"The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse" sheds light on the painful—yet hopeful—recovery process.
My husband Joel outed himself seven months ago as a survivor of child sexual abuse. Very quickly, we discovered that the simple act of telling his story was a life-changing experience—and, both of us being journalists by training, we realized we were in a unique position to help other survivors speak out for themselves. So over the summer, I penned an editorial in PW inviting submissions of first-person stories from sexual-abuse survivors, their loved ones and advocates.
As word about the project spread to local and national organizations, we were eventually flooded with inquiries from male and female survivors of child sexual abuse, partner rape, incest and other forms of sexual violence. They were all ready to tell us—and the world—that they would no longer suffer in silence. They were all ready to share their stories of abuse—but more so, of healing, and what that process looked like.
What resulted was an anthology of more than 50 personal essays, written largely by non-professional writers and edited by journalists, all connected by pain and tragedy. We have turned this collection of stories into an ebook, the Philadelphia Weekly’s first, titled The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse. What you are about to read in this week’s PW is a selection of eight of those stories that all capture, in their own way, the long and turbulent recovery people affected by sexual abuse must endure.
And it is long. I know because I have been down that path; the shadow of sexual abuse nearly destroyed my marriage. Joel struggled for years before he could face the reality of what had happened to him. I am thankful every single day that he had the courage to heal. So for us, The Survivors Project is more than just a public-service journalism project produced by an alternative-media company. We are connected in a very real way to the people who had the courage to tell you their stories.
Reading these essays won’t be easy; writing them certainly wasn’t. I know that putting my story* on paper required the retelling of events, feelings and specific moments in time that have altered me forever. I wrote most of my essay through tears, as I suddenly found myself back in that dark place—the place I had been when I thought Joel and I would never make it. Even after completing the essay, I fretted over whether he would be hurt by my words. I found myself feeling guilty all over again for expecting Joel to meet my needs as a spouse while also going through the most intense emotional upheaval of his life. But that is what healing looks like. It is hell. And it needs to happen if you want to be happy.
No doubt every single contributor to The Survivors Project has felt a range of emotions during this process. Dredging up memories from the past can be an emotionally taxing and painful experience. But for many of us, writing is all we have when we feel our voice isn’t strong enough—which is exactly why this project needed to happen. The more we talk about the effects of sexual abuse, the more we can prevent it. This is both a public-health issue and a human-rights issue as serious and significant as any PW has rallied to address in the past.
Survivors need more opportunities to fight back against the culture of shame and secrecy that stole their voices. We can’t let it stop here. We have to seize this moment and make sure that no one has to suffer in silence anymore. —Nina Hoffmann
Editor’s note: Please take great care in reading these stories, as many of them contain graphic descriptions and other passages that may trigger strong emotional responses.
*Joel’s essay is published below. Nina’s appears in The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse.
Age: Late 30s
Age abuse occurred: 17
It has taken half my life to be able to say that I was sexually abused as a teenager and not feel that there was shame in that. There is still a remnant there that feels like it will always be there. But mostly I have come to believe that while this was a part of my story, it is only a small part.
I do not know where the story started. I am sure now that I was slowly groomed—probably as a young child.
I only remember being down in my bedroom around my 17th year, my stepdad starting with a massage under the guise of talking to me about my day. It would start innocently enough, but he would slowly edge toward my panties, eventually taking them off. (Perhaps this is why I never wear panties now.) Beyond that, I don’t remember much. I usually either pretended to be asleep or actually fell asleep. I took to reading my Bible all the time, as if that would somehow protect me when he came into my room.
I remember the night when my mother knocked on the locked door and my stepdad told her to go away. And she did.
There was a brief glimpse of hope while she paused at the door, waiting for him to unlock it. Perhaps this will stop. But she walked away upon command and he went right back to what he was doing.
And I remember that later, when my sister told my mom, and she confronted me, she became unhinged in a way I thought she would never recover from. And I knew then that she blamed me and wanted me to make it better for her.
And so I told her, “Fine. It never happened.”
And then she became hysterical again. “How could you say that about my husband?“
And I said nothing.
And to this day, all I can think is, Why do you suppose that door was locked, Mom? Is there ever a reason for an adult man to be in a locked bedroom with a teenage girl?
I think that one thing that made it easy for my stepdad to groom me was that my dad was never able to give me a compliment. I know he loved me and he was a very stable father. But he kept his feelings to himself, and I suppose I have some resentment about that as well. Most of the “compliments” I received were from my stepfather.
I did not talk to my stepdad for nearly eight years after completely telling him off in a way that I am sure he never recovered from. His health has steadily gone downhill since then. He only recently met my children, and while I finally believe he is sorry, he will never be alone with them.
The hardest thing to come to terms with is that there is still a part of him that I love—and that I will always love. He was still—at least partially—my dad. I have happy memories, too—funny things that still make me smile. I have hated him, but there has always been love.
I think this is why it has been important for me to reconnect with him before he dies.
What is harder for me to grapple with is not the abuse, but my mother’s betrayal. To this day, she cannot talk about it. She cannot acknowledge it. And if I broach the subject, it’s like she has either completely forgotten about it or just really blocked it out to the point where she truly believes that it never happened.
And I know that that has not just affected me, it has affected her. Her weight has nearly doubled. Her thinking has become slurred and blurry due to years of smoking pot. There is never a moment when the TV is not on at full blast in her home, as if one second of quiet time would be unbearable. She even sleeps with the TV on.
It is a very sad thing to not be able to trust your own mother. For a long time, I didn’t think that we could ever have a normal relationship. It’s better than it was, but it will never be what I longed for as a little girl, as a young adult woman, or even now in my late 30s.
It took a long time for me to realize that my mom was not going to be able to acknowledge what happened to me. It took a long time to know that I did not need her to. It took longer for me to accept my mother, with her faults, and see who she is as a person.
You cannot heal yourself until you come to terms with your parents’ lives as well. When you have children you begin to understand, a bit more, what their lives likely entailed. You begin to ask the questions you were numb to as a child.
My mother also suffered abuse. This contributed to her inability to fully parent me as a young woman. She has never healed. She still justifies her own abuse. Listening to her made me realize I needed to do something different.
I knew almost instantly the first time I became pregnant that I had a boy coming. I almost willed it that way. I was terrified to have a daughter. There was still so much left unhealed in me, and I was horrified at the idea of having a girl.
After years of therapy, I felt ready for a girl three years later. This time, I knew I was having a girl and smiled at the fact that the promise I had made to myself at the age of 20 was finally coming to pass. It was then I picked her name, after the first woman I met in my life who was completely happy and at ease with herself.
I thought I was ready for her arrival but near the end of my pregnancy, the rage at my mother re-emerged. I wrote her a letter, telling her off. It was nearly six months before we came to some sort of terms, and I allowed her to be around my children again.
This was my half-sister’s first awareness of what had happened to me. She was seven years younger and shielded from the initial drama. She was shocked, and had a really hard time with it. Our relationship has never fully recovered. I felt as though everyone was much more comfortable keeping it hidden so it would not hurt them so much. I felt like screaming, How do you think this has been for me?
My sister has a completely different relationship with her dad. He is fully her father. She adores him. Half of her is made from him, and that makes it hard. If he is the monster I claim him to be, what does that make her?
I have also had guilt about the possibility of him molesting someone else. There is a large family available to him.
Somehow, I have felt that they would never believe me since I have always been an outsider. I would just be the wicked stepdaughter getting even. And then I wonder if I am only justifying myself.
Recently, an older mentor asked me how this has affected me sexually, and the floodgates opened. For a long time, I think it made me prude and embarrassed of my sexuality. I come from a family that is full of sexual energy on one side, and completely repressed on the other.
"The Survivors Project" is a compendium of more than 50 personal essays about the challenges associated with healing from sexual abuse.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Nina Hoffmann, Senior Editor, Philadelphia Weekly firstname.lastname@example.org or 215.599.7678 Philadelphia Weekly Collects Personal Stories From Sexual-Abuse Survivors for Upcoming Book Philadelphia, PA (September 6, 2012) —Philadelphia Weekly is partnering with sexual-abuse survivors, their loved ones and counselors for an upcoming publishing project that will raise awareness about the effects of abuse and the challenges associated with healing. Sexual abuse comes in many forms, and can happen in the situations you'd least expect. And too often, survivors are paralyzed by a culture that silences, shames and blames them. Philadelphia Weekly is dedicated to combat this phenomenon through first-person storytelling, bringing to light the one thing that’s missing from the national conversation: the reality of what it’s like to heal from the devastating effects of abuse. PW has invited those whose lives have been impacted by sexual abuse to share their own stories, in their own words. And not just survivors themselves, but also their spouses, family members, friends and advocates—because healing from abuse does not occur in a vacuum. It requires the support of loved ones. Since announcing the project in June, Philadelphia Weekly has collected dozens of first-person essays from survivors, their loved ones and both local and non-local therapists. In some...
We need to hear from you—the survivor, the loved one, the advocate. We need you to tell your story, in your own words. To do so would help bring to light the one thing that’s missing from the national conversation: the reality of what it’s like to heal from the devastating effects of sexual abuse.
At 28, I’m learning to accept that my stepfather abused me—sexually, physically and emotionally. I may never remember everything that happened to me. But I know I did nothing to deserve it.