Don't Call Me a 'Survivor'

I bristle against the word "survivor" when it is used to describe the violence and sexual abuse I endured in my childhood and teen years. "Survivor" is a kind of blanket misnomer for those who suffer all trauma. The word is just another unwanted marking for me--a scarlet stamp on my forehead to rob me of another piece of myself, to touch me in places I don't want to be touched. The word takes the place of the greedy hands that once stole from me, equally destructive.

But what do you call a teenager who deliberately hangs around a figurative fire pit? Who doesn't scratch and claw herself away by any necessary means?

I am the fire-girl. I didn't fight.

"He" was an ordained minister (henceforth referred to as "Turd"), but his flock back then was a collection of girls in a group home where my adoptive mother dumped me. I was 14. I arrived happy to be away from the alcohol abuse and violence that frayed my home front, but felt awkward, ugly and worth little. I had features as sharp as my tongue, was shaped like a 10-year-old boy, and no self-assurance. My friendships were spotty and my academics lackluster. Until then, I preferred my own company and books, and was biding my time considerably until I could gain traction, turn 18 and find my own way.

I was ready for a new adventure, and was happy about the prospect of living with other "castaways." I was enrolled in my new school and soon underwent a notable transformation. I became social, forged friendships in the home, and in the small Christian school and church we attended. I made the honor roll my first semester. I was able to perform in productions, won awards for my writing and artwork, and found a niche where I belonged. I was wildly receptive to the affection and attention from my peers and leaders. I had a place. For the first time. I blossomed.

I was not quite as emotionally developed as my peers, and hadn't the slightest idea how anything in the world worked, which is likely what left me vulnerable to predators.

Turd was the newly-appointed director of the girls' home, and he took a liking to me immediately. I adored him, his wife and children. Wherever they were, I was never far. Turd took me under his wing and kept me close. I was "special" in the most precious sense of the word, but "special" gave way to an unwieldy sprint across jagged lines I didn't draw and didn't understand.

Turd found ways to be with him alone: on trips away or late at night when everyone had gone to bed. I came to crave the attention, the love, like a meth addict. I felt like a child with parents. Special. Chosen.

When his hands explored and took from me in ways I wasn't ready to give, I was desperately disoriented. Shamed. My own mind screwed me. If I stopped him, I'd lose him, I thought. He'd leave me behind. I'd be relegated to the life I had before, when I was nothing.

In the midst of Turd's wanton disregard for his charge, I learned about a grown man's expectations of sexuality before it was time, at a pace that was never my own. I didn't have those desires. I didn't even really have breasts yet.

He was powerful, especially to me as a girl, as was the church, his family and peers. I was his prize and everyone around us knew it, though to what degree I am unsure. Some knew it enough so that when I'd later moved into a foster situation with a family from church and confided to the daughter (my friend) what had occurred during the past year, she guessed his identity immediately. I swore her to secrecy; she told another pastor. When Turd's wife confronted me, I told her there was a mistake. I was terrified. The story blew wide open.

I was hauled into the pastoral office, confronted by a group of men from the church, including Turd, and was chastised as a liar. My friends and teachers were taken aside and told not to believe the story. I was publicly called "a form of antichrist" coming against Turd and his family by the pastor of our church (Turd's brother) at the beginning of his sermon one Sunday. The men of the church bullied me and tried to run me out of the school and church. I went to the sanctuary to find strength in the same God in whom we all believed, though I was no longer welcome. I went because I had nowhere else to go.

Turd took God, too.

Everything I had built and gained was gone. Blasted away. For the first few months, I awakened in the dead of night shaking, believing Turd was breaking in through my window or front door to kill me. After all, if he could those terrible things with his army behind him, would he not be capable of ANYTHING?

The drama went on until it died along with the best of my youth. What I initially took from the experience was a lack of understanding of who could be trusted. I developed a skewed view of a girl's "place," that my responsibility to any male in my life was to be his personal dishrag, absorbing his needs and back-burnering mine. It was a sentiment I'd carry forward for many years.

I've done good things since then, and I've done bad things. I am a human moving through life, same as anyone. For that, I don't need a label to describe me. I don't want to be anything other than what I am, perhaps with a bit more absolution than I've ever afforded myself. I am not that word, nor Turd's poor judgment. I forfeit "survivor." I'll pass on "victim."

I'll settle for forgiveness.


Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.