A postscript on the anniversary of my confession.
Last year, I opened up for the first time about my rape in college. Before my post, roughly ten people in my life knew what had happened. As of last count, at least 63,000 people now do.
Because of the attention my post received, I’ve spent the past year thinking a LOT about something I’ve spent most my adult life trying not to think about. I’ve listened to countless stories from people I love and care about as they’ve bravely shared their own tales of assault with me. After a week or so of my inbox being flooded with “me too” emails, it was hard not to think of sexual assault as something that happens to all of us. Simply a standard rite of passage, save for the fact that it breaks you into a thousand pieces that may or may not ever fully reassemble.
As my post was largely about the role that parents play in sexual assault, it was only natural that many of the stories I received included examples of parental responses. Love. Compassion. Devastation. Helplessness. Confusion. Avoidance. Slut-shaming. Anger.
My own father called me the day my post went live, angry that I’d never told him about my rape.
“I just read this post. You never told me about this.”
“I did tell you about it.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Yes, I did.”
“No. You didn’t.”
I went on to explain that telling your father you were raped isn’t the same as telling him there’s a sale on chicken at the grocery store. I know exactly when I told him (roughly a year before my post). I know exactly the context in which I told him (as part of a discussion about my last serious relationship). I know where I was standing (in my bedroom, pacing back and forth at the foot of my bed). And I know how he reacted — which, at the time, was with love and compassion. Had it not been over the phone, there’s no doubt I would have received a hug.
But I honestly think it was too much for him to bear, and his mind simply wouldn’t allow him to store that memory. Some sort of parental protection software kicked in, and it was erased from the hard drive.
My mother, on the other hand, played a prominent role in my post, and had no choice but to get sucked into the discussion around it. And to her eternal credit, she never once questioned what I wrote, and has done a lot to promote my story with added comments like: “I am so proud of my daughter and want to do everything I can to support her in her healing.” No small feat of courage, to be sure. And I know her admission of wrongdoing and the transparency with which she’s shared her journey toward understanding has been a huge learning opportunity for a lot of other parents.
“I am so proud that Liz has continued to stand strong on the subject of rape at the risk of admonishments. I was one of the first and it has taken me this long to understand my mistake and pain I cause her as her mother. I have plead ignorance, but that’s not true. I was worried more about what people would think than the health and safety of my own daughter. Shame on me and KUDOS to Liz.”
I have plead ignorance, but that’s not true. I was worried more about what people would think than the health and safety of my own daughter.
Her honesty in that statement blew me away. Because how often is this the case? That parents’ concern for what others will think puts their children’s well-being at risk? Of the notes I received on the myriad of parental responses, this was a clear theme in the majority of them. But knowing this is the case — even if in the very recesses of our lizard brains — and being able to admit it, are two very different things.
Her words also blew me away because they perfectly illuminated the cycle of shame that exists in so many families.
My mother’s parents were, by almost every measure, exceptional people. Kind, generous, faithful, loving, and service-oriented. Pillars of their church, of their community, and of our extended family. There’s not a year that goes by that I’m not reminded by others of wonderful things they did, and I miss them both terribly.
When my mother was eighteen, she discovered she was pregnant. She had been dating the older brother of a classmate, and someone my grandparents weren’t on board with. He was liberal, outspoken, and older — everything a pair of conservative, WASPy parents in the 1960s worried about.
Abortion was illegal in America at the time, so that was never an option. Instead, out of fear of societal repercussions, my grandparents sent my mother away to what was then referred to as a “home for unwed mothers”. My grandparents told everyone — including their other two children — that Mom was experiencing thyroid issues and had gone to Florida for treatment. So important to them was this ruse, that they contacted friends of theirs from WW2 who lived in Pensacola to serve as an intermediary for communications. When my mom wanted to send a letter home, she sent it to this couple in Pensacola to be postmarked accordingly, so her brothers wouldn’t be tipped off. As if this wasn’t enough, while at the home, she lived under a fake name to conceal her identity. Finally, the baby was born, and she was sent off to college and sorority rush a month later, as though nothing had happened.
The pregnancy likely would have never been discussed again had I not found a letter mentioning it and started asking questions. When I told my grandmother I knew about it, she burst into tears that quickly turned into deep, heaving sobs. At this point, my parents had divorced and my mother had been in a handful of failed relationships. In my grandmother’s sobbing was the realization: I was worried more about what people would think than the health and safety of my own daughter. She had seen the repercussions of the shame my mother had experienced play out, and knew she was at least partially to blame.
Several years ago, roughly a year after my grandmother’s passing, we found the baby my mom gave up for adoption. Now a grown man I admire and adore, when people discover I have this older biological brother, they’re understandably curious to know more. When I’m finished sharing the story, it’s almost always met with, “God, your poor mother. Your grandparents were doing what they thought was best, I suppose, but still. I guess things were different then.”
It’s that last bit that concerns me — this perception that cycles of shame just change on their own. They don’t. They CAN’T. The psychological forces at play are simply too strong.
If I’ve learned anything in the past year about parents and shame, it’s the realization that nothing will change without awareness. Awareness on the part of parents that there will be times they have to take in information that seems too much to bear. Awareness that in those moments, parents have to look beyond what might appear to be the “right decision” on a superficial level. For victims of shaming to be aware of how powerful that force is and seek help, lest they continue the tradition. And awareness that this is something destined to repeat itself for generations if we don’t start allowing space and compassion for these types of scenarios and conversations.
This continues to be a process for both me and my family. For those going through something similar, know that you aren’t alone. Equally important is to know that responses aren’t finite. Even if you didn’t respond appropriately to a friend or loved one initially, there’s always an opportunity to course-correct. Since last year, my mother has raised awareness about the prevalence of sexual assault by sharing my posts as well as other media about the Brock Turner case. My father has joined forces with his alma mater and is now part of a task force dedicated to eradicating sexual assault on campus. In those actions, pieces that were once broken have started to fuse together, and we’ve all found immense healing.
But even more than that, so have others.