Trigger warning: sexual assault
When people ask me what I’m writing, I often struggle to find an effective answer, even though — or maybe because — I’ve been focused mainly on the same project for nearly six years now, am passionate about its message, and am excited about its potential. The project is difficult to summarize; it’s a powerful and emotional topic, being authored in a somewhat nontraditional way, and has been an immense learning curve for me. But I’m so grateful to be writing it, and, as the finish line starts to come into view, I’m excited to share more about it with you here.
For me, it all started (the aforementioned six years ago) when my counselor asked me if I wanted to delve more into my creative writing, knowing I was then working a writing-related day job that was leaving me feeling restless and wanting more. She told me that another one of her clients, Jessica, was an amazing young woman with a powerful story to tell; they’d long talked about the fact that it would make a great book. But Jessica isn’t a writer. Our counselor asked if she could introduce us. From our first meeting, I knew I’d been handed a gift — a challenging project, unquestionably, but a chance to help people, to make my writing mean something more.
For Jessica, it all started much earlier, when, at just 11 years old, she was raped by her stepfather, in what would prove to be only the first of many assaults. It quickly became a routine, an expectation; in a twisted power game, Jessica learned that she had to go along with her stepdad’s demands if she wanted to stay on his good side, be able to hang out with her friends, get her phone back after being grounded, have a MySpace page… This horrible routine continued for four years.
Sadly, this was only the beginning of Jessica’s struggles. When, at 15 years old, her boyfriend found out what was happening and reported the abuse, Jessica was met with a new level of fear and shame, as her mother, brother, and church community chose to believe her abuser instead, even as he was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison. They labeled Jessica a sinner and a liar and left her to fight through the criminal investigation and multiple courtroom battles largely alone. She had just begun to use her voice and was only further silenced, criticized, and cast aside.
But she is ready to speak now.
In our coauthored memoir The Man Behind the Curtain, Jessica transforms her pain into power and provides a guiding light for those who are still searching for hope. In calling attention to sexual abuse happening at home, by a family member the victim loved and trusted, her story is a powerful addition to the #MeToo movement.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, organized by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. The Center’s website, RAINN and its additional resources page, and Time’s Up (among many others) offer fantastic support and guidance for survivors and their allies. It’s great to see increased conversation happening about these pressing topics.
We’ll look forward to sharing more with you in the coming months about Jessica’s story and our road to publication. We are both so deeply grateful for your support in this journey.
Read my follow-up Q&A with Jessica here and some post-publication thoughts here.
Here’s a brief excerpt from the book’s prologue:
I will forever be someone who was raped and sexually assaulted. I can’t erase that part of my story, despite how much I’ve wished I could. What I’ve just recently started to accept, though, is that those experiences do not need to define me. I will not let them define me. I’ve struggled in silence for too long, assuming others wouldn’t understand and would judge me. I’ve told myself that my voice doesn’t need to be heard — or, worse, that it doesn’t deserve to be. But I see now that I’ve been letting myself be punished for someone else’s crimes. Maybe I can change what this part of my story means. Maybe it can be a source of power more than pain.
Along the landmine-ridden road to my stepfather’s imprisonment, I lost not only him but my mother and brother, who chose him over me. I lost my role as daughter and sister. I was dragged into the role of victim the first time he put his hands on me; I found the courage to speak from that role only years later; and I am still trying to process how thoroughly that role came to define me and my surroundings. Victim came to mean outcast, interrogated, alone. I am trying now to make it mean more, to take pride in its synonymy with survivor, to make it mean something like warrior.