With the “#MeToo” movement going viral in the midst of the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein last Fall, there are not many of us who can say we don’t know someone who has been sexually abused. However, the people I know who have been sexually abused have been struggling to cope with what they endured for years. One of them is my very own cousin Tiffany.
I only learned of the childhood sexual abuse she experienced at the hand of a family member less than a year ago in bits and pieces. I was heartbroken to learn that during a time when I thought we were all happy little girls playing with dolls, she was being terrorized in the very place she was supposed to feel safe, her home. However, when she told me she wanted to start an initiative of her own, Speak Survive Thrive, in an effort to keep other children from being victimized, we both agreed that it was time for an intimate discussion. For us, this is no trend or social media hashtag. This is real life. This is us breaking the chains and the curses. For the first time, my cousin told me her whole story and I’m honored to be able to be apart of her journey towards healing and helping others do the same. Maybe there’s a part of Tiffany’s story that can help you too. Dive in to our discussion below.
Keyauna: What was your experience with child sexual abuse?
Tiffany: I was abused by my mother’s husband from nine years old until really, I want to say until my mid-20s. He would touch me inappropriately. He would come in my room at night. Almost every other night he was coming into my room. And he was looking through the bathroom windows. He was looking through peepholes. He was looking under the door. I mean, any way that he could violate me, he violated me. I told, but nothing was done. The first time I told, my mother was fairly young. She was probably maybe 30, 31, but she had just had two little children, and so she wasn’t working and basically her response was kind of, “My hands are tied because I have these two little kids. There’s really not too much that I can do right now.”
As it kept going on, I kept telling. I told pastors, I told my grandmother. I mean, I told so many people, and nobody did anything. I even went to my mother several other times, and basically she would make him leave for a day or two, and then he would come back and he would apologize. He would always own what he had done, but then it would happen again. So it never stopped. It just was an ongoing cycle of abuse. I told people bits and pieces of my story but I could never tell everything to anyone because I couldn’t even admit it all to myself.
70 PERCENT OF SEXUAL ASSAULTS REPORTED OCCUR TO CHILDREN 17 AND UNDER
Keyauna: What did that do to your childhood as a nine-year-old to when you actually were able to become independent enough to be out on your own? What did that do to you to experience sexual abuse as a child who was supposed to be protected by those adults who claimed to love her?
Tiffany: I definitely had trust issues and I was very fearful. I didn’t sleep well at night, so my grades faltered. I didn’t go to school because I wasn’t sleeping well at night, so I would wake up in the morning and I would be exhausted because I essentially was keeping watch every night. In my mind, if I was up he wouldn’t try anything. So I really didn’t have a childhood, because I was always afraid, always afraid of the next time, which I knew was going to be that night or soon after.
And then on top of that, he was the type of person who, he was on a power trip so if I locked my door, he would go off about me locking my door. “Don’t lock no doors in my house.” And my mother was like, “You got to respect him. That’s your new father.” Even to the point where when I was 12 and my real father had passed, he didn’t want me to go to the funeral. And my mother literally was contemplating not letting me go, because he didn’t want to let me go because he was power tripping.
So at that point I just felt like nobody cared and nobody was ever going to do anything, and this was just my life, and I had to cope. It was either kill myself or cope. And so I really stopped telling people, because when you tell a pastor and basically they’re like, “Oh, we’re going to pray it away,” at some point it changed my faith in God, because I just was like, “If this is God and God allows this type of thing, I don’t want to be a part of it.”
90 PERCENT OF CHILDREN WHO ARE SEXUALLY ABUSED KNOW THEIR ABUSER
Keyauna: How did you keep going?
In my mind, all I kept thinking was, “If I can just survive,” after I had attempted to harm myself, and I just was like, “This is not me. This is not who I am.” And so all I could think was, “I just need to survive and have a plan for myself.” And so I started working and I started saving my money, and my goal was at 18 to get out, and at 18 I got out. That was my goal. I knew that nobody else was going to do anything to help me. I knew that it was what I had to do for myself. I understood that my mother just was not going to do anything and it wasn’t going to stop, because she wasn’t going to do anything. And so I just, I looked at all the people around me like, “Nobody love me.” And I just felt like I had to do it for myself. I got pregnant at 19 and had to move back in and that was HELL!
Keyauna: Did you struggle with self-worth and self-identity issues relating to your abuse?
Tiffany: Of course, of course. I’d never turned to drugs, but I did so many silly things as a child because my self-esteem was low. I remember being 16, 17, and my boyfriend and I basically were like actively not using protection. And I was trying to get pregnant for years, because I felt like if I got pregnant, then it would stop. And it just kept spiraling. That was my way, was to keep turning to, at that point it was men. And I felt like if I found somebody and I was in a relationship, then it would stop but it never did.
And I just went from relationship to relationship to relationship, because I kind of felt like even though I was strong on the outside, so to speak, but I was very fragile and weak on the inside. I really was dead on the inside. I had no emotion, no feelings, and I compartmentalized everything. I was not capable of loving anything or anybody.
30 PERCENT OF CHILDREN WHO ARE SEXUALLY ABUSED ARE ABUSED BY A FAMILY MEMBER
Keyauna: You’re now 38 years old and successful in getting away from the environment of abuse. What would you tell now the little girl who’s trying to figure out how to cope because no one around her is listening and no one is doing anything and she’s in the midst of a situation and she does not know when it will end? What advice would you give the little nine-year-old Tiffany who is out there today trying to deal?
Tiffany: I think I would tell the nine-year-old Tiffany to go to school and talk to a counselor and tell the counselor exactly what’s going on. I feel like I told the wrong people because my mother essentially threatened me and told me, because I did go to school and talked to a counselor, Mr. Haslinger, but I wouldn’t say what was really going on. I would not say what it was, because my mother had told me if I told that they would take me from her and I was never going to see her again. So she basically bullied me into not telling, because at that point my mother and I, I felt I was very protective of my mother. I essentially was her mother. And so I felt like I didn’t want to be taken from my mother nor my family, my siblings at the time, because I loved them and that was all that I knew. Even in spite of the abuse, that was all that I knew. And so that stopped me from telling, because I felt like I needed to protect her. And so I sacrificed myself, where I knew probably if I had said something to a teacher or to somebody at school or to a police officer, that it would stop. But I didn’t.
So I think that would be my advice to a young Tiffany now. Tell somebody that you know can help you. Even if you’re telling family members and they do nothing, tell somebody that you know will help if you really want it to stop and you really want to get out, because if not, it’s going to continue. And the only way that I coped was, wasn’t healthy, and that was to compartmentalize and just detach myself from my feelings and emotions.
Keyauna: So what are you doing today, almost 30 years since the abuse began, to make your abuser accountable, and also to stop that person and maybe others from doing the same thing to other little girls?
Tiffany: Almost a year ago, I started writing my story down. I also was going to therapy, but I wanted to tell my story in its totality because I’d never done so. I’ve always told bits and pieces to people, because I knew the story was so heart-wrenching that had I told the entire story, I probably … I myself wasn’t ready to hear the story told, because I wasn’t willing to admit all of the things that were done to me.
So I told my story, and I took a leap and I posted it on social media. So a lot of people saw it, because I understood that I wasn’t only the little girl that went through that. And so I told my story initially to free myself, and also to try and help others. And throughout that process of still going to therapy and still trying to work through my feelings and emotions, I started this Survivors Wall on Facebook that I wanted people to be able to just write their stories down, ’cause there’s so many people who haven’t told their stories for fear of retaliation or just because they can’t deal with the feelings and emotions that come with unlocking that box.
I wanted people to be able to just tell their story and leave it. You didn’t have to comment on it. Nobody had to do anything. If you wanted to offer support, you could offer support. But it was just a place of healing, a place for people to come and love one another and for people to come and say, “You know what? This happened to me, too, and we’re going to get through.”
I started Survivors Wall, and then about maybe four months later, through going to therapy, my therapist kept asking me if I wanted to report him. Well, she said by law, because it was a childhood offense of abuse and she had to report it, but she was like, “I won’t report it until you’re ready, because once I report it, it’s going to open some other doors.” I said, “Okay, well, I’m not ready, because I’m not quite sure that I want to go down that road of reporting him and her,” because again, I still was protecting my mother. And so I just was like I’m not sure I really want to out them all the way. I told my story on social media, and that’s fine, but I’m not sure, quite sure I really want to out them and go through the process of dealing with the police.
Eventually I got strong enough and I realized that if I’m going to try and help others through my story and through my healing process that I need to follow through all the way to completion. And so in that moment, I got the strength and I went and reported my crime to the police. And it started an investigation, and I gave them all the evidence that I had. About 60 days later, he was arrested and charged. So now we get ready to start the process of going to court. SOMEBODY FINALLY LISTENED!
Keyauna: Tell me about what you are doing to help other victims of childhood sexual abuse.
I started an initiative called Speak, Survive and Thrive. That initiative is a little more in depth in terms of the support that it offers people. I’m blogging and writing things about my process for the ordinary woman who was abused. With the whole “Me Too” movement, so many people are coming forward, but they’re celebrities and people who have the means to get help. They’re not like ordinary everyday people who has to deal with their family ostracizing them and shutting them out and they’re going to be left alone and have no one to turn to. I’ll never forget, when I shared my story many of my immediate family members called him, and not a one called me. The only people that offered their support were my family members down south. In fact one of my family members told me I should have fought him off at 9 years old!
I wanted to be able to detail my story from that perspective of me too, but I also wanted to offer some resources for women who may be in crises, because not everybody is at the place where I am in my healing. Some people are just starting their healing, so I wanted to offer some resources. I wanted to have a place where women can go and have that wall still incorporated in Speak, Survive and Thrive, where they can go and talk to one another, tell their stories and support one another. But I wanted to have a couple different aspects so that women can come together and empower and support each other. They can also get updates about laws that are changing pertaining to childhood sexual abuse. So Speak, Survive and Thrive kind of grew from Survivors Wall into what it is now.
Keyauna: Little girls feel abandoned and everybody is not as strong as you to make up a plan and say, “I’m going to get independent and I’m going to do things and by the time I turn 18 I’m going to be out of here.” Some little girls at nine and ten years old don’t have that strength and take their life or do things to hurt themselves like take drugs because they don’t have anyone to turn to. Speak to the person out there who knows that a little girl is being hurt or a little boy is being hurt and they don’t want to “ruffle family feathers” or “mind someone else’s business”. What would you tell that family member to help them focus on what’s more important; not reputation, not status quo, but saving the life of a child?
Tiffany: If I could speak directly to a family member, I would say put yourself in that baby’s shoes and think about the damage that’s being done to that baby in the long term. This baby is going to have to deal with this pain and these scars for a very long time. And so you could be the difference between this baby hurting for a moment, or this baby hurting for a lifetime. That would be what I would say to a family member who was thinking, “Oh well, this person’s never done anything to me. This person’s always been very nice to me. This is person is an upstanding citizen.” A person can pretend to be whomever they want to be in public, but when the doors close and all the lights go off, that person could turn into a very different person. So if that child is coming to you and has come to you a couple times and you know that child to be an honest child and a child who’s not trying to get attention don’t ignore them. Nobody’s saying that you have to be on front street. You can do it anonymously. Try and get that child some help, because if it is going on and that child is suffering, you could be the difference between that child killing themselves or that child still living. Most IMPORTANTLY SUPPORT YOUR FAMILY MEMBER, IT COULD BE YOUR CHILD! Your support could be the difference between life and death for a childhood sexual abuse victim.
Keyauna: As it relates to what you want to do in the future to help children, if nothing else but to be open about their story and to get the healing that they need, what as an advocate are you willing to do through Speak, Survive, Thrive, out in public? Are you willing to speak up about these issues in public? What things should people look out for to be a part of and support the initiative?
Tiffany: Definitely I am willing to do some speaking engagements. I’ve thought about organizing a walk for the movement, to raise funds for those children who have been able to come out and maybe who don’t have family and now they’re in the system. I’ve thought about constructing a pamphlet for children to help them learn how to report, because some kids don’t know what to do. They tell an adult and they’re still like, “Oh, okay. Well, I did what I was supposed to do. I told the adult. The adult didn’t do anything, and so nobody cares.” But there’s another avenue that we can go besides telling an adult when that adult does nothing. So I wanted to construct a pamphlet, get that pamphlet into the school system, maybe in the counselor’s office or maybe in the libraries, so that the children could know that they’re not by themselves. I’ve also wanted to do a children’s book to tell children about inappropriate touch and appropriate touch and who they should tell, and what they should say, even, because some kids don’t even know what to say, because they don’t know really what’s happening to them and so they don’t know how to describe it.
There are various things that I want to do to try to help children, because I kind of feel like the Me Too movement has focused on adults but it does not focus on children currently.
Keyauna: That’s a good point about the Me Too movement. Also, for those who don’t want to be a part of something that is seeming to be a trend but have been abused…what we found recently is that all the people are coming out and saying me too, but there’s also some people who are making a point to not come out because they don’t want to be grouped into a trending topic. What would you tell the person now, who it is indeed me too for them but they don’t want to say Me Too because they don’t want to be perceived as being trendy with something they’ve been dealing with their wholes lives. They are finally ready to heal, but it happens to be during a time when this movement is going on in a trendy kind of way. What would you tell that person who was thinking about not telling her story because she doesn’t want to be grouped in but she needs to? She’s ready to. How would you encourage the person who’s just struggling with the moment right now?
Tiffany: I would encourage that person to still tell her story. There are very different avenues and ways to tell your story. There are different networks like the RAINN network, I have Speak Survive Thrive, where you don’t have to be grouped with Me Too; where you could just come out, tell your story to victims that are like you, get support, and also be able to gain some avenues toward healing. I don’t feel like you have to come out on social media. I don’t feel like you have to have hashtags attached to your story. I just feel like if you want to separate yourself from that movement …because I’m one of those people. I don’t like to be grouped with a whole lot of people. I’m a trendsetter. And so the last thing I want to do is to come up under an umbrella where a lot of people are coming out and saying one thing and then you’re grouped with those people and then your story is almost disqualified, because people are like, “Oh, you’re just being trendy,” because so many other people are doing it.
There are avenues where you can tell your story and also seek your healing where you don’t have to be grouped with this whole movement. I do understand anybody that feels like I don’t want to be grouped with that but I do want to be able to tell my story. Don’t not tell your story, don’t not seek your healing because you don’t want to be grouped with this hashtag. Continue to seek your truth. Continue to tell your truth. But also, in terms of speaking and telling your truth, seek avenues outside of Me Too, like the organizations that I mentioned, where you can tell somebody.
Also, I would encourage you to start writing journal. That’s one way. The first thing I did was write my story down so that I could read it in totality myself. Once I was able to read my story all the way through … ’cause I couldn’t even read my story all the way through at one point, then I knew that I was able to be able to open myself up to at least share my story with others like myself.
62 PERCENT OF SEXUAL CHILD ABUSE VICTIMS NEVER TELL
Keyauna: Is there anything else that you wanted to share that we didn’t speak about already?
Tiffany: One thing I want to say is we have to understand that not everybody will be able to get justice. I just don’t want anybody to feel like they didn’t do all that they could and they failed themselves because they weren’t able to bring their perpetrator to justice. Not every perpetrator is going to admit what they did and not every family is going to say, “Oh, okay, I acknowledge,” because my mother and my perpetrator do acknowledge. However, they don’t take any responsibility for the damage done, but they do acknowledge that it happened. They have apologized. The apology that I felt from them falls on deaf ears though, because an apology means that I’m willing to stop what I’m doing, stop the behavior. The behavior never stopped. And even still to this day, my mother still continues to protect him instead of protecting me, so I don’t accept her apology. However, I do forgive her. I had to do that for me.
I would encourage anybody that’s seeking their truth to realize that your perpetrator and those who didn’t help may never say sorry. They may never own their stuff, but at the end of the day you need to seek your healing. It doesn’t mean you can’t heal because they don’t acknowledge, and it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen because they didn’t acknowledge. It just means that it’s their stuff and they can’t acknowledge because they feel if they acknowledge they’ll be labeled and exposed as a child predator. So I would encourage you to continue to seek your truth, continue to seek your healing outside of that because for many the cavalry may never come.
Learn more about Tiffany and her initiative at SpeakSurviveThrive.com.