This is hard for me to write. A large part of my ego is screaming at me to stop right now, turn around, go back, delete, think of your job, think of your friends and family, think of your reputation! Ego. That coping mechanism we use when things are hard and we want to hide from them. That voice inside my head that stops me dead in my tracks from saying something that might make me completely vulnerable and strip me of all pretense; baring it all in front of anyone and everyone witnessing the breakdown.
What am I doing? Why am I writing this?
With the recent ridiculous and disturbing slap on the wrist a Stanford student received for raping a woman I can’t help but fall back into memories of my own experiences. The ones I’m not supposed to talk about. The ones that should remain buried. The ones I still blame myself for. The experiences that shaped who I am today and many of the battles I’ve always fought and am currently fighting against myself.
I’m so proud of the victim in this case, speaking up; telling her story- it’s completely terrifying. Whether you remain anonymous or not, sexual violence is beyond humiliating. The act of writing or talking about it can cause you to relive the whole experience. I wish I didn’t have to say she’s brave. I wish the stigmatization of rape didn’t exist. I wish we could all talk about it without fear of repercussions. I certainly wish it didn’t happen to anyone.
Two weeks ago, during a quiet drive in the rain, I started to dig into why I have such crippling insecurity. Taking stock. Why do I continue to require validation from others? I know this behavior started when I was a child from the abuse that was part of my daily family life; but I feel most of it came from experiences I had from 13 years old until I met my husband at 18. Five short years is all it took to break me down.
From the time I was too little to remember, my Dad was a preacher. When I was 12 we moved to an area that still gives me panic attacks (we avoid it like the plague any time we’re near it). My first truly negative and painful experience took place the spring/summer of 7th grade.
I had a crush on a boy at church. He may have been one of the most sadistic people I’ve ever met and to be clear he moved away and I don’t believe he ever moved back to that area. Further, there were plenty of boys I dated during that time that were incredibly sweet, but this guy- he scared me. The more he scared me the more I was drawn to him. He knew it and capitalized on it taking every opportunity to tell me I was ugly, stupid, fat, worthless and then end the insult with “Just kidding” so that would make it OK. It wasn’t OK.
I was very close with his sister and he’d frequently tell me to get away from him when I said hi or tell me to stay away from his sister because I was gross. He got pretty creative with the insults and eventually stopped saying he was kidding. The more he insulted me the more attention I paid, trying to get him to like me. After a couple months he switched to telling me I was pretty and even beautiful. For a few seconds my heart would soar until he brought it crashing down by saying “Just kidding.” He’d flirt with me relentlessly to get me to sit next to him in church. When I did he’d punch me in the arm, grab my hand during prayer and bend my fingers and wrist back, give me what he liked to call shark bites by pulling up my skirt and pinching and twisting the skin on my inner thigh or behind my knee between his middle and index fingers as hard as he possibly could, always resulting in tears and severe bruises. On two occasions he broke the skin by flicking what he’d pinched until I screamed and finally wrenched myself away. He smiled and laughed when he saw the blood and told me I must be on the rag.
He was older, a foot taller than me and had a decent amount of strength to work with; he would use his size against me frequently. He’d tell me to hop on his back and then jump up and drop me, kick me if I bent over to tie my shoe (while calling me fat ass), punch me in the arm hard enough to leave a knot, even pushed me off of a dock into the river once. On multiple occasions put me in a headlock.
You might be saying, why didn’t my parents notice? Sometimes they did and I quickly developed a reputation for being clumsy (even had to start tripping or bumping into things on purpose in front of them so they wouldn’t suspect). To this day I laugh at the “she ran into a doorknob” jokes when I have a big bruise, but inside all I can think is if they only knew. His sister helped me cover for him. She said that since he met me he’d stopped abusing her as much and this admission completely cemented my decision not to tell anyone what was going on.
My brother knew something wasn’t right. My best friend at church knew something wasn’t right. They both asked me about him frequently and even threatened him with bodily harm if he didn’t leave me alone. He told me if they said anything else to him he would tell everyone that I was a slut, hurt my little brother, and never talk to me again. The thought of anyone hurting my little brother or anything happening to him absolutely mortified me. I’d never let that happen.
Why didn’t I just ignore him? I tried, but his sister would get upset because he and I couldn’t “get along”. If I ignored him she’d get defensive and angry. He’d tell me to apologize for being so sensitive and get over it. So I’d apologize and the cycle continued. His Dad even went as far to say if I couldn’t get along with him that I couldn’t be friends with his daughter any more and told my parents that I was the problem (to which they lectured me and I, of course, didn’t stand up for myself). He’d broken my confidence down to nearly nothing at this point, so what did it matter?
The whole horrible 5 months came to a head the night before the family moved. Our families were close so we had them over for pizza to say goodbye. My brother, his sister and I were hanging out in our backyard talking. It was pitch black, no lights on with the exception of some street lights down the hill. I swear he was hiding there in the dark. Stalking me. Planning how it would all go down.
I hear a quiet voice drift out of the darkest part of our yard, “Hey Gen, come over here.” My heart leapt into my throat. He sounded like he was being nice. After all the physical and mental abuse I could tell when he was baiting me and his tone sounded genuinely nice.
I walked toward his voice, away from my brother who called after me, obviously concerned. I told my brother everything was OK, I was only walking a few feet away. He continued to protest that he couldn’t see me and I assured him it was OK. I took a few steps and my leg bumped into a reclining law chair. He was in the chair. Waiting for me.
I still have nightmares about that moment.
I stood over him. “What?” I asked, trying to sound tough. If this was a joke I wasn’t going to fall for it.
Very softly he said, “Sit down.”
“Where? I’m not gonna sit on the grass, we have dogs back here.”
“On me!” He said cheerfully and patted his lap.
I’m completely suspicious at this point. “I’m not gonna sit on your lap. You’ll push me off.”
“I won’t push you off. Come on, I promise. Please?” He sounded whiny, like he was trying to give back some of the power he’d stolen from me for so long.
I continued to say no. He resorted to begging. It worked. I sat down on his lap.
“I’m too big, I’m gonna squish you.” I started to get up.
“You’re not squishing me. I’m fine. Now be quiet.” He pulled me back down and put his hand on my cheek, gently turning my face toward his. He kissed me. I felt like my head was going to explode! I was so happy. I asked him if this was a joke and he said no, he’d always liked me and wanted me to be his girlfriend.
I already had permission to spend the night with my friend in their RV, provided that her brother spent the night in their house. He snuck me out of the trailer and I spent the night with him. We didn’t sleep. I had a lot of firsts that night, some that ruined certain things for me until I met my husband. Most that made me feel deeply ashamed (part of being a preacher’s kid is a healthy dose of shame on a daily basis). I snuck back into the trailer to get ready for church in the morning.
I went home with them again after church. The three of us decided to go for a walk in the trees in a nearby park. That’s when it happened. That’s where it happened.
We laid down a blanket and he told his sister to go away. She asked me if I would be OK and I told her I would be. She walked away toward the water. We started making out and he took my clothes off. He held me down. I said No. He said no means yes. I said no again. He didn’t stop. I was silent and before long I heard leaves crunching. His sister came back and said it was too quiet and asked me if I was OK. He shouted that I was fine, she countered with disbelief and rushed over, pushing him off of me. She pulled me away while gathering up my clothes. Although I did bleed that night he didn’t complete his mission, she got to us before he could technically take my virginity. Over the past months he’d taken a lot more than that.
That night I tried to apologize to him at youth group. I still tried to get him to pay attention to me. He told me to get away from him, told a group of our friends that I kept following him around, wouldn’t leave him alone, thought I was his girlfriend, was in love with him, that I was gross and fat and generally horrible. His sister apologized for everything. I was physically bruised and emotionally eviscerated.
I was 11 the first time thought about and I tried to kill myself. A group of girls were bullying me on a church trip. One even suggested I kill myself. The second time I made a plan was that very night. I didn’t go through with it, but the guilt of what happened to me sat like a 200 lb weight on my chest for another 4 months.
We’d moved to Idaho, settled in with my Grandparents and a church I’d gone to on and off since I was a toddler. I was finally feeling safe again. I was watching Oprah reruns one Saturday afternoon. My mom was doing the dishes in the kitchen. Rape and attempted rape victims told their stories. Victims of date rape and rape by strangers. I sat straight up, watching the show attentively, feeling my heart racing and hot tears spill down my cheeks, the lump in my throat so large I didn’t think I could breathe, let alone talk. I tried to calm myself, I knew my mom might come in the room any minute and ask me what was wrong.
It wasn’t long before she did just that. I explained that the Oprah show made me very sad. It was so sad those things happened to other girls. I had a friend it happened to. I began to tell her everything under the guise of another girl in our former church. My mom listened quietly, urging me to go on when I couldn’t. When I was done she narrowed her eyes, looking at me intently and asked, “Are you sure this didn’t happen to you?” I insisted it was another girl, it wasn’t me. My mom said that she hoped the other girl would tell her parents and told me that if something ever happened to me I wouldn’t be in trouble and I could talk to her. I saw the look of concern and scrutiny on my mom’s face. I was afraid I would break her heart if I told her the girl was me. I thought I could save her from the pain I was experiencing. I thought about how I would feel if I had a daughter that had been raped. Most of all, I thought about the possibility of my mom telling my Dad, tracking down the family, eventually getting the police involved. My mom went back to the kitchen to start dinner and I thought about these things for another hour or so. Finally, I got up and walked to the kitchen. I saw my mom standing at the sink, holding a dish towel limply, staring blankly out the window.
I crept up behind her, “Mom?”
She continued staring out the window. “Yes.” she sighed heavily.
I could barely force the words out. I started to say never mind, but screwed my courage up the best I could. I choked it out haltingly, that lump threatening to smash my vocal chords.
“It was me.”
She turned and ran to me, took me in her arms and said, “I know. I knew there was something wrong with that boy. I knew something happened. It was that night you spent the night over there. I knew it had to be.”
We held each other, we cried. She explained to me that it wasn’t my fault, that I didn’t do anything wrong, that I didn’t make this happen, that the things he said weren’t true. I made my mom promise not to tell my Dad until I was ready. I made her promise not to do anything, not to get the police involved (although she wanted to). She then told me about her own experience, something that had happened to her at 16. She understood every ounce of my pain and had already felt it herself.
I’d like to say that was the last time something like this happened to me. I’d like to say that I was more careful as I grew older and became sexually active. I’d like to say that I listened to my gut when it said someone would hurt me. I’d like to say that I fought off the next person who brutalized me. I’d like to say I never thought about suicide again. I can’t say those things.
I believe this experience and others are all part of the tapestry that makes up the dark and light sides of my personality. The voice that’s always there to tell me I’m not good enough, I’m ugly, I’m fat, I’m worthless. That shadow that plagues me during my deepest bouts of depression. They’re also the magnet that draws me to those with similar experiences. Throughout my life I’ve had more friends that have experienced sexual or domestic violence than have not. I’m drawn to give love and understanding to others that hurt in this way. I have a deep sense of compassion and empathy for any being in pain and I’m crushed if I feel I’ve cause that hurt myself. It’s drawn me closer to Buddhism and given me a better understanding of the term “Do no Harm.”
My husband helped me save myself from these memories. He’s tried for years to help me love myself. He’s taught me that healthy relationships are two people doing the work to make it easy, that the nice guy is nice all the time and is worth trusting (something that has been very difficult for me.) He’s proven that during the toughest times I won’t be abandoned, that he’ll always be by my side.
I know it wasn’t my fault. I know I didn’t deserve it. I know it doesn’t make me a bad person, or a weak person. I know it’s happened to others and I’m not alone. I know it’s helped me raise a son that respects and reveres women. I know it’s helped shape who I am today, and she’s still working on really and truly being OK.
If it helps someone else feel less alone, then it was worth the pain and doubt of writing this post.