Silence Breeds Silence: Why Speaking Out Makes Change
Trigger warning: this post might get triggery for some people, including the links to related posts included here. This post contains frank discussion of rape and child abuse, including my own personal story. Just a heads up.
A couple days ago, I was puttering about in my Twitter lists and discovered a heartwrenching post by Summer Heacock, whom some of you may know as the Fizziest of All Fizzdom. She wrote about an experience where her principal saved her from humiliation and possible rape. It’s a poignant, raw piece of writing, and I think you should read it. So go do that. Then come back.
Earlier that same day, someone on Facebook had posted a link to this post by a teacher for whom the subject of consent came up in class.
I read through her post and then scrolled through the comments. What surprised me was how many people related similar experiences (or experiences where they weren’t so fortunate). As I was doing this, my random Spotify foray into 90s music (I’ve been on a throwback kick lately) spiraled into a song by The Crash Test Dummies. You probably know the one. Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm. And just like that, I was caught between words and music. It made me think about my own experiences, and I wanted to share that with you today.
So let’s go back in time a bit.
*Cue Wayne’s World sparkle fingers and deedly-doos*
It was my first time at summer camp, and I thought my sister hated me.
I don’t remember what year it was, but I do remember that it wasn’t the kind of summer camp you’re probably thinking of. There weren’t really any cabins or mess halls, and it was a sort of hippie-dippy affair. My sister and I had been invited by a friend of the family called Richard.
My sister and I brought a Walkman with us (I did say 90s), and I remember listening to The Crash Test Dummies cassette tape over and over again in our tent at night. There are a lot of other memories from camp that year. From the kid who looked like JTT (I’m still not convinced it wasn’t) to debating about Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. I think it was the year he committed suicide.
Oh, and also the long-haired dude who played badminton with a special amount of hilarious high-pitched grunts and tosses of his long locks.
But what I remember most is how on edge my sister was. She told me never to go anywhere alone. She funneled me around, snapped at me a lot, and I’m pretty sure I cried more than once.
Somewhere between sage and sweetgrass aura cleansings and tie-dyeing shirts, there was something going on that I really had no clue about.
Fast forward to the following November (I think that was the timeline). It was the eve of my ninth or tenth birthday, and my moms were going out of town for the weekend. Back before we’d moved in with my mom’s partner and her family (my siblings), my mom and I had rented a room from a woman in south east Portland, just on the outskirts of Ladd’s Addition. When my moms went out of town, they asked this woman if she could keep me for a night. She agreed, putting me up on a cot in her four-year-old daughter’s room. We’ll call her Sarah.
Sarah’s mom had rented out what used to be my mom’s and my room to a friend of hers, a man.
I woke up in the middle of the night to a dark shape next to my bed.
My first thought was that it was their dog. But their dog was bright white and much, much smaller.
The man turned toward me (he’d been facing away, toward Sarah’s bed) and put his hand on my stomach. I will never in my life forget his words. He said, “Let me just get a little closer.”
And I said, “I have to go to the bathroom.”
It was the first thing that popped into my head, and it blurted right out of my mouth. And he pulled his hand back and let me go. So I went to the bathroom and sat on the cold toilet, remembering that I read in a book once where a girl rocked herself back and forth in a situation like this. So I tried it, but it didn’t do much. My heart was pounding fast and hard in my chest, and I couldn’t pee. I got up, flushed the toilet anyway, and walked to the threshold of the bedroom door. He was still there.
I didn’t know quite what to do then. So again I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “I can sleep by myself,” I said.
And he got up and left, went back across the hall and shut his door.
I crawled back onto my cot and looked at the bed across from me. Sarah was wide awake, staring at me.
“Are you okay?” I asked her. My heart went from pounding to fluttering, seeing her big brown eyes in the dark. “Have you been awake the whole time?”
Almost-ten-year-old me didn’t understand what her response meant in full. She scrunched up her eyes and shook her head hard. But I knew — I knew — she was lying. It took me years to realize why she would have done that.
The next day, I saw the man once more. As soon as I heard his voice, I went scuttling under the dining room table. He stood in front of it and chuckled. I only saw his legs. To this day I don’t remember his face.
When my moms came to get me, I was silent until I got home. Then I crawled into my mom’s lap and told her what had happened.
One of the first books my mom ever got me was called A Very Touching Book. It was full of silly illustrations of naked humans and people with purple faces trying to talk about bodies. It was about knowing the difference between good touching (hugs and handshakes and cuddles), bad touching (hitting and punching and kicking), and secret touching (when someone told you not to tell that they’d touched you).
Because of that book, I knew I could tell my moms. So I did.
Things got blurry after that. Some people came to my school and pulled me out of class. I had to talk to a counselor. And Sarah’s mom didn’t believe me. She laughed when I talked to her about it, asking why I hadn’t said anything to her, as if that proved I was lying.
She let her little girl continue to sleep across the hall from that man. I don’t know if he touched Sarah, but I can guess. After all, I was a strange kid who had been in the house for a matter of hours, and she was right there every day. It still makes me sick.
But there’s more. Back to me thinking my sister hating me. It was several more months after my incident when my sister came forward and told our moms that Richard, the family friend who had taken us to camp, had been molesting her for years.
My sister is the bravest person I’ve ever known for this: that summer at camp when I thought she hated me, she was protecting me. She knew Richard was “grooming me.” She never once let me be alone with him. She put herself in his path to save me from him. She, like Summer’s principal, saw a darker side of humanity and shielded me from it as best she could.
And later, it was through her bravery, her strength, that Richard was captured and imprisoned. He later was released on parole, violated his parole, and committed suicide. I haven’t changed his name. He’s dead.
And after my sister came forward, so did his step-daughter.
Silence breeds silence.
That’s why these hard topics are so important. Since the horrific stories from Steubenville and Rehtaeh Parsons’ suicide, I’ve seen more and more people coming forward about their stories. Not just child abuse, but rapes that went unreported.
The point is, you never know what’s in someone’s past. You never know what they’ve hidden away in darkness until light shines in. But when that light does, it brings healing. Even though I escaped the first incident with nothing more than a fluttery pulse and the memory of his words and his hand on my stomach, I wasn’t as lucky later. I protected myself then as best I could.
Openness and light can help prevent these things. I credit my mother with my ability to extricate myself from that first situation. Without her, I wouldn’t have known what to do. I knew my body was my own and no one had the right to touch it if I didn’t want them to. We need dialogue with young people about the meaning of consent and that being sexually assaulted is not the same as being promiscuous — and that NEITHER make bullying and public shaming okay. We need to make it known that bullying is unacceptable and will be dealt with swiftly. We need parents to speak openly with their children about their bodies and sex and teach them that they have the right to say no, that no one can make secret touching secret if they tell someone trusted. We need to make the world a safer place for survivors to come forward and be believed.
Your kids can handle it. They’re smarter than you think.
UPDATE: In case you don’t scroll down through the comments, my mother let me know that when Sarah’s mother wouldn’t oust my almost-molester, she’d called Child Protective Services. She told them about my experience and that the man was still living in the home, also that Sarah had almost certainly been awake during what happened with me, and they had the man out within two weeks. That’s a load off my shoulders, though it doesn’t change that he very probably got to Sarah before that. Sometimes the system DOES work.