What I discovered when making a film about my sexual assault — by Gwen van de Pas
I hold my breath and look around the room. Hundreds of eyes are staring at me, waiting. Someone coughs. A friend nods in encouragement. Shoes are shuffling. My palms are sweating, my throat is dry, my brain racing. But I know what I need to do.
I take the dive.
It’s January 25, 2012, 7 PM. I am delivering my Talk to my classmates at Stanford business school. A 45-minute story of my life, from growing up in Holland until this very moment. It is a story about strawberry kisses, cucumber sandwiches, and rabbits on a leash. But it is also a story about sexual assault.
I am not a fan of public speaking, so I have come prepared. I wrote out every word, every joke, every moment of silence. Except for That Story. About two thirds of the way down the document, I left a big white space, with just the word “OPTIONAL.” As if it were a memory I could choose to erase and deem irrelevant to my life story, to the person I had become.
But on that evening five years ago, the story of what happened no longer seems “Optional.” What happened to me as a 12–13-year-old has shaped me. So the words just come out. I talk about how I trusted the man who abused me on a sports team in the Netherlands, how he was much older than me, how I looked up to him. I talk about the things he said, the letters he wrote, and the nightmares that followed.
It rocks the room.
I tell That Story for only five minutes, but the response is overwhelming. That evening, four classmates tell me the same thing happened to them. A few have never spoken about it before. In following weeks, I receive more than 50 letters from classmates touched by the story, many of them because of their own experiences or what happened to those close to them. It touches and inspires me deeply.
Fast forward to 2015. After pursuing a career in business for almost 10 years (I graduated from the GSB in 2012), I decided to devote my time to making a documentary. This had been a dream of mine since making my first doc on Alzheimer’s when I was 16. I finally felt ready to refocus and find out if being a filmmaker was something I could do.
I had no idea where to start. I had no topic, no angle, no vision. I carried an old notebook in which I jotted down what inspired me, a list of detailed stories I wanted to tell. At the very bottom of the list was “sexual assault.” No further details, no definition. I think I would have left it that way forever, if my fiancé and I had not had lunch that rainy Monday afternoon, in a Greek restaurant in San Francisco. “I feel like you are running away,” he said. “You are running away from the story you know you need to tell.” I looked at him and knew he was right. We cried. We knew how hard the road ahead would be.
So last January 4, I told my leadership team at Bain & Company that I wanted to make this film. Their support was unparalleled — I was allowed to work in an internal role for 50 percent of my time, while I pursued this dream.
The following months were intense. I was searching for an angle, a perspective. I spoke with psychologists, researchers, survivors, therapists for offenders. I tried to understand the trauma of sexual assault — while ignoring my own. I pushed and pushed and crossed my boundaries numerous times. My nightmares intensified. I had panic attacks in public places — a theater, a restaurant, a bad one in my car.
But I also gained clarity.
During my conversations with experts, the unavoidable question was asked every time: “Why are you doing this?” It led me to share my story more often and more freely than I ever had. Let me give you an example of a conversation I often had:
Expert: “So did you report him?”
Expert: “Why not?”
Me: “He’s not a sex offender”
Expert: “How do you know?”
Me: “He was obsessed with me. This was about me. He would never do this to someone else. I am sure.”
Expert: “Well, yeah, but that’s just grooming.”
Grooming. I can’t tell you how often I heard that word when talking to people in the field. Grooming. I had never heard it before. But after it came up in conversation after conversation, I knew it was something I had to learn about. So I Googled it.
It changed everything.
“Deliberately building an emotional connection to gain the trust of a victim for the sole purpose of sexual abuse.”
Grooming is a tactic offenders use to lure in their victims and keep them silent. Sexual assault happens to 1 in 10 people in the US and grooming is part of almost all of those cases, in one way or another. It involves multiple steps, although not all are used in every assault:
- Target a vulnerable victim (child, adult, male, female). I was an insecure little girl, bullied in school, always questioning my worth. I was the perfect target.
- Build a relationship with that victim, making her (or him) feel special and isolating her from friends and family. As difficult as it is to admit, I loved the attention he gave me. Dozens of letters, gifts, words of affirmation. “You look so much older than 13 — you’re as beautiful as an 18-year-old!” Or, “You can always come to me with your problems; I’m here for you.” Or, “You can’t expect me not to love you if you make that beautiful, innocent little face.” I felt as if finally someone cared.
- Reduce resistance through very gradual progress toward sexual contact or by involving alcohol, threats, or physical coercion. This leads to a feeling of complicity. I never resisted. I trusted this man more than anyone else. It took a long time before things turned physical and when they did, I let him. So when many years later he told me “you wanted this” and “this was love,” at least part of me believed him. Because if I didn’t say no, I must have asked for it? Now I know this is a classical grooming tactic, but it led to years of confusion and guilt.
- Maintain a relationship with the victim and prevent escape or disclosure (e.g. through ongoing grooming, stating that the victim “enjoyed it,” and/or threats). If steps 1–3 were highly successful, limited effort may be needed to avoid disclosure. I would have never dared to disclose — I did not want to get him in trouble. When my parents asked if something was going on, I defended him with everything I had.
A former prosecutor in Boston told me she probably uses the word grooming at least a hundred times a day. Yet we never hear about it. And because of that, like many survivors who went through a similar process, I had no idea that that’s what happened to me.
But with every article on grooming I read, every conversation I had, little pieces of my personal puzzle came together. I realized that I had always thought my abuser would only ever do this to me and not to someone else, because that’s the whole point. Offenders want you to feel special, they want to gain your trust, they want you to feel you were part of what happened. So that once you start understanding what the heck happened, you stay silent. Which I did, for almost 20 years.
After a couple weeks of personal turmoil, I realized that this was my film. After what I learned about grooming, I could no longer be silent. I want to tell the world how offenders work, what parents and bystanders need to watch for, and why survivors feel as they do. We have so many misconceptions about sexual assault: we warn our kids about “stranger danger,” think of abuse as violent, assume that survivors are female. And there are so many more. It is time to clear them up.
In the past six months, I have talked to hundreds of people, sharing my deepest insecurities. I have been exchanging letters with a convicted sex offender in prison to try to understand his mind, in order to understand my own. I went back to my hometown in The Netherlands to try to make sense of the past. I spoke with my parents about the abuse for only the second time in 20 years. I found dozens of letters from my offender. I told my brother what happened. I finally talked to the police.
And I filmed all of it.
Reviewing the footage was humbling, confronting, exposing the challenge of being both the director and the subject of your film. It’s frightening to think of an audience watching what I went through during my trip home, when sadness and fear hit me like a brick. It was as if my memories had been locked in a closet in the back of my mind. And while the door of that closet had been cracked open regularly during panic attacks, conversations or nightmares, when I was in Holland the door swung wide open. Everything came out. I was afraid to walk outside, could not eat for weeks, and cried myself to sleep every night. Not exactly how I’d want an audience to see me.
I’m often asked whether I confronted my offender during that trip. I did not. Because I am not ready for it yet. Let me explain why. Most people I talk to, who never went through an abusive experience, assume I would want to confront him because I must feel anger. Anger about all those years of anguish, anger about the impact on the relationship with my fiancé, anger about the panic attacks. But I am not angry. I am not angry, because I was groomed. If I had been raped by a stranger, I would probably be enraged. I would go straight to the police. But grooming, as strange as it sounds, attaches you to your attacker. My offender slowly took control of my belief system and injected it with feelings of complicity and guilt. Many survivors require years of therapy and reflection before that guilt gets replaced by anger. Before they can shift the blame to where it belongs: to their offender. And while I have made a lot of progress in the past six months, I am not there yet. This film will not be the heroic story of someone overcoming, letting go of all the pain. Instead, my ambition is to give the audience the most authentic, most vulnerable account of what this journey feels like.
While I’m not ready to speak with my own offender, I am gearing up for an in-depth interview with the offender with whom I’ve been writing. And while I’m scared to meet with someone like him, I believe I must, to understand every piece of the puzzle and clear my mind of the trauma that has lasted so long. By ignoring 50 percent of the story, an offender’s story, I would never accomplish that.
This has been my most difficult journey and it has evolved in ways I could have never predicted. But I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned that talking about my feelings with my family was not only cathartic, but also lifted a heaviness from our relationship that had been there for years. I learned that facing your fears may feel impossible, but can lead to finally being able to let go. I learned what resilience feels like.
I am beyond thankful for the people who have given me enough love to offset the darkness. There are moments where I want to hide, hide from all the people with whom I have shared my deepest vulnerabilities. On those days, I feel as I did that evening in front of my classmates, deciding whether I was ready to share my story. On those days, I want just to “go back to normal.” But I know I can’t, and frankly, I don’t want to.
Because, you know what, this isn’t “Optional.” This is me.