The constant gardener

Mimi Hottinger. Photo by Emilie Richardson

Mimi Hottinger. Photo by Emilie Richardson

” I just became Supermom, super-this, super-that. Just frantic, constant movement. I needed that kind of high all the time. I was so depressed that I needed something.”
– Mimi Hottinger

Mimi Hottinger has always found solace in her gardens. “When I went out [there], my kids left me alone because I’d make ’em weed!” she said. Yet the peace she sought wasn’t from her children’s demands and the haven she chose wasn’t always in a plot of vegetation. Instead, Hottinger cultivated a garden of personae to contain the lingering devastation of childhood sexual abuse. For years, she juggled marriage and motherhood with roles as a nurse, small-business owner, community volunteer and current University of Minnesota student. But the image she projects of a self-confident woman is really “somebody that I have made up because when I was 12 years old, my dad started sexually abusing me,” she revealed. “What most people see is me outwardly but not me inwardly.” Now, Hottinger is fighting to reconcile these identities and reclaim the inner self that was lost decades before.

What lies beneath
“As soon as my father touched me, my identity, my childhood left,” said Hottinger, recounting the sexual abuse, which continued until she left her family’s suburban Chicago home for college. That first touch shattered her nascent individuality and inflicted a lasting harm.

“I was really sensitive, caring and adventurous,” she recalled. “[Afterward] I became very introverted and very unsure of myself.”

It nearly extinguished the intrepid spirit that once inspired a young Hottinger to organize her fifth-grade classmates in a schoolyard campaign to save a beloved playground from demolition. In its place, a kernel of self-blame was planted that would shade nearly everything Hottinger accomplished in adulthood. “There [was] a subtle sense that I’d done something wrong to deserve this and so my whole life was trying … ” she paused searching for words to explain, “to make him like me more, make him think I was good at something. [But] no matter what I did, it was never good enough for him.”

Although the blossom of a girl was crushed, some remnants of her personality-her sensitivity, love of nature and fighting spirit-survived deep inside her, waiting to bud again.

A garden of personae
Hottinger blamed herself for the abuse and for years never revealed it to anyone. Yet somehow she found compassion and support from people around her. “It seemed that whenever I had to make a choice in my life, there was a good person there guiding me,” she recalled with palpable gratitude. “I had some excellent Catholics nuns in high school who carried me along and saw more potential in me than I saw in myself.” The sisters unknowingly gave Hottinger a precious refuge when they offered her a spot in their nursing school at Marymount University in Virginia. Her father crudely belittled her plans, calling it “a whore’s job,” but the dormant seeds of her once-bold spirit had begun to sprout again, giving Hottinger the strength to defy his contempt and escape his physical abuse.

At Marymount, a vestige of her individuality flourished-the activism first ignited by her playground protest found an outlet in the turbulent political atmosphere of nearby Washington, D.C., where Hottinger marched to protest the Vietnam War and helped shut down the Francis Scott Key Bridge. The passion of her activism surprised Hottinger herself: “I never thought about it, I just did it. I get very passionate about anything that I perceive as an injustice.”

Between studies and demonstrations, Hottinger preferred to socialize in groups and never felt at ease with dating. That is, until she went on a blind date with a Georgetown University law student named John Hottinger. “For some reason, I just felt comfortable with him,” she remembered. They married soon after graduation and settled in Washington but after the birth of their first child, John decided to pursue political office in his home state of Minnesota. Hottinger agreed to put aside her nursing career and move her young family to Mankato on one condition: “I didn’t want to be involved,” she flatly stated. With John’s recent retirement after five terms in the state Senate, Hottinger now acknowledges her low-key involvement in his political career was difficult. “In this media world, you’re not actively involved unless you’re giving speeches. At that level of politics, the wife has to be seen and be a certain type of person that I’m not and not willing to be.”

Remarkably, Hottinger had never shared her agonizing secret with her husband and yet he instinctively provided her with the support and freedom she needed to deal with her trauma. “I was very lucky,” she says fondly of her spouse of 35 years. “He never put any demands on me. He did not have any conceptions of what women should do [and] it really enabled me to explore.”

Fine on the outside
In Mankato, Hottinger resumed her work as a nurse in long-term elder care but she didn’t stop there: She gave swimming lessons at the local YMCA, served on the school board, opened a tack shop and started a garden consulting business. However, her ceaseless activity was driven not by a sense of accomplishment but rather by a lack of self-worth-the aftereffect of her abused childhood. “I just became Supermom, super-this, super-that. Just frantic, constant movement,” she explained. “I needed that kind of high all the time. I was so depressed that I needed something.” Her endeavors provided fleeting distraction but they couldn’t salve the deep wounds of her father’s abuse.

Hottinger’s experience is not uncommon, according to Professor Jane Gilgun, Ph.D., LICSW, of the University of Minnesota’s School of Social Work, who has studied the effects of childhood sexual abuse on adult survivors. “[They] can have parallel development where they’re still developing in wonderful ways but the original hurt is still there,” she explained. “It can look really good on the outside and actually feel really good. But there’s that gnawing feeling inside, like something’s eating away at you.”

According to Gilgun, another crucial survival mechanism for abuse victims is distancing themselves from their painful experiences. Hottinger rationalized that her father’s behavior didn’t count as abuse because he never hit her. So successfully did she minimize his acts that she refused to believe one of her sisters who had revealed her own molestation. “I truly felt that my dad didn’t do anything wrong,” she confessed.

It may explain why, even as the residue of his abuse lingered, Hottinger became her father’s primary caregiver at the end of his life. “I tried to make him happy but he never was,” she said somberly. “I never got his approval. Even though I was the only one who was there when he died, he was still rambling on about my good sisters.”

Only after her father’s death nearly four years ago did Hottinger finally seek help for her depression, but accepting the reality of his abuse wasn’t immediately cathartic. “It would have helped me if I’d been able to confront him,” she said. “That would have helped in the forgiveness and the anger.” Two months of sessions passed before Hottinger confided her secret to her therapist and to this day, she still feels physically ill just saying the word “molested.” Nevertheless, she’s determined to reclaim herself despite the enduring pain.

Fine on the inside
Today, Hottinger has rediscovered an essential part of herself. “I feel like I’m a good person. I can honestly say that now and believe it,” she declared. Her most passionate issues-environmentalism, social justice and long-term elderly care-are the focus of her current degree program at the University of Minnesota. “I’m studying urban community forestry and urban studies,” she said. “One of my wishes is to make affordable housing for seniors so that they don’t have to move out of their neighborhood, their history [and] surroundings.” Hottinger also volunteers with the nonprofit Tree Trust and the Friends of the Mississippi River and is a Master Gardener with the University of Minnesota’s Extension Service. As before, she is constantly busy, but unlike the past, her motivation now is genuine interest and self-fulfillment.

Three years ago, when she and her husband moved from Mankato to their current home in St. Paul, Hottinger gave up the beloved flower garden that was her haven from her kids. But she still has her intangible inner garden where she can nurture the seeds of her rediscovered self to finally blossom in full.