By Roseanne Arnold
October 07, 1991 12:00 PM

From singing the national anthem off-key to mud-wrestling with her husband, Tom Arnold, in a Vanity Fair photo spread, TV’s most outspoken comedienne, Roseanne Arnold—who recently dropped her maiden name, Barr—has seldom lacked for attention or controversy. But whatever the result of her antics, her intent was always to be funny. That changed dramatically just days ago when she stood before an audience of 1,000 at Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church in Denver and made a claim that was as shocking as it was serious: “My name is Roseanne, “she said, “and I am an incest survivor.”

The invitation-only gathering had been organized by Survivors United Network and was composed of adult incest survivors and therapists. They had no idea who the evening’s guest speaker would be. During her 30-minute speech, Roseanne, 38, said she had been sexually abused during her childhood in Salt Lake City but had suppressed the memories until a triggering incident nearly two years ago caused them to come flooding back. She said she had since undergone extensive therapy. Inspired by former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur Atler, an incest survivor who told of the experience in PEOPLE earlier this year, Roseanne decided to tell her own story as a way of letting other incest victims throughout the country know that they were not alone. Arnold, who trembled visibly as she read her prepared text, was interrupted more than 20 times by applause.

It was an astonishing evening and an astonishing story—one that is sure to be scrutinized in the weeks to come. Reached at their home in Salt Lake City, Roseanne’s parents, Helen and Jerome Barr, declined to discuss their daughter’s allegations and referred a PEOPLE reporter to their lawyer, Melvin Belli, of San Francisco. His clients, says Belli’s assistant Kevin McLean, are “denying all the allegations against them. We will have a response to every allegation Mrs. Arnold is making,” he adds. Roseanne’s brother, Ben Barr, visited at the Utah AIDS Foundation, of which he is executive director, said “No comment’ when asked about Roseanne’s accusations. Despite repeated attempts by PEOPLE, Roseanne’s sisters, Stephanie and Geraldine, could not be reached for comment.

At home in Los Angeles the day after her Denver speech, Roseanne Arnold gave the following account of her experiences to correspondent Vickie Bane.

KEEPING THE SECRET OF INCEST HAS taken all my energy and courage for 38 years. For most of my life, voices in my head must have been telling me, “Shut up. Shut up. Shut up and take it. There’s nothing you can do, take it, forget it. At least you have a place to live and food on the table. You’re crazy. You deserve it.”

It’s a secret I didn’t even know I had until two years ago. About that time, my husband, Tom, then my fiancé, went into a drug-rehab center. The third night he was there, he called me and told me about an incident that happened to him as a child. It was a story of horrible and painful abuse in which he had been sexually molested by his baby-sitter. Immediately after hanging up, I began to shake and sweat. Pictures started to appear before my eyes—surreal and frightening, looming large, then crystallizing into my mother’s face. I remember being abused. I started to scream and cry, and I called one of my sisters. I got into my car and drove to the hospital where Tom was. I told Tom and a therapist what I had remembered. I cried and cried until I was dry.

I had made sure Tom had gotten help when he needed it, and as soon as he got out of the hospital, he took over my life. I was in such bad shape, I couldn’t sleep or think or function. I was still in a huge place of denial.

I had just reread the hook I wrote in 1989, My Life as a Woman, and I knew that I had totally sanitized it to protect my family. I began to have dreams about having been molested. At first I would shrug them off, but they happened so often, it became harder and harder to ignore. I would wake up screaming, and Tom would write down what I said so that I wouldn’t forget it, because for a long time I couldn’t focus. I wouldn’t drive, because I had the urge to drive off cliffs, into other cars, kill myself. I didn’t know how to feel trust, intimacy, have sex that wasn’t degrading, say no to my children, be assertive. Tom began to sort through the mess of my life. He called the therapist, Arlene Drake, and drove me to see her. He sat outside, and afterward he helped me walk to the car. I knew this was the place I would get well, but I was also scared, because I knew I would have to go through with it. Slowly, with the help of individual and group therapy, I began to remember. Even more slowly, I began to believe myself.

This is the truth I unraveled: My mother abused me from the time I was an infant until I was 6 or 7 years old. She did lots of lurid things. She hurt me psychologically and physically.

I remember being 2 years old and standing in my crib. I remember my mother holding a pillow over my face, pushing me down. I remember thinking, ‘Lie still, play dead.’ I did, and then Mother took the pillow away and said, “I must have hurt you honey. I was just playing.”

As soon I was able to start talking, my mother went from physical abuse to a more emotional and mental abuse. I remember when I was about 5 or 6 that I came home from school and my mother was lying on the kitchen floor with blood covering her neck and chest. I screamed and screamed for two or three minutes. Then she sat up and said, “It’s ketchup, you idiot,” and laughed. She always played horrendous mind games with me all through my life.

My father molested me until I left home at age 17. He constantly put his hands all over me. He forced me to sit on his lap, to cuddle with him, to play with his penis in the bathtub. He did grotesque and disgusting things: He used to chase me with his excrement and try to put it on my head. He’d lie on the floor playing with himself. It was the most disgusting thing you can ever imagine.

We were not allowed to lock the bathroom door. Dad would come in while I was showering and fling back the curtain and look at me. So I took baths. That way I could bend my knees up around my chest and fold in while he stood there taking pictures of me with his new movie camera. As a preteen and teenager, I had to place a towel over the doorknob so Daddy couldn’t peek through the keyhole. I had to make sure the heating vent connecting the bathroom to Daddy’s bedroom was closed so he couldn’t look at me.

At age 17, following an auto accident in which I suffered a trauma to my head, I was sent to the Utah State Hospital for eight months. I was afraid to get close to anyone. I was afraid of losing control and saying bad things. I thought I was an eccentric, a writer, an artist. But the hospital was the most desirable place I ever was in Utah. During my eight months there, I started to heal.

Even so, I clung to my fantasy of our happy, quirky family, a bit off-kilter, but colorful, all-American, Jewish. In my fantasy my mother was kooky but cool. My father, an ex—football player, had trouble emoting but was a big, fluffy, harmless guy. The family would go to parties and tell outrageous stories. We’d tell them as jokes, and everyone would laugh and say we were so bizarre.

After I appeared on The Tonight Show in 1985, my career started rolling, but I was still blind to everything. I had people surrounding me who were abusive to me, who lied to me, made deals behind my back. The worse I was treated, the more loyal I was.

My three kids were totally screwed up at the time. There were no rules. They would miss 30 or 40 days of school a year. They did what they wanted, and I let them because I hadn’t trusted adults and I didn’t think they should either.

My family has always worried about what I might say. When I got the book deal in 1988, my mom immediately wanted to know what I was going to write about. I told her it was about my life. She said, “Don’t humiliate us,” and she cried and cried. I didn’t understand it then. I thought she meant the craziness of the family, the fact that I was raised in two different religions, Jewish on weekends, Mormon on weekdays. I thought she was being a typical Jewish mother.

Only in the last two years have I realized the consequences of keeping our secret. I have lived the majority of my life in a flesh prison that I was always trying to blow up, break out of, whittle away. I tortured my body, smoking five packs of cigarettes a day and indulging in drug, alcohol and food abuse that had me weighing either 100 lbs. or 200 lbs. I was scratching and tearing at my body—mutilating myself. It was as if punishing my body would turn me into an angel of some sort, an angel that could transcend my own body—a body I hated because it was the holder of the truth, the secret.

The fact is, I didn’t have a secret, the secret had me. I was trapped in a fantasy—that my family will love me, will be whole, will allow me to heal, will be safe, will stop lying, will stop blaming crazy old Roseanne.

Tom helped me break out of the trap. Something was so different about Tom. I didn’t know why, but he became my best friend right from the start when I met him almost 10 years ago. Tom says I tested him and tested him, telling him things about myself and then taking them back, saying it was all a joke. We were married in January 1990.

Last year Tom, the kids and I all started therapy together. We went every day and every night. Individual counseling for each of the kids, family therapy, my therapy, Tom’s therapy, marriage counseling. We learned to be parents. Unraveling the “happy family” fantasy is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

The kids are doing really well now. Jessica, 16, is a brilliant writer; Jennifer, 15, is a talented artist; Jake, 13, is in college prep and loves making funny little comedy films. They’re good kids too. They only missed two days of school last year, and they’re all in gifted and talented classes. And they’ve been very proud of me telling my story of incest.

Now Tom and I want to have children of our own. In November I’m going in for an operation to reverse having my tubes cut.

Incest and child abuse thrive in darkness, in secrecy. One of the great taboos about incest is talking about it, dealing with it and healing from it. I believe the more voices we hear, the braver we become. I want to enter my voice into the mix. I want to be one more person who speaks out and up about incest, to give it a name. With a name and a visible form, we can treat it, contain it, destroy it.

This was the summer that I let go of the fantasy that things would get better. I was sick of the lie. I was ready. I did an interview in San Diego where I said that I had suffered sexual, physical and emotional abuse. After that interview, a home in San Diego for sexually abused children contacted us and asked us to come meet them. So Tom and I went down and met these little kids, incest survivors.

A couple of the kids, especially one little girl, touched me really deep. She said she was so glad that any celebrity cared about them. She reminded me of all the little girls and little boys who have to live with that horrible experience. She reminded me of me. What would it have been like if anybody ever said, “Hey, how are you?” Nobody in our lives ever said, “How are you?” It is very important to me that kids and other survivors know that somebody like me has gone through it too.