"The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse" sheds light on the painful—yet hopeful—recovery process.
Still convinced that I had been sexually abused, my dad brought it up again. I couldn’t speak, but I answered his questions in writing, growing visibly more upset until the nurse intervened. He fought back tears as he read my responses:
acted like complete moron because he was drunk
it would seem like he was gay
sort of like tickled it
it was sickening
During my stay in the hospital, child-welfare investigators revisited the case. By the time I left on June 22, 1994, I had provided “a clear, consistent and credible” account of being sexually abused by my stepfather. On July 27, 1994, Danny was arrested by Gloucester County, NJ, detectives on charges of sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child.
Much as my dad wanted to take the case to trial, the prosecutor advised him against it. There was no physical evidence, and there was a strong possibility that I would be further traumatized by the experience. We reluctantly settled for a plea bargain. On April 21, 1995, Danny agreed to one count of endangering the welfare of a child—a sex crime. He was sentenced to a year of probation.
As I sat staring at Nina, stalling to prepare myself for what I was about to say, I realized that I’d never fully healed from what Danny had done to me. The sexual abuse had only been a small part of it, as had the few instances of physical abuse. This sadistic man had steadily eroded my self-esteem until I no longer wanted to live, and I’d spent years clawing back my dignity.
I turned down the radio and reached for the ring. I told Nina she had given me a reason to live, that I had brought her to the place where I lost all hope to show her she had restored it. I handed her my pledge, forged in diamond and white gold. “You are my salvation in this world,” I said.
The post-engagement bliss ended too quickly, ushering in a 20-month struggle to recognize and accept the growing rift between us. What started as a disagreement over the thinning frequency of our sex life became a bitter, sometimes hostile dispute, fueled by my implausible excuses. We’re too busy, I said. Too tired. Too familiar. Things change when you get married. None of that changed the fact that Nina wasn’t getting what she needed, what she reasonably should have expected from her spouse under normal circumstances.
The more she pushed for answers, the more I retreated, until finally, on Valentine’s Day 2011, she threatened to leave.
I had always felt weird talking about sex. It was something that happened naturally, I reasoned, not a topic for discussion. But I was now so afraid to talk about it, so unable to say the word without feeling a deep sense of shame, that I had no choice but to admit that something was seriously wrong.
On some level, I grasped that the abuse had tainted my sexuality, but when I allowed myself to consider the depth of the problem, I was disgusted. My perception of intimacy had been warped by the abuse and chronic familial dysfunction. I felt feeble and diseased.
All of my previous relationships had become unbearable once I allowed myself to be vulnerable. Physically, I would still be present, but I wasn’t there—not really. I didn’t see how sex and emotional closeness could co-exist for me, but that’s what Nina needed, and she was willing to wait so long as I made a good faith effort to get better.
“I wouldn’t blame you for leaving,” I said.
But Nina stayed. She stayed as I took so much and gave so little. She stayed as my body cringed and quaked. She kept her distance to protect herself, but she would not let me break. I believe that you can beat this, she said, but you’ll never get better if you can’t accept what happened to you.
On April 16, 2011, Nina and her mother took me to a sexual-abuse awareness rally hosted by Women Organized Against Rape. I hid my face as we marched in the rain, afraid that someone would see me. Later, as I sat and listened to survivors speak in the Independence Visitors Center, I felt less alone. If they were brave enough to talk about their abuse, what was stopping me?
My eyes and nose burned with acid tears, but I sat quietly until a man in his 50s strode to the podium. He had only begun to accept that he had been abused in his mid-30s, and he was now finally getting the treatment he needed to heal. He had struggled twice as long as I had, but he refused to let the pain ruin the rest of his life. I was stunned by his courage, but I couldn’t take any more. I shuffled to the bathroom, slid to the floor and wept until there was nothing left.
As much as I wanted to stay in touch with my family while I was in therapy at WOAR, it was clear that I wouldn’t make radical changes in my life unless I could proceed without worrying about how they felt. My mom had long believed that I would heal by compartmentalizing the past, but that wasn’t possible for me. I now understood that I couldn’t move on if everything remained the same.
The separation filled me with guilt and grief, but it gave me the perspective I needed to get better. I could finally see the dysfunction as abnormal and unhealthy. I could finally see that I’d been passively waiting for those who had hurt me to make things right, and I accepted that it would never happen. I loved my family, but I had to prove to myself that I could survive without them. Only then could I find peace.
At a safe distance, I began to access repressed memories, which allowed me to deconstruct the belief that I had fabricated the abuse. Young children tell tall tales, but not about molestation. If I had made it all up, why, then, would I keep drawing attention to a lie? The guilt would have faded, and I would be relieved to have gotten away with it. Wouldn’t I?
It was clear that I had perpetuated my mother’s denial. Sure, she believed me after I ended up in a crisis center, but her initial response had clouded my perception. I wished she had believed me sooner. I wished she had taken my side.
The anger and sadness were often overwhelming, but every time I let it flow through me, I felt so much better. I was reluctant to purge at every step, but the suffering was worth it.
The speech fluttered in my hand as I stood at the podium, surveying the room for signs of danger. I had just publicly outed myself as an abuse survivor, and I was waiting for someone to call me a liar. In a room full of strangers, I was somehow safe. My voice choked with grief, I paused then continued to speak.
“I wish I could say that Danny’s conviction resolved everything for me,” I said. “I wish I could say that my mother fully accepted the gravity of what had happened and did everything she could to help me heal. But that didn’t happen.
“She had convinced herself that everything would get better if we all just moved on. And when I would crash and burn after weeks, months, years of ignoring it, she would beg for forgiveness she hadn’t earned, then let my dad intervene so she could go back to pretending everything was fine.
“She still doesn’t get it, and I’m not sure that she ever will.
“There’s the incident, and there’s the aftermath. Pure logic would have it that the event itself is far more painful than the recovery, but we all know that’s not true. Rest and medication won’t do much for an infection of the soul. It takes years to flush out the poison, not weeks, and that’s assuming that the survivor is trying to get better.
“I’ve learned that you can’t move on by sitting still. I’ve learned that you can’t let it go until you let it in.
“I’ve spent the past year assessing the damage. I’ve unraveled much of the shoddy logic that has prevented me from enjoying my life. I’ve begun to access memories long buried, but I am not whole. I don’t know that I’ll ever feel whole, but I can accept the abuse as a proportionate part of my life. I feel well enough to move forward, to start letting go. I am more hopeful than I’ve ever been. I am far less cynical.
“I am not the first survivor of child sexual abuse, and I know I won’t be the last. My voice, my story is one among many. I will continue to speak out along with countless other survivors and advocates.”
I thanked the audience for listening and sat down next to Nina, squeezing her hand for comfort. I had never done anything so courageous, and it was difficult to comprehend. I looked at my father, at Nina’s parents, and I knew they understood me. But it was more than that. Only a day had passed since Nina told me she was pregnant, and I realized the baby had given me the strength to keep going.
Something had clicked. Something was different. My past didn’t matter as much the future I wanted for my child, and I couldn’t let anyone or anything get in the way of it.
A few weeks later, I felt obligated to call my mom and tell her about the baby. Our last conversation hadn’t ended well, and I was afraid that she would still be upset with me for cutting her off around the holidays. I didn’t hate her, but I couldn’t trust or love her until she could accept how deeply the abuse had affected my life. In order to accept the gravity of the abuse, she had to accept her role in it, and I didn’t think she was ready for that.
There was no resentment in her voice. She was genuinely happy to hear from me. She wanted to know how I was, how Nina was feeling, and I humored her with more details than I’d expected to give up. But when she said how excited she was to be a grandmother, I had to redirect the conversation. She listened quietly as I explained what it would take to resolve the issues that prevented us from having the relationship I wanted. She agreed to read about the effects of sex abuse and said she would attend counseling with me.
Still, I was skeptical. She had pledged so many times to help me move on without ever moving forward herself. She still had my stepfather’s last name and continued to live in the house they had bought together. I wondered how much progress she could make.
Finally, she followed through. It had been 18 years since we attended a therapy session together, but she had read the research and she was ready to listen. I held nothing back, explaining in painstaking detail how the abuse had tainted everything good in my life. She lamented her failures and said she wanted to be the mother she should have been. I told her it was too late. What I needed now was for her to recognize that the abuse would always be a part of me. I couldn’t pretend anymore. She said she understood.
When we talked on the phone several days later, I was stunned by the conversation. She hadn’t completely transformed, but she finally understood that her betrayal had lasted for years after the abuse. She acknowledged the depths of our family dysfunction and recognized it was time to choose a new direction. She talked about selling the house someday, about helping my sister come to terms with the truth about her father.
“I never realized how much the abuse traumatized us all,” she said. “I’ll do whatever it takes to help us be a family.”
Letting her in was risky, but I gave her another chance because she didn’t expect or demand it. I was willing to suffer for her in the way Nina had suffered for me so long as she was willing to be honest with herself, so long as she was willing to tear off the bandages and air her wounds. She had been abused—physically and emotionally—by both of her husbands, and it was time for her to purge, to grieve. I sensed her reluctance, but something was different. Something had clicked. She saw the damage for what it was now, and the truth was, only the sickness could heal her.
Diata* (not her real name)
Age abuse occurred: 5-12
My father was a revolutionary of sorts. I can recall him preaching and praying passionately in some of Washington, D.C.’s most impoverished and neglected neighborhoods. Ramshackle houses and project buildings long deserted by humanity were the areas targeted by our church for “street ministry.” Essentially, church was set up in the street, or in barren, abandoned parking lots. I was very young then, maybe 8 or 9. I can remember the green, broken glass and crumbs of concrete that somehow broke off from the curbs and sidewalks.
Loud speakers propelled the scratchy sounds of prophets screaming for redemption, and the band kicked a gospel beat for the people to move to. Ministers laid hands on the otherwise washed-up, hopeless and faithless ghetto masses. And there was my father, reaching out to these men, women and children. I have memories of pride as I sat in the metal folding chairs set up for the street congregation. I straightened the wrinkles in my pink dress and smiled as two white observers beamed about the efforts of my father. I beamed, too. I saw that my father had a genuine heart, a spark within him for his God and his people.
But somewhere along the way, things went awry for my father—a man who had honest hopes to be a successful and moral human being. Somehow, he fell short of the call. At some point, he fell and fell hard. He buckled under the pressures of the system that sought to rob him of his manhood. He lost the battle to retain his self-worth as a man of color, struggling for meaning in a society that hated him. He understood that the upward mobility he desired was continually being flaunted in his face, and all the more vigorously kept from his reach. Eventually, the demons that haunted his past could no longer be ignored. One day, he woke up, and God wasn’t enough to sustain him. He realized that his plan for a happy life of church and family wasn’t enough to erase the bitterness of his reality.
"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.
PW's Holiday Guide 2014
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4