How It Happened
Trigger warning: brief descriptions of sexual abuse.
I began this post a few weeks ago in an effort to exorcise a demon. And then, Todd Aiken said something stupid. Suddenly the internet was awash with outrage and stories, and I hesitated. Why should I expose a tender spot on my soul when there are men like that in the world? What good could it possibly do? Well, if something like this happened to me, growing up in a predominantly Mormon neighborhood, surrounded by active, engaged LDS family members and friends, in an ideal Mormon setting, then how many women are out there with an experience like mine, and no outlet? And, I decided I didn’t want to be part of the silence that allows those people to gain power and perpetuate attitudes that blame women; attitudes that foster complete and willful ignorance of biology.
I had a step-cousin who molested me. It took me 20 years for me to think of it that way. I never put myself into the category of one in four women who will be molested in their lifetime (or whatever the statistic is). Until I figured out that having a boy pull your pants off against your will fits in this category. (The good news is that I told my parents immediately after it had happened. And I remember them saying something about being glad I told them, and that no one is allowed to touch me there… Or something like that.)
If not that, then definitely the time he was carrying me in the pool and instead of his hand being appropriately on my leg or somewhere you would normally have it while carrying a child, his thumb was in my vagina. He had been giving “rides” across the pool to the younger girls, and I wanted my turn. I had noticed the other girls were leaving, and was excited for my turn. And, then realized what had chased them away. AND, no one said a word about it. None of these girls reported him. There were no consequences for his actions. Here’s the real kicker. The pool incident happened after the pants incident. So, perhaps I blamed myself for knowing that he was a risk and not knowing better than to trust him.
This boy had been my friend, created a false sense of trust and then manipulated that trust. He was family. My instinct was to give him the benefit of the doubt for years.
Unfortunately, my sister was molested worse than I was. Again, after the pants incident. We had warning. I remember we came home after a family event at a family member’s home, a presumed safe place, and she was bleeding from his invasion. I can’t fathom how this has affected her life, and I had never spoken to her about it. Why not? Well…
I don’t remember any consequences for him. There was no sense of justice. The only consequence I remember was victim-blaming me. No, I was never told that it was my fault, and I never believed that (Or maybe at certain times in my life I did?). We were at another family function, this time at a park out in the open. I was playing on the merry-go-round, going round and round. Just experiencing gravity, and g-force. So exhilarating to be outside and just enjoying myself. My aunt came over and told me that “little girls don’t sit with their legs open.” Startled, I looked up to find my step-cousin staring at me.
I was wearing pants.
I was not dressed “immodestly.”
I was being a normal child on a playground toy.
But, apparently my step-cousin’s staring was my responsibility. It was jarring to be in a simple state of childhood bliss, and then to be told that someone else’s actions were the result of my impropriety. But, there was no impropriety!
Part of me did blame myself:
In the moments before he pulled my pants down, we were just talking. I was starting to get uncomfortable. Why didn’t I leave? Why didn’t I stand up for myself? Why did I trust him again? After the incident with my sister, why weren’t there more serious consequences for him? These are the questions that roll around and lead to the childhood conclusion that it really was my responsibility and I should have known better. She should have known better. BUT, we were KIDS! And, the adults in our lives swept it under the rug, so clearly that’s what should happen.
This message began to solidify the longer we didn’t talk about my sister, so when something more serious came along, I was ashamed. I didn’t think I should tell anyone. I can’t imagine what it was like for my parents wanting to protect us, and maybe not knowing the right way to do it. Or for my aunt and her husband also wanting to protect us, but wanting to take the correct actions to help his son, all within the structure of the church hierarchy. What would I say to a son, or the son of a friend who was the perpetrator? I’m really not sure. Now, my first reaction would be to find a therapist for him.
Again, not something we’ve ever talked about. It’s one of those things that just isn’t discussed. I really have not spoken to him since that time, and I don’t really plan to. For many years, I thought I had forgiven him and moved on, but I don’t know that I ever did. What does forgiveness even mean in a case like this? And, should I be worried about his new marriage to a woman with three daughters? I wonder if I will ever be forced to see him at a family reunion or other event like that. How will I interact with him? I wonder if there’s a rift in my family because of it? Is it one of my own creation and just in my head? So many years later, it seems like it’s simply something to bury in the past of “painful things that have happened to me” and move on. Why stir up the mud now?
I think another reason I haven’t spoken about it in recent years is my questioning of the church. I fear being blamed again for being the instigator of bringing up unwanted unpleasantness, and having it attributed to my “lack of faith” or being a “feminist” (insert negative connotation). They are completely separate issues, but I find it disturbingly difficult to defend myself on this issue and struggle with fear that people will attribute one to the other…. But, that’s not something I can control.
Also, somehow it feels like it wasn’t bad enough to bring up. I wasn’t raped. I wasn’t molested over an extended period of time or in a violent confrontation against my will. It was much more sinister, as I now know these things generally are. Manipulative and subtle until suddenly, it’s not subtle any more, but you don’t know how you got there, and are too ashamed/scared to do much to pull yourself out. The brain can’t fathom that what is happening is actually happening, and reaction time seems to slow down and paralysis sets in. Why does this happen?!
The most offensive thing I can think of would be to have an experience like that excluded from legitimacy.
Weeks later, reading back on what I’ve written here. I can feel the anger and frustration as though it was someone else’s. Knowing the feelings that I had as I was writing, I wonder if I coherently and adequately expressed the intensity. And, knowing that, I can’t even fathom what it must be like for someone who was actually raped. Having to go through the process of dealing with it. What it must be like to find out you’re pregnant, to have people doubt your story, to have to allow for the right of the attacker to appeal and face him all over again? To have him fight for custody of the child??? It seems unbearable. I feel a greater empathy for those who’ve experienced this.
I did talk with my sister, and she doesn’t remember any of it. She was very young. Perhaps she’s blocked it out? It’s so vivid in my mind. What happened to her probably hurt me deeper than anything that happened to me, and it’s so odd to find that it’s a blank space in her memory. Part of me is so glad she is spared the memory of whatever it was he did to her, and part of me is livid that she can’t remember what happened. I’m not upset with her specifically, just frustrated that it seems like he got away with something.
So, where do I go from here? I’ve realized that it still bothers me, and that it does have chilling effect on some family relationships. I’m not sure how that will play out, but I can tell you that I am more hopeful that when the time is right I will be able to talk about it with them. I still wonder about airing “dirty laundry,” but I also know that if I had read something like this earlier in my life, it would have been helpful. I wondered why I needed to include such intimate details, but I can’t think how to edit. It’s real and does not encompass the full impact of the emotions I’ve felt since childhood even as it is. I know I can’t let go of it, because it is simply part of me. It happened, and I can’t make it un-happen. But I can learn to live with the scar, and it may fade eventually. And, I think I have new ways to talk to my own future children should something like this arise, tools to help them be prepared to stand up for themselves, and a stronger desire to maintain open communication lines with those around me so that things like this can prevented, and/or wounds healed.
I have also been able to redirect that energy into helping others, which always feels really good. And last, if you have ever experienced something like this, you can know you’re not alone, and that there are people willing to help.
(Please support efforts like iSanctuary, Saving Innocence, and My Life, My Choice. These are groups that assist victims of human trafficking. These just are the groups I’ve had the opportunity to support. There are also many advocacy groups for rape survivors, and while I haven’t done the research to find worthy beneficiaries, I know there are important and successful programs out there.)