I never planned to tell anyone. I was prepared to take my secret to the grave.
But then someone asked a question. When I was 26 years old, my mother came to visit her new grandbaby, my first child, and she asked me if anything had ever happened with my step-grandfather. I was still living the facade then that everything was well in this relationship and there were no issues.
It was the first time anyone had ever asked, “did he touch you?”
And I was taken off guard. My knee-jerk reaction was, "No, why would you ask me that?!"
According to my mom, some of my young relatives had said that they were uncomfortable around him, that he had made a couple of strange statements to them. When she told me what those statements were, I knew right away that they were telling the truth. I’d heard the same comments throughout my childhood.
It was things about “love.” Things that might seem sweet on its face, but to me, it meant something totally different. It meant the beginning of the sexual abuse that started when I was 10 years old and lasted until I was 18 and able to physically remove myself from the situation.
And I buried all of it until I was 26. I trained myself to believe that I was the only one that this man had ever bothered, because that's what he had told me for all those years.
“I was the only one.”
I was prepared to die with that statement. I was prepared to take it to my grave in order to protect this man's image and to protect my family’s dynamics. Almost everyone in our family relied on him. He was our leader. The patriarch. And so, when he threatened what would happen to me if I told the truth—that no one would believe me, that I was going to tear apart my family, that I’d lose my friends—I took his statements to heart.
But I also loved this man. He saved me from a bad situation with my own parents—an abusive and alcoholic father, domestic violence, and the like. So when I went to live with him and my grandmother at age eight, everyone viewed him as a saint. I put him on a pedestal.
I learned later that he had abused a lot of children that were close to him. Neighbors’ children, his grandchildren, his step-grandchildren—basically any child he had access to for any significant amount of time. He would tell friends, “Sure, I'll take care of your kids. They can come help me on the farm. Let them go play with the horses.” On the surface, it seemed so kind when it was anything but.
And everybody in the community thought highly of him. He was a hard worker. He seemed to take care of his family. He seemed well put together.
They thought that about me, too. Because, if you looked at me, you would not know that horrible things were going on in my life. I got good grades. I was actively involved in the FFA youth organization. I had my horses, and I showed them. I was well spoken and well groomed.
Ironically, I had a therapist later in life tell me that he was impressed by how well put together I was. He said he had expected me to be fat or a prostitute. Needless to say, I found a new therapist, but that's the stigma that I think people have of children who have been sexually abused. They think that we all carry this outward scarlet letter that you can see, when really, most people never suspect a thing.
They certainly never suspected what was actually happening. If I wanted to see the horses, I had to “help grandpa” first. “Help” involved him exposing himself to me. It didn’t make sense, but I wanted to see the horses and he made it seem like it wasn’t a big deal, so I didn’t think it was either. I trusted him.
As the abuse escalated, he’d say things like, "I love you, we love each other. This is what love is." As a 10- and 11-year-old child, you don’t have a definition for love. When you’re being told by somebody that is meant to be your mentor, and your teacher, and a person who shows you how to walk through life, that, “this is what love is,” at 10 years old, that's all you’ve got to go with.
By the time I started to understand that what was going on wasn’t normal or okay, I didn't know what to do about it. I didn’t even know how to start the conversation, or how to say that I needed help. I was so ashamed and so scared. He said I couldn’t tell anybody because they’d get mad or that I’d go into foster care, because I was his step-grandchild.
As I got older and started to push back and fight it, to avoid him, the dynamic changed. It moved from coercion to threats. He told me about a young lady, long before I was in the picture, who had told her schoolteachers and the police that he had been inappropriate with her. They’d come to his house to speak with him, but his wife—my grandmother—stood by his side. She’d called this young lady a liar, and then no one believed her. Two weeks later, for reasons I still don’t understand, the girl was shot, execution-style, at a rock quarry in Michigan.
My whole life, I was taught that’s what happens to little girls that “tell lies.”
I thank God that I had my horse Leo to help me through that time. I got him when he was two—a Quarter Horse with terrible knees—and I swear that he knew my soul. As a teenager, I would go to the barn and hide from this man for hours on end. I didn’t want to die, but there were times that I contemplated suicide. There were many days when I would climb upon Leo’s back and just cry. Honestly, it’s a wonder that he didn’t have a permanent case of rain rot from all the tears I cried on him over the years.
But Leo wasn't judging me, and he didn't tell other people my story. He was my safe space, somewhere I would go to feel unjudged and untouched.
The abuse finally stopped when I left for college at 18. During summers and holidays, I’d go back home, but I never again went alone. I always took a friend with me. You’re safe if you’re not alone.
I had managed to extricate myself and keep my secret. But there was still so much shame attached to what had been going on all those years. I didn’t want anyone to know the truth. I even contemplated selling Leo. He had become this ever-present reminder of my childhood. I had people come to look at him a couple of times, and each time, he was a total jerk for them—which is ironic, he's really a prince of a horse. I think he was telling me that I still needed him. But also, that he wasn’t done with me. That I couldn’t, and shouldn’t, bury my past.
It’s not like it was going to go away, anyway. Even after I was married, my husband and I would go back home and this man would still make comments about my body. I realized, then, that there was no end to his abuse. No matter how old I got, no matter how far I moved away, no matter how accomplished I became professionally or in my career.
So, when my mother and I had that conversation at 26, and I knew that other members of my family had been abused by him, I realized I wasn't actually okay with staying silent.
I reached out to those young family members. I told them that I believed them and they disclosed everything to me. And, that very night, I called the State Police and reported him. They came to my house and brought me a piece of paper to write my statement on. I remember thinking, if you're telling me I need to write down everything that I remember, I’m going to need more paper.
Later, I went to the State Police Department and we did a recorded call with this man, trying to get him to talk about the abuse on the phone. I said, “I'm having a hard time. I need you to help me understand. Why did we do all this?”
And he said, “You raped me.”
I about lost it in that moment. It had been so hard to take those initial steps; I had to unearth all those feelings of shame and guilt and disgust that I felt toward myself. And here’s this monster accusing me of rape.
That wasn’t even the worst of it. I didn’t know it at the time, but there was a lot more pain to come.
Because, eventually, a lot of the threats he had made over all those years started to come true. My family isolated me. I lost a lot of friends. I felt like I had no support. My husband felt so misled by not knowing the dark history in my past that we ended up getting divorced. He just couldn't see me the same way anymore.
When we finally brought this man to trial for the first time, there was enough circumstantial evidence to give the jury reasonable doubt. He was in his 50s or early 60s then, and there was a hung jury because they couldn't understand why I could have potentially “done this” to this old man. The defense literally pulled out Father’s Day cards that I would send to him after I moved away. To me, it was like, if I send a card, I don’t have to go visit. But the defense used them to make it seem like it was my fault, that I was lying and embellishing. They asked me why I didn't stop it when I was a perceived adult.
But, here’s the thing, I wasn't an adult. It took me a lot of therapy, and several different therapists, to finally understand that.
Having been groomed for so long, I didn't have an adult mind. I was a 10-year-old that was being abused, and I didn't understand. I was a 13-year-old, who now knew what was going on, but was disgusted, and didn't know what to do about it. I was a 15-year-old, going through all the normal, high school, teenage stuff, and hiding this other huge part of me. I was a 17- or 18-year-old, not one that didn’t want to fight, but one that was just trying to survive long enough to get the hell away.
It took two trials, but my abuser was ultimately convicted, and I did finally get to have my “day in court.” I remember this one moment, where I looked at him and said, “I loved you, and thought the world of you, and you did this to me." He had nothing to say to me, but to me, it was just about finally saying it out loud. It was about being able to stand up, and look him in his eye, and tell him what he did to me was wrong.
That's how I started to rebuild my life.
Today, I have a family and a life that I love. And I try to focus on the good. That doesn't mean that there still aren’t hard days. There were times in the past when discussing what happened to me meant having to relive all of those sensations, and feelings, and thoughts. Even now, at 35, I can still remember where the sun was shining during these episodes of abuse. The difference is, I’ve learned how to talk about what happened without reliving it at the sametime.
I also don't look back on my life with shame and disgust. I can see it, now, with understanding, and with a grace and forgiveness for myself. I can step back and realize I wasn't just some stupid girl that let this happen to her. I wasn’t just this weak young lady who couldn't stand up for herself. As a matter of fact, I might just be the strongest woman in the room, because I did do the hardest thing there is to do. I stood up.
Now, I remember my past for a reason; I remember it so that I can help others. I was 26 before somebody finally asked me, for the first time, if there was a problem. I know now, with my own children, that I will not wait 26 years before I ask them if somebody has made them uncomfortable. They will not have to wait for someone else to come forward with their own story before they feel safe enough to confide.
Because I know, firsthand, that you can look at a smartly dressed, brilliant young lady, one who does well in school and seems to have her life together, and still understand that there may be so much more to her story. I’ll ask that girl if she needs somebody to talk to.
I’ll tell her, “I'm that person for you.”
I still own my horse Leo. But now, when I look at him, I don't see him the way I used to in my darkest days. I used to look at him as my savior—and he was—but these days, he’s retired from that job as well. When I look at Leo now, I see a lovely horse that I’ve made a lot of good memories with. I hold on to those good memories a lot more than I do all the tears. That’s the beauty of walking through pain.