I’ve been told that I was a happy baby and giddy toddler, always full of joy and with big, expressive eyes that wanted to take in the world. If you look closely at faded photos from family albums, you will see the shift. You can tell when my eyes dimmed and the light was muted.
It didn’t happen once or twice. It wasn’t an isolated incident. It was years. Years of exchanging VHS Disney movies for my silence, until I finally told my mother, in whatever way a 7-year-old could, that I had been repeatedly raped.
I wish I could say that when I found my voice, I found my family’s love. Instead, despite the support of my mother and one aunt, I found more trauma from an extended family who refused to believe, who testified against me, and who thought I was “confused,” as if a child that young could somehow conjure the unfathomable. At 10 years old, I felt that I had more in common with the women in Lifetime movies who wanted to swallow pills and fade away than I had with any carefree kid on Sesame Street.
When I was in 7th grade, children services called my mother because I had missed too much school, faking that I was sick. When they told me they might take me away, I learned how to make the mask — that mask that could take on anything and everything. The mask that earned straight As, helped raise my baby brother, earned money for the family and eventually graduated from an Ivy League law school, despite that “not guilty” verdict that should have jaded me from the law.
Keep calm and carry on. Never shed tears; never look back. Never process and come to grips with the fact that you have been forced to join one of the devil’s most secret clubs — victims of child sexual abuse.
I thought I was alone, the only one who understood the exact combination of harm and horror that could drive someone to succeed while also driving them to self-harm. But when I read author Junot Diaz’s story, it brought me the most perverse sense of relief. He detailed the downward emotional spiral triggered when a trusted adult had raped him when he was 8 years old — the lifelong pain, the self-hate, the depression, the desire to die. It all felt familiar, as I read his New Yorker essay. He, too, had hidden his truth, committed to his “mask,” and lost his opportunity to be a happy child.
“The kid before — hard to remember,” he wrote. “Trauma is a time traveller, an ouroboros that reaches back and devours everything that came before. Only fragments remain.”
Finally, there was someone in the world who shared my experience, someone who had the skills to describe the indescribable and capture the essence of what we fellow club members know. Burying our truth robs us of the chance to fully grow and flourish. It deprives our wounds of the oxygen they need to heal, causing them to fester and the poison to seep into other areas of life. It can make you question your self-esteem; your self-worth; your ability to make and maintain relationships; your ability to know that, deep down, you’re a fighter and you will be okay. Most of all, it can make you question whether you’re worthy of love.
The response to Junot’s essay hasn’t been so compassionate. Soon after his essay published, several women accused him of forcibly kissing or verbally abusing them. Diaz released a statement in response, saying, “I take responsibility for my past. That is the reason I made the decision to tell the truth of my rape and its damaging aftermath.”
Many speculated that Diaz used the essay to get ahead of the allegations, to present an excuse before his alleged behavior was revealed. But while the women’s stories are receiving their due attention and compassion, they shouldn’t be used to deny Diaz the same.
This response demonstrates how little society understands the damage done to children who have been sexually abused and how that damage continues into adulthood. Shame is the primary reason for silence. When someone steps forward with their story and is shamed for the person they have become, that tells other survivors that they are right to stay quiet.
No survivor of childhood sexual abuse is unscathed as an adult. In a recent “60 Minutes” report on childhood trauma, psychiatrist Bruce Perry, a leading expert on the issue, stated that “children are much more sensitive to developmental trauma than adults” and if a child is raised in an environment of chaos, uncertainty, violence or neglect, that child is being wired “differently, and typically in a way that makes you more vulnerable.”
In addition to anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, research shows that adult survivors of childhood abuse also suffer from “sexualizing relationships, inappropriate seduction, difficulties with affection and intimacy, compulsive sexual behavior, promiscuity, problems concerning desire, arousal, and orgasm, flashbacks, difficulties with touch, and sadistic/masochistic tendencies.” Unfortunately, research also shows that it is not uncommon for male victims of childhood sexual abuse to become perpetrators as adults.
These symptoms and a lifetime of treatment and coping are what survivors face. I don’t condone the ways in which Junot is alleged to have mistreated women, but it shouldn’t be used to dismiss his childhood trauma as merely an excuse. Rather, it presents a prime opportunity for our society to address the tragic cycle of sexual abuse that is too often triggered by childhood rape. It should force us to confront why so many children experience this, why we often value silence over counseling, and how this cycle of abuse has been allowed to perpetuate.
As an adult, I have not become a perpetrator, but I do struggle to love myself enough to avoid relationships that end in verbal, physical or emotional abuse. So while I understand the feelings of the women who have spoken out against Diaz, I also understand his story and the way childhood abuse shaped who he became. I know what he means when he says, “More than being an immigrant, more, even, than being of African descent, my rape defined me.”
There is nothing “convenient” about coming forward as a victim of child abuse with honesty about your past and your flaws. Diaz admitted to abusive behavior toward women and, if the news stories about him are true, my heart truly aches for those women. But my rage is reserved for the man who raped him.
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