I was 8 years old when I was sexually assaulted.
I remember. I remember, vividly. It was mid-summer. Mid-afternoon. I was sitting in the shade against the lean-to at the back of our small house. My bare feet tucked up and away from the blazing sun that scorched the grass. I can still feel the cool cement against my legs. The air was alive with cicadas buzzing electric in the hot breezeless day. (When I was young, I always thought it was the telephone lines that made that sound). In this refuge from the sun, I looked out into my backyard. It was usually empty except for waves of sheets that clung to the clothesline. But today it was filled with my parents and their friends. This was rare: My parents … with friends. They were laughing together. This never happened. There was no yelling, no fights, no ambulance; no impromptu taxi drives taking us to somewhere else. It was different. I was content. My dad strung the speakers from a tree. Herb Albert’s Tijuana Brass and Johnny Cash blared from the single pine. Two shoeless men held either end of a bamboo pole. They swayed to the music like lazy flags in the wind as my mother did the limbo. Ladies looked on, holding drinks, smoking cigarettes. In between songs, my dad turned the chicken sate, fanned the coals.
That’s when I saw him. He moved slowly toward me. Looking at me. He was a friend of my mom and dad: an older man, wiry, grey haired. His clothes hung loose on his body, and as with all the men in the yard, his long sleeved shirt was unbuttoned because of the heat.
He was closing in.
“I hear you did a good job on your school project.”
I don’t remember my response. I know I felt suddenly uncomfortable. I clenched my body closer into myself.
He looked down at me as he spoke. “Why don’t you show it to me.”
The project was for my grade 3 class. We were studying pioneer families. I decided to build a log cabin. For weeks I searched for branches that were the perfect length, pieces of pine and spruce for the trees to surround it. I cut a swatch of fabric from a dress for the curtains. From clay, I painstakingly created the mother, father, and children. I made the roof separately, so I could lift it off and peer inside at this perfect family. I was proud. I got a good mark. I wanted to keep it. So, my dad put my log cabin and its perfect family in the basement.
“It’s in the basement,” I said. “Put away.”
“Well, take me to see it.”
I didn’t want to. I wanted to stay in my happy shade. I got to my feet. As I led him through the backdoor, I looked over my shoulder at my parents who were oblivious: talking, busy laughing …
We stepped into the “shack” (as we called it); inside, it was painted ox-blood red. An empty and solitary shelf (which my mother, for some reason, called the “psychedelic cupboard”) was painted the same colour from the dregs of the paint can. The trap door, which led to the basement, was at the back corner of the shack. It was closed. To open it from the floor was treacherous. The potential to fall into the gaping hole was alarmingly high. I hit the light switch. As I opened the trapdoor the cool, musty basement air exhaled. I could feel him behind me. Something was wrong. My skin felt it first.
Five steep steps led down into the narrow cement corridor. Anyone 5-feet or taller had to hunch, while walking, before entering the main section of the basement. The ceiling was low; stonewalls damp; and shafts of daylight through the small window, strangled by an outdoor bush, pushed their way through. Wood and tools were in an organized scatter.
I remember showing him the model ship my dad was building.
The furnace room held my log cabin with its perfect family. It was an Edgar Allen Poe-type antechamber. I stepped into the darkness and into another layer of cold. As I turned around, I saw that he was backlit; his body filled the doorway. I remember feeling that there was no way out. I explained that the light was in the middle of the room. A thin chain dangled just out of my reach. I stood on my tiptoes in order to reach the chain, to turn on the light.
He grabbed me from behind.
It was as if an electric shock had charged through my small body. My ears deafened with a white noise. My body screamed.
I remember him saying, “don’t tell anyone or you’ll be in trouble.” And then he left. I don’t know how long I was in that room. I remember worrying that he had closed the trap door. Locked me in.
The white noise rang through my body as I pushed my way through trap door. I returned to my place outside and sat against the lean-to, tucked my legs underneath. In the shade, I couldn’t feel my body. I couldn’t hear anything. I saw my parent’s faces, smiling as if nothing had changed. Except for me, the earth had shifted on its axis. Light was somehow different.
I sometimes imagine myself as an adult sitting down next to that 8-year old girl in the shade. Her sense of light altered. I tell her: “It will be okay. You will be okay.” “I promise.”
When I speak about violence against women, and share my experience, I’m sometimes met with: “but you were a child, it’s different.” The observation is followed by the questions: “Why didn’t you scream?” Why didn’t you tell?” Why didn’t you fight back?” How could you just sit there with him there? Act as if nothing happened? Questions like these are often from people who have not suffered a sexual assault.
And what if? What if I did tell? Even then I somehow knew, it would be my word against his. It’s fear. It’s shame. It’s silencing. Some things are similar.
The truth is, I didn’t want to ruin the day. That’s the truth. I didn’t want to ruin the day. You see, something happens in the chaotic force of violence and violation. Even at 8-years old, I tried to fix the unfixable. I tried to make it okay. I wanted it to be back to normal, as if it never happened. I thought I could do that, by pretending it away. But I couldn’t. That’s the truth too.
(I threw out the log cabin).
So, I walk with that girl and my histories of violence. But as I walk I am not silent. I am not ashamed. Silence and Shame are patriarchal devices within structures that authorize and enable abuse. They keep the perpetrator safe.
We must, however, walk together. Know that you are not alone. Know that the depth of your wounds are singular, intimate, complex, and etched deeply into who you are. We must challenge draconian systems of justice. We must disabuse ourselves of indoctrinated misogyny. Educate. Refuse shame. Refuse silence. Demand and create new forums of transformative justice designed specifically for survivors of sexual assault. Demand judicial processes that are affordable, accessible, equitable with advocates who are willing to take into account the white noise; the currents of trauma; historical, cultural, racial, and social contexts; the fear; the confusion; the levels of abuse; and understand that the survivor’s motives to normalize and protect are real, so too are actions and responses that are outside of the purview of socialized “norms.”
We must walk together and promise each other that in solidarity we will be okay, because you survived.