The first time I was nine years old. The door crept open, slowly, softly against the rough and flat carpet. I was alone in the room. And then there was a hand under my nightgown, the hand of a man. A hand that didn’t belong there. The hand returned, and later it became hands, and soon it became worse than just a hand under my nightgown.
Years after it started, the door to my bedroom opened, and I shut my eyes against the bright light of the hallway. The cruel glare disappeared, and I could hear gentle footsteps come to my bed. A weight settled down next to me. “Hey,” my stepfather breathed, his breath stale and hot with beer and marijuana, “hey babe, your mother told me about you know what.” His hand slid up my leg, and I pulled my body closer to the wall; he just slid himself closer to me. “You’re a woman now, and there are things that women’re supposed to do.” His hands reached the band of my pants, and tugged them down. I clenched my legs together, pressing myself into the wall, willing it to give way. “So now I’m gonna to teach you.” He tore my pants down, and sat up, fumbling with himself, and I knew he was already naked. In the dark, I started to shake, a low “Nononono, please, please, no, please, stop,” coming out of my mouth. Sometimes I wonder if I actually ever said the words out loud, if I really only said them in my mind, because he reached for me and rolled me on my back, my shoulders pinned down by his weight as he pounded into me. I shut my eyes in the dark bedroom, watching stars and sparks of light against the back of my eyelids, flames of pain radiating from my belly to my thighs. Finally, he finished with me, and leaned over so he was level with my ear.
“You’ll never tell anyone ‘bout this ‘cause you’re just some dirty slut now, and no one’ll believe you anyways. And besides, if you tell, I’ll kill you.” The soft steps came again, and the door opened and closed, and I curled against the wall, my teeth chattering with cold, even in the warmth of my blankets, wondering if I had anything good in me left to give, now that he had taken something that you could only lose once.
I stayed awake all night, shaking, and in the morning, I got up and showered, turning the water knob as hot as I could stand it. Then I scrubbed at the blood on my thighs until my skin was raw and raked with fingernail marks. And I knew I was marked, that I had become as unloveable as a girl could get, and there wasn’t a single person I could tell who would be able to save me from the people who were supposed to protect me.
The last time it happened I was 17. I was sleeping on a pile of blankets in hot, stuffy room. His breath smelled like beer and his hair was dirty and I breathed in his tobacco- and sweat-stained skin. For eight years, he forced his want into me, piece by piece, a little bit at a time. For eight years, every time I saw him there was a little bit less of me, less of the joyful girl I had been as a young girl. And finally, I was so broken that I did it. After eight years, I ran away.
It is both the bravest and the stupidest thing I think I have ever done. But all of the risks far outweighed the consequences and I have never once regretted it. Because running away, scary and dramatic and after school special as it was, brought me true safety.
I didn’t tell anyone, not even after I ran away. I waited until I was 19, when I whispered my shame to the ears of a police officer in the family that had unofficially adopted me as a senior in high school. He listened without judgment but the weight and the pain of the words that I was telling him was just so much to say. Running away was terribly hard, but telling the truth was an infinite amount of times more difficult.
The local police were told. They spoke to me at work. They spoke with me on the phone and interviewed me in a room at the police station. The spoke to others in my life who knew me well, who knew this secret. And ultimately, nothing came of it. I do not believe it was because the police didn’t care — no, I believe they did. I spoke specifically with an officer who was assigned to sexual assault cases. He was kind and compassionate and tried to figure out ways to solicit a confession from my perpetrator, but we never were able to do anything, and to be honest I think when it comes down to it, if I’d had the chance to ask him the questions we were going to ask him — I don’t know if I would have been able to do it.
Reporting an assault of any kind is petrifying but it is especially scary and traumatic when you are reporting a crime of a sexual nature and even more devastating when you are a child reporting the crime or an adult reporting a crime that happened to you as a child. It is a crime that is filed with an overabundance of shame. It is a crime that makes you feel vile and dirty. It is a crime where all too often adults don’t believe you because they think you’re acting out somehow, that you’re mad at the person you’re accusing.
I can tell you that at 19, I was mad. I was mad because I had been assaulted and later raped by someone who was supposed to care for me. I was mad because the other adults in my life who were supposed to also care for me and protect me didn’t see what was happening, or (as I strongly suspect), they knew and for various reasons turned their eyes away from the clear and obvious signs in front of them.
I was raging mad because I felt so unloved.
You might be thinking: what in the world is this girl’s point? Tonight I am taken back to that place where I was so very afraid for what would happen to me each night. For years here and there, I lived with other people, but those moments where I wasn’t safe? Tonight I am remembering them all too clearly. The radiance of summer-hot skin. The coppery smell of sweat that builds up on your arms and neck and chest after a heated day. Flecks of spit hitting my face. And it makes my stomach churn. I have felt so much of that same anger simmering in my heart and soul today because of what has been in the news about the Duggar family. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, my first reaction, my gut instinct, is to always believe a child, and even an adult, when they say that has happened to them — I believe until I have reason not to, and it makes me sad to say that I always always believe.
My perpetrator was never punished and he died when I was in college so he will never face punishment for what he did to me. Nothing can change that. I waited until many years had passed to speak up. But the Duggar in question molested several different girls in the same way, and when the parents were told, they parents waited an entire year to report their son’s crimes against four of their daughters (and one other survivor).
If I had told someone, maybe a teacher or a yard duty, what was happening in my bedroom several nights a week, I would have been believed and I would have been protected right away. I didn’t speak up, but those girls did. They knew it wasn’t right when the police questioned them. And the travesty, the true and sickening travesty, is that they were not protected.
What makes this even more awful and painful for me is the way so many Christians are dismissing these crimes by saying “God has forgiven him, so it’s time to let something that happened 12 years ago go.” Or (and this is a true quote to my question “Are you really going to write it off simply because they’re Christians? Even Christians are governed by the law.”) “No, I’m not. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t feel bad he has to go through ridicule/shame for something he did 12 years ago.”
You want to feel ridicule and shame? Write a blog post 23 years after it started that details the way that someone touched your genitals and forcibly raped you and tell me what shame is. Go report into detail, excruciating detail, to not one but two or more police officers ten years after it started the way someone put his hand in your nightgown, what he did to you after that, how he used his flesh to defile your flesh.
That is shame.
But I should not feel shame. I didn’t do anything wrong. I was a young girl. I was a child. I didn’t know. I didn’t understand.
Forgive me if I don’t feel bad for an admitted child molester 12 years later. Forgive me if I don’t feel bad that he was never punished, that he never spent a second in jail and never received offender counseling, and forgive me for being enraged that he never will because the statue of limitations has passed.
We live in a world with a state of limitations on the sexual abuse of children.
We live in a world that breaks my freaking heart.
We live in a world that won’t punish this man for the things he took away from those girls. Even with the forgiveness of a great and glorious and beautiful Savior, they are changed because of what that man did to them.
We live in a world where Christians are trying to say because God forgave him, he doesn’t need to be punished. We live in a world where we are not holding him accountable to the law. I am wrestling with God tonight because this is hard, almost unbearably hard, for me. So many in the Church are defending him, excusing his actions as teenage curiosity, or excusing him because it’s been long enough and we shouldn’t hold it over him. God is my rock right now because I know He doesn’t change and I know that the Church is just a group of equally messed up people trying to figure this life thing out.
We live in a world where we are telling precious hearts that it doesn’t matter if someone hurt them because we won’t punish them.
I am sad tonight. I’m sad for that nine-year-old girl wearing a thin nightgown in a dark bedroom who felt that hand on her leg. I am sad for that thirteen-year-old who pressed her bloody legs to the wall after it was done. I am sad for the 32-year-old who finds herself aghast at the women who will defend a child molester because time has passed and it shouldn’t be held over his head forever. I am sad for every girl and woman living in her same because we live in a world that won’t protect her.
But in my sadness, I will not be silent. I will not let the world thing this is ok. This is a hill worth dying on. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” And this matters. All of those girls, little and big, whether it’s been months or decades since they were abused — those beautiful faces, those wrecked hearts — those girls matter.