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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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:

fooled around
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)
Gender: Wombyn
Age: 25
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.

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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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