As I remember it, three of us physician assistant students sat around a table, a group project before us, “What is Child Abuse?” It was 1979. Child abuse was just emerging then - even though it has been in the world for thousands of years - as something criminal. Definitions appeared in texts with photos of cigarette burns on young arms, of babies’ bottoms blistered from hot water.
As PA students, we needed to recognize these signs to treat them as burns and referrals to social workers. This was physical abuse.
But then there was also this other term, sexual abuse. Old men flashing children. Rape. Molestation.
And suddenly, for the first time in ten years, a memory resurfaced. A man old enough to be my grandfather. A trusted camp counselor, a man we called Uncle Jim. Positioning me, my back to him so I couldn’t see his face. His hand between my thighs. Groping the crotch of my bathing suit. Fondling.
Then, on the heels of this memory, a realization hits me.
I had been molested. In 1969 while at a summer church camp, I had been sexually abused.
And I say to my group, “This happened to me.”
At least, I think I say this aloud, for it’s always at this point my memory blurs. I know I say it to myself. And I know there is silence afterwards.
Perhaps it’s silence from the group. But even if they had spoken, what would they have said? We were only being trained on treating the physical signs. We were years away from inserting PTSD into our lexicon. We are still are years away from de-stigmatizing mental illness.
I don’t blame my group of peers for not speaking up in my watery memory, just as I now no longer blame myself for the decades of silence that followed. All of us were only coping the best we could with the tools we had.
Just like that molested girl… Just like that 10-year-old girl who, when Uncle Jim let her go, ran down the path to the swimming pool and dove deep… Just like that girl who resurfaced still holding her breath.
In recognition of National Sexual Assault Awareness month, special pricing on the WONDER COMPASS Story Art Pages is available.