In January of this year, I released my first memoir, Me, Too: Voicing My Story. As the title indicates, the book is my #metoo statement, though it’s also a sociological examination of how our society has evolved to a place where sexual violence is so rampant.
In my book, I address how purity culture shaped me, and how the things I learned in church contradicted the things I was told by trusted adults in my childhood—the same adults who took me to church. I talk about the bias in survivor stories, how some survivors are recognized and others aren’t (although that’s something I talk about a bit more in my next book, This, Too: All Our Stories Matter). Additionally, I address how society tends to respond to survivors, and I share how I’ve learned to respond to the probing questions that individuals who don’t identify as survivors tend to ask.
It all begins with my story, one that began long before I could even speak…one that continues to haunt me to this day as additional memories surface. The thing I’ve learned about healing, though, is that I have to start with what happened to me, that way I can process my feelings and find a way to deeply understand that as much as I didn’t deserve what happened to me, I am also more than the sum of my traumas.
And, in part, this is what happened to me.
Prior to my twelfth birthday, I experienced what I can only describe as grooming. I was shown images from my father’s multi-decade collection of Playboy and taught how to pose like those women; it was explained to me why their bodies were attractive. I was told I had “real potential” to look like those women in my father’s magazine collection, especially if I started taking dance classes again.
Both before and after my parents divorced when I was nine, my physical space and autonomy were regularly violated by many trusted adults. In addition to being required to show physical affection to everyone who sought it from me regardless of my own desires, I was expected to shower in front of a small audience—someone always had a reason they just had to talk to me while I was bathing, or an excuse was made for how it was “quicker and easier” for us to shower together, them insisting they could wash me faster.
When I was in fourth and fifth grade and started noticing boys and developing crushes, my father taught me how to glance over my shoulder and grin as I walked away, promising me doing so would “drive guys wild.” While at my father’s house, I was encouraged to hula hoop wearing only the skirt from my school uniform and a bra while spanking myself in time with pop songs that were popular at that time.
I was thirteen when I attended a summer musical theater camp in my school district. While at this camp, I met many of the high school juniors and seniors I eventually was cast alongside for the autumn and spring musicals during my eighth-grade year. Over the course of that production season, I heard multiple rumors of the theater director’s alleged sexual relationships with both former and current students—what my peers and I referred to as his “girl of the year.” Despite these rumors, I remained in the theater program as a techie, or stagehand, when I started high school.
A week after my fifteenth birthday, I was hugging a friend when he reached behind me and grabbed my crotch. I froze as he rubbed his fingers against the seam of my jeans between my legs; I can still feel his breath on my neck as he asked if I liked it, the panic in my gut as I struggled, squirming in his arms, which tightened around my torso. I can still feel the peaceful safety created when my high school boyfriend believed me and encouraged me to go to the principal…and the confusion I experienced when the administration asked why I’d been alone with the boy I was accusing, as if I deserved what had happened to me because we were briefly unsupervised.
Throughout my freshman and sophomore years of high school, my theater teacher facilitated a sexually hostile environment. Rumors of new candidates for his “girl of the year” were rampant, and as my sophomore year drew to a close, I was privy to additional information about who he may have “chosen.” I’d gathered it was always an at-risk student—like myself—who he provided for in some way, such as buying her lunches (as he did for me) or providing whatever essential care she needed (like when he paid for my wisdom teeth to be removed). All the while, he’d pit students against one another to promote social drama and bullying; he’d make comments about girls’ bodies, both in front of the entire musical’s cast and privately. We knew personal details about his marriage and sexual relationships and preferences. Former students shared that they’d been gifted “sex kits” or sex toys and lubricants or oils by our teacher, either during their senior year or after they’d graduated.
The comments our teacher made and his actions were so well-known within the school that I could only conclude his behavior was okay—how could so many people know what he was doing without him facing consequences if it was wrong?
Eventually, early in my junior year, my teacher resigned, thereby avoiding disciplinary action. Nonetheless, we remained in contact, texting each other often. For so long, he’d filled the void in my life that had been created when my father abdicated his parental duties on my twelfth birthday—I wasn’t ready to lose another father figure, even if he’d possibly had sexual contact with more than half my friends. I still couldn’t force myself to consider that he viewed me as his next potential “girl of the year” and clung to my belief that he viewed me as platonically as I thought of him.
Around that same time, a new man entered my life. He was in his mid-twenties; I was newly seventeen. In late October, while we were with some friends at the drive-in, he groped me under my shirt, and just like I had when my classmate grabbed my crotch, I froze. My mind raced, trying to make sense of what he was doing, and why he was doing it, as my body remained limp. My high school boyfriend had never so aggressively grabbed at me, and—though we’d broken up—I didn’t want anyone else’s hands on me…especially the way this man was touching me.
As he moved on top of me on the frosted grass, then rolled and pulled me on top of him, I disengaged—my body wouldn’t respond in accordance with my desires. I felt like a marionette as he grabbed at me and bit me; now, I recall little else about what he did, though I remember much of what I felt. The sensation of his fingertips on my skin, of the cold night air hitting my torso as my shirt was pulled up caused goosebumps to spread across my body, but I couldn’t make my body cooperate with what I knew I wanted to do. I wanted to stand up, to move, to run to the concession stand and say that, although I’d wanted to hang out with my friend, he wasn’t acting like a friend anymore and I needed help. At the same time, I was certain anyone I told would say it was my fault for being around him, and that I should’ve known better since he was so much older than I was.
I endured the bruises and bleeding out of desperation to keep the escape that he provided from my home life. He also filled a vacancy created by my teacher’s abrupt absence; I’d considered my teacher to be something of a “cool uncle” or surrogate father figure, and when our contact waned, I grew desperate for someone else to fill that void. It was months before I found the strength to resist harder, then he left.
Just over a year later, my senior prom date wouldn’t take “no” for an answer at first. I was determined my refusal would be the desire that won, though, and schemed to escape his drunken entitlement. When I fled, walking several miles through a quarry, barefoot in my dress—my favorite dress, a dress I later burned—I texted a friend who believed every horrible detail without questioning me or doubting me.
Through it all, I found myself wondering how any of it had happened—I’d once been a girl who knew how to tell a guy “no” and push him out of my life. What had changed along the way, sometime between my first date at fourteen and when I was seventeen, being abused by an apparent serial predator? Even when I first wrote this statement last year as I drafted my book, I kept doubting myself. Was it my fault? Had I somehow invited those men into my life because I was so desperate for a stable male figure after my father’s abdication and my teacher’s disappearance?
I’ve concluded that what happened to me happened for a myriad of reasons, which I’m unpacking in therapy and in my Too Much memoir collection. What I know beyond a shadow of a doubt now, though, is that my story may have unique details, but my experience is not mine alone. It’s my trauma, and it’s our culture.
That’s why we have—and why we need—the #MeToo Movement. Because when we voice our stories, other victims listen, and then they, too, can realize the survivor in themselves.
Just like Katherine Turner helped me do (but you’ll have to read my book to see how she did it 😉).
To read Me, Too: Voicing My Story now, click here.
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