My advanced copy of CHOSEN: A Memoir of Stolen Boyhood arrived on my front stoop on a recent Friday afternoon. By Sunday morning I had read all 318 pages. I’d also filled the back of the book with tightly-packed, handwritten notes in an effort to capture the thoughts and emotions that bubbled up as I read Stephen Mills’ poignant account of surviving sexual abuse as a young teenager.
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
-Mary Oliver, The Summer Day
I love Mary’s question at the end of this poem. It comforts me and haunts me, reminding me both to slow down and speed up. To drink in the beauty and wonder of the fields and sky, while also striving to reach my goals. This is my everyday dilemma, the push and pull of being alive, aware, and driven.
When the newest issue of New York Magazine arrived in my mailbox last week, it didn’t take long for me to flip to the back page and peruse the “Approval Matrix,” their weekly ranking of timely facts and intriguing news tidbits. I usually find it a fun read, but not this time. In the quadrant, which assigned this high-profile story the status of “despicable,” was a photograph of Woody Allen holding a young Dylan Farrow and the words: “The crosscurrents of accusations from the Farrow-Allen households.”
Perfectionism is a familiar affliction for survivors.
So many of us strive to achieve top grades and performance reviews, to dress just right for every occasion, and master the social skills that help us appear naturally confident. All the while, we’re scared to death of letting the mask slip to reveal our secret: the shame we carry as a byproduct of sexual abuse or assault.
At its root, perfectionism is often an unconscious attempt to cover up shame.
What if we lived in a world where victims of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment felt free to speak up? What if they were treated kindly, and almost always believed? What if perpetrators of these crimes were aggressively investigated and prosecuted on a consistent basis, their sentences reflecting the damage they inflict on survivors? What if we treated sexual violence survivors like victims of other crimes–especially those involving theft of money?
The answer is easy. We would live in a world with fewer sexual crimes. And for those who still chose to perpetrate sexual violence, they would be caught far more quickly and easily.
Because victims would feel free to name offenders.
You 100% deserve to be believed.
Though it’s nearly impossible to gather accurate statistics on false reporting of sexual abuse, we do know that it’s rare. If we look at sexual assault reports made to law enforcement, research tells us that false reports make up about only 2 to 6 percent of cases. It’s probably safe to assume the number is at least this low in sexual abuse cases.
Let’s be realistic. Survivors have very little reason to lie. As one survivor pointed out, “A small child couldn’t make that stuff up”. So then…why are so many survivors doubted, questioned, and outright disbelieved? Even when we ARE believed, why is our trauma so often minimized, brushed under the rug as if it doesn’t matter to anyone but us?
There are many reasons that explain the heartbreak of disbelief and minimization. I’ve done my best to explain them here.
Living with the emotional effects of sexual abuse is painful enough. Unfortunately, many survivors open up about their abuse only to find that their family members’ reactions toward them are just as painful — if not more so — than the original trauma. It may shock some people to learn that family members often choose to side with sexual abuse perpetrators and against their victims, especially if the abuse was committed within the family.