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