We have become a people pitted one against the other. Invisible is the line that divides us, but the chasm is vast and wide – for we cannot speak, we cannot listen, nor imagine bridging the gap between ourselves and the “other” on that side. The struggle of our time is to bridge that gap, and we are none of us immune to it.
We see battles springing up on every corner of the horizon, and among them is one catalyzed by a great rage building in the hearts of the women of this land. One in three of us has suffered rape, assault, abuse or physical violation of some kind. One in three of us has a story to tell of a burden we are bearing. The stories vary, as do the many ways in which we are wounded, and until now they have mostly been stories we keep to ourselves.
The wounds are icy tendrils that dig down deep – usually all the way down to a place where we can close them off in the dark and not think of them every day. But often it happens that time passes and we wake up one day years later to the realization that the wound is festering. We begin to understand all of all the many ways in which we have been affected; how it has stunted our growth in this and stifled our potential in that.
We are taking courage in hand and shining a light on what we’ve kept in the dark. We’ve begun sharing our stories and through this process, so too, does healing begin. It is the courage of other women who have come forward, and the deepening awareness of just how widespread and systemic this issue is within our culture that have compelled me to shine light on my own dark truth.
At 13 years old I was all lanky legs and glasses. I was innocent and optimistic, despite having been witness to acts that would be harrowing to anyone, at any age. I had just returned to my hometown in Georgia from two years in Bogota, Colombia that were punctuated by danger and violence. Two years – out of many-- where drug lords waged war on the people by blowing off heads and blowing up buildings around me. In my desperation to be safely away, and because I wanted the chance to connect with my father, I left my mother behind when it wasn’t within her means to move back with me.
I took up with my recently-married father and new stepmother. It was 8th grade. I was home-schooled and “churched” three times a week. There were many new rules in this household and I tried my best to stay within the guidelines and parameters laid out. I listened to the oldies station and read Little House on the Prairie in between self-guided school lessons.
Every Wednesday, I went to spend the day with my grandmother and together we would watch old movies and crochet. For my whole life up to that point, my grandparents represented safety and love; their home a haven from the dysfunction that characterized much of my upbringing, their affection pure and confidence-building. In the arms of my grandmother, I felt loved and of worth. She was a beacon of light and more dear to me than these words can justly describe.
But then, things changed forever.
It began on the days she had to away on some errand or appointment. I will spare the details, but tell here now that my Grandfather – who I trusted and loved as the father that my own father hadn’t always been, began molesting me. At first, I didn’t want to believe it was happening. I couldn’t believe it. It was him, and he surely wouldn’t do this to me. I was aware enough to know that it was wrong and that it was not my fault, but I was scared and confused. I was conflicted about what to do. Should I tell? Would people believe me? Was there a way to make it stop without having to tell? Would it stop on its own? I knew even then that there was no turning back from these perpetrated actions – life would never be the same. In the end it was anger over the injustice that won out and I told my grandmother what was happening.
What took place in the aftermath of my telling was a gathering of select family members and church elders, who ushered us all into “counseling” sessions. It was determined by them that my mother, still miles and miles of land and ocean away, should not be told for fear of her reporting my grandfather’s actions to the authorities. These adults, who were responsible for my body and well-being, thought that silence was best in this case and assured me that all was OK now because it was “Washed in the Blood of the Lamb”. He would not do it again. He had repented and even given me his old car as a form of reparation. Assurances given, silence granted.
Even when he tried it once again.
You see, it wasn’t that they didn’t believe me – it was that my truth was inconvenient and didn’t line up with image that had been constructed of us as a good, Christian family. They didn’t want to be known as that kind of family, and because we were such good friends with the church, the church helped with the sweeping away– or rather, “washing” away of the truth.
The last time was the last time only because there was no confusion on my part and I immediately told. My grandfather, understanding that the game was up, took off in that car that he had given me and disappeared for three days. Nobody knew if he was dead or alive and when he finally did return in tears, my grandmother took him in without question. Together they decided a new beginning was needed so they sold the house, bought a motorhome and hit the road. The lanky-legged girl who was innocent and optimistic went along with what she was told in order to show everyone she was OK, but inside a fracture had formed and was splitting the foundation.
A few years later, after my mother returned to the States and I had resumed living with her, she tried desperately to understand what was happening to her daughter. Where had this rage come from? Why was she spiraling out of control? The truth that I had been convinced to lock away from her was driving me to destruction. I stopped caring about the things that had once brought me joy, and abandoned pursuits that I had previously determined would be my path to success. I self-medicated with drugs and alcohol, I dropped out of school, and sought love and revenge in the arms of the undeserving. Such is the way of it for many broken girls, who are then ironically shamed for their behavior.
Twenty-four years later and I am still uncovering layers. Healing comes in waves along with each new level of understanding of just how deeply this has affected me. It has not come to me through the church and their “counseling”, but through my own determination to be whole and to break the cycle of ignoring pain and problems – to leave nothing buried, even if the act of uncovering is painful. There are no band-aids that do not eventually peel up from the edges.
Forgiveness is a part of that healing process and I was eventually able to forgive my grandfather when Grandmother took ill and died. It was the first time I was able to feel any kind of compassion for him as I witnessed his grief over losing her. I’d lost her years before and so it was a grief I understood well.
But forgiveness is not forgetting and some actions demand a remembrance.
Today my grandfather enjoys the respectable position of Elder within my uncle’s church. This is the same uncle who was called to the house all those years ago when I first told Grandmother. The same uncle who has also – unbelievably, and irresponsibly – given him access to troubled youth. The counseled has become the counselor, in yet another example of a man who is placed in a position of power that his past actions should have disqualified him for.
So why do I write these words? Why do I tell this story when it runs the risk of being read by those who knew back then, and have gone along with the pretense ever since? I write them because of a sense of responsibility towards those troubled youth he has access to. I write them as a part of my own healing process, because there is no peace, no justice nor healing without truth, and it must be spoken – regardless of the cost. And because I am one of many, many women who will no longer tolerate the systemic injustice.
If you are a woman reading this and you are not a part of that horrific, 1-in-3 statistic, imagine you stand in a row of women. Look to your left, then look to your right. One of you has an ocean of pain behind a smile put forward for the comfort of those around her. And if you are a woman who is a part of the statistic and you have been swayed by the narrative being pedaled that boys and men are the real victims in all of this, please take some time to examine the source and motivation behind this narrative. We ask you to stand beside us; to believe us, to let your actions reflect that belief and hold the guilty to account, to remember and to not hide from the truth. The light is being shone and we will no longer be silent.
These are the Telling Times.