My husband, Joel, outed himself seven months ago as a survivor of child sexual abuse. Very quickly, we discovered that the simple act of telling his story was a life-changing experience – and that, as journalists, we were in a unique position to help other survivors speak out for themselves. That summer, I wrote an editorial in Philadelphia Weekly to invite submissions of first-person stories from sexual-abuse survivors, their loved ones and advocates.
As word about the project spread to local and national organizations, we were eventually flooded with inquiries from male and female survivors of child sexual abuse, partner rape, incest and other forms of sexual violence. They were all ready to tell us – and the world – that they would no longer suffer in silence. They were all ready to share their stories of abuse – but more so, of healing, and what that process looked like.
What resulted was an anthology of more than 50 personal essays, written largely by non-professional writers and edited by journalists, all connected by pain and tragedy. We have turned this collection of stories into an ebook titled The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse. What you are about to read is a selection of those stories. They capture the long and turbulent recovery people affected by sexual abuse must endure.
And it is long. I know because I have been down that path; the shadow of sexual abuse nearly destroyed my marriage. Joel struggled for years before he could face the reality of what had happened to him. I am thankful every single day that he had the courage to heal. So for us, The Survivors Project is more than just a public-service journalism project produced by an alternative-media company. We are connected in a very real way to the people who had the courage to tell you their stories.
Reading these essays won’t be easy; writing them certainly wasn’t. I know that putting my story on paper required the retelling of events, feelings and specific moments in time that have altered me forever. I wrote most of my essay through tears, as I suddenly found myself back in that dark place – the place I had been when I thought Joel and I would never make it. Even after completing the essay, I fretted over whether he would be hurt by my words. I found myself feeling guilty all over again for expecting Joel to meet my needs as a spouse while also going through the most intense emotional upheaval of his life. But that is what healing looks like. It is hell. And it needs to happen if you want to be happy.
No doubt every single contributor to The Survivors Project has felt a range of emotions during this process. Dredging up memories from the past can be an emotionally taxing and painful experience. But for many of us, writing is all we have when we feel our voice isn’t strong enough – which is exactly why this project needed to happen. The more we talk about the effects of sexual abuse, the more we can prevent it.
Survivors need more opportunities to fight back against the culture of shame and secrecy that stole their voices. We can’t let it stop here. We have to seize this moment and make sure that no one has to suffer in silence anymore. – Nina Hoffmann
Nina Hoffman is senior editor of Philadelphia Weekly. She granted us permission to run excerpts from The Survivors Project. Please take care in reading these stories, as many of them contain graphic descriptions and other passages that may trigger strong emotional responses.
Ari Benjamin Bank
Age abuse occurred: 6
I never wanted to be a good swimmer, but I always was. My parents had an in-ground pool in the backyard, big enough for laps, with a diving board and a deep end – a “real” deep end – and my dad (whose parents had a pool in the backyard, too, and who was also a good swimmer) taught me every stroke he knew: the crawl, the breaststroke, side and back stroke, elementary. He got me in that pool almost before I can remember, and the water felt good and cool.
I learned something new each summer: how to cup my hands and kick my legs, how to turn and breathe, turn and breathe, how to tuck my head in and dive without even making a splash. Of course, he gave me good head starts in races and let me win most times, I think. The summer after my sixth birthday, I could swim stronger and faster than any kid twice my age and twice my size. I didn’t want to, but I could, and I knew, even then, watching my dad, and my mom, too, sometimes, looking back at me swim, that I was pleasing them, and that part I liked.
Still, I never wanted to be a good swimmer, but I was anyway, and in the summer, my parents sent me to a day camp that seemed so far away (though I had started going when I was just 4). The camp had tennis courts and soccer fields, arts and crafts and cookouts in the woods and, of course, swimming pools. Early in the mornings, before recreational swim time, the kids from my beginners bunk would change into their bathing suits and then follow one of our counselors, marching off to the pool for their instructional swim, their tender feet getting wet from dew still on the grass. I would go to another pool with another counselor, the pool for the more advanced swimmers – most times anyway. Sometimes that didn’t happen. Sometimes we stayed back after the bunk was empty. Sometimes I started to change into my bathing suit but then he’d tell me to stop.
It’s OK. I took mine off too. Look, we both have one. You can touch it. Why don’t you touch it? There, that feels good. Now I’m going to touch yours, OK? Doesn’t that feel good?
We’d sit together in that quiet, dark plywood shack, the one window and door closed, and I’d think about those other kids in my bunk, learning how to dunk their heads and make bubbles, and I’d wonder why his got so long and hard when he told me to touch it that way, and I’d wonder why it hurt so much when he put it inside me, but I never cried or yelled because he said I was being good. I didn’t know why I didn’t have to go swim with the bigger and older kids those mornings, but I didn’t feel like I belonged with them, either, and he always told me I was different, and that it was really OK, and that no one else should know because we had a special shared secret. But even that part, I didn’t like.
I never wanted to be a good swimmer, but I knew I always would be. Each day, I’d come home from camp, and my mom would unpack and find two wet bathing suits scrunched up in clear plastic bags, one wet from recreational swim, and the other wet, too, though sometimes soaked from being held under a water fountain and put in my camp bag just before getting on the bus to go home. Home felt even further away somehow, and less recognizable when I walked back up the driveway. And the pool in my parents’ backyard, that too felt strange now, even with my dad’s voice calling to me from the backyard, inviting me to join him for a swim, just a quick dip before we barbecued hotdogs and hamburgers, asking me to maybe show him and my mom what I had learned that day.
Panic attacks began that summer. One on camp picture day, when, after me and my brother had our photograph taken together, he grabbed my hand and we ran back to join our bunks. My bunk had instructional swim. I stopped running. Fell to the ground crying and screaming. He didn’t know why. Sleepless nights started to build one on top of the other, nights before I had gym class, a basketball or baseball township league game, anything athletic. My dad would watch some TV with me and tell me I’d fall asleep soon. But I wouldn’t. He didn’t know why. I became introverted. Shied away from the world. My mom would say that was always my nature, but there was much more to it. She didn’t know why. How could anyone? I never told. Some years later, I made a choice to try to be average in every way, hoping no one would ever notice me. I aimed for Cs in school. That didn’t work. I started to shut down on the inside. I started getting in trouble. My parents sent me to a psychiatrist who told them I had a self-sabotaging personality, that I locked a ball and chain around my very own ankle. But someone else locked that to my leg years ago.
Sex wasn’t something I wanted to have. A no-brainer. Why would I want to do something so vile with someone I liked and cared for? In my teenage years, I went on dates, had girlfriends, but we never did anything. Then, for some years, I did have sex, but only with women I didn’t really know or want to know. Once, I tried to have a relationship, but I only loved her because she treated me horribly (I felt I deserved it). Best friends would begin to have healthy and long relationships, and I was left behind. I lived by myself for a decade. My only company was an amazing cat, Boo, who, in a weird way, found me. I gave all of my heart’s love to that fuzzy little guy, and he loved me the same way. He was my companion and I knew that when he would die, I would have to die, too. I had a plan, but plans don’t always work out the way we think.
The cat lived long enough until I would find Kirsten, my wife. Maybe he brought me to her, and her to me; Kirsten is allergic to cats but was not allergic to Boo. She called him the “magic cat.” Kirsten is the most compassionate and empathetic person I know. While engaged, she stood by my side as I told my parents what had happened to me. We were at their house. It just came out. I grabbed a family photo album and showed them a camp photograph. “That one!” They knew. I didn’t feel ashamed like I thought I would. I felt relieved. Still, I would never be OK.
Depression: check. Anxiety disorder, prone to sudden panic attacks: check. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: double check. Pharmacy techs at the Rite-Aid down the street used to call me the “high-roller,” the “heavy-hitter,” when paying for my meds. I take much fewer meds now, at least. Found a wonderful psychiatrist. Listens. Understands. Took so much time. Finally. Just 100 milligrams of Zoloft every morning and a benzo for the times when I see a yellow bus pass by; when I catch a strong whiff of chlorine; when someone cracks a joke about fathers and choir boys in church; when a Sandusky story is on the news or a commercial for Toddlers & Tiaras in which children are being told to shake their butts and chests for the judges; when a sudden scene in a movie with a kid being molested appears on the screen; when I drive by a camp (the one I went to is still open.)
I have a list of triggers, I guess, but the anxiety is manageable. Mostly now it’s just talk therapy. I need it. Helps. My doctor tells me it won’t really ever go away after I sheepishly ask her if I will ever be able to get past this. She does tell me that it does lessen, and my physical reactions and dips into depression don’t have to be like a roller-coaster ride anymore. She’s honest. I trust her. I feel better. Still, there are questions. How did I take the extraordinary physical pain when it happened that summer? How do I take the emotional and physical pain ever since? In his book, The Noonday Demon, a work about depression, Andrew Solomon writes, “The human capacity to bear pain is shockingly strong.” I concur.
There is also a scene from Rocky that keeps me going from one day to the next. It’s the scene when Rocky lies in bed with Adrian, the night before the big fight, realizing that he just can’t win. More importantly, he doesn’t want to win. He says he just wants to “go the distance.” He knows he’s not even in the champ’s league, but, if he is still standing when that 15th bell rings, he’ll know he made it, that he is somebody, that he counts. I like that. I like that a whole lot. Life will always throw you punches, and some punches will knock you straight to the ground, but what’s important is that you can shake it off, get back up, and be ready for the next punch. If you can do that, then that’s all that matters. I tell my students this when they see me in my office and notice the miniature Rocky statue on my desk. Then they open up about all sorts of things: losing a loved one to gun violence; terribly abusive relationships; sleeping in cars or living in shelters while still going to school on financial aid: There’s a litany of problems that stretch for miles. I listen. I try to find them help. They are my children. I resolved, years ago, that I didn’t want to be a father. I think I’d be a good dad, but, because of what happened to me, I just can’t.
Then there’s that camp photograph. The one with the counselor who stole my childhood. In the picture, he is standing a few feet behind me, smiling. Surprising to most, I imagine, it’s actually still in one of my parents’ photo albums. I think I understand why it is still there. For them to take it out, to leave a white square on a page yellowed by time, would mean that they would have to face what happened to me, with no looking away. That might be too hard to do. They are my mom and dad, I am their child, and they love me too much.
And when it comes to water, we have an unusual relationship. It feels strange just writing that I have a relationship with water, but why wouldn’t I? (I’m an Aquarius after all.) It’s a love/hate relationship, I suppose. Sometimes the water feels good and cool again, and other times, I think of quick little responses when someone asks me to go in, but, I just can’t: “Oh, too chilly for me, but you go on ahead and I’ll watch our towels and chairs.” Sometimes the water in a swimming pool seems to be like an old friend who has been waiting for me for such a long time, waiting for me to jump back in without thought or care; other times, the water in a swimming pool looks like it is staring at me, reminding me: Better be careful, you know what this led to so long ago. I’ll never know what will happen, how I’ll react, if I’ll go in or not. I do know that this is a part of me, and I can live with that. I can live with a lot. I survived. I healed. I have scars, but I healed. I think we all can if we want to.
Age abuse occurred: 23
“Everything’s going to be OK.” Who doesn’t hear this at least once in their lives? The situations it’s being applied to may differ drastically, but the sentiment is the same. It’s a nice thought, but it’s a lie. Not a horrible one, of course. Said with the best intentions, it’s something that people voice because they wish it were true. It’s certainly something I’ve said – both to myself and others. But it’s a lie all the same. Everything’s not going to be OK.
There are going to be things in everybody’s lives that are so decidedly un-OK that they not only slap the idea of everything in the face, but they also have you doubting the OK-ness of anything. I was raped. Nothing will ever make that OK.
On March 25, 2010, my alarm went off at 3:15 a.m. A commuter, I left my apartment each morning at 3:45 to make it to the van pool at 4:15 to make it to work by 6. It certainly wasn’t ideal, but I figured I could do it until I heard back on one of the other jobs I’d applied for.
I got dressed, never thinking that the ensemble would be forever burned into my memory. Purple bra, red underwear, knee highs, black tank top, gold blouse with copper polka dots, yellow sweater, black wide leg pants, my favorite black Payless heels, an amber necklace and a dark beige military-style jacket. At 3:45, this was just an outfit that I would try to remember to ensure that I didn’t wear it twice that week. A minute later, it was the clothing I’d never forget.
At 3:45, keys and cell phone in hand, I opened my front door. And immediately took a step back. The man crouched outside the threshold stood up, said, “Hey,” and walked over to the apartment across from the elevators, quickly entering. I told myself that he must have dropped something and his being outside my door was just awkward timing. I didn’t really know too many of my neighbors. It was entirely possible that he lived in that apartment.
I waited for the elevator, making the subconscious choice to stand closer to my door than his. At the same moment it arrived, he exited the apartment. Moving to the elevator he held the door open and said, “Going down?”
I always thought that I had fairly good instincts, but I didn’t really know what instincts were until that moment. I remember two thoughts very clearly. Get out of this hallway. Do not get into that cage with him. I looked down at my phone – 3:46 – and said, “Crap, I forgot something in my apartment.”
I had to turn my back to him to unlock my door. My mind continued to tell me to get inside, while another voice said I’d feel silly later. But even trying to convince myself I was overreacting, I knew that I wasn’t going in to work on time that day. Even as I write this years later, my heart pounds and I feel a case of the shakes coming on. Get out of the hallway. I was back in my dark apartment and closing the door when he charged.
He slammed into the door, knocking me back. Given the bruise on my right temple, the door must have hit me, but it’s hazy. I immediately started screaming. I’ve never screamed like that before. He didn’t approve of the noise and began punching me in the head. When the first blow landed everything went bright white, and I finally understood what “seeing stars” meant. The beating was unrelenting as he wrestled me to the floor. He whispered continuously for me to “shut the fuck up.” I wouldn’t. People later told me I was so brave to have kept screaming. I can tell you that it wasn’t a conscious choice.
When he burst through that door, my mind shattered. It’s the only way to explain it. So, as I was beaten, one piece thought, What’s happening? Is this real? Another piece knew without doubt. He was going to rape me. He got me to the floor, placed his hand over my mouth, and jamming a finger into my eye – by accident or design, I don’t know – tried to smother the sound. I wouldn’t be silenced. “If you don’t stop screaming, I’m going to make you stop breathing.” He wrapped his fingers around my neck and squeezed. I stopped screaming, but he didn’t immediately let go.
At this point, my fractured mind came together for one cohesive thought. You have to breathe. I didn’t realize this until later, but I think I blacked out for a second because I still can’t remember how he dragged me into my bedroom. My next memory is lying on the floor at the foot of my bed while he searched for the light switch. I guess he wanted to see what he was doing.
At this point, my face was swelling and everything looked distorted. He told me to take off my clothes. I barely had the strength to move. He began to remove them. I was crying, begging him to leave me alone. I told him to take anything he wanted, just please leave me alone. He told me to shut up and ordered me to take off my shirt. With a great deal of effort, I managed this. He removed my bra and then my pants, pulling them right over my shoes. Then he left for a moment and I heard him dead-bolting the front door. For less than a second I thought of running, but there was nowhere to go, and I knew he’d hit me again.
He returned to my doorway and I saw the condom in his hand. He removed my underwear and then he raped me. As I lost my virginity in the way nightmares are made of, my rapist asked me a question. “Who loves you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Say I do.” In my dazed state, I repeated that back to him. “I do.” Though it wasn’t what he meant, he didn’t comment. It didn’t really matter to him. But in that moment, it mattered a lot to me. One part of my mind was furious. He wanted me to say that he loved me? The rage that this inspired cannot be overstated. Another piece clung to the truth of the statement. “I do.” In that moment, though my sobbing continued, a tiny corner of my mind was calm. Yeah. I love me. Nothing he was doing, or would do, could change that. No torture still to come would alter that fact. He couldn’t take it away from me.
Then the police were outside my door. Hearing their shouts, my only thought was, What? After checking to see if there was another way out, he surrendered to them. There were suddenly so many voices. A police officer appeared in my doorway and asked me what happened. I said, “He raped me.” It was the first time I said any variation of the sentence I would be saying countless times over the following months. The screaming I’d done hadn’t been a conscious choice, but this was. I remember thinking, Just say it. If you don’t say it now, you never will. So I did. And I’ve been able to talk about it since.
As the police got my rapist out of the apartment, a female officer sat on the floor next to me. She cursed steadily under her breath. There was a great deal of comfort in that. That someone else would be so angry about what was done to me. I asked how they knew to come. She said that someone had heard my screams and called 911. I don’t believe I’d have lived through that morning if the police hadn’t arrived. It wasn’t until later that I realized it was my roommate who called them. My best friend saved my life. Just the first example of why, despite living through horror I can’t adequately describe, I’m extremely lucky. My rapist was never again out of custody.
He pleaded guilty to the crime, and seven months later was sentenced to 24 years in prison. I spoke at his sentencing and wore the gold shirt from the morning of the rape. Now, when I look at it I don’t see the shirt I was raped in, but the shirt that I was wearing when I put my rapist behind bars. Once, it was just a nice shirt – now, it’s a statement. On that horrible morning, I encountered the worst evil I’ve known. In the days following, I dealt with nothing but good. The responding officers were wonderful. The detectives made themselves available at all hours throughout the legal process. The assistant U.S. attorney assigned to the case is one of the best women I’ve had the privilege to know, and someone with whom I still keep in touch. Friends and family came in droves. But I know this is somewhat unique. On the day I met her, the attorney commented that she rarely dealt with survivors who had such a strong support system. I’ve heard many similar statements from people who are so happy for me because I have support.
While I truly appreciate their concern for me, every time I hear this, my heart hurts. That we live in a world where people are so frequently surprised that a rape survivor has support is devastating because it shows how many survivors don’t. I couldn’t have gotten through what was done to me without my loved ones. Within an hour of my arriving, the hospital waiting room was populated. My parents made the drive from New York to D.C. in record time. My brother and cousins followed suit. My sister got on a plane in Jordan and was with me within 36 hours. No one told me that she was coming, but when she showed up in our hotel room, I wasn’t surprised. It never occurred to me that any of them wouldn’t be there for me immediately.
Still, even I’ve had small experiences with “victim blaming.” One came during my grand jury testimony. One juror asked, “If you knew your roommate was in the apartment, why didn’t you scream to get her attention?” I’d already very clearly detailed my screaming, which the attorney pointed out to this gentleman. But for a moment, let’s say that not only had I not made that clear to him, but that I never screamed. His question implies that if this was the case, then I bear some responsibility for the crime. If I didn’t scream, then I didn’t try hard enough to stop my attacker. If I didn’t scream, then in some way I was consenting to being beaten, strangled and raped. In that moment, I understood why the counselor who handed me the stress ball before I went in had said, “Just try not to wing it at anyone during questions.”
Only a few days ago, I read a story about a judge admonishing a woman by saying that she should have known better than to be in the club where she was sexually assaulted. I hear so many comments like this, people finding ways to blame the victim. Why? Because no one wants to believe that it can happen to them. If the victim did something wrong, then everyone else can reassure themselves that they’re smarter than that, and therefore safe. As someone who still hasn’t regained her sense of security, I greatly understand the need to feel safe. But I’m not. No one is, no matter what precautions are taken.
In the months following the attack, I wanted to lock my family in my new apartment with me, so that I could watch them at all times and make sure nothing ever happened to any of us. Then, one night, as I sat in bed, dreading the dark, I wondered what would happen if I locked everyone in and then someone set the apartment on fire. We could all still die. Nothing I could do would ever erase that possibility. So, to all who look to bolster their sense of security by blaming rape victims: Stop it. By ignoring the reality of the situation, you’re not only unsuccessful in ensuring your own safety, but you guarantee a society in which rape continues to flourish unreported. It’s been two and a half years and I still think about it on a regular basis. I avoid going out at night and never wear skirts if I do. Neither of these actions has any relation to my rape, but they make me feel more vulnerable.
I’m no longer as scared of elevators as I was immediately following my rapist’s attempts to get me in one, but I continue to be extremely aware of anyone traveling with me. I barricade my front door every night, and my bedroom door on the nights I’m alone in the apartment. I haven’t conquered my immediate distrust of strangers, particularly of the male variety. I doubt I’ll ever get to a point where it’s simply a bad memory. However, because of the happier moments of the past two and a half years, this is something I tolerate. Since being raped, I have started and completed graduate school. I’ve been a bridesmaid in four weddings. I’ve held down a job. I’ve traveled. And most importantly, I have not allowed the trauma I went through to taint my interactions with the people I love.
I was raped. In those moments of victimization, the rest of the world disappeared. All that existed were the seconds, and each second that I was still alive was a victory. Afterward, it was almost shocking that the world still spun. But life continued on, and I continued on with it, even when the preventive HIV medications I had to take afterward made my body ache and caused me to vomit everything up. Even when the voice in the back of my head told me to just lie down and not get up. Everything will not be OK, and even though that hurts, I can accept it. Most days, at least. I’m still a work in progress. But I can accept the things that aren’t OK, because I know I will be. Not every moment of every day, but overall. I’ll be OK. I actually plan to be much more than that. I plan to be happy.
So, instead of clinging to the fallacy of “everything’s going to be OK,” I’m turning to an idea that I have more belief in. If you have the courage to put in the work and effort, everything can be dealt with. It’s not a fast process and it’s certainly not an easy one, but it’s possible. And that’s the closest thing to a guarantee that any of us will ever get.
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.
Age abuse occurred: 4-7, 24, 27
My history of sexual abuse began when I was about 4. I had a brother who was four years older than me, which means he also had friends four years older who were around the neighborhood. I was raised in the South with six other siblings, four boys and two girls. My sister was 14 years older than me, so she was more of a mother to me than my own mother, who was always leaving my dad because of abuse and arguing. I can’t blame my mom because she never really had a life, marrying my father at 16 and having my oldest brother shortly after.
We were all raised Catholic. My father was very strict, and when I was younger, he was an alcoholic doing odd jobs even though he had a pharmacy license. He didn’t practice until I was about 12. He is very old-fashioned and didn’t believe in friends, talking on the phone or any other “normal” activities children would do except for doing well in school, which was very important to him, and to me as well. He was very racist even though we lived in a primarily black community.
I thought that he loved his dogs more than he loved me, and he used to beat me and more my brother. I was terrified if I broke a plate and there were restrictions on what food to eat and the refrigerator. I still have a scar on my left thigh from being whipped by a switch. He told me once that he thought of leaving the family at one point, but stayed and always took care of us when my mom would leave.
We had a huge yard and in the back was where my brother and his friends watched me take my clothes off. One time, my brother’s friend felt me up and made me sit on his lap. I don’t remember (or I blocked it out) how we first had sex, but I remember there was a garden lounge-chair seat cover that he laid in the bushes and stuck his uncircumcised dick inside of me. I remember that it hurt so I told him to put it in my ass instead. I didn’t know anything. I thought I would get pregnant, but my brother told me I couldn’t because I didn’t have my period yet. I didn’t even know what that was until the summer before I went into the sixth grade.
I felt bad for my brother because of the way my dad treated him, so when he was begging me to have sex with him I would. I never wrote anything like this or acknowledged it really until now, and I feel disgusted am about to cry. The abuse definitely lowered my self-esteem. One of my older brothers almost caught us and stopped my brother by just saying, “What are ya'll doing? Get out of here,” when we shared a room. My brother was later moved up to the attic.
He was treated differently. He was older but seemed to be treated like he was younger than me and I believe he had some type of mental illness that was never treated. He had friends that would stay the night and they would come to my bedroom and try and sleep with me or touch me and when I told my brother he would take their side. He didn’t protect me like a brother should. He got into drugs, and then I got into drugs. I was in rehab by the time I was 15. I always said that as soon as I was 17, I was moving out, and that’s exactly what happened. When I was 16, I started dating a guy that was seven years older than me, and moved in with a girlfriend when I turned 17. I remember my dad crying and asking me not to leave him. He was alone. Just like my sisters, who moved as soon as they could, it was my turn.
The guy I was dating was a DJ in the rave scene and also sold drugs. Which meant traveling, staying in all kinds of places, all kinds of people on drugs like ecstasy, ketamine, meth, benzodiazepines, coke, heroin and marijuana. By the time I was 18, I was addicted to intravenously using coke and heroin. When my boyfriend started using heroin more than selling it was when there became trouble. I worked at a gas station ripping off customers acting like I was ringing them up, but keeping the money instead. I supported us. It took me seven years to find a way out, which was with a married man who was an addict, too, but had money and we traveled and did drugs until we got arrested for staying at a beach house we broke into. After I had a couple weeks to think in jail, I met a girl who I stayed with for five years. Still getting high. I waitressed mostly, but I would also steal anything to pawn and purses. I swore that I would rather steal than trick, but I would get sick, so sick, and did end up fucking drug dealers to get well. I saw no way out. I didn’t trust my family, even though they grew and tried to help me – including my mother and sister kidnapping me at 22, taking me to multiple rehabs. They wouldn’t take me because I was now an adult. I told them that I was on methadone, which is seen as rehabilitation, but is really just a substitute.
After I couldn’t take the life I was living with my girlfriend, another girl came along just like me, but with a much more criminal mind, and we went to Florida. I started stripping to support our habit. I felt valueless, empty, only this time I would get paid to do things I had done before. (Nobody wants to grow up and be a stripper. It’s done out of necessity.) I remember a man stole my money from dancing one night, and he told me he’d pay me $300 to go to his hotel. Not having any money and knowing I’d be sick the next day (I always had to be inebriated to dance), I went, stupidly. This is where he fucked me and would slap me to keep my eyes open.
I discovered my money in his pants, because he was trying to act like his wallet was missing and my rubber-band of money was sticking out. We were arguing, and somehow the cops got called, and I still to this day have no idea why I don’t have a prostitution charge, but I thank God that I don’t. Thank God they came because he very well could’ve raped me, or worse, because that was the kind of man he was, and I got the feeling he would have. He was from another country and could’ve easily gotten rid of me and been back in his country before I was even found.
The girl and I found this psycho guy that let us rent a room out of his apartment. This is where we were introduced to a guy who made his living suing people, selling drugs, and just happened to inherit a good chunk of money from his family. He was also a drunk. He kept a safe on a boat that was beached at a marina, and as soon as we got the chance, we stole the safe, which contained $ 90,000 cash and a half-pound of weed. The girl’s mother drove us, got a hotel room, and tools to crack the safe, and we split it three ways. It was quickly spent on getting out of Florida, two cars, a motorcycle, hotels in Center City Philadelphia and drugs.
We bought ounces of PCP and would drive down South. The cops stopped us because the new car had dealer tags, and they took us and four ounces of wet to the train station, but impounded the car. Back down south in Myrtle Beach. Buying probably 2 grams of black tar heroin a day, which was $200-$400 a day depending on who we were partying with. Bought another car to get the one out of impound in Philly and picked up the girl I was with, and my ex-girlfriend, which became a bizarre triangle, and this continued until getting arrested by the Avondale, Pa., police. We all gave a different name. My girlfriend didn’t have a license so she used mine even though she’s like a foot taller than me and Italian.
We almost got away when the last thing the cop said was, “Do you mind if I search your car?” Multiple times before we had said, “No,” but for some reason she agreed this time, despite knowing there was all kinds of paraphernalia and drugs in the car. I believe this was my wake-up call. I spent almost five months in Chester County prison. The cops wouldn’t pick us up for court dates because I later found out that the girl’s father was responsible for another cop getting shot.
My time there was HELL. I was coming off about a three-bundles-a-day habit (about 30 bags) to nothing except some jailhouse cocktail that didn’t do much. I was shitting myself, delusional, trying to take stuff out of the wall and talking to people that weren’t there. I was a mess. Tracks up and down my arms, neck and feet. I was 5’3” and weighed maybe 90 pounds. I wouldn’t call my family because I was so ashamed of who I was and what I did. I later found out my father hired an investigator to find out if I was alive or not and Avondale being the small town it is had our story in their paper.
In jail, I took any kind of program just to get out of my cell. This led me to a parenting class even though I have no children. (Thank God.) I happened to say that I had been molested and raped, and a woman told me that I was abused, and that abuse isn’t love. That finally seemed to click and give me a little relief. At least, enough to acknowledge that it happened and I needed to get over it and start my life.
I was 26 when I got locked up in June 2010. I still have a problem with drugs, although now I am trying to quit with methadone, again. I also use Xanax and eventually this is the only prescribed drug that I want to be on and I am fine with that, because after you have lived the life I’ve lived, my brain is so screwed up I wouldn’t even leave the house. I still have dreams of being trapped, running and raped.
There was an incident in South Philly where I was out late copping drugs. I was always worried about North Philly and all the stories I was told, but never thought it would happen in my newer, nicer neighborhood. A Spanish guy from the house where I was getting my drugs from was going to drive me home because it was like 3 a.m. and I was so paranoid from the coke that I thought a cop was coming down the street. The guy had to go inside his house to get his keys anyway, so I went inside and he forced me upstairs on his bed and tried to fuck me but settled for a hand job when I told him I had AIDS. My fucked-up head didn’t even report the crime. I guess I didn’t think anything would happen because I went home and just tried to forget it ever happened. You don’t forget though; you just have to stuff it away and go on with life even though you have something that others haven’t experienced – and I wish they never do. My doctor even accepted blow jobs, talked shit about how he wants to fuck me in my ass in exchange for payment.
Sex is not the same. It never will be. The only way to fix it is to talk about it and spread the word and maybe it will help others who have been molested and abused. Self-esteem is a big issue, and I believe if I had a chance when I was younger, if my brother didn’t take my innocence at 5, I might have had a chance and not have wasted so much time, money and energy living life the wrong way. I don’t speak to him really. He has apologized, but in a condescending way, like, “What are you going to do about it now.” I just think he’s sick and I don’t go home except on holidays, if that. I just recently told my sister and she doesn’t really talk to me like she used to. She and my mom just don’t know what to do or how to help.
I have done some therapy. I have a pair of shoes with red around them and I was told every time I wear them to imagine to take all the pain, suffering and anxiety like it’s in a glass and I squeeze the glass and break it and the red ring around the shoes represents the blood and tears I’ve lost, and now I’m walking away and stepping on all the hurt. Little things like that do help. I’m sure I could do more to help myself, but I guess I’m not there yet. I know they have support meetings, but I’m not much of a talker. I’m learning, I’m just not there. All my innocence was taken and I wasted so much time and energy keeping my secret, which kept me sick. It has caused so much anxiety and I think I’m crazy often, as well as getting stuck not wanting to even leave the house. It’s sad that after all these years it’s still there, and it will always be in my mind. I just have to find a better way to cope. Even though my brother abused me, I still took up for him. I have always felt the need to protect and make sure everyone else is OK – even at my own expense. The abuse led me to my relationship with females because of my disgust in men. It’s still hard for me to even talk to people due to trust issues.
If this never happened, I believe I would’ve had a shot at life. I have always made good grades getting scholarships and honors— even last semester at CCP, and I expect to continue. My friends from school that I grew up with are mostly professionals already, and I am 10 years behind due to my drug addiction. I have faked a lot of days as I’m sure most people do, putting on that mask to get through the day, like everything is OK. Now, however, I have grown. I have a new love for life, and myself. I am going to school to become either a radiologist technician or, if I can get in because of my background, an addiction specialist.
After 10 years wasted, I believe I am more and want more out of life. Writing this now I feel stronger. I think the clean time I had during jail gave me a new appreciation, even though I would carve myself with razor blades to get some type of relief. All I had was time to think about everything I did wrong and everything that was done to me. There was a girl who was in the cell next to me that I would talk to through the vent, whose story is far worse than mine. She would tell me stories of tricking in Camden, where she was tied up and beaten and somehow escaped. She was released about two weeks before me at 22 and had a son that she wanted to get back to but was found dead in Virginia. I don’t know what was different between us that she didn’t change her way of thinking and I have. She wasn’t ready, and nobody can stop you until you are so tired of how you’re living. I now feel after all of this there is a reason for me because there have been many times where I should have overdosed and situations I was in and escaped. If everything happens for a reason, the only reason for experiencing sexual abuse is to reach out and help others in the same situation. I am grateful for the strength that I found and know there’s more to life. I have H.O.P.E. – hold on, the pain ends.
The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse is the first in a new line of original ebooks published by Philadelphia Weekly. To purchase the book in either ebook or print format, visit Amazon.com or philadelphiaweekly.com/books