Two weeks ago I wrote about sexual abuse and the attention it is receiving in America currently. Most people who responded had a positive reaction, but not all. One person suggested that if women feel they have a problem, they should get help, but that “the whole world doesn’t want to hear it.” This sentiment was also put forth elsewhere because it’s Christmastime “and I don’t want to hear about that stuff now.”
So just when is a good time to hear about that stuff? When is a good time to speak up? I’ll answer that – right now, that’s when.
Let me introduce you to Marilyn Ring-Nelson, a 77-year-old Spokane native who returned home after retiring from her position as a librarian with the Seattle Public Library system and raising four children with her husband. With her permission, I share her words:
Dear Ms. Pettit,
Your Front Porch column last week on sexual abuse really resonated with me. When I was 6 I was molested by the young man who lived across the street. He was in his early twenties, newly returned from military service and living with his parents. These were not neighbors I knew well, and of course I had been duly warned by my grandparents (with whom I lived) about “stranger-danger.” I was never to go into someone’s house, even a friend, unless their parents were home. But Howard lured me with the prospect of looking at comic books which I was not allowed to have. I dutifully followed him around to the back of his house where there was indeed a large stack of popular comic books. We sat on the steps and after a few minutes he began to fondle me through my panties. I jumped up, told him I had to go home and raced across the street. Of course I never said a word to my grandparents. They would have been angry and disappointed in me. It never occurred to me that some action might be taken against Howard – ironic since my grandfather was a Superior Court judge.
I’ve given little thought to this incident over the years. I never even mentioned it to my husband until last week after I read your piece. We moved to Spokane a year ago. For me it was a return after 57 years in Seattle. I enjoy walking and driving down my old street, but every time I do, that summer flashes before my eyes, and I am again a scared 6-year-old who has been disobedient.
Would my grandparents have believed me if I’d told them what happened? I like to think so – I wasn’t a child given to making up stories, especially stories so far removed from my own innocence. If I had told them would I have saved another little girl from a similar – or worse experience? I’ll never know, but along with the secrets and the shame there needs to be a feeling of security that allows us to tell what has happened even if we didn’t exercise good judgment.
Thank you for sharing your own experiences.
When we met in person last week, Marilyn said she wrote to me with the hope that it would be a cathartic experience. And now, with the vision and understanding of an adult, she is all too aware that not only was her grandfather, Richard Webster, a Superior Court judge, but the judge in the juvenile division of Superior Court, a man who was both positioned and inclined to believe her and also be able to do something about what had happened. And yet she still did not speak of her experience, to anyone, for 71 years.
Yes, this is the season when we all want to be jingle-belling and decorating the house, but it’s also the season – as is every season – where somewhere in America, every two minutes a woman is raped. National statistics show that only 310 out of every 1,000 incidents of sexual assault (of all varieties) involving children, teens and adults are actually reported due to shame, fear or simply not understanding what has happened.
Nothing will happen, no behaviors changed, no laws vigorously enforced, no punishments meted out and no healing taking place unless or until people’s stories become public. It takes a certain critical mass, it seems, for anything to get done.
Yes, please do have a great holiday season. But please, please, please understand that women, men and children need to be encouraged to speak up when they are harmed, and that children, sadly, need to know what being harmed can entail – even as simply as being taught that if something makes them feel weird or uncomfortable, it’s not their fault and they need to tell someone they trust.
There is no offseason, no silent night when all is calm and all is bright, for this subject.
Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.