Once that foundation was set, Anderson decided, she would tell them. When I was in my 20s, I was sexually assaulted. Calm, no-nonsense. An outline. Details if they asked. That she eventually would tell them was never a question in her mind. She could not protect them as they made their way through the world, but she could educate them. She could give them the tools she didn’t have. She could teach them something about another form of strength: resilience.
Sixteen might be a good age, Anderson thought. But when the youngest, Allison, turned 16, Anderson decided no, this one is not ready. I’ll wait. But there Anderson was one day, sitting in the car outside the store, fighting a panic attack brought on by the sight of a lone man standing in the parking lot. There she was, telling Allison, “Wait, don’t unlock the door.” To watch her puzzled daughter follow her gaze, turn to look at the man, a black man, and say, “Mama, you are such a racist.”
No, Anderson said, stunned, suddenly crying, which was definitely not part of the plan. That’s not why I am afraid of that man.
“Allison, I need to tell you something.”
In the leapfrog from headline to headline on sexual assault, from slogan to slogan — yes means yes, not alone, it’s on us — public awareness waxes and wanes. What endures are the inner battles among parents who have been sexually assaulted and who do not engage in the public discussion as an abstraction, but as a prompt. Should I tell my kids what happened to me? How and to what end?
These are the most private of conversations, the unseen backdrop of the public dialogue on sexual assault. A mother – or a father – telling a child: All this you are reading about it, all this you are hearing, it happened to me. Someone hurt me when I was young. Took from me what was not theirs to take. You need to know this about me. You need to know this about life.
“This happened to me, and it wasn’t my fault, and there are ways to prevent it from happening to you,” Cynthia Brown, 53, of Marietta, Ga., told her daughter. Her daughter was 17, nearly the same age at which Brown was raped in 1980. Brown’s attacker was convicted. “I grew up ‘Father Knows Best,’ ‘Brady Bunch,’ life is a bowl of cherries — and it’s not.”
Dawn Helmrich, 42, of Milwaukee, was abducted and sexually assaulted at gunpoint by three teenagers when she was 21. The eldest of the three, a 17-year-old, pleaded guilty to rape, kidnapping and armed robbery. The younger two juveniles were sentenced to juvenile facilities.
“When I first had kids, I questioned why I would even want to tell them? I thought, ‘Are you doing this for you or for them?’” she said.
“I think, in the beginning, I thought of it almost like an absolution. I wanted to absolve myself of the guilt I felt. I thought, ‘If I tell them, and they think I’m stupid or I did something wrong, at least they will get it off their chest, and I will move on.’
“But as I got older and a little wiser, I changed my perspective. I thought, ‘How empowering it can be for them to know the kind of resiliency that is within them. Here I am. Their mom. I got married. I own a home. I got a Master’s degree. I teach at a college, and I have a full-time career. I did all these things. Despite what happened. It became more about finding them the message that is basically, ‘You know what? A lot of stuff happens in life . . . and sometimes you have to scoop yourself off the ground.’”
These are the moments of quiet revelation far from the headlines. The conversations that parents choose to have with their children are as different as the individuals recounting them, as different as the experiences with sexual assault. But parents who tell their children often say they do so from the understanding that all parents come to: They will not always be there to protect their children from those who would do them harm, and so their children must learn to protect themselves. And so, they seek to educate them, to prepare them to be vigilant in the most honest way they know how.
They teach them to listen to themselves. “You get a weird feeling, you trust it,” Laurie Stevens, from San Fernando Valley, Calif., who was drugged and raped by an acquaintance when she was a college student, told her daughter, a high school senior. “That intuition is your umbilical cord to God, and you honor it.”
They teach their children to listen to others.
“One of the things that is hardest for survivors is not to hate themselves, to not blame themselves,” said Patricia Miller of Portales, N.M. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, she is a moderator for the 78,000 member Pandora’s Aquarium, an international online forum and chat room for survivors of sexual assault and abuse. “I wanted to prepare my children to have compassion and empathy. I would tell them, ‘Look around whatever room you are in and know that one in every five women will be sexually assaulted and one in six men. People you know will be hurt, and they will need to have folks around who will listen to them with open hearts.”
They teach them that in talking about the hurt, they rob it of its power.
They come to the conversations in different ways. Miller told her children over time, giving them just the information she thought they could understand and handle as they grew older. Did you ever think you were going to die and go to heaven, asks her son after his appendix burst. Yes, she said, and tells him a little of a father around whom she felt she could never be safe.
They circle around it for years with advice on never drinking from an open bottle, on being alert, on being active bystanders. For 30 years, Stevens carried around fragmented memories of an assault by a student in one of her classes. She wasn’t drunk, just one moment she was present doing homework and the next she was far away and watching him disrobe her. Oh, him, another former classmate would say many years later, he got in trouble for drugging and raping women. Stevens started researching date-rape drugs for a series of psychological suspense novels she was writing. It all came together.
Did you ever get him arrested? Did you report him? Her daughter asked when Stevens told her the details earlier this month. No, it was not rape as I understood rape then. It wasn’t violent, Stevens answered, and thinks: I hunkered down. I was ashamed.
What is his name, her son, now in college, demanded, shaken and angry. Where is he? She will not tell him.
Decades later, they have triggers. Loud noises. Don’t ever come up behind mom unannounced. I don’t care if it’s a squirt gun, no guns, no gun-like toys, in the house.
At a crowded Milwaukee street fair, Dawn Helmrich suffers a panic attack and her 10-year-old daughter takes her hand and leads her from the crowd, comforting her, and then asking, ‘Mom, when are you going to tell me what happened to you?”
“How empowering it can be for them to know the kind of resiliency that is within them. Here I am. Their mom. I got married. I own a home. I got a Master’s degree. I teach at a college and I have a full-time career. I did all these things. Despite what happened.”— Dawn Helmrich
She told her children the whole story this year when they were 11 and 13, younger than she might have planned. But by then, she had become involved in victim advocacy and had organized Milwaukee’s participation in Denim Day USA, a sexual violence prevention and education campaign. When her advocacy was recognized with a community award, she and her husband decided their children should know why.
“They asked a lot of questions, and when I finished, they both got up and said, ‘Mom, you have so much courage, and you are so brave, and we are so proud of you,’” Helmrich said.
Both have since become young advocates in their own right.
In the car, outside the Home Goods store in Savannah, with a teenage daughter she thought still too sensitive to hear her story, Anderson regains her composure. A matter-of-fact tone enters her voice. She says: “When I was 27 years old, I was on business trip, staying in a downtown Atlanta hotel. I was walking out of my door, room 939, to go to the elevator. A man captured me in the hallway. He pulled a knife out and despite my fighting him and my screaming, he was more powerful, and he pushed me back into the room, and he robbed me first, and then he sexually assaulted me.”
She says she tricked him into thinking her marketing director was coming to the room, and when he cracked open the door, “my eyes locked on a housekeeper in the hallway, and I started screaming.” The man fled, and Anderson called hotel security. But her perpetrator escaped.
Like her older sister, Morgan, Allison listened to the story, wide-eyed and somber. “I didn’t think she was ready, but she was,” Anderson said. “And once I told them, I was totally an open book with them and with their friends. I brought it up. I wanted them to understand there was no shame in what happened to me. It was not my fault.”
In the three years since, Anderson has gone on to speak publicly to more than 100 groups about her experience. In 2011, she published “Room 939, 15 minutes of horror, 20 years of healing,” on how she reclaimed her life after her assault.
That day in the car with Allison, Anderson said, “the greatest thing that I wanted to leave with her was that there was courage, courage like my mother had, and courage would win the day. In the end, good will win over evil. They have to believe good prevails, and I believe it does. But you have to have courage.”
That man in the parking lot scared me, Anderson told Allison, but we are going to get out of this car, and we are going to go into that store, and we are going to complete what we came here to do.
Which is exactly what mother and daughter did.