Please note: Today's post includes discussion of childhood sexual abuse.
As we continue our Why I Rise series, we share the real and raw experiences of all members of our community. We honor and support all survivors of sexual abuse. If you are a survivor or may be experiencing any level of abuse, please be aware that there are resources to support you. We highly recomment Boston Area Rape Crisis Center http://www.barcc.org/ for support in healing and advocacy as well as Rape Abuse and Incest National Network http://www.rainn.org/ for resources
I rise to build a community of survivors.
I rise to build a community of survivors.
I rise as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.
Like most women, I am many things. I am a nurturing older sister, a loyal friend. I am the first person in my family to receive a college degree. I am an activist. I am a partner to my loving boyfriend. Even still, my survivor status is a very large part of who I am.
Most days I can ignore that part of myself. Most days I can avoid thoughts of the things that happened to me when my mother was at work. Most days I can forget the smell of his breath on my face, a mixture of hard liquor and tobacco. Most days I can’t remember what it felt like to have his eyes constantly on me, burning my skin like lasers.
Lately my mind has been wandering to that terrible space in my past more often than I would like. It’s hard not to; as an active member of the feminist blogosphere and feminist twitter community I have been bombarded with reactions to and discussions of Dylan Farrow’s open letter regarding her childhood abuse from her step father, Woody Allen. What has struck me most is the amount of skepticism that surrounds the testimonials of child survivors and their reported experiences. That hits close to home.
I never reported what happened to me, most victims don’t. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) 60% of all sexual assaults go unreported. I shouldn’t have to explain why I didn’t report. But… in the hopes that my reasons will help one of you feel better about not reporting, I will.
Although they divorced a few years ago, my abuser was married to my mother for 16 years. Beyond my grandfather, he was the only father figure I have ever known. He is the biological father of my only sibling, my sister, who I would give the world to protect. I have never told my family. Although I suspect my mother and grandmother have their suspicions, I’m still not ready to speak out.
My abuse started around the time that my little sister was born and throughout her first few years of life. During this time period I was 8-10 years old. My mother had begun working night shifts at a local store. Despite the fact that he and my mother had been dating or married since I was three years old, this was the first time that my abuser and I were alone together for long periods of time. The abuse stopped when we moved to a new town and my mom began working from home again. Still, it took me a few more years to really comprehend what had happened to me.
Having never had a father before, I didn’t understand what constituted normal loving behavior. I couldn’t have told you that what was happening was inappropriate. Although it made me uncomfortable and sad, I did not know that the actions of my abuser were not fatherly. I didn’t understand that touching me in places I didn’t like to be touched, making me undress in front of him or the fact that he seemed to be naked more often than clothed when my mother wasn’t home constituted abuse. I didn’t really understand that I had been abused until 6th or 7th grade.
In middle school, I found solace in a close knit group of girlfriends. Like most 13 year olds I hated my parents. I was relieved to finally have a sounding board to vent my anger. My mother’s husband engaged in a lot of other abusive and controlling behaviors that I talked about freely with my newfound support network. I even worked up the courage to disclose to two of them what had happened when I was a kid. Although I didn’t go into any great detail, it was the first time I’d told anyone and I found a great amount of relief in that. I started journaling about what had happened to me. I started journaling about how much I hated my abuser and wished my mother would leave him.
Although he was no longer sexually inappropriate with me, my abuser found ways to continue to control me. He installed spyware programs on the computer I used for school work (and instant messaging). He read every word of my private conversations with my friends. He even read the journal I had been keeping hidden under my mattress. What I wrote in there got me sent to therapy.
This was finally my opportunity to disclose what had happened! I gave myself a pep talk and was ready to tell the counselor why I hated my “father” so much. But then I got overwhelmed with thinking about what would happen after I told an adult. Would anyone believe me? Would everyone take his side? Would my mother, who wasn’t working at the time, leave him? Would we end up homeless?
The potential consequences of disclosure were overwhelming. I stayed silent in the session and told my mother I never wanted to go back. Although she shouldn’t have, she listened to me and I lost my chance. I didn’t tell anyone other than boyfriends and best friends until I was an adult myself.
The first time I publically identified as a survivor I was 20. I was at V to the Tenth, the 10th anniversary production of the Vagina Monologues in the New Orleans Superdome. I stood when Eve Ensler asked all of the survivors in the audience to stand. I stood and held hands with the women around me for strength. I looked around the stadium full of women, standing and holding hands, and for the first time I didn’t feel alone. I cried a lot that day, but for the first time the tears weren’t of pain. They were because I felt whole again. I realized that getting justice for my abuse wasn’t what I needed to heal. What I needed was a community of survivors. In the VDay movement, I’ve found that and so much more.
This year I rise for myself. I rise for Dylan Farrow, and all survivors of childhood sexual abuse and incest.