I first read this story at an open mic night in April 2013 at Prairie Lights bookstore in Iowa City, Iowa. The theme of the evening was violence against women, and it was the first time this story had ever been shared in written or spoken form. There were a lot of tears on that night and at speaking events to follow, yet this story will remain my opening piece for speaking engagements, because I believe breaking the silence is necessary to actively end sexualized violence in religious institutions.
The story posted here has been edited from the original.
– Editor, Rachel Halder
The first private tweet came in, then two and three more. Eventually it became a book of tweets. “Hey Rachel. I have a personal question – I read one of your blog posts on Our Stories Untold about a sexual assault at a party that concluded with you sending the guy an email letting him know what he did was wrong… I just wanted to know, what happened next? I found myself in a similar situation recently and also sent an email. I thought sending it was closure—that I had done something “empowering” and could completely move on…ha…no. I’m stuck in a constant place of anger right now. As someone who’s been in a similar situation, I was just wondering what you did next. Did you have to talk to anyone professionally?”
I sent her my email address and said she could email anytime.
And so she began: I spent the first few days playing down what happened and making excuses for him—“He didn’t know what he was doing, or how it made me feel,” “It was just a misunderstanding,” “Maybe, he honestly thought it was okay…”
I spent 22 years of my life pretending it never happened. I guess that’s a form of making excuses, too. Sure, I had flashbacks. I remember at age 7 sitting at the kitchen table with my parent’s faces looking concerned, depressed, and urgent. They questioned my brother, sister, and I: “Did he ever touch us? Did something ever happen behind closed doors?” If it did, we needed to tell them. Their fear was so potent that even at age 7, I knew my story was not for their apprehensive ears to hear—their concern overrode my understanding of what had happened; my need to comfort my parents overrode my need to tell my story.
And there was the time when I was 11-years-old and told a slumber party full of girls during a truth or dare game. They all thought my “truth” was disgusting, which is fair enough, I’m pretty sure all 11-and-12-year-olds should think it’s gross. That was the first—and last—time that story ever left my lips. That is, until right now. As my therapist 11 years later explained, in that moment at the slumber party, I had been shamed into a silence unbroken.
She continued: I was out with a guy who I’d been getting to know; who was interested in me romantically. Sunday night as he walked me home, we kissed. We were in a nook type dead-end street alley. Initially his back was to the wall, and then we traded places. As we continued to kiss, I noticed he was fidgeting with his pants and I FELT his fully exposed and erect penis against my skirt. Immediately I put my hands near my crotch to block it. He started going on about how much he “wanted” me. I told him I didn’t want to have sex and kept pushing him, and his penis, away. We were so close that I couldn’t even see it but my hands actually felt him because I was trying to close his pants and simultaneously block my crotch. All the while he kept trying to kiss me, which I was constantly trying to avoid. That went on for too long and there was a tangible shift in my mind that went from “Whoa, what is happening?” to “Shit, I’m not in control.” I just remember turning my head and knowing that he might not stop. Eventually he asked me for oral sex before he finally put his penis away. He was upset with me, and I was just trying to keep from hyperventilating. He still walked me home and the entire walk I had to defend my choice to not have sex with him. I didn’t feel safe.
With each day since this has happened I’ve become increasingly upset. Had he just asked me to have sex in a freakin’ alley maybe I would just be unnerved, but the fact that he touched me with his penis—that I had to touch his penis because it was literally on me—and that he didn’t stop when I asked him to, just has me livid.
My immediate thought beyond horror was, “This is sexual assault.” She wasn’t naming it that. But any person, regardless of gender or sex, is forced to touch another person, it constitutes as assault. As I sat in my fury, I began shaking. Why was I responding this way? I’ve read countless stories, many much “worse than this.” I’ve had women write to me about being gang-raped, I had a girl write about her father raping her for years, I’ve held multiple friends’ hands as they’ve recounted their own rape stories–yet this story was causing an emotional waterfall response and it seriously caught me off guard.
Finally, for the first time in my life, after a year of therapy, after years of working in rape advocacy, after being a nomad traveling the United States on a healing journey, after learning what self-love and empowerment truly was, after embracing and embodying a spirituality of moon sisters and goddesses and the divine feminine that seemingly and convincingly lifted me up, something deep inside of me finally clicked:
I was furious because her story was my story.
A story that, until now, I never thought was legitimate enough to be told.
It was Easter. I think I was three. Though I could have been four. My parents and I still haven’t figured out the year, and I guess it’s not really that important. I wanted to look at the spring lambs at my aunt’s house, and he wanted to take me. We went out to the barn, behind the barn I believe, but my memory is rather hazy.
Through the haze, I know he pulled out his erect penis and asked me to touch it. He asked me to put my mouth on it. He grabbed my head, and encouraged me to do it—he said I would like it, it’s like a lollipop. He touched his penis to my small, warm body. I had blue eyes and blond hair. I imagine my eyes wide as buttons.
Through the haze, I know I felt scared and apprehensive. I didn’t understand what was going on. Why would a man do this? I’m sure I had seen my father’s penis, and definitely my brother’s, but they had never done this with it. Weren’t you supposed to go pee with that thing?
Through the haze, I know he kept shoving his erect penis in my face, coaxing me to fondle it, to suck it.
Through the haze, I honestly don’t remember what happened. My therapist suggested I may not want to know what happened. And I’m okay with that. I think I touched it, but how can someone be certain 22 years later?
Through the haze, I heard my aunt call us in. Easter lunch was ready. We needed to come inside. We needed to wash our hands free of our dirt.
Through the haze, I turned away from him and ran. I ran hard, right inside, thankful for the escape from a thing that was happening that I did not understand. A thing I would not understand for many, many years later. A thing I would not speak about for many, many years later. Yet a thing so small that shaped the so big idea of who I was, what I thought, and where my place was in this world from that day forward. I was forever altered.
My Twitter friend wrote: I never want to have to question if anyone won’t stop when I ask them to ever again. That is the worst feeling. Initially I subscribed to the “I should just be happy it didn’t escalate” line of thinking; but no! Screw that! I didn’t do anything wrong. I just wish it never happened. I mean, some things happen and we stand to learn or grow from them, but this? This wasn’t my fault.
And that, that wasn’t my fault. I did subscribe, and still subscribe, to the notion of being happy that that was all that happened. My abuser was later convicted of raping a young girl in her bed in her house. He has a lifetime prison sentence. That could have been me. But that wasn’t me. Who I am to deserve this? Who is she to have deserved that? Who is my twitter friend to deserve what happened to her? None of us deserve anything, though they deeply want us to think we do. They have so much anger and hate; they want us to deserve it as much as they don’t want to deserve their own anger and pain.
It doesn’t matter the severity of the abuse. I’ve endured supposedly worse abuse in later years than I did that day when I was three. But the thing that has fucked me up most in life, the story I haven’t been able to speak out-loud until this evening, is that mild thing that happened to me on that Easter day.
She wrote: I feel no sense of resolve in this mess of a situation. I guess only time will make things better…I’m just frustrated that it had to happen.
I know time does make things better, but only when we’re willing to go through the excruciating pain of fleshing out who we are and who we have become and who we want to be because of the experiences, that we had no control over, that happened to us.
Time does make things better. Here I am, speaking the unspeakable. It’s a part of my journey of healing, and it’s what must be done.
Things get better with time. Without us sharing, the fear and pain remain, and in this dark world the last we need is more fear and pain. We must unite, acknowledge that we are love, that we deserve love, and let our lights shine.
With time, everyone sitting here will have no more shame, because we’ve told our stories, whatever severity we deem those stories to hold, and it’s only through our stories that we unconsciously give others permission to do the same.
My story, our stories, will not remain untold.