In 1996, just before my freshman year of high school in Chandler, Ariz., I went to check the mail one day and found a package addressed to me. Eagerly, I opened the large manila envelope and pulled out its contents, thinking it held good news about the cheerleading squad I’d just auditioned for. Instead, at age 13, I was horrified to discover that the package contained dozens of pages of graphic pornography. With no note and no return address, I had no means of knowing who would send me such a disturbing, undesirable “gift” or why. I chalked up the experience to a one-off correspondence from some deranged would-be suitor.
The 10 years that followed, however, proved that this was not an isolated incident. As I progressed through high school and college, the strange, sexually laced harassment continued.
I received more pornographic material in the mail, sometimes scrawled with anonymous love notes in red ink. My email was hacked. Friends of mine received copies of intimate emails I wrote to my fiance. Someone subscribed me to Victoria’s Secret and Frederick’s of Hollywood catalogues, then sent me a sex toy in the mail.
And periodically over the years, my personal diaries and pairs of my underwear routinely went missing. It was hard to tell whether I was simply absent-minded or if someone — the same someone behind all the other unwanted attention — could actually be entering my home.
Finally, in 2005, after I had graduated from college and had been married for about year, a series of coincidences revealed the truth. The person who had held me in such terrifying suspense was my own stepfather. It turned out Dad had been living a double life: upstanding churchgoer on one face; larcenous, adulterous predator on the other.
After I would receive these disturbing packages through the years, I would become distraught and go straight to him and my mother, which I’m sure is the reason he did it.
In the end, it was his own secretary who went to the police after figuring out that he was the one who sent me a sex toy in the mail. That broke the whole case open.
Once discovered, my stepfather, Gary Hardy, was charged with various crimes in Arizona, including breaking into my home, harassing me, possessing child pornography and stealing money from his business — he was a financial planner. He also admitted to my mother that he visited prostitutes every day of their 13-year marriage.
After his arrest but before his trial, perhaps under the assumption that he had nothing to lose, he pounded on my front door at 3 a.m., sobbing that it was all my fault. He went to my mom’s house and carried out a lame (but very bloody) suicide attempt in her bathroom. Eventually, after nearly two years of court proceedings, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
In the wake of the drama, my husband and I turned to our inner circle for comfort and support, which was largely friends in our Bible study group. I hoped they would rally around me, but most of them slipped away. A few told me to forgive him and move on.
I can hardly blame some of them; I’m sure the messiness of my life was uncomfortable to watch, much less participate in. At age 22, who wouldn’t rather party than step into someone else’s depressing (and overtly sexual) family issues? Still, the absence of encouragement and the sense of isolation during this time made an already painful situation even more so.
Ghosted by almost all my friends, I learned to stay mum about this chapter of my history, and for 14 years, I rarely brought it up. Even in the company of more mature adults, it’s not exactly the type of story to regale people with at cocktail parties. (“Did I ever tell you about the time my dad sent me a dildo in the mail?” tends to go over like a lead balloon.)
But earlier this year, in the wake of the Me Too movement and prompted by my own growing fascination with true crime, I decided to go public. Surely, I thought, my story could strike a chord with others who’ve been victimized by trusted family members — or at least provide a grim form of entertainment for criminal justice fans like myself. Since I’d been hooked on the popular podcast “Criminal” for months — hearing stories about criminals getting caught is endlessly satisfying for me — I got in touch with their producers. Would they like to feature my uniquely bizarre experience on their program?
The answer was an emphatic and remarkably quick yes. Before I knew it, I was sitting in a recording studio pouring my heart out to Phoebe Judge, “Criminal’s” smooth-voiced host. Weeks later, on April 12, my story of harassment was featured as Episode 112: The Mail.
It’s hard to say what exactly I expected from sharing my tale with millions of people who download “Criminal” episodes each month. Fame? Redemption? A Lifetime movie? If anything, despite my initial bravado about sharing my story with the masses, the weeks leading up to my episode’s release were filled with doubt and apprehension. What was I getting myself into by broadcasting such a personal story to the world? I feared the reaction from my current group of friends, worrying that I might become a pariah tainted by the strange, shameful sexuality of it all.
To my great surprise, however, I’ve found that sharing my story on such a massive scale has been the most empowering, healing thing I’ve ever done. Since the release of the podcast, friends and strangers alike have emerged to offer the support that was previously so lacking in my life. A family member called me to apologize for pulling away at the time of the trauma — a deeply restorative conversation I wish we could have had years ago.
Women from all over the country have emailed to tell me their own similar stories of stalking, even offering me their phone numbers in case I ever want to talk. Friends and acquaintances have praised me for my courage in exposing the truth. One of my best friends said she cried listening to the episode.
This show of compassion touched me profoundly. I’ve done plenty of my own crying over these events, but no one except my mother and my husband cried on my behalf, as far as I knew.
Telling my story on a public platform has also made me feel I finally have a voice to speak from a place of power, not victimhood. As a victim, I had lost my autonomy. During the years of my stepfather’s harassment, I had no say in where the frightening narrative would lead.
Even in the era that followed his sentencing, I never envisioned a role for myself besides the woman who kept her mouth shut in an attempt to forget. But since the episode’s release, I feel I’ve become the protagonist in my own story, while the Bad Guy languishes in prison.
I’m beginning to see that revealing the truth — in all its strangeness and to such an extensive audience — has removed the shadow of shame and isolation that once surrounded this part of my past. But maybe that’s what exposing shameful acts always does. Maybe it’s exactly what shameful acts deserve. I realize now that the shame was never mine to bear, and I’ve found an astonishing number of people who seem to agree.
Sarah Garone is a nutritionist and freelance writer. She lives in Mesa, Ariz., with her husband and three children.