Voices of the Peninsula: #Me Too: Shining a light on dark moments

  • By Susan Smalley
  • Friday, December 8, 2017 11:03am
  • Opinion

This is my personal story and a #Me Too as well.

I was 10 years old. He was a middle-aged family friend. The year was 1958. I told no one.

I was 16 years old. He was a classmate. The year was 1964. I told no one.

Assaulted? Violated? Even now, five decades later, naming and defining these incidents has not gotten any easier. I can never know if “they” changed my life significantly, but I do know I have carried them deep in my heart, privately sorting through the details from time-to-time, feeling it was my dirty little secret forever, never to be revealed.

#Me Too has emboldened me, after 59 years, to shine a light into these dark moments of my life. It’s given me the courage to share with my husband of 49 years, and now, publicly.

Why now, after all these years?

I’ve always said, “I had an idyllic childhood.” After this truth telling, I’m revising it to 99 percent idyllic. Our home was filled with friends, laughter, good food and set in a tiny community where everyone knew everyone. I could walk the beach, just my dog and me, alone for hours with only one admonition, “never turn your back on the ocean.”

A fair question might be “Why didn’t you tell anyone then?” Speaking for the 10-year old Me, I was clueless. “It” lived as a bad feeling without proper context or vocabulary to describe it. I knew something icky had happened. I didn’t understand it and I don’t think it occurred to me that telling was an option. I’d never been told that my body was mine and off limits without my permission. Even if “stranger danger” had been a slogan, that wouldn’t have applied. He wasn’t a stranger. So it became my personal burden to carry. I’m totally confident both of my parents would have been appalled/infuriated/incensed by this man’s behavior and totally supported me. But I told no one.

When I was 16, I was naïve, but knew enough to not be confident in what would happen if I reported the assault. There were no overt threats, but somehow I knew. I was stunned, but also ashamed and embarrassed. “Boys will be boys” was illustrated on a daily basis in my life and school to excuse much less consequential behaviors. I gave no one a chance to come to my aid. I was cautious and wary, and so it seemed best to just add it to the secrets.

Do you want to know what I was wearing? Sadly, I remember all too well. Do you want to know if I was using alcohol or other drugs? No! Do you want to know if I was sending mixed messages? I was sending no messages and just sitting beside him on a bus ride. Do you want to know what time of day it was? It was a very bad time of day. And I told no one.

There is plenty of blame. Not for the 10-year old. Not for the 16-year old. Not for my family and not even for the school. The blame belongs to the man and to the classmate who assaulted me. When I tell you, “it wasn’t my fault” I’m speaking both to you and to me. I still need to hear that.

My story is only one person’s story. I’ve mostly forgiven the perpetrators. It’s a process. They’re both dead. I’ve forgiven myself for questioning my own responses, for judging myself and for the unwarranted shame I’ve felt in every instant replay of these times. Perhaps if there had been a confrontation at the time, these men’s behaviors may have changed … but their behavior is NOT on me!

For the women (and men) who have their own stories, sharing might not be in your future. My experience has been that it is strangely helpful knowing that even though each person’s experience is vastly different and unique, we do not have to be in this alone. When it has happened to you or someone you love, the importance rises exponentially. I am so grateful to those who have listened and heard and shared with me. They have gifted me with their stories, but those are not mine to tell.

A floodgate has been opened – and my experience says it’s a good thing. Please be ready to listen. If you can’t truly listen, let your friend/partner know that. It’s okay. But if you choose to be present for someone, put yourself on hold and just listen to the portion that someone is trusting you with, because it is a sacred trust. “When we bring things out into the light, they lose power over us.” — Courage to Change

Susan Smalley lives in Kenai.

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