The recent need for men and women who have survived sexual assault and abuse to share the intimate details of why they did not inform others about their experience is both troubling and inspiring. I am disheartened (to put it mildly) that a person must justify, through remembering and often somatic reexperiencing, the horrific incident(s) of trauma to satisfy the misconception and neurologically and biologically inaccurate notion that if one experiences assault or abuse and it goes unreported (for a period of time or forever) that he or she must have liked it, must have wanted it, must have been wearing clothing or displaying some action that warranted it, or misunderstood the interaction and somehow, unknowingly, granted permission for his or her body to be taken advantage of. I am inspired by the strength and vulnerability of so many who are risking much to share parts of their story that cannot be rewritten but are shining a much needed light on a topic that impacts so many. This conversation is a result of many things wrong with our society and many people are writing and talking about them, so I have decided that my contribution to this discussion would be in the form of my personal narrative of why I didn’t tell.
Why didn’t I say something? Well, which time? Before I was school aged and had been molested by 4 separate similar-aged peers on numerous occasions? When I was 11 and was touched inappropriately by a relative? No, you must be asking about when I was 14 and my older cousin orchestrated for a 21-year-old man to come over and take my virginity. Or it could have been at the family reunion when an older cousin (like in his 50’s) tried to kiss me in my mouth when no one was looking. Oh, you mean all of them…gotcha. Well, allow me to give you some insight. From a very young age, sex and affection have been paired for me. When my mother’s god-daughter, female cousin, the boy down the street, and the boy I went to church with introduced me to sexual acts it was camouflaged as fun and play and if I wanted them to be my friend then I needed to engage, so I did. The more frequently I engaged without hesitation the more I demonstrated my desire and worthiness of their relationship and affection. If I didn’t report playing Tag, Red-Light/Green-Light, or with dolls, why would I report any other “game” that we played?
For many, that was easy enough to digest; I was only a child after all. But 11, that’s old enough to know better, right? Well, I was spending the summer in New York with my aunt when she fell ill and was hospitalized. I was left with her husband and we would go visit her in the hospital every day. Part of my nightly routine was showering, and the only shower was downstairs near the common area. One night wrapped in a towel on my way back upstairs to put on my pajamas, her husband asked, “did you really take a shower?” Assuring him that I had, he told me to “come here”. He put his hand underneath my towel, between my legs, and after removing his hand said something along the lines of “Okay, I guess you did” and sent me on my way. I don’t remember if I had already begun making requests to my parents that I not stay there anymore, but I know for certain I did after that. But the reasons I gave my parents would have nothing to do with this extremely inappropriate and assaultive gesture. I mean really, I couldn’t imagine how telling my parents about the incident and how uncomfortable it made me could end well for me; what if they didn’t believe me? What if I was wrong, after all he was an adult and I was just a child? What if he got mad at me and I would have to stay there with him and he did something else? So, I thought it best to just mention how tiring and boring it was to have to take 2 trains and bus to and from the hospital every day. I would eventually finish out the summer at the home of another aunt. Oh, and why not tell once I got away from him? In addition to my original fears, what if I got in trouble for not saying something in the first place? It would be best to just forget about the whole thing.
By the time I was 14, things got a little more tricky. You see, I was considered “fat” by mean kid standards (by the way, now I’m working out 6 days a week and altering my nutrition HOPING I can get back to that 9th grade body ) and it was challenging for me, as I still believed the lessons I learned as a pre-school kid; in order to be in relationship with people and have their affection it must be connected with sex. But none of the boys my age seemed remotely interested. Thank goodness I had an older cousin to take me under her wing, right? Wrong! This very pivotal period in my life cannot be properly addressed here with such little space – it’ll have to wait for the book. But for this post’s purpose I will say that she introduced me to a 21-year-old man, told me to tell him I was 17, invited him over to the house one night and he raped me (it would take me 16 years to actually call it rape). The complexities around that night and my life that followed continue to be areas of healing for me, but I can clearly articulate some of the reasons why I didn’t tell anyone: 1) I never said the word “no”. 2) I had lied about my age, telling would prove that I was just a little girl – and I wasn’t “mature”. 3) I thought we were going to be in a relationship, wasn’t that what was required? 4) I didn’t want my cousin to be mad at me for telling others what happened, she was the only person who really invested time in me – you know, wanted to be around me. 5) Our mothers’ relationship could be ruined. 6) My parents would probably be mad at me. Every person has his and her reasons and no matter how they are perceived (even by that person as time passes), they are extremely real and very often connected to bodily sensations that get activated any time the assault or abuse are triggered.
These life experiences would create for me a very expansive stronghold and cause me to believe that I had no control or say regarding what others did to my body. They would impact my choice to marry the first person to express any real interest in me, further leading me to believe I had no right to dictate what happened to my body and that consent was not required in the marital relationship. These experiences, along with their body memories, would leave imprints on the deepest crevices of my soul and tell me that I was unlovable, undesirable, and disposable. They would haunt me until I began my healing journey some 26 years after the first events. The shame and self-devaluation that took place in my life are hard to truly explain, thus my wholehearted attempts to express why I, and many others, didn’t tell may fall short. But it is my prayer that my story will puncture a hole, no matter how small, into the hearts of those who would blame the victimized or ask in judgment and contempt, “Why didn’t you tell?”
For those who have mustered the strength to tell their story and for those whose strength is reserved for getting through their daily lives, I am a witness that the journey is made easier when you have trusted people to walk it with you. If you or someone you know has been the victim of sexual assault or abuse, I am specially equipped, both personally and professionally, to be a support through your healing journey.