In a perfect world, girls and women subjected to sexual abuse would speak out immediately. Appropriate charges would be brought, and families would support prosecution. This is not a perfect world. Here is my story:
I was 10 when I finally found somebody willing to take me fishing – my maternal grandmother’s first cousin, Sam. Grandma was orphaned in infancy, and Sam’s parents raised her alongside their own son. Grandma adored her big brother.
When Sam offered to take me fishing, I was ecstatic. We fished for bluegill in farm ponds or caught carp with sticky dough balls made from Wheaties. Whenever we met any of his buddies, Sam would put a hand on my shoulder and say, “This is my partner.”
I beamed with pride.
The fishing trips became more frequent, and Sam became more affectionate. “Give your partner a kiss,” he’d say when I got in his car. “Give your partner a kiss,” he’d say at the end of the day when we pulled up to his farmhouse where Mom would come to pick me up.
One day, we got back a little early. “I’ll show you a secret place,” Sam said. He led me by the hand to an old barn where he swung me up onto the edge of a tall manger and kissed me long and hard. Somehow, his tongue was in my mouth. I froze.
Sam gave me a long hug. “Don’t tell anybody,” he whispered in my ear. Don’t tell Grandma. It’s our secret.”
Our secret became routine. The deep, wet tongue kisses were accompanied by a hand on my breast. I didn’t resist. As Sam kissed and fondled me, moaning his pleasure, I retreated inside myself and curled into a ball in a corner of my mind deep enough to deaden whatever happened. Only when he tried to feel inside my shorts did I pull away.
“Can’t have that?” Sam said, removing his hand and squeezing my breast. “But I can have that, can’t I?”
And always, “Don’t tell anybody. Don’t tell Grandma.”
Fishing wasn’t fun anymore. I made excuses.
My mother was annoyed with me. “Why don’t you want to go? Sam has been so good to you.”
I told her some of it. “Don’t tell Grandma,” she said. I’m not sure she believed me, but she quit nagging me to go fishing with Sam, and the outings stopped.
Sam didn’t hurt me physically. His hands never left a mark. In the context of the kinds of inflicted injuries I’ve seen, it feels like whining to say I was abused, but there’s no other word for what Sam did.
There are residua, of course. I greet people with an extended hand in a conscious effort to ward off further physical contact. I know the more intimate greetings of hugs and air kisses are entirely innocent, but they feel uncomfortable, and I shy away. It’s a gut reaction I’ve never been able to overcome.
I don’t trust people easily, in my personal life or in my work. Perhaps sometimes when a child dies, I’m too suspicious, too skeptical of stories told by parents or caregivers who deserve to be believed. Perhaps I sometimes back away from suspicion lest personal biases lead me to see abuse when it isn’t there.
When I stand at the autopsy table and look down on the body of a child, I never think of Sam. But the deep mental sanctuary to which I retreat is very like the place I went to long ago – a place where it’s safe and I don’t feel.
As a child, it didn’t occur to me Sam might have had other victims. I doubt it occurred to my mother. But in adulthood, I’ve wondered many times: Did Sam designate that old barn a “secret place” just for me? Or was it the place where he did things in secret to other children? In hindsight, it’s dismayingly likely I wasn’t the only one.
Sam was a pillar of the church and a respected member of the community. I’m sure plenty of people who knew him at the time would have said, and firmly believed, that he would never have done such a thing. But he did.
Sexual abuse is everywhere – in otherwise good, moral families, in churches and in close-knit communities. Some victims, both young girls and women, are too ashamed to tell anyone. Some see their abusers as people too powerful to be challenged. Others keep quiet because they fear they won’t be believed or rightly conclude that nothing will be done.
All too often, even good families like mine ignore sexual abuse and fail to protect other potential victims because they can’t deal with the terrible ramifications of accusing a member of the family, a friend, a neighbor or any member of their community. Nobody wants to tell Grandma.
Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003-12. She now lives in Florida and Maryland. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.