A few days ago I was busy getting dinner cleaned up so that I could get to a meet up with some friends. I took a minute as a was getting ready to go and I saw this Facebook post from my cousin, Maddy Mueller, that stopped me in my tracks https://www.facebook.com/maddy.p.mueller/posts/168.... I responded first as a Mama Bear, because it is who I am. I let her know that I was there for her, she is family to me and even if she wasn't, Mama Bears protect the cubs. Then I thought of my own child heading off to college soon and I felt fear and anger. Then came the memories.
This post, this one little post, broke my heart in all the good and bad ways possible. "Not her!" was a thought I had over and over. It was her first semester of college at most people's dream school. "Not her family!" was another thought. I imagine her mother and father and want to scream "No! Not your precious baby!" They had cared for and protected her so well for all those years, and some guy comes around and just takes it all. I felt a rage I cannot explain. What on Earth makes anyone think that they have a right to just come in and take what they want without asking? To harm, violate, traumatize another human for what? The audacity to think that you can and that you won't be punished. Boiling anger is what I felt.
My next thoughts were that I had no words to offer my own daughter that will be heading off to college in a few years. I couldn't tell her the things that were commonly said to girls when I was growing up. Cover your drink, don't get too drunk, don't go places alone, dress modestly, don't flirt too much, don't leave your friends. What I know is that she could do all of these things and still fall victim to sexual assault. The message I should have been hearing my whole childhood is that my body belongs to me and no one gets to do anything to it without permission. Another message I could have heard and been more clear about is that both people need to give CLEAR consent and that if one or both of you has been drinking, is sleeping, or even if one of you forgot to cover your drink, went somewhere alone, wore a revealing, sexy dress and acted flirtatious, unless you clearly discussed whether or not sex or touching would be okay with both of you, it shouldn't be happening. Not only shouldn't it be happening but if it is or it did and you never gave explicit permission, it is a crime. I failed to get that message growing up.
I had no idea when I was at a gathering of friends the summer between eighth and ninth grade that I would have my first encounter with a sexual predator. It was the most innocent of gatherings with people that I often hung around with. We had had several gatherings of friends over the summer, boys and girls, and we did things like play games, tell jokes, and just hang out. This particular party there were a few boys there that hadn't been before but I knew them from school and liked them. It started as all the others had, junk food, games, giggling, teasing,and just having fun. I found myself in the basement with a few people sitting on the couch. Two people got up to go to another room and it left me there with one of the boys new to the party. He grabbed me, pinned me down, grabbed at my genitals and looked right at me and said "You like it don't you?". I said "No!" and tried to get away but he held me there a minute longer and said "Yes you do." People started coming back into the room and he let me go. I was in shock. I said nothing. I stayed there at the party and acted as if nothing happened. How could I tell my innocent, carefree friends what our other friend just did to me? They all really liked him. I had liked him too before that day. He spend the rest of the party acting like nothing happened until he could glare at me when no one else was looking, almost threatening me. I never told a soul. I went to a small school with him for the next four years and always acted like it never happened.
What I remember most about that day, was as soon as it happened, being angry at him for touching me without permission and holding me so I couldn't get away, but also that as soon as he let go I started asking myself, "What did I do to deserve that?". "Was I flirting?" "Were my shorts too short?" And never once did I think to tell the adults in that house or to tell my friends or to tell my parents when I got home. I thought I would get in trouble and not be allowed to hang out with my friends anymore. I had no idea that what he did to me was a crime. That he could get in trouble for what he did to me. I thought I deserved it. I have carried that around with me, never saying his name to anyone, never asking him to pay any of the consequences for what he did to me, just holding the shame every time I saw his face in the halls, in class, at the lunch table, at the football games.
Reading Maddy's post, I became so upset thinking about how we women carry the shame, we women spend the hours in hospitals, in courtrooms, crying on bathroom floors. We worry about pregnancy, disease, reputation, and if we will ever, ever feel safe when a man, even a man we love, touches us? For the man who touched me without my permission at 12, he is off living his life without ever having faced one single consequence, I can't even bring myself to write his name here, even though part of me really wants too. Why did I think I deserved it?
My heart broke in a good way two times the night I read this post. First it broke open with joy to read that Maddy was strong enough to post her experience for others to learn from. Standing there in her hospital gown, at her most vulnerable, yet knowing that she didn't deserve it. Knowing that it was a crime and knowing that she could do all she could to bring him to justice. My heart radiated pride and happiness knowing that she would not live the shame the way I did. She would not swallow and carry the blame her whole life, she would put it back where it belongs, on the predator. I offered to be by her side through any of it because I've done some hard things in courtrooms and it helps to have many bodies by your side.
My heart broke open again later that night when I realized how sad I was for the little girl, and even the big girl inside me that never knew she hadn't deserved it. Not at 12, not at 15, not at 18, not at 22, or 25. She never deserved any of it. She just didn't know. She thought something was wrong with her, no one ever told her there wasn't. Not one of these men has ever had their name on a police report with me listed as victim and most are off living their merry life as husbands, fathers, workers and being thought of as "good guys". I guess in the end, I don't care about them at all. I care about me. I care that my heart was buried in shame, hurt, trauma, violation, denial, anger all these years and the saddest part of all, that I really thought I did something to deserve that. The good pouring through my soul right now is the knowledge that I didn't do anything, not one single thing wrong. I was betrayed. I was hurt. I was not to blame. It is a deep and beautiful salve for a long aching soul.
Maddy, thank you. You sharing your story, that beautiful act of bravery, triggered a healing in me. I know you will understand me when I say, I know this is just the beginning and that I will work on this forever, but letting the shame out into the light, I know it cannot survive for long. I used to think that someone taking your body, using it for their own without any regard for you, was the ultimate betrayal. It is. But so is the voice in your own head that questions what you did to deserve it. That is the one that hurts the most, because society taught us to do that to ourselves, and THAT is the wound that never gets to heal because it is in your own mind, it goes with you wherever you are. There is no safe space from it. And society reinforces it time and time again. Thank you for the reminder that wounds heal when they are exposed to air and light and the truth.
"Give what you have. To someone it may be better than you dare to think." - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow