It’s never easy to talk about being raped. It’s never easy to use words like “incest” and “victim” when you’re talking about yourself. But I still do it, and I have my reasons why.
The day after my mother learned my uncle had been molesting me, she asked me specifically what “we had been doing together”, and for how long. She said she’d stop it from happening again, but she didn’t. So my first experience at telling someone was underwhelming.
Eventually, I started writing about it. Eventually, that writing became participating in online support groups. On rare occasions, the writing became emailing. Eventually in an email, I “blurted out” that I was a survivor. I “blurted it out” to a woman who had contacted me through a group I volunteered with. And when she and I met face-to-face, she assumed I could talk about it face-to-face. And I did.
Eventually, I let the organization I volunteered for learn my story. We had never had a survivor last for more than a few months on the board or as volunteers. Part of the reason I remained tight-lipped was that “everyone knew” that survivors were flighty, and I didn’t want to be seen that way. Instead, I became the go-to person when someone wanted a survivor’s point of view.
And that was when I started seeing the value in telling my story. I realized that abuse is like a massive stain on your heart and soul. It’s instinctive to avoid touching something that stained. But if you completely avoid it, you’re not using a whole lot of yourself. That means you can’t fully commit or engage in anything. And the act essential to reclaiming those parts of your self is talking about it.
It never gets easy. It does get easier. I set up informational tables about child abuse at the local farmer’s market. When I see people circle around, but not touch, the pamphlets about Child Sex Abuse I assume they’re a survivor. If they engage in conversation, and I say that I am, they usually become brave enough to say it, too.
I walked into a bakery one time wearing a shirt with an anti-child-abuse logo. A customer saw it and started telling me about the abusive childhood she endured. We talked a little, the conversation meandered to a local, high-profile case, then she went back to talking about her experiences. I mentioned that I was a survivor. Then the woman behind the counter said she was too. Her brown eyes flashed with terror and as she said it; she had obviously never said it before. She was shocked by the words that came out of her mouth. But she kept talking. I bought more baked goods that spring than I normally would have, to give me an excuse to keep going into the shop and make sure all was well with her. It was.
I give a “Thank you” speech on a local college campus every year to thank them for a fundraiser they do. I always identify myself as a survivor when I give it because, in all statistical likelihood, some of the hundreds of attendees who hear me speak are survivors themselves. Most of them have never talked about it nor heard someone else talk about it. Some years I’ll have an attendee corner me. They’ll try hard to get me alone. They look at me very intensely, making a lot of direct eye contact. And they don’t say anything meaningful or profound. I know they want to. What they do is so subtly odd, and something I’ve seen so many times before; a little like when someone wants to ask you a question but isn’t sure if it would be rude. I listen to them, I talk. I hope I’ve made it easier for them to say those words in the future. I remember what I was like back then.
I attend a local writing group. Sometimes I’ll read pieces that have something to do with Child Sex Abuse, sometimes I’ll promote local community events for survivors. And sometimes afterward, when thirty or so of us are in the middle of a bookstore and there is no privacy whatsoever, I’ll get a random hug, a random shoulder squeeze. Afterward, more of that super intense eye contact followed by meaningless conversation. Someone will work very hard to isolate me from the group and say nothing significant. I know what they want to say.
Sometimes I wish I could do more. I was driving home from a meeting in Albany one time (a four-hour trip), and the toll-taker at the thruway asked why I had been on the road so long. Ordinarily, I would have said something flip, but I patiently explained that I was coming from a meeting in Albany that was all about preventing child abuse.
“Wait, what were you talking about?”
“Preventing child abuse.”
“You mean like my father did to me?” And then the story. As she was talking to me, I realized how young she was. Being a thruway toll-taker is a desirable job in NY, it pays well, but people usually need years of seniority to be able to work the shift she was working. She probably applied for this job the day she turned 18, took her civil service test, worked a few minimum-wage jobs while she waited for an opening, and worked a graveyard shift for years. I could see so much of myself in her; the desire to escape, to survive. Unfortunately, the odds of both of us surviving were diminishing by the second, as traffic was backing up all through the exit ramp and onto the thruway. I didn’t have any business cards to give to her, and I’m not sure how appropriate that would have been. I still see her once in a while. She doesn’t recognize me, and that’s probably just as well. Hopefully, she’s found a better person, or at least a safer place, for talking.
A few years ago there was a big lobbying event for the Child Victims Act, New York’s bill to eliminate the state’s Statute of Limitations for child sexual abuse. As is typical for these events, lobbyists are put into pre-assigned groups with people they likely have never met before. My group contained a therapist, who I had met once or twice before, and an older couple I had never met.
The first visit of the day got off to an unremarkable start. A polite senator seemed to believe that, in a distant district, children probably were being sexually abused by degenerates. So I told him my story. I told him that I grew up not that far from his district and that one of my father’s victims was likely a constituent of his. The senator was almost in tears. The older couple seemed much more awake. Throughout the rest of the day, one of them would come up to me, either tell me something or ask me something, then walk back to their spouse. I have a high tolerance for strange, this barely registered on my radar.
The day wore on, and there was an educational talk towards the end of it. On my way out, the older couple pulled me aside and said how happy they were to meet me. Then the gentleman said “We have a son your age who was molested. And you’re doing OK!” At the time, “OK” seemed like a very generous term for describing my life. But I also realize the value in myth. I realized how important it was for these people to see a glimmer of hope for their son; to realize that he may be “OK” in a few years. If I could be that glimmer of hope, well, it was better than no one being one. And if I was going to do it, I had best do a convincing job at it. To me, that meant things like maintaining a healthy weight, not having gashes on my arms… all the things I should be doing anyway.
I thought about that interaction all through the four-hour ride home. I realized I’m a work in progress. All of us have a tendency to avoid work sometimes. If I talk about my story, I give myself “deadlines”, of sorts. Sometimes I learn useful insights about how other people have accomplished the same task I’m facing. And I can give the same insights to other people who are just beginning their “project”.
About 20% of American adults are child sex abuse survivors. I’m in good company; some of my best friends are survivors, and that has been enormously therapeutic to me. When I tell my story, when I connect with other survivors, I’m undoing some of the damage someone did to me. I’m defying someone who tried to control me, and I’m also letting someone else defy someone who tried to control them.
We’re stronger together. And when some of the most formative experiences of your life involve times when you were made to feel completely powerless, that’s a very good feeling indeed.
Executive Director, Stop Abuse Campaign
A survivor of incest, psychological abuse and a host of other childhood trauma, Melanie now uses her talents to prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences. Melanie has over a decade of legislative advocacy regarding children’s issues, and she has been published in newspapers, magazines and blogs all across the country.