What follows is a story I need to tell, but it may not be one that you wish to read.
When I was a child, I was sexually violated by an adult, someone my parents trusted enough to give them open access to our home.
This is the master narrative of my life because it is a story I haven’t told.
Oh, I’ve shared it with a series of wonderful therapists, with my now ex-partner, with a few trusted friends. But I’ve never talked about it openly, for a lot of reasons, and that has been a mistake.
In essence, in choosing to violate me, the perpetrator took control over the narrative of my life, a control that I in turn have allowed them to retain–even from beyond the grave–because I allowed that part of my story to remain hidden.
Not speaking was a choice, one that was the right one for me for many years. Once I acknowledged to myself that I had been violated–a process that took almost a decade–staying silent, at least beyond my inner circle, gave me the space and time I needed to deal with the shitton of anger and fear and pain that the perpetrator left in their wake.
When I finally committed to therapy, more than 15 years after I was abused, some of the first questions my excellent and caring therapist asked was logistical: what had been done to me, exactly? When had this happened? How many times did it happen?
I could answer these questions in the general. But I could not–I would not–dig too deeply into my head for details. This is in part because the brain, I have found, is a beautiful thing: it’s designed to protect us, to shield us from some of the initial blast effects of the worst horrors we encounter so that we might continue to function in the immediate aftermath. The best way I can describe it is that the memories I have of the abuse are muted, as if I’m looking at them through gauze. I know what happened to me. I know who violated me. But my brain, gods bless it, keeps the full horror of those experiences out of my mental reach. I’m grateful for that. I don’t know how or who I would be, otherwise.
I also can’t give you dates when these violations occurred. I could describe the general circumstance–why the perpetrator was in our home, when during the day the abuse occurred, about how old I was–but I could not give you precise dates or times. I could not provide you with the tick tock of events during these violations, either.
This is part of the reason, I think, that I haven’t told this story: because stories about sexual violation, especially the abuse of children, are messy. However, we do tend to think of such narratives as fitting a pattern, in many ways: there is trusted adult, a hurt child who’s encouraged not tell, and–and. A child who, if they tell, is often not believed.
This is part of the reason that for almost a decade I told no one about what had been done to me: I was certain no one would believe me–because the perpetrator was, of course, beloved, not only by my family but by a church community. At the perpetrator’s funeral, in fact, the church was packed to the rafters with people ready to sing this person’s praises: how good they were, how much they had given to others, how well they had earned their heavenly rest.
That was a very weird day, the day the perpetrator was buried, after a long, painful illness. On the one hand, I was incredibly relieved; although by that point it had been several years since this person had violated me, it was the first time I really let myself think that they would never hurt me–or anyone else–again.
On the other, though, that funeral was fucking surreal. Who the hell did these people think they were burying? And why were their stories of this person seemingly so far removed from the stories I knew I could tell?
Like I said: nobody would have believed me.
However, when I was a kid, especially during the time the abuse was occurring, staying silent was not a conscious choice. Not in the way that it became later, when I began to understand what had been done to me. Then, when I was little, the silence manifested itself in other ways: namely, I developed an extreme, at times crippling, fear of thunderstorms and tornadoes.
I didn’t make the connection between these two elements of my life until years later, when I went to my college’s health services for counseling. In fact, I didn’t make it all–it was that very first therapist who put the two together. Amazing what other people can see when you speak up and give them the chance.
Anyway. My fear of storms, of the dark clouds that heralded them, was so extreme that it interfered with my behavior at school, so much so that my parents took me to a therapist. Exactly the right move, I can see now.
That was the first time I remember consciously deciding to stay silent, to not tell either my parents or the jerky white male therapist why I was so scared. Although I don’t recall connecting my fear of storms to my fear of the perpetrator at the time, I do remember understanding that what this person had done to me was not okay, and that the therapist was, in theory, someone I could tell about that. However, the child version of me thought he was a dick, this therapist; at the very least, it was evident that he was not terribly interested in what I had to say, and thus was quite easy to fool.
In time, my storm fear faded, or I got better at managing it. I grew up enough–found strength enough–to tell the perpetrator NO the last time they attempted to violate me. I remember that, loud and clear.
Then the perpetrator got sick. Became housebound, meaning they no longer had access to ours. In time, they died.
And I dropped the story of what had been done to me down the darkest well in my head, never to be heard from again, I hoped.
But although the signs weren’t as dramatic or showy, the effects of the perpetrator’s actions continued to manifest.
Anxiety. A fear of new people. An inability to trust the right people, and to steer clear of those that I shouldn’t.
A general reticence to talk about myself, ever. I’m still a hell of a listener. Not so much of a sharer.
A distance from my family. It’s hard to be around people you love when there’s this huge horrible something you know you should tell them, but you know that the telling would hurt them. Would cause all kinds of emotional upset. And they probably wouldn’t have believed me, anyhow.
A confusing relationship to my own sexuality. I don’t think that the perpetrator’s actions were the sole contributing factor here, but they did play a significant part.
Even as a kid, I knew my sexuality was complicated. That it didn’t–that I didn’t–seem to fit neatly into the girl-boy boxes it was supposed to. But I didn’t really know what that meant, the not-fitting, or what words I could have used to describe it to other people. And I think the habits of silence, of not telling people in my life the really important if very messy shit about what had been done to me, spread over easily into discussions about who I was, about why I didn’t date in high school, and the like.
I’ve written before about my mom’s attempts to push me into the hetero boxes; she could obviously see that something about me did not fit, to her credit. But that wasn’t a conversation that her life experience had equipped her to have–it still isn’t–so she dealt with my seeming to be different the only way she knew how: by trying to help me be “normal.”
Look, even now I have a hard time with this. I’ve tried on various labels from “married” to “bisexual” to “queer,” and none of them sit right with me. Right now, I’m going with “mostly gay,” in part because I’m a hoopy frood who always knows where my towel is, and in part because yeah, that’s exactly what I am.
Now am I this way because I was sexually abused? I don’t think so. But at this point in my life, I don’t much care. What’s important, I think, is that the culture of silence I imposed on myself in the wake of the perpetrator’s actions played a huge role in my inability to articulate my sense of my own sexuality either to myself or to others. And that’s been a huge issue in my life, one that’s caused a lot of problems. Well. I’m working on that.
I’ve been hiding for what feels like my whole life. At least the past 25 years of it. Not just the abuse, but who I am, fundamentally, and that includes my sexuality.
I haven’t let many people get to know me. And at my age, that feels pretty damn sad.
So. Enough is enough.
When I was a child, I was sexually violated. The effects of that abuse have been far reaching in my life, in part in recent years because I’ve chosen to retain my silence.
However, what I’ve begun to recognize in the last few days–in the wake of all the bullshit about Rolling Stone throwing a victim of sexual assault under the bus and the resulting happy dance by moronic rape apologists online–is that the silence isn’t mine. It’s never been mine. It’s the last, sad dregs of power of the perpetrator, power I’ve let them hold onto even from beyond the grave.
Dear silence: fuck you.
This is my story now, damn it. All of it, even those pages you hijacked and defaced. Mine.
End of sentence. Next chapter. New verse.