(Content warning: description of disclosure of sexual abuse.)
Her words hung there, between us, naked and vulnerable, the long years of secrecy and darkness seeming to still cling to them, weighing them down. I use hung there as a flawed metaphor; something that is so laden with weight can’t really float between us. No, they made their inevitable journey, sinking deep into the pits of my inside, churning, the bile beginning to rise to my throat as I tried to take in the horrific details of her sexual abuse.
“I had no idea,” were (I think) the words which escaped my mouth. This is nearly twenty years ago, and I was recoiling from something so beyond my experience, so out of my frame of reference at the time. I knew the reputation of the man who did this to her, his “upstanding character” and his “service to the Lord.” I believed her, I believed the weight now turning my intestines topsy-turvy. But the cognitive dissonance as my brain tried to find some handle to hold things together was overwhelming.
She saw my surprise, saw I hadn’t ever had to wrestle with this kind of assault. “My story is common, even if you haven’t heard it,” she said. “We are cautious, you know, about sharing. We test. We take small risks, and when responses tell us it isn’t safe, we clam up.”
And then: “I’ve been testing you for months, to see if I could trust you with this.”
I don’t think I understood all that at the time, but that last line stayed with me. I thought back to other past conversations. Like a dawning revelation, I could see how I had shut down other wounded people, how I had sent the desperate, frightened, wary turtle back into the safety of the shell.
“Oh, he’s a good guy, you must have misunderstood,” I had said when someone told me how someone gave her a scary vibe. “Why did she stay with him,” I had said, as a friend and I spoke about another friend who we knew had been physically abused. Before we were anywhere close to a moment where these friends might have revealed their own darkest pain, I had already failed the test. I had already demonstrated I would question their assessment of the character of another person. I signaled how I would question their choices and imply blame.
Now that I had begun to understand how abuse survivors are so attuned to the words, body language, and tone of others, I started watching what I said all the time, and began changing my responses. I started looking for any “trial balloons” that people were intentionally floating past me, and doing my best to respond in a way that would show I would listen, that they were safe to share with me, that I wanted abuse to stop.
The floodgates opened.
Survivors are everywhere. I hate how common the gut-churning stories are.
Our church faced a lawsuit over a decades-old sexual abuse case. I had to fight my strong desire to defend us, and instead publicly spoke my concern for the plaintiff. In the following months, I ended up hearing the stories of others who also claimed they were abused by the same person. The experience showed me how abuse can be silenced for decades.
If I had defended our reputation, I’m convinced none of those people would have come to me. And abuse survivors need to be heard. Their stories need to be told and brought into the light for healing, for justice, and for the pain to lose some of its power.
I’m trying to share how my understanding of the world I live in has changed, how I saw ways that my actions and words were keeping others from sharing their pain. My perception of reality is now different because abuse survivors have been brave enough to disclose to me, and have helped me learn how to behave and speak in ways that then invite more disclosure. It’s become a self-reinforcing cycle.
And this is my fear on this day where Dr. Christine Blasey Ford spoke her naked, vulnerable words, the years of darkness and secrecy clinging to them and weighing them down, as they (somehow) float there in front of us all. My fear is that we are all in opposite self-reinforcing cycles.
For us who’ve walked this road (ourselves or with others), it all fits with the world we now live in, the one where our eyes have been opened and our hearts are filled at times with despair. This is the world where abuse happens, where perpetrators so often get away with it, where it’s so hard to risk revealing it, where we see with crystal clarity that if you do disclose, the questions and doubts and the character assassination will overwhelm.
For others, it just doesn’t fit the world we live in, because no one we know talks with us about these experiences, because we haven’t heard the fear and careful weighing that goes into disclosing, because all we see are the public personas of abusers that are so often carefully and meticulously managed.
I’m not an abuse survivor, and I’ve been walking in a funk for days. I can’t imagine what it is like for those who are.
Why do I write this?
I think I write to try and help people see that the things said about this particular high profile case are being carefully observed and weighed by abuse survivors around us, the ones who are still silently holding their pain. The questions, the doubts, the excuses are causing more and more survivors to decide never to trust others with their experience. And if your words are such that they see you as unsafe to share with, you will then live in a world where you don’t see up close the abuse in this world. A self-reinforcing cycle.
I think I write to ask you to wrestle with the cognitive dissonance that abusers, very often, have public lives that look amazing (which they have carefully and skillfully created and maintained).
I think I write to share my own grief, rage, and despair at how common it is for abuse survivors to keep having to relive their own trauma as others are questioned, doubted, and discredited over their experience.
I think I write so that we all (myself included) will open our eyes to the self-reinforcing cycles we live in, that we all will listen to the experiences of others; listen, more than prepare our defense or our explanation for how that doesn’t make sense.
May we work together to create a world where it is safer for abuse survivors to share their stories, and more importantly, may we work together to create a world where people stop abusing others.