PW's First Book-Length Work Collects the Personal Stories of Sexual-Abuse Survivors and Their Loved Ones

"The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse" sheds light on the painful—yet hopeful—recovery process.

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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 emotional aspects have been devastating. The substances that kept me numbed still call and it is still nearly impossible for me to eat in front of anyone. The simple act of a deli counterperson at the grocery store offering me the extra slice of cheese taken from the scale evokes panic attacks. My abusers have continued their lives without any repercussions while I suffered immensely. I am beginning to cast away my anger, as it will only hold me back. At times, I feel damaged, but with the continuation of my life and my example, I have not let them win. I look forward to the day it is emotionally possible to leave this island and return to Philadelphia to pick up where I left off at 18. Until then, I do the best that I can with each day and challenge. It is the best that I can do.

Alice* (not her real name) 
Gender: Female
Age: 44
Relationship to survivor: Daughter

Nothing is lonelier than taking a taxi home from the hospital—especially if it’s a psychiatric hospital. It was early December, during the blizzard of 2009, and Philadelphia was already blanketed with the first of three feet of snow. The cab driver picked me up at the Belmont Center on City Line Avenue, eyeing me suspiciously. “You work here, right?”

“Yep, I’m a surgeon,” I replied, hoping he’d not noticed my hospital-grade paper booties.

I was about 40 years old that day. In a span of four months, I’d gone from earning a six-figure income in the pharmaceutical industry and living in a stylish Society Hill apartment to being unemployed and emotionally dependent on a man who had “borrowed” $40,000 from me and promptly vanished, just as the SEC was closing in on him.

I look like the typical over-educated white woman living in Philadelphia. I live in a cute house with a pretty garden. I have friends, I wear good clothes and I have a decent job and nice teeth. But under the veneer is a woman with a sketchy history. Two suicide attempts, anorexia, bulimia, four psychiatric hospitalizations, a divorce, a stalled career, years and thousands of dollars seeing a therapist, less-than stellar grades, broken friendships and an addiction to unavailable or abusive men that spans 20 years. I have been on 30 different psychiatric medications and have conducted desperate visits to shamans, psychics, acupuncturists, herbalists, psychiatrists and healers of all flavors. I’ve spent more than $12,000 on a doctor who uses a magnetic device to electrically jump-start my brain out of depression. My friends and family are baffled and angry, and I am hopeless. Why do I keep screwing up my life, I ask myself, when I have so much to be grateful for?

My theory is that I am a second-hand victim of sexual abuse.

Our family made regular trips from the suburbs into the city to see my extended family. My parents maintain that it was “car sickness” that made me throw up at each visit, but I never got sick in the car any other time. Looking back, it must have been a by-product of the anxiety these excursions caused.

You see, my mother could not bear to be around her family.

They’d all be there. My aunt, who’d reinvented herself from a poor Northeast Philly kid to a Main Line socialite. There’d be my two uncles and my grandmom. And the bottles. Everywhere, empty beer bottles crowded the table and most of the floor. The cigarette smoke hung in the air and yellowed the insides of the windows. It was hard to take a breath. At the center of the alcohol, cigarettes and bawdy talk was one of my uncles. He was a stocky man, maybe 5-foot-7, with a blustery manner and flushed face. In my memory, his wife and kids aren’t even present, but they must have been. In my memory, his porkish figure eclipses all else.

This uncle, he stole my childhood.

This uncle raped my mother. Not once, not twice, but over and over again for several years, well into her teens—a period of time stretching between the end of World War II to the Korean War. Not only did he violate her while she pretended to sleep, as she compulsively recited the Hail Mary to distract herself until he was done, but he and a chum would regularly take her to an isolated baseball field dugout and molest her. The horrified neighborhood mothers of other little girls would come to my mother’s childhood home, screaming at the front door. It seems my uncle did not limit his predatory ways to family. And somehow my grandmother was able to ignore this.

The result of the constant and savage incest and trauma my mother endured was an adult woman with a laundry list of psychiatric problems. Close to 80 now, she suffered more than any kid or adult deserves to. Anorexia while pregnant with me; agoraphobia so severe she couldn’t leave the house when my sister was a toddler; locking us kids out of the house so she could privately scrub her arms with bleach until they bled. Suicide attempts, hospitalization, depressions, flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, trust issues, bonding problems with her kids and explosive anger. Her fear of dirt so great that after a day of playing outside, the three of us kids were routinely forced to strip down to nudity each night in the foyer of our split-level home and be carried to the tub for a group scrub. Her self-consciousness about sexuality was so deep that she’d put tape over her breasts underneath her clothes to hide her nipples from view. Her despair was so frustrating that my father often resorted to either hitting us with his belt or retreating to the basement to “pay bills.” She tried to be a good mother to us, but it’s hard to be a mom when your own childhood was the most dangerous place on earth.

Nobody stopped my mother’s abuse. Not one adult, sibling, parent or teacher stood up for her when it had to have been obvious that in that tiny Bustleton Avenue house, something was terribly wrong. The abuse only stopped when she, as a teenager, stopped it herself. Home alone one day, her brother turned up back from a stint in the Army. Wanting to pick up where he’d left off, he grabbed her. But she’d grown up a bit while he was at war, and she had a kitchen knife when he went after her. She stabbed him so badly he ended up not only in the hospital, but in a psychiatric unit for months. Now, my uncle is in a nursing home, his brain pulp.

Unfortunately, I’m the other result of the constant and savage incest my mother endured—another adult woman with a laundry list of psychiatric problems.

These days, I spend a lot of time in church basements, with other addicts, and we talk about “working the program” and “a higher power,” nervously twitching in folding chairs and eyeing each other, wondering what monster lies beneath the 12-Step jargon. I feel like a ghost of myself. Someone who fits in nowhere. Maybe at some point I will feel a commonality with these folks. I hope so, since these meetings are my last-ditch effort at becoming a somewhat normal person, at having a calm and loving relationship with a man, at not wanting to die the moment I open my eyes every morning.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 17 of 17
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1. Janice said... on Nov 14, 2012 at 10:33PM

“CookyJar! Have you all heard about CookyJar? He's a very important player in the abuse and debasement of women in Philadelphia. He can be found weekly posting nude photographs of young women on an internet site for men seeking sex (usasexguide.info). The women are impaired by drug addiction. CookyJar pays a large sum of money for taking photos of these young girls in degrading poses.

When and if these girls kick the habit, their futures will be ruined by the online presence of dirty photos which addiction forced them to pose for.

CookyJar must be "outed" by this newspaper. Please Tara Murtha. Go to Kensington Avenue and interview the women victims, and perhaps with police assistance, find CookyJar and write his sordid story and shame him for ruining the future of so many young women. Better yet, see if the police can find grounds for arresting him. You can help rid the streets of this pervert.”

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2. Psrpg said... on Nov 15, 2012 at 10:36AM

“Yeah, that's all we need. The governnent arresting someone for posting naked pictures of consenting adults. What is wrong with you?”

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3. Janice said... on Nov 15, 2012 at 11:26AM

“You miss the point, Psrpg. These girls are not "consenting" in a legal or moral sense. They wouldn't have sex with you, or a bald fat man, or this pervert CookyJar in normal circumstances. They are victims of family and medical origin. If your young daughter gives in to her uncle's lecherous desires that is not consenting. Neither are the addicts who out of desperation accept CookyJar's large sums of money and accept his orders to bend over and moon his filthy camera. Perverts who take advantage of young girls don't belong on the streets.

Do you get my point? Do you realize these "consenting" girls are being taken advantage of by a dirty old man who is ruining their future? What is wrong with YOU?

Tara Murtha, please get on this story.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Nov 15, 2012 at 03:28PM

“Perhaps a better use of this space would be to discuss the impact of this project.”

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5. Janice said... on Nov 15, 2012 at 04:24PM

“Anonymous #4, your remarks are welcome. Believe me, the report on this project has impacted ME, and my heart goes out to the victims who have bravely relived a terrible part of their past. Perhaps one piece we as reader-citizens can take away from this is a strengthened resolve to help prevent future abuse. Thank you for tolerating my sharing of one such abusive situation that has existed for years, perhaps without the awareness of the authors or of influential writers on women's issues such as Tara Murtha.”

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6. Anonymous said... on Nov 16, 2012 at 11:12AM

“I've heard about this CookyJar accosting women on Kensington Avenue. He is the kind of person who perpetuates the filth and harm done to people just like those described in this excellent collection of stories. Well done, PW.”

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7. Ryan said... on Nov 17, 2012 at 08:47PM

“You should change the name of this paper to "Crowdsourced Sob Story Weekly".

It's like reading someone's shitty LiveJournal every week.”

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8. RyanIsMacho said... on Nov 18, 2012 at 12:10PM

“Ryan,
May God help you if you or anyone you love ever experiences something as awful as sexual assault. A very mature response to something that affects 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men.”

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9. Anonymous said... on Nov 19, 2012 at 03:11PM

“Ryan is CookyJar! I guess he's taking a break from abusing destitute girls. ROFLMAO.”

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10. Anonymous said... on Nov 21, 2012 at 12:08PM

“Ari,
Thank you for being so brave to share this. Please know that doing so is a real gift to others - both those who have suffered abuse and those who want to feel real compassion for those who have and understand.
Wishing you tranquility, love and hope.”

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11. Anonymous said... on Dec 24, 2012 at 07:16AM

“As a survivor of severe childhood sexual, emotional and physical abuse, I assure you; that none of the outside world, has any idea of what they are talking about. Cause you all have not walked in our shoes. You all have not been traumatized over, and over and over again!So in a world, where people are not kind any more,have no compassion any more, can't be trusted any more; why would we the survivors tell our stories?This is a good project I think! It took me 45 years, to finally face the music and discuss with my Dr. It also helped me to write my journal, thanks for my journaling, otherwise , this Christmas would have been another suicidel statistic. I have hope now, caue I have many loving, supporting and kind people around me!So rather than bad mouthing us, learn to be kind and understanding and loving. God bless all the survivors of sexual childhood abuse who now are speaking out!”

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12. Wilma said... on Jan 21, 2013 at 06:59PM

“I understand the male sex drive, I really do. It's a craving just like some people can't resist chocolate. I sold my body for 5-6 years on Kensington Avenue in Philadelphia and saw it firsthand. And I had photos taken of me naked by the "cookiejar" person mentioned above. He was deceitful about it and I complained after the fact. Never an apology. I was an object of his craving and no more. I understand the craving. That's physical. I resent the deception. That's learned behavior and thank you Janice for bringing it up. I wish you success.”

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13. Anonymous said... on Jan 21, 2013 at 09:19PM

“Wilma, it sounds like you have escaped the Avenue? I hope so. I know who this cookiejar is and now have his latest photo "exhibit" lady to agree to work with us in IDing his vehicle. We hope to "expose" him soon. Hang tight, PW, we'll be contacting you (hopefully) soon!”

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14. Janice said... on Feb 7, 2013 at 12:30PM

“Thanks to the cooperation of the local Commandante's office, we have narrowed the search down to three names. It should be fairly easy to make a match with the granddaughter from records at Penn. Hold tight, everybody, D-day is ever closer!”

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15. Alan Horn said... on Feb 24, 2013 at 04:01PM

“Please help Stop the Silence. Take a minute right now to do a small thing. Do it now becasue it is the right thing and it will help alot.
Text GIVE 3583 to 80088 to donate $10 to Stop the Silence: Stop Child Sexual Abuse, Inc. This is a one time donation billed to your cell phone. Message and data rates may apply. Only works for US mobile phones.

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16. Keith Smith said... on May 7, 2013 at 11:18PM

“Read "5 Steps You Can Take to Keep Kid Safe" at www.MenInMyTown.wordpress by Keith Smith, Stranger Abduction Sexual Assault Survivor”

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17. pat s said... on Sep 16, 2013 at 06:51PM

“I wholeheartedly pray there really is a god, not so much as for my salvation, but for other peoples punishment. If god does exist (i do believe in my Lord) then punishment will be handed down for scum like cookyjar and ALL molesters. When your judgement day comes i would not want to be in your shoes. God bless each and everyone who is or was a victim of abuse, you did NOTHING WRONG, keep your chin up. I was very fortunate, i can only try to imagine the hell you all went through. Coming out, confronting and speaking up about it i can only assume will probably be very therapeutic for you. Stay strong and you will start the healing process for nobody deserves the hell you have endured. God bless you all. Patrick”

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