For some, #MeToo and #TimesUp mark political correctness run amok. Some scoff that women don’t know the difference between a bad date and assault, drawing a sharp divide between critics of the movement and women who are demanding that we reclaim our voices in the face of a wide array of abuses. While not all sexual assaults are to the same degree, they are all damaging. Seeing the brave girls and women who have come together to say “no more” in recent days has helped me to stop minimizing my own experience and has given me the strength to say “no more” in my own life, almost twenty years after the fact. Unfortunately, my perpetrator is long dead, but those who kept his secret and propagated his lies are still very much alive and well.
Thus begins my tentative journey towards finding some measure of justice for what happened to me as a teenager. Even writing this — articulating, to Microsoft Word in a dimly lit library in the dead of winter, perhaps the most painful episode of my life — is somewhat cathartic, largely because for almost two decades, I was encouraged to keep a very dark secret. Encouraged by my father. By my beloved grandmother. By my aunt. By my school. By my therapist, who counseled “radical acceptance” of this secret, though its weight would nearly drown me.
My secret is the same as so many women: I was sexually abused by a family member. In my case, it was my paternal grandfather. The abuse itself was bad enough, but the fact that it has been minimized, kept hidden, covered up, is what has done the most lasting damage. As a child, I was painfully awkward. I was shy and a bit overweight. As I got deeper into high-level tennis tournaments, a sport I had fallen in love with as a child, and naturally blossomed, I was no longer a gawky child, but a blonde, tanned, fit teen girl. And my grandfather, with whom I had always had a pretty good relationship, in spite of his temper, started to look at me very differently.
My grandfather was a Navy veteran who landed at D-Day, and the after-effects of this service landed him in the hospital in the 1950s, severely ill and suffering from PTSD for months. Despite his trauma, he would later tell me stories about his war service, and I grew up thinking he was a hero. The battles he engaged in even appeared as part of the plot of a Hemingway novel that told the story of the days before D-Day. But there were dark secrets in my family’s life, and a vast chasm between their public churchgoing lives and their private truths.
Although they faithfully attended the Lutheran church every Sunday, their home life was anything but peaceful. Everyone, including my father, grandfather, and aunt, verbally abused my grandmother, screaming at her for no apparent reason. As a shy, nervous child, this terrified me. I was much more similar in personality to my grandmother than anyone else in the family, and soon I also became a target for all the yelling, especially from my father. By the time I was a teenager, the only reason I wanted to visit my grandparents at all was because of my grandmother, whom I viewed as pure magic. She was originally from Liverpool, and we would have tea, read the British tabloids and discuss our love of Princess Diana, watch soap operas, go to the mall, and when I was old enough, drink cocktails together. She was a true source of joy to me. But, oddly, by the summer of 1998 when I was barely seventeen, my grandfather often interrupted our time together to ask me to go on walks.
It started with innocent queries about what I had and hadn’t done physically with my boyfriends. That was easy. All I had done with boys was kiss them. I had a couple of celebrity crushes, but had not matured into my own sexuality. In truth, I found boys to be a little intimidating and should have been allowed to discover them in my own time. But my grandfather didn’t allow me this chance. Claiming he had ordered videos to watch with my grandmother, he began to discuss pornography with me. As I walked with him around the block of their placid suburban neighborhood, his abuse progressed to a recounting of the sexual acts he said they performed together. Eventually, it turned into touching my chest and rubbing the silhouette of my figure, and graduated to kissing me on the mouth. I still remember the nerves I felt when I was watching pro tennis finals on television with my grandmother on calm Sunday afternoons and hoping that, if I only looked at her, my grandfather would not insist that we take a walk. To this day, I can still feel the same anxiousness and darkness I felt after returning from our walks.
I was smart and precocious enough to realize this was wrong, but I was still confused as to where to turn. My parents were divorced, and as an only child I felt under siege from all sides. If I told my maternal grandmother about these incidents, she would immediately tell my mother. If I told my dad’s mom, she would likely be upset, and the last thing I wanted to do as a shy, submissive seventeen-year-old was to upset anyone, for any reason.
So the school counselor it was. She had counseled me a year prior, when I was struggling with anorexia, and I liked and trusted her. So I went to her office, like the cloistered, shy, overachiever I was, looking for “tips to get my grandfather to stop.” I literally just wanted it to end. Any deeper perspective eluded me. She looked horrified and listened, and later called me back into her office to announce that “we have a problem.” Apparently, it was a “legal issue,” something she had ascertained when she discussed it with our upper school head. The solution they settled upon (which was particularly convenient for the adults) the one that would make it all go away, was this: I would notify my aunt about what was going on. She would then notify my dad. And voila!!
Except it was anything but “voila” in terms of my own life. No one — not the school, my family, or anyone — thought to report anything to the authorities. No one suggested therapy; it was barely discussed further among the family members who knew, and no one considered just how harmful it might be that a sexually-abused seventeen-year-old was about to head off to college with no counseling. It was almost as if it had never happened. My paternal grandmother was devastated, but also upset that I had not come to notify her immediately, which just made me feel worse. My dad was furious, but after the initial conversation, he said nothing else. Everyone told me that keeping this secret from my mother was the best course of action, and at the time, I agreed. We did not have a good relationship, and I wasn’t up for an extended conversation where she would make what happened to me about her and use it as ammunition against my dad.
Encouraging a teenager to keep this secret was a terrible move. I developed a severe anxiety disorder and unhealthy patterns in my own sexuality. In my late teens and early twenties, I often experienced feelings of inexorable dread, something that alcohol and, increasingly, casual relationships with guys seemed to temporarily allay. I confused sex with love, and didn’t understand that the love I felt deprived of growing up could not be found in the arms of a random man. I sought out men whose personalities and characteristics were the opposite of my father and grandfather, fixating on those traits while ignoring red flags. Sadly, these patterns are all too common with sexual abuse survivors, as some studies estimate that they are three times more likely to suffer from depression, six times more likely to suffer from PTSD, and thirteen times more likely to suffer from alcohol addiction than those who have not been sexually abused.
The first key to making peace with your past is some level of acknowledgment of the truth by those who were involved. This has never happened. Both my aunt and my father have stonewalled for two decades, insisting that my grandfather’s actions were limited only to “disgusting conversations.” When I emailed my dad a few months after my grandmother’s death to say that I thought my weekly therapy should be covered in some small way by my grandfather’s estate, he told me that paying for painful things on my own would make me a “stronger person.” Was I to be forged by sexual abuse?
My high school also failed me with their secrecy and inaction. Years later, I approached them again, to inform them of what had happened and to ask why they had not done anything at the time. It was all the same. Glad-handing, silence, a carefully-couched verbal (read: unwritten) apology, nothing substantive. Essentially, all the adults washed their hands of my abuse. Looking back on this now as a parent myself is even more horrifying. I can only guess that my elite private school did not want any publicity, while everyone else on my father’s side was simply selfish. Meanwhile, I was lost in the shuffle and lacked the tools to stand up for myself. I understand why it took victims of Dr. Larry Nassar months and years to come forward. As a teenager, it is incredibly difficult to be able to strongly assert what is necessary for emotional healing, even though that silence is what takes the strongest toll.
For me, the lessons of #MeToo resonate deeply. Years later, with my grandfather dead, there is no way to achieve any real measure of justice, other than talking about it. Refusing to keep the secrets. Connecting with those who have similarly survived. Creating an environment of openness that allows people to come forward. As I have seen in my own life, we are lost in the darkness and saved by the light. I will do as my therapist says and find peace in injustice. But #MeToo has taught me that I do not need to remain silent in the face of it.
Thanks for sharing this with us, Laura. I am so sorry that your family, your school, and our culture failed you. Your story is a textbook example for how and why families and institutions work to bury these stories rather than confront the perpetrators of abuse. This also prevents them from sharing these stories so that faculty & staff can learn from them and work together to root out other abuse in the making.
I’m going to bookmark this story and send it to anyone who ever asks “why didn’t she tell someone at the time?” as a means to impeach a woman’s credibility. The truth is that most of us do, every time, but even family and loved ones stop our mouths because it’s so much easier than confronting the ugly, disruptive truth.
Thanks to Nursing Clio as always for publishing histories that matter, every week.
Thank you so much for your kind and insightful comment and I couldn’t agree more. I feel like very powerful cultural forces operate to this day, this is sadly not an anachronism, that tell women from a young age that all they are supposed to represent is beauty–quiet soft feminity, so when something ugly happens like abuse, it upends the narrative and we as a society seem to still deal with it largely by consciously ignoring those visible signs.