Attention readers: The following guest post contains intense imagery and is being featured because April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. If you have been the victim of a sexual assault, this post may be triggering or unusually difficult for you to read, so please be aware before proceeding.
By Misty Kay Campbell
It has been 21 years since I last saw him, and hearing his name still creates a physical response in my body. My biological brother’s mother started to say his name and I finished it for her.
It took every bit of me to not throw up as his name left my mouth. I’m very grateful my children were in the room. I smiled at my eldest. She smiled back. I caught my lump and continued talking to his mother. I needed information. My health is not doing well and I need information regarding my biological family.
She started to talk about the newspaper publishing the story and details of the case. I felt anger rise up in me. I never knew they published the story. It was my story. It was my sister’s story. It was not the public’s story. When she mentioned the gun, I felt myself gagging. I could feel him pushing himself into my mouth.
She stopped talking…thank God. I didn’t need to hear the details. I spent years trying to figure out how to keep the memories from being triggered. I spent years trying to go to sleep without smelling him, feeling him, watching him. To this day, the song “Hit the Road Jack” makes me want to vomit. I hate whistling. He would whistle when he introduced new men. So many chests. It took a long time to stop having the dreams. To stop waking up unable to open my eyes, speak, or move. When I wake up from a terror like that, it isn’t until I can move that I can speak. What symbolism, right?
In my terrors, I am always trying to get to her. I’m always trying to save my sister. To this day, that is the worst part of the abuse. Knowing I couldn’t save her. Knowing that only adults can save kids from other adults—knowing that as a child I was powerless. As a small child, my memories flood together.
I can still remember the day they took us away from each other. I remember swinging at the park when the police came. I can still feel my hands grasping the chains tighter as they approached. I remember being offered, and taking, a sucker. I can still picture the police station—in my memories it is an enormous building; towering over all of us.
I remember wondering if I was going to jail—thinking that I did something wrong. Looking around at the grey walls, listening as this man asked me questions, I remember feeling completely empty.
I had no problem sharing the details about what happened. I guess that is because I’ve always been a talkative child. I can still hear myself telling them about what happened to my sister. Not one person told me I did a good job keeping her safe. Instead, adults whispered and looked at me with sad eyes. They talked about how no one kept us safe. Inside, I raged. I did. I kept us safe. According to them, I failed. As an adult, I understand what they were saying. However, what the mind knows the heart can refuse to believe. The guilt I have over my sister is the one piece left to heal. Eve Ensler stated one time that everyone woman she knows who has been sexually abused has spent her entire life trying to heal. At least for me, that part is true.
Of course, they failed at keeping us safe as well. They took us from one home to another, breaking us apart, tearing apart the only non-violent thing in my life. I was placed into homes where I was locked in closets, held down and had my hair cut with scissors for being a dirty girl with lice, raped, not fed, beat, and not loved.
I struggled to understand how this was any better. I struggled with understanding why no one seemed to care what was happening. I remember a social worker telling me one time that I should smile because sad kids don’t get adopted. There was no acknowledgement that a child would need to grieve over losing their family. No acknowledgement that the worst part of abuse is feeling voiceless.
Yesterday my biological brother’s mother shared that the same man who went to prison for abusing us was also my biological father. The concept that I was a product of rape was not a new one to me. My biological mother is severely cognitively disabled. Some reports indicate she functions at a 6 year old level.
This has always meant that I was either the result of the consensual encounter of two cognitively disabled people -- unlikely due to my lack of being differently-abled -- or the result of a rape. However, knowing (or at least being told by a 3rd party) that the same person who is in my dreams is also in my genes took me back a moment.
I sit at work today thinking about him flowing through my veins. All my life, I’ve argued against the whole idea of your genes mattering; the idea of “blood kin” somehow making bonds stronger. In this moment, I’m glad that I’ve never believed who created you mattered. In this moment, I am grateful to have faith that my creation story is one of blessing because I was made fearfully and wonderfully made.
People say children are resilient. I cannot stand when people say this. Adults who are abused are always trying to get back to who they were ‘before’. As children, we have no before. It is not resiliency but absorption. I move on because there is no back to go to. That does not make me resilient. It means I learned to cope so I could thrive. Surviving is a part of my being. I choose to not let victimization be.
This year’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month theme is “Talk Early. Talk Often.” The concept is that if we are talking with our children early enough, then we may be able to prevent some childhood sexual abuse—or help children who are being abused understand it is not their fault.
I hope that this year you will take the time to talk to your children about sexual abuse. I hope that this year we will stop buying into the belief that it is the strangers who pose the greatest risk to our kids.
This year, I hope we will do more than say the foster care system is broken. I hope we will see our children in foster children. I hope we will stop making movies about adopted children being demons and stop talking about foster youth as damaged children.
This year, I hope we move past saying children are resilient. To say so, at least to me, makes it seem inevitable that children will heal. It takes away from the strength and work it takes to heal. It takes away from the physical scars, the emotional scars; it takes away from the everyday struggles of surviving.
I also hope that when we talk with our kids, we are talking about hope, faith, and passion. I hope that we remember to give our kids the knowledge that despite what happens to us, we define ourselves. Last year my daughter pointed out that when her dad is not home. I sleep with the lights on. I tried to tell her that was because I want to be able to see if I get up.
She gave me a hug, and with honesty that only children can give, she told me that was a lie. She said I was scared of the dark, but it was okay because we all have things we’re scared of. That night, I turned off the lights. That night, I accepted that perhaps I still had more work to do. That is okay.
Last night, I resisted the urge to sleep with the lights on. As I lay in bed, I started to feel myself gagging. I took a deep breath and imagined peace. I let myself relax into knowing that I was safe, loved, and influenced--but not defined--by my past. I smiled into the dark. I absorbed into the gratitude of knowing that it is in the dark that stars shine the brightest.
Misty Campbell lives in the KC metro area with her husband and two amazing children. She works at the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault (MOCSA), as well as serving as a contractual trainer for area foster and adoption agencies. She enjoys spending her free time playing with her children, reading, and cooking.
Portrait of an Adoption is hosted by Carrie Goldman, the author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.
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