“In speaking the words, you release the shame.” — Oprah Winfrey
“She said ’cause nobody believes me, the man was such a sleaze, he ain’t never gonna be the same.” — Aerosmith
You know how some songs can stir up strong emotions deep inside of you? Maybe it’s a sad song that reminds you of a person you once loved very deeply. Maybe it’s an upbeat song that makes you feel happy and optimistic.
Or, maybe it’s a song that makes you think about getting revenge on someone who did something very bad to you.
There was a time not so very long ago when two songs brought up strong feelings of anger and vengeance inside of me. Those two songs were: “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins and “Janie’s Got a Gun” by Aerosmith.
Why the strong reaction?
Because I was remembering the way two men whom I trusted had sexually molested me when I was just a little girl. I was angry at them and wanted to take revenge, even though I am a Christian and I know that the manner and timing for vengeance belongs to God, and not to me.
Two quick qualifiers to start.
First, I thought “In The Air Tonight” was about a man who saw someone being raped (allegedly Phil Collins’ wife) and when the bad guy was drowning, Phil Collins “would not lend a hand.” This is an urban legend and the song has nothing to do with sexual abuse (it’s about Phil Collins’ divorce). So I guess I was singing to that song for nothing. 🙂 But I felt a strong connection to “Janie’s Got a Gun” and would frequently jog to it, all the while thinking about my dislike for one particular person. This man was a man whom I was close to and frequently interacted with growing up who molested me up until the age of seven years old.
Second qualifier: no, the molester was not my father nor my step-father (because immediately people think of them because statistically they do a lot of the sexual abusing). And also, I was not raped.
Now a confession: I was never, ever going to share this story so publicly. But that all changed one day several years ago when I was watching an episode of the Oprah Winfrey show. The studio room was filled with 200 men who had been sexually abused as children. At the very outset of the show, all of the men stood standing and with a quiet dignity held up a picture of themselves as little boys, when their abuse began. Some of the men were teary-eyed. I, too, became teary-eyed. I sat transfixed for the next hour. Later in the episode, actor Tyler Perry, who himself had suffered abuse, stated the following:
“The only way, the only way, I was able to be free was to forgive this man. Which was very difficult. But it truly changed my life.”
Oprah then went on to say the following about forgiveness:
“And by forgiveness you don’t mean in any way for you to be able to say that that was ok what happened to me. Forgiveness means I am not going to let you continue to hold the reigns over my life. Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could’ve been any different. It’s accepting the past for what it was. And using this moment and this time to help yourself move forward.”
The episode resonated with me for many reasons, one of which is that I, too, forgave my abuser and I, too, experienced freedom and healing. It was then that I thought that maybe someday, somehow, and in some way, I would share my story publicly. The reason? Because I want to help people who have also been abused. And because sometimes other people’s stories can help you to process your own.
So here you go, peeps.
(note: if you have suffered as a victim of sexual abuse and hearing other people’s stories is a trigger for you, feel free to skip ahead to where I indicate it is safe to start reading again with a ***)
My first abuser was named Keith and he was a teenage boy whom my mom hired one night to babysit my sister and me. After he put me to bed I was unable to get to sleep so I came out of my room and told him I couldn’t fall asleep. He said “Ok, I know how I can help you.” And then he proceeded to do something to me that is highly inappropriate and morally wrong for a teenage boy to do to a little girl. What followed was quite traumatic and the details are not necessary. The whole time it was happening, I kept thinking to myself: “this is wrong, wrong, wrong. Why is he doing this to me?”
But I was a little six year old girl so I kept my mouth shut.
The next morning I told my mom, and she immediately confronted Keith and told him to stay far away from us and never to even come near the house. I never saw Keith again after that.
I know what you are now asking: “did your mom report him?” The answer is no, and let me explain why. A fun fact is that back in the 1970s and early 80s, sexual abuse of children was not common, even borderline unheard of. My mom didn’t even have a category for it. She was crushed, but she took action and did what she had to do, and she was effective. But back in those days, reporting was sadly rare. There are so many sexual abuse scandals that took place in the 70s and 80s (think churches and universities) and unfortunately, many were never reported.
While Keith was a one and done situation, my second abuser was sneaky in that I’m sure he was molesting me for a long time but I didn’t necessarily realize it. I guess you could say he was grooming me. He would do things like push me on a swing but grab me from my private area while he was pulling me up. I remember one day noticing it and thinking it was odd. He exposed himself to me one day in the bathroom in a casual, even happy-go-lucky way. When I sat on his lap he would put his hands in my underwear. He would give me back rubs but would end under the front of my shirt. He left pornography out for me to see. I confess I saw the naked boobies of Madonna and Grace Jones in the 1985 edition of Playboy magazine. I remember just staring and staring at these two naked ladies. Another fun fact: abusers often leave porn out to “soften” the child to sexuality. It’s gross.
But the one incident I remember the most vividly is being over at his house and he started the whole back rub thing and then went to the front, but this time he said “you have a nice body.” For some reason I always remembered that pick-up line because I was grossed out. I remember feeling very, very uncomfortable and had the feeling that he might try to take things further. But then something very strange happened: the rotary phone rang, and he got up to answer it. He was on the phone for a long time, and while he was on the phone, I snuck off to bed. (Another fun fact and this one is actually fun: back then, everyone got up to answer their rotary phones and nobody screened their calls like they do today!)
(***It is now safe to re-enter the story)
I always felt like God made that phone ring, because He said: “this far and no farther” to this man. Maybe God knew the abuse would progress that night. I have no idea.
The next day, I finally told my mom what had been going on for a very long time. My mom wrote him a letter telling him she was onto his arse, that he had to stop or she would report him, and left the letter on his desk in his office. He immediately stopped and never did anything else to me again.
I recently asked my mom why she didn’t report this time, and her answer was something to do with the fact that he was a trusted man close to us, and she didn’t want to embarrass me or drag me through a very difficult court process. I am glad my mom took immediate action both times. She feels horrible about what happened to me, but I am so grateful she believed me and did what had to be done immediately.
I hold no anger or judgment against my mom. The late 1970s was a completely different time period than we are living in today. Both times my mom took action, and both times the abuse ended. She was effective, and she protected me in the way that she could.
So how did sexual abuse affect me? Even though I was about seven years old when the abuse stopped, it was enough to affect me in deeply emotional and psychological ways. First, it dulled me to sexuality. I remember making out with my female babysitter’s 15 year old brother David, when I was only ten years old. I remember he was lying on the couch and I decided to “seduce” him. I took out the couch cushions, put them on top of his torso, laid on top of the couch cushions, and then started to kiss him passionately. I think I was headed in a sexual direction as a young girl due to my abuse. But thankfully this incident was the only time I acted out in a sexually premature way.
The other effects were more internal. I began to have inappropriate crushes on teachers and men who were much older than me. I wrestled with a low-level sense of shame.
But I would say that the number one way I struggled after the abuse was a combination of fear of rejection and a very low self-esteem. I was hyper-concerned about what people (especially men I admired) thought of me. I was constantly trying to “win” the approval of other people. I thought very little of myself.
But then something happened to me that changed the course of my life when I was thirteen years old. I remember it so vividly to this day. I was just beginning to have a Christian faith and went on a retreat for teenagers one summer at Delta Lake Youth Camp in upstate, New York. The Camp Pastor was named Bill Brown and he spoke one night to all of us kids. He was one of the more popular speakers as he was direct and blunt and highly engaging. I always listened to every word he said.
One night, at the end of the message, he directed all the kids to bow their heads because “I feel like God wants to heal those who have been sexually abused as children.” Immediately I knew he was talking straight to me (and I’m sure many other kids). He went on to say “I feel that the Lord is saying that if you raise your hand, and I will pray for you, God will heal the effects of the abuse tonight.”
I had a decision to make. I remember being so incredibly embarrassed because we all know that teenagers look around to see who is raising their hands! But I did it! I raised my hand to ask for prayer. Then Pastor Brown prayed for us and we all called it a night.
And guess what? All I can say to you, My Dear Reader, is that God healed me that night. I still struggled with some remaining fear of rejection issues, but overall I felt free from most of the effects of the sexual abuse. My confidence in who I was and the way God made me also began to grow.
But even though I felt free, I still harbored feelings of disgust towards the man who abused me. I hated hugging him and would often do one of those awkward, barely-any-contact hugs with him and tried to avoid him as much as possible. I still had feelings of anger toward him, and vengeance. It was about this time that I felt God nudging me to forgive this man for what he had done. I thought I had and maybe I had, but I decided to re-forgive him every time those feelings of vengeance came to me.
Over time, I began to feel better and more set free about the abuse. It didn’t have as much of a grip on me as before. After I grew up and moved away, I thought I was pretty much done and moved on from dealing with this man (except at an occasional get-together), but then something very strange happened to me one day when I was right in the middle of our adoption of our daughter Claire. Even though I was about to become a mom and was super busy getting ready for our new baby, I kept sensing that the Lord wanted me to reach out to this man, and tell him that I had forgiven him.
As you can imagine, I flatly refused for several days. But this weight, this nudge, kept getting stronger and stronger. I can’t stand the feeling of not being completely set free, so I finally raised up my hands in frustration and said “Fine Lord. I will call him. But you have to give me the words to say.”
So I dialed the phone and he must’ve had that same rotary phone 🙂 because he picked up right away. I don’t remember word for word what I said to him, but I told him that I forgave him for what he did to me as a child. I told him the reason I forgave him is that God has forgiven me of all of my sins, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s own son. And then, drumroll please….I told him that I loved him.
The line was silent on the other end of that rotary phone for several moments. In a very quiet voice, and a somewhat broken and contrite voice, he apologized (in so many ways) and he said something to the effect that he was so thankful for my forgiveness and for me calling him and that he felt bad and that someday “he would tell me what was going on during that time.”
I know what you are thinking because I thought the same thing: “Ummm, no. There is never any good reason for abusing an innocent kid.” Honestly, he never told me the “reason” for his behavior and I never asked him. I think that was the way he was trying to tell me that he had changed and he would never do that again. I’m not sure.
But then one more interesting thing happened, and this is the end of the story (or the beginning of a new story, really). We started talking about Jesus, and God, and forgiveness in more depth. I shared the gospel with him. In a nutshell, I told him that God loved him and wanted a relationship with him, and then told him how to become a follower of Jesus Christ. That same “nudge” that had been bugging me all along grew super strong in that moment so I tentatively asked him: “would you be interested in having God forgive you of all your sins and asking Jesus to come live inside of you so you can be forgiven and have a relationship with God the Father?”
To my astonishment he said, “Yes!!”
And then I guided him in a prayer of repentance, forgiveness, and new life. This man received Jesus Christ as his savior and Lord.
When I got off the phone I was beaming and ran to tell Erik, my husband.
From then on, we had a much better relationship. I can’t even believe I’m going to tell you this, but it’s true: I felt so much freedom that I actually had genuine feelings of affection (and even a little bit of care and compassion and yes, even love) towards this man for the first time in my life. I even started to give him real hugs when I saw him. Before, I would avoid him whenever I came back to my hometown, but now I tried to see him almost every time I came home.
Years later, when he was much older and nearing death, my husband and I reiterated the gospel to him and he once again prayed a prayer to ask Jesus to forgive him and come into his heart. He was still open to it many years later. I was even able to be with him a few days before he passed away. I prayed for him, looked directly into his eyes, told him I loved him, and then said goodbye.
I will end on this: apparently one in six men are molested as boys, and one in four girls. The stats vary, but if those numbers are even close to accurate, they are staggering!! The effects of sexual abuse are very deep and wounding and damaging and broad-ranging. But the same God who healed me and set me free is available to anyone who needs healing.
Let me add one final qualifier: I realize that not everyone can reconcile with their abuser, and I’m not saying that is even possible or healthy most of the time. Forgiveness is both a process and mostly a matter of the will, not of the emotions. And forgiveness in no way condones the evil of what those two men did to me.
Before I close I want to encourage anyone reading who has been abused as a child: if you have not shared your story, share it! Share it with me if you want to. But share it. And then begin the process of healing and freedom, whatever that looks like for you. I have shared a few resources in the P.S. section for your perusal.
I will close with the following very powerful statement from 18 year-old Brandt Jean, who had recently lost his brother Botham Jean. Botham had been murdered by a police officer in his own apartment and Brandt spoke at the female officer’s sentencing hearing. His statement essentially summarizes my mindset when I reached out to and forgave the man who abused me. (I have summarized his quote for ease of reading.)
“I know that I can speak for myself: I forgive you. And I know if you go to God and ask Him, He will forgive you. And I love you just like anyone else. And, I’m not going to say ‘I hope you rot and die just like my brother did’ but I, personally, want the best for you. And I wasn’t going to ever say this in front of my family or anyone, but I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you. And the best would be to give your life to Christ. I think giving your life to Christ would be the best thing that Botham would want you to do. I love you.”
I couldn’t have said it any better myself.
For a short summary of just some of the effects of sexual abuse, click here: https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/trauma-types/sexual-abuse/effects
For statistics on child sexual abuse, including my 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys stat, click here: https://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/publications_nsvrc_factsheet_media-packet_statistics-about-sexual-violence_0.pdf
Here is another article with different stats on the numbers: https://victimsofcrime.org/media/reporting-on-child-sexual-abuse/child-sexual-abuse-statistics
Wikipedia (with again, different stats on numbers): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_abuse
Steps towards healing: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/ptsd-trauma/recovering-from-rape-and-sexual-trauma.htm
To look into healing from a faith perspective: https://www.focusonthefamily.ca/content/sexual-abuse-the-healing-journey
Many great articles on healing found here: https://www.biblicalcounselingcoalition.org/2019/02/15/sexual-abuse-prevention-and-sexual-abuse-healing-and-hope-in-christ/
There is also www.rainn.org which is a hotline and resource center.
Would you like to jog to Janie’s Got a Gun? Click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RqQn2ADZE1A
And finally, special thanks to the Oprah Winfrey show about the sexual abuse of men (and then subsequently she interviewed the molesters) that helped me to be able to share this story here. I still get teary-eyed every time I see it:http://www.oprah.com/own-oprahshow/full-episode-200-adult-men-who-were-molested-come-forward-video