It’s funny how the mind works – how some moments are burnt into our conscious memories so vividly, while countless others fly past us into the realm of “what was” almost as if we had never experienced them at all. I remember some moments from the summer of my twelfth year very vividly, other moments have faded and blurred or disappeared completely.
I remember going away to camp with an acquaintance of mine. She was a little younger than me, and I didn’t really know her very well, but my parents knew her parents well – and I thought a week of summer camp with her would be an adventure, so I agreed to go when my parents presented the idea. Had I been honest with them, I would have told them I was scared of going away for a week by myself – scared of being the only American in a camp full of Portuguese kids who spoke a language that I hadn’t yet mastered. But, it was going to be an adventure, and I have never been one to shy away from an adventure. When they dropped me off with all of the other campers, I acted big and brave, as any oldest child instinctively knows to do. And then they were gone.
I was an oddity at the camp. My skin and hair were lighter than those of the other children. My Portuguese didn’t flow smoothly yet and my vocabulary was limited, so I listened more than I spoke. Initially the kids would swarm to me, asking for English lessons, but when I just tried to fit in with them – play their games, sing their songs, and participate in their activities – I never measured up.
I was frustrated that they only saw the “different” in me. They didn’t even understand the “different,” calling me the British girl. I would correct everyone, “Eu sou americana.” (I am American.) The times I really enjoyed were the art classes, when I could communicate the same way everyone else did, through images.
From the moment I saw him, I noticed something different about the counselor that taught the art classes. There was an air about him that bothered me, yet intrigued me. He was jovial enough, laughing and teasing, but there was something in me that said, “Keep your distance.” Still, he was friendly to me, and he looked at me differently than the others at the camp did. He seemed to see me. I liked it, but I hated it. What was he seeing?
Here is a memory that is vivid. My chapstick. I had a tube of strawberry chapstick in my backpack at the camp. This wasn’t just any chapstick, mind you, it actually made my little 12 year old lips a deeper shade of red. There was a special boy at this camp – actually two of them. Twins. I didn’t really care which one of them noticed me, but I was hoping that one of them would. One was more cocky than the other, and I was pretty sure that he had his eye on my friend. Anyway, the more reserved of the twins had a nicer, gentler personality. I liked that. There was a dance scheduled at the end of the week, and I was hoping that this reserved boy would ask me to dance with him. Obviously he needed to notice me first, so I did something drastic. I pulled my red, strawberry chapstick out of my backpack and generously applied it to my lips in front of the mirror.
That afternoon, I spent a long time with the quiet twin on the swing set. We pumped our legs hard – swinging higher and higher! He would jump off of the swing set at the far end of the highest arc – to impress me, no doubt – and it worked. Then we sat side-by-side on the swings – twisting back and forth, tennis shoes scratching in the dirt below us – saying very little to one another. Inside, I was bursting with joy, because he saw me.
Then, a whistle. It was time for art class. Well, someone else saw me that afternoon. The counselor in charge of the art class saw me – in the way he saw me – and he cornered me – and he abused me – and I ran to my bunk and scrubbed my hand across my lips just to make sure that every trace of red chapstick was gone. Though I knew in my mind that he was wrong in what he had done to me, I believed I had invited it. It was my fault.
One of the female counselors found me in tears on my bunk. When she asked what was wrong, I told her I was homesick – that the camp wasn’t what I had expected – that the kids treated me differently – that I wanted to go home. She said kind words to encourage me to stick it out. I think she even told the other kids to stop asking me for English lessons. Was it that evening? Or the next day? Those moments are all blurry now. At some point, the camp director called my parents and let me talk to them.
“I want to come home,” I stated matter-of-factly.
“Well, is there anything wrong?”
“No. I’m just homesick. I want to come home.”
There was a pause on the line, and then I heard the concern in my mother’s voice as she asked slowly, “Has anyone done anything to you?”
“No, no, no. Everything’s fine,” I sputtered rapidly, “but I’m just homesick (crying now) and I want to come home.”
Mom and Dad came to pick me up that day, and I didn’t breathe a word of what happened to anyone for more than 5 years. Why? Because I blamed myself. I was scared and ashamed – a very terrible combination.
Fear and shame keep victims of sexual abuse silent. Even without anyone suggesting to them that they are at fault, their own minds already wonder, “What did I do to deserve this? How did I invite this? What did I do wrong?” Imagine how much more deeply false guilt would be ingrained in a victim if he or she is told, “You wanted this. It’s your fault it happened.”
Yesterday, I invited you to sign a petition asking the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to apologize to a sex trafficking victim for an article which painted her as a seductress who wanted the violent abuse she was given. She was very brave to come forward to law enforcement when she did. It was wrong of the Post-Dispatch to reinforce misconceptions of sexual abuse by pointing the blame at her. She should be given an apology now. If you agree, won’t you please sign THIS PETITION and pass the word to others?