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“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories.” -Anne Lamott
#MeToo. Yes, me too.
I might not have shared #MeToo on my facebook wall with as much confidence last year. I thought my story of survival didn’t count. In fact, I thought it wasn’t my story, but the story of my childhood friend, Liza. Thanks to her courage and her insight, I have come to understand this is my story, her story, and most powerfully our story.
The story from my point of view is fairly predictable. It is a story of willful institutional preservation and denial, sexual abuse and power, and silencing.
In the fall of my high school senior year it became apparent to me that my longtime friend, Liza, was in an “abnormal” relationship with a male teacher. I was too young and inexperienced to know what made me uncomfortable about their unusual closeness. I did what I was told to do; I spoke to the head of our school. I told him in detail my concerns, even sharing with him that Liza was spending weekends at the teacher’s home. I heard nothing more. Two weeks later I followed up with the headmaster, still deeply worried for Liza. The headmaster asked me to be patient. Now I understand that asking for patience was his way of telling me to be quiet.
My patience wore out in the late winter. A group of fellow classmates often discussed our growing concern for Liza. We whispered, never naming out loud what we most feared. I was tired of inaction, tired of being “patient” with institutional power. I organized a group of female classmates who shared my concerns and we went to speak to our dean. We were ignored and I was silenced. When my classmates spoke of our concerns, they were afraid to speak their worst suspicion: sexual abuse. At one point in the conversation, I said, “Mrs. X, what we are trying to say is . . . ,” but before I could finish my sentence, I was silenced. Her exact words were: “We already know what you think, Abby. Please be quiet.”
I remember this meeting like it was yesterday; the office, the hesitant voices of my classmates, and the dismissal. I know now that my memory is so clear because the experience was traumatic. Scientists have proven that traumatic experiences leave a signature in the brain that is hard to erase. I’ve carried this moment with me for years in technicolor, the words, “Be QUIET. We know what you think,” echoing in my psyche.
This institutional silencing was effective. I shut down there and then in that dean’s office. Until this year, I have avoided the school like a childhood nightmare. Today, I understand that I was silenced because I spoke the truth.
The story, however, does not end with my silencing, or even with my graduation from the elite prep school. It did not end when Liza detangled herself from the lengthy abuse she suffered at the hands of a protected predator. Instead our particular story is unfolding now in hope-filled and unanticipated ways, beyond survival to a place of healing and insight.
A few years back I wrote a blog on forgiveness (10/19/2014). I vaguely mentioned the above story, referencing things I had been unable to forgive. Liza read the blog and contacted me. Are you writing about me? I was concerned I might have hurt her, but instead I discovered she had no idea anyone tried to help her. What followed were lengthy, honest, and healing messages back and forth.
This spring the news story about Choate-Rosemary Hall’s sexual abuse culture broke. The story was too much. Neither Liza nor I could remain silent. Each of us, on our own, came to the conclusion we must speak up. Together, we decided to act. We wrote letters. We created a community of support. We forced our alma mater to investigate its past. With shock and gratitude, it is significant to note we have been treated with respect and kindness. Our story has not been dismissed but listened to with attention and care.
This is where our story becomes uncommon. This is where our story becomes transformative.
As we were preparing to break our silence, Liza and I had many lengthy conversations. Out of respect for the abuse she had suffered, I often deferred to Liza with statements like, “You lead,” “This is your story,” and “I’m here to support you.” Finally Liza, after numerous reminders that I was also a victim, said point blank, “This is your story too Abby. You were affected just as deeply as I was.”
Liza had to help me understand that it was my story too: I had been victimized by sexual violence and I was a survivor. I all of a sudden understood that there was a reason I was depressed in high school my senior year. There was a reason I didn’t trust institutions. There was a reason I didn’t trust male teachers. There was a reason when I received the latest alumni news in the mail I could barely touch the glossy pages. Recently when I asked her if I could use her name for this blog, her response was clear, “Yes. I am part of your story and you are a part of mine.”
The breadth of our story came crashing in on me when I was interviewed by the two lawyers retained by my alma mater. The three hours I spent with these deeply present and intelligent women were holy. Have you ever heard the words holy and lawyer in the same sentence? It was. They listened and created enough room for me to tell my entire story from beginning to end. Through their questions, the edges of our story became more clearly defined. Through their attention, our story became more real.
After the long interview, and then subsequent meeting with the board of trustees, Liza and I had hot cocoa and coffee. We were weary and unready to return home to our children and spouses. We needed time to settle. It was then, as if carried on some wave beyond my control, I knew in my bones this was our story. Our story must be told. We were silenced once. We would not be silenced again.
In the months that have followed, I have reflected on the enormity of our story. Paradoxically, it was only when Liza helped me claim this story as not only her story, but also our story, that healing began. In telling this story again and again I have made new emotional memories. I have begun to finally grieve for the many young women, including Liza and myself, who learned that we mattered less than the institution. In telling our story, Liza and I have made space for others in our alma mater to tell their stories of survival, abuse, and even shameful complicity. There is hope in telling and listening.
The legal team’s investigation is coming to a close. Yesterday I ended a conversation with the lead lawyer by thanking her. I couldn’t help but to be a pastor; I asked how she was. How exhausting it must be to live with these stories as a professional, I commented. Her response was disarming, “It is. I live and breathe this story,” she remarked. “But this is good and important work. You and Liza are remarkable women. I have never known a story of two women with such courage and insight.”
Before I write any further I want to make it clear that I am uncomfortable calling myself remarkable. In fact, I have been taught all my life, like most women, to downplay compliments, to underestimate my abilities, and to always defer to others. Part of telling this story is to shake myself of this proclivity.
I thought that our story was just one of many stories and it is. But it is also a story of two remarkable women. It is a story of a feisty teenage girl who refused to be patient. A girl who grew to continue her outspoken work in the world as a minister and advocate for the least and last. It is the story of another seventeen year old girl who survived and then found healing and built a life full of love. A girl who is now an emotionally insightful feminist who speaks her story with courage and acuity.
I want to share this story not only because remaining silent about sexual abuse only strengthens the culture of abuse, but also because I want to shout to the rooftops that two remarkable women survived and share a powerful story together. I want the world to know that we are tough and emotionally perceptive, determined and sensitive, full of old hurt and new beginnings, angry and hopeful. We survived apart, but together we are thriving and hopeful. Perhaps our story will change a long-standing culture of institutional preservation and sexual abuse in an elite school that has a terrible past. I want to share our story loudly because in sharing it, I claim my space among legions of women who have fought and survived. I share our story because I want my daughter to one day read this and be filled with pride and move forward into her own story with fierce courage.
#MeToo #UsToo #AllofUs
Few. have escaped the distorting culture of sexual abuse. Yet together we can share our stories. And in the sharing there is powerful healing to be discovered. Today, I pray for the real hard work of transformation.
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Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.