Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Untold Story


It’s not about football. And it’s not about scandal. It’s about children who were sexually assaulted. Despite the fact that these children “told,” nothing was done to stop what was happening to them.
The fact that the perpetrator in the Penn State case was a football coach and that one of the people who protected him was an even more highly-esteemed football coach has led to all sorts of speculation about whether the sport is somehow at fault.
It’s probably un-American to dislike football, but I despise the sound of football games on television. Despite my lack of affection for the sport, I feel compelled to defend it. As I said, this case is not about football.
The truth is that even if the perpetrator had been an unknown man with little or no power in his community, people still might not have acted on the information that he sexually assaulted a child. People will protect a perpetrator for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with that person’s fame or standing in the community. The needs of the child are rarely considered.
People say that victims should speak out, but I wonder if any of those who advise doing this have ever tried it. Kids can tell, but unless somebody responds with action, the child might be better off keeping quiet.
I know—because it happened to me. I was that child. I told, but things did not get better.
I told my mother about the assaults after a particularly frightening episode in which my assailant held me down in the woods, pulled off my clothes and molested me. It was not the only time he’d touched my private parts, but it was the first time I realized that he was not trying to make me feel good.
I was thirteen. The man who assaulted me was my father.
That day in the woods stands out in my mind not only for the level of fear I felt, but because of the epiphany it brought. The truth hit me between the eyes like a hand smacking me on the forehead: this had been going on for years, and I had been a willing participant.
I remember crawling onto the couch next to him as he watched football on TV. I was small, maybe around nine years old, maybe younger. My mother was somewhere, but I have no idea where—perhaps she was right there, dozing in the rocking chair. Perhaps she saw what he did and deliberately chose to not pay attention to what was happening to her little girl.
As we sat, the roar of a game blaring from the television set, his hand would gradually make its way under my nightgown and into my underpants. He would probe and fiddle with my genitals and I remember wondering what he was trying to find—it always felt to me like he was looking for something there. I sometimes got bored or tried to pull away, but I think I also liked the way it felt.
When he grabbed me in the woods that day when I was thirteen and held me down, I suddenly realized my part in it. I had liked it to some extent. I wasn’t sure if I’d sought it out, but I hadn’t struggled very hard to make him stop. The feeling that hit me between the eyes was guilt, pure and simple—I had asked for it, just like my mother would say, later.
That day in the woods was different. Whatever he was up to this time, I didn’t want it. I squirmed and flailed around, trying to free myself from his grip. He was a lot bigger and stronger than I was. I began to panic. I don’t remember screaming or making any noise. I also don’t remember how it all ended. My memory stops mid-event, and still, forty-four years later, I do not know how I got away or even the full extent of what happened.
I’ve asked him, but he only admits to the parts I remember. He has never denied that he did it, but he’s also never tried to help me fill in the missing details in my memory. He continues to maintain that it didn’t hurt me, and I should let it go and quit talking about it.
After I told my mother what he was doing, she promised to “talk to him,” but the assaults continued. I went back to her, begging her to make him stop. She said, “He told me that he stopped. Are you sure he’s still doing it? Besides, you’re sitting too close to him on the couch. You’re too old to do that now.”
It was my fault. That’s what she said, but that’s also what I thought. I believed I had caused this to happen, so I had no right to complain about it now.
Apparently, I planned to run away. She said she stopped me as I was leaving the house—I don’t know why she wanted me to stay there, since he continued to molest me. He eventually stopped touching me, or perhaps I learned to stay out of situations where he would have the opportunity to do that.
The pattern changed. When I got a little older, he started exposing himself to me. I would be standing in the kitchen at the stove or the sink and would glance down the hall to where his bedroom door was wide open. He would be standing there, stark naked, full frontal, looking at me.
I was sixteen.
That year I met a boy at school. We began to date and, soon, were “going steady.” Kissing led to light petting led to heavy petting, but I never wanted to go much further than that. I said I was afraid of getting pregnant, but the truth was I didn’t want to feel the things his touches were making me feel. I see now that I was already learning how to shut down my sexual response, to avoid ever getting into another frightening situation like the one in the woods.
I knew something was wrong, though, and I talked to my mother again. She encouraged me to go to the minister of our church, Rev. Martin. I suppose that he was the closest thing to a “therapist” one might encounter in 1973.
I stayed after church one day and asked to see him. He said he would give me a ride home and I could talk to him while we drove. I told him what had happened and when we got to my house, he parked the car, shut off the engine and said, “I have to think about this a little more.”
Then, he asked me specific questions about the abuse. He wanted to know if my father had “just” touched me, or had he raped me or tried to rape me. I said I had no recollection of any rape or attempted rape. Rev. Martin’s response was, “Okay, I guess it wasn’t technically incest, then.”
I was dismissed. The relationship with my boyfriend did not improve. I graduated and left for college. I never intended to return.
Rev. Martin died soon after I left home. I have no idea if he ever reported anything to the authorities. If he didn’t, I don’t know why, since clearly what I had told him about was a crime, whatever it was called.
The laws were different in 1973. Perhaps Rev. Martin broke no laws by not reporting what I had told him. Or, maybe he did report it, and lacking any physical evidence, nothing was done. I have no idea, since nobody ever talked to me about it after that.
My parents acted like it had never happened. I tried to put it out of my mind and focused my attention on school and my own life. I never doubted that the abuse had occurred, but I wanted to believe that I had not been hurt by it. I wanted to prove, to myself and to the world, that I was okay—that I was better than okay.
I met a man who shared my interests in science and encouraged me in my studies. I graduated with a degree in Chemistry and, with his encouragement, went off to graduate school. We got married and, soon, had two kids. I got my PhD and, then, a job. I had a life. And, from the outside, I looked better than okay.
I never forgot what had happened with my father, but I began to believe that it had not affected me, despite the fact that sex was difficult. I often ended up in tears and when asked why I was crying, I never had an answer. I never had orgasms, a fact that left me feeling greatly ashamed, as if I was deeply defective. I didn’t see either of these things, nor the fact that I’d been suicidal more than once, as related to my history of abuse.
I had almost convinced myself that I’d emerged from childhood undamaged until a book saved me. Its title, “The Courage to Heal,” and subtitle, “A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse,” made me simultaneously want the book but fear buying it in front of anybody I knew. A few days later, I went to the bookstore alone and sandwiched it, upside down, in a stack of other books, hoping to hide the title from the cashier.
That book finally got me to see that I had, in fact, been hurt by what happened. I suffered from obvious sexual dysfunction, but I also had lots of trouble trusting people and I had been depressed for years. I started therapy, joined an incest survivor’s group and began to get the help I needed. I was told that it was important to talk about what had happened, so I practiced doing that with my therapist and support group, then moved on to my family and friends.
People who counsel survivors of child sexual abuse seem to think that talking about it will solve everything, but the truth is it creates more problems. My news was never welcomed. I was told that what I was saying was going to “kill” my grandmother, although it turned out that she lived to be 99 years old, and died for reasons that had nothing to do with what I said about her son.
I told my sisters early on, since both of them had young daughters. I told other relatives, thinking that everybody who might potentially bring young children into contact with him should know. I continue to do that, but my news is never welcomed. I felt alone before I told. I felt even more alone afterward.
More than forty years after the events that launched my own sad story, I watched the situation at Penn State unfold. Child molesters still attack children and the people who surround them continue to do nothing to stop it. The kids talked, but nobody listened.
I still hate the sound of football games on television. But, like I said, it’s not about the football.

36 comments:

  1. Somehow, telling you this is beautifully and compellingly written seems wrong but it is all that and much more, of course. What you offer here is a report about the ongoing reality of what often happens to truth-tellers, that being viewed as accomplished and credible in every other arena of life somehow counts for nothing when speaking up and out to those who want to stay in denial.

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    1. Thank you, Meredith - for this and for everything. xoxo

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  2. Thank you for sharing your important personal story, Raima.

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    1. Thank you, Mary Martha - I am relieved to finally get this out, and I appreciate your support!

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  3. Raina, your story brings tears. No words, simply tears. Tears for the fear, grief, & horror. Tears for feeling guilty. Tears too of gratitude, for being able to hear your story, for knowing victims of sexual assault will know they are not alone. Thank you Raima.

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    1. Thank you! It's interesting, I had not shed any tears while writing this, but now that I've read your comment, I am. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

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    2. I hope then that the tears were cleansing and healing my friend. Hugs, Pam

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    3. Aha - Pam! I want to click "like" on your comment. :) Hugs back to you....

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  4. Working in this field with people who have similar stories unfortunately I agree with you that this is more the norm than the exception. I think it tends to leave people, even as adults, with the feeling that if you tell - no one will care and , as you say, you're left more alone than before.

    That you have risen from these ashes to become a whole human being with healthy relationships and a solid connection to spirituality is admirable and the certain sign of much strength.

    I already loved and respected you beyond words, but even more so today. Thanks for being brave.

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    1. Thank you so much, Brenda - for the support, but also for the validation that comes from your professional experience. I hope and pray the conversation around this issue will eventually spiral away from the football stuff and come back to those who were hurt. I think they (we) have waited long enough.

      And about being brave - I think Maya Angelou had it right. Eventually the agony of holding the untold story inside becomes so great that there's no need to summon any bravery. But thank you for saying it! :)

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  5. Raima, what strikes me about this story is how hard you strived to get help. Despite the guilt, the confusion, despite intervening years of silence and then the loss of memory/uncertainty about what exactly happened, you had enough core belief in yourself, and in the truth, to try again, and again, to tell, to seek out someone who'd know what to do. Horrifying that it didn't help, that people didn't respond the way they should have, but it's incredible, and so admirable, that you continued to try to right this wrong -- for yourself, and then others! You're an amazing person, and I'm so glad that you continue on this healing journey, because you still deserve to be heard, and you still have important truths to voice. xoxox, Elaine

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    1. Thank you, Elaine - yes, there was a lot of searching for help. This is only a small part of the story, the early part, and I'd thought, for a long time, that the lack of response I experienced wouldn't happen these days. Sadly, it seems that not much has changed in forty years. Thank you, though, for your support along the way - it's wonderful to have you by my side on this journey! xoxo

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  6. Raima, as always, you write with such eloquence and strength of voice even when writing about something so personal and painful. I hope finally writing about this as fully as you have here gives you a certain freedom, which in turn will allow you to write more honestly and powerfully in your fiction and non-fiction work. Bravo for finally committing the words to paper and dragging the events, kicking and screaming, out into the harsh light of day.

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    1. Yes, Pragna, kicking and screaming is right, as you know! Thank you so much for this, and for your support and encouragement over the years. I share your hope that finally committing these words to paper (or, at least, to a website!) will help me write more truthfully. xoxo

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  7. Raima, I join Pragna in saying Bravo! Bravo for bravery over the years and Bravo for even greater bravery in publishing this poignant piece. While it is too much to expect that you will suddenly be at peace with yourself, I hope the support from all of us who love and value you will help.

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    1. Yes, Margaret, it really does help to know that you are there with me! Thank you for that, and for everything. I agree that publishing this is unlikely to make everything better, but I actually already do feel better. Sometimes it takes more energy to not write something than to write it. Funny how that works! xoxo

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  8. There is such a thing as claiming a truth. Owning it. When you claimed the truth of the abuse - even those years ago - you also claimed yourself. It is a taking control. A reality you live. YOUR OWN. No one else's. It is a strength. An indominatable one, though fluid over time; like the tide, it is always there. The ebb and flow takes nothing away from you. It probably adds to your existence that you persevere.

    There are people who do not (perhaps yet) have that strength to claim what they have survived in life. They may also be survivors, scrabbling for what to grab hold of, or those who now have been informed. We don't (rather unfortunately for the betterment of the world) get the power to make them understand, or to respond. But you've taken the strength you've shown, Raima - and continue to show - by claiming the truth of who you are, what you overcame, and what you've accomplished, and giving people a better hope and understanding.

    If that was wordy, I apologize. (Writerly thing, you know). In all sincerity, however, thank you for honoring me and all who read with the telling of your truth. You strengthen all.

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    1. Melanie, yes it might be wordy, but I love your wordiness! Thank you for this and for your support....as always. xoxo

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  9. Raima, this essay captures the ripples of misery and denial that surround abuse. The awful thing is that you're right--no one listens to the kids. It's a huge act of courage to write about it, but what also strikes me is the courage you showed before you were able to write--never ceasing to know that what happened was wrong, even though no one listened. There must be so many who never hear that interior voice of reason, and go on to live sad lives or even become abusers themselves. It must be a real breakthrough to tear through that membrane of doubt and self-questioning and say it "out loud" in your writing. Three cheers for you!

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    1. Yes, Stephanie, it feels like a huge breakthrough - thank you for helping me rip my way through it. People keep commenting about bravery and courage, but it doesn't feel that way at all to me. It's more like the agony of holding it in became greater than the effort required to write about it. Thanks for your comment and your support! xo

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  10. Raima, your brave willingness to wield this truth is an inspiration. Thank you for sharing your story in all of its dimensions, helping all of us to better understand this terrible societal dysfunction. I'm so glad you found the courage to heal and the courage to help others heal.

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    1. Thanks so much, Ruth Ann - and I do hope that telling my story will help others heal. It's a long journey, no matter what, but I know it always helps to know that others are traveling along that road with you. Thanks for your comment and your friendship! xo

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  11. Raima, you have the courage of a warrior. I am deeply touched by your writing and your story and know that by speaking out you are helping many others. Thank you for finding your voice and sharing it. Many blessings to you.

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  12. I wish I could speak the warm, tender, eloquent words that seem to come so easily from so many strangers (but never to me). Maybe it's because I grew up without hearing them. I came to adulthood believing the cruelty I was treated with as a child showed on my face and I would never be able to hide it. My mother used to tell me I had a "Kick me" sign on my face.

    But your example shows that you can put this behind you in important ways and motivate others to show you love and respect. I wish that I had known that such a thing could happen when I was still young and had a chance to build a fulfilling career and have a happy marriage.

    You are very brave to come forward with this story. Perhaps if more people do this, victims will be less and less likely to stay victims. But as long as victimizers are the ones who tell the stories and set the standards for private behavior, we'll see the Penn State story over and over.

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    1. Thank you so much for your comment. It saddens me to hear what your mother said to you. It's amazing how many people believe that the child is asking for it, literally saying "go ahead, kick me," when nothing could be further from the truth. Children want to be loved, and they deserve to be loved.

      I would say, though, that it's really not possible to motivate others to show you love and respect. People are responsible for their own feelings and reactions and allll you can really do is love and respect yourself and hope they follow your example. This is easier said than done, though! Loving oneself is always the first step, but probably the most difficult.

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  13. Raima, I am so, so sorry for what your father did to you and the lack of protection from your mother and lack of support from your sisters. You are very brave and honest. Thank you for speaking out.

    I do disagree with you about your take on the Penn State tragedy. The university allowed more and more boys to be sexually molested because Coach Paerno and university officials did not report him to the police and stop him. Their motivation was to protect Paterno and the football program from bad publicity. The football program became bigger than the university's reason for existing --to educate under a strong moral code. I am glad the NCAA took action. I am glad Paterno's statue was taken down. How would you feel if you saw a statue of your father in your town's square, hailing him for his integrity?

    Again, I am moved by your straightforward account of what happened to you. A child is never to blame for being molested by an adult. Your father is the one to blame, period.

    Mary

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    1. Hi Mary - thank you for this. I appreciate your support.

      A couple things: I didn't mean to imply that I got no support from my sisters. Of all those in my family, my sisters were (and are) by far the most supportive of me. They didn't welcome the news, true, but they always believed me and took action to protect their children, which is what motivated me to tell them.

      And I agree with you about Penn State (and probably a lot of other universities) that the football program was not held to the same moral standard as the rest of the school and they deserve the sanctions that are now being handed out. I wrote this essay, though, because people were expressing so much outrage about how these powerful athletic people get away with things the rest of us can't, when every day, somewhere, a child molester is being protected by the people around him, even if the people who do that protecting are nowhere near as powerful as these guys were.

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  14. I understand and thanks for clarifying. I am sure you are right that every day ordinary families allow this child sexual predator mentality and actions to go forward. I hope that every time someone such as you speaks out, this helps make it harder for anyone -- family or teachers or coaches or a university -- to cover up child molestation. The Penn State power structure circled the wagons to cover up crimes and caused much more suffering.

    Take care, Raima. You have much support from your friends and colleagues.

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    1. Thanks again, Mary - I really appreciate people like you who take the time to try and understand the full picture. I think this Penn State story has struck a nerve, somehow, even though the news is filled every day with similar stories of child sexual abuse. I don't know why that is, but it's my hope that things might begin to change as those of us who have suffered in silence start to come forward and talk. Thanks again for your support! xoxo

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  15. Raima, Words are inadequate to express my admiration for the honesty and courage that infuse this account. Sadly, the silence that met your attempts to simply say what happened so many years ago is a silence that continues to confound and wound many wronged children. Because of this continuing, deafening silence, I hope your essay will find its way into the hands of many who -- because of it -- will now listen and take action. I'll do what I can to get it out there. Thanks for writing it.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words, but especially for your willingness to help spread the word about this issue. I share your hope that people will now start to listen and take action on behalf of the children. Thank you!

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    2. Raima, I have great admiration for your ability to share such painful experiences to help raise awareness and stop this madness. I have been shocked at how many people I have spoken to have felt that the officials at Penn State should be excused, since they "at least" reported the abuse. Most refuse to believe the actions taken were completely inadequate to help or protect even one child that had been abused. Because I believe that children should have a voice I volunteer as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). While the work can be difficult, the reward of knowing that I might save a child from what you have experienced makes it worth it. Thanks for reminding me of the great responsibility I have. You have such a beautiful soul. Hugs and more hugs, friend!

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    3. Hi Carole - thank you for your comment, but also for this work you are doing with CASA. I didn't know you were involved that way, but how wonderful to hear about it! Sending a big hug back to you, too! xoxo

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  16. Hello Raime.
    I was searching for guidance and some answers, although I know there are non, and came upon this site completely be accident. Everything here is what really happens. All the research in the world can't take away the loneliness, the hopelessness of a life with such a burden. I have endured much, violence, beatings, assault, then belittled, accused, ignored, etc.,. I was preparing to go onto a PhD when everything finally caved in, my emotions, my mind, my health. It could be ignored no longer. It has taken some 15 years, and yet things still aren't right. It seems that all the rebuilding I have done isn't good enough for the University, that I could continue from where I left off, that would be a "recovery", that would be the statement that I overcame it all. They didn't win over me. I set about verifying "the" PhD Program of choice, to discuss the possiblilities, before embarquing on the money pit aspect it can turn into. The specific production of recent works I suppose weren't substantial enough, as I have heard no reply to the continued discussion they proposed. So it all seems so hopeless right now. I am alone, so very much alone. "No money, no Honey, no hope", just the fight to get through 'till tomorrow. I learned to cope to survive, but not well enough to thrive. I am trapped in a time warp, can't go back, can't go forward,...a prisoner. I must go now, for there are immediate obligations to fulfill. I would like to return to this site, if you'd permit. I would like to speak with one who made it to the other side, to help pluck up my courage yet again. I assure you I am sain, possibly a little to poetic, but quite saine, although right now I am quite demoralized. K

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    1. Dear K - Thank you for stopping by and leaving this note. I know what you mean about feeling stuck, unable to go back or forward. It's unlikely that it will stay this way forever, especially if you reach out to others for help, as you are apparently doing. I would encourage you to get help from someone who is physically closer to you, since seeking help on the internet can only get you so far. It is helpful, though, to realize that others have gone through similar things and survived, or even thrived, so I'm glad to have helped a little bit that way.

      I've been a bit worried, though, about the way this post ends. It makes it seem as if I am still feeling hopelessly alone, and that isn't at all true. (Maybe I need to write a follow-up...) I do, though, fall into that sense of despair from time to time, even when I think I must have taken care of all of this stuff by now. I think we work on these things for our whole life, and it's never completely over.

      I'm sorry the delayed PhD program doesn't seem to be working out for you. Sometimes when a door closes, a window will open instead, so maybe you need to look for what those openings might be. It may very well be that the PhD program is really not right for you at this stage, so maybe the universe and God are doing you a favor here. I'm not positive about that, obviously, but it's worth considering. Good luck to you and I wish you well in your journey!

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