Warning: This article contains material that may be triggering.
It seems like every time you turn on the evening news, there is a report of some man or woman having been arrested for brutally abusing or sexually assaulting their child. Does it seem that child abuse and sexual assault are more prominent today than 25 years ago? Are you angry with that monster who brutally raped his girlfriend’s infant or with the woman who left her 5-year-old daughter alone to be raped and beaten by the uncle? Would you feel that same anger if a classmate you did not know told you she had been raped by a family member in her youth? Does a story of childhood sexual abuse have less impact if the victim is now an adult?
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement indicates a downward trend in the number of forcible sexual assaults being reported over the last four years. If that is true, then why are we pummeled with these reports on an almost nightly basis? At a recent conference of childhood sexual abuse survivors, a guest speaker suggested that the while the number of crimes has indeed decreased, the number of incidents being reported has increased dramatically in the last few years. Many attribute the surge of reports being made to the recent founding of RAINN (Rape Abuse & Incest National Network), an organization started by recording artist, Tori Amos and her label, Atlantic Records, after Ms. Amos was raped by a crazed fan. Why does it take a national organization to break the silence of survivors of childhood horrors?
For many survivors, close friends and family members who would be considered the first people in a support system, generally do not want to talk about these issues. The most common response a survivor gets is, “It happened a long time ago, get over it already.” I heard this over the years every time I tried to give my pain and anger a voice.
The first time I attended an Innermotion show, I sat in a darkened theater with other survivors and watched the performers dance my life on stage. I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me whole; anything to not have to watch the shame I felt. That was in 1992. Five years later, I found Innermotion again. I had been in therapy, and while it had helped me shed the victim mentality, there was still a festering wound that was not healing. I attended another show. This time I sat in the darkened theater, and instead of shame, I felt a connection with the dancers unlike any I had ever felt with another human being. During one piece, I sat mesmerized as the figure in black approached and “violated” young, innocent children at play. I felt their pain. I glimpsed their bare essence. The most amazing part was it was ok. At that moment, I knew I had found the salve to soothe the final wounds of my soul.
After the show, I received a call from the director of the organization. She was going to be conducting a 12-week movement workshop for survivors of incest and abuse who wanted to experience the healing effects of movement. The thrill of being able to move with people who would understand did little to allay my fears; regardless, I agreed to attend. The director told me the groups were held on Saturday mornings at the National Sexual Assault Hotline in downtown Fort Lauderdale.
Promptly at 10:30 on Saturday, I drove into the parking lot of SATC. As I walked up to the front door, I realized not much had changed since the last time I had been there. The heavy glass door opened into an odd trapezoid shaped waiting room. To the left was the reception window protected by three inches of bulletproof glass, while the door leading to the receptionist’s and counselors’ offices could be knocked down with a good solid kick. Next to the door stood a metal gray pamphlet stand offering visitors information on the effects of sexual assault, child abuse and neglect, and drug abuse. The chairs in the small waiting area had been replaced with high back lounge chairs that could be found on someone’s back patio in the summertime. Threadbare, gray carpet sporting stains like trophies covered half of the floor. Yellow tile spanned out from the carpet in what was a playroom brimming with worn toys for children who had to spend time here instead of eating donuts and watching Saturday morning cartoons. Worn posters covered the walls extolling the dangers of drug use while pregnant and the importance of being examined immediately after a sexual assault. I sat down in a chair to wait with the few other people who looked like they would rather be anywhere else in the world.
After ten minutes, Innermotion’s director came out to collect the group members for an orientation. She began by telling us what to expect from the group, and lay down the ground rules for participation. The only hard and fast rules were no touching another member of the group without permission, and complete confidentiality. She warned each of us that next Saturday we would probably not wish to return, but, if we could resist the urge to run away, she promised the personal reward would be colossal. I attended the group religiously. I abhorred going, but the thought of missing even one session was insufferable.
The sessions were held in SATC’s employee conference room. A large open space, it had the same carpet from the waiting area, though cleaner, and freshly painted stark white walls. The back wall housed boxes of cases that had been closed. The few desks in the room were pushed back to allow plenty of space for stretching and moving. On one particular Saturday after we had done some preliminary movement, the director told us the activity for the week was a confrontation of an abuser. The goal of this exercise, she explained, was to get each of us to connect with the internal rage for the person who caused us such grief and pain. Up to this point, I had been able to successfully keep my anger in check. Petrified, I sat with my partner and fixed my gaze on a spot on the wall hypnotizing myself into feeling nothing. At the beginning of the exercise, one person was to tell their partner how the perpetrator looked, smelled, acted, and what the perpetrator had done so the partner could assume the role of the perpetrator. Then, we were to tell the “perpetrator” how we felt about what he had done to us. After a sufficient amount of information had been shared, the “perpetrator” was to be given an opportunity to respond. Chosen to go first, I took a deep breath and began. Before long I was transported back in time and I no longer saw my partner, but my step-father. I was 18-years-old again.
My step-father was considerably older than my mother. I had seen pictures of him in his youth, and I suppose you could say he had been a handsome man. Now, he was rail thin and haggard, his body ravaged by decades of alcohol abuse. Sober, he was decent enough, but after an afternoon of drinking, he could be mean and cruel. For the six months I lived with him and my mother, he sexually terrorized me. Most times, I was able to escape his advances, but there were times when I felt like a trapped, frightened animal who knew death was certain.
We lived in an old house on the outskirts of a small mill town. When they first bought the house, the walls were covered with mildew and paint so dark, it took four coats of base primer just to cover up the bleed-through. The floors were old hardwood, worn with time and stained beyond recognition. My bedroom was off the living room to the right of the front door, and my mother’s room was next to mine. A wood stove in the living room provided the only source of heat in the house. A doorway at the back of the living room led to a kitchen in dire need of a facelift. The linoleum was yellow and curling at the baseboards. The sink was to the left of the doorway with the stove not visible until you were deeper into the room. On the right was another doorway leading to another bedroom. The only bathroom in the house was in this back bedroom and a long way from the wood stove heater. The backdoor in the kitchen led to a spacious backyard with a wooded area just beyond.
My step-father worked in construction as a general contractor. If he had work, he would travel for the week and return home on the weekends, usually drunk. My mother worked for the federal government, so I found myself alone with him a lot during the winter-time when he had no work.
The night he raped me, my mother was in the hospital recovering from a suicide attempt. I was afraid to go home, but I had no choice. He had begun drinking earlier that day, and by bedtime, he was drunk. I had learned through experience, it was best to agree with whatever he said until he passed out. Only then would I be safe. At his insistence of needing consolation, I laid down with him hoping he would pass out soon. When his breathing became regular, I crept to my own bed and dozed off.
Startled, I woke up, knowing something was not quite right. I saw a flash of lightning followed by the low rumble of thunder, and I felt a presence in my room that was not supposed to be there. As quickly as the next bolt of lightning struck, a strong, warm hand covered my mouth and nose cutting off my air supply. Struggling to remove the hand from my face, I saw my step-father’s crazed eyes in a face full of rage above me. He climbed on top of me and straddled my waist, his bony knees squeezing my sides like a vice. He removed his hand, and I could smell the foul alcohol-laden stench of his breath as he heaved to remove the barrier that was my clothing. Frightened into a shocked state, I could not move as I heard the distinct rip of fabric and felt his fingers cruelly pinch my shivering flesh. I made a slight sound. He swung his hand back and crashed his fist into my face, causing stars to dance before my eyes. Then he raped me.
After he left my room, I lay in my bed, the wretched odor of alcohol and sex all over me. I crawled out of the bedroom and into the bathroom, running scalding hot water in the tub. I eased into the hot water, trying to scrub my step-father off my skin. After what seemed like hours, I dragged myself out of the tub and looked in the mirror. My skin had turned bright red from the heat of the water and my incessant scrubbing. I had a cut on my lower lip, and bruises all over my body.
My step-father had left the house. I did not know where he had gone, nor did I care. I went into his bedroom to hunt for his gun. The plan was simple. I was going to kill him when he walked in the door. During the search for shotgun shells, I found a wad of money. I threw the gun back in the closet, took the money and left town. For more than a week I was a missing person.
Taking a deep breath, I blinked the images away and saw my partner in tears as she sat opposite me. I was back at SATC doing an exercise in confrontation and anger. At some point in the story, I had begun to scream. My throat hurt, and I gasped for air, as if I had run a race. The director of the program said it was time for my “step-father” to reply to all I had said. By that time, there was nothing that “he” could say that would make a difference one way or the other. I had broken the silence. I had expressed anger. I touched the rage. I was free.
Survivors of incest, abuse, and rape can only begin to heal when they can share their story of fear, anger, and pain with someone who will listen with their ears and their hearts. No matter who tells the story, a child victim or an adult survivor, it has to be heard. Only then can healing begin. Telling a survivor, “Get over it already,” does nothing but fuel the feelings of inadequacy and shame. Common sense tells most people, you do not tell a child to get over being abused, nor do you blame the child for the abuse. If the child has not broken the silence, chances are he/she will not do so until adulthood. Childhood sexual abuse touches our lives in some way everyday of the year. It has been a rampant problem, spreading like a brush fire on a hot, dry summer day. It is not going to go away on its own. Practicing listening skills now, when there is no crisis in your life will better prepare you when incest or rape come into your home by means other than the evening news.