Note: This blog first appeared at www.souldegree.com/blog.
Have you found that the Covid19 pandemic is allowing you to make progress on projects that you had stalled on? To complete things that had gone uncompleted? Perhaps to clean closets, empty boxes, review old papers and photos? We certainly are doing these things in our family.
There is a process that I started at age 6 or at age 33--depending on how I think about it--that I’d like to move one step further on today in this blog. That is to explain that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.
The abuse happened two times, when I was about six years old and, in line with most survivors’ experiences, the abuser was someone I knew and trusted.
It took me some 27 years to break my silence on it, to tell even a single soul about it. When I was 33, I told a therapist. Shortly thereafter, I told my wife and in due time my family members and then a few friends. At some point, with enough therapy behind me, I became fairly comfortable talking about it, finding it easiest to do so with complete strangers.
By way of example, last year, I was at the Austin Film Festival pushing a script of mine that is about a former high school basketball star who was sexually abused. I was telling a fellow screenwriter about the script. After I explained the plot, he asked me, “So, were you a basketball player?” I think I laughed out loud. Screenwriters like to have some qualification for writing what they do and, despite my height, and my coach’s good-hearted attempts, I never made it past riding the bench on the high school freshman team. So, I just responded, “No. I wasn’t a hoops player.” Then, wanting to assure him that I was qualified in some way, I added “But I was sexually abused.” He didn’t quite know what to do. It was a funny, awkward moment and, perhaps, a small but significant point on a journey from twenty-seven years of silence to today.
So, why exactly am I putting it in writing today? Why broadcast that news? I have two reasons. For one, there is no shame in being sexually abused. Yet our culture, intentionally or not, places shame upon survivors, who are typically more than happy to grab that shame and beat themselves with it. I did nothing wrong and no survivor does anything to deserve the abuse put upon them. I hope that in sharing this news, I can in some small way reinforce that message.
Secondly, I think and hope it is helpful both to survivors and to those who haven’t experienced sexual abuse to know that survivors are not “out there” but rather are right here--in your neighborhood, in your friend group, at your place of work, and these days, on your Zoom call. One out of four women and one out of six men are sexually abused before they reach the age of 18. There are a lot of us. I take strength in knowing I am not alone and I hope, again in a small way, that expressing my experience gives strength to other survivors.
Although it took me 27 years to put voice to my experience, the memory of it was there all along. Like a wave in the ocean, the power of the memory ebbs and flows. Sometimes it is barely there, easily forgettable, seemingly unimportant. At other times, it seems to carry the power of my entire life. It seems to be the single most important event in a life full of events, the most determinant thing that has ever happened to me. The truth, as with most things, is somewhere between the two.
The abuse is also something I have carried, unconsciously, in my body. Research by folks such as Bessel van der Kolk has shown that even after a trauma survivor is able to talk about and intellectually accept the fact of his/her trauma, the body itself retains negative impacts of that experience. Years and decades later, the body can continue to react as if it is currently experiencing the trauma even when the immediate actual environment is nothing but safe. I can attest to the validity of that research.
A take-away for folks who did not experience abuse as a child might be that survivors are all around. For the most part, we are completely silent about our experience. We may be genuinely laughing and smiling. We may be leading happy, pretty successful lives. And yet in many cases we are never quite free, in body or mind, of that thing that happened. We’ve likely become damn good swimmers and yet are always on the lookout for that wave looming on the horizon, waiting to sweep us under and away.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. In honor of sexual abuse survivors--folks you know, even if you don’t realize you know them--please honor their choices to discuss or not discuss their experiences. And, please consider a donation to organizations such as the Zero Abuse Project or other fine organizations working to put an end to childhood sexual abuse and to support survivors of such abuse. Thank you.
In honor of all you survivors out there, allow me to express my deepest respect, compassion, and empathy for the experiences you’ve had, the struggles born of them, and the strength with which you’ve carried forward. Remember, there is no shame.