By Jamie Forbes, CEO and Survivor
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.