Trigger warning: sexual assault and gaslighting
This is a difficult post for me to write. It is violent and emotional, but at the same time, I have told this story many times before. I am not afraid to tell it again. I have never been afraid to tell it. Why again? Why now? Because I see you, people who are minimalizing sexual assault, ridiculing the situation, scrutinizing the victim, and protecting the perpetrators at all cost. It is a tale as old as time. Some of you have daughters, nieces and granddaughters, and they also see you. I have been fighting this attitude since I was barely a teenager. I know what the effects do to someone, and even as a child I could recognize that this is cruel. This hurt me more than the initial attack and has taken years to begin to get past. Nevertheless, we won’t stop fighting. History sees you, and you are on the wrong side of it.
I can’t say that I remember exactly when my sexual abuse started. I know that it went on for a number of years and that it started sometime when I was around 9 or 10. It began with a family gathering at my grandparents’ house for Easter. They lived about a four hours drive away from where the bulk of my family was stationed, and so after the celebration we divvied up the ridesharing for people to go home. I was slated to ride with my uncle, my aunt, and her son. I sat in the front seat and my cousin and aunt were in the back and they drifted off to sleep. I was also tired, and so I leaned against the window and closed my eyes. I wasn’t asleep, just resting, when I felt a hand touch my thigh. It sat there for a minute, and then it started to run back and forth, and then slowly made its way up to fondle me over my shorts. I wasn’t quite sure what this meant or why this was happening. Trusting in the good graces of people who were supposed to be authority figures, I wasn’t sure how to interpret something that didn’t seem right. My aunt and cousin were just right there. Would someone be so brazen as to do a horrible act with them just right there? No, I must have misunderstood something. I didn’t like it but I pretended to be asleep because I didn’t know what else to do.
I had always had a very close relationship with this uncle because he was always goofy and playful. However, now the playfulness began to take on ever-creepier undertones. He would back me into a corner, he would squeeze past too close so that we would brush up against each other, he would always insist on play fighting or wrestling so that I couldn’t keep track of where his hands went. Again I didn’t say anything because I was unsure how or why a trusted person could betray someone. Surely I was just getting something wrong. I was trying to be a peacekeeper. I didn’t want something to be wrong, and I certainly didn’t want to be the one who caused the problem. However, I did always make sure to stay vigilant and watch out for my little sisters and my cousins to make sure they weren’t put in the same situation.
My father was a volunteer firefighter and often he would be called out to emergencies in the middle of the night. When this would happen I would go stay with my uncle and aunt because my cousin and I went to the same school, we lived just up the road, and so it was a matter of convenience. One of these nights when I went to stay with them was when things greatly intensified, and when I found my breaking point.
I was sleeping in my cousin’s bed one night. He was still sleeping with his mom some nights as he was quite a bit younger than me, and so I had his room to myself. My uncle came into the room and knelt down by the bed next to me. He began to touch my breasts and pulled my shirt all the way up so that he could see them as well as feel them. I remember going back to my old defense mechanism of pretending to be asleep. I will always regret that this was my reaction because it didn’t do me any good, and it only put me more in harm’s way. I suppose it is a kind of fight or flight. I wasn’t sure how to fight it, and I couldn’t run away, so I fled within. I closed my eyes and gathered my resolve that I knew I would get through this. This has become an uncomfortably familiar space.
This time he went further than he had ever done before and he actually put his hands into my pants and put his fingers into me. He felt me and I could hear his breathing intensified. He crawled up in the bed and lay next to me. After some time he went to go wash his hands. Then he would come back and start the ritual again. And then he would go wash his hands. And he would return. At that time I thought he was just washing me off of him, and now that I’m older I wonder if he wasn’t watching him off of him. For a long time the sound of running water was quite disturbing to me, and I imagined him furiously scrubbing off the evidence of his guilt out of his skin and conscience like Lady Macbeth. “Out, out damned spot.”
I kept trying and hoping that if he thought I was asleep that he would just leave me alone. I remember turning away and acting like I was thrashing as if having nightmare. I remember moving away and turning over just to have him pull me back towards him. I’m not sure how long this went on, but I know that he came and went from the room multiple times. It might have been a couple of hours and it might have been up to a half of the night. It seemed like a lifetime of no rest without the luxury of ever being sleepy. There was no more winding down, no more being at ease. And little did I know that this moment when I decided to break my silence would only kick start the rest of the trauma.
That night was the turning point in my grasp of the situation. I knew that something was terribly wrong, and I knew that I had to say something about it. Things were getting progressively more dangerous and progressively more intense. I was beginning to doubt everything I knew, and so I let my father know what had happened. He let my grandparents know what had happened. Surely then, my pain would be addressed. However, to my surprise, that’s when they doubled down on the abuse.
My grandmother told me that he was just showing me that he loved me, or that maybe I misunderstood something about the situation. At this point, I knew that I wasn’t in the wrong, but it muddied the water to hear this perspective echoed by again someone else who was supposed to stand up for me. She kept denying that her son could do anything like that. My grandfather nearly stopped talking to me and few people amongst the adults could actually look at me in the face. I had been living with my father at that time, but at some point as the story unfolded I moved back with my mother. My mother could tell that something was wrong, and although I held it in, she eventually forced the story out of me. Understandably, my mom went hysterical and her father threatened to kill my uncle. We started a court case and my fraternal grandparents went to all lengths to make sure that my attacker had the best legal representation and the fiercest defense.
Going to court was a further twist of the knife for my adolescent spirit. I remember having been in court before a few times. Some twisted judge made the decision during my parents’ divorce to have us as very young children sit in front of both of our parents and officially declare whom we wanted to live with. I remember that day looking back and forth at my mom and dad seated separately and apart and trying to figure out what I wanted balanced against whom I could bear hurting the least. I had face that with a lot of anxiety, but at least it somewhat prepared me to testify. Or so I would have liked to think. On the day that I told my side of the events, his defense attorney was so aggressive in his questioning that I had to be taken off the stand. Due to processes that I didn’t understand at the time, and have not wanted to ask about since, this resulted in a plea bargain. He was charged with some lower degree of assault and my father’s side of the family was ordered to recognize a restraining order.
However, they did not maintain that separation and I still came into regular contact with him during holidays, events, and even sometimes during normal visitation. None of the other children in the family were ever told about this incident, not even when they were older, and they were all exposed to him on a regular basis. The interaction was always very predictable. We would stay apart for as long as possible. Then, when the meal was served and we all come together to dine, it would become impossible for us to be too far apart. Again, as far as the narrative went, we were the jovial uncle and the funny niece. He would crack a joke, and I would retort. Everyone would watch in hushed silence to make sure that nothing deviated from the structure. He’d say his thing, and I would say mine. Everyone would erupt in relieved laughter, and we’d make our plates and eat separately. I hated that puppet show.
I became really withdrawn and my mom’s attempt to take me to therapy was unsuccessful. I was determined not to let this define who I was, and I was certainly determined not to let it ruin my life. I didn’t want to be the girl that this happened to, and now everything else in her life was explainable. If I was in a good mood, it was shocking… because considering what happened. If I was in a bad mood it was understandable … considering what had happened. I didn’t want it to mean anything fundamental about me or who I would eventually become. I somehow thought I could bracket off the experience and just continue developing without consequence. Yet, this just meant that I repressed a lot of it, and I let it do so damage than I would like to admit. It gave me an endless self doubt and it encouraged me to continue not sticking up for myself and other situations where I expose myself to a lot more risk and harm. I was ashamed that not having fought back. I felt devoid of value and not worth protecting.
I was ashamed at myself for having pretended to be asleep. I compared myself to my sister who had such feistiness and attitude. Nothing like that would ever happen to her because she could stick up for herself. Over the course of the next few years, I let myself fall into the hands of people who didn’t respect me. I didn’t know what it was to be respected. I let my consent be compromised at best, and felt unable to speak up even when I was being raped. I just didn’t know that I was supposed to have a say in it. I wasn’t sure what it meant to want to be in a loving situation and feel good about it. I felt like if my family, the people who were supposed to be there and stand up for me no matter what, if they didn’t care enough about me to do anything… coupled with the fact that they didn’t care enough about him to make him address whatever pain that stemmed from, that there just was no joy and healing to be found. When I look back at the situations I have lived through, put myself through, allowed myself to suffer through, I do actually realize that things could have gotten desperately worse as far as my physical safety. As long as I was alive and disease free, then no harm was done, right? Mental, psychological, and emotional pain seemed more like a given than a deterrent.
Fast-forward a few years until I had moved back to the USA after going to graduate school in Canada. My relationship with my mother had deteriorated so much at that point that, despite everything, the best option was for me to stay with my father until I could find a job and move forward with my life. It had been years since I haven’t seen my uncle because I had largely withdrawn from many people on my father’s side of the family. My father and my new stepmother were still held dear to me probably also for twisted reasons, but everyone else was dead to me. I didn’t want to have anything to do with them. Whenever I was around them I would always find reasons to excuse myself. You never would have thought somebody could go to the bathroom often. I remember hiding in closets for long periods of time just to enjoy the darkness and silence, and to escape forced small talk. Anyways, I was still very much upset with my grandparents. I suppose I forgave my father partly because I wanted to love him still, and because he at least showed some existential angst about the situation. He would waver, as he tends to do about most things, between never speaking to my uncle again, and then meeting him out in the deer woods.
I was having a glass of wine and working on a painting in the front bedroom. The only other two people in the house that night were my stepmother and her mother, both of then respectively having either major health problems, or being much older and frail. I was in my pajamas, painting happily, when I heard a knock on the door. Nobody was supposed to show up, and I wasn’t sure even if I had even heard it over my music. So I kept on painting. Then there was a tapping at the window, which was followed by another knock. I then proceeded to make a series of really bad decisions that once again put me in a familiar and compromising place.
You see, because of their on again and off again relationship, I knew my uncle was no stranger to my dad’s house. He had been there often and had often stayed overnight. So when I opened the door and saw him, I knew it wouldn’t have been the first time he had entered the doorway. He asked if he could come in. He said that he had come to Dallas with a friend and that they had been at a bar drinking, and he had made some inappropriate comments and been asked to leave. It was too late and he was too drunk to drive back home, one state over. It was very cold that night. It was almost Christmas. I should have gone straight away to wake up my stepmother, but I didn’t want to disturb her. I knew my father before had welcomed him, so I didn’t feel right in turning him away. So, stupidly, I let him in and said that he could stay in the music room.
He came in the house, and he eventually showed up in the doorway of my bedroom. He asked me what I was doing. I answered curtly. He then asked me point-blank if I hated him. This initiated phase two of my bad mistake. I suppose I thought I was going to get some kind of apology from him, that he was going to explain to me why he did what he did and that he didn’t mean to hurt me, and that he wished he could change it. I got up off the floor and I sat at the edge of my bed and he came to join me. I begin my almost apologetic speech about how I didn’t understand what he did and how it was really hard for me but I didn’t hate him. When I was finished, he put his hands on me and pushed me down on the bed. My body reacted in the exact same manner that it had done years prior. It got stiff and cold, almost like rigor mortis. I couldn’t move and I went into a full body freeze and paralysis. His hands started to move over me again. This time, though, the immobility didn’t last long and I want from paralysis to jelly to panicked action. I successfully wriggled out from under him. I remember turning to look at him for only a brief, horrified second before I ran down the hall. The last time I saw him, his head was hung low and he was wringing his hands. The coward.
I ran down the hall to my stepmother’s room. All I could say was “he did it again”. I just kept repeating, “He did it again” over and over. I feel for my stepmother, who was suffering from a major heart condition that eventually claimed her life. I can’t begin to imagine what strain it put on her. She thought I had taken drugs and she was shaking me and asking me to tell her what I had eaten and if I needed to go to the hospital. Finally, I was able to tell her that my uncle was there and that he had attacked me. They still were unsure about where I was mentally, but when they heard the front door slam shut they looked at each other and realized that someone had been in the house.
They called the police. When the cops got there they immediately became upset with me because in their understanding they were responding to an intruder alert. When I was able to finally tell the story they were still confused about why they were there if the intruder was someone that I knew. When I was able to explain that he had sexually assaulted me, they said they would file a report and asked me if I wanted to press charges. I said that I did want to press charges and I asked if I could go to the hospital and get a rape kit or something to prove that his DNA was on me. They told me that that wouldn’t help me. They dismissed my request and told me to go file my own report the next day. So, I went with my stepmother to the police station and we filed a report. I told my story to at least five different people and wrote down in extreme detail everything I could remember.
I remember my father saying once again that he wanted to kill his brother and that he wished my maternal grandfather had actually done it years before. My fraternal grandparents were just returning from a cruise in Germany and when they heard the news I remember my grandmother saying to me, “I don’t know why he has such a fondness for you”, and “he always finds a way to ruin Christmas”.
Turns out that same night the police had picked him up only a few miles away from the house for driving while intoxicated. So we could prove that it was him who was there with me. He had been taken to jail but bailed out after only a couple days. My grandparents again hired him a lawyer. Somewhat luckily in the long run I wasn’t able to find a job in the USA, and I didn’t really want to stay there anyhow. I ended up getting a job in South Korea and going there to teach. While it has set the stage for a career I currently love, it was detrimental to my case, as the attorney couldn’t hold up the position without me being there. Nothing ended up happening in the end save for a fine that he got for leaving the state while there was a charge against him.
My stepmother told me over the phone that at one point in the case the story was that I answered the door in lingerie and with a glass of wine and I seduced him. As if I knew he was there and wanted to see him. When I came back home for my next visit I again faced my grandparents and their scrutiny. I remember my grandfather saying nobody else has ever had this problem so I was must be the determining factor. I had always wanted revenge anyways. I went into their house later that day, and I stole every picture that I could find of my sisters and I. In my mind, they didn’t deserve to ever see my face again.
That all was probably 10 years ago now. I have come to a point where I don’t want to have no relationship with my grandparents. I am afraid I will regret it once they pass. I won’t say that I have forgiven them, but I have tried to salvage what I can with them while they’re still around. I don’t know exactly what I would have done if my son had done something like that. But I certainly would have tried to ensure that he got more help, and that granddaughter felt a measure of support.
Even to this day when I visit my grandparents, I am less than 100 yards from the place that it happened. His house is just down the hill, they see him often, and they insist on making sure I know his latest news. My father still wavers. He hates his brother, but then they buy a boat together and keep in regular touch. I don’t know exactly what I want their reaction to be, but I have realized by now that they are never going to stick up for me. It’s either cut them all off, or try to salvage what I can. The choice to salvage has been a long road.
For many years my plan was to write a book, and I have written and rewritten the story down with excruciating detail. I no longer want every sordid detail out there. I have probably written enough this time. Before though, I wanted the world to know each ounce of pain and shame I felt. I started a previous blog that spelled out all the gory details, but then also tried to be a safe space for victims of sexual abuse. I was called “You Are Not Alone”. I know my story is, sadly, far from unique. I wanted to publish my text with names and addresses so then my family would feel some sense of guilt. I wanted them to be known as enablers at their prestigious church, possibly even kicked out and humiliated for the hypocrisy that they upheld. It’s possible that their reaction to the situation did far more damage to me than the original attacks. It’s hard to measure that kind of thing though. I know that I am further along from healing physically and sexually, than I am from their disavowal of my feelings.
In any case in this current political climate, there is sadly nothing more nostalgic to me then seeing the victim of sexual assault get gaslighted and thrown to the wolves bye people who claim authority, and especially religious, authority. However, those of us who have been sexually assaulted are not again going to pretend to be asleep this time. I’m not going to lie there and take it, even though I know that I am strong enough and I can handle the burden. We are not going to let you ruin us and make us feel small anymore. You’ve already done that once. This time we’re fighting back.
For years I have fought against ideas that there was something wrong with me. I have had to try to understand morbid details of my own life as coping mechanisms and not something fundamentally horrid about myself. I am still on the road to self-acceptance and self-value. I am no longer interested in outing my abusers though. I am just fatigued of seeing the same old, tired excuses and narratives played out. These stories are important, but my personal details aren’t. It just needs to stop, and we must begin by uprooting the systems of support that these abusers enjoy.
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