That personal life is a dragon. Dragons self-immolate if they’re not breathing fire. So if you’re easily triggered by talk of sexual violence, or if you’re one of those souls who thinks I should keep it to myself, you should probably stop reading and start looking for a website with flowers, kittens, and rainbows now instead. I recommend you go here.
I walk into a room and count heads.
If there are only two other women, I kind of relax, taking responsibility for the one-in-four demographic. I also remain tense, because I don’t know if I know how to relate to women who haven’t been assaulted. Or maybe, because of trauma, I’m tense in general.
The year after my mother remarried, her new husband followed me around their house goading me that in order to “heal” from my sexual assaults* (yes, that’s plural) he needed me to take responsibility to him for what I did to instigate the abuse. He followed me room to room, outside and inside, as I cried, trying to escape because, like each of my assailants, he wasn’t going to stop.
I’m going to spare you specifics. In some instances, my memory does enough for me that I can only give you a rough outline of what happened. But I can give you my age, who the perp was, location, what I was wearing, and who I eventually told.
Age 5. Yellow corduroy pants and matching cream top, with yellow flowers and buttons painted the color of brass. My cousin, who was several years older. The guest/game-room in the house my father built on Main Street in Lewiston, UT. I told my mother, three or four years later, after I finally gained the courage to give her the clothing I’d removed afterward and stashed in the back of a drawer where they remained, staring at me every morning since.
Age 6. I remember the underwear I had on; tricot panties my mother sewed herself and a white cotton tank undershirt. The next door neighbor boy and his cousin, both five years older. The AirStream camper parked in the driveway next to my swing-set. I told my mother about this incident at the same time I told her about my cousin.
Age 9-10. Dresses, because it happened on consecutive Sundays on the back row during Primary. A boy in my class, a year older than me, whose father had once been bishop of the ward. I told no one because by this point I’d informed my mother of the other incidents. She responded by taking the clothes from me, and telling me to go outside and play. I’m certain, however, that my classmates and teacher must have seen this boy fondling me. His younger sister was in my grade at school, and on a day I went to their house to play he tried to fondle me again. This time, however, I looked at him squarely and told him to stop. He shrugged, said, “I was just practicing for my girlfriend.” It never happened again.
Age 14. Jeans and a t-shirt. A boy in my freshman English class with a ruler. I told no one, but other boys in class saw it happen.
Age 16. Jeans and a t-shirt. A boy in my junior US History class came up behind me and tried to fondle me at my locker. I turned around and kneed him in the crotch, then upon entering our classroom where he’d gone after the incident I announced aloud to everyone that if I’d wanted him to touch me I would put his hand there myself.
Age 20. A pleated black miniskirt and suspenders over an army green t-shirt. Knee-high stockings and black Mary Janes. A girl, Heather, I’d recently met at the local coffee shop; a 17-year-old boy I’d never met before that evening, Daniel; and a girl that I’d considered a close friend for four years. A room I’d paid for the purpose of a girl’s-night party at the Best Western in Logan, Utah. I was plied with much beer prior to the assault. Heather was instigator; the other two joined in. I was drunk and largely shocked into non-resistance on the bed. I only said, “Wait. What are you doing? What’s going on?” I told my boyfriend, my parents, the police, my friends at the Piano department at USU, my factory co-workers, other survivors at a CAPSA rape group. Since, I’ve told each of my husbands, and any survivor who confides in me. Outcome: Charges were never brought against my assailants. After two traumatizing interviews—one at the police station the next day on the insistence of my mother and step-father, another alone with an officer in his patrol car—I wasn’t believed, or at least they decided that there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute. I shaved my head, began piercing my body, moved into a tiny apartment with no windows which I rarely left besides going to and from work. I was forced to start from scratch socially because I was rumored to have brought false allegations against “friends”. I chose to stop dating women entirely because of the trauma.
Age 37. Garments. My third ex-husband. Our bedroom. He told me the Spirit told him to do it. I fought him off and ran to the basement, locked myself in a scalding shower, fled to a shelter two weeks later. I’m telling you.
Let’s discuss responsibility. If a homeowner is robbed, do we hold him responsible for the burglary even if he has chosen to purchase a home in an area with a high crime rate? If a child is playing near a busy street but not in the road and a drunk driver swerves and hits the child, killing him, do we hold the child responsible because of his proximity to the street? If someone owns a firearm, and another person uses that firearm against her in an attack, do we hold that person responsible for her own shooting because she supplied the weapon? If a child is sent to tell her visiting cousin that breakfast will soon be ready, do we hold that child responsible when her cousin tells her to take off her clothes and touch his own naked body? If an only child is left alone to play outside in her yard and knocks on an AirStream camper door because she saw the neighbor boys go into it and she’d like someone to play with, do we hold her responsible when the boys lock her in the camper closet and refuse to let her out until she strips and lays in her underwear on the floor? What if she gets a reputation because these boys talk about how easy it is to touch her? What if boys start taking advantage of the fact that she was ignored when she first reported and she has learned that authority figures do not respond to allegations that are brought up? What if she starts acting out from being traumatized over and over? What if she has a thing for both men and women? What if she drinks? What if she ends up in a place where she is compromised? What if the cops don’t believe her? What if she is married and doesn’t want to participate?
Would you follow her around the house pushing her to own up to what she did? Would you send her story to her school and try to get her kicked out?
Maybe up to a point she was enjoying the attention.
Maybe she didn’t use the word “No” or “Stop,” at the right time or out loud.
Maybe she didn’t struggle enough.
Maybe she knew that no one she’s trusted in the past responded with any sort of concern.
As a girl, she probably sat through at least one Young Women’s lesson on virtue—the one where the advisor brings in a daisy and starts plucking off petals in front of the girls for how many times a boy touches them. She probably knows she’s lucky to have a stem. She may even be called as a Young Women’s advisor at some point, and the only lesson she feels truly inspired in teaching is on chastity. And instead of reading what’s written, she’ll close the manual, look at her four MiaMaids and tell them the hard truth:
There is a statistic. One in every four women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. As those numbers go, it’s going to happen to at least one of you. When it does, it isn’t your fault. You needn’t repent for being violated. You should tell someone. A parent. A friend. Maybe your bishop. They should help you. If they don’t, keep looking for someone who will. You are precious. Your body is yours. You are not damaged goods if this happens to you.
She won't tell these young women about wondering whether the sacrament will work for her if her abuser has blest it. She doesn't want to tell them that if it has happened once it is likely it will happen again. She won't frighten them into the possibility that a spouse may not take "no" for an answer. She will pray that their parents won't be upset that she hasn't followed the lesson outline.
When she reaches her late 30s she’ll finally start adding up her own recursive damage, taking stock of cause and effect. The truth will eventually expose itself as her narrative, and she’ll stop catering to the idea that she’s mentally ill—broken and rebellious. It may take some drifting in and out of her religious organization to figure out that culture and tradition is what’s truly broken. And then she’ll become angry, fiercely protective of the truth narrative and her boundaries. She’s going to close doors on those who have repeatedly traumatized her, because at this point she’ll understand secondary victimization and post-traumatic stress disorder. She’s going to take back her life and her worth. Her body. Her mind.
She’s going to tell her story, albeit in third person, because the pain is only a trigger away.
And then, when LDS University of Choice becomes the perpetrator of secondary violence against another, the rage is going to bubble to the surface. The dragon will breathe its ruby breath. And oh, my precious girls! We can stand for no more silence.
* At this point in time I was still playing along with my mother’s narrative allegations that my father had perpetrated abuse against me. She held tightly to those as vindication for leaving him in a culture where divorce was anathema. My stepfather pressed me to assume my share of responsibility for those alleged molestations, which, as I’ve previously noted, never occurred. The idea that they had was my mother’s in the first place. It should be mentioned, however, that she never did anything about the abuse I did report. I questioned her two years ago about her lack of response. She replied, “It happened so long ago.” As if the two to three years between the incidents I told her about and the date I’d reported somehow rendered the assaults innocuous and therefore nothing to trouble herself over. A year or so after I reported the incidents the neighbor boy was ordained to the office of priest in the LDS Church. As is custom prior to ordination, the boy stands before the congregation for sustaining vote. I opposed. This is the one and only time I used that right. My mother, sitting next to me grew quite alarmed—we were front row Mormons after all. She asked in an anxious whisper, “Why would you do that?” I didn’t answer. The ordination took place. No one else asked me about my opposing vote.