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Before the #metoo movement became defined with a hashtag, I found myself in the throws of an intense sexual abuse investigation. With an open letter to the Board of Trustees at our high school, my childhood friend, Liza, and I forced our alma mater to look deep into its past and its current culture regarding sexual abuse. The incident we brought to their attention occurred over twenty years prior to our letter, but it was as raw to us as when we were 17 year old girl-women. Although I was not the abused, but rather the “defender” of my abused friend, Liza and I share this story intimately. Our roles and experiences are different, but we were both victims of a culture that ignored sexual abuse. The investigation we triggered was simultaneously healing and difficult. You can read the blog I wrote about this almost cliche sexual abuse story of institutional preservation, male power, and female silencing.
When the news broke this week about Professor Christine Blasey Ford’s story of survival and courage, my experience confronting my alma mater came crashing back. Each news story, each detailed article incessantly picked at my #metoo wound. I was pleased to discover that my wound is mostly healed, but I could not ignore the connections. I could not ignore the anger that rose from deep within. I also could not ignore how defeated I felt. How many times will I have to listen to commentators ask, “Why is she telling her story now?” or “It happened 30 years ago. How can she be sure?”
Let me offer “you” some answers, “you” being the emotionally-bankrupt-head-in-the-sand politicians who ask such ignorant questions! Or as the Hawaii Sen Mazie Hirono said, “Shut up and Step Up!” But in my case I want you to Shut Up and Listen Up. Professor Ford is confronting a country. I only confronted a school. Imagine her courage. She has nothing to gain! Nor did I.
Why is she telling her story now?
Um, isn’t that obvious? Because Brett Kavanaugh has been nominated to the Supreme Court. Professor Ford is a patriot for sacrificing her privacy for the good of our country.
If you need a more nuanced answer: Christine Blasely Ford did tell her story earlier to her husband, therapist and probably many others. Women have been telling our stories of sexual abuse for centuries, but we have been silenced. For many of us our silencing has been covert. We’ve been silenced by our culture everytime we hear, “Boys will be boys” or my personal favorite, “It was just locker room talk.” We’ve been silenced when our mothers told us never to find ourselves in a room alone with a boy, because whatever happens after would be our fault. We’ve been silenced by our fellow classmates who heard the rumors about what happened and lowered their heads in shame, unable to look at us . . . as if we were at fault. We’ve been silenced by every comment that insinuates the way we dress, the way we act, the way we look, “asks for it.” We have been silenced by our sexual partners who didn’t want the past to inconveniently interrupt their pleasure.
I am confident that Professor Ford told a handful of people her story about the bathing suit that saved her. In fact, I am positive everytime she found herself struggling to take off a one piece bathing suit in a bathroom stall, she murmured a silent thanks. I can imagine the telling of her story, piece by piece, that has moved her from a place of shame and fear to a new place of survival and healing.
She has told her story. Now she is telling it again.
We have all told our stories before.
YOU HAVEN’T LISTENED!
I told my my headmaster twice that my friend was being abused by a teacher. He didn’t listen and worse, he didn’t care. I then told my dean and she told me to be quiet. Her words, “Abby, we already know what you think. Be quiet!” echo in my psyche.
Stop asking why we’ve never spoken up before. We have. You haven’t listened. And just to be clear, we get to share our stories of abuse and survival whenever we want. They belong to us. Not you.
How can she be sure what happened 30 years ago?
Scientists have proven that traumatic experiences leave a signature in the brain that is hard to erase. I can attest to this truth.
I can tell you where all my classrooms were located in my high school, my teachers’ names, and more. I have a very good memory. I could not tell you, however, the color of the walls, where each teacher placed book shelves or desks. I could only guess.
But I can tell you every detail of my dean’s office. I can tell you every detail of the meeting, where a group of other students and I went to seek help for our classmate who was being abused. I can tell you where I sat in that small room and where the dean first sat, and then stood, leaning against her desk. I can remember the hesitant, almost stalling voices of my classmates, too afraid to say the word, “sex.” I know now that my memory is so clear because the experience was traumatic. I’ve carried this moment with me for years in technicolor, and I can hear my dean’s voice, “Abby, we already know what you think. Be quiet!”
I am not surprised that Professor Ford can remember the sequence of events during that particular high school party: the two drunks boys pushing her into a deserted room, the struggle, the bathing suit, the hand over her mouth, the tumble, and her escape.
Years do not erase the memory of trauma. If only they did. When such memories are buried by the psyche so the victim can survive, they always return to haunt their hosts. In my work as a pastor I can’t tell you the number of times I have borne witness to women in the throws of terrible depressions who discover they have buried memories of sexual abuse. I have seen the scars on teenage girls’ arms after they have cut themselves because it was the only way they could dull the repressed memory-pain of sexual abuse. I have listened to a 60 year old woman tell of her father’s daily rape that she had blocked from her memory until she finally felt safe after his death.
Professor Ford has a story to tell. She remembers this story too vividly. Sexual abuse will never stop until we listen and believe. She is telling this story again with clarity and courage because it matters to the future of our country. It also matters to the many women who are still hiding their #metoo stories. Telling and listening is the only way as a nation we can heal and move forward into a new way of living as sexual beings of all gendered identities who never accept abuse as the norm.
#MeToo #UsToo #AllofUs
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.