I am standing on a 10-meter Olympic diving platform.
Suddenly, there is a roaring in my ears, a cacophony of sound; voice, noise, high-pitched screaming. I clap my hands over my ears – and jump.
Fear claws at my throat as I plummet toward the water. Impact is disorienting. Water churns at being violently disturbed, and then? Utter silence, a muted existence, like I imagine a cocoon or womb.
Until the silent screams begin – open-mouthed blasts of heart pain – for no one to hear. They reverberate only in my mind.
Inevitably, I float up to the surface. When I break through the waterline, the sun is shining, the water calm, and I suck in huge amounts of air.
Time has passed; old internal injuries to the heart, the spirit and soul gave voice. I swim to the side, climb out of the pool and walk back into life. No one noticed I was gone.
This is my personal post-traumatic stress response.
I don’t like to talk about it. My husband heard my description of it less than two years ago. I’d never dissected it until then.
Oh, I’ve experienced it. I retrained a hot-wired brain to recognize triggers, how to talk myself down before I get to the diving platform, and how to lessen the impact if I somehow miss the trigger and fall.
I rarely fall now. But rarely is not never.
Despite my intensive work on psychological health, I still find myself a little embarrassed, or maybe ashamed, to have needed to leap into the air and fall 32.8 feet rather than experience or remember what was happening to my sisters or me.
But, you see, it isn’t my shame. It’s his. And the shame of the community that ignored it, and the church that swept it under their rug.
Decades ago, I blew the whistle. My church’s response was no better than the Southern Baptist Convention’s handling of the hundreds of victims who are forever changed by their betrayal of innocence and trust.
They were betrayed by their abusers, betrayed again by the very entity that should have brought about justice, and, finally, by a church who, at worst, viewed these precious ones as collateral damage to the cause of Christ, or simply opted to “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.”
I don’t like the word victim, for the enormity of truth in that one word. I like the idea of transcendence over trauma.
But from victim to victor is a triathlon because sexual abuse devastates innocent victims. Lives forever altered by an adult’s egocentric predatory behavior. A trusted one.
It is never, ever a child’s fault. An adult groomed then exploited a child with a mind that had not fully developed, a heart too naïve to discern the subterfuge, and a trust of that person by virtue of family, church or community.
No child consents to sexual abuse. They are coerced. Abusers are master manipulators. They will lie, exaggerate, minimize and rationalize.
A former FBI agent said there are five stages in the grooming process:
- Identify the possible victim
- Collect information about the intended victim
- Fill a need
- Lower inhibitions
- Initiate abuse
Sexual abuse decimates its victim, shatters their family; those ripples extend out into that family’s community. How a community responds has enormous impact on the ultimate health of that child, let alone their family.
When my missionary parents were serving in Africa, my mother asked for help once and was denied by our mission board. My sister and I disclosed in Ethiopia on two separate occasions. Nothing was done.
I once jumped my horse, Mengustu, over the Swedish Embassy’s perimeter wall seeking asylum. I was returned to my parents.
Back in America, I disclosed to the president of the college where Dad was professor of biblical studies. Nothing.
When I discovered my mother had colluded with my father, I disclosed to my mother’s supervising psychologist as she worked toward licensure. Nothing.
I disclosed to the California Board of Behavioral Sciences before she gained licensure. Nothing.
I disclosed to the next president of the same college. Nothing.
The complicity of silence.
When I blew the whistle on Dad and Mom, I was abandoned by my family, my church and my community.
We need to call out violence. Men who are not abusive – call out men who are. Women – encourage other women to stand on behalf of their children. Teachers, pastors, friends, extended family – take action on behalf of a child. “Hear me” is a child’s desperate silent plea.
“In the end,” Martin Luther King Jr. said, “we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Laura Landgraf, author of “The Fifth Sister,” is a social activist, retreat leader and motivational speaker. Her TEDx Talk is “Razed by Lions: A New Way to Think about Healing after Trauma.”