I set out to write a series of blog posts about my experience as a survivor of sexual abuse. As I began the process, the words and the topics to write about poured out of me. I realized there was a lot I wanted to cover as I began to pull apart the different aspects of my abuse. I made a list that included how the abuse kept me small and prevented me from taking risks; why I decided to return to Milton Academy to report my abuse after 31 years; my process and what it felt like to participate in the school’s investigation; why I chose to declare publicly that I was one of the unnamed people in the Investigation findings; why I decided to respond to some press inquiries and not others; what made me decide to press charges against the man who abused me and my experience of the subsequent legal process: these were all topics that others agreed would have value to readers.
I wrote my first post, and it felt good to release. And the second one spilled out of me 3 months later. And then Boston Magazine published my story. Writing has always been a way for me to process my own experiences. And the possibility of sharing these details to help others is what helped me overcome the nearly crippling fear about going back to the school that betrayed me and hoping things would be different this time. Things were different when I returned. And identifying the power that he took from me when he abused me and sharing it in a public way has enabled me to reclaim that power. This reclaiming has been a critical part of my healing.
And then I stopped writing the series.
I had so much more to write. I had a long list of topics to cover, but something was in the way. I can point to lots of reasons that kept me from writing more on the topic. The most obvious is that I was busy. But that was too easy an answer, and it wasn’t the whole story.
What I realized is that fear has blocked me from writing more. It’s not fear of what you might think though. I am not afraid about what people will think of me. While shame is still a deeply ingrained aspect from my abuse, what has kept me from writing more is the fear that what I write will be used against me in court. Every word I write and have written about my abuse will be dissected. Every triumph over the pain will be used to show that the damage to me wasn’t that bad. Any revelation or explanation of healing will be evidence that whatever harm I have claimed could not have been as traumatic as the prosecution is claiming.
I imagine myself sitting on the witness stand and having to defend out of context quotations; I anticipate being asked just how well I remember incidents that happened more than 4 decades ago, especially when alcohol was involved. Trauma does strange things to memory. The criminal justice system has little tolerance for trauma’s impact on the brain, especially when there is also no physical evidence.
Thirty-seven years after I left the school where my abuser walked the halls, I am currently grinding through the court system seeking justice - and consequences for the man who abused me. He fled overseas after being fired for admitting he had abused another student. He went to Thailand and Malaysia, where he continued to teach until a court in Massachusetts indicted him for what he did to me. It took 8 months to get the indictment. It took another year and a half to get him extradited from Southeast Asia. And it has taken another 3 years to argue through endless motions and appeals. There is still no court date on the horizon. The case may be dismissed before it even gets to trial. But if the case does go to trial, I know that every statement, everything I have written will be pulled apart for inconsistencies, for evidence that my memory (indeed that I) am unreliable and should not be believed. This is not only my fear. It is the fear that everyone who has been victimized has to consider if they report abuse: being told that it didn’t happen, that what they’re saying can’t be true. Too often that stops them, and I understand it.
I have a lot to say about the impact and what I have learned from being sexually victimized as a young teen. And writing about the experience has been a powerful salve for the wounds that still fester. So I am left to write about not being able to write - about being afraid of what I say because I know everything will be challenged with the objective of discrediting me. In fact, my choice to start Learning Courage has already been used in court as evidence that this organization is merely an opportunity to profit from my experience.
Seeking justice has been a long grind, and the outcome remains uncertain. And yet the criminal process favors those who remain silent. Seeking justice means submitting yourself to further victimization because it’s built into the process. Part of my healing has come from expressing and sharing my experience. And doing that also puts the case at risk. These elements are all reasons that prevent people from reporting abuse and pressing charges.
And they are at the heart of what has kept me from writing.
Resilience Event - Pink Martini
Learning Courage hosted a virtual event on January 12, 2021. The theme of this event was Resilience. This theme resonated for all of us at that time because we were approaching a year in the grips of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Everyone was fatigued from all the restrictions and losses that came with the pandemic. And yet resilience represented something we all felt connected to. We needed more of it and yet we all had to demonstrate it. And resilience is a significant part of our work at Learning Courage. Our goal is to support and promote resilience in schools by providing tools that reduce sexual assault and minimize trauma for those who have been harmed.
If you were unable to join the event, you can click on the image below to experience the amazing artists who gave their time to support our work. To listen to more of Pink Martini, click on this link or visit PinkMartini.com.
A Survivor's Reaction to the Senate Judiciary Hearings
By Amy Wheeler, VP of Memberships at Learning Courage
September 15, 2021
As VP of Membership at Learning Courage and a survivor, my unwavering conviction for the need for Learning Courage was reinforced yesterday when listening to the courageous and painful testimony of four gymnasts in front of the Senate Judiciary. Our systems need to radically change in order to stop abuse and promote healing.
Today I feel like a victim not a survivor. Caught in my body as if back in the abuse, caught in the shame, vulnerability and despair instead of the strength, courage and resilience of my more familiar survivor self.
There are so many of us. So many children abused by adults, let down by the adults and the systems that are supposed to protect us. I am a survivor of abuse after abuse after abuse. A victim of trusted adults harming kids and not doing the right thing. A victim of trusted adults doing the absolute wrong thing. A victim of trusted adults and trusted systems perpetrating more harm. Over and over and over again. As if the sexual abuse was not enough, then there is the neglect, the disbelief, the mixed messages, the lack of action. The harm done in the guise of support, once again. Betrayal. Re-victimization. From the organizations, the government, and the people we are supposed to trust to protect us and care about us. How many times can we be abused? What is the cost?
Watching the gymnasts testify today in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee hit close to home. They spoke of the sexual abuse and the subsequent lifelong trauma that results from that. They also spoke about the failure of the adults to do anything about the abuse they had the courage to report; the collusion of those in power to silence the survivors and shield the perpetrator and others in power. They spoke of the ways the adults lacked any understanding of what it means to interview a survivor, how they minimized their experiences, twisted and changed their reports, did nothing with the reports while saying they were and, most egregiously, protected the adults and their organizations at the expense of the safety and well being of children. The severity of the compounding trauma is unfathomable. The physical and emotional toll it takes to stand up and speak and tell your story is hard to measure. Then to be disbelieved and ignored. To be told by the FBI “it is being handled” and subsequently learning of hundreds more children getting abused when it could have been prevented. Horrifying. Disgusting. Appalling. Devastating.
How many times do the victims have to be hurt for people to learn?
A Survivor's Journey - The Impact of Abuse
I recognize that it’s impossible to separate how much my life - the way I act and think - would be different if I hadn’t been sexually abused. Being sexually abused changed me in both profound and small ways. I believe that the abuse magnified existing, latent and emerging impulses and thoughts. I don’t believe it’s useful or even possible to identify how different I would be if I had not been abused. But I do think it’s important to acknowledge what consequences feel directly tied to the abuse I sustained. My objective in writing this, after all, is to provide perspective rather than definitive connections. And much of what I describe here are common reactions to sexual abuse. My experience is therefore not unique at all. Rather it is all too common. Above all, I write this with the intention to help others understand. I hope you will read it with that in mind.
What follows, therefore, is a brief list of ways I believe the abuse impacted me, both during high school and the years that followed.
The Chorus of Critics - This is what I call the unproductive voices in my head that grew in volume and confidence during high school. They ganged up on me, preventing me from focusing in school, on the sports field and even during social interactions. You’re not good enough. What makes you think you can do that? You know you will fail! Voices of doubt are part of the human condition. For most adolescents, they come and go. Mine just sat on my shoulder and yelled at a volume that drowned out a lot of what was going on around me. To say this was a distraction is an understatement in the extreme. I was berated incessantly. If things were going OK, the critics told me things were about to go south any second. If I was doing something poorly or received a bad grade, they jumped up and down and screamed. You see? We told you this would happen! Why do you even bother?
Over time and with lots of therapy, I began to recognize the power that the Chorus had over me and how damaging they were - and also the reason they existed. They were part of my protective shell. Today I’m more practiced at talking back to them, thanking them for protecting me from being disappointed or hurt. I try to recognize when they are helpful. The vast majority of time, though, they hold me back. Thankfully, they hold less sway with me today than they did earlier in my life when I couldn’t separate them from the truth.
Shame - The Chorus of Critics are fueled by shame. They have a voracious appetite for it. They have an encyclopedic memory of my behavior and thoughts, and they used this evidence to remind me that I wasn’t worthy, wasn’t good enough, that someone else was more deserving. While I knew intellectually that the abuse was not my fault, this shame guided my behavior. It created this self-sabotaging doom loop that prevented me from committing to anything wholeheartedly. If I didn’t succeed, I could always tell myself that at least I hadn’t really given it everything I had. This played out in the classroom and on the sports field primarily, but it was a pervasive mindset that informed the calculation for many decisions. As with the Chorus of Critics, I began to see how detrimental this mindset was for me - particularly in my professional life. Knowing something is bad for you is important. Changing the well-worn grooves on this vinyl record took years.
While I would sing with passion and emotion in front of my bedroom mirror in my high school days, I held back in front of my band mates. I did a semester program with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) my fall semester of my first year of college. When my trip leader suggested I consider taking the Instructor’s Course, I was flattered and terrified. I could never be that much of a leader, I told myself. I never applied.
I thought I had processed the abuse over the years, much of that in therapy sessions but also with close friends and family. What I realized, however, was even recently, as I wrote my first blog post, some of the words that came out of my head and onto the page were still laden with guilt. Seeing the words and phrases on the page gave me an opportunity to recognize the shame that still infiltrated my words. Once I could see it, I was able to re-think and then re-write the details, using words that were more appropriate for the power differential and conflict that the abuse created within me.
Self-Doubt / Lack of Confidence - The manifestation of the Chorus of Critics and the shame was a crippling lack of confidence. If I wasn’t worth my parents or the school leadership sticking up for me, for protecting me, I certainly wasn’t going to do it on my own. I was, in my own mind, only at the school because of my family history and because my mother worked in the development office at the school. Why else would the school have admitted me? Any merits I thought I could contribute and might even be recognized for were invisible at Milton.
Substance Use- I started using weed in 7th grade. That was early compared to many of my peers. I had friends who were 1 and 2 years ahead of me in school, so I was exposed at a younger age than most of my classmates. And after the bike trip, when the leader abused me, being high was my preferred state. It was my escape. I got high during school, and I often got high after finishing my homework at night. I drank too, although I didn’t like the feeling of being out of control. And with a family history of alcoholism, I was always wary of drinking too much.
The allure of being high led me to experiment with other substances. I suppose the Chorus of Critics helped me as I experimented because I often found myself caught up in the cacophony of their droning reminders of my weaknesses and vulnerabilities. I believe that my fear of becoming an alcoholic combined with the Chorus of Critics playing such a loud soundtrack actually prevented me from going down the rabbit hole of addiction - an all too-common result of sexaul abuse. Cannabis, though, was always a reliable escape.
Aversion to Leadership - I neither trusted nor wanted to be a leader. Leaders had failed me at Milton. The leader of the bike trip failed me by abusing me. The Head of school failed me and others by not holding my abuser accountable, enabling him to abuse an untold number of other students until he was finally fired for abusing another student five years after the school knew of my abuse.
The pinnacle of my leadership was when my small group expedition on NOLS voted me to lead them. This was a three-day trek through Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. There were no roads where we were heading. We just had a destination and a time we needed to be there. While leading this type of group was comfortable to me, when it came to more formalized institutions, I steered clear. Not only did I not trust leaders, I wasn’t good enough in my own thinking. I didn’t deserve to be a leader. Avoiding leadership is, in business vernacular, a career limiting move. I tried to muscle through my early career with this internal conflict playing in the background. I worked in positions that weren’t a good fit for my aptitudes. And after nearly 20 years in large corporate jobs, I left that world behind. This freed me up to create my own comfort with leadership, but that sentiment still lingers: a holdover from mistrusting leaders.
Need to be liked - The one area that I actually felt successful was in friendships. I valued friendships more than anything. While this is still true today, I am less likely to do or say things to others that I think they want or I believe will make them like me. In high school, my need to be liked was nearly pathological. I feared people disliking me. This wasn’t true for teachers, but maybe that’s because I was abused by one.
For me, having friends and being likable was my only ammunition against the Chorus of Critics. The only time I could prove them wrong was in my friendships. At least people like me.I can make friends easily. And the longer I know them, the more I can be myself. What a great feeling. I didn’t have to work as hard with my childhood friends. I knew they were with me, but with others I always had lingering insecure thoughts that I was one stupid move away from being cast out. The Chorus of Critics knew this fear, and they reminded me often.
Adult Life - I have written here mostly about the impact of my abuse that I carried with me through high school. The reality is that these impacts don’t just disappear over time. It’s not like an external wound that you can care for with salves and bandages. These internal wounds stay with you. Sometimes they deepen over time while other times they fade in the hold they have over you. But they don’t typically get better over time without mental health support.
For some, even seeking mental health support is stigmatized, seen as a weakness or disloyalty to one’s family. I am lucky that I knew therapy would be important for me. And I’m lucky that I could afford it. And yet even with the work I have done over the past 40 years, I carry these scars with me. Many are not so lucky. They don’t or can’t afford to seek therapy. For some, the pain becomes too difficult to bear. Suicide and substance abuse are very common results among victims of sexual assault. In a 2001 study in Australia, “young people who had experienced child sexual abuse had a suicide rate that was 10.7 to 13.0 times the national Australian rates.” And in a 2001 National Institutes of Health study, 72% of participants with substance abuse reported past sexual abuse.
For me, recovery and healing is ongoing.
I am lucky. Many victims of abuse become swallowed by the shame. They often turn to substances to relieve the pain, to escape from it. For others, the dark specter of depression is a constant visitor. Many turn to suicide, unable to bear the weight of their pain. Unable to see a way out.
Intervention - ideally early intervention - and support from family and friends is essential for healing. There is a way out.
If you are in crisis or you think you may have an emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. If you're having suicidal thoughts, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to talk to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area at any time (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline). If you are located outside the United States, call your local emergency line immediately.