"The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse" sheds light on the painful—yet hopeful—recovery process.
Over the years, I have had many partners. I do not have regrets about that. I know there is a theory that victims of sexual abuse often become promiscuous. For me, it was a way of reclaiming my sexuality on my own terms. What I have noticed is that I have often put up with more than I should in long-term relationships. This became dangerous for me. My children’s father was an alcoholic, and our relationship was tumultuous at best. My therapist reminded me I was used to chaos. I didn’t know what to do with “normal.”
Perhaps growing up with addicts has prohibited me from being able to see things as they are. I never learned to trust my own reality. I never knew I was even entitled to one. My deepest fear now is for my daughter. I want to listen to her. I want to protect her.
I realized several years ago just how deep that fear seeped into me. I received a photo of her on my phone while she was visiting her father and showed it to my then-boyfriend. “Look at how pretty she is!” I said proudly. He smiled and replied, “She is beautiful! I think she’s even prettier than you!” And that’s when I lost it. I began to cry in a way he could not understand. Perplexed, he responded, “If I had a son and someone told me they were more handsome than me, I would be happy?”
After listening to him explaining himself for about half an hour, I realized it wasn’t about that. It had been a light-hearted comment. It was about the way my stepdad always put my mom down by declaring how beautiful I was, as if she were not. I was skinnier. I was younger. I was prettier. He had pitted us against each other in a way that made her blame me.
I still sleep with my daughter, and I think part of that is my fear that someone will come into her room at night. When I hold her close to me, her innocence and vulnerability strike me. She is just a little girl, like I had been.
It has been the birth of both of my children that has inspired me to heal my life. I do not want to bring the patterns I have suffered into their worlds. I cannot change my past. But I can vow to always listen to my daughter, and to commit to my own healing. I am not there yet—at least all the way—but I do believe the day will come.
For me, stopping the cycle of abuse is about becoming conscious. Going to therapy; writing. Getting back in touch with my body through yoga and meditation. And for this last little bit that still remains, I have decided I need to learn belly dancing. I need to reconnect with the body that became rigid when I was abused. Something in me has known I needed this dance for a long time. I tried it when I was 19, but I was so stiff, the teacher laughed about my inability to shake my hips. Freer now and more in tune with my body, I have started some one-on-one lessons via Skype with a trusted friend. I envision myself now as I was meant to be. Less encumbered; finally happy and in love with a man who treats me well.
I have also finally learned that it is not my duty to the world to be “pretty.” I have more important things to accomplish with my life. Pretty has often come at a high price.
We are the composite of what happens to us. But we are also strong, resilient and brave. I no longer see myself as a victim or a survivor. I am a person, no more and no less deserving of love and grace than anyone else.
Ari Benjamin Bank
Age abuse occurred: 6
I never wanted to be a good swimmer, but I always was. My parents had an in-ground pool in the backyard, big enough for laps, with a diving board and a deep end, a “real” deep end, and my dad, whose parents had a pool in the backyard, too, and who was also a good swimmer, taught me every stroke he knew: the crawl, the breaststroke, side and back stroke, elementary. He got me in that pool almost before I can remember, and the water felt good and cool. I learned something new each summer: how to cup my hands and kick my legs, how to turn and breathe, turn and breathe, how to tuck my head in and dive without even making a splash. Of course, he gave me good head starts in races and let me win most times, I think. The summer after my 6th birthday, I could swim stronger and faster than any kid twice my age and twice my size. I didn’t want to, but I could, and I knew, even then, watching my dad, and my mom, too, sometimes, looking back at me swim, that I was pleasing them, and that part I liked.
Still, I never wanted to be a good swimmer, but I was anyway, and in the summer, my parents sent me to a day camp that seemed so far away (though I had started going when I was just 4). The camp had tennis courts and soccer fields, arts and crafts and cookouts in the woods and, of course, swimming pools. Early in the mornings, before recreational swim time, the kids from my beginners bunk would change into their bathing suits and then follow one of our counselors, marching off to the pool for their instructional swim, their tender feet getting wet from dew still on the grass. I would go to another pool with another counselor, the pool for the more advanced swimmers—most times anyway. Sometimes that didn’t happen. Sometimes we stayed back after the bunk was empty. Sometimes I started to change into my bathing suit but then he’d tell me to stop. It’s okay. I took mine off too. Look, we both have one. You can touch it. Why don’t you touch it? There, that feels good. Now I’m going to touch yours, okay? Doesn’t that feel good?
We’d sit together in that quiet, dark plywood shack, the one window and door closed, and I’d think about those other kids in my bunk, learning how to dunk their heads and make bubbles, and I’d wonder why his got so long and hard when he told me to touch it that way, and I’d wonder why it hurt so much when he put it inside me, but I never cried or yelled because he said I was being good. I didn’t know why I didn’t have to go swim with the bigger and older kids those mornings, but I didn’t feel like I belonged with them, either, and he always told me I was different, and that it was really OK, and that no one else should know because we had a special shared secret. But even that part, I didn’t like.
I never wanted to be a good swimmer, but I knew I always would be. Each day, I’d come home from camp, and my mom would unpack and find two wet bathing suits scrunched up in clear plastic bags, one wet from recreational swim, and the other wet, too, though sometimes soaked from being held under a water fountain and put in my camp bag just before getting on the bus to go home. Home felt even further away somehow, and less recognizable when I walked back up the driveway. And the pool in my parents’ backyard, that too felt strange now, even with my dad’s voice calling to me from the backyard, inviting me to join him for a swim, just a quick dip before we barbecued hotdogs and hamburgers, asking me to maybe show him and my mom what I had learned that day.
Panic attacks began that summer. One on camp picture day, when, after me and my brother had our photograph taken together, he grabbed my hand and we ran back to join our bunks. My bunk had instructional swim. I stopped running. Fell to the ground crying and screaming. He didn’t know why. Sleepless nights started to build one on top of the other, nights before I had gym class, a basketball or baseball township league game, anything athletic. My dad would watch some TV with me and tell me I’d fall asleep soon. But I wouldn’t. He didn’t know why. I became introverted. Shied away from the world. My mom would say that was always my nature, but there was much more to it. She didn’t know why. How could anyone? I never told. Some years later, I made a choice to try to be average in every way, hoping no one would ever notice me. I aimed for C’s in school. That didn’t work. I started to shut down on the inside. I started getting in trouble. My parents sent me to a psychiatrist who told them I had a self-sabotaging personality, that I locked a ball and chain around my very own ankle. But someone else locked that to my leg years ago.
Sex wasn’t something I wanted to have. A no-brainer. Why would I want to do something so vile with someone I liked and cared for? In my teenage years, I went on dates, had girlfriends, but we never did anything. Then, for some years, I did have sex, but only with women I didn’t really know or want to know. Once, I tried to have a relationship, but I only loved her because she treated me horribly (I felt I deserved it). Best friends would begin to have healthy and long relationships, and I was left behind. I lived by myself for a decade. My only company was an amazing cat, Boo, who, in a weird way, found me. I gave all of my heart’s love to that fuzzy little guy, and he loved me the same way. He was my companion and I knew that when he would die, I would have to die, too. I had a plan, but plans don’t always work out the way we think.
The cat lived long enough until I would find Kirsten, my wife. Maybe he brought me to her, and her to me; Kirsten is allergic to cats but was not allergic to Boo. She called him the “magic cat.” Kirsten is the most compassionate and empathetic person I know. While engaged, she stood by my side as I told my parents what had happened to me. We were at their house. It just came out. I grabbed a family photo album and showed them a camp photograph. “That one!” They knew. I didn’t feel ashamed like I thought I would. I felt relieved. Still, I would never be OK.
Depression: check. Anxiety disorder, prone to sudden panic attacks: check. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: double check. Pharmacy techs at the Rite-Aid down the street used to call me the “high-roller,” the “heavy-hitter,” when paying for my meds. I take much fewer meds now at least. Found a wonderful psychiatrist. Listens. Understands. Took so much time. Finally. Just 100 milligrams of Zoloft every morning and a benzo for the times when I see a yellow bus pass by; when I catch a strong whiff of chlorine; when someone cracks a joke about fathers and choir boys in church; when a Sandusky story is on the news or a commercial for Toddlers & Tiaras in which children are being told to shake their butts and chests for the judges; when a sudden scene in a movie with a kid being molested appears on the screen; when I drive by a camp (the one I went to is still open.) I have a list of triggers, I guess, but the anxiety is manageable. Mostly now it’s just talk therapy. I need it. Helps. My doctor tells me it won’t really ever go away after I sheepishly ask her if I will ever be able to get past this. She does tell me that it does lessen, and my physical reactions and dips into depression don’t have to be like a roller-coaster ride anymore. She’s honest. I trust her. I feel better. Still, there are questions. How did I take the extraordinary physical pain when it happened that summer? How do I take the emotional and physical pain ever since? In his book, The Noonday Demon, a work about depression, Andrew Solomon writes, “The human capacity to bear pain is shockingly strong.” I concur.
There is also a scene from Rocky that keeps me going from one day to the next. It’s the scene when Rocky lies in bed with Adrian, the night before the big fight, realizing that he just can’t win. More importantly, he doesn’t want to win. He says he just wants to “go the distance.” He knows he’s not even in the champ’s league, but, if he is still standing when that 15th bell rings, he’ll know he made it, that he is somebody, that he counts. I like that. I like that a whole lot. Life will always throw you punches, and some punches will knock you straight to the ground, but what’s important is that you can shake it off, get back up, and be ready for the next punch. If you can do that, then that’s all that matters. I tell my students this when they see me in my office and notice the miniature Rocky statue on my desk. Then they open up about all sorts of things: losing a loved one to gun violence; terribly abusive relationships; sleeping in cars or living in shelters while still going to school on financial aid: There’s a litany of problems that stretch for miles. I listen. I try to find them help. They are my children. I resolved, years ago, that I didn’t want to be a father. I think I’d be a good dad, but, because of what happened to me, I just can’t.
Then there’s that camp photograph. The one with the counselor who stole my childhood. In the picture, he is standing a few feet behind me, smiling. Surprising to most, I imagine, it’s actually still in one of my parents’ photo albums. I think I understand why it is still there. For them to take it out, to leave a white square on a page yellowed by time, would mean that they would have to face what happened to me, with no looking away. That might be too hard to do. They are my mom and dad, I am their child, and they love me too much.
And when it comes to water, we have an unusual relationship. It feels strange just writing that I have a relationship with water, but why wouldn’t I? (I’m an Aquarius after all.) It’s a love/hate relationship, I suppose. Sometimes the water feels good and cool again, and other times, I think of quick little responses when someone asks me to go in, but, I just can’t: “Oh, too chilly for me, but you go on ahead and I’ll watch our towels and chairs.” Sometimes the water in a swimming pool seems to be like an old friend who has been waiting for me for such a long time, waiting for me to jump back in without thought or care; other times, the water in a swimming pool looks like it is staring at me, reminding me: Better be careful, you know what this led to so long ago. I’ll never know what will happen, how I’ll react, if I’ll go in or not. I do know that this is a part of me, and I can live with that. I can live with a lot. I survived. I healed. I have scars, but I healed. I think we all can if we want to.
Age abuse occurred: 4-11
Eyes clenched, hands clasped against my forehead, I lay in bed praying, for a sign, a vision, a memory to put my mind at ease. After a year of intense psychotherapy, I was finally coming to accept what happened to me in the mid-‘80s, when I was 4, 5, 6 years old, when I could barely write or read. I no longer had to ignore it, but despite all the evidence, despite all I’d heard and seen, I was suddenly stricken with doubt.
Lips quivering, tears trickling down my cheeks, I thought of my estranged mother and how she’d failed me, of my siblings and the pain that made me so distant. I wished we could be a family again, but it didn’t seem possible—not with so many unresolved issues, not with so many secrets.
Before my wife could hear me, I sprang out of bed and shuffled toward the bathroom, where I quickly started to dry heave. There was no imminent threat to my safety, yet my body was bracing for attack: chest seizing, heart speeding, bowels clenched.
As I rocked over the toilet, I worried that Nina would hear me. The door was shut—as I always made sure it was in those moments when I couldn’t shake off the anxiety—but I was still afraid of being caught in such a pathetic state: so vulnerable, so depleted.
Thirteen months had passed since I promised her I would tear off all the bandages and honestly assess the damage. In a few days, on April 28, 2012, I would publicly admit that my stepfather, Danny, had sexually abused me when I was too young to understand the concept. But for all of the progress I’d made, I was still confused and at times ashamed. I was still trying to reconcile the facts of my past with the gaps in my memory, and now I was besieged by the sickening feeling that I’d made it all up.
Pain surged through my body and a torrent of anger, betrayal and grief rushed to the surface. I cried so hard that my face ached, and as I sat gathering what energy I had left, a wave of relief washed over me. Reluctant as I was to let it happen, the purge always made me feel better.
The truth was, only the sickness could heal me.
By the time I met Nina in September 2008, I had come to accept my past was dead. The boy, the victim, was buried deep in the recesses of my subconscious, and he was never coming back.
At first glance, I was a self-absorbed, sarcastic prick who didn’t care about anyone else. The muscles in my face were frozen in disdain, and I was quick to cut everyone off. The only joy I felt—and I’m not sure you can call it that—was the mild sense of accomplishment that academic success provided. My emotions were blunted by antidepressants and a deep, lasting numbness that shielded my fragile mind. The more I sank myself in abstraction, the easier it was to escape the pain of reality.
As I sat in an uncomfortable desk chair two columns away from Nina in a graduate-level journalism theory class, I felt suddenly less irritated. She spoke with easy confidence, and I seized the opportunity to insult her reason for returning to Philadelphia from San Francisco—to be a copy editor at the Daily News. I withered under her glare. This woman wouldn’t take shit from me. I slumped back in my chair, conceding defeat.
A few days later, I apologized for my behavior. I scaled back the sarcasm, and she soon agreed to grab a drink with me—then another. After a few dates, it became difficult for me to keep opening up to someone so honest, so open, so normal. I had long operated under the assumption that I could only be with someone as damaged as me. This assumption failed me every time, but for the brief duration of my flimsy relationships I felt less alone. I felt as if I could be myself: broken, self-loathing and cynical.
Nina had seen through the smokescreen, and I was terrified that she would leave me if I showed her everything. As I had so many times in the past, I ended the relationship and declared myself incapable of love.
As the semester ended and Nina’s job was threatened by a looming round of layoffs, we started talking outside of class again. I had never seen her upset before, and in some sick way it made me feel closer to her. She loved the Daily News, and I had grown to love it, too. I hated anyone who would try to axe Nina and her colleagues. They didn’t deserve to suffer for the sins of the industry, but it seemed they surely would. Satire and profanity seemed to ease Nina’s pain. It made me feel better, too.
I brought her home for Christmas, and by New Year’s Eve, I was ready to marry her. The transformation surprised everyone, especially me. My parents had divorced when I was two, and most of the relationships in my family seemed contrived, unstable or both. Yet despite the dearth of good examples, I found myself drawn to Nina, the tide unyielding. With a clarity of mind that only champagne and cheap beer could provide, I dropped to one knee and pledged eternal commitment to her. She pledged hers in return. For once, everything was good.
Even before we got engaged in June 2009, the dynamic of our relationship had started to change. I felt safe with Nina. I finally had a reason to be happy, and I ignored the signs that I was heading for a crash.
The more we saw my family, the more she would point out how different I was around them, especially when we went to my mom’s house in Glenolden, where I had lived with my stepfather. I would dismiss her concerns as a lack of understanding. Dysfunction was normal to me, and she simply wasn’t used to it. Besides, I felt as out of place around her family as she felt around mind. Eventually, we would adapt—or so I thought.
On the eve of our vacation to Belize, I asked Nina to marry me. Despite my aversion to romance, I had spent days trying to find a non-clichéd way to present the ring. Finally, I realized there was only one place I could propose. I picked her up from the Daily News—the editor, Michael Days, had saved her job—and I drove past the airport toward a park near my mom’s house.
Fourteen years earlier, my dad had taken me to that park and asked why I’d been sleeping with a steak knife under my pillow. I told him I didn’t want to live anymore. He knew my mom had decided to let my stepfather back in the house. He knew I was afraid.
My dad checked me into the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic on May 18, 1994. I was 11 years old. In the waiting room, he handed me a yellow legal pad and asked questions about my stepfather. More than five years had passed since I first told my dad that Danny had stuck his finger and a toy jeep in my ass. My mom had dismissed the allegations as Danny “goosing” me, and because there was no evidence of penetration when I was examined by a doctor, the child-welfare investigators determined that the abuse was unfounded.
"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 email@example.com 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.
PW's Summer Guide 2015