Content warning: sexual assault, sexualization of children, birth assault, and traumatic birth
There are two traumas that happen when an assault occurs. The first is the event itself. The second is when people you trust don’t believe you about it.
When I was a young girl, a family friend sometimes babysat us and he sexualized me. All I remember is he made a couple of inappropriate comments that, at the time, my brain red-flagged as strange, but weren’t so overt that I understood what he was doing. It wasn’t until many years later that I grasped the implication of his words.
I have very few childhood memories, but these two are frozen in time for me. The only other thing I know is that I had a hatred for him by the time I was a teenager. I still don’t know why.
Years earlier as an adult, I had shared with my parents some of what he had said to me and they were disturbed by it. I’m not sure they processed it as much more than creepy, or knew what to do with it, though, and by that time their friendship with him had cooled for reasons that had nothing to do with me. I got the impression that addressing it with him was never an option.
Their flaccid response sent me a message: a little tinkly warning bell that they–still–couldn’t protect me. No one would stand by my side. It was still just me.
One day within the last year, I had drifted off during a body therapy session and was having those funny flashes of dreams you have when you’re in that half-asleep state. Suddenly that man’s name came at me out of the dark and I had this woosh of utter panic. It was uncontrollable, like a switch flipping on, almost like someone had pushed the plunger on a needle without warning me that my bloodstream was about to be invaded. I fought waves of panic and this sense of utter aloneness in the universe and a lack of control over anything–like an astronaut being set adrift from a space ship into the void.
Thank God I had enough experience working with traumatized people, I was able to find one tiny little toehold of sanity that let me talk myself through it: “I am safe, I am safe. These are just feelings. I already lived through the thing, it already happened, it’s not happening now. This will be over soon. I am safe.”
I recognized in that incident just what so many women have described to me of the aftermath of their traumatic births. The part where you’re pitched into outer space, the panic, the feelings that roll over you like you have no mass.
Just a few months ago, I walked into a family event and there he was: this man, sitting there, occupying a seat in the midst of my own family.
First was the shock of that surreal scene, like opening your sock drawer to see a hand grenade; then, a minute or two later, my legs started shaking and I felt sick to my stomach. I found I was scanning the room for emergency exits with a rising sense of panic. “If he comes this way, I’ll go down that hallway. If he comes that other way, I’ll go out this door.”
It occurred to me after an eternity of seconds that now, as a 30-something adult, I didn’t have to stay in the same building as him and I didn’t owe anyone an explanation about it. I said a cursory goodbye and walked out the front door.
I called my mother. I told her what had happened, that I didn’t understand why that man would be among my own family, and the weird physical reaction I’d had. We talked for a few minutes and she suggested that I tell my father the same thing. I said I wasn’t sure if I could, and when my mother asked why not, I answered, without even thinking: “Because if he doesn’t stand up for me, I WILL DIE.”
I really meant it. It felt like… If he said anything other than, “I will do anything to protect you; you will never see him again; he will never enter our family’s space again,” my heart would just stop. If he hesitated even a little, my soul would quietly detach itself from me to retire wherever souls go when they have no purpose in the world.
Based on my father’s reaction the first time I’d told them about this man’s behavior, it felt unsafe to confide. So, today, I still haven’t been able to talk to my father about it. I can’t afford for him to let me down. I do not want to die.
The severity, the gut feeling, of my response–that I would drop dead, that the negation of my experience was incompatible with my actual life–speaks volumes about what it means to be believed in your vulnerability. What it means to be believed.
This is just one reason we don’t shout from the rooftops when we have been intimately wronged. The possibility of death by disbelief is too real. The piece of us that is hurting is so extraordinarily fragile, sometimes a breath of the wrong words or a split second of silence in the wrong place can destroy us.
I heard the same things over and over again from women on the Exposing the Silence Project tour. When they finally got up the nerve to talk about their traumatic births to loved ones and were cut short, it sent them into a tailspin. Many called it “retraumatizing.” Some said it was that second event that actually triggered their PTSD.
So, the first traumatic event among virtual strangers was horrific, but the second–among the people closely linked to their security and identity–was just as traumatizing in another way.
Indeed, with stakes this high, not being validated at all can feel safer than the risk of being invalidated.
So why don’t we risk talking about what has happened to us, in birth and in sex? Quite rationally, we want to protect ourselves. We can’t afford to be disbelieved.
I believe myself.
It’s now April 2021, over two years since I wrote the first part of this article, and I did finally talk to my father about that man.
I described to him how that whole situation was connected to why I also didn’t tell my father about an attempted assault in high school, the night I ran through a strange house and slammed the bathroom door on the arm of the man chasing me, then fled outside to spend the night hiding in some bushes along the road.
This event was long over, but it lingered for me that I could never tell my own father about it. It took a long time to get to a place where I could take the risk of telling him.
I realized that the only way I could ever do it was if I believed myself about it. I needed to value my own perspective as much as I did his. After all, I was there. I know what happened and what led me to be there that night with those people. Whether or not he believes me does not change the facts.
“Do I believe myself?” I thought. “Yes. I believe myself.”
I practiced. I ran through my head, what happens if he says I am not remembering correctly or good girls don’t get themselves in those situations? I would be ready only when I could be sure that nothing he said could shake my confidence in what I myself had experienced and what blame or shame belonged to me for it. I kept asking myself, “Do I believe myself?”
I kept answering over and over, “Yes. I believe myself.”
Over time, I was able to develop the muscle that let me hear, respect, and not personalize his opinion. I could understand his perspective as a 70-something-year-old Italian-American man raised in a small town; I could still value his opinion and adore him; and I could choose not to let any of that change my story about myself.
It was months before my belief muscle felt strong enough, and then I sat him down and blurted out all of it.
It didn’t devastate me when he did, in fact, tell me I shouldn’t have been at that house in the first place, sneaking around or lying about whom I was with. I knew he would probably say that and that it wouldn’t be fair to expect more right then, hitting him with this story decades later without giving him a chance to process it. Later, I remembered that he also said a lot of supportive things, but I couldn’t remember any of them. The ones that stuck were the ones that felt like little darts and made my heart skip a beat. But then they died away. They didn’t shake my core.
By then I was sure that even rebellious teenagers don’t deserve to be raped.
I didn’t die.
I remembered that I believed myself.
Afterwards, I thought, I’ll always believe myself now.
The body remembers.
Last week, I happened to get chatting with someone I went to elementary school with for fifth grade and she reminded me that we had ridden the bus together–the wild bus, the one that was always getting in trouble. It was my first year in public school and, coming from religious schools in a tight Christian community, I was horrified by how those little heathens behaved.
I used to sit by myself in the front of the bus and keep my head down.
At some point, my friend mentioned the name of one boy who she said always bullied her and the memories hit me like a truck.
That kid used to sneak up behind me on the bus and lower his arm very slowly down behind me, between my back and the seat, and rub or stroke my back. I still remember the feeling of terror and revulsion.
Neither of us ever said a word. I just remember dreading his approach. We both knew I would pretend it wasn’t happening, every time. Shame, more than anything, would keep my mouth shut.
Over the years, though, those memories had faded and I wasn’t sure they were real. Was that even his name or did I invent it? Maybe I imagined that he touched me. Maybe it only happened once and it was an accident and I was dramatizing it–making it sexual when it wasn’t. Which, by the way, made me the pervert.
My friend said then, oh yeah, he was real, that was his name, and he was totally a gross little bully who picked on girls.
Maybe the most nauseating part was that he absolutely knew that touching me quietly would work with me. He loudly bullied my friend in because that was what worked with her. At ten years old, this is what we were all learning. How to manipulate, how to be manipulated.
In that conversation with my friend that day, I remembered the truth in my body. I had hated his touch and I was afraid of him. He made me feel disgusting and dirty.
Also, I would rather have died than told anyone what he was doing.
It may sound strange to say, but there was something reassuring about having these memories confirmed. I could deal with the truth that this boy had touched my back on the bus in a creepy way–deep down I always knew it anyway. The real horror would be to realize that I could not trust my own memories or perception. I always had a deep fear that maybe I had created it all myself because, I had heard, little girls like drama and attention.
Now, I felt relieved. I could believe myself as a little girl, too. I could always believe myself.
How do we keep ourselves safe when we report birth assault?
We have good reason to fear being disbelieved and invalidated when we speak up about gender-based mistreatment, and this carries through into maternity care. The very first “At least you have a healthy baby!” from a loved one makes it very clear how little we are valued as the person giving birth.
When we so desperately want to trust that our schools, hospitals, state boards, and courts will protect us, the reality can be excruciating: to discover that, even when you have finally found the strength to use your voice, you have not yet reached a safe place. How jarring to realize the burden of proof is on you, about an event for which no evidence is likely to exist beyond your own words, and you will be required to advocate for yourself yet again in the reporting process. Indeed, the accountability systems in place are neither very effective nor attuned to people carrying trauma.
But there’s good news, too. I’ve spent almost ten years now advocating for traumatized birthing people as they work through hospital, state, and legal processes for accountability. In the last year, I’ve been digging into medical boards around the country and gotten involved with a fantastic consumer watchdog group that monitors them independently.
During April at Birth Monopoly, will explore How to Report Mistreatment in Childbirth. Our resources include free information on filing complaints with hospitals and state boards and a state-by-state directory to the boards that regulate and discipline care providers; expert interviews; as well as the publication of our how-to manual and a checklist to make the process a little easier on you.
But before we get into the nuts and bolts, I want to share with you something I have learned to share right off the bat with the brilliant and strong survivors I work with individually:
Use the reporting and complaint processes in maternity care as a tool in your healing, and not the endpoint.
The expectation that your trauma will be cured by holding someone accountable for it is not realistic from a practical standpoint nor from a trauma standpoint.
Trauma cannot be reversed by meeting a goal; it can only be healed through a process.
Deprioritizing your healing may very well allow your trauma to creep back up as the very thing that prevents you from pursuing justice.
Trauma can be a powerful driver, but one that leaves you stranded on the side of the highway, exhausted and depressed, if you aren’t paying attention to it.
And, in turn, as you give loving attention to your healing, the more resilience you will have to pursue accountability from those who caused you harm.
You CANNOT rely on external validation in this process–there is much that is beyond your control–but you CAN use this process as one powerful part in your healing journey. It is a chance to reclaim your story at your own pace, take back your agency, and advocate for yourself from a stronger position than the last time.
As an individual, you can heal. You are not alone.
As a group, we can challenge the system armed with knowledge about it. We can strengthen our own community of advocates by supporting each other and ourselves in healing.
Be sure to sign up for our email list to get updates as we share with you resources and information on reporting mistreatment over the next weeks. In the meantime, please give some thought to what healing means to you and how you can use these upcoming resources to come out on the other side stronger and more whole.
P.S. This article was published with my parents’ consent, without edit.