I remember the way the room looked. Like I could reach out and touch the velour couch and run fingertips through mottled carpet shag.
And if I close my eyes, I can still smell the fried chicken cooking in a cast iron skillet.
Everyone still in Sunday church clothes. Men on the porch and women in the kitchen. Granny Mary sang an old gospel hymn in the next room, but holy was not around. And even as a small child, I could sense it. I don’t know how vile and evil slipped into the room. But it did. And it smelled like Old Spice.
His name was Pap, a family friend, and he asked me to sit on his lap. I was eight years old. In blue terrycloth shorts and a faded, peeling Dukes of Hazzard T-shirt.
Pap talked about how ugly I was, with my short hair and buck teeth and Spiderman shoes. He said everyone thought I was a tomboy because I never played with dolls and could spit through my front teeth. He said he wanted – needed – to know if I was a boy or a girl.
And he used his hands to find out. Under shorts and shirt. And I let him because his devil arms and wicked words were just too strong.
The room was white-hot-spinning and I was undone. He told me if I ever told, he’d do the same thing to my sister too. And so my tongue was paralyzed. For years.
The day was the death of innocence and the birth of Shame.
One can spend a whole wild life trying to outrun glossy lies and half-truths and shame monsters. Because some words are just too hard. Perhaps those are the words truly were speaking. So speak, I will. With a vulnerable heart. No matter how hard. Because the silence has grown too loud.
Thirty-two years later, my friend and I wrote Pap’s name down on a piece of paper. With shaking hands and a thumping heart – we wrote his name hard and bold. Black ink like his black sin on a scrap of paper white.
It was an unleashing of a dark, silent secret. And it felt better than dirt-stomping on his grave. Because shame spoken is shame broken. For the first time in my life, I named a part of my shame, which had deep rooted and festered from the abuse. From the secret.
Shame. It’s that unnamed beast meant to destroy and manipulate. My friend Kathy said it best, “How twisted the concept of shame has become. The victim ends up feeling shame instead of the criminal feeling ashamed.” Isn’t it true?
We think are horrid stories are individual peculiarities, not systemic crimes. The truth is much more disturbing: 82% of sexual assaults are committed by the victim’s friends, family members, or acquaintances. One out of every four girls and one out of six boys is sexually abused—yet less than half of report it?
Less than half will report it.
It’s Old Spice and terrycloth and evil hands all over again and I cannot stand the thought of it. Because the abuse is hard enough, but it’s the silence that gives it roots. Like watering a weed of wicked wile throughout our flesh and bones and soul.
I cannot, will not, should not—by God’s grace and power, be silent anymore.
The truth will entangle you. But the truth will set you free.
And the truth is this: shame and abuse and silence have no place in our community and we have the power to change the statistics. I know; I am one.
So dear child, I know you are out there. With your own sort of Spiderman shoes and buck teeth and short hair and your gut-burning secret. I see you. And you are me and I am you and we are the same…..and you are going to make it. Name your shame, sweet one. Give your silence a voice and be healed.
Dear abuser, I see you, too. And there’s a cup of salvation and a plate of Grace waiting for you. Eat and drink and be helped.
There is freedom for us all, I promise. We can bury the silence and the secret and the sin and resurrect help and hope and healing.
Dear community, we can stop the abuse – but only if we start the dialogue.
Turns out, there is a force stronger than devil arms and wicked words.
It’s called Speak.