could accomplish. He gave me a sense of self but then ripped the carpet out from underneath me at the same time.

It was a confusing time, and what made it more difficult was that we were living on a sailboat with the intent of sailing around the world. In 1975 everybody thought it was such an amazing thing he was doing for his three daughters. Weren’t we just the luckiest girls in the whole wide world? But “being European” was just the beginning of his somewhat twisted way of parenting. As the months ticked away, I started to feel angry and bolder and began to push back against his encroachment. 


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  • Irene Allison

    Oh, Leslie, this is heart-breaking! I could feel the hairs on my arms rising in alarm with every word. And all this for a child to experience. So devastating and yet many people will benefit from your courage to share this story with the world. Your writing is beautiful, which will make your story all the more impactful. I look forward to reading it. Thank you.

  • Leslie Johansen Nack

    Thank you Michelle, Lene and Karen for your comments.  I really appreciate your taking the time to stop and read my blog. The story is a difficult one for sure, but worthwhile I think you will find. Thank you!

  • Michelle Cox

    Leslie, I can't imagine what you went through. Puberty is such a hard, embarrassing time and to have a father notice, comment and dictate your behavior seems unimaginable. I am so very sorry for the pain you must have endured. I have your book on my bedside table. I will get to it soon! Best of luck to you!

  • Lene Fogelberg Writing

    Thanks for sharing your touching story Leslie! I so look forward to reading more!

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    Wow.  Great beginning.  Looking forward to reading more.  Already very inspiring.