Have you ever been awakened in the middle of the night by someone banging on your door yelling loudly, “Are you okay, are you okay???” This was a first for me. My upstairs neighbor had probably heard me screaming for someone to help me through our poorly-insulated walls and been startled awake. After a brief apologetic explanation she returned to her home, assured that I was safe. I went back to bed and lay wide awake until I rose at morning light.
I was embarrassed by this incident and avoided running into my neighbor for a few days, hoping to never again speak of our nighttime interruption. My educated guess on what had caused my outburst was this “me, too” movement. The seemingly endless daily reports of sexual harassment abuse and molestation had most likely triggered a flashback*. I’m a “me, too” woman, who sometimes has flashbacks.
Before I share my story, I’d like to ask if you are also tired of hearing about all these acts of sexual harassment, abuse, and molestation? I am. I’m really weary. The more I hear, the more I am re-traumatized by hearing them. It’s exhausting. I’m so sick and tired of it all. I am sickened to hear graphic details of abusive acts. I’d really like it to all just stop . . . but, if these stories of sexual abuse stop being told, many, many, many people who suffer from these unthinkable acts will again be pushed back into the shadows, into the silence, and predators will continue to treat people in ways that no one, created in the image of God, was ever meant to endure.
So, I tell my story. I tell it so that everyone who hears my story is aware, watchful, and careful to love and protect those who are vulnerable to victimization, or those who have been victimized.
My family moved from the vast, open plains of North Dakota to the San Joaquin Valley of California when I was just four years old. My mom and dad were young parents in their early 30’s with four children under the age of ten. We were part of a new church plant and my dad’s pastoral salary was supplemented by inexpensive rental housing and people in the church giving goods and services to supplement that income.
As part of this church plant, there was a middle-aged couple who hosted the church meetings in their home. This same couple had also helped to start the church. Sadly, this couple had lost their first-born son to a tragic accident. They still had two daughters, but they dealt with the loss of their son by adopting two teen brothers through (what was then) the welfare system. The oldest of these teen boys became our regular babysitter. This was one way this adoptive couple tried to contribute to our family needs. I now remember this boy’s mom very clearly. She was a powerful, no-nonsense woman who insisted that my parents accepted this “gift” so that they could, “get a little break away from your four youngsters.” I also vividly remember long conversations between my mom and this woman while we stood in her kitchen as she baked cookies and treats for us. I remember how earnestly my mother – probably intuitively – tried to decline this offer. Even now when I catch a certain fragrance while someone is baking, my body automatically tenses.
My memories from those two years of regular molestation were, at best, foggy. Even now I have limited clear and specific memories, yet some memories come through my flashbacks. Other memories come from working with skilled clinicians and therapists. All of the memories are traumatic. Remembering is hard work.
What happened in those two years is truly too horrific to detail out – and it is also graphic and unsuitable for a public forum. To make a very long story short, after my molestation had gone on for nearly two years, another child who was being molested somehow overcame their fear and told their parents about what was happening to them. Soon after this child talked, it was discovered that many children in the church were being regularly molested by this same babysitter. The boy was arrested, tried as an adult predator/pedophile, and convicted on 232 counts of sexual abuse and child molestation.
The following years of my life went seemingly without major incident, although I did struggle with severe depression in my late teens. I masked any trauma and damage done by finding a wondrous outlet in music and the arts. And thankfully, my mind and body protectively blocked the worst elements of my abuse. I really had no memory of most of this until I was in my early 40’s when I experienced a severe emotional break. I was hospitalized as catatonic, with uncontrollable flashbacks. However much this break relates to my abuse, this is its own story for another time. Thankfully, I now see this emotional break as a great gift and healing time. Since then I have remembered so much, and I have worked tirelessly to recover and heal from this crippling childhood experience. The remnants of shame, embarrassment . . . that somehow I provoked or invited this treatment still haunt me daily . . . and sometimes wiggle their way into actions like avoiding my neighbor after the flashback incident.
So again, why do I tell my story? I tell it because you, (yes, I mean you) . . . or your brother or sister, or your best friend, or your cousin, or your mother or father, or your niece or nephew may have been molested or raped. Sadly, it is a fact that one in two or three people have been the victims of sexual abuse. You, or someone very close to you has been harshly abused and victimized. Having lived nearly 63 years of my life with PTSD, and with flashbacks for over 58 of those years – I have learned to live with the ramifications of my abuse. I’ve been able to do it only with the love and support of my family, friends, my church fellowship, doctors, and with many hours of therapy.
I do not tell my story so you can feel sorry for me. Please don’t! I do tell my story to prompt you to be fully awake and to act on what you hear and see. I absolutely do not want to cause fear in you – for fear is its own form of sickness. If you fear this happening to you or your children, it will cripple you. I tell you my story so that you are aware of the harsh reality in which we live. It is not a reality though, void of hope. I’ve always loved that Emily Dickinson poem: “Hope is a thing with feathers . . . . “ It describes that tiny bird as one that the “storm could abash” but it still survived. I was that tiny bird – nearly destroyed to the point of being hospitalized and incapable of communicating. I am now a stronger woman. I rarely lack for something to say. I have experienced the glorious radiance of the Divine while being transformed to that likeness. Nothing that was done to me – or to anyone else – is something that cannot be redeemed or transformed into something quite beautiful and exquisite. This is the very essence of Jesus gospel. That which was broken can be made new again.
So how can we all participate in that redemption . . . in that transformation of the abused? Here are some thoughts on how we might respond:
Listen. “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” We are a culture that seems to have lost the skill and ability to actually listen. In order for victims to share, there needs to be a space for them to speak into. Learn how to create that listening space, and if we are careful to listen, we will hear those who are suffering from abuse. When you are sick and tired of hearing the story, keep listening some more . . . and then still listen.
Be a safe place. “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” Be that place where someone knows all their essential needs are seen and cared for. One of the further ramifications of sexual abuse is the victim blaming themselves, and feeling guilt and shame. We all suffer some from this lie, but it is exponentially more powerful when it is attached to an act so connected to our very essence. When people feel valued, you’ve created a safe place for them to talk. When they know their value, they can also release this element of false responsibility for the crime committed against them. In affirming them as guiltless you have created a place where they can mourn and grieve. If they’ve never grieved what was lost to them, what their will did not concede to, what was taken unwillingly from them, they will need a space where they can do this. Can we be that person who is an easy shoulder to cry on?
Love. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Yes, it remains most important. Have compassion (not patronizing sympathy) for the injured. I am not here to tell you how to love. You already know the difference between authentic love and mere emotion – and you know when our penchant for judgement sneaks in. I’ll tell you what helps me. Sometimes just being present with a person is the most loving thing we can do. By “being present” I mean letting your body do the listening. Knowing when, or if, to touch someone in a non-sexual, tender way . . . . Just merely sitting together with someone in silence helps more than you might imagine. Neuroscientists have recently found that human beings are actually hard wired to be empathetic. Scientists also now believe that empathy can be learned. We can actually grow those neuro transponders. How can we love someone any more than to truly empathize with them? If we take the example of Jesus, it means to give yourself over to the needs of the other. It rarely means passivity but rather means intentional action. Don’t be afraid to look someone in the eye . . . to see them, and be seen.
When we do these things, the Spirit will guide us.
*A “flashback” is defined as: “A sudden and disturbing vivid memory of an event in the past, typically as the result of psychological trauma which can cause violent acting out in a sleep, or semi-conscious state.”
Postscript: A dozen years ago I learned that the man child who molested me had himself been the victim of equally heinous abuse. This eventually helped me in my journey to forgive him. He served many years in prison and lives forever on the FBI list of sexual predators. I am not his judge – that’s not my job. My job is to tell my story and to help make sure others do not ever experience the same.
Post postscript: I have found this sermon by Meghan Good, Trinity Mennonite Church, Glendale AZ, most helpful. Although sexual abuse is not about sex – it absolutely affects the sexual life of the one abused. Meghan addresses this issue here. Listen to: Peculiar People: Broken Mirrors – Song of Songs 2:2-7, 10-14, 16; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 : http://www.trinitymennonite.com/teaching-audio
Janet Lynn Kroeker was born in Harvey, North Dakota. At the age of four she and her family moved to California where she still resides. Janet spent most of her career as a designer and art director, working in the field of Marketing and Communications. Having lived on a farm, in the suburbs, and now in the metropolitan community of San Francisco, CA, she enjoys the many riches the city has to offer. Janet serves on the Board as West Coast Representative for Mennonite Women USA.