Today’s guest post comes from Theressa Schroeder, who has been writing since she was six years old. Originally a Northeasterner, she spent five interesting years in Utah picking up a B.A. in English. In the two years after that, she somehow found herself falling in love with a submariner in the U.S. Navy and now finds herself on a quiet island in the Bahamas with their two little boys. Luckily, she enjoys traveling nearly as much as writing, so this life is working out just fine.
Catching the news one night, I found myself captivated by the latest on the Elizabeth Smart trial. Her perpetrator had been recently sentenced, and she and her family were appearing at a news conference. I felt great sympathy as I watched this now grown-up, tall blonde young woman bravely face the on-going scrutiny into her very public past trauma. I wondered how difficult it must be to be unable to hide her past. Then, as her parents looked on proudly, and admiring reporters commented on how she’d taken her tragedy and turned it into something strong, I found myself rethinking her situation. By being unable to hide her past, this clearly courageous young woman could only grow into it, while those watching couldn’t help but see all that she’d become because of her struggle. I found myself wishing I could be just a little more like her.
Because I know some of what she’s been through. As a very young girl, I was molested by my father. I don’t think I’m that different in how I’ve taken my own experience and grown from it. Yet, I only rarely tell people even a small fraction of my true past. I carefully talk around the darker stories that color my childhood and often end up creating a picture of something that isn’t quite true. When people try to fill in the blanks, I let them do so.
I typically walk away from these conversations feeling as if I’d managed to keep a secret all to myself, a secret that I’d never meant to keep. Because I’d like to be more open about my past. I’d like people to see where I am today and truly understand what obstacles I’ve overcome along the way. I’d like to not be asked one more time whether or not my parents enjoy being grandparents to my children – children that they have never met. I’d like to know, once and for all, that I’m still acceptable to those I meet if they know of my past.
Much of my reluctance has come from witnessing what seems to be this general sense in the world that some stories should not be told. And if they are, they shouldn’t be so clearly tagged to the people they happened to. For instance, I’ve never read a story in the Ensign that dealt with past abuse where the writer was identified. Names are always changed or withheld, even if the story is clearly that of someone who has come to terms with their past. The message to me has always been: “We want to hear your story, but we don’t want you to own it”. Why is this? Is it because our stories make other people uncomfortable? Is it to protect us, or to protect our listeners that we aren’t encouraged to talk?
Further feeding my fears are the numerous exchanges I’ve had with people over the years where we both ended up feeling awkward and weird if I spoke truthfully of my past. Sometimes, I walk away feeling as if I had done something wrong by talking. More maddening are the times I find myself trying to reassure someone that I really am okay after only the briefest mention of the abuse I suffered. Silence seems so much easier sometimes, and maybe just a little bit kinder to people around me who seem shaken when I reveal even a tiny bit of my story.
Here’s the real heart of the problem, however: Just as I cannot erase what happened to me, no matter how much I move on and live a better life, I cannot suddenly become someone who was unaffected by it. So many of my choices, from how I raise my children, to what I want to do with my life, to the way I approach my marriage stem from those terrible years when all I could do was hang on for dear life and hope I would somehow survive. Pretending it didn’t happen leaves me with a strong sense that all I am doing is putting on a show for people around me. It sets me apart, and leaves me feeling always the outsider.
Perhaps I’m wrong about Elizabeth Smart. Maybe being known as a victim haunts her, and prevents her from being anything else. Maybe every time she walks into a room, she has to shut out the whispers and furtive looks sent her way. Maybe it’s a burden to be unable to hide her story.
You know what, though? Having stood on the other side, I hope that isn’t the truth. I need to believe that part of the reason she has come through with such grace is because she doesn’t have to explain herself every where she goes. People just know, and they either accept it or they don’t, and there is no hemming and hawing around the edges. I want that. I want to be known as who I truly am, not just a part of who I have become. For I am a survivor, and I will forever be marked and shaped by the incest in my past. It does not cripple me today, and talking about it does not harm me. In fact, I think my story is pretty amazing, and I enjoy sharing it. I hope that someday, I will feel the freedom to own it that has been forced upon Elizabeth Smart. That would be pretty incredible.