"The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse" sheds light on the painful—yet hopeful—recovery process.
And somehow, this hatred for society translated to hatred for his life and his family. I am unsure of the process from trauma to abuse—victims becoming victimizers. What about my father’s consciousness allowed him to take a negative path instead of “fighting the good fight” for what he wanted? What about the struggles he had made him want to prove the destructive stereotypes about black men correct? Why did he turn on the only people who loved him—his children?
An unfortunate truth I hid and suppressed for what I thought would be forever is now at the forefront of my consciousness. For years, my father sexually abused me. The statistics for sexual abuse and rape are outlandishly high considering how “hush-hush” the topic still is. Victims are still stigmatized and shamed despite the efforts of social organizations and the media’s attention. Somehow, this disease continues to spread. My question is: Why? And how? How can someone feel entitled to take what does not belong to them?
It has taken me until adulthood to speak kindly, to look honestly at my father as a human being and not a monster. Today, I realize he suffered vastly in his personal, professional and social life and was unable to cope with the pressures of his large dreams that soon became deflated. I also suspect that he was sexually or physically abused in his youth. In no way do I excuse his behavior. Nor do I tolerate his constant denial and dismissive attitude toward his role in my abuse. The mere thought of him still makes me angry; to hear his voice mirrors rusty nails on a chalk board. But I understand that forgiving him is a part of my healing.
I used to feel nothing; I was numb to the experience. It is natural for the body to go into shock when pain and trauma are so great that it may threaten to take us out or to drive us insane. But later, I felt anger and hate so intense that nothing could parallel it. Today, more than anything, I pity him. I feel sorry for the shame, guilt, regret and disgust he must feel. He has never admitted the abuse took place, let alone apologized for his monstrous actions against his daughters. He may never admit it, but I know what he’s done haunts him in his dreams.
I will never be sure of the reason he did it. I can only infer based on the research I have conducted through family members. Understanding that the abuse was his problem and not mine was a huge step in the process of my healing. The process is hard, treacherous and unfair. But there is a lesson and a reason for all experiences. It is up to you to find out the mystery. Above all, know that you are beautiful, powerful, complex and worthy of everything good. You can heal yourself today and move forward a little lighter and a bit more strong. We have to speak out to save our children, particularly our young girls, from suffering what plagued us.
Meagan H. D.
Age abuse occurred: 7
I want to state for the record that I am very lucky, and while what happened to me was terrible, I think it was overall good that it occurred because it stopped a lifetime of abuse and hatred for others. Gaps in my memory have spared me many specifics of what happened, but the story as a whole will stay with me forever, and has influenced who I am today. As this is an account of my story, all names have been changed. I truly hope that with time, the other people involved are able to share their story enough to heal.
One typical day, I believe I was 7 years old, I walked down to my friend’s house. Shelly and I grew up in a low-income neighborhood surrounded by woods that led to hours of running around outside. I think there may be two pictures from my childhood in which there was not dirt smeared on my face. On this day however, Shelly asked if I wanted to play “Doctor.”
Shelly and I went upstairs to her brother’s bedroom, where her two brothers sat on one of the beds. Her younger brother seemed nice but I didn’t have much interaction with him. However, her other brother, Greg, was a year older and I just didn’t like him. There was nothing I could put my finger on, but he just seemed cruel. Again, it was just a gut reaction.
The bedroom was the “waiting room” that we would sit in until it was time to see Shelly’s 20-year-old brother, Tom, the “doctor.” I don’t remember if Shelly went in first or I did. And I remember her looking at me sadly, almost apologetically, but that may be how I want to remember her face.
When it was my turn, I walked into the “doctor’s office,” and both bedroom doors were closed behind me. Yet due to poor construction, the large gaps above the doors allowed you to see the ceiling of the “waiting room” from behind the closed door of the “doctor’s office.” During my examination, Tom asked me if I felt OK, and when I replied that I was fine, he said that he still needed to check me out. Tom pulled down my pants and examined me with his mouth. He kept asking me if it hurt, and I could say nothing. I do not remember much else other than continuing to see Greg’s head appear near the ceiling as he repeatedly jumped up to see through the gaps above the doors. When I walked out of the doctor’s room, Greg sneered as he asked why I let it happen. Again, I said nothing.
That night, I must have been subdued because my parents wanted to know what was wrong. I couldn’t tell them, but eventually they threatened not to let me play with Shelly anymore if I didn’t tell them what happened. The ensuing conversation is another piece of my story that I do not remember, but later that night, the police arrived and took my statement.
There was a little bit of time between that night and Tom confessing and going to jail. In that time, I found out that Shelly had been abused by her brother for years. We could not remain friends after what happened, but stayed friendly. I heard that she went to counseling and her mother moved Shelly and her brothers out of the house and away from some of the more toxic members of the family. I pray that she is well.
This terrible episode happened and was mainly forgotten. My family moved over an hour away and things were over. Then, when I was in middle school, I accidentally found a letter addressed to my mother. It was from Tom. He was writing because he was getting out of jail and wanted to thank my mother for all of her counseling.
I would love to write that the letter floated out of my hand as I sank to the floor, tasting the salt as it ran into my mouth. It would be lovely imagery. Yet this is another painful moment that has been wiped from my memory. I remember finding the letter in the wooden desk where various pieces of mail and junk would be thrown. I couldn’t tell you why I took the letter out of the envelope or what I did after I read the letter.
It took several days before I could confront my mother. I learned that Tom had been abused by his father, and about the vicious cycle that often occurs when these horrible things happen, especially when they continue to happen to small children by those they should be able trust. I also learned that Mom regularly went to visit Tom before and after sentencing. She told me that regardless of how evil Tom’s act was, jail would not allow him to become mentally better. Therefore, she had petitioned the court to send him to counseling in an institution instead. Unfortunately, his family’s dynamic was very unhealthy and not able to provide him with support and strength to recognize his problems and try to change them. So when he was sentenced to jail, Mom, a minister, took his treatment upon herself because Tom had no one else. All of these actions were decisions made by both my parents, because while my mother did most of the actions, she had my father’s support.
Some may not be able to comprehend my parents’ actions. What I cannot comprehend is how Mom found the forgiveness to go to this man who had so harmed her child and minister to him. He caused me so much pain. But Mom, who thinks of others’ needs by nature, was able to go to Tom, listen to his story and try to help him to heal at the same time she was trying to help me heal. And just so you know, he felt terrible about what he did to Shelly and me. He knew it was wrong, yet he continued to do it.
I don’t know if Mom was able to help Tom, but I do know that my parents love me very much, and I am the person I am because they are so kind-hearted that they could want to heal this man who made a victim of me, and was a victim himself.
Note: So you are aware, I did not know before now that my father was also abused (see below). My mother has thanked me for asking them to write about my abuse, as this is only the second time that he has ever discussed it, and the first time was the night of my abuse. I probably would never have known if it was not for PW’s request for stories. Obvious to say that she feels that sharing it has helped with some of his healing. Writing these pieces has opened up a dialogue between my parents and I that never would have occurred otherwise. While it is quite emotional, I feel strongly that it has been very helpful to understanding each other and fostering personal healing.
Michael H. D.
Relationship to survivor: Father/self
This is about instances of sexual abuse at two different times and affecting two different lives. The first one is about what happened to me, but I now consider it of little consequence. The second concerns my daughter, and has caused me far greater anguish.
I was raised in a South Jersey suburb near Philadelphia. Our family might be seen as lower-middle class, as we had our share of financial struggles. My parents both worked, and believed that after high school you find a good company to work for, and live frugally while you save money for your own family.
I think I’ve driven many of the memories out of my mind, so I don’t remember some of the details that well, but I believe it was the summer of my freshman year. During that summer, I worked at a theater as part of the stage crew. What I do remember is that when it was over, I blamed my own naiveté for allowing myself to be placed in a room where one of the bit actors stayed during the dates the play ran.
It started with a conversation after one of the final shows between the actor and I. We talked about having a beer as we walked around town. Looking back, it’s hard to believe how gullible I must have been, but I ended up walking to the boarding house to meet him. In his room, we talked a little and he offered a small glass of gin and grapefruit juice (explaining he had forgotten the beer). He asked me what I thought of some pictures he had (men wrestling) and I made some comments but didn’t spend much time looking at them. We talked about how tall I might grow and he said he could tell by feeling my muscle tone. He was probably in his late 30s or 40s, so his age made him more credible to me.
I remember him massaging my legs and later being on top of me. Before he had finished, I managed to gather the courage, clench my fists and say “No.” At first, he told me it would be OK, but I was adamant and he got off me. As I pulled my clothes back on, he reminded me that when I had first arrived, I had promised not to tell anyone about being there. I thought the promise was about having a drink.
I walked home and changed and washed my clothes. I never told anyone, maybe because I had made the promise but more likely because I was too embarrassed. As time has moved on, I have forced myself not to think about it. There has never been a need of forgiveness or resolution because I mostly blamed myself. Eventually, I did tell my wife about the incident, but only after she and I found out that our 7-year-old daughter was sexually violated by the son of a neighboring family.
I didn’t want to believe it, but knew it couldn’t be avoided. I went down to his family’s house and told his parents I needed to talk with him. I had thought about taking a bat with me, but if I had, perhaps it would not have ended well for anyone. He denied everything, which probably angered me even more. I wanted to believe that nothing happened, but I knew inside that he had lied. My wife and I contacted the police and the county prosecutor’s office and issued a complaint. He was arrested and sent away as an offender. I never knew how to talk to my daughter about it, but thankfully, my wife did.
Eventually, the boy wrote a letter or two expressing how sorry he was. Still, I have never forgiven him, nor do I care to. I know in my mind that I couldn’t possibly be with my daughter every moment to protect her from things such as this, but part of me still wants to punish him for what he did.
I have always had the feeling that my daughter never wanted to talk to me about it, and so I have never broached the topic. These are things that my wife is much better equipped to deal with. I know that I have rambled a bit, and yet writing down what I remember may have helped resolve some of my feelings. The most curious thing is that it was my daughter who sent us the announcement for this project, and now I find myself writing this only because of her.
Age abuse occurred: 4-6; 18
Oral, throat and sinus cancer, freak accidents, amputations and burn injuries are the worst diseases and circumstances that can disfigure the face and body. Missing jaws, trach tubes and deep scars are often irreversible. Scars can occasionally act like text, giving the viewer the ability to read what has injured a person in their lifetime. The face is a mirror into a person’s soul. This mirror can be changed in an instant.
Instead of fearing the possibility of a personal injury permanently changing our appearance, what if it were possible to look as we actually felt—our secrets and mental illnesses available for everyone to see? What if our depression and personal issues became that permanent reality, like an irreversible scar that cannot be removed?
Currently, I carry two life sentences. I was molested as a child by the husband of a babysitter over a period of two years. Later in life, at the age of 18, I was raped two months after arriving in Philadelphia for college. Simple sounds, touches and smells can bring me back in an instant. My outward appearance developed into how I felt. My life in Philadelphia continued on a strange autopilot while I battled addictions and eating disorders, which led to my eventual weight of nearly 400 pounds.
It was painful to walk as my legs constantly rubbed together, which created a weekly line of new boils and chafing. A normal-sized bottle of stain remover lasted me a mere two weeks to combat the blood and pus stains from my pants at the laundry. My checklists for leaving the house were my keys, cigarettes, shoe laces and menstrual pads. The keys and cigarettes were for obvious reasons. The shoe laces for keeping my pants up by making a knot at the belt loops when the button or buckle would inevitably break from simple tasks such as bending down to tie my shoes. Finally, the menstrual pads for being more absorbent than Band-Aids and preventing the blood stains from showing on the inside of my pants from my legs rubbing together. On one occasion, while wearing shorts, a bloody pad fell out and landed next to my shoe to the horror and curiosity of the passengers on a crowded bus.
In 2009, I received my M.F.A. from Penn’s School of Design under a beautiful canopy. Instead of being excited for my future, I was more worried about the chair breaking underneath me. Despite attending Penn for two years, I knew almost nothing about campus due to the difficulty of my walking anywhere, let alone the uphill slope of Locust Walk. I had a highly detailed knowledge of the entire SEPTA system to avoid walking a mere seven blocks.
Approaching 30, and after losing nearly 200 pounds over three years, I am lucky. My years of extreme obesity, pills and cigarettes never showed on my face. I got a second chance to create some kind of normal.
To combat the damage of sexual abuse, one must yearn for a normal life despite our sentences and their machinations. The way we create this varies from person to person. One must learn to laugh and reach out to people. Despite the dysfunction of my life due to my sexual abuse, I will forever laugh at the memory of the crowded bus and my bloody pad falling on the floor. I can only imagine what my fellow passengers were thinking.
Recovery can be a tedious process, with many instances of gained and lost ground. At my sickest, when my weight crept past 400 pounds, I knew at the age of 25 that I was dying. I realized that when my end came, I would regret everything and wish to live my life over again.
After my graduation, I withdrew and moved to be with family in the Florida Keys on a small island town with one red light. I have not left since. Instead of planning a career full of creativity and gallery shows in New York like many of my classmates, I am merely learning how to continue with a life full of missed opportunities and waste. After losing all of my weight, I look much younger than my age; I am often confused for a 19 or 20 year old. I am not ashamed to say that I usually do not correct people when, in fact, I am nearly 30 with a master’s degree and an entire past that I prayed I could relive. Sometimes I feel like an imposter.
Despite the fact that I got a second chance, I have to deal with the inevitable fact of aging despite all the years I have lost. The thought panics me as I feel as though I have too few years to fill with new memories. My newfound future is full of the excitement of discovering the joys of simple things that I was never able to enjoy due to my crushing weight. Despite the fact that it is sometimes easier to fall back into what I have known, looking forward to a new experience has kept me on my path.
"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.
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Dinner with Luke Palladino