[We who break the silence] are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out into the open where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be open with all its pus- flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all the tension its exposing creates to the light of human conscience….”
Martin Luther King
After helping to edit this blog for over two years, I’m finally getting around to posting my own untold story. The code of silence I’ve known since childhood has made it more difficult than I ever imagined to write and post these events. It’s terrifying actually. I’m not sure how I’ll feel when I wake up in the morning or how my life will change after telling it, but right now it feels like I’ve been in labor for far too long.
An entry from my personal journal dated 12-4-86 reads “I fear God is leading me down a path I don’t have the strength to follow. I feel pregnant with a creature that I cannot label or name.”
That creature now has a name and a label. Today I’m acknowledging and taking responsibility for telling my truth and how I came to know it, as honestly as I can recollect it to tell. Today I want to offer my body and soul up to the “natural medicines of light and air” in order to leave victimhood behind forever.
Disturbing content warning. Graphic language. Reader discretion is advised.
Part 1 Early childhood, 1950’s
I grew up on a farm in Iowa. It was a beautiful farm down a long lane with a pond and a stream and woods and meadows and of course, corn fields. My parents were pillars of the Mennonite community in Southeast Iowa. They were church planters and beloved by many including their children. My father was an elder in our Pleasant View Mennonite Church. My mother was a leader of the Women’s Missionary and Service Auxiliary for Iowa-Nebraska Mennonite Conference. She was the Baccalaureate speaker at my Iowa Mennonite High School graduation. Our family was in church three times a week, no other option was up for discussion.
The Graber/Roth clan migrated to Iowa directly from the Alsace Lorraine region of Europe to take advantage of the rich farmland. They became successful farmers, health professionals, teachers, church leaders, and business owners spread from Wellman to Wayland to Mt. Pleasant and beyond. Joseph (Roth) Graber and Barbra Rich Graber had ten children, one of whom was my father. I was the youngest daughter born to Clarence and Saloma (Sally) Bare Graber.
Our home farm environment near Mt. Pleasant saw lots of adventure and good times with relatives and friends coming and going. We held an annual Mother’s Day picnic where we traipsed through the woods with brown paper bags hunting Morrell mushrooms to be fried up with butter for breakfast the next morning. We took walks as a family on Sunday afternoons in the spring to collect Blue Bells and Johnny Jump-ups for an arrangement in a pretty vase on the mantle. In the fall we collected hickory nuts for cracking and eating. We enjoyed hot dog roasts in the woods in the summer and ice-skating parties with bonfires in the winter. My mother welcomed friends and strangers to our table. There was always room for another plate.
I spent hours playing Church as a child. I would hold forth as both preacher and song leader to a congregation of stuffed animals I carefully lined up on the steps. I also played Store with corn cobs and acorns and all manner of special items I sold to imaginary customers through a square hole in a sliding barn door. I spent lazy afternoons under the grape arbor chomping down Concord grapes with cats napping and cuddled around me.
I remember my father singing as he walked through the house. He was a soft spoken, humble, hard working man devoted to his faith. He never spanked me or raised his voice with me, except when he taught me to drive the tractor to pick up hay bales. Then, I remember, there was a whole lot of hollering! He was outwardly respectful to me as a girl and young woman. But I don’t ever remember him looking at me. He didn’t look at me at all, nor did he attend to me with any outward affection or the kind of personal attentiveness that lets a girl child know she is truly seen and heard. Nevertheless I loved my father and grew up believing I had had an idyllic childhood.
After my father passed away in February of 1984, strange things began to occur for me: Nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks, emotional meltdowns, suicidal thoughts, frightening memories, and off and on feelings of unexplained dread and despair, accompanied by an amorphous feeling of deep shame and self-loathing. And there were regressions: where I knew what I was experiencing wasn’t happening in real time, but it seemed to be. My father was the central character in these experiences. My mother was a secondary character.
In these regressions my father was orally raping me (forcing penis into mouth) and taking me to be used sexually by other men in some sort of barn like structure up a flight of stairs. But where? How? When? In these regressions my mother was raping me with an enema syringe while I lay naked on a cold bathroom floor. She was digitally raping me in the bathtub. I’d always known I had a lot of enemas as a child. But it never occurred to me until much later that these were not medically necessary and even more years later I learned that my mother’s compulsion had a name: klismaphilia.
Resurfacing memories of childhood trauma don’t come back like a video where you push the Play button and watch it unfold. They come in bits and pieces: as short sound bites, momentary flashes of memory, strong and unexpected irrational aversions. They make themselves known as sensations, smells, or small details that trigger a wave of unexplained terror or nausea, as a strange sensory ripple through the body or in quick, darting verbal interactions with others who might know part of the story that could let some light in, but when their words come the terror comes along with it and the whole thing shuts down.
I’ll attempt to report some of the “bits and pieces” that helped me discover and piece together the tragic events of my childhood in the hopes that others who have also experienced abuse will know you are not alone. Justice has no timeline. We break the cycle by ending the silence.
My memories from childhood were so sketchy that I asked my oldest brother Dick when we were both adults to tell me what he remembered about me from childhood. He said, “I was just glad you survived, Barbra.” Whaaaa??
A curtain came down in my mind. I smiled. The subject was dropped. We went on to more happy conversation and I never asked him for more information. This is how the silence and denial and the shutting down happens….over and over and over as the years go by.
But there were things I did remember. I just hadn’t yet made sense out of them.
I had a recurring nightmare as a child that seemed strange given my father’s fun-loving, friendly nature and our pacifist Mennonite upbringing. In my nightmare he was coming up the steps that led to our bedrooms with a pistol saying he was going to shoot us all. I would wake up in terror, then realize with relief that it was only a bad dream.
I spent a lot of time behind the couch clinging to a very large flannel Teddy Bear my mother had sewn for me from a kit at the fabric store. I was told I would run there when someone came to the door.
More than one of my siblings told me I was extremely quiet as a child, “as though there was tape across my mouth.” I was told my shyness was so severe that it troubled my mother and older siblings.
Hidden shame, self-loathing and irrational fears were part of my world for as long as I can remember. Perhaps that’s why I became a deeply spiritual and conscientious child. I remember attending an evangelistic meeting with my parents in some other-than-Mennonite local church. When the preacher asked us to stand and gave the ‘invitation’ to come forward to ‘confess our sins’, I began to cry uncontrollably. Mom asked me what was wrong.
“I need to go up there,” I told her.
“No, honey, that’s not necessary,” she whispered.
On the way to the car, walking just behind my parents, I heard Mom say to Dad, “She’s only eight years old!!” I felt confused and ashamed.
I was baptized into our local Pleasant View Mennonite church at age ten, but it didn’t quell the shame either. I guess Mom finally gave up on keeping me at the bench during revival meetings. I made many dreaded, tearful, treks to the altar through out my adolescent and teenage years to pray with a man of God in a dark suit. It was always a man and it was always terrifying. But I felt hopelessly compelled to try just one more time to shake off the shame.
Baptism classes taught us the importance of regular prayer and bible study. So there I was, every night in my bed, reading the bible and praying that I could become more perfect for God. I took to heart the chapter in Ephesians that says “Get rid of… every form of malice. Instead be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as Christ has forgiven you.” And every time I felt angry toward anyone I felt terribly guilty.
Then Bible teacher Marvin Yoder at Iowa Mennonite School in the late 60’s told us that faith is about “trusting that we are loved instead of trying to be good enough.” Really? Could it be true?
Thanks to a curiosity about the natural world around me, as well as a love for learning and the praise I received from schoolteachers, my shyness began to lift. Or perhaps I just got really good at masking it behind a bubbly, perky personality?
By the time I started high school I was an outgoing, creative, sociable young woman. This outward normalcy and giftedness, even super-kid status, is not uncommon for survivors of incest. A simultaneous dread and sludge in the pit of the stomach is also not uncommon. For me it was especially strong when I was in small groups of people. I managed the sludge by becoming driven to succeed at every opportunity, taking on ambitious projects and creating constant activity for myself. I never knew when I would be pulled down into the strong familiar heaviness I tried desperately to ignore by going, going, going and doing, doing, doing.
As I entered my mid 30’s, my hidden mystery self began to find her voice and bubble up into consciousness, a little at a time.
I was 34 years old and had just completed my last semester of graduate school at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles with plans to return to Harrisonburg, VA later in the summer where I would resume a position on the theater faculty at Eastern Mennonite College. Although I’d just graduated from a prestigious program in a field of study that I loved, I felt little sense of fulfillment or celebration. My seven-year marriage was disintegrating. I was heart broken and devastated and felt like a failure. My husband had been transferred in his job a few months earlier and moved several hours north while I stayed in Los Angeles to finish out the semester. When the semester finished I crashed, isolating myself in the apartment for weeks on end, with curtains drawn. The only person I saw was a massage therapist who came with her table to our apartment once a week.
After several weeks of treatment she told me, “You are drowning in something that needs your attention. You need to get out of your pajamas, get outdoors, take a walk, lie under a tree and look up into its branches toward the sky and the sun. Promise me you will do that every day so this thing that’s happening can break loose for you.” Her concern jarred me out of complacency. I started taking walks down the street off Hill Avenue in Pasadena and spent time under a large sycamore tree.
One afternoon I was drawn to a book of Psalms with beautiful pictures of nature that one of my EMU casts had given me as a director’s gift. I began very slowly reading it aloud to myself, changing all the He pronouns to She pronouns and feeling incredibly soothed by that small switch in image and word. “She maketh me lie down in green pastures. She leadeth me beside the still waters. She restoreth my soul…..Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death….”
Then I found my way to Winnie, a psychotherapist who had an office in a church just a few blocks away. For the first time in my life I reached out for help to a mental health professional. When I made the appointment I told her I was terribly depressed about the disintegration of my marriage.
At our first session she asked me to tell her where in my body this “depression” seemed to reside?
“In my stomach”, I said.
“And what color is it?”
“And what is its consistency?”
“Like a sewage sludge at the pit of my stomach and it never goes away, no matter how much fun I’m having, no matter how many accomplishments I accomplish, no matter how many kudos or praise I receive from others. It is always there. Especially in the mornings when I wake up.”
She had me lie down on a massage table. She asked me to focus on that sludge in my stomach and think back to when it first appeared there.
“There’s a hallway of doors with every year of your life on a door. Let’s start walking down that hallway beginning at your present age.”
I walked past my thirties and my twenties. At door 16 I remembered the first time I was sexual with a boyfriend and felt tremendous shame and guilt. The sludge appeared, but not overwhelmingly.
“Keep going,” she said.
When I got to door 3 or 4 I got a flash of a clearly detailed vision. My father was holding me with his arm under my bottom and my arms around his neck. I had a dress on. I felt his rough denim jacket sleeve on my naked bottom. There was very little light. He was taking money from other men in the room while he held me. I could see the room had wooden rafters like a barn. There was a wooden stairway behind us. He turned and started to carry me down the stairway. As I watched the events unfold in my mind’s eye while lying there on Winnie’s mat, my back arched up and my neck and head tilted back, my mouth opened wide and the most awful sounds, those of a terribly wounded animal began to pour out of me. I had never heard sounds like that coming out of me. (This kind of emotional release with an arched neck and back repeated itself on several later occasions.) It went on for no more than a minute and then as quickly as it came, it passed.
I looked over at Winnie and said, “What on earth was that?!”
She asked what I had seen and I told her. She said, “Tell me about your father.”
“My father was a wonderful man,” I told her. “He never spanked me. I had an idyllic childhood.”
“Then don’t worry about it,” she said. “If you are meant to know more, you will.”
So I didn’t worry. My husband and I decided to move back to Virginia together but our marriage quickly unraveled and we divorced. I continued teaching, directing and producing theater at Eastern Mennonite University and got into therapy to deal with the huge upset I felt divorce was causing in my life. The strange experience that day in Winnie’s office went to the back burner, but it was clearly seared in my memory.
In 1990 Ted Swartz (a former student) and I founded a community based professional theater company called AKIMBO. Pamela Frey, also a former student of mine, was part of that troupe. She had come from Ontario, Canada and was staying with me at my house in Harrisonburg to rehearse AKIMBO’S upcoming performance at the Mennonite General Assembly in Eugene, Oregon. I’d been agitated and on edge all day and it grew worse as evening came. When we got home from rehearsal, the agitation I’d felt earlier turned into an emotional melt down, but I still had no conscious sense of its source. I’ve discovered this is common for survivors of sexual abuse; our emotional life is a mystery to us; we never know what will trigger us or when. Pamela took my hand at one point, took me to a back room, sat down with me on the carpet and asked me, as though talking to a little girl, “Barbra, can you tell me what happened to you when your daddy took you to town?”
[Pamela told me much later that when I started the emotional melt-down, she got an image of a barn-like building and what seemed to be my dad taking me up some steps and leaving me there–wherever “there” was. With the image, she also received a question, and thankfully, she had the courage to ask it out loud: “Barbra, can you tell me what happened….”]
Like the key to a long locked box of memories, unavailable for decades, her question prompted me to go to a place outside my present world. I knew that what was happening to me was not happening in reality, but it seemed to be. I felt like my limbs were tiny, the size of a 3 or 4-year-old child. I was on a floor with very particular floorboards that were dusty and strewn with straw. More than one large man was sodomizing me. I felt the terrible physical pain of it shoot through my body. Pamela stayed close as my body writhed and cried and moaned in a state of abject terror. She comforted me, stayed present, and reminded me to breathe.
Then as quickly as it had come, it passed and I recovered.
We went on with our evening together. I slept deeply that night with my dear friend keeping watch. The next morning it seemed as though the night before had been a dream. I continued on with my summer of directing AKIMBO and its group of talented actors in a comedic performance in Eugene, Oregon. But the strange experience I’d had with Pamela that weekend, feeling as if my body was taken over by the terror of a small child inside, nagged me and wouldn’t let me go. What in the world was it all about?
I threw myself with even more frenzy into my work that year, overseeing seven major theater projects, running to keep at bay the sludge and the dread and the terror, but also comforted, even healed by such richly rewarding creative work and beautiful people with whom to share it.
That Christmas Pamela and another AKIMBO actor were in my hometown of Wayland, Iowa performing at a Christmas banquet for Mennonite youth. She called me one evening and told me something bizarre had happened. Their Iowa Mennonite conference hosts had driven into the parking lot of the Wayland Sale Barn intending to take them for lunch at the Sale Inn Cafe. The Wayland Sale Barn was a well known location of my childhood. Livestock auctions were held there and farm animals were brought to be bought and sold. I had been there with my father on many occasions. Pamela told me she was so overcome by awful feelings of dread that she asked if their hosts could please take them somewhere else for lunch, and they obliged.
“Could this have been where that strange memory-thing happened to you?” she asked me on the phone.
“Hmm, that’s interesting,” I said. “I dunno. Maybe.” I had no idea. And I sure didn’t want to think about it. She said no more, though I’m sure she may have wanted to!
More months passed. I was slamming hoe into ground over and over and over preparing to plant a spring vegetable garden. All at once a group of thoughts and memories merged and slid into a common file: My father holding me in a barn-like place with wooden rafters and my little girl’s vulnerable bare bottom on his arm prompting a torrent of terror in Winnie’s office without conscious cause. My father carrying me down some steps from a small upper room. The dusty floorboards with straw strewn on them. The creepy feeling Pamela Frey reported from the Wayland Sale Barn. Could something have happened there? Had I been taken there by my father and raped there by other men? Had he forgotten my underwear when he picked me up to take me home and that’s why my bottom was bare?
Was I losing my mind? There’s no way this could ever be true! This is not who my father was! This is not who my family is! I knew I had to start talking to others in my family. I was hoping they would tell me it had to be a fluke.
On a visit with my brother Dave and his family in Montana I posed the question to him one evening. “When I mention to you ‘the Wayland Sale barn,’ what sorts of feelings do you get?” I asked him out of the blue giving no background for the reason I was asking.
“I don’t get good feelings at all,” he said. I told him what had been happening to me, the strange flashbacks, the feeling I’d maybe been sexually abused there. He didn’t have his own memories of sexual abuse to report.
“But I would have no trouble believing you,” he said.
The words “I believe you” to a victim just starting to break silence in order to gather together the shattered pieces of her life are a treasure beyond measure.
At some point I woke up to realize I had successfully killed off the toxic god I’d assimilated as a child: one that required me to “take up my cross”, submit willingly to the most unconscionable cruelty of others (even unto death?!), and then forgive them for their cruelty. Jesus on the cross said “Father, forgive them.” He didn’t have to and neither did I. But my Little Barbra didn’t hear it that way.
In place of the toxic god, I was coming to know a wholly new Holy Spirit, the God of my own understanding, my own Greater Power who “knit me together in my mother’s womb” and knew me better than I knew myself. To this Greater Love I began to turn over all aspects of my healing.
“I found God in myself and loved Her fiercely,” as Ntozake Shange’s poem so elegantly gives witness. I also rediscovered the healing power of Jesus, but the telling of that healing adventure will need to wait for another time.
Every morning and every evening I repeated aloud, often in front of the mirror: “I admit that I’m powerless over the wounding of my body and soul and that my life has become unmanageable. I realize there’s a spiritual power greater than me that can restore me to sanity. I turn my will and my life over to the care of god as I understand god.”
I was slowly realizing that healing from sexual abuse is not something I would finish and close the book on like the many other projects in my life. But it also wasn’t something that had to plague every waking minute of my life. I enjoyed years of living in between the bouts of hard emotional work. Here’s the mindset that helped me most:
I tried to accept and walk with whatever came up, follow it into itself instead of run from it, then go on with my life, day by day, sometimes hour by hour and minute by minute. I tried to eliminate ‘should’ from my vocabulary. I tried to let go and let god and not shame or force myself into doing anything that didn’t happen easily and naturally. I aimed to stop trying to please or achieve perfection. I started getting to know and trusting the God in Myself.
I married Dale Metzler the summer of 1994. His presence in my process has been invaluable and cannot go unmentioned in this story. He has kept laughter alive and has never backed away from my tears or my terrors. His love and wisdom entered my life at an incredibly opportune moment in time.
The curiosity and unsettled feeling about the Wayland Sale Barn continued. Dale and I were planning a trip to Iowa that summer. What if we went to check it out? I needed some sort of confirmation that this wasn’t some mentally defective brain warp. I was curious to see what I could see, try to stay present in my body, and observe what happened to me inside and out. I wanted to listen to “Little Barbra”, as I’d come to know her by then. Dale was totally cool with the idea so we committed to seeing if we could make it work. It would be tricky. I knew I didn’t want the rest of the family knowing or asking questions. I didn’t want to alarm my nieces and nephews. My oldest sister had by that time shared her own memories from the sale barn with me so her support was invaluable. She and her husband were thankfully willing to come with us to pay a visit.
It so happened that all the children cleared out of the house and left my sister and her husband along with Dale and me free to head for the sale barn. We pulled into the parking lot. We walked into the Sale Inn Cafe. A lone man was sitting at the lunch counter.
“Hi there!” my sister said to him nonchalantly, “We grew up coming to this sale barn with our dad and wondered if we could just walk around a bit?”
“Sure, be my guest,” he said and kept munching on his sandwich.
There was a door out the back of the cafe. We walked through it and there in front of us was a set of steps identical to the wooden ones I’d seen in my memory. As we climbed the steps and walked into the room I looked at the floor and there were the same dusty floorboards. I looked up and saw the wooden rafters. Suddenly my knees gave way and I was on the floor with Little Barbra. She was in terror, whimpering and crying and repeating over and over, “Don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, please, please don’t hurt me.” I knew I was in the throws of a regression. I knew I would be okay. I knew I was not alone. I knew this confirmed that the memories that had returned were real, not imaginary and that I was not losing my mind, in fact I was saner than I’d been in quite some time and was truly on a new road to recovery of a Self I had long since abandoned.
At some point Dale lit a cigarette, lifted it over his head, and walked slowly around the room like a shaman performing some ancient cleansing ritual. I don’t remember much more. My sister and her husband asked Jesus to cleanse the space. We all climbed back in the van and drove on to the farm where our family gathered to eat and play and work together the rest of the weekend. This is the blessing of compartmentalization, a skill many survivors of child trauma learn in order to survive. I will always be grateful to my oldest sister and her husband for their support of Little Barbra that day.
More pieces fell in place as other relatives became willing to tell me what they remembered. I will always appreciate their courage, their willingness to break silence and speak the truth, no matter how afraid they were to tell me. One told me that sometimes when I was a girl she noticed I “didn’t walk right.” Another told me her mom reported to her that my mom had asked her why a little girl who hadn’t started her period would have blood in her underwear?
My oldest brother Dick shared a memory he had at around 15-years-old. Dad and Mom were talking in the kitchen and evidently didn’t know he was in earshot of them. Dad was saying something about “turning himself in.” Mom came back with “you will not turn yourself in! I’m not going to be left here with all these children. You just have to stop this, Clarence!”
This matches what convicted sex offenders report: that they would never have stopped or gotten help if they had not been reported and put in jail. Was my father seeking help and unable to find it?
Before my mother passed away, my oldest sister got up the courage to ask her to help us make sense of what was happening to us since Dad had died. She later told me Mom broke down crying and confirmed our suspicions.
Enough puzzle pieces now fit together and it was time to face the truth: My deeply religious Mennonite Christian father, beloved by many and doing much that was good in the world, was involved with a group of pedophiles that operated out of a small room above a noisy livestock sale barn. He took me there for other men to use and sexually violate. My mother was complicit with him and she too molested and raped me. We too often forget that penetration of the body by anything, be it an object or digit (finger), is rape.
Because the community was primarily made up of Mennonite farm families and was very small, can I assume that the same men who raped me during sale barn sales on Saturday were standing up and leading church services on Sunday morning? In that case, Little Barbra was introduced to the concept of “God first, others second, and yourself last” by the same people who so cruelly abused her. What a handy teaching for them.
I have had to learn how to hold gently, within the same cupped hand, two contradictory facts: 1) the people in charge of my care committed the worst kinds of crimes imaginable against me 2) those same people offered me love and care and nurture and remain important strands in the fabric of who I am today.
The truth really has set me free today.
But first it gashed open and ruptured my world.
Part 2, Teenage Years, 1960’s
Another denial in our family has swirled around my Baptist brother-in-law who took on the role of a spiritual leader in our family. In my early teens, he took an opportune moment to suddenly and forcefully open mouth kiss me. I froze. What in the world was happening? I was in shock. I was traumatized, but how was I to know it then? No man had ever kissed me before. Just when I was stepping into womanhood ever so cautiously, having already been violated as a much younger child, an older male member of my family who I had put on a pedestal for his commitment to Christ, became the first person to attempt to sexualize my teenage-child body. That is thoroughly fucked up. I now know this type of fleeting but deeply damaging sexual assault is epidemic in Christian homes and churches. That’s the reason I’m writing about it here.
When I was in my early 20’s I finally made the first of several attempts to talk with Jerry and my oldest sister about what happened years earlier, both individually and together. There was never room for discussion and little if any real acknowledgement of the seriousness of his offense. When I first told my sister, she was digging in a flower bed as I stood above her. She never stopped digging. Her response was “He’s my husband. I can’t do anything about it.” End of conversation. When I first revisited the event with Jerry around the same time. His response was, “Both of us have always known there was a special attraction between us.” Whaaa??? NO. Nada.
Jerry never again tried to kiss me, but he went on to sexually harass me and gropped my butt while coming up the stairs behind me at a recent reunion. I still feel powerless to stop it. Has my early abuse marked me forever? How could I hold so much personal power in other areas of my life but none in sexually predatory situations? I have felt like there was a sign on my back that read: “Easy Target.”
We teach our children in church to always be nice, never curse, to turn the other cheek and forgive others immediately, “up to 70 X 7” as Jesus commanded. But when do we tell them there are certain situations in which hollering and throwing a hissy fit is perfectly in order? We teach them to not gossip or talk badly about anybody, but when do we explain that there are certain times talking badly about someone is really, really necessary?
If I’d been raised by a feminist biker gang instead of Mennonite pacifists would I at some point have given Jerry a swift kick and told him to “get the fuck away from me?” From that moment in the movie theater, he got by with sexually harassing me off and on the rest of my adult life; I overlooked his misdeeds and protected him for decades rather than talk badly about him.
One of my relatives had the hutzpah to respond more effectively. Jerry was pestering her to “come on, just let me kiss you” while standing in line for a meal at a Bare family reunion, just under the radar of any notice by others. She raised her arm high and started pointing at him hollering out to everyone within earshot “This married man is trying to get me to kiss him!” That stopped him cold. I was in awe of her. Something else entirely happened to me in the presence of predatory sexual teasing and pestering. I followed a shame-trail into a ratty hole.
I found this old entry in a personal journal from October 1991 at the age of 38, the weekend of my mother’s funeral.
Mom’s funeral: I confronted Jerry’s harassment. Him: Hi chickie poo honey. Me: I’m 38 years old and my name is Barbra. Him: Oh I’m just trying to get a rise out of you and your Nazi feminism. Me: I’m not a Nazi feminist. He comes to say he’s sorry “Can we kiss and make up?” I glare at him.
This from the man whose initial sexual assault of me as a teenager was a non-consensual kiss. Looks like I thought even pulling off a ‘glare’ was a big step up in the confrontation department.
In recent years I learned Jerry has reportedly preyed on others at about the same age he first preyed on me. This was devastating news for me. Denial is a strange thing. Even with the decades of therapy, study, and advocacy, it had not occurred to me to even ask the question. It was a tragic reminder that by keeping silent I not only delayed my own healing, but actually risked the well being of others.
With the encouragement of two pastor friends, Ross Erb and Mike Metzler, who understand the plague of this behavior going on in Christian families and churches and the likelihood of those who do it to target more than one person, they helped me write certified letters to Jerry’s pastors in Iowa. We let them know of Jerry’s harmful behavior toward me and others. Mike wisely suggested I give few details, but pass along his and Ross’s names and contact information for the pastors in Iowa to call if they should want more information.”Let us stand in the gap for you. You don’t need to spend any more energy on this,” Mike said. I wept. I had never experienced such bold, strong advocacy. No one ever heard from the Iowa pastors.
I have finally only recently, told the rest of my family what I know about Jerry. The response from them has scratched open a scab that feels raw and painful even as I prepare to post this piece. Obviously, the rest of this story is not ready to be fully told and is still unfolding as I write.
“A riddle I haven’t solved: of how we judge those who have hurt us when they show no remorse or even understanding.” Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres
Another riddle I haven’t solved: Why is it so difficult to stand with those who report sexual violation? Why is it so difficult to stand up to the ones in our community of faith or family who harm them? These are not cases that need mediation and reconciliation. They need clear accountability and justice. Has our Christian “love and forgiveness” doctrine washed away all traces of accountability to one another? Love without accountability is not love at all. It was not love that caused me to keep Jerry’s secrets all those years. It was fear.
Part 3 Young Adult, 1970’s
I have recently graduated with a B.A. in English from Eastern Mennonite University and am excited to be chosen to join a Mennonite Church sponsored drama troupe to travel cross-country on its way to the Mennonite Convention in Estes Park, Colorado. Respected Canadian Mennonite writer Urie Bender had just written a drama based on The Gospel of Mark and we would rehearse and perform it as part of the morning Bible Studies led by Willard Swartley. I was to perform the monologue of the “woman with the issue of bleeding” from Mark chapter 5. Through a recent healing conversation with Willard and Mary Swartley about my experiences that summer, I realized that the woman I brought to life on stage was one reason I survived the summer.
[Bender was later charged with serial child sexual abuses. One of the brave victims who brought those charges was also in that drama troupe. The Mennonite Church of Eastern Canada eventually revoked Bender’s ordination credentials, but he has never been criminally charged or spent a day in jail.]
An older married man from Bloomington, Indiana was also in our group and he raped me repeatedly through out the trip. From the first day of rehearsals he targeted me sexually–I was not interested or even attracted to him, but I’d been trained to be nice or be nothing at all. The pressure intensified into a kind of predatory, aggressive behavior that once again triggered my earlier childhood traumas and I would watch myself from outside of myself, as though in a trance, and like a robot, do anything he asked. He manipulated me into the vilest sexual situations and I was utterly incapable of stopping them.
One night I found the strength to protest and asked him, “Please can’t we just go back to the group?” (As an older member and driver of the group he was able to get the touring van to drive me anywhere any time of day or night.) He flew into a rage, calling me a “prick teaser” and a whole lot more. I shriveled into some sort of frightened version of a former self and from then on was, to an astonishing degree, completely under his power and control. I did not give clear consent but I also didn’t fight him off because my will had long since been stripped from me. For ten years I labeled it an affair with a very sick and screwed up man, but I blamed myself and protected him. (I learned later that there were rumors about him at Goshen College before he ever joined our drama troupe.)
I became suicidal that summer. Thanks to compartmentalization, I was able to function just fine as an actor for the team. It would not surprise me if others in the group had no inkling of the abuse happening to me. I hope if any of them read this they will get in touch and let me know what they knew, if anything. I do not hold any of them responsible. It took me years of therapy to untangle the web of violations I experienced that summer and the way I initially so wrongly interpreted them. Because I had no ability to resist, by the law’s standards it would be assumed consensual. This is why California’s new law and recent Title IX interpretations requiring that consent be a clear “Yes”, rather than simply the absence of a “No” is so empowering to child victims like me.
This man is now an adjunct professor of theater at a Midwest university and I’ve contacted the head of his department and his provost to tell them I have reason to believe he poses a risk and that they would be wise to believe any reports about him they receive from students. He is quite possibly still, unconsciously or not, cueing in to women like me whose fight or flight instincts have been destroyed, and who could easily be placed under his full control.
When I returned to Shippen Street in Lancaster, PA that summer of 1977 I went into what I later realized was full blown PTSD. My body shut down with terrible and inexplicable aches and pains. Simultaneously I would have crying spells and not realize the cause. I also became promiscuous, having one-night-stands with guys who were otherwise casual acquaintances. I have wondered if I became a sexual predator to some of them. If I remembered their names or knew how to contact them I would want to know and make amends. I remember one sexual encounter that found me aggressive to the point of the guy stopping me and saying, “Woah, wait a minute, are you okay?” I was stupefied by what was happening in my body. The body I inhabited in certain sexual situations seemed alien to me.
During this troubling promiscuous phase I remember lying on my bed alone in my apartment and feeling such deep emotional despair and confusion that I slid off the bed to my knees on the floor to try to pray. My father came to mind and I heard myself crying over and over and over, “I’m sorry Daddy, I’m so, so sorry Daddy. I’m so, so sorry.” I remember thinking how odd it was to hear myself saying those words. Why would I be apologizing to my daddy like a little child?” For doing what exactly?
A dear friend showed up like a guardian angel to nurse me back to health and make me soup but I hadn’t yet the consciousness to tell him what had happened. I was drowning in shame. I was miraculously referred to a chiropractor in Lancaster that must have been a true healer. He didn’t manipulate my joints and muscles as in the previous chiropractic exams I’d experienced. Instead it seemed like an extremely light “laying on of hands.” I believe his spirit sensed I was a victim of sexualized violence and he had a special, perhaps unspoken practice for helping us. I walked out of his office without pain and miraculously good health soon returned–at least physical health. I was able to return to work at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Lancaster directing a performing arts program for the most talented and passionate young kids I’d ever met.
PART 4 Senior Adult, Today
I am now celebrating my 63rd year of life on Mother Earth.
Here is my HOPE today:
I hope that any person who may be reading this who is acting out on children or vulnerable adults will be motivated to get help and find a community of others who will hold you accountable. You are not a monster, but you must persist at getting help or pay dearly for your refusal to do so. Your pain and dysfunction may no longer be passed on to others without consequence.
I hope that every church leader and family member who may be reading this who is knowingly turning away, covering up and not reporting a suspected act of violation by a member of your faith community or family finds the courage to report what you suspect or know.
I hope that every survivor suffering in shame and silence will find strength and hope in my words. You are not alone. There is an army of support out here for you. We are part of a growing new civil rights movement for children. We leave victimhood behind when we take responsibility to stand and speak our truth and hold accountable those who harmed us.
If you wonder if you have suppressed the trauma of early sexual abuse, rest assured you need not go searching for the memories. If they are meant to surface at all, they will come find you in their own time.
I hope to continue to bring people together to make a difference in each other’s lives and prevent what happened to me from happening to others. A SNAP self-help support group in Harrisonburg, VA offers a safe place for survivors and their loved ones to help each other heal and to work through the impact of abuse on our lives. We meet the first Thursday of every month from 6-7:30 pm. Contact me at 540-214-8874 for more information and location.
Here’s what I KNOW today:
I was deeply hurt in body and soul by those I trusted.
I spent much of my life denying the depth of that hurt, in large part due to my religious upbringing. That upbringing also played a role in my survival and recovery.
I have now opened up the boil with “all its puss flowing ugliness to the natural medicine of light and air”, without being afraid and without turning away.
Healing for each and every survivor follows its own unique path. I have assumed I was fully healed at least four times in my life, only to find yet another consequence, another impact. This stuff can take a lifetime to heal and many who have never been a victim of sexualized violence don’t seem to get that.
I have always hesitated to tell my story because it is extreme and folks too often respond with, “Well then, what happened to me was really nothing.” That is so not true. The way these experiences damage us is highly varied and nuanced, and like a beautiful and fragile piece of glass, our sacred sexual selves can become damaged and broken just as easily by being thrown against a wall as by being gently dropped on a concrete floor.
I am extremely fortunate to be alive and indebted to so very many persons who have walked with me, believed me, stood up for me, and kept hope alive when I had lost all hope.
Dumb luck or some outrageous act of grace allowed me to remain functional when I had to be, to recover from major emotional meltdowns and breakdowns in time to get up and teach Stanislavsky to a waiting class of theater students. I still don’t completely understand how that happened.
The memories and body experiences of survivors should be believed and taken seriously. Meanwhile the perpetrators they name should be assumed guilty until proven innocent.
Victims who find the courage to stand up and speak the truth about a respected member of a congregation or family don’t have control over the embarrassing consequences and painful outcomes their truth telling brings forth. The responsibility lies with the offenders as well as with those who would protect them by denying, minimizing the truth, and withholding the family’s, congregation’s, and public’s right to know.
Human beings cannot be put into a category of Evil or Good with a thick black line between the two. We are all both and neither. That does not mean we escape accountability for our actions.
Nothing will ever take from me the warm memories and the goodness that dwelt in the same house with the horrors of my childhood. Nothing will ever diminish the love I have for my family or the joys we have shared. In fact turning to look squarely at the ugly, monstrous truth and speak it publicly, holding those who harmed me fully accountable, has made all that is beautiful about my family and my life become more precious.
The sludge in the pit of my stomach was healed by an encounter with Jesus and Pamela Frey on Easter Sunday 1993 and has never returned.
But now this shit has got to stop.