|It’s long past time to shine a light on what too many children endure. Photograph: Jens Meyer/AP|
There’s a reason why, when a woman whispers her story of sexual abuse, when she writes about it, when she Tweets about it or carries a mattress around on her back, calls the police or a rape crisis line, I believe her.
The reason is because it happened to me. And you didn’t know, because I didn’t tell you. I didn’t tell anyone.
Uncle “Doug” was an old friend of my parents; he visited our family often and occasionally joined us for holidays. One evening, when I was six, he offered to babysit me and my older sister at his house.
Before bedtime, Uncle Doug told us both a bedtime story about a werewolf who howled at the moon in the bitter cold of winter on top of a snowy hill, just like the hill outside the window over the sink in Uncle Doug’s kitchen. He could do these pitch-perfect character voices, and in that way, he was charismatic and appealing to children. The werewolf would howl, he said, his thirst for the blood of children relentless, until one night he came charging through a window of a house trying to catch the little girl inside. The broken glass pierced his throat, and then he was dead, his head hanging over the sill, blood dripping down the wall to the floor.
And then my sister went to bed, and I sat in his small, dimly lit kitchen, on his lap, as he nuzzled my hair and then my ear and neck, and squeezed me hard and soft at the same time. I remember staring fixedly at the window in his kitchen, into the dark snowy night, through a pane of cold glass, the moon casting shadows, a dark tree, listening for the howl of the werewolf, trying not to pay attention to what was actually happening.
What was actually happening is that he was kissing me, whispering in my ear things I didn’t understand, and rubbing the tops of my 6-year-old thighs, right where my underwear started, while I sat on his lap.
Afterwards, he took to calling me his “wifey” and signed notes to me: “Love, your hubby”. There was never another physical encounter like the one at his house, but when he visited ours, he would request “private” viewings of me practicing my ballet and leer at me longingly in my leotard and tights; he looked for any opportunity to touch me – my hand, my shoulder, the small of my back. After a couple of years, when I started to understand how inappropriate his behavior was, I refused to have anything to do with him.
I never told my parents anything. My only act of acknowledgement that he did something bad was when I crossed out with a ballpoint pen the “Love, your hubby” at the bottom of a poem he had written in my autograph book when I was eight or nine. The poem: “Tulips in the garden, tulips in the park/But the best place for tulips, is tulips in the dark”.
Uncle Doug did not hurt me physically, but he laid the groundwork for who and what I would become with men throughout my adolescence and into my early adulthood – a wreckage of fondled girlhood looking out a dark window whenever a man was on top of me. His adult hand edging up my six-year-old thigh made it seem natural to me when much older men showed interest or pursued me as a teenager. Or perfectly normal for me to try to seduce a 35-year-old when I was 15.
I never felt like a victim – and I might even still argue that I wasn’t victimized enough to claim that label, and instead call myself a product of a premature sexual experience. But for years, every time a man touched me – especially if he was older, even if I pursued him and told myself and him that it was ok – I’d catch myself looking through a non-existent dark window waiting for it to be over. Relationships came and went but never lasted, and I thought both that didn’t have anything to tell, and no one to tell it to.
Eventually, I told someone: after about eight months of dating my now-husband, who was curious and emotionally invested in “us” in a way I’d never experienced, I proudly called myself promiscuous. He looked at me with compassion and confusion and said, “Really?”. I confessed: “Not promiscuous in the way you would think.” And then I told him the truth.
And then I told someone else. And someone else after that. I chose to narrate my own story, rather than let the one Doug told persist any longer in my own mind.
Doug, like most abusers, relied on me not telling. They all rely on us not telling – to save their reputations, avoid consequences, and keep on abusing. Those of us who do tell, who let go of the shame we know we’re supposed to feel, are in such a minority that it enables the rest of you to disbelieve both those that tell and the existence of those who can’t yet. It’s hard for you to imagine being in a group of five women and knowing that one was sexually assaulted. It’s hard for me to believe that we can just go unheard – our experiences unknown – without consequence.
But all of that is why it’s so important for women, for abuse survivors, to tell our stories: because the more of us who do, the more we chip away at the ability to ignore or to choose not to believe. I believe – and I believe that you can choose to as well.