Today I am thinking about a girl I don’t know, but whom I met the other day. I spoke to this girl for about an hour. She didn’t say anything to me, and only looked at me a little. But they said that was a big improvement for her.
This girl—I’ll call her Tami—had her 13th birthday yesterday. I wasn’t there, but I know how she spent some of it: sitting in a circle with other girls like her, 12 to 14-year-old girls who were just beginning to recover from being subjected to years of incest. I know that the group facilitators planned to have a cake for Tami, to make her day as special as they could. This birthday of hers was the last day she could pretend that “it,” the unspeakable harm, had not happened to her. For today, the day after her 13th birthday, Tami must go to court, where she will be compelled to talk about something so horrible, so devastating that a girl her age shouldn’t even know it exists.
Poor Tami! She has to speak aloud about what her father did to her ever since she was a little girl. Actually, she’s still a little girl in many ways. She is petite and shy, with big brown eyes, a touch of make-up and delightfully curly black hair. Tami sat immediately to my right during our session. When I spoke to the group, I could feel her looking at me, and when I turned to look at her, she would break the eye contact quickly.
Most of the other 12 to 14-year old girls looked at me more than that. One, sitting directly across, made eye contact with me a lot, and often smiled. I was taken by her round baby face and innocent eyes.
I spoke to these girls about many things, including what I felt like after I had been abused, how I felt during the many years that I tried to hold it all in, to pretend that nothing bad had happened to me, that nothing was wrong—because everyone around me insisted that I must.
I know that like me, these girls had no word for what happened to them. They had bad feelings about it, but couldn’t know why. They felt guilty and dirty, shameful and tainted. And they didn’t yet understand that it wasn’t their fault, that they hadn’t done anything wrong, or anything to deserve this kind of abuse.
As I spoke on these things from my own experience, one of the girls occasionally wiped her eyes. Two of them openly cried during my talk, and I had to remind myself not to go to comfort them, to not interfere, to let them feel their feelings.
Having talked to one of the facilitators in advance and obtaining her approval, I brought a little “show and tell” for the girls: a series of four masks I had made during my recovery, each one depicting a stage of my experience.
The first, “Victim,” is a horrifying image. Reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” but more wraithlike, with the eyes sewn shut and the mouth…
I held up this mask with slight trepidation. These girls shouldn’t know what it represents, but as I showed it, I could feel their collective surprise in recognition. I didn’t have to say much about how I felt when I was a victim, though I told them I felt that way as long as I had been abused, and even for some time after it stopped.
Holding up the second mask, “Survivor,” I showed them a flat red face with slitty eyes and tightly drawn lips, radiating anger, shame, blame and fear. I talked about how I felt in that lengthy period: seething with rage, unable to accept myself, hating everyone, blaming myself for what had happened to me, working very hard to keep it all stuffed away. I told them that it was like trying to squeeze a water balloon, the anger squished out everywhere.
Then I showed them the third mask, “Healing,” which looks a lot like the Greek mask for “Tragedy,” with shining tears, the tongue sticking out, and written on the tongue, “Speaking the truth shall set you free.” I told the girls that I felt like that for a couple of years, as I worked on telling my truth, on saying what had to be said, and feeling what had to be felt.
Finally, I held up the forth papier-mâché mask, “Thriving,” with its golden glow, glittering cheeks, wide smile, open “third eye,” bedecked with jewels, and beams of light radiating from the crown. “This is how I feel now, since I told my truth and did my work,” I said to the girls. “I am happier than I ever imagined I could be.” I told them that there are scars that will never go away, but instead of the injuries ruling my life, they are now just a small part of who I am, and that’s OK.
I spoke about how I used those bad experiences to make myself into a good person, into someone who does good things and lives a fulfilling and happy life.
Near the end of my hour with the group, the facilitator asked that I pass the masks around again. She told the girls to look at them and think about the different stages, to recognize the mask that represents where they are now, and then look at the masks that represent where they will be, and think, “This is where I will be.”
The group went on for another hour after I left, with the girls working on a craft. The facilitator had given them each two small boxes, asking them to decorate them to show the little box as the bad things that happened to them, and the larger box as their hopes for who they would become.
I didn’t see the girls’ work, but the facilitator told me that all the girls except one were busy working on the outer boxes, the “hope” box, decorating them with beautiful things like flowers and butterflies. The one girl, Tami, worked intently on the inner box, the “bad things” box. She used lots of red—the color of anger—and cut from magazines many eyes to glue upon it.
It has only been a month since someone believed Tami about what horrible things her father had been doing to her for most of her young life. The legal system pushes her to speak about it before she is ready. She would not talk about it in the group sessions, saying that she would speak only when she had to speak. Today is that day, and my heart and thoughts are with Tami, sending her courage and strength.
I had scheduled a debriefing session with the agency director immediately after my time with the girls, because I well remembered the heavy impact upon me when I had previously spoken to a group of teens about surviving sexual abuse. That was over 10 years ago and I had cried for days afterward, my heart broken by knowing that every one of those girls was there because “it” had happened to her, too.
This time was very different for me. I fully recognized why these 12 to 14-year olds were in that group. They had all been longtime victims of incest, and were just recently able to receive help and be rescued from the situation, with at least one being called “liar” by the perpetrator’s family, and some having to move in with other relatives in order to be safe. This is heartbreaking, for sure, and I cannot say that I didn’t cry about that fact at least a little. But, as testament to my own continued healing, instead of focusing on these girls’ victimhood, I saw their strength and resiliency, their dreams for the future, their hopes for a happy life where the pain of incest is no more than a small part of who they can and will become.
I am humbled and honored by having been invited to share an hour with these beautiful and smart girls, and I wish them all the very best that life has to offer. May they find the courage to speak the truth and set themselves free.