…shame has no place in trauma…I have watched countless interviews of #metoo founder Tarana Burke and articles on this continuously evolving movement and sat back wondering why more black women are not speaking up in support of others. Why aren’t they being bold, like those who have shared the podium, and called out the sexual abuse and harrassment from men who have misused their power and taken the disgusting role of control and entitlement to another level? How do we deal with misogyny and it’s ugly head that surfaces to exacerbate the feeling of pain and shame?
As those thoughts ran through my head today, something happened. After more than 20 years, I realized these women were doing exactly what I had been doing…hiding my head in the sand, hoping and praying that one day I would forget that awful experience. I was living with the childhood adage of believing that covering my eyes made me invisible. You know, “if I can’t see you, you can’t see me either.”
No matter how deep I tried to bury my head, It was never enough. And I realized one of the primary reasons for hiding was the shame. I was ashamed of a violation that I did not commit. I was hiding internal scars caused by someone else, and feeling like everyone else could see them. Yet, the worst feeling was not being supported by some of the people I needed the most.
I was 23 years old and still new to Los Angeles. I chose an apartment in Long Beach, unaware that this neighborhood changed drastically at night. As a newspaper reporter for The Orange County Register, who sometimes covered crime, it didn’t occur to me to check the police reports for late night activity. I guess it was the naïveté of being young and not too street savvy, even though I’m from Detroit, a metropolitan city.
This one night, after returning from a late choir rehearsal in Los Angeles, I opened the door to my apartment to find a tall, black man wearing a stocking cap walk out of my small kitchen, which he had already ransacked. It seems like yesterday that I could see him standing in the doorway of my bedroom. I realized I had left the sliding door to my patio open, “stupid me,” I thought, in between wondering if this was the night I was going to die.
After confiscating anything he thought might be of value (a ring from my parents, my college class ring and my sorority pin), he decided the next step would be to steal my dignity.
Once he left, I remember going into shock…calling the police, close friends and frantically running from room to room in this tiny 4-room apartment. When the Long Beach Police arrived, I was speaking at a rapid pace. They must have asked me at least four times, “are you sure you don’t know this guy?”
I admit that my choice of neighborhoods was awful. But did that mean I had to know the criminal who just robbed and violated me? It was clear that they thought all black people, regardless of walks of life, must hang out together. I was so hurt by their accusations. There I stood in my conservative attire, still dressed from my day’s work at the paper and choir rehearsal.
After being driven to the hospital and my friend Michele taking me home with her, I realized there was something I hadn’t done…cried.
That night, I wept until it felt like I had nothing left. Then, I went numb.
Days later, I asked myself, what happened. Then I asked God. How could this happen to me, a “good girl,” who was very studious? went to a good college? got a good job immediately following graduation? and there I sat, feeling like my insides had been removed. I could hear Job’s friends in the Bible, who asked him how this so-called upright man had managed to piss off God and lose everything? All I could think of was “Why me?”
I remain thankful to my friends and one of my editors at The Register who drove for more than an hour to my friend’s house to spend time with me and report the police’s behavior to our editor. Following his scolding of their actions to the police chief, I was treated differently. Of course, it took a white man with power to straighten them out.
Then, I remembered when the shaming began, with the police’s line of questioning.
This recant made me reflect on Oprah’s story about her sexual assault at a young age and its impact on her. I also recalled Dr. Maya Angelou’s refusal to speak as a child after an incident when she voiced wishing a man had been killed due to his abuse, only to learn it actually happened. She thought her voice had that much power.
I’ve been silent for years, afraid of my own voice and the sound of the words, “I was raped.”
Other than a few friends, I dared not share this experience. I became afraid of feeling the same shame I felt from those police officers and even some of my family.
I know that some of it comes from my upbringing. I grew up with Southern maternal and paternal grandparents. Growing up, we were always taught not to air our dirty laundry. This premise was passed down to my parents and my mother did not want others to know what happened to me. I don’t blame her. She didn’t know how to process what happened to her only daughter.
When I went home to regroup, my family members kept asking me why I was there. I felt ashamed to tell them because I was advised not to say anything. So, I lied.
The shame was mounting. What did I do wrong? Why was I overwhelmed with this burden, while feeling an unidentifiable vulnerability? All I could think of was the initial shame from the police, followed by that from my own family.
Sharing these experiences can be as cathartic and therapeutic as they are painful when it forces me to rehash sad stories and uncover old wounds.
So, I understand why women find it hard to speak up. It took me more than two decades to do so. But it doesn’t make it okay. I struggled with this for years, even reporting about others’ sexual abuses, while internally fighting the thoughts of my own.
To my sisters of all races and hues, I hear you and I feel you. After the worst moment in your life, you’re asked what you were wearing. Had you been drinking and did you know the assailant? Sometimes we do. But that doesn’t make the assault any less eggregious or unlawful.
As for our families and friends, it’s clear that we need them to help us get through this. So why increase the shame that we already experience from law enforcement and the system? Why not provide love, support and understanding? Only with this, can the pain be eased and the shame alleviated. Then, the healing can begin.