About 6 months ago I attended a blogging conference, Blissdom, where Brené Brown was the Keynote speaker. Besides being engaging and captivating, her topic of research resonated deeply within me. She is a Shame Researcher. And it was the seed she planted, along with reading her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, (so lovingly given to me by my friend Hollee Schwartz Temple), that made me think about writing this. And it was watching Jaycee Dugard tell her story that made me realize I, too, can be that strong.
While just a short while ago I wrote that sometimes it’s not our story to tell, I realized that part of what I don’t want to talk about is my story. And today I share it. Not for sympathy. But for strength. For power. For release.
Today I Banish Shame.
Four years ago this week my daughter was the victim of a crime. A crime the law refers to as a “violent crime”. I had to tell my husband about it over the phone. I had to get on a plane and bring my baby home because we were in another state visiting at a person’s home whom I had, at the time, called my friend. THIS IS MY STORY.
What do you do when something terrible happens to your family? You look to friends and extended family for comfort. But what if you can’t? Or don’t feel you can? What if what happens fills you with shame and banishes your self-worth to depths so deep you don’t know how to retrieve it?
What if something bad happens to your child and you don’t tell anyone because you don’t want pity? You don’t want your child marked or labeled? She’s not sick so there’s no one to rally around you.
For nearly four years I’ve lived in a hell created by the purposeful choice of one person. A hell whose fire was fueled by the lies told by a family to a judge and a court. A hell that existed solely because the teenage son of someone I’ve know since childhood chose to sexually assault my 4 year old daughter.
I’ve lived in a shame-induced hell because I was told I allowed this to happen. I was told I wasn’t a good mother. That I didn’t protect my child. That it wasn’t his fault. That I was to blame for dragging this kid and his family into court and making them a spectacle in their own town.
I lived in a shame-induced hell, afraid to say a word to people I called my friends for fear of being judged even more than I already had. I never knew silence could be so loud in my head. We never talk about it, we don’t mention it. It’s like it never happened.
But it did. And on that day, my daughter’s innocence was taken from her in the most violent way ever. How could I know that she wasn’t safe? It wasn’t a scary person jumping from behind bushes or a deranged freak snatching her away from me. She was playing. She was being a kid.
It seemed like an eternity but it wasn’t. I couldn’t hear her, but that wasn’t a reason for concern. I taught her to play quietly, to be polite. But I also taught her that it’s her body. But she’s just 4. He was a teenager. How can she defend herself?
The only way she could defend herself was to tell me as soon as she saw me. And she did. And fortunately shock is a powerful force within us that allows us to do extraordinary things when our conscious mind won’t let us.
I was on a mission to let her tell her story. My child, my family, was not going to be his victim. Once I heard someone else tell me that this couldn’t have been this kid’s first time offending I knew it was my job to stop him. I fought for the forensic interview even thought it mean my daughter would have to tell a stranger what happened. I knew what happened when the detective came in the room and told us we’d have to meet with the forensic medical examiner. And I knew that I’d fight to get this kid charged and convicted.
But why was I the one who went on trial? Why did my friends stop calling and emailing when I shared with them what I was going through? Why did the defense attorney need to know how long I breastfed, if my daughter ever saw me and my husband have sex or if my husband ever bathed her?
The shame washed over me. It’s nearly drowned me. Some days it’s come very close. Why wouldn’t it? I didn’t do anything but now I was unworthy of friends. I didn’t do anything but my shame would be exploited, in an effort to somehow make me feel even less worthy. All efforts to reinforce my shame. That I should just keep it to myself because no one wants to hear.
But it DID happen. It happened TO my daughter. No one wants to hear the words, rape or sexual assault. Even the charges filed made it seem less shameful to the defendant – criminal sexual contact. Sometimes even reduced to CSC – so we don’t have to hear the word “sexual”.
She was 4 years old! By the time she was 5 she saw parts of her body most of us never see. She knew what a defendant was and a prosecutor and that she even had her own attorney.
But she didn’t know that the defense team was staking out our house. That the defense attorney failed – on 3 separate accounts – to protect her identity in court documents, referring to her by full name, disclosing her social security number. She didn’t know that the defense attorney was escorted out of the county attorney’s office for threatening a witness.
She was 5 years old when she told a judge she’d tell the truth. She sat on the stand in a brand new dress and fancy shoes and told a judge “Who looked like Santa Clause” what happened to her. She told the judge she can’t tell him everything because she didn’t want to make him sad.
To say this judge was amazing is an understatement. Armed with our own tenacious attorney and a prosecuting team to rival any major TV drama, I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. She was going to tell her story to the one person who could do something.
And after hours of testimony, she stepped off the stand knowing she didn’t tell the whole story. And at that point whatever decision the judge made didn’t matter. All that mattered was that she told the judge what she felt he should know about what happened. She wasn’t embarrassed.
She was scared. I know this because she told me. I know this because our attorney had to motion to court to allow her to hold her stuffed animal. I know this because our attorney had to petition the court to screen the defendant because he tried to stare her down. I also know she knew what happened to her wasn’t right. But she didn’t know how much other people might be as scared as she was that she couldn’t tell about everything that happened.
When I was called to the stand, she was gone. Back to the hotel for lunch and a trip to the children’s museum. Something normal. She shouldn’t see me anxious before I was set to testify. She shouldn’t have to sit there wondering what I was saying. She shouldn’t have to see me after I step down from nearly 3 hours of testimony.
The trial was over, we were all excused and closing arguments would be the next day. I went home not really caring what the actual verdict would be. All I cared about was that my daughter told her story to the one person who could do something.
And no matter what the defense said, it didn’t matter to the judge. I only wish I was as detached as the judge because then I wouldn’t have registered any meaning to the hate-filled, accusatory words heaped upon me by the defendant’s family and attorney.
That the kid was found ‘responsible’ – again, soft words because the judicial system doesn’t want kids painted as offenders their entire life. I don’t care what the word was, it meant one thing – My daughter was believed!
For me there was still more, because I was able to present an impact statement at sentencing. I sat through nearly 4 hours of the defense parading every family member, teachers, priests and friends before the judge. It was after I was called a “fucking bitch” in open court that I moved to a sequestered area outside the presence of the defendant and the circus they brought.
I said the words “I am not a victim.” My daughter is not his victim. My family is not their victim. Only I didn’t hear those words. All I could hear were the nasty words, the questioning of my parenting, the description of what a horrible person I am. I stood before the judge, strong and brave. Only to be enveloped by shame once I had to face anyone else.
I say those words again – I am not a victim! I am not ashamed that I fought to give my daughter the opportunity to tell her story to a judge. I am not ashamed that I sought professional help to deal with what happened to my daughter. I am not ashamed that I’ve told people what happened. I am not ashamed that I’ve lost friends because they choose not to be my friend after knowing what happened. I am not ashamed to say that I have cried until there were no tears left, and that I’ve cried again and again and again.
I haven’t told many people what happened because I felt ashamed. That I was a bad mother to let this happened to her child. That I was a bad person because I dared to ruin this kid’s life by having him convicted. That I was a horrible friend because I did this to her and her family. Why wouldn’t I feel shame? For nearly 9 months, the assault on my character was relentless. I was vulnerable. I was living outside my body fighting for my child. I heard all these nasty things said about me, as if I was an onlooker.
Why did what they say matter? I don’t know. Why didn’t I just go to my friends and family for support? Because they didn’t want to hear it. No one wants to talk about sexual assault. No one want to know anyone that ‘stuff like this’ happens to. This doesn’t happen to people like me.
I’ve lived the last nearly 4 years in a box all by myself. Hearing the defense attorney’s voice and his berating me and questioning every decision I made. Listening to the auto-play of why would I do this to them.
I didn’t do anything to them. My daughter didn’t do anything to deserve what happened to her. I made a choice to do what I could to make it right. I can never take away what happened. But this will not define her. It will not define me or my family.
I’m tired of living with the shame of having done something wrong or feeling like it’s taboo to mention. Today I say “I don’t care!”. I don’t care if you don’t want to be my friend because you can’t handle my pain. I don’t care what happens to this kid or his family. I don’t care what they think of me. I don’t care if anyone want to tell other people what I’ve had to deal with.
No one will ever again make me feel ashamed for choosing to have lunch with a friend. No one will make me feel ashamed because I can’t leave my daughter alone at their house. No one will ever make me feel shame because my daughter doesn’t want to be touched or hugged. No one will ever make me feel shame because I fought to give my daughter her power back.
Today I banish shame from my heart and my mind. Today I let go of the shame I felt because someone else chose to break the law. And today I release myself from the hell I’ve lived in because I questioned if I was a good mother, a good friend, a good person.
Almost four years ago I walked into hell. Today I am walking out!