The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable.
Atrocities, however, refuse to be buried.
Equally as powerful as the desire to deny atrocities is the conviction that denial does not work. Folk wisdom is filled with ghosts who refuse to rest in their graves until their stories are told. Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites both for the restoration of the social order and for the healing of individual victims.
-Judith Herman, Trauma & Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror
Remembering & Telling
On January 22nd, I broke 17 years of silence and spoke publicly for the first time about what happened to me when I was 10 years old. I wrote a diary called “F**k Joe Paterno”- Be warned that if you click on the link, it might crash your computer because I received well over 2,000 comments in response. I think it is safe to say, it was probably one of the most controversial posts on this site- Mainly because I broke 2 serious taboos-First, I cursed a man’s name within hours of his death. Secondly, I wrote vividly and graphically about one of the most uncomfortable and unspeakable things that happens within our society- the rape of a child. That child was me.
I had no intentions on writing that diary when I woke up that Sunday morning. As a matter of fact, I was putting the finishing touches on a diary about Saul Alinsky, of all people. When I heard of Paterno’s passing, I was more or less ambivalent to the news. I had gone out of my way to avoid the coverage of the horrors at Penn State, as I always do whenever the sexual abuse of children hits the headlines-it hits too close to home, and it ultimately ends up taking my mind places I would prefer not to go.
I cannot remember what possessed me to write that diary. In fact, I don’t really remember writing it at all. I am normally a very cautious, meticulous writer, drawn to explorations of the political rather than the personal. So writing about the experience of rape-and doing so in a way that was so deeply personal-was a radical departure from anything I had ever done before. Instead of laboring over it for hours, I wrote it all in one sitting-in a matter of about 30 minutes-and posted it immediately. And then I sat back and prepared to be ripped to shreds.
And for the first 5 minutes or so, that was exactly what happened. The initial feedback I received came in the form of 4 hide rates to my tip jar, no recommendations, and a single comment that seemed to sum it all up quite succinctly- “Filth”. A word that cut deep to my core (as any sexual abuse survivor will tell you, “filth” is a very common self-descriptor)
I came within seconds of taking the diary down-the cursor was quite literally hovering over the “delete” button-when I saw that I had in fact gotten a recommendation from a Kossack who I hold in very high esteem, Horace Boothroyd III. With his endorsement ringing in my ears, I decided to take a chance, and leave it up for a few more minutes and see what happened. Little did I know that this split second decision would end up changing my life.
To write out what happened over the ensuing week could be a diary unto itself, and in fact it almost was. But the Readers Digest version goes something like this: Within a matter of a few hours, I went from being someone who had kept my sexual abuse a closely guarded secret for over half of my life to publicly talking about it on one of the most highly trafficked blogs on the internet, and from there watching my story-personal photographs, strong identifiers, and the full name of my abuser included-go viral.
So within 24 hours the diary I never planned on writing about the secret I never planned on revealing had been shared thousands of times on social networks, received over a thousand comments, and elicited over 300 emails and private messages that included everything from a death threat to a marriage proposal, and an invitation to be interviewed on live television. And while all of this was going on, I was in the midst of a nervous breakdown. In the initial exuberance of public validation, combined with my discomfort under the glare of the spotlight, I had decided to channel the attention I was getting into something bigger than myself- and put together a tribute diary that would be posted on the day of Joe Paterno’s memorial service.
It was putting that diary together that ultimately pushed me over the edge. Reading through all of the heartbreaking submissions felt like an overdose of trauma, when I had not even begun the process of healing from my own. Every story I read felt like I was right there, and brought back memories of my own abuse-including memories that I had long buried in the darkest recesses of my subconscious. All the while, behind the relative privacy of a computer screen, I tried to put on a good show of holding myself together. But eventually the mask began to slip off, and by the time the week was over I realized that I was on the verge of exposing myself as a fraud. I was coming perilously close to revealing that the strong survivor woman known as SwedishJewfish was in fact a complete basket case. A basket case who had perched herself atop some kind of pedestal that she had no business being on in the first place.
So I did what comes naturally to me- I created an escape route, and ran away. I wrote a diary that I have to admit was largely bullshit about this wonderful catharsis I had gone through, and how great it felt to finally disclose what happened to me. I left under the auspice of going somewhere to seek inpatient treatment-which didn’t seem too far from the truth since I was looking for it at the time- but it was more than anything just a cover story to excuse my swift departure without causing anyone concern. I assured everyone that it was not a GBCW, and I would return very soon. And then I left Daily Kos, and never planned on coming back.
This is where the story starts to get a bit bizarre. I will start off by saying I’ve never been a believer in the supernatural-I’m a woman of science, through and through. But after I wrote Fuck Joe Paterno, a series of events happened that seemed to defy any rational explanation.
The Tree Climbing Girl
The first strange event actually happened about 24 hours after I wrote the diary. In search of a photograph, I opened up a shoebox that I had gone through many times before. Looking at pictures of myself as a child has taken on a somewhat dogmatic quality throughout my life, for reasons that I will explain in a later installment. But suffice it to say, I’ve been through that shoebox of pictures more times than I can count, and have probably seen every single photograph contained within it at least 100 times. And yet, when I opened that shoebox I found a picture staring back at me, at the top of the pile-one I had never seen before in my life:
It was the picture of the girl who climbed trees- the one who I wrote about mere hours before in “Fuck Joe Paterno”. The child that died, or at least disappeared into a fog and never reemerged. Even beyond the inexplicable surfacing of this never before seen image was the nature of the photograph itself. It is the only candid picture I have ever seen of myself as a child. My parents did not own a camera, so all of my pictures were awkward group shots, usually taken at holidays or family gatherings. This picture of me in the tree showed an image of myself that I had never seen before. Oblivious to the camera, looking upward at the branches, wondering how far I could climb-it was the living embodiment of the child I was before I was raped. It is the only true picture I have of the girl who climbed trees-and in a way, the sole proof I have that she ever existed.
The second event happened about a week after my departure from Daily Kos. I was still in the midst of a nervous breakdown, but was reaching the point where I knew I had to find some way to pull myself back together. I decided I had to do something productive with my time-some kind of mundane task that would bring me back into something that at least approached functioning. So I decided to clean out my sisters closet.
My sister is the biggest pack-rat in the universe, and her closet was literally stacked floor to ceiling seemingly with every possession she has ever owned. So going through her closet was a bit like digging through ancient ruins-each layer of clutter representing a year in the life of a sister who I felt like I had barely known. I found artifacts of the life she had lived while I was all but absent from my home. And then, to my utter astonishment, I found something that I thought I had lost forever. I found my journal.
One of the things I talked about in Fuck Joe Paterno was how from the age of around 17 until 21, I barely remember anything. Most of my memories seem to have been sucked into a kind of black hole. This was around the time that I started spiraling out of control- running away from home and living with the street kids, throwing myself into the path of danger and re-victimizing myself in increasingly horrific ways. I spent time in rehab, juvi, a group home and a psychiatric hospital, and I remember almost none of it.
But I knew that I had kept a journal throughout this entire time. Even when I was essentially homeless, couch surfing and sometimes sleeping in my car, I wrote every day. My journal was one of those marble notebooks that you buy from the dollar store, and I had filled almost all of it, front to back. In fact, my only real memories during that time are of writing- I remember bits and pieces of poetry, but mostly writing character sketches of some of the people I met. I have always written as a dispassionate observer, and fancied myself as a kind of pioneering journalist, capturing the life of the streets. I imagined that one day, I would get my act together and write some kind of fantastic manuscript that would change the way the world looked at street kids; kind of an Oliver Twist for the 21st century.
But somewhere in my nomadic travels, I lost my journal-just as I had lost so many things during that time. Almost all of my possessions seem to have disappeared off the face of the earth somehow, along with most of my memories. I don’t have any of my high school yearbooks. I have virtually no photographs. Like the girl who climbed trees, the girl who ran the streets seemed to have either died or disappeared-the only evidence of her existence contained in that vanished journal. My dreams of becoming a pioneering journalist were ruined, and eventually my great ambitions gave way to the realization that I was either going to die, or learn how to be a grown up. I ultimately decided on the latter approach. I had my daughter at age 21, and a few years later I graduated from nursing school. I held a steady job, and did fairly well at giving off the appearance of a healthy, functioning adult. Through medication and distraction, I learned to control the disruptive flashbacks and intrusive thoughts that had previously caused me to spiral out of control. Gradually, I learned how to forget.
But there has always been a part of me that felt incomplete. It is hard to explain sometimes what I mean when I talk about parts of myself that have died, and how I look at those photographs of myself at different ages and don’t even recognize them as me. This disruption in my identity is something I seldom talk about-it seems to be a mark of insanity. And I also was not very fond of my prior incarnations. In particular, I thought my 17-21 year old self was a pretty terrible person. She was a person who seemed to destroy everything in her path; manipulative, deceitful, and prone to fits of violence. An addict with no drug of choice- hooked on adrenaline, money, sex, anything she could get her hands on to fill the void. My responsible adult self was horrified by this person, and banished her from my consciousness. I became grateful, in a way, that I had lost the only evidence that she ever existed.
So when I found this journal, I was initially afraid to read it. I left it in the closet where I found it for a couple of days, until my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to give it a look.
What I found, much to my relief, was very little information about myself. Most of what it contained were the character sketches I had written in my days of envisioning myself as a journalist of the streets. I began to remember people I had all but forgotten. And one, in particular, who I never had. Buried in my sisters closet, within the pages of my lost journal, I finally found my lost friend Rosa* [Note-I have changed the name and some identifying details of this person to protect her privacy, and while the picture is one I drew of her at the time it does not really resemble her as much as it captures her spirit]
Of all the people I met during my days as a street kid, Rosa was the one person who always stayed with me. I only knew her for 2 weeks-having met her in a group home shortly after my 17th birthday. She was my roommate, and within the crucible of the group home I came to know her in a way that I had never known anyone before-and in turn, she came to know me as well. And a person like Rosa is someone who’s story is almost impossible to forget. This is how I wrote about her at the time:
May 31’st, 2002I wrote pages and pages about Rosa, and what she revealed to me about her life-which she talked about without an ounce of shame or trepidation-rivals some of the worst atrocities I’ve read about in history or case studies before or since. In addition to the abuse inflicted on her, she witnessed horrific acts of violence including the murder of one of her relatives right in front of her. She was made to stay in her bedroom stripped of all clothing waiting to be raped repeatedly throughout the day at the blessing of her own mother. A Prisoner of War held under these conditions would be treated like a hero if he survived intact-and justifiably so. But Rosa? She was rewarded by being thrown into the foster care system, and then placed into a group home for “troubled” teenagers. She had her baby ripped away from her and was forbidden to even have his picture. She received almost no formal education until she was 12 years old, and was then immediately labeled as borderline mentally retarded and functionally illiterate.
My roommate is a black girl from Atlanta, and when she talks she sounds almost like she’s singing. She’s got the biggest brown eyes, she’s so pretty and she looks old and young at the same time. She’s only 13, and she already has a baby. She showed me his picture-he looks like a scrunched up little raisin but he’s sooooo cute! She’s not supposed to have a picture of him for some reason. I can tell she loves him and really misses him a lot. Even though she’s only 13, I can tell she would be a good mother. She’s so sweet with Alex, even when he drives everyone else crazy banging his head against the wall and stuff, she runs up behind him and puts his head in her lap so he bangs it against her instead and then sometimes he lays down in it and she goes “don’t get no ideas now” There is something about her that seems so sad. Sometimes when I walk by the room I see her sitting on her bed and sucking on her thumb, just staring out the window. She never talks about her family, and I’m afraid to ask her about it. She showed me her boyfriend though, the father of her baby, and he looks like he’s old enough to be her dad! He’s in a gang and he’s in prison. She writes him letters every day but she’s not allowed to send them, which is kind of weird. OK, gotta go to bed.
June 2nd 2002
Me and Rosa talked last night till like 3 in the morning. She told me everything. I couldn’t believe it but at the same time I did because I could see it in her eyes that she was telling me the truth. She was hurt so many times when she was a kid that I can’t even believe it. It’s all she ever remembers. First her uncle and her dad made her have sex with them, but then they went to jail (not for that, for other stuff). Then her mom was on drugs and when she didn’t have money she would let the men who sold drugs come to her house go to her room and have sex with her. I don’t know how old she was, but she said it happened for a long time and after the first few times it didn’t hurt anymore and she just didn’t feel anything really. Some of them were old men, and she said they were the meanest ones. One of them put a belt around her neck and choked her till she almost passed out and when she asked why he did it he said he wanted to see if her eyes would bug out. The same guy burned her with a pipe and she has little circle scars all over her body, even on her face and makeup doesn’t even cover it. He tried messing with her little sister and she took his cigarette right out of the ashtray and burned him with it to make him stop. So he punched her in the mouth and gave her a scar that she likes because she got it for her baby sister and it shows how much she loves her. She doesn’t know where her sister is now, and when she told me that I actually started crying. It doesn’t seem fair that I get to see my sister even though we hate each other, and she doesn’t even get to see hers. She has nobody in her family anymore, she’s all alone and it’s so sad, but she doesn’t even cry. She’s the bravest person I ever met. When I asked her if she ever cried about it she said no, she just gets mad. She wants to get a gun and go back and kill them-I told her I would go with her. I’m honestly thinking about doing it! I want to kill them too for what they did to her! We are probably going to run away from here and get an apartment together. Shes going to try to get Tyrell back and we can raise him together. For the first time ever, I feel like I could be happy because I finally might have a best friend again.
In the “school” we both attended, she was given coloring books. In our free time, we read the book “I know why the caged bird sings” by Maya Angelou- I read it to her, since she was never taught how to read herself, but she absorbed it like a sponge and understood it in a way that I never could-she saw in little Maya a girl very much like herself. We got halfway through it before I realized she thought it was written by a white person. When she found out it was Maya Angelous story in her own words, it was like a fire lit inside of her. She wrote poetry that blew my mind. Riddled with spelling errors and barely legible, but breathtakingly beautiful at the same time. I wrote her poems out for her in cursive and gave them to her to keep. And in my lost journal, by sketching over the imprints left behind by my ballpoint pen, I was able to retrieve the last poem she ever wrote before she abruptly disappeared from my life:
If I was a bird13 years old, abused her entire life, and labeled as mentally retarded. The only thing I did was fix the spelling errors.
I would be the color blue
For all the nights
I sat and cried over you
I was back in the day
I’m sad to say
A bird in a cage
But I don’t have
No more rage
My heart is right here
On this page
I know now
why the caged bird sings
she found her wings
And learned that she don’t need you
To give her anything
I won’t wait for you
To write the next chapter
I can give myself
My own Happy Ever After
While there were a variety of factors that ultimately pulled me out of my self-imposed exile- chief among them the tenacity of my friend and fellow survivor Roxine, the love I still had for this community, and the hundreds of messages of encouragement and love I got in response to my diaries about sexual abuse- it was Rosa who ultimately forced me to remove myself from exile. Rosa’s story was one I had always remembered- you don’t hear about abuse like that and forget- but Rosa herself had faded from my memory and had begun to sink into that black hole along with everything else from that time. Rosa became the living embodiment of what Judith Herman spoke of in the beginning of her book- her story was the atrocity that refused to be buried. Her spirit was the ghost of the past that came back to haunt me, reminding me of the one thing I had always promised to do but had all but forgotten about. I never told her story. I never told my own. I never became that crusading journalist of the streets, telling the stories of people who no one else cared about. Instead I had sat back and done nothing while their memories were forgotten. It should come as no surprise that many of the people I wrote about in my journals are now deceased. Many more of them are in prison, or lost in the haze of drug addiction. Almost all of them have disappeared from my life without a trace.
While all of our experiences were different, there was one thing that we all had in common- we all had a history of trauma in our pasts. We were all taught the rules of oppression from a very young age, and were never allowed to forget them.
But as I said in Fuck Joe Paterno, I am one of the lucky ones. I was not victimized by my family, and when I finally turned my life around they welcomed me back with open arms. They allowed me back into their home and supported me while I pursued my education. And when I told them last month that I was all but abandoning this education in the crazy pursuit of social justice for abused children that I had abandoned over a decade earlier, they told me I should go for it. To my utter amazement, they said that they believed in me and would be there to support me all the way.
And so along with my dear friend and fellow survivor Roxine, with the backing and support of so many members of this community who kept urging me to go forward, I want to share with all of you what we have been up to for the last 2 months.
We have a WEBSITE
We have a TWITTER
(Nevermind, FUCK Facebook!)
(and as Roxine just reminded me-yes, we have a donate button)
We are a 501(c)3 charitable organization that supports victims of Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) and Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) in their recovery, and empowers them to use their voices to protect other children and help other survivors. While we are operating independently now, our roots are firmly planted in this community. It was the support and encouragement that I received from all of you that compelled me to keep going forward even when all I wanted to do was retreat back into isolation.
I will be very upfront here and acknowledge that this is a difficult issue. As my opening quote suggests, the sexual abuse of children is an unspeakable atrocity and something that most people would rather not think about. If you have gotten this far, that's progress in and of itself, but I realize that it may not be enough to hold your attention over 5 (possibly more) installments. So I'm going to ask you to go back and read about Rosa. Then consider the fact that there are thousands of children like her across this country. The progressive movement is about giving a voice to the voiceless. It is about demanding that the people our society throws away-like Rosa- are honored and valued. Social justice is one of our central tenants. But there are 59 million of us in the United States alone, and we have yet to see anything approaching it.
So this is what I pose to you- if you don't care about child sexual abuse because it makes you uncomfortable, or because is an issue you don't see as politically relevant, put your assumptions on hold for the next 5 days. Because child abuse is more than just a crime committed against an individual, it is a crime against society. The abuse of children is something that not only robs it’s victims of their innocence, it robs society of their potential. Children like Rosa, who could become our great authors, poets, artists, and warriors for justice are never told that they possess this kind of potential, and never given an opportunity to reach it. Deprived of their most basic needs of safety and security in childhood, then shunned by society as adults, they are often left to disintegrate and are all but forgotten. And this has been the case throughout history.
In Trauma & Recovery, Judith Herman wrote a story that changed my life almost as much as Rosa’s did. Only this story was not about an individual, but a forgotten history. And this forgotten history is what ultimately changed my perspective on an issue that I had always simply viewed as a personal tragedy-I began to see the abuse I suffered beyond my own individual experience, and for the first time through the prism of oppression and social control. One passage in particular stood out for me:
The knowledge of horrible events periodically intrudes into public awareness but is rarely retained for long. Denial, repression, and dissociation operate on a social as well as an individual level. The study of psychological trauma has an “underground” history. Like traumatized people, we have been cut off from the knowledge of our past. Like traumatized people, we need to understand the past in order to reclaim the present and the futureSo in the next 5 (yes, 5, possibly more!) installments I will tell a story that has been all but forgotten- How the sexual abuse of children was forced into public discourse twice over the past century-and once almost resulted in a sustained political movement to end it. How that movement faltered and resulted in devastation for millions of children including myself. And finally, why this time it can be different.
5:34 PM PT: Links fixed!
Wed Apr 18, 2012 at 6:21 AM PT: I just wanted to say thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for all the wonderful comments, to everyone who shared this on their social networks, and donated to us since I posted last night.
I wrote and posted this after pulling an all-nighter trying to work out the kinks in the website, and then I crashed. I have court this morning, so I will not be able to respond for a while. But I will in due time.
I also want to say that while I am so humbled by all of the kind words, I do not deserve all the credit for this. There have been so many people who have put in their time and effort to make this possible. Roxine, for starters, has worked probably harder than anyone on it, including myself. She is the one who decided to keep it going, filed for incorporation, set up the domain, and has been working behind the scenes for over 3 months to make this possible. She is amazing, tenacious, and without her passion and drive none of this would be happening.
I also want to give credit to a few of my fellow Kossacks and others who have helped along the way...I'm in a rush so I don't get to write out all of the ways they have helped make this possible but thank you's and credit to the following people:
So many others...also my friends Gene, Melissa, April, and 2 amazing kids who I will call Vale and Marley who gave me so much inspiration and helped me realize that this crazy dream of mine could become a reality.