“That Door Is Now Closed”: A Sexual Assault Survivor on Coping, Setting Boundaries, and Redefining Her Life

A few months ago, I introduced you to Jessica, a survivor of rape and sexual assault whose forthcoming memoir, The Man Behind the Curtain, I’m coauthoring. We’re nearing the finish line on the writing and aiming to self-publish later this year — stay tuned for exciting updates in the coming months!

Here, I talk with Jessica about what the writing and healing processes have been like for her, what she hopes to accomplish by sharing her story with the world, and what’s next for her — including a major personal life update she never thought possible.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity, including some context from me in brackets.

VAL: In our book, you talk about how you’re no longer willing to let yourself be punished for someone else’s crimes, nor to let your past define you or your future. Tell us a bit more about that journey, how you came to make and embrace that shift in your thinking.

JESSICA: It was all about surrounding myself with positive people, to shut out the negatives. As soon as they found out what had happened to me, my grandparents were so supportive. Consistently going to therapy also really helped. My counselor, Debbie, was and continues to be a very positive person to be around. She understood all the feelings I had and even came down to Tennessee from New York for the trial. They all reminded me, and helped me to keep reminding myself, that everything my stepdad had done to me, and everything my mom had done by turning her back on me, was not my fault.

V: What are some of your proudest moments from the last few years? Are there things you’ve accomplished that you might not have thought possible before?

J: My job [as a flight attendant] is really hard to get into, and I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do something like that because of how much everybody had put me down for years. So, I’m really proud of that, and also of being in a healthy relationship, finally, with such a supportive partner, Matthew. Other than from my grandparents, I didn’t grow up with an example of what a good relationship should be like, so I’m grateful to be able to have that now for myself.

Also, Matthew and I recently found out that we’re having a baby in December! One of the nurse practitioners I had seen after the abuse was reported said she didn’t know if it would be possible for me to have children in the future. Because of that and the trauma of my past, I would not have thought that this could happen for me. We’re so excited!

V: What do you know now that you wish you’d known back when you were a teenager, enduring the abuse and then the trial?

J: I wish I had better coping skills back then. I would shut down a lot; I was just putting one foot in front of the other, doing what I had to do. Now I know how to cope if I start feeling panicky or really anxious. The main one I use is to hold onto an ice cube, which brings my focus onto that and slows my thoughts.

Another important thing I know now is that I’m going to be okay without my mom being in my life. I’m making peace with it. Because of the baby, I’m no longer open to her being in my life. That door is now closed. It was cracked open for years.

V: Has it been difficult to revisit your past in working on this book? How have you navigated and worked through that?

J: Sometimes I do try to avoid it so that I don’t have to think about the past. I’m to the point where I don’t think about it every day. It’s almost like that was another life, one that I haven’t dealt with in so long. But I navigate it by allowing myself to feel however I’m feeling, instead of trying to bury those feelings.

V: What has been the most surprising or rewarding part of working on this project?

J: Honestly, when we announced it on social media. [See, eg, Jessica’s Facebook post and my Facebook post.] There had always been so much negativity surrounding what happened, so seeing all the positivity and supportive reactions was really nice — and surprising. I look forward to the book coming out, even if it just helps one person.

V: Are there any resources that have been particularly helpful to you as a survivor of rape and sexual assault?

J: While I was actively dealing with the aftermath of the abuse, the truth coming out, and the trial, my attorney connected me with Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA), who became such a helpful support network. [Their mission, in part, is “to create a safer environment for abused children” and “to empower children to not feel afraid of the world in which they live.” They have chapters around the world.]

Also, again, therapy has been so helpful, including a therapy group I found while I was living in Chicago that was focused on sexual assault. It’s great to know that those resources are out there.

And I always rely on family and friends who have been really supportive and who keep me positive.

V: What do you hope readers will learn or gain from your story?

J: I hope readers who have gone through similar things will know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and won’t always feel so negative about it or so alone. And I hope people will learn signs of what to look for if something might be happening to their children or to someone they know and will learn about the damage it can do if they’re not supported.

V: What’s next for you? What goals do you have for the next few years?

J: I’ll be focusing on the baby. I can keep flying till about 36 weeks, and then, between maternity leave and baby-bonding leave that the airline offers, I won’t be working for about 5-6 months. I do want to go back and continue flying after that. But mostly I’ll be focusing on protecting my child as they grow up. I want to make sure my child doesn’t have to recover from their childhood like I did.

Read some post-publication thoughts here.

Photo by Christine Renard, downloaded from Pexels

Cheryl Strayed’s WILD: A Journey of a Thousand Miles Propels a Journey Inward

I recently finished reading Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, which had been on my to-read list since it was first published in 2012. (As an English major, I’m ashamed to admit that I saw the movie before reading the book. I do highly recommend both.) For those unfamiliar, a woefully oversimplified summary is that it’s about Strayed’s experiences hiking more than 1,000 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, alone and inexperienced, after the devastating death of her mother and dissolution of her marriage. As the book jacket states, “Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.” How soothing to think of strength and healing as the resolution after madness. That’s precisely the kind of journey Strayed takes us on.

I had the pleasure of hearing Strayed read from the book and speak about it as part of SUNY Brockport’s Writers Forum series in 2013. I was struck by how humble, approachable, and normal she was; after having completed this astounding journey, I thought she would seem somehow otherworldly, untouchable. I was awe-struck by what she’d accomplished. But as she talked about what it was like to stagger under the weight of a backpack so heavy she couldn’t lift it from the floor — she calls the approach she eventually managed to adopt “hunching in a remotely upright position” — it was like she answered my thoughts of Wow, how did she do all of that? with her own enthralled gush of, I know, right?!

That humility is present throughout the book and kept me mesmerized by Strayed’s narrative voice. She acknowledges her own amazement and gratitude about being on that hike, her unpreparedness for it and how that added to its impact on her. She knows she wasn’t well suited for it on paper, but that was one of the very reasons she knew she needed to do it. Which, to me, means she had exactly the right kind of mind for it, and the rest she figured out along the way.

One of my favorite moments is when she describes settling in at her campsite one night, 7,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada mountain range:

“The silence was tremendous. The absence felt like a weight.”

How brave of her to go willingly into that silence, to take that journey inward — accompanied only by a constant soundtrack of her own thoughts, memories, pains, regrets — in order to better understand all that is happening around her. Having gone through a few major life changes myself in recent years (exhibit A and exhibit B, among others), I’ve sometimes felt drawn to the idea of that sort of exploration — a long trip somewhere new all alone, a drive on unfamiliar roads with no destination in mind — but I have yet to conquer the self-doubt that inevitably creeps in as to what it would require of me and reveal to me.

Another favorite moment is when she meets a 5-year-old boy on the trail who sings her a song his mother taught him after learning that Strayed is grieving the loss of her own mother.

She describes him singing “in a voice so pure that I felt gutted” and says she felt “half demolished by the time he finished.”

I love this description of something being so beautiful and moving that it’s painful. That’s how I feel about Strayed’s writing. Her craft is so good, so finely tuned, that it hurts; it’s the kind of beauty that punches you and leaves you stinging.

As I neared the final chapters, I experienced that wonderful juxtaposition of emotions stirred up by a great read: I was eager to learn how it would end and yet reluctant to part ways with it. As I read the last few paragraphs — and immediately read them again — I felt gutted. I felt I was mourning a loss. Like Strayed, I was in awe of the journey and grateful to have experienced it.

Reaching the end of her hike and trying to process its finality, she writes:

“There was no way to go back, to make it stay. There was never that.”

Oof. Doesn’t that so accurately describe, with such aching beauty, any sort of loss? There is no route back to before it was gone, no choice but to continue moving forward, no matter how uncertain the steps may sometimes seem.

Photo by Skitterphoto, downloaded from Pexels