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Opinion What it’s like to experience the 2016 election as both a conservative and a sex abuse survivor


“Should we pick him up?” The preacher pointed to the side of the road to a hitchhiker.

“No!” I shrieked, but the idea was intoxicating. I’d lived in a one-festival town my whole life. Pulling over seemed like the kind of careless, wild action that could possibly blow up the roteness of small-town life. “I don’t know. Maybe?”

I was disappointed when he laughed and sped up. Nothing ever happens here. The most exciting thing that had happened to me was that morning’s vacation Bible school — all Kool Aid and butter cookies with holes in the center we wore as rings on our pinkies. The preacher offered to take me home when my mother needed to run errands. I was honored to be in his car, giggling as we sped by the hitchhiker. This preacher was younger than most and wore cool glasses. I tried to match his gregarious spirit. I should’ve said yes to the hitchhiker, I thought. That’s what cooler, older people would’ve done.

After winding down the long gravel road to my house, the preacher walked me in. I was too young to have rules for boys in the house, but this wasn’t a boy.

“Here’s the living room, and here’s the sitting room,” I said, flipping on some lights. There was a blue and white love seat up against the wall, in the room that my grandmother had used as a bedroom before she died. She’d once been alive but now was dead. It felt odd to just repurpose her room into a TV room without acknowledging that a person had so recently dwelled there.

I was thinking of her, when the preacher’s thin mouth pressed against mine, his wiry tongue stuck down my throat. He pulled me down onto the love seat and ran his hands over my budding breasts. Though I’d failed the hitchhiker test, I had another chance to prove I was cool enough to deserve attention.

He offered me rides frequently over the next year. He came to the house, ostensibly to talk to my parents but lingered afterward. My parents didn’t suspect he was shoving his hands up my shirt on the porch.

It confused me to hear the values preached from the pulpit but ignored in real life. At church, he talked of how sexual immorality would send you to hell. Was he lying about the hell part or simply willing to let me go there?

Regardless, we were in love. Or, at least, we did the type of things that people in love did. I only knew about this phenomenon from movies, so I operated from the well-worn Hollywood script.

He didn’t do anything wrong. You caused this. You enjoyed it. You deserved it.

These whispers have bounced around my head for the better part of three decades. In fact, for an embarrassingly long amount of time, I told myself I simply had a relationship with my preacher. I didn’t know the word pedophilia.

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Sexual abuse robbed me of my ability to feel the right things at the right times. It awakened me to things I shouldn’t have known. My home — which should’ve been a place of comfort — became a place of abuse.

Shame lodged into my soul like a gigantic, immovable beam. Everything else about me — my outgoing personality, my tenuous spirituality, my suicidal thoughts — settled in around it, molded themselves around it until I was unrecognizable from the girl with a butter cookie ring.

Some found out about the abuse several years later, but nothing changed. The preacher was too valuable to confront? As far as I know, no one ever mentioned it. He preached with a straight face and lost interest in me when my breasts fully developed.

As soon as I got old enough to leave the house, I quit Christianity, painted my nails black, became a liberal and picked up a cigarette habit.

He didn’t do anything wrong. You caused this. You enjoyed it. You deserved it.

These words in my head bounce around, and I’ve never been able to catch them to properly evaluate their veracity.

I emerged from my goth phase by listening to every syllable Rush Limbaugh uttered. He’d say controversial things about women — “I am all for the women’s movement, especially if I’m walking behind them” — but the allegations against the Republican Party’s sexism were certainly overblown. That’s what they told me.

Democrats have always seemed to have a high tolerance for the abuse of women. They even looked the other way when Ted Kennedy left a woman to die. I rejected their misogyny cloaked in feminism and embraced economic opportunities for women, family values, feminine dignity and motherhood. I scraped my way back to the church, too.

Then, 2016.

The first female president possibly will have ridden the coattails of her husband (who has been accused of rape) to the Oval Office; the GOP nominee likes younger women, used to hang out with a known pedophile and bragged on video about doing to women what the preacher did to me so many years ago.

When the Trump videotapes broke, I watched the news and Twitter feeds of prominent evangelicals to see justice be done. But what I saw was all-too-familiar and yet somehow still shocking. “This is how men talk,” one said. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” another said another — who used to “focus on the family” and had never uttered that phrase to refer to any Democrat who ever walked the face of the earth.

It’s hard to describe the effect 2016 has had on sexual abuse survivors. I believed the men in my party when they shrugged off the constant liberal accusations of being anti-woman.

But Pope John Paul II’s words ring true: “Christ … assigns the dignity of every woman as a task to every man.” If that’s right, the men in my party, in my church, in my life have failed; they ask me to participate in overlooking the offense.

He didn’t do anything wrong. You caused this. You enjoyed it. You deserved it.

Instead of those words bouncing around my head, they are bouncing around my Facebook feed, off the lips of my friends, from the screens of my phone and laptop. They are directed toward Bill Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s accusers.

Republicans who have lamented the Clintonian proclivity to malign women are now defending the same activities because … well, they idolize power or their own strategic cleverness. Trump, like the preacher, is too important to abandon. We have become what we said we despised.

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I realize now — only now after all these years — it’s all been a facade. The “religious right,” which I’ve defended my whole life, abandoned the posture of “family values” when they had the chance to gain a seat at the table.

Here’s the truth. The GOP once was alive but is now dead. It confuses me to hear the values preached from the podium but ignored in real life; it feels odd to just repurpose a political party into an extension of the trump Empire without acknowledging the values which had so recently dwelled there.

My party — which should’ve been a place of a certain set of values — now shelters an abuser. I’m thinking of this when the GOP presses against me and asks me to close my eyes just one more time.

Nancy French is a four-time New York Times best-selling author who has written books with former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson, television personality Sean Lowe and others. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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