As long as I can remember I have been a performer. If my parents were here they would tell you that even when I was three years old I would sing and dance around the house in front of anyone who would listen. I had different roles. One day, I was Scarlet O’Hara telling our family dog that tomorrow was another day. Another day, I would be Mae West telling a stray cat to “Come up and see me sometime,” and still other days I was, “the loving grandmother” who was an avid hugger. My mother says I would hug everyone, forcefully, even dramatically, and would tell people that I loved them and that they were all gifts from God, blessed. I loved to laugh, would do it often, and would tickle anyone around me if they didn’t laugh with me. I was, I suppose, what you would call an uber happy-go-lucky child.
I remember this child. I have pictures of her. But by the time I was six-years-old that child changed considerably. The summer after kindergarten, I was sexually molested by a counselor who worked at the day camp where my parents would leave me and my brother while they were at work. The counselor was eighteen. Of course, at the time I didn’t have a word for what he did to me. In fact, I had no idea what had happened to me until I was twelve years old, six long years later. In fact, for many years I, and my parents, were in denial about what had happened. My memory of the occurrence was hazy, and even as I recount the details to you today I fear that I may have gotten it wrong, that perhaps it didn’t happen, that perhaps I made it up because how could that have happened to me, the happy-go-lucky kid. But it did happen. I know it happened because for years afterward I wouldn’t let anyone outside of my family hug me, actually I wouldn’t let them touch me. I stopped talking to men. Stopped smiling at them. And in fact, I can confess to you right now, I was afraid of them. Afraid that if they touched me I would get sick, want to throw up like I did when he sat me on his lap, one hand grazing my cheek, the other running up my leg from knee to thigh to upper thigh as he whispered how pretty I was until his hand was inside my shorts and…that’s where my memory stops.
I do know however, that in the moment, I knew he was not supposed to be touching me. I didn’t know this because my parents had ever said for me not to sit on a stranger’s lap but because he was whispering, holding me too close, but mostly because I didn’t feel happy. I didn’t feel like hugging him or telling him he was a gift from God, that he was blessed. I felt ugly. I felt sick. I wanted him to stop. I wanted to go home right then and there.
Did it happen more than that one instance? I don’t know. Did he do this to the other 20 or so six- and seven-year-old girls and boys in my class, his class? I don’t know. I know that I stopped wanting to laugh all the time. I know that I stopped wanting to perform. I know one night I screamed while I was waking up from a dream. That I told my mother that he had touched me, that I felt bad, that I didn’t want to go back to day camp, why couldn’t I stay with grandma and grandpa. I panicked-this was my first of many anxiety attacks to come. I couldn’t breathe. My fear turned into an asthma attack. My mother was beside herself. Kept on saying to my father that he needed to go to the camp and talk to the director to tell her what had happened to me. But my father didn’t believe that it had happened. He thought I was just making it up, another dramatic performance, I was a good actor, or that my mother was over-reacting. No one would hurt his little girl—she was so nice and friendly. She was only six years old. Her teeth weren’t even all in yet.
The argument between them went on and on that night. Was my father going to stand up for his little girl or not? Should they call the police? A lawyer? Wouldn’t they charge money? Would I need therapy? No, there was no money for any of that. Besides, it can’t be true.
The morning after this argument I was sure that my father would take me to my grandmother’s house, but he didn’t. We drove straight to the camp, and the next thing I knew we were in the camp director’s office, where the bad kids went to get paddled. My father stood behind me; the guy who molested me, Ruben, stood to my right, arm’s length away, my six-year-old arm’s length away. The director, a woman in her forties with big blonde hair and blue eyeshadow to match her blue eyes and pink lipstick, asked me between bites of a cinnamon roll and sips of her coffee what did I have to tell her, what happened, what did he do. I was silent. Watched her eat. Watched Ruben’s hands clasp and unclasp. Watched his shoes tap right then left. Watched the floor. The door opened and two other counselors appeared, asked what was going on and the director said that I was making up lies about Ruben. The counselors walked out. Some words were exchanged between my father and the director; I watched her finish the cinnamon roll in three big bites. Ruben walked out. The Director told my father that I was a liar. We left her office and I was hopeful that he’d drop me off at grandma’s because I was scared of Ruben. Would he hurt me again since I told on him?
The next thing I know my Dad is gone. I saw him leave through the automatic doors; they opened, then shut behind him. I was alone in the hallway. I wanted to die. I began to think I should run into traffic, jump into the deep end of the pool, or hit my head purposefully on the balance beam during gym—yes, I was bit dramatic for a six-year-old. But I was serious too.
At that moment the other male counselor, one of the two who stepped in when we were meeting the director, asked me to go to the movie room with him. I didn’t struggle. I thought, this I what men do to little girls. This is why God put me here. To punish me. I deserve this. He turned on the light. Closed the door. I heard my campmates in the other adjoining room talking about the ashtrays and vases they were making in arts and craft, the accordion partition that separates the rooms was thin. I thought to scream but why bother—no one will believe me; no one will help me. I asked if he wanted me to sit in his lap. He shook his head. Told me to sit in the big fluffy chair that we only got to sit in when we were real good because we usually sat on the floor. I sat in the big fluffy chair, felt confused. He knelt at my side. Asked if I was okay and then said something I still remember, “I believe you. He shouldn’t be touching you and if he does that again, you come and get me. I will protect you.” I started to cry. He gave me a Kleenex and told me I could sit in the big fluffy chair as long as I wanted and that when I was ready I could come to the arts and craft room. I never forgot him. I still remember his face. Ironically, his name was also Ruben.
It wasn’t until six years later that I understood what happened to me. I was doing my Saturday chores, my parents were at Home Depot. I had HBO on and saw a TV special that talked about “good” and “bad” touches. I heard these kids on TV describing how I felt, the emotions but also the way they physically felt when anyone tried to touch them—the body freezing, the inability to catch a good breath, a feeling of dread taking over.
As I watched this show, I realized that I bad been molested, that there was a word for it. It had a name, it existed, it had happened to me and other kids. I was not alone. I cried as I watched these other kids freeze up like I did when they were asked to tell what had happened or cry like I did or just ignore the question. I recognized that look, that silence. I lived it.
I learned that some kids hurt themselves as a way of coping and I remembered that the following school year after that summer I was molested, how I scratched my face out of most of our family and all of my school photos—not wanting to see my own face. I had been sexually molested. And according to the show I could get help. I could heal. I could write about it. I could tell others. And I saw parents crying and saying they did not know what to do. And I realized my parents didn’t know what to do. That them not doing anything didn’t mean that it was my fault, didn’t mean that they hated me, didn’t mean that I was going to hell.
I also witnessed the silence. That silence that was killing our family, how it had affected these families. How talking about it with one another brought them together, not right away but eventually.
Later that night, I talked to my mom about the show. I told her that I knew what happened, and I was going to be okay and that I wasn’t angry. She cried and said that they didn’t know what to do. That we hardly had any money at that time and that they thought it would have cost too much to press charges because it would have been hard since Ruben, the one who did this to me, was actually the director’s son. So she would do anything in her power to protect her son and they didn’t know if we could win. They had more money, could afford a better lawyer. My mother also said that she and my father didn’t know who to talk to about it. Would people judge me? Would people think it was my fault, that I had asked for it? I was always hugging people. I was too affectionate. And I was a girl.
I reminded her that I was six-years-old when it happened. How could people think that, and she told me how when it happened to my grandmother everyone ostracized her, not the other way around.
We all suffered as a result of the molestation. The act itself was one layer of the violence and the other was the silence that followed in our home, the deadly silence during which we all felt alone, ashamed, worthless. I often wonder how my life would have been different if a place like SafePlace had been around when this happened to me. If my mother had heard about an organization that didn’t charge for its counseling services. If she or my father had been educated about sexual violence, and met other parents who were experiencing what they were. How would my life had been different? How would their lives have been different. If we had known that we didn’t have to be silent—that we were not alone.
Here in Austin we are blessed to have SafePlace. Not only does the organization offer services for an immediate crisis but programs for survivors that take us full-circle with our healing. We don’t have to be silent here. We should not be silent. We have the tools and the resources to break that silence. I challenge all of you to not let your family, friends, colleagues, or parishioners, suffer in silence. I also challenge you to not let a stranger suffer in silence. My life was saved because one person said, I believe you, and because I learned what had happened to me, I learned that I was not alone. Direct someone to our website, give them a brochure or our hotline number. Support our work by volunteering and contributing so others can benefit.
Please do not remain silent. Speak. Stand up. Be courageous.