I’ve started typing this post three times so far this week. Every time I chickened out and deleted what I had typed. Not this time. This is going to be a hard post. If you’re squeamish about rough subjects, if you know me and don’t want to hear it, if you know what’s coming from the title and don’t want to know: stop reading now.
There’s a man in Missouri named Wesley Scroggins. Perhaps you’ve read articles or blog posts about what he’s trying to do. In case you have not, he is pushing for a book ban on Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak. He wants it removed because he says it is “soft pornography”. The sex scenes he considers pornographic? The rape of a teenage girl.
1 in 6 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. 60% of those assaults will never be reported to the police. And that man wants to silence a book about surviving and speaking up. A book that has helped more people than most will ever realize.
People like me.
I’ve considered writing this post before. There have been other stories in the news, awareness months, etc that have made me consider it. In the end I never did. When I was growing up, what had happened to me was public knowledge. Everyone around me was aware of what had happened. I didn’t have the choice of hiding it from the people in my life. As an adult I’ve had that choice for the first time in my life. It’s hard to let go of that. To put my story on the internet, for anyone to read, where it will never go away. But the things I’ve been through, the others who have come to me with their stories…I cannot stay quiet. I must speak loudly. For those who can’t, or haven’t, and might be helped by knowing they are not alone.
I was sexually assaulted by my older cousin when I was a child. I could not even begin to give more details than that because, frankly, I don’t know them. I know it started probably around the time I was 6. The things that happened my brain has locked away from me and I can never be sure of what it lurking in there. I have a few memories that I am certain of. And a vast amount of things I used to think were just nightmares my brain had concocted. Until several of them were confirmed to me by family members to be things that actually happened to me. Which makes me fear that they are all memories. I will never have any way of knowing.
I didn’t speak up as a child. Fear. Shame. Not truly knowing how wrong what was happening to me was. There are a lot of reasons why child me kept quiet. I sat through a week long class about it every year through the sixth grade without ever connecting the terrible things we were learning about with the terrible things that happened to me. They had stopped. I never knew why. I’m not sure I cared.
And then a family member revealed why. Because my cousin had moved onto her. I hadn’t spoken up, and he’d had the opportunity to hurt her because of it. I spent the next eight years of my life struggling with that fact every day. Every night as I lied awake, afraid to close my eyes because of what I knew would be waiting for me. I had to speak up about what had happened to me. It just took a little girl, 4 years younger than me, and infinitely braver, to show me it was okay.
Despite the things that happened to me, I am very fortunate. My parents went straight to the police, though my aunt and uncle asked them not to, to “let them handle it as a ‘family’”. I remember the state police coming to interview me around Christmas during sixth grade. I remember the giant teddy bear they brought me to try and make up for the reason they were there. I remember being taken to the state appointed psychiatrist every week for months. I remember our testimony being recorded so we would not have to appear in court. Not have to see the person who had done these things to us. I remember him being sent to prison.
That’s where my luck ran out. The woman I was assigned to was appallingly bad at her job. She told me I would never trust men again. That it was okay to not trust my father, brother, or any of my male friends (ie, all my friends). It had never occurred to me to relate what had happened to any other men in my life. Still hasn’t.
I remember going to parole hearings to keep him in prison. I remember writing a letter to the parole board asking he be kept there because what if it had been their children. Wouldn’t they want that man locked up? I remember being told he’d never be able to contact or get near me again. I remember the day I removed a letter from him to my mother from the mailbox. I remember the day he called collect from prison while I was home alone. I remember being afraid constantly until I was 22 years old.
I also remember the police questioning every other child in my neighborhood to be sure nobody else had been assaulted. Which led to a boy in my grade, a boy I had considered my best friend for most of my life, telling everybody he could what had happened to me. Everybody. Not a thing most 6th graders can be trusted to handle maturely. From that day on there would be people around me for the next seven years who felt the need to tell me what a slut I was because of what had happened to me. Except, stupid redneck children they were, it wasn’t what had happened to me, in their opinions, it was what I had done.
But that was also the beginning of something else. An unexpected consequence of having my secrets shared with everyone around me for the next seven years of school. Every year, somewhere in the school, I would get cornered by kids wanting to tell me what had happened to them. Kids who had never uttered their secret to another soul, kids who often barely knew me, wanted to blurt out everything that had happened to them because they knew everything that had happened to me. Kids who had never had courage to speak out, found that courage in me.
Which is simultaneously an amazing thing and an unbearable weight. To know you’ve helped someone by giving them someone to talk to about something that will eat you up from inside out, like acid etching away at stone until there’s nothing left of you. But I could barely get through life carrying the weight of the things that had happened to me. I struggled with severe depression all through middle and high school as it was. Being a secret bearer for everyone else in my school district that had been sexually assaulted nearly made it impossible to carry on. And yet, I never turned a single person away.
I always knew, before they even began to tell me their story, why they were there. Whenever I was cornered, alone, and the person had that look in their eye, I knew what was coming. I could have made excuses to leave. To not have to hear. To not carry that weight for them. But I didn’t. I had been one of those people, who would have carried the secret their whole lives, if it hadn’t been for one brave little girl who got me to speak up. It was my turn. To listen. And to always suggest they speak up. I don’t think any of them ever did, but I suggested it every time and then added their secret to my burden. Looking back on it, I’m sure carrying that weight was partly penance for not having spoken up sooner and protecting somebody else. The only penance I could find to pay.
I’ve lost count of the number of people who have confided in me. It is large. Frighteningly large. Girls, boys, rich, poor. There was no common thread other than the pain they’d all experienced. The flow of people who have shared that secret with me has not slowed as an adult. I know most survivors don’t broadcast what happened to them. I’m a little different. I never had the luxury of keeping it a secret. Not after that day when my mother asked if it had happened to me too. So, as an adult, I’m very lenient with that information about myself. It’s not who I am, but what happened to me played a large role in shaping who I would become. So I admit to it, freely and often. (Just never before as freely as on the internet.) And the number continues to grow as more people I have met as adults tell me their stories.
Worse than the occasional asshat calling me a slut growing up, was when I started dating. It was okay at first, because during my freshman and sophomore years of high school, I mostly dated guys from other schools. When the guy wasn’t there to hear the guy in the hall call me a slut and laugh, it wasn’t so bad. I shudder to think what it would have been like if the boy I had been absolutely head over heels in love with through most of high school had still gone to our school. He moved away before it all came out, before my cousin was sent to jail, and I think being able to keep him separate from all that, having a friend who didn’t look at me and think only of what had been done to me/see that as who I was, was one of the only things that kept me going back then.
Then I got my first serious boyfriend from my own school. Worse, he lived in my neighborhood, and his brother had been one of the guys who made sure word of what had happened to me spread not just through my grade, but of those higher than me too. We had been dating for less than three months when, excuse my language, his brother began asking very loudly in front of others, if my boyfriend was “going to give it to [me] like [my] cousin did”. The slut comments got worse after that. Sometimes I don’t know how I made it through.
But I did. Not only did I make it through everything, but I found the man I would marry during all that. Granted, I didn’t start dating him until a few years later, at the start of my senior year of high school, but I found him. I won’t lie and say that once we were together I was suddenly all better. But, BIG but here, I am now. Partly because of the stability he gave me, the unconditional love, the healing he helped me through. But, even more than that, because of me.
I will forever have a very big, very visible scar. But every year it fades a little more. It nearly tore open, in fear and panic, the year my cousin was released from prison. But it did not take long before I confronted that fear and tamed it. I am no longer afraid. I am no longer ashamed. Something terrible happened to me and I LIVED. I survived. I’ve been a rock for more people than I can count. I’ve found a rock of my own. And if you’re still reading this, if something similar has happened to you, you can too. If nothing has, consider finding ways to be that rock for someone else. But mostly, please, speak loudly. Do not let little men, afraid of who knows what, silence anyone else. We have enough silence. Silence will never make the problem go away. Speak loudly in every way you can think. Personally, I’ll be donating a copy of speak to a local library this weekend. One copy of that book will be able to speak more loudly than I ever will. I wish I had had a copy when I needed it most.
Author Jim Hines’s page on rape. Awesome guy who has gathered a lot of links for people who need them.