For Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I Decided to Share My Story

The Bystander Project’s Founder Suzanne Brogger shares her personal story for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This post originally appears here.

This is how I dare . . .

The words are so common: “How dare you accuse your father, your
priest, your coach, your friend, your mother . . .?”

As a young girl and into my teen years my stepfather and my biological
father sexually abused my older sister and me. I know intimately how the
overwhelming majority of sexual abuse happens — at the hands of family
members, teachers, coaches, trusted friends and acquaintances. The
abuse does not have to be violent or even recurrent. So the one time act,
the too-long kiss, the lingering touch, the hand slid inside of clothing; can
be as traumatic and destructive to a person’s worldview of safety, integrity,
belief in self and the truth as a more persistent or violent act might be.

The first time my sister and I talked about it, I was 6 years old and she was
9. We were living at The Fullerton International Hotel in Fullerton, CA. We
smoked the Salem Lights stolen from our mother’s pack of cigarettes;
leaned into the mirror and watched ourselves inhale and exhale. We were
giddy with the new knowledge that we weren’t alone in this new and awful
part of our lives and we laughed nervously about it so we wouldn’t be so
scared.

This is what it felt like when it first started happening . . .

6 years old
I remember -
squeezing my small body into the crack between my twin bed and the wall,
the shadow of the man we just started calling Daddy
quietly, purposefully entering our room.
Listening to his slow, measured breathing as he listened to mine.
My body rigid, my eyes squeezed shut, my ears buzzing with fear.
Praying and waiting to hear the voice of my mother who could save me.
He slowly and methodically loosed me from my place of safety
and bewildered and changed me forever.

8 years old
I remember -
playing in the side yard
the smell and itch of newly mowed grass pressed against my skin.
Laughing, sweating
whirling, blurred, twirling, running, hopeful. 
A swirl of light and air and maybe, freedom?
Feeling almost like a child again,
but not quite -
because I already knew so much more than I wanted to.

10 years old
I remember -
sweating in the darkness, exhausted from waiting.
In the room I shared with my 3 sisters
in the third floor apartment
in the steamy New England summer.
I had rolled myself up in an old peach-colored satin quilt
so he couldn’t get in.
But it was hot,
and I slept
and I sweated
and I betrayed myself by getting uncovered.

Why didn’t we tell our mother? I think we understood that once we told we
would have to deal with the scary unknown of what would come next.
Would we get in trouble? Would she get in trouble? Would she believe
us? Would she leave us? Was it all somehow our fault? The unknowns
were scarier than the known. We were left to shoulder the burden of
keeping our immediate family intact and our extended family at peace by
remaining silent for decades. And so it is for countless other families and
communities — the victims are silenced by fear, shame, guilt; and the
perpetrators are able to continue their roles, often over generations, as
father, teacher, Granddad, minister, coach, Santa Claus . . .

This is what it felt like when I first started speaking the truth . . .

As I scraped off the burnt skin of my memories
I screamed from new pain and old furies,
My breath a hot, violent wind.

You dispassionately observed me
and continued tidily tucking in the corners of your emotions
lest the thin fabric be swept away,
leaving you naked and raw
like me.

Will I ever feel fully safe in this world? Possibly not, but I work on it every
day, so I’m hopeful. I have been given the gift of passion for the truth and
2 beautiful children to share it with and I feel grateful, honest and loved
which seems like that might be enough for now.

So . . . transitions . . .

It happened like this . . .
from six to nineteen
from safety to vulnerability
from innocence to confusion
from trust to fear
from lightness to shame
from truth to denial

Then . . .
from denial to TRUTH (such a beautiful word)
from confusion to clarity
from shame to worthiness
from fear to courage
from “how dare you say those words?” to “tell me everything . . . ”
from being silenced to being heard
from feeling diminished to feeling empowered
from holding on to letting go
from victim to survivor
from surviving to thriving.

Still . . .
Vulnerable — but I’m okay with that.

So . . .
How dare I?
This is how I dare.

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