When I was twelve years old, I went on my first overseas mission trip. I spoke at churches to raise the money, sent out letters, counted up donations.
My Army-veteran father sat me down for some serious talks on how to stay safe while traveling, how to “watch my six”, how to pay attention to my surroundings, keep an eye out for faces of people who might not belong. My mom educated me on staying aware of my body and being modest as a godly young lady. They intentionally and purposefully went the extra mile to teach me how to be safe.
Nobody dreamed that the person I should have been warned against was the chaperone who agreed to watch out for me. Nobody imagined that this trusted lifetime family friend my grandfather’s age, was capable of sexual assault.
Nobody knew to teach me how grooming works.
Nobody was around when this well-respected family physician began introducing sexual conversation to me under the guise of “helping you become aware of yourself as a maturing young woman.”
Nobody overheard him quietly telling me how he used to judge “naked beauty contests” of all his nubile nieces and their friends, telling them which one had the prettiest breasts, or the nicest butts, or the most beautiful shape.
Nobody else was eavesdropping when he confided which body types he thought were most attractive in his practice as an OB-GYN (Koreans, because they didn’t have much pubic hair, and they looked so young).
Nobody was aware of how these secretive comments made me feel like I was given the rare privilege of glimpsing the private world of an experienced medical professional who would of course have NEVER talked about such things to someone unworthy of their trust.
Nobody knew about these quiet disclosures, for context, when they DID overhear him making jovial comments to me about how I needed to be careful how much I ate, or I wouldn’t stay slim and lean. Or his remarks about the little gap of missing eyelashes that he said “made your face look chubby”.
Nobody knew that these statements were directly calculated to make me feel inferior and less than all those other naked young female bodies he had told me about.
And then, by the end of the trip, sitting next to him in the narrow row of just two seats, on an airplane somewhere over the Pacific Ocean — nobody was there when this same man who had spent the past three weeks grooming me, directly and boldly asked me how much pubic hair I was growing yet, since I would be 13 years old soon.
Nobody was close enough to overhear the crack in my voice as I tried not to quaver when I deflected with some childish non-answer.
Nobody else felt the twist of panic in my stomach as he asked if he could check and see “if you’re normal for your age” and then proceeded to run his hand up under my loose, modest, conservative Christian dress to feel (and then look) inside my underwear.
Nobody heard the SWOOSH-swooshing in my ears as I heard his voice chuckle and say something about not needing to tell anyone about it, and how it was “basically the same thing as a medical exam, and you need to get used to those now that you’re almost a woman.”
Nobody told me that just because someone in power over you is a professional and tells you something, that you might not be required to believe it because they might be lying to you.
Nobody had ever told me that sometimes when you panic, you freeze instead of fighting back or running away. Besides, when you’re on an airplane and your adult protector is the one you’re supposed to run away from, where exactly are you supposed to go?
Nobody saw it happen, as everyone else on the plane drifted in and out of sleep on the long trans-pacific flight. I didn’t want to believe it had happened either. So I put it out of my mind and focused on the delightful memories of my first-ever mission trip. The local kids, the islands, the foods, the experiences…
Nobody, including me, was able to figure out why I had developed an intense and visceral distrust of older men after I returned. Most grandpa figures didn’t trigger it, but occasionally I would cross paths with an older man and instantly take a strong dislike to him. I had no idea this new radar might be connected to what happened to me.
Nobody talked about molestation back then, and so nobody knew to tell me that this wasn’t the only form of abuse.
Nobody knew they needed to say that I should watch out for other things too. Things like psychological terrorism and narcissism and gaslighting. Things like emotional and verbal abuse, spiritual abuse, financial abuse, and social manipulation.
Everybody kept quiet about those things.
Not because they didn’t care; but because most often, they simply didn’t have the words.
I didn’t know there was a name for what had happened to me, until a year later when I saw a little brochure about sexual abuse at a doctor’s office. I felt sick in my gut as I realized it was describing something like what happened to me on that airplane.
Very carefully, I tried to hint to my mother, but I didn’t know how and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings or make her ashamed of me. The real words for it tasted dirty in my mouth and I couldn’t even say them.
This man had been our family’s close friend since before I was born. Surely he hadn’t MEANT to do that. Surely he hadn’t KNOWN what he was doing?
I dealt with it in therapy as a young adult. I checked with other young women I knew to be in his social circle and warned them to “be careful.” Because, that’s what girls do for each other when we don’t know that we have options like reporting to the police. When we have been subconsciously conditioned to take the responsibility to make sure we don’t get assaulted, instead of holding a predator accountable.
As an abuse advocate and recovery coach — I’m fully aware that even if I reported it to law enforcement, nothing would likely be done. It was almost thirty years ago. It wasn’t on US soil. What did it matter that he was in his 50s and I was a prepubescent child? There was no physical proof then. There certainly wouldn’t be any now.
For some, that’s reason in itself to stay silent.
And yet, I cannot help but wonder…
If I had known my options back then
if I had known the names for what happened
if I had known it was a crime
if I had known it wasn’t my fault
if I had known it wasn’t “just like a medical exam”
if I had known what grooming looks like
if I had known that even trusted, warm, funny, charming, respected, professional people can be dangerous…
Would my childish voice have been enough to stop him?
Could I have saved some other girl, or many, from experiencing the same thing?
How many of those nubile nieces experienced what I did, or more? How many female patients? How many children among congregations where he fellowshipped? Looking back now, I realize he was no novice. I was not his first conquest, likely far from his last.
I ask myself the same questions today.
He’s still alive, somewhere out there, quite elderly now. Still highly respected, still a church leader. Every couple years I find myself looking him up and wondering if there’s a different “right thing” to do than what I’ve not done.
Back then, I didn’t have a voice. And nobody else knew to speak up for me.
“Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast.
Shout aloud! Don’t be timid.
Tell my people Israel[a] of their sins!
Is this what you call fasting?
Do you really think this will please the Lord?
“No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
and remove the chains that bind people.
“Then your salvation will come like the dawn,
and your wounds will quickly heal.
Your godliness will lead you forward,
and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.
Then when you call, the Lord will answer.
Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls
and a restorer of homes.”
Now, my voice rises strong.
Now, my voice speaks out on behalf of those who are the same way I was then — naive, trusting, preyed upon.
Now, my voice is dedicated to inspire others to raise theirs in protection of the defenseless and vulnerable.
Now… I am not silent.