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My Survivor Experience

posted Dec 27, 2016, 11:52 PM by Shannon Bassett   [ updated Jan 3, 2017, 11:54 AM ]

TRIGGER WARNING: Below is my personal experience. It's a high definition description of sexual abuse, and it could trigger images or flashbacks for some. To any readers who've not experienced abuse, real details of abuse cannot be watered down or glossed over. Watering down the real, gritty details allows others to try to rationalize what isn't rational. It allows them to water down reality. It allows them to think, "It wasn't really that bad. I mean he made one mistake, but he's not a real predator." Watering down the truth allows others to control the truth, distort it. And it allows abuse to continue.Telling the truth isn't wrong. Committing serious felony crimes is wrong. Covering for felons, hiding the truth, and obstructing justice are wrong.

The Perpetrator
I grew up with my abuser. I had known him my entire life. Our families had close ties. Our parents were friends, and our parents' parents knew each other. My mother had even once lived with his mom and both of his grandmothers.

This friend was about four years older than me, he was my older cousin's friend, and he was frequently around our family. I looked up to this guy, admiring him for his outgoing, funny personality. At around age 11, I had a typical kid's crush on this guy who, in my eyes, was a golden, good guy. 

 At age 13, I outgrew both my childhood crush on this guy right along with my crush on Joey McIntyre from New Kids on the Block. These were rites of childhood that passed along with the normal stages of development. The older friend began dating another older friend of mine who was about four and a half years older than me. There was never any "relationship," any inappropriate communications, or any other strange behaviors to indicate this friend was dangerous or untrustworthy. 

The First (Known) Incident

May 12, 1996. I had just turned 17 two months earlier. This friend (21 years), his girlfriend (also a friend, and also 21 years), and I were to ride to ride together to attend a weekend-long church revival event several hours away. We all met at his girlfriend's home, but just before we were to leave, the girlfriend backed out of the trip. She was sick. That left two of us riding together. It wasn't weird to ride alone with this friend, though, for I'd always been around this friend. He and his family had frequently stayed overnight at my home. My parents trusted this guy, this guy's girlfriend trusted him, and I trusted him.

Nothing occurred on the way to the event. We socialized with our groups of friends as normal, we stayed in separate locations at the event, and we got in the car on the Mother's Day afternoon to return home. I had ridden in a car with this guy many, many times. I had a pillow with me, and tired from staying up late with friends, I was hoping to get some rest on the trip home. I am not sure when I awoke, but I started to feel some sensation on my chest. At first I thought I was dreaming. It seemed someone was groping me, but I wasn't sure what was happening. As I became more aware, I felt panicked. My eyes were still tightly closed, but I could tell that the car was still in motion.

I considered possible scenarios. Had we stopped for gas? Had someone else jumped in the car? This couldn't be my trusted friend, so it seemed more plausible to me that I'd been kidnapped. If this was the friend, then obviously, he was delusional. If I yelled or screamed, would he wreck the car with both of us in it? Rationally, I thought that even though I had known this guy my whole life, I really hadn't known this guy at all. I couldn't be certain what he would or would not do if directly confronted mid-act while he was driving a car 70+ mph. I remained calm with my eyes closed. I prayed that it wasn't him. I prayed for whoever it was to stop.  

He didn't. He would periodically nudge my arm with his elbow, presumably to see if I was still asleep. (In retrospect, this act alone--his act of checking to see if someone was sleeping in order to harm her, and later repeatedly checking to see if she was still asleep so that he could continue harming her--shows this was premeditated, predatory behavior knowingly committed without consent). 

He didn't stop until just before we pulled up to his girlfriend's house. He shook my arm more forcefully, and I "woke up." He quickly jumped out of the car, acted like nothing had happened, and then left me sitting alone in my car. I was in shock. I drove home questioning what had happened, and not knowing what to do about it. I supposed that maybe this was a one-time mistake. I thought that talking or telling anyone would ruin too many lives, hurt too many people. I reasoned that I was more emotionally and mentally stable than many around me. 

I also reasoned that telling someone meant I would be put on trial, for no one would believe he could do this. I reasoned that such a character trial where I had to face an inquisition, repeatedly answer the same questions, and be put in a defensive position would be too exhausting. I thought I was better off dealing with it alone. I kept quiet and prayed he had just made a one-time "mistake."

The Common Scheme: a Pattern of Abuse
Unfortunately, May of 1996 was only the first known incident. An older, wiser, and more educated me realizes my perpetrator partook in a pattern of the same type of abuse against me that constituted what the law calls "a common scheme." Field experts in sex crimes analyze such patterns to build criminal profiles. 

After the first incident, I was still in the same social group with my abuser, but I was careful to never allow myself to be alone with him. I was always on guard. Still, my abuser found ways to catch me off-guard. Once, he caught me in a stairwell at my aunt's home. Another time he came up behind me when other people were present in my aunt's kitchen and whispered in my ear. He would say things like, "You know I love you. You know I would never hurt you." 

At that time I would nod and walk away. These comments made me feel guilty. It was as if he was letting me know that he didn't mean to hurt me, and that if I told anyone about what had happened, I would be the one hurting him. I felt ashamed. Now, I understand this is a typical abuser grooming tactic. Then, I had no understanding of what was happening. 

Avoiding my abuser completely would mean avoiding my best friends, my church, my family, my aunt's home (which was my home away from home), and even my own home (where his family often stayed). He was ever-present in all of the places I had known as safe. I became a recluse.

I withdrew from friends and family. I wore the abuse like a stain and felt anyone who looked at me would see it. I began to dress in increasingly baggy clothes, and rarely removed my two-sizes-too-big coat, which I kept wrapped around me in even warm weather. I felt out of control of my body, and I struggled to try to reclaim control.

In 1997 I began "courting" another guy in our church. "Courting" meant hanging out in large groups and, at the most, holding hands. Early that summer, a large group of young people was riding along in a caravan to attend some friends' wedding in Virginia, and we were to have some fun at a nearby theme park. My guy friend would also be present in our youth group. 

We had several cars riding along together, and a large group of church youth traveling, so no two people would be alone in a car at any point. Certainly, I thought, my abuser wouldn't risk doing anything to me with others present. Still, I carefully avoided being near him. For the first part of the seven-hour trip up, I was alone in the backseat, another female friend was riding in the passenger's seat, and my abuser was driving. It would be ludicrous to think that this guy who was driving on I-95 could possibly do anything to me in the backseat. I thought I was safe. 

I was on the far side of the car. I tilted my head toward the window and closed my eyes. I was shocked when he reached his hand back behind the passenger's seat and started moving it up my thigh. I could not believe this was happening again. This guy was still regularly and actively participating in church, so I had convinced myself that he was a good guy who had made one mistake. I was wrong.

What followed shows how calculated his predatory behavior was. I was in Virginia seeing a guy I liked. While we were at the theme park and at church that weekend, my abuser found several occasions to get close to me and whisper things like, "I know this guy likes you. You really like this guy, huh?" I would quickly move away, but it was as if he was letting me know that I was going to be punished for spending time with another guy. His actions were deliberate. His motive was to control me. He was emotionally blackmailing me with the truth. I was terrified of what he might say to this guy, to anyone. He could destroy my reputation, for no one would believe the truth. It would be my word against his, and he knew it. 

That evening, I partially disclosed part of what occurred during the car ride there to my female friend who had been in the front seat of the same car. I was worried he may have hurt her, too. It quickly became apparent that my friend thought I was imagining things. Looking back, I guess I can understand that. I would have felt the same way had I not been on the receiving end of unwanted physical contact from this guy. He was that funny, outgoing friend that everyone enjoyed being around. Yet, even though she thought I was overreacting, I didn't care. I made it clear that something "weird" was going on, and that I did not want to ride in the car with this guy on the way home.

When we began the trip home I was not riding in this guy's car. I made sure that whatever car he was in, I got into another one. The ride home was seven hours, we'd been up late nights, I thought I was surely safe to rest in a car when he wasn't even in it. I went to sleep. When I woke up, he was not only in my car, but in the back seat with me. I was livid, and this was the part I could not understand. Not only had my friend not believed me, she didn't blink twice at the fact that he had concocted some bologna about being too tired to drive the other vehicle so that he could switch seats with another person and climb into the backseat of the vehicle where I was already asleep. After I woke up to him touching me and abruptly sat up, he said that I could "stretch out my legs" across his lap if I was tired. I said, "No."  

I made something up about feeling carsick and said I needed to ride in the front. A short while later, miracle of miracles, he had a sudden burst of energy and wanted to drive. Then I said I needed to stop for the restroom. I moved to the back behind the driver's seat so he wouldn't be able to reach me. It really was this absurd, and to this day, I struggle to accept that the others who were on that trip did not know what he was doing. Either they knew and were so shocked that they pretended not to see it (and later felt too guilty about it to say anything), or they knew, saw, and stayed silent to protect their "buddy" (the "good guy" who'd just made a "little mistake"). It still makes me angry to think that they may have covered for him, but I remind myself that only one person is responsible for my abuser's actions. My abuser. He used the others for his selfish desires just as he used me. He didn't care about how his actions affected any of us.

My abuser used the presence of others to carry out the abuse and to keep me silent. He was not sorry for his abuse, but instead was taking bold risks and escalating the level of abuse. He sadistically made sure I was trapped with no means of escape. He knew I did not want him touching me, and he knew my "friends" were more loyal to him and would protect him if I spoke out. He was controlling them, too. He used them to continue abusing me. It didn't end until I was forced to speak out. After I became a complete shut-in and was diagnosed with severe depression and agoraphobia, I finally disclosed the abuse to my parents. They issued an ultimatum. I had to either confront my abuser or they would.

The Community Culture: Christian Legalism

First, I hope to make it clear that no community is immune to sexual abuse. It exists everywhere. Still, some cultures, especially authoritarian settings that supress dialogue or employ shame tactics to compel compliant behavior, are especially vulnerable. Boz Tchividjian, Billy Graham's grandson, recognized this in his work as a criminal prosecutor. He now works with communities to change the culture and make church safe. (Read more here.)

My community was not an evil, horrible, overly authoritarian community. I grew up in a Holiness Christian community. Our church was more than a building. It was a family. It's important to understand this isn't about "church bashing." This is a good church with Bible-based doctrine. Women and men share in leadership positions (something not allowed in many denominations). Within this church are some of the kindest, most devoted souls one could ever hope to find if she searched the world over. Attend a service and you'll see smiling faces, you'll hear people preach who've memorized entire chapters of the Bible, and you'll hear soulful, acapella hyms ring out. You'll feel love.

Still, my community feared honest, open dialogue, and this complicated both my disclosing my abuse and my finding support from my community. Our folks preached outward holiness was a sign of inward purity, inward devotion to Christ. Pulpit preachers said plenty about "sin," especially modest living, and abstinence from "things of the world." From a young age, we were taught to present our bodies as "living sacrifices" at an altar that we might receive grace and salvation. Such talk was mostly general. It certainly didn't get into uncomfortable topics like addiction, sincere doubt, mental illness, or sexuality. 

Our church discipline did not mention sexual sins, sexual abuse, reporting methods for child abuse in general, nor any procedures for protecting or ministering to the abused. It was as if such sins, such crimes, didn't even exist. I asked about this at some point. I was told that the church didn't meddle in individual matters. Yet, I read the discipline again. That wasn't right. The church did have requirements for individual matters beyond doctrine. There were explicit rules for holy living, rules that weren't "doctrinal," but labeled "traditions." In order to be a true church member, individuals had to follow these rules, most of which were directed towards females. For example, one explicit rule prohibited women from wearing jewelry, specifically, wedding rings.  

Growing up, I never questioned such "traditions." Most women of my family were from the "strictest" segments of the church. When some congregations gave up the old traditions, allowing the wearing of pants or cutting of hair, my great-grandmother, grandmother, and aunts kept them. They didn't wear makeup, they wore long skirts, and they kept their hair long, uncut. These women weren't proud. They were sincerely sacrificing of themselves, for they believed such outward sacrifice was expected of them. When I made the decision for myself to attend my mother's family church, I obediently followed many of the traditions that my grandmother and aunts kept. Yet, because different congregations had different rules, I remember always feeling confused by what was and what wasn't allowed. Was it okay to wear pants? Was it not okay to paint my nails, even if I was using clear or light pink polish? I remember once painting my nails a nude color and being shamed for it, and then seeing someone from a "strict" family wearing a deeper shade of pink and being angry. Why was this girl allowed to wear that color, when I was shamed for wearing a lighter, sheer color? 

Movies on monitors and computers were okay, but movies in a theater or on television were out. Bikinis for some girls were okay, but bare legs in church were out. Range Rovers and Cadillacs were okay, but red cars were out. Multi-million dollar mansions were okay, but wrist-watches were out. Louis Vuitton purses and $200 dresses were okay, but wedding bands were out. It sounds ridiculous now, but this was my confusing culture. 

After disclosing my abuse, in the absence of any church support, I left this community. My therapist told me it was an unhealthy place for me and that under no circumstance should I be around my abuser. Yet, two years later I returned. I was at peace in the other areas of my life, and I desired spiritual peace. Two years after that, I was approached by church board members for the first time in my life. I had been asked to preach at an upcoming service, and church leaders wanted to confirm I was not and would not be wearing a wedding band while preaching. I was told that someone had reported that they "thought" I occasionally wore a band. The wedding band was a nonissue to me as I hadn't worn one for years, not since I returned to my church (my husband, who did not grow up in our church, did wear a band). I had been married with a ring during my time away from the church, but I had given it up. I didn't even know where the ring was, for my mother had it at her home. 

Just like the time I wore sheer, nude nail polish, here I was being shamed again, but this time for something I hadn't even done. It didn't matter. It was clear that the microscope was focused more closely on me than other girls. It was also clear that, although the discipline stated the wearing of rings was about "tradition," it wasn't. It was legalism. It was Pharisee-like behavior; it was a rule directed only at females (and some females more than others); it was spiritually insincere; and it was just plain wrong.

That day what was communicated to me was no matter how devoted I was to the Bible, I was flawed. Impaired. Not to be trusted. Worthless. Shameful. They let me know that the wearing of a wedding band was a more serious issue than having one congregant commit felony sexual assault against another congregant on multiple occasions for hours at a time. One member's (wrongly) "thinking" that I occasionally wore a band was enough to move church leaders to communicate with me, but my being sexually abused during church events by a fellow church congregant was not? Upholding the "tradition" of not wearing jewelry was more important than keeping members safe from what was clearly a sin, but also a serious crime? 

Even despite the legalism of some, there were (and are) many good, sincere people in my church. For all the moving pulpit preaching about truth, righteousness, and sin, though, I learned many of these good, sincere church folks didn't have the grit to confront real sin head-on. I didn't understand why, but confronting real issues made them squeamish. 

I've since learned that many faith communities have this issue. It's the "What Would People Think?" syndrome. Even some of the most sincere somehow fear man's judgment more than God's, and their fear keeps them from acting in their faith. Preaching about outward, legalistic rules is easy. Confronting real, dirty sin isn't. It takes more than sincerity; it takes spiritual strength, courage, and action faith. Too often, good people fear getting close to the truth with issues like sexual abuse because they fear the "stain" of abuse might rub off on them, too. Talking about the truth makes them itchy and uncomfortable. Whenever I spoke to church folk about any topic remotely resembling abuse, I was met with a changing of subjects, uncomfortable shifting of postures, avoidance, aversion of eyes, and deep, heavy sighs. 

Disclosing my abuse against this backdrop was especially complicated. The good people's squeamish responses to what was done to me, not by me, shamed me. It was like being in an ER with a life-threatening emergency and having the doctor say he couldn't help treat you because the sight of your blood made him sick. For years, I have struggled with being at church, bouncing between a stubborn resistance against my abuser's cutting me off from what was also my church, and between wanting rest, peace, and safety. I felt this culture of silence about the real issues of life, the heavy stuff, forced me to choose between safety and salvation. I felt my church would only allow me to be a participant if I blindly accepted my abuser's presence, agreed to keep things comfortably silent, and agreed not to make a fuss regarding whatever future harm my abuser doled out. I remained silent and obedient for too long. 

[Note to the other carriers of truth torches. You'll know if your community is one of silence and fear by the way others react when you tell the (take in a deep breath to prepare for the dirty word) truth. Remember how your parents taught you to always tell the truth? How they said truth was good? Well, silence and fear find truth dishonorable. If you tell the truth and then have fellow community members come unhinged, you'll know. If people see sexual abuse as a "personal" problem and not a public problem, you'll know. Silence and fear dominate the culture.]

I disclosed my abuse at the turn of the 21st century, but my world seemed closer to that of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Why would any woman in such a culture disclose sexual abuse when custom guaranteed she would be punished? When the common response to disclosure wasn't support or protection, but a lifetime sentence upon a pedestal of shame so that others, in their feigned moral or spiritual superiority, could judge her? 

Fortunately, I was able to see the absurdity of destructive legalism. It is not holiness. In the Bible, it was the legalists of Jesus' day who put him on the cross. The legalists condemned and publicly shamed him. Jesus didn't ascribe to the Pharisees' hand-washing rituals, and He called out those who carefully washed the outside of the dish but left the inside dirty. Legalism places the external over the inner spirit, it promotes pride and self-glory, and it is a dangerous sin. It's used to separate the superiors from the inferiors. How can you spot legalism? Where "rules" outside of doctrine exist and there are technical "loopholes" used to get around "rules" (e.g., watching movies on a monitor versus watching them on a television), there is legalism. 

Now, I wear a small wedding band. My husband gifted it to me after I broke my silence about my abuse. It's small, simple, and without a flashy, big diamond. It serves to remind me that Jesus cares more about how I treat my neighbor than whether or not I follow some silly, legalistic tradition or rule. Performing a rule absent sincerity of heart and then promoting oneself over others who don't follow the rule is sin. The rule is a tool of sin to pridefully maintain one's spiritual superiority over one's brother. 

One's spiritual devotion to God should be buried within the heart, not worn on the finger in the place of a ring or on the wrist in the place of a watch. A sincere spirit will shine from the inside out. Can people follow traditions and be sincere? Can women not wear wedding rings or jewelry, not cut their hair, wear only long skirts and be genuine? Yes. Absolutely. It's genuine if such acts are born out of the inner spirit. It's not genuine, though, if such acts are born out of external expectations, committed out of fear for man, not God. Devotion to man is idolatry, and ironically, it's the sin many legalists claim they are trying to avoid. Legalistic, fake devotion, allows for easy duplicity, and it is especially dangerous when paraded as the sole standard of holiness minus circumspect regard for other sins: abuse, hatred, lying, gossiping, envying, and, perhaps worst of all, apathy for one's neighbors.  

Fifteen Years Later: Still a Threat
Around the 15th anniversary of confronting my abuser, he proved he was still a threat. In 1997, I confronted my abuser and he said he didn't know if I even knew he'd been molesting me in my sleep. He asked me how much I knew. I said I knew it happened "at least twice." He said he only acted twice. I knew this was a lie, but I wanted to believe he was sorry. I wanted to forgive him. I listened to my community who assured me they "prayed" with him, that he was sorry, and that it was a "one-time mistake." (I didn't even attempt to correct that incorrect claim.)

For fifteen years I lived my life with only momentary flashbacks--occasional, recurring nightmares of being trapped and having my abuser's hand hovering over me. My sleep would forever be disturbed, but otherwise, the remnants were reduced to cringing whenever someone accidentally brushed against me in a crowded space, my husband's dealing with my sudden, anger over any slight, unexpected physical contact, my giving side hugs as to avoid direct bodily contact with others, and my difficulties getting close to, opening up with, or trusting other people.

There was much more positive in my life than negative, though I was in the what was, personally, the toughest year of my adult life. I was a successful, but busy teacher; I was finishing my Masters; and I had recently had my third child. My abuser had absolutely no hold over me, but my life was more chaotic than normal.

My church community knew about this temporary chaos. Just as my family regained stability, I received a birth announcement in the mail. It was from my abuser. My abuser had a new child and what was the child's name? Shannon. Coincidence? I think anyone who read the above account would rule out that possibility. A truly remorseful, sorry person would avoid doing anything that might resurrect a victim's pain. 

Being a parent of three children, I know choosing your child's name is no light task. My husband and I discussed, deliberated, and carefully chose our children's first and middle names. Some names I liked were ruled out because former students or random movie characters had shared the moniker. A name is important. It is tethered to a person's identity.

That's why I cannot fathom any good explanation for my abuser bestowing his victim's name upon his child. My abuser either lacks empathy and fails to understand the seriousness of his crimes (plural), or he purposefully did this as another calculated move to control me and secure my silence. Either way, the bold act of victimizing his own child by playing him as a pawn without regard for how that might one day harm that child shows this guy is a threat to me and my children (for the sole reason that they belong to me). Holding those who abuse others accountable for their actions is the only way to end the abuse, ensure safety for the abused and others, deter more abuse, and (this is important) help the abuser.

Back in Control: Reclaiming My Voice & My Peace
This past summer I attended a Human Rights Global Leadership Summit at The Hague. While there, one keynote speaker from the Women's African Leadership Group spoke about her past sexual abuse at the hands of a trusted teacher. I was there as an educator guide for a group of students, and I had no idea that this keynote speaker would be talking about sexual abuse. At first, I was uncomfortable. I wasn't sure I would be able to stay in the room and listen to her. Then, I began videoing her speech. On the video, around three minutes in, I am heard sniffing back sobs as this young woman says this: "They [our abusers] use our silence to kill us and say that we enjoyed it." 

This young, strong woman was right. There she was bravely talking about being abused without crying. Without shame. I knew then that peace isn't possible so long as someone else has hijacked the truth.  I had to break my silence. I had to regain control over truth in my own abuse and I had to be a brave survivor free from shame. I didn't ask to be abused, I didn't consent to being abused, and I didn't deserve to be abused. It happened. It was predatory abuse. It sucks. And it wasn't my fault. I have no reason to be ashamed, guilty, or silent about it. It is something that happened to me, but it isn't me. It doesn't define me. I am so much more--a child of God, a mother, a wife, a daughter, an advocate, a researcher, a writer, a creator, a student, a teacher. In me is beauty from ashes. I am a strong, reasonably-minded, able woman, and I am a fierce warrior for light.

 If you are reading this, and if you are struggling with your own disclosure or recovery, please know that you, too, are valuable. Your abuse happened to you, but it is not you. Your life has volumes of pages yet to be filled. Remember that you, you alone, are the author of your book. I wish you peace on your journey.