“It Took Your Book for Me to Find Me”

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If nothing else, I’m thrilled that the Penn State scandal has allowed other victims of child sexual abuse to break their silence. According to NPR, attorneys around the country are fielding phone calls from victims eager to report their abuse.

It’s about time.

Because breaking their own silence is the first step to healing from the horrible abuse they never should have suffered. I know this firsthand, because I’ve been speaking up about my experience with child sexual abuse and rape since 2003. I’ve encouraged other victims to speak up, and told audiences that it’s been a cathartic process for me to do so.

I’m sad it took something of this magnitude to wake up people, but I’m happy they’re now wide awake. I’m also furious that for many people, this story is only about Joe Paterno, a sports icon, or football, the country’s national pastime. For them, it’s not about the victims at all. But for me, the victims are the one and only thing this story is about.

Whenever I blog about child sexual abuse or post pertinent comments on social networking sites, I’m equally saddened when I come across yet another victim, who says their abuse has left them suspended in time. For you see, still trapped by the secret crimes from their past, they remain unable to move forward toward their future. Nor do they seem to know how to escape the deadly silence.

What’s clear to me is that part of their problem can be traced directly to the public’s response upon learning that Penn State, a public institution, kept allegations of child sexual abuse secret. When powerful men like Paterno and games like the one Penn State played last Saturday against Nebraska hog the headlines, why would a victim feel compelled to speak out?

Although the victims who remain suspended somewhere between their past and their present, and I experienced similar types of abuse, our healing progress is clearly not the same. And how could it be, when they lack the much-needed support to help them heal?

And yet, with enough help from the people around them, they can begin that incredible journey to a place of peace. They can close the pages to their past, experience their present, and begin making plans for their future. I know this because, surrounded by supportive people who loved me, that’s exactly what I did.

The first time someone told me I healed myself was at a 2005 child abuse conference I attended. That observation came from a psychologist who specialized in cognitive behavior. His words summarized his belief about what I had accomplished, based on what he knew about my (then unpublished) memoir, Sister of Silence.

I heard this again recently, when I met with the Bay Area therapist who is using my book with her own patients. I had to know why, of all the mental health literature out there, she chose my book to use in her work. “It provides a step-by-step guide to healing,” Dr. Jean Shimozaki said. “It shows your own path, how you healed yourself.”

Until 2005, I never thought about it like that. I’m still loath to, for I had many good people around, helping me to work on the issues of abuse I needed to overcome. Here’s the thing, though: I was deeply motivated to heal, for the sake of my children, and for the future of our family. I did not want the abuse I experienced to continue in each successive generation, as I know so often happens. So I worked very hard to look within, to see what changes I needed to make to become healthy, and to then do the work necessary to reach that goal.

Since then, I’ve come to realize it’s possible that those two mental health professionals were correct, for I had written in great detail about many of the abusive acts I experienced. I recorded the events themselves, from my perspective; I wrote about my abuser’s words and actions; and I painfully recounted those of my own. I wrote candidly about the part I had played—or thought I had played—in my own abuse. I wrote from the heart about how it felt at the time to be a victim.

As a result, those journals became valuable tools in my healing. First and foremost, they provided clarity, for I could compare what my abuser told me, with what I knew to be truth—and that helped me to stay grounded.

Second, as I tried to make sense of my life, I would search through the pages for accounts I thought I remembered—only to find that they had been recorded much differently than I recalled. If I even could recall them. In some cases, entire events had disappeared from my mind, only to come flooding back upon reading what I had written in those spiral notebooks.

Finally, over the years, I started to write Sister of Silence—as a way to help others not just understand—but to act differently. As I consulted those journals for research purposes, I began to process what had happened, and this helped with my personal healing.

I first spoke out in public about my abuse in 1999, to a small group of strangers in California. But I began speaking out publicly in earnest, in West Virginia in 2003. That was eight years ago. In the interim, I’ve freed myself from almost every painful memory I remember. It’s as if, by speaking out, I gave myself permission to let go of the burdens I’d carried around. They literally fell from my shoulders, disappearing into my past as easily as yesterday’s rainstorm disappears into the ground.

Apparently, that’s what also happening for many Sister of Silence readers. There is rarely a week that goes by, in which I don’t receive an email from someone who tells me they read my book—and see themselves in my story. Sometimes, I’m privileged to experience it in person—as happened at a recent book signing and, earlier, at the conference where I spoke in September. Social workers from all over the country were there, and they lined up to buy my book after I told them about my experience with abuse and survival.

Some of these professionals were older than I am, but they had never told anyone about their abuse—until that day, when they told me. Some of them had tears in their eyes. All of them were grateful that someone was willing to speak out, showing them the way to escape their own silence.

Most recently, I received an email from “Lana,” someone I haven’t seen since high school. I had no idea what her life was really life, all those years ago, any more than she had about mine. And yet, Lana’s email said she wished we had talked more, and opened up to each other back then. “It took your book for me to find me,” Lana said.

What that means to me personally is that I gave Lana permission to speak out. And perhaps to understand herself better. To forgive herself. To love herself. By writing about my own life, and my own story, she now realizes it’s safe to speak out about what happened to her. Because, you see, there really is safety in numbers. Especially when someone else feels free enough to do it in such a public fashion.

For today’s victims of child sexual abuse—be they Penn State victims or victims from anywhere around the country—to do the same, all they need is our collective permission to speak out. I invite Paterno to join me in giving them that permission. For Paterno, as Jeffrey W. Pollard, director of George Mason University counseling and psychological services suggested, could take the lead in granting that permission.

As Pollard says, Paterno can encourage the country to support “those who have been harmed, (which) often involves more courage than standing up to a blitzing all-American linebacker.” Since so many of us—especially Paterno—have done little else for these victims, surely he can do this.

And if Paterno does, I believe he will joined by a groundswell of people who feel free to show their support, too. This can only lead to the profound effect of freeing even more victims from the shadows of silence, so they too can have a chance to fully heal from what must no longer be permitted to continue unabated against children as a secret crime.

Editor’s note: If you are a parent and want to protect your children, or if you’re a victim who has survived child sexual abuse, please go to Amazon and read the foreword of my book. The foreword alone is well worth your time. If, after reading that, you want to purchase SOS, you have several options: paperback or e-book, direct from Nellie Bly Books, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or even in many bookstores and libraries around the country. (That number is growing by the day. If you can’t find it in a bookstore or library near you, just ask them to order it. Libraries, especially, are finding they have a long waiting list for the book, if they only have one copy in distribution.)


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