Vera House is honored to present the following powerful personal stories of courageous survivors.
Renee's story . . .
My story began almost 30 years ago during an overnight at my best friends’ camp on one of the Finger Lakes in Central New York. I was 19 years old and with 10 friends I had known most of my life. I rode to the camp with my best friend and her husband, who was in the Navy. They now lived out of town but were here while he was home on leave. When we got to the camp, my best friend told me I could have the best bedroom upstairs, since everyone else was sleeping on the floor. Excited, I put my belongings in the upstairs room and changed into my suit for a warm day on the boat. After being on the lake all day, I was the first to go to bed.
I awoke to the force of my best friends’ husband’s hand over my mouth while he held me down with the other. He was a big guy and I was frozen with fear and intimidation – I absolutely could not move a muscle. His buddy, another guy I had known all my life, was now on top of me also holding me down and grabbing at my underwear. It was the middle of the night; I was half asleep and thought I must be dreaming. Soon, it became evident I was not dreaming. It was real, but psychologically – it didn’t make any sense. Where was everyone? Where was my best friend? Why were these guys – my friends – doing this to me? It was all over quickly and they left immediately with my best friends’ husband warning me not to say a word. I was definitely afraid of him. I was raised a strict Catholic and immediately thoughts of fear, shame and disgust filled my head. I began to think this was all my fault, I thought I must have done something to encourage this. And then it hit me: Was it really an attack because I knew them? Was it actually rape since they were my friends? My head was spinning and I was physically sick to my stomach.
The next morning, still terrified, I went downstairs and saw my attackers in the kitchen. I didn’t know what to think or say. My best friends’ husband just stared at me. My best friend appeared to be acting normal. ‘She’ll never believe you’, I told myself. ‘This is her husband, she loves him.’ Silently, I packed my things and rode the whole way home in the car with my rapist. And I never said a word. I immediately blamed myself and thought if I had only slept downstairs with everyone else, it wouldn’t have happened. My mind could not comprehend this whole scenario, so in order to cope with it; I blocked it out as if it never happened. I shut down completely and decided I would never tell anyone about it.
A few months later I realized the nightmare wasn’t over. I had become pregnant from the rape. I went into shock again. Being a strict Catholic, I thought how could God allow this to happen to me? I was convinced I was being punished for sure. I felt enormous shame and guilt. This was 30 years ago. Practically no one went to counseling then or openly sought help for such things. I could not tell my mother, and I was too ashamed to tell my friends. And who would believe me now two months later … I still could not believe it. Because of my shame, fear, disgust and the belief I had no one to turn to, I regretfully made the decision to terminate the pregnancy.
The Rape and then the trauma of the subsequent choices I had to make as a result of being raped haunted me for years. I found with the Rape that my body healed, but my thought process and inner core were deeply damaged. Because I blamed myself, I hated myself. I became a severe alcoholic, bill collectors called me non-stop, my relationships with men were abusive, I was terrified to sleep alone at night, had violent nightmares and finally resorted to sleeping with a baseball bat, a butcher knife and the cordless phone because of the fear it would happen again. This act that had ended years and years ago, continued to torture me every minute of every day of my life.
It wasn’t until I was married and then became pregnant that I decided to get sober and started counseling. I was 31 years old, and it had been 12 years since I was raped. In my first session, I ran to the window and tried to physically open it because I felt like all the oxygen had left the room. I truly could not breathe. I stayed with it, but the pain of uncovering these old wounds was mentally and emotionally traumatizing. Because I stopped using alcohol to soothe the pain, I chose food as a new addiction. My weight fluctuated constantly until at one point, I stopped eating altogether.
That’s how psychologically devastating rape can be. You disappear. Your body is your canvas, the picture you show to the world. And if someone has violated your personal canvas, you believe you can’t possibly remove this poison that now permeates every crevice of your mind, body and soul. You become disconnected from your body in order to survive and are convinced that you have been altered and changed forever. Nothing will ever erase the ugliness left behind.
The most important reason I speak now, is because I did a minimum of 20 years hard labor for a crime I didn’t commit. The thought process that comes as a result of rape or domestic violence is so detrimental, it is imperative that some form of healing begin immediately. There are so many more places available today - specifically Vera House - to address these issues than there were 30 years ago. No one should ever have to suffer in silence.
Because of what happened to me and how deeply affected I was by the entire experience – today, I am a Rape Survivor, not a Rape Victim. I am a Member of RAINN’s (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) Speakers Bureau headquartered in Washington, DC; I have told my story on NPR’s Morning Edition, been interviewed a number of times on the About.com Women’s Issues website, was a featured guest speaker at Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues this past February, and founded my own organization and website: www.reneedevesty.com.
My plan for April, 2011 is to host a Sexual Assault Survivor Celebration. The subject of Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence are considered taboo and not easily brought up in casual conversation. Conversely, for someone dealing with a medical diagnosis, it’s possible for you to visually recognize signs of their condition and have an opportunity to offer support and compassion. On a larger scale, there are national walks, runs and marathons taking place in support of research, awareness and recovery. There are even medals to honor the long road cancer survivors have walked.
I don’t know about you, but I know a lot of people who deserve a medal for surviving Rape and Domestic Violence. I believe we as Survivors deserve to be recognized for the enormous courage, intense bravery and sheer determination it requires to overcome such a monumental life challenge. I believe the more we normalize the “discussion process” of rape as a crime, the more victims will speak out, the more prosecutions will take place, the more jail time will be served, and the less frequently this may happen.
As Dr. Judith Herman writes in her book, Trauma & Recovery, “The reaction of a community is directly related to how a survivor recovers from sexual violence. Recovery cannot be done in isolation: there is a need for not only safe, healthy relationships - but also for a safe community.” No one should suffer in silence. I don’t want anyone to follow the path I was convinced I had to take of isolation, darkness and despair. We need to show that same compassion, gentleness, love and concern to all survivors, so they can bring their individual gift forward and change in the world.
And we need to remember - nothing or no one can alter our inner core, our center of purity, wholeness and beauty. Only we have the power to continually wipe the slate clean and begin again. And we must believe that, indeed, we are worthy enough to begin again. Thank you.
Charlotte's story . . .
My name is Charlotte Reid and I am a survivor of domestic and sexual violence. My story is about what it means to have a safe place to stay.
One day I was at church and a representative of Vera House was giving a presentation and handing out resources. I took a flyer knowing in my heart that I would need it some day. There was something about the presentation that touched me. The day came when I had to leave my home and found that I did not have a safe place to go to. I was at my mother’s house and found myself in her basement calling Vera House. Even my mother’s home was not safe for me. I had remembered that I had Vera House’s flyer on me and called them to see if I could go there. They set me up to come in to shelter that night.
I was picked up by a very nice staff person, Karen. She spoke with me on the trip to shelter and made me feel so welcomed and comfortable. At that moment I knew this was meant to be. For the first time in my life I knew things were going to be good for me. I arrived at shelter and met my case manager Debra. She was so supportive and gave me great information and encouragement. She helped me to stay focused on my goals. For the first time I realized I had goals and I was going to achieve them. I wanted my own apartment, a job and I wanted to raise my child in a good way.
I stayed at the shelter for 3 months and felt great when I left. I had a great home and I was with my daughter. I knew that I had to give back in some way. I started to volunteer at the shelter. I decided that people’s first impression of shelter was really important. I wanted to be part of that. I began to help with cleaning the shelter, making all residents comfortable and welcomed. My volunteering turned into a job. I am now part of the shelter family. I am part of the mission of Vera House. I work with such positive people like Paul, one of our maintenance team members he really helps me to see life in a positive way.
I feel like I am getting an education everyday I come to work. I want to continue to help everyone that comes into shelter.
Project EMERGE Advisory Group Members. . .
Good afternoon everyone, My name is Cindy and I am speaking to you on behalf of Joan, Georgia, Jaylenne and myself. We are a group of women with disabilities and who are Deaf and we are survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Together we make up the Project EMERGE Advisory Group. Project EMERGE is a collaboration between Vera House and ARISE to improve services for people with disabilities and Deaf individuals who may also be experiencing domestic and sexual violence.
We began in this advisory group together as strangers and now consider one another family- the best part of family. We have the trust and support of one another. Until this project, our experiences of trauma and having a disability or being Deaf have had so much negativity; our part in this project lets us use those negative experiences for something so productive. In the beginning, it was tough; there was so much raw emotion. The staff of Project EMERGE asked us so many questions and we wondered why they have to know so much and what really it has to do with us. They wanted us to talk about our trauma, things we had tried to keep hidden. They wanted to know how our disability or our experience of being Deaf braided together with our abuse history. Before Project EMERGE, we always either focused on the disability or the trauma but not how they were related. We struggled, the staff and all of us, trying to figure out how we accommodate all of our needs. We thought having people who are blind or Deaf in the same room would be mess, but we learned how to work with the interpreters and each other. We became more aware of how perfumes and scents including printed materials can affect someone’s emotions. We learned the value of having playdoh available when talking about the hard stuff. And we learned to ignore the flirtations of the service dogs, tempting us to feed and pet them.
We lend ourselves to sharing to build cohesiveness and at the end we are really walking away with so much more. By the end of our meeting time, we have learned from one another, we have taught one another, we have shared with one another about our own ability or inability to access services and what it means for someone else in our group to access services, we realized we may have similar disabilities but our needs are different, and we found safety in talking and sharing. As a result of what we have been as part of the Advisory Group members, we can see an increased awareness in the community about accommodations and the effects of our trauma experiences on receiving services, we are so proud to know that our experience is important.
We are so proud to have been a part of creating and revising so many things for ARISE and Vera House:
- A new brochure targeting people with disabilities or who are Deaf who may be experiencing domestic and/or sexual violence
- A review tool that helped ARISE and Vera House assess their ability to provide accessible and trauma informed services.
- Revising brochures at both agencies with language and designs that are simpler to read and look at it
- The creation of the ASL videos
- A training curriculum for staff at Vera House and ARISE that provides the foundation for understanding domestic and sexual violence and disability and Deaf Culture
We are delighted knowing that our experiences may be used by other programs across the country, as some of the materials are available to other programs. As much as we have done and offered to Project EMERGE, being a part of this group has done so much more for us. One of us has become more of a rebel- she feels stronger and more likely to rock the boat. For all of us this group encourages us to be more real and have the courage to express our feelings- ask for respect, ask for space because they we deserve it. We experienced bad things, thinking it was our fault, but when you hear the experiences of others, you realize that you are not alone. That it is not personal, that we have had the same experience. We feel empowered. Being part of this Advisory Group has been a healing process for us, an opportunity to grow as individuals and to make a difference in our community.
Dan's story . . .
I am here today to talk about the sexual abuse of little boys, through my own story. I grew up in a modest, blue collar home, in inner-city Pittsburgh. It was a very tough neighborhood; tough kids, lots of fighting. A very “macho” environment. Football was an integral part of the social fabric of that community. I played four years of college football – I was a middle linebacker – the tough guy. This was all a mask to protect myself. To the outside world, I was a “normal” guy, but, I held a terrible secret. I was abused for two years from the age of 11 to 13. The very first incident of sexual abuse was everything to me. This meant that I was a BAD person. Somehow, I had determined that I “gave in”, that I was to blame. This devastated my self esteem for years. The perpetrator was a serial pedophile; he probably abused over a hundred boys in his lifetime. He was a football coach for a 13 & 14 year old elite travel team in Pittsburgh. He would abuse players, then work his way down through all the younger brothers. He was not a homosexual, not a heterosexual, he was a pedophile. He was very subtle, very smooth. He would have you over to his house to wash & wax the car (always a flashy Cadillac). He provided alcohol, dinner at fancy restaurants – he lavished attention on the victim. He took me on trips to the NFL Hall of Fame, Niagara Falls, even the Orange Bowl in Miami. What poor kid from Pittsburgh would turn down a trip to the Orange Bowl?
To me, it was imperative that no one found out my secret. I withstood repeated abuse to avoid discovery. If I refused a trip to the Orange Bowl, that would bring on a deluge of why? questions. This secret dominated my life for 25 years. The abuse continued unabated – the child could see no way out – all I could do was keep it a secret. But the hurts compound daily for the child. I spent 22 of the 25 years as an advancing alcoholic, along with other self-destructive behaviors. It is very difficult for me to convey to you the overwhelming fear that I had of being discovered. All of this happened and was allowed to happen right under my parents’ noses. They failed in their primary role – protect your children. Many other bystanders had suspicions, but nobody ever spoke up. Nobody stepped in to help that little boy. They were silent bystanders. My efforts today are intended to eliminate today’s silent bystanders.
There are many effects of the abuse that are particular to males. Men are not supposed to be victims; throughout my recovery, that has been the most difficult concept for me --- I am a tough guy, not a victim. Society tells us:
- Men are not victims
- Men don’t get depressed
- Men don’t seek help
- Men don’t need therapy
All of these attitudes are reinforced by the society that we live in. But, attitudes can be changed, and this speech is part of that process. In closing, I would like to tell all the hidden survivors out there: Get help, ask for help, help is out there. If you live in Syracuse, call Vera House; they will help! I am part of a men’s self help group that meets once a week at Vera House, along with two wonderful facilitators. These meetings enable me to remember that I am not alone, that I can ask for help, and that most survivors have had to wrestle with all the same effects of abuse that I have. These meetings are the cornerstone of my recovery.
David's story . . .
Hi. My name is David. I am an adult male survivor of sexual abuse perpetrated by my parents. The sexual abuse began in my early childhood and continued until my adolescent years. By its very nature, sexual abuse also entails physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual abuse. These later forms of abuse from my parents continued into my adulthood. Like all children, I sought a bond with my parents; a bond of love, trust, safety, and nurturing support. Instead of that bond, what I received was bondage. As a child, I was equipped with coping mechanisms to escape the savage and brutal invasion of sexual abuse. I learned to dissociate to survive the evils of the abuse. As I reached adolescence, I turned to alcohol and drugs, and used them to escape the brokenness that lie within me. I soon realized the addictive nature of those substances. By my high school years, I began to fall prey to what is known as the result of the grooming process. For me, grooming resulted in focus upon my appearance, intellect, and physical exercise; manifesting an illusion of perfection to cover my wounded child within.
I graduated from two colleges, earning both an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree in my chosen profession. I also passed the state boards to be licensed in my chosen profession. Because you see, sexual abuse is the best kept secret which is perpetrated. And that secret will be maintained at any price. But the reality of the situation was that during all these years, I was suffering intense panic attacks, severe depression, suicidal ideology, guilt and shame. My relationships with women were always sexually based and hopelessly permeated with desperation on my part, to not be abandoned. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Several years ago, my mental health had deteriorated to the point where I was afraid of everything. I was afraid to get out of bed, afraid to fall asleep, afraid to get up, afraid to get dressed….afraid, quite literally, of everything. Flashbacks began to rule my life. Post traumatic stress disorder kept me on a constant hyper-vigilance. All of this would be void from my existence had it not been for the sexual abuse. Coinciding with my health issues, was a complete lack of steady employment. My jobs were isolated, scattered and short lived: I either took a medical leave, quit, or was discharged. In terms of seeking recovery, I was placed on every medication available. I was hospitalized and underwent electro-convulsive shock therapy. Nothing worked for very long. Finally, my inner child – the spirit from within – cried out in a way I cannot put into words. The harvest was ready to be reaped. The betrayal, hurt and anguish of the sexual abuse was festering and ready to be addressed. And yet, I felt incredibly scared of telling my secret. My flashbacks grew in intensity and frequency. The misplaced shame and the guilt from my parents’ actions literally hung off my body and spirit. How was I to give a voice to what had happened?
Thankfully, I was introduced to Vera House a little over 4 years ago. Through the course of individual counseling, I started to peel away the layers of the sickening secret I had been carrying. For the first time in my life, I received help to begin to trust in and believe in myself. It has not been an overnight process. But each step – however difficult – reinforced that I am indeed a survivor and that I can rely on my instincts to thrive. Along with continued individual therapy, joining the Men’s Group at Vera House has become an important part of my recovery. At first, I was afraid of joining the Men’s Group. I had learned to distrust and dislike men. And yet, as I trusted more in myself, I found in this Men’s Group other men who had walked on a similar path of abuse and survivorship. In sharing our stories with each other, I realized that I was not alone. I began to feel unity, empowerment, and trust from some of the bravest men I have ever met.
Over the past year, I have maintained steady employment with no gaps in my work performance. I have reconnected to God in a new Christian Spirit. I have begun to trust my instincts in situations that even a year ago would have overwhelmed me. Of course there are still challenges. It is a work in progress. But the tide has turned, and my new life is just beginning. There is another side to the horrors of sexual abuse: the side of survivorship and thriving. It is my sincerest hope that every male and female here today, who has been or knows someone who has been sexually abused, can take one thing from what I or the other survivors have said: that there is help, there is healing and there is hope.
Jaime's story . . .
I remember the summer before the abuse began - running through the fields of golden rod and phlox behind our house. I used to run through the fields and put the flowers in my hair - my Mom used to say that I was so beautiful, even though she was allergic to them. She did not care about her allergies because she adored the way I looked with the flowers in my hair. This was the innocence of my childhood. I was almost nine when the abuse started. I didn’t view things the same nor did I run through the fields anymore, or feel beautiful like I did before the abuse.
I saw a psychologist when I was 14 and I disclosed to her about the abuse and she told me that I was doing the right thing by telling someone about what I had endured. I kept that in mind after it was leaked out into the community and the school district. I kept that close to my heart when I was called a liar, when my head was smashed into lockers, when my hair was pulled out of my head and when I was spat at. By the time I was 15, I threatened to commit suicide. When this failed to get the help that I needed so desperately, I finally did try to commit suicide during school hours. I was almost 16. My abuser only served three months for the 4-1/2 years of abuse that he inflicted on me. He now, no longer, has to register as a sex offender.
I feel that justice did not prevail when I was younger. Being that I was a minor the court records were sealed. I was not allowed to be present during the trial and I am angry that I am unable to read the court records to find out what was said in the court room in my defense. I have no one that wants to speak to me about the abuse or what happened to me when I was younger. I hear that I should just leave it in the past and not open a new can of worms - but now I am beyond that! I want to know the truth. I want to put this behind me and move forward through helping others that have suffered like I have.
I want to find ways to change laws because sexual abuse is a premeditated act. Sexual predators seek out their victims in advance to build a comfortable and trusting relationship. I believe that the laws regarding sexual crimes should be stiffer. The whole reason I needed to find a place like Vera House is because I needed to speak. I needed to break the silence and bring this matter to the forefront. I intend to help society understand this very serious crime happens all too often.
I was a victim for many years of my life but today I proclaim, I am NO LONGER a victim, I am a SURVIVOR!
Jennifer's story . . .
My name is Jennifer. When I was asked to speak here today, I wasn’t sure that I could muster up the courage to do it, but here I stand before you, ready to break the silence. Every 2-1/2 minutes, someone in America is sexually assaulted. Think of how many lives that affects? Not just the victims, but their families and friends as well. Patricia Weaver Francisco states, “If the occurrence of rape were audible, its decibel level equal to its frequency, it would overpower our days and nights, interrupt our meals, our bedtime stories, howl behind our love-making, an insistent jackhammer of distress. We would demand an end to it. And, if we failed to locate its source, we would condemn the whole structure. We would refuse to live under such conditions.”
I never thought that this would happen to me. I never thought I would be standing up speaking out against Sexual Violence. But here I stand before you today, telling my story. It was the first month of my freshman year of college. I was 18 years old, and he was 21. He was interested in me, and he was cute. What wasn’t to like? He was my boyfriend and I trusted him. We had been dating about a month when suddenly things turned sour. I never thought my life could come crashing down around me in just one night. But it did. He had been drinking heavily and he wanted to have sex, but I said “no”. I was a virgin at the time. I just wasn’t ready yet. He wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. He used force and violence to get what I wouldn’t willingly give. He held a knife to my throat and raped me repeatedly throughout the night. (He even went as far as putting the knife inside me, and throwing me into a wall.) You don’t do that to someone you love. You don’t do that to anyone! In my head, I clung to thoughts of the people in my life who I loved and anything I could think of to keep me sane. I thought he was going to kill me. There were times when I wanted him to kill me. Questions flowed through my head: “What did I do to deserve this?”, “Why me?”, “How can I get away?”, “What is he going to do next?” The next morning he drove me back to school as if nothing had happened.
I was in shock. I didn’t know what to do. I vowed never to tell anyone about what had happened. I hid the pain and the bruises hoping no one would ask, but part of me wishing that someone would notice something was desperately wrong. I buried my feelings and the pain for a year. The first anniversary of the rape came and went with sudden feelings of depression. The memories came flooding back. I felt like the rug had been pulled out from underneath me. My world as I knew it shattered like a piece of glass. A month later I finally confided in a friend and cried for three hours. My secret was out. Now what? Help. I needed help in dealing with all the emotions. I put on the mask, pretending to be the “normal” Jen. I would be exhausted by the time night came and I was able to take the mask off. Eventually it became too much to handle. I needed outside help. I told two teachers who I felt could help me cope. I started therapy at school in January. I tried desperately to heal, but things just continued to get worse. I didn’t know how to control my feelings. I was upset, angry, hurt, anxious and sad. I had nightmares, couldn’t focus on my classes, and the things I enjoyed most were a now a burden. There was no end to the pain. I eventually told my mother about what had happened. It felt good to not be hiding it anymore. I wanted nothing but to be normal and happy again.
Summer came and I was so afraid to be away from my newfound support system that I had gained through the struggle of the year. That’s when I found Vera House. I began counseling and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. The flashbacks lessened, the nightmares decreased, and now I am becoming a happier person again. I feel more like “me” than I have in a long time. I returned to school refreshed and ready to continue my battle. It’s like a nightmare that you can’t wake up from. I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and I am easily triggered by sights, smells and sounds. I want nothing but to get rid of the horrible images that float through my head daily. I can still feel the pain that he inflicted on me at times, which becomes a terrifying reminder of everything I went through. The physical wounds were just the beginning of my struggle. He left me with emotional scars that I am not sure will ever go away. I try to heal the inner wounds, but new ones are always opened in the process. Questions that can never be answered hang over my head. I still writhe with guilt that this was somehow my fault. I still question things that I did in order to be put in that situation.
I am so grateful for all of the people who have helped me in my healing along the way. I wish there was a way to repay them for all they have done for me. I can’t change what happened to me, but I can help to educate others. Speaking to other survivors is empowering. Think of what we could do if we all spoke out. That is why I am here today. Today is the one year anniversary of the day that I broke my silence. I have become a volunteer of the Sexual Assault and Victimization Prevention Task Force on my campus to help educate the other students about sexual violence. I want to make a difference in the world. My healing is far from over. I hold both strength and fear inside me and teeter between the two. The only thing I can hope for now is to continue on the path of healing. As Alice Sebold said, “I live in a world where the two truths coexist; where both hell and hope lie in the palm of my hand.” My name is Jennifer, and I am a survivor of rape. Thank you.
Aminata's story . . .
My name is Aminata and my country of origin is Liberia. An African woman is raised to honor and obey your husband at all times. Women do not have a voice or any choices. Since our country is so poor, marriages are arranged for the benefit of the whole family. Parents usually choose a husband for you but on occasion a woman who encounters an eligible man can present him to her family for marriage approval, as it was in my case. My family approved of my husband because he lived in America and because of that it was assumed that he had financial stability. A husband who lived in America or is an American citizen is an automatic opportunity for a better life for the whole family. My husband and I married in Africa in the traditional way in 1988. He brought me to Canada in 1990. From Canada we immigrated to America in 1994. Since our marriage began, my husband has been physically, emotionally, verbally, and sexually abusive. He financially exploited me as well. I worked extremely hard for our business but he kept all the money and left me with all the bills and bad credit. In 2003 I found out that he ruined my credit when I attempted to get my own cell phone. The customer service representative informed me that I had bad credit and I was denied service unless I got a co-signer. I sent for my credit report and was shocked to find that my husband had not paid any bills for the business, utilities or hospital bills. To my surprise he’d put these bills in my name, without my knowledge, leaving me responsible for this financial burden I now carry.
For an African woman or any woman in America who comes from a foreign land, life in America is not an easy transition. The culture and traditions are not the same but you are expected to continue the traditions from your land. For example, in my country if a woman is married and is in a domestic violence situation, she is not allowed to divorce even though she is being abused. The custom is to work it out no matter what with the families help and direction. If a woman still refuses to stay in the marriage, this could cause grounds for her your father to leave her mother which is a punishment of great shame to the family. Most women, especially I, wouldn’t want to put my mother through that suffering so I stayed in my abusive marriage for 18 years. In those eighteen years of marriage, my husband forced me to have sexual relations because he thought it was his right. In America this behavior is defined as rape or sexual assault but in Africa it is not defined. To even speak of it is considered madness. Now I know that my body is my own and I have a right to say “yes” or “no” to sex.
Eighteen years of pain and tears but no longer. I have taken control of my life back. I have a beautiful daughter that I want to set a good example for and let her know that she and I deserve the happiness of the American Dream. With the help of Vera House, I got an order of protection against my husband and custody of my daughter. My uphill battle is not over though. My husband warned that if I did not stay with him and do as he said, he would have me deported. For years he had threatened and controlled me with this. I finally had enough and said no to him and left him. As a result, a few weeks ago my husband withdrew his petition for my permanent residency in an effort to punish me. So although this circumstance is a difficult one, I will fight to the end to stay in America and raise my daughter here with every opportunity she can have. Through all of this, I have not given up and never will. I don’t care how many millions of dollars he has or whether he controls the whole world, I will never go back to him, ever. I want to tell women, all women, that if they are in an abusive relationship, there is help and hope. Find the courage to leave and take control of your life back. I did and you can too.
Janice's story . . . FREEDOM
I was her only child, her first-born, born to her on her l6th birthday.
I didn't know her anger. I didn't know her pain
I thought I was a beautiful birthday present. Boy was I vain!
I tried my best to be her good little girl.
I studied hard and earned good grades.
I dotted my I's and crossed my t's.
I remembered my manners, to say thank you and please.
"If you can get a B, you can get an A", she would say!
In my mind I'd think
Is it Johnnie Walker Red talking, or is it my mother today?
I cleaned her house spotless, but it was never good enough.
When her other babies came along, I cared for them too.
The best that a teenage girl could do.
Then Daddy left, and the Divorce papers came.
According to Mommy, Daddy had put our family to shame.
"And you", she said, "are the biggest mistake I have ever made in my life.
It's all your fault that I married your sorry Daddy and became his wife."
And from that day on she BEAT me.
She BEAT me because I looked just like Daddy.
She BEAT me because I made Daddy leave.
She BEAT me because I was not Daddy.
She BEAT me until she drew blood, and I became numb to the beatings.
She BEAT me into fear. I was so afraid. Afraid to tell anyone. How she beat me.
I met a boy. He and I were both sixteen.
He told me that his Daddy was awfully mean!
He seemed nice. He gained my trust.
I told him about Momma and how she fussed.
By graduation, he had a plan.
He said, "Marry me and I'll set you free!"
Freedom. How peaceful that would be.
A year into the marriage, I was 19 and full of life
He was a hard worker and I was a stay at home Mom
Because that's the way he said it should be.
My husband, my beautiful baby boy, and me.
I thought everything was just fine,
Me, being the perfect Mom and the perfect wife.
Until this stranger came home one Friday night.
I had dinner on the stove, and I was dressed to go out.
He said, "Where do you think you're going?"
I said, "Out with some friends". He said, "No you're not."
I said, "Yes I am". He said, "No you're not."
And slapped my face so hard with the back of his hand.
I became numb from the pain.
I thought, "This isn't Freedom.
This is Momma, all over again!"
My name is Janice, and I am a survivor of child abuse and domestic violence. I don't think I will ever escape the emotional scars that I earned from childhood and 11 years of a physically abusive marriage, but I do thank God that I had the strength to seek help and take control of my life. I'm a believer that everything happens for a reason, and the experiences that I just shared with you in poem, led me on a journey to a place where I, for the first time in my life, really felt free. That place was at Vera House. While a resident at Vera House, I was inspired to return to school and pursue a career in Social Work. I took classes at Onondaga Community College and graduated in 2004. I have worked at Vera House as a Volunteer, a Resident Supervisor, a Co-Facilitator for Alternatives to Domestic Violence for Men, and am presently a Case Manager at the Main Shelter. I am presently working on my Bachelor's Degree in Social Work at Syracuse University.
In closing, I just want to say that "We have to talk about Domestic Violence". It can be a silent killer, if we don't talk about it. I was fortunate to walk away with emotional scars. Many others did not survive. If you or someone you know is a victim, tell somebody, set yourself free. If you know someone that you even suspect is being abused, reach out. Ask them if there is something that you can do to help. If you are the person that is being abusive to your partner, seek help. If you just pick up the phone and call a hotline like we have at Vera House, and anonymously talk to someone, it's a start. But do something to keep yourself safe, and everyone involved safe. As a community it is our job to work together to end domestic violence. That is my mission!
Melissa's story . . .
When I was asked to speak today at Vera House's Report to the Community I was a bit hesitant at first. While I have shared my experience before with selected individuals I had only once before shared it publicly and in that instance the media was not involved. Among other things I was concerned with how others would perceive me and my experience. I was worried that I would receive different treatment from individuals who had not previously known that I was a survivor. It then occurred to me that my exact fears were part of the reason why rape and sexual assault still occurs. That the societies in which we live in have made it taboo to discuss this vicious crime in which the body is violated and the spirit is maimed. The stigma that is attached to rape, sexual assault and domestic violence makes it difficult if not impossible for some individuals to seek help. Rape, sexual assault and domestic violence all thrive on secrecy and silence but they are not merely a personal issue, they are a societal battle.
My story is no better or worse then anyone else's. Four years ago I was raped by my ex-boy friend in my own room. I had been at a party earlier in the evening at my best friends place and all of my friends were there. I remember having two drinks but feeling like I had more. It was later determined that something probably was put in my drink though it couldn't be proven. At the end of the evening my ex-boy friend offered bring me home since I was feeling ill, was disoriented and unable to stand up and walk very well. My friends didn't think anything of it since they all knew him pretty well. What happened next no one could have predicted. The man who I trusted with my life, who I had spent the last year and a half with and who knew me inside and out climbed into bed with me, held me down and raped me. I tried to push him off me, kick him, do anything I could to stop him but I couldn't move any part of my body. To this day I do not understand nor will I probably ever understand why he did what he did. All I know is that on that night, in that moment, he forever changed who I am and how I will view the world.
Since this was someone I knew and trusted I wasn't able to verbalize what happened to me. While I knew I didn't want to have sexual relations with him that evening, while I knew we did anyway, I didn't know it was rape. I didn't want to tell anyone what happened that night, I was afraid that it was my fault. He was someone I knew and trusted, someone who I had had prior sexual relations with. I had been drinking that evening and was worried that I someone did something to cause this. I never sought counseling and I never reported it. I went for a medical exam merely to make sure I was physically ok but emotionally I was failing apart. I doubted everything I did and said for a long time after that. I was afraid to be intimate with anyone for a while and then I didn't care any more because it didn't matter any more to me. I didn't matter any more to me. It took a long time for me to get to where I am today. I now know that there was nothing I said or did that caused him to rape me. No matter what I drank, how well I knew him, what our prior history was he was the one who made the decision, not me. It is a never ending battle though, it never gets easier but you get stronger every day.
"Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries,
Leaving behind the nights of terror and fear
In daybreak that's wondrously clear
(Still I Rise by Maya Angelou)
I am currently finishing up my Masters in Social Work and plan on working as a therapist in the field of rape and sexual assault when I am done in May. I am currently interning at Vera House New Directions Rape and Sexual Assault Services and am very active in prevention and education work as well as counseling work. I am involved annually with the production and planning of the Vagina Monologues, which sheds light on the issues of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence both nationally and internationally as well as the planning of Take Back the Night, a march, rally and speak out that allows individuals to come together to take a stand and make their voices heard. Thank you for being here and listening to my story and the other women here. I would like to commend them both on their courage and strength. You are truly making a difference. I would like to leave you all with this one thought. Nancy Venable Raine said, some day we will all march to the capitol carrying flowers, and we will leave them on the steps. We will celebrate anniversaries. We will give names. The month, the day, the year, the hour. We will stop being alone. We will stop being silent.