The words are disturbingly common: “How dare you accuse your father, your priest, your boss, your friend, your coach...?”
As a young girl and into my teens I was molested by my stepfather and my biological father. I know intimately how the vast majority of sexual abuse happens – at the hands of family members, teachers, coaches, trusted friends and acquaintances.
The abuse does not have to be violent or even recurrent. So the one time act - the too-long kiss, the lingering touch, the hand slid inside of clothing - can be as traumatic and destructive to a person’s worldview of safety, integrity, self, truth - as a more persistent or violent act might be.
The first time my sister and I talked about it, I was 6 years old and she was 9. We were living at The Fullerton International Motel in Fullerton, CA. We smoked the Salem cigarettes we took from our mother’s purse; we leaned into the mirror and watched ourselves inhale and exhale. We were nearly giddy with the knowledge that we weren’t alone in this new and awful part of our lives and we laughed nervously about it so we wouldn’t be so scared. Why didn’t we tell our mother? I think we understood that once we told we would have to deal with the scary unknown of what would come next. Would we get in trouble? Would she get in trouble? Would she believe us? Would she leave us? Was it somehow our fault? And as strange as this seems now, we were embarrassed to talk about it.
The unknowns were scarier than the knowns and so we made the decision that day to not tell our mother what was happening at night in our room after she she fell asleep. We decided we wouldn't tell our 2 little sisters or our teachers, our neighbors, our extended family. We felt that we had to keep silent in order to keep the peace in our home, to not worry our mother who seemed less able to handle things than we were, to remain as invisible as possible, to not feel the shame of telling the truth. And so we remained silent for decades. Mine is a common story - victims of abuse feel silenced by loyalty, fear, shame, guilt; and the bystander hope everything will be okay if they just pretend it is and the perpetrators are able to continue their roles - often over multiple generations - as father, teacher, Granddad, minister, coach, Santa Claus...
I believe that the bystanders to the abuse....the people who know something is happening...are an important key to change in how we view sexual abuse. Bystanders so often look the other way, preferring that the survivors simply get over it, stop dwelling on it, stop rocking the boat. They are the people who can make a critical difference in how a survivor heals. After abuse, it isn't easy to get from victim to survivor and eventually, hopefully, to a person who is fully thriving. To be heard, to be seen, to be believed, to be understood….that is when the real healing starts and that is when we can move into thriving. For me and for so many others who do this work, helping to create laws that punish perpetrators, not victims, helping to heal the healers who care for and support survivors, helping to create lasting change in the culture and how we view sexual assault is what helps us to thrive.
I work on feeling safe in the world every day and I know I need to make a conscious effort to own that I am worthy and deserving and whole. It gets easier every day, every year, with every new amazing person and opportunity that comes into my life. I understand that I need to own the good and the bad, the tragic and the magic in this life. I am grateful for the children I am blessed to raise, the friends I love who love me right back; the work I get to do in the world; I'm grateful even for this beautiful feeling of gratitude, which sustains me and brings me joy. So that's my story...the experience of being molested as a girl gave me insight into the pain of abuse...it also opened up a well of empathy and compassion in me that runs deep and wide.
I do this work now because I know it changes lives...including mine.
Writing has been a source of comforting companionship over the years. These poems further tell my story if you feel like reading more...
6 years old
I remember -
squeezing my small body into the crack between my twin bed and the wall,
the shadow of the man we had just started calling Daddy
quietly, purposefully entering our room.
Listening to his slow, measured breathing as he listened to mine.
My body rigid, my eyes squeezed shut, my ears buzzing with fear.
Praying and waiting to hear the voice of my mother who could save me.
But no saving voice, no answered prayer -
He slowly and methodically loosed me from my place of safety
and bewildered and changed me forever.
8 years old
I remember -
playing in the yard
the smell and itch of newly mowed grass pressed against my skin.
whirling, blurred, twirling, running, hopeful.
A swirl of light and air and, maybe, freedom?
Feeling almost like a child again,
but not quite -
because I already knew so much more than I wanted to.
10 years old
I remember -
sweating in the darkness, exhausted from waiting.
In the room I shared with my 3 sisters
in the third floor apartment
in the steamy New England summer.
I had rolled myself up in the old peach-colored satin quilt
so he couldn’t get in.
But it was hot,
and I slept
and I sweated,
and I betrayed myself by getting uncovered.
Telling the Truth
As I scraped off the burnt skin of my memories
I screamed from new pain and old furies,
My breath a hot, violent wind.
You dispassionately observed me
and continued tidily tucking in the corners of your emotions
lest the thin fabric be swept away,
leaving you naked and raw
It Happened Like This . . .
from six to nineteen
from safety to vulnerability
from innocence to confusion
from trust to fear
from lightness to shame
from truth to denial
Then . . .
from denial to TRUTH (such a beautiful word)
from confusion to clarity
from shame to worthiness
from “how dare you say those words?” to “tell me everything . . . ”
from being silenced to being heard
from being diminished to being empowered
from victim to survivor
from surviving to thriving.
So . . .
How dare I?
This is how I dare.