Speaking the unspeakable truth

I loved spending holidays down on the farm, away from city life. My two brothers and I became farm kids collecting eggs, feeding ducks and being part of the rhythm of farming life. The tumble-down sheds, rusty machinery sitting under old macrocarpa trees and the beautiful snow-capped mountains are still a vivid memory.

It’s hard to think about what happened, let alone put my thoughts into words and see them stare back at me. Its feels a wee bit like Alice must have felt falling down a rabbit hole into a curious hall of locked doors – doors that hide an unspeakable truth. To open the doors means going back 40 years to see myself as a 14 year old girl, blonde, blue eyes, naïve, giggling – a girl who was sexually violated by her cousin, 15 years older.

The grooming was subtle. At first, I liked the attention and privileges of being treated like an adult: whiskey sours, driving the old VW, feeding out, cooking a meal, or looking after his young children. But slowly things changed. Tom would walk into the bathroom while I showered, stroke my leg, touch my nipples, sit too close. He lured me to play Strip Jack Naked. Despite feeling uncomfortable and knowing this was wrong, I was powerless to say or do anything. I simply went along with it. He told me, this was ‘our’ secret.

This pattern of grooming escalated and one night he raped me – in his bed.

Twice more, he raped me – in a spare bedroom and in a remote farm shed.

Next time he tried in the middle of a near-ripe barley paddock. He began to bargain with me. If I gave in to his demands for sex, he would drive me to the airport to catch my plane home, and save me the bus trip. For the first time I recognized his deceitful game and the terrible lengths he was prepared to go to get what he thought he deserved. That day, something in me broke and I was able to say no.

For years, I struggled with the question of why I was not able to stop this happening. I struggled with the confusion that if I had enjoyed his early attentions then I must have been guilty. For years, I believed I had been to blame and I silently carried the burden of guilt and shame for his crime. I vowed never to tell my parents – and I never did. I was too afraid of hurting them, too afraid of the disgrace it would bring on me and to our family. Tom was held in high regard by my parents; to have raped their daughter would have been unthinkable. But that was what happened. His actions were the ultimate abuse of power and breach of trust that my parents had placed in him.

When my own two daughters were 14, I saw their vulnerability, innocence and the way they could yield to the power of an adult. I saw my own vulnerability at that same age and began to mentally unlock the doors to this unspeakable truth and to acknowledge the sexual violation my cousin had committed. It is only now that I can accept that I was not the guilty party. I now understand what was behind his actions, and sadly those of many others like Tom – reassurance in his superiority and a sense of entitlement. His calculated wrongdoing and transitory physical pleasure robbed me of my virginity, my innocence, my voice and weighed me down with years of hidden guilt and shame.

At 50, I finally found the courage to confront Tom. I wrote a letter that spelt out the facts as I remembered them. He wrote back a short letter of apology – wishing it had not happened and acknowledging that he had let himself and his family down. But I wonder if he really understands the harm he caused or if he agonized over the guilt and shame like I had.

I have chosen to forgive him. Some days that is a hard choice to make. Harder still has been learning to forgive myself, and learning to let go the blame. There are also some destructive habits I recognise in myself that possibly grew out of the dark spaces of holding on to this secret. I can be too busy, over-achieve and aim for perfection. I find conflict hard to handle, I can bottle things up instead of speaking out, and I can say ‘yes’ too quickly lured by the reward of praise.

Ron Rolheiser talks about an ‘unspeakable loneliness’ when something cannot be shared. The only way to heal, he argues, is to speak the unspeakable. He is so right. My healing began the day I found the courage to talk. I have told my brothers and their understanding has helped me to let go the lingering guilt. I have also talked with a few close friends – their goodness, unconditional love and prayers for healing have enabled me to let go the loneliness, guilt and shame of holding on to this secret.

For me the most important message in all this, is that while sexual abuse happened, it has not defined me. My life is over-flowing with love, happiness, gratitude for so many wonderful things. I can find a deep peace in beauty, in the goodness of people and in the grace of God. He was with me in my silence, and with me now as I learn to speak the unspeakable truth. It is through His love and forgiveness that I can let go of what happened, forgive and keep forgiving and in all things, no matter how hard, choose life.