Why we don’t tell

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In case you’ve forgotten, this is what 16 yr old girls look like. Credit: The Breakfast Club – 1985.

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When Beverly Young Nelson held her November 13 press conference about the abuses of Judge Roy Moore down in Alabama, I keyed in on her high school yearbook. I focused on that yearbook the way you focus on a bad car wreck, on the carnage, and I hit the “record” button so I could watch her entire story over and over and over again.

And yet, looking back, it was not her yearbook at all. It was the way Ms. Nelson talked about her neck, the way she described Moore pushing his hands on her neck, the force and the fear she felt, as he tried to shove her face into his crotch.

He was in his 30s. She was 16. Why, everyone asks, didn’t she tell?

I know why. I know why because the same thing happened to me. And I did not tell a soul — not a friend, not my mother, not a stranger, not my husband, not anyone — for 34 years.

I finally told on the weekend of my 50th birthday. I was on a trip with my high school girlfriends in Breckenridge, Colorado. We had been hiking on one of those perfect, sunny, spectacular summer days, having a great time laughing and our telling our same old stories the way old friends do.

Then, we were coming down the mountain in a gondola when one of the women mentioned his name. She was telling a joke. Everyone laughed, but I felt a wave of panic, an intense, physical wave like the kind you feel when you dream you’re falling, and it seemed like I was watching this scene from outside myself, from outside the gondola even, like I was dangling from the cables, struggling to hang on, altogether invisible to the women who’ve known me longest, and the best.

On the ten minute walk from the gondola to our condo, I played in my head what to say. I knew if I did not start talking, start telling, the instant we were inside, that fear would win. I would change my mind.

“Everybody grab a drink,” I half-heard myself saying. “I’ve got a story to tell you.”

There was a low, murmuring clatter as the women mixed their cocktails and gathered around the condo’s dining room table — my sheet-cake there with its blue icing, our high school colors spelling out “Happy Birthday!” — but the only words I heard them say were, “Oh god, there’s a story.”

I stared into my friends’ worried faces. And I carefully peeled the label off a beer I did not bother to drink as I told every last detail.

Over these decades I have listened to so many friends tell their secrets. The woman whose father was such a great grandfather that she can never tell her family lest she ruin him for them. The woman who grew up behind a literal white picket fence whose father laughed while holding her mother at gunpoint. The man who told me he’d been raped repeatedly as a teen by his parish pastor, only to realize the same pastor had raped his mother and his sisters.

I have listened and I have felt shock and compassion and amazement. I have hugged them and cried with them and thanked them for trusting me with their stories, for being brave. And I have naively encouraged them to name names and tell their stories to the greater public — “Tell everybody! Expose the bastard!” — and been incredulous at their expressed regret in telling me, at their decision to go on maintaining their secrets.

What I know now is this: after I told, I only felt worse. I only felt more shame and fear. Shame that people, my people, knew. Fear that the few I’d told would tell others and that I would be talked about with pity.

Telling does not equal healing. Telling is not cathartic or therapeutic. Telling does not mean feeling better or lighter or relieved. Telling is not the end, just another horrifying beginning.

When I got home from my big birthday celebration in Colorado, I knew I had to tell one more person. My husband of 20 years. But unlike the long, detailed account I gave my childhood girlfriends, I only had enough energy left for the basics. I promised I would tell him the whole story later, but it’s been two years. Later may never come. And now feel guilty about that, too.

This additional guilt is what I feel every time I hear someone ask with rolling-eyed disbelief, “If it’s true, why did she wait decades to tell this story?”

Telling is not a relief. Telling is simply an additional burden to bear; the extra, overwhelming weight of being forever linked, publicly, by body and by name, to the person who abused you.

And then … there’s the yearbook.

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9 thoughts on “Why we don’t tell

  1. Theresa Okamoto

    Wow! I completely understand because my husband of 31 years still does not know my entire story being molested as a child by my older siblings friend. He knows a little bit he doesn’t press the subject. My experience is different from the writer above which is age difference, which is huge, but the feeling is the same. I just push it out of my mind because when I do think about it it makes me sick. You still feel guilty, blame yourself, afraid, etc. I can go on but I can’t. I was 5 or 6 years of age and the perpetrator was 14 at the time I believe. Anyways, it’s about damm time! We are human beings and do not deserve to be treated the way women have been treated. I was also sexually harassed at work. I made a complaint and he was spoken to by HR. This happened several years ago. However, I truly feel if it happened today he would have been fired and all of my co- workers would be thrilled. I sure hope he realizes that. You always have excellent posts! Thank you! Theresa Okamoto

  2. jennyrecorder

    Even now, 38 years later I cannot quite agree with my head when I ask myself…did he rape me? I was drunk and young, I turned up at his place, I wanted to sleep in his bed… he was 10 years older and wanted sex, I said, “No, let me sleep”, so many times, but in the end I gave in.
    Even now, 38 years later, I read that back and think I was a silly girl, too trusting, not understanding his motives… did I ask for it? The answer is of course, NO, but I was naive and didn’t give it a thought when I turned up on his doorstep.
    He turned up on the news recently, talking about broadband speeds (a disgruntled customer), I couldn’t believe the suffocation I felt looking at him and hearing his loathsome voice; I thought I had even forgotten his name, but no, it was there, under the surface, waiting to jump out and pull the carpet from underneath me.
    I have told no-one (until now).

  3. Yoly

    I completely understand your pain. I finally had the courage to tell but my own mother didn’t believe me so I felt that I had to run away. I’m happy you told someone, sometimes you just need to tell another soul.

  4. Shirley Browning

    I will share this with many people. It is powerful and helpful. As a man I can’t imagine the pain, I can appreciate it but can’t fully feel it. Any man who says they can either lies, or has not thought seriously about the roles of male v female since the garden or through evolution – which ever one believes.

    James McBride in his “Color of Water’ hits it well. As a child of a mixed marriage he asked his white mother what color is God? She said: God is the color of water.

    Yet throughout history God is referred to as HE, or people pray to “the Father”- and thus roles have been established in virtually all cultures world wide for centuries. Until people get that there will ve little change- sadly enough. The current rush of confessions, charges, admissions, apologies are wonderful- but sadly are likely to pass into history. In time humans may evolve along lines of true equality yet respecting differences and unique qualities and potential of each. I do not think we, male or female what ever religion, ace, ethnic origin, are ready for that.

    Now to harassment. Clearly women feel the brunt of that aspect of humanity. Yet all harass. Men on men- try business, the military, review of academic work, prisons, etc. Women on women- same story. Women on men- yep, been there felt it, not a happy experience. And of course the major focus is men v women, enslaving roles to less than human conditions in many cases.

    Add gender harassment and you have pretty well filled the basket of nasty human characteristics under the title of Harassment.

    Deal with the God thing as has McBride, then try a broad approach to harassment. In a few thousand more years human existence should be much better, if we can survive that long.

    Thank you Teri- you are special. You are right: Speak out about the events, be you a woman, man, who / what ever in what ever role- being afraid is pathelogical and self destructive- and can lead one to create events / conditions that are not true, as well as limit ones capabilities- a true law against civil society, human freedom, nature and God.

  5. catsandthread

    Thank you for this. My husband experienced sexual abuse from his uncle as a boy. When he finally talked about it to his aunt she said “Why didn’t you just say no?” When he talked about it to his parents much later, they just shrugged. He developed a lot of anger, because no one took him seriously. He didn’t know why they never noticed how quiet and withdrawn he had become. He has never told his 2 younger sisters so as to not spoil their memories of their uncle, whom they loved very much.
    He basically got over his anger, now as a senior citizen, but still has trust issues that affect every relationship he’s ever had, even our marriage of the last 15 years. I’m his 4th wife, so you can imagine.
    No, talking about it in his case was not helpful, but I’m glad he told me so that I can understand where some of his issues come from. It helped me to have more patience and understanding for him.

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