My grandmother had her back turned, her voice was cold. I was 15 years old and had just tried to end my life. After my attempt was interrupted by a phone call from a friend (or divine intervention), I put away the pills and walked into the kitchen, sobbing and shaking. I told my grandmother I needed to tell her something. But, I didn't have to say it, because she already knew.
"Let me guess, he molested you."
He was my step-grandfather. And he had been sexually abusing me since I was 5 years old. What I wanted more than anything was for my grandmother -- the woman who raised me -- to hold me and tell me how sorry she was. I wanted her to believe me. But, instead, she stood coldly, with her back turned, and snarled, "You're lying. I want you out of my house."
Lying. The word stung. It was my worst fear. It hung over me, ran through me, for many years. Of all the horrible words I heard throughout my childhood, that was the most difficult to forget.
My grandmother refusing to believe me was as painful as the abuse itself. It made the abuse my fault. It validated his threats that no one would believe me, that I didn't actually matter to anyone. And it made me feel worthless -- which is exactly what he wanted.
After years of working on my own healing, and working with thousands of sexual assault survivors, I have learned that what we often need, even more than justice, is simply to be believed. And the fact is, we have no reason not to believe survivors. Only about 2-8% of sexual assault reports are "false" -- and many believe the actual number is much lower. The myth that people frequently lie about rape is just that -- a myth. In fact, most sexual assaults are never reported at all, largely due to survivors' fear that they won't be believed.
Our society tells us not to believe survivors. It's easier to live in denial and pretend these horrific things don't really happen. We often don't believe survivors because it's too hard to accept that these otherwise "nice guys" are doing such awful things. (People thought my step-grandfather was a "nice guy" too). And it's even more difficult to accept that we could all be at risk.
But, we have to stop disregarding the truth simply because we don't want to hear it. The more we ignore the truth, and disregard survivors' experiences, the more this epidemic will grow. Every time we refuse to believe a survivor -- the rapist wins.
But with just three words -- I believe you -- we can instill hope and healing. We can change the conversation about sexual assault and encourage survivors to come forward. And we can take power away from rapists and give it back to those who deserve it -- those who have survived.
It has been more than 20 years since my grandmother refused to believe me. Yet still, every time some caring person who has heard me speak reaches out and says "I believe you," every time a friend or loved one tells me they believe me -- I am speechless. Every time I hear those words, I feel empowered, supported, and I heal a little bit more.
If you truly want to help survivors heal, if you truly want your loved ones to be safe, you have to start by believing. When someone courageously shares his or her story with you, say "I believe you" -- and mean it. It is the most powerful and meaningful gift you can give.
If anyone reading this has survived, and has never heard it, or needs to hear it again -- I believe you.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you are not alone. Advocates are available to talk with you 24 hours a day at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
[Pamela Jacobs is an attorney, advocate, and speaker dedicated to empowering women and ending sexual and domestic violence. Find her at http://pamelajacobs.com.]