By Rebeka Fergusson-Lutz
Artwork by Alli Rowe
I was six years old the first time I was sexually assaulted and for years, I never said anything to anyone because I lived in such crippling shame that I couldn’t even admit this to myself.
On a cognitive level, I had it all together. I read all the books and listened to the experts. I publicly inveighed against those who committed sexual violence against others and to systems that perpetuated society’s casual acceptance of such violence. As a feisty feminist, I spewed vitriol when I read headlines about gang rape and human trafficking, at home and around the globe. I devoted years of my life to advocating for women and the creation of criminal justice, public health, social welfare, and educational systems that protect their God-given rights.
And it’s not that my fiery sentiments were in any way insincere – but they were only half of the picture. As with many such things in life, there exists an enormous chasm between the intellectual and the emotional, between the head and the heart. I had railed because I knew on an instinctive and academic level that sexual violence is the worst kind of offense against another human being. I just had been in massive, pathological denial about the way that the issue touched me on a personal level.
For years I buried my first assault so deeply in my subconscious that even I forgot that those memories existed. If you had asked me, even up until my early thirties, if I was the victim of childhood sexual molestation, I would have denied it – because I literally could not remember it. The mind has an incredibly powerful way of healing itself and recovering from traumatic events: forgetting. I think that those memories stayed hidden for 25 years in the deepest crevices of my neural receptors because I simply didn’t have the wherewithal (in terms of emotional or personal strength) to cope with those memories. But over the past few years, snippets of memory slowly came back to me. At first I got back two- of three-second video clips, fuzzy images replaying again and again. The images were just fuzzy shapes at first, then began to gather color and definition and texture, and eventually sound. All the ephemera began to rematerialize. And once I had those memories back, I couldn’t deny it anymore – to myself or anyone else.
Once I admitted it to myself, there was a moment of sweet release, because I realized that so much of the insecurity and self-doubt that I’ve carried with me for years wasn’t just a cruel monster of my own creation. My pain had a source, an origination. All the years that I spent tormenting myself about my weight; all the years that I tortured myself about not feeling smart enough, pretty enough, funny enough – it was a way of illogically punishing myself for the experiences that I endured.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I could finally be honest with the people I love because, as Maya Angelou wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” At first I worried that telling my friends and family – and the broader world – would make me too vulnerable. I worried that I’d have to spend too much time reliving and retelling those experiences. I was afraid that the people I love would smother me with their sympathies. I was concerned that people would speculate, would take on the roles of “armchair psychiatrists.” But I know all about vulnerability. For most of my life I’ve been vulnerable, and it hasn’t ruined me. In fact, those experiences have compelled me to walk into difficult situations, take on challenges, and expand my literal and figurative horizons. The psychological burden of the assaults made me at times irrational and unstable, but it also made me empathetic.
I am “over” my own trauma; I have made peace with my past and have learned to sublimate all that pain into something useful and even beautiful. But when I go to social media and news sites and see the face of a known sexual predator — a man who has repeatedly faced insidious accusations that have quietly and mysteriously disappeared for reasons that should be obvious to all – I feel a pang every time. My heart beats a bit faster and my throat catches. I have to take a few deep breaths. I feel an acidic flop in my stomach. It’s not just that I disagree with the man’s fiscal, foreign, education, health care, and environmental policies. It’s not just that I find his rhetorical habits abhorrent. I am literally re-traumatized every time that I am reminded that Donald J. Trump – a brazen and unabashed sexual predator – is serving as our nation’s Chief Executive. I am reminded that there is very rarely justice (in or outside the court system) for perpetrators of sexual violence. I am reminded that there are millions of people who think sexual assault is just not a big deal. I am reminded of all the shame that I spent years attempting to bury.
I don’t need anyone’s pity. I don’t want anyone’s opinion on how I may or may not be coping with my personal trauma. What I do need is for everyone to fight to politically enfeeble and eventually impeach the known sexual predator who took office in January 2017. No matter how you may have voted in the election, this is the time to take a moral and ethical stand against sexual assault and those who commit it. Start with him.