This is a fundraiser post. I thought I’d tell you that up front, in case you want to leave, though you’re welcome to stay for the story.
It’s a cause that’s near and dear to me, just like it is to one out of two women. I don’t post about it often, but it’s the season when people look for good causes to donate to, and I wanted to get it out into the world.
When I was seven, I was sexually abused by a family member. At seven, I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know until I was twelve, sitting on the floor of a classroom of only girls, watching a video about “good touch, bad touch”. Even years later, I wonder how many other girls were just like me, sitting cross-legged on the carpet, realizing that someone they loved was a “bad touch”.
I had a terrible secret.
A few years later, amid hormones and teenaged angst, the secret became unbearable to keep.
I went to my high school guidance counselor and spilled the whole thing. I cried and talked and blew my nose and when I finally finished and looked up at my counselor, he was crying, too.
Mr Beckman told me that he was obligated to report what I had told him to the authorities. I told him that I understood, but that it would be a waste of time. The statute of limitations on sexual assault in my state is seven years. If you are abused as a child, and don’t even know what happened until you are grown, too bad for you. The state no longer considers it a crime.
I once got into a gigantic argument with my Civics teacher, in front of the whole class, because he had mistakenly stated that a political figure could be charged with a crime after several women came forward. (Thirty years since then and it’s all still the same). I know all about statutes, knew more then than most fifteen year olds.
“I have to report it anyway,” Mr Beckman said.
“That’s fine,” I agreed, I knew he was just doing his job.
Somehow he got me to stop crying and sent me back to class, with a promise to follow up later.
In the afternoon, he pulled me out of my history class into the hallway. He handed me a couple of pieces of paper with names and phone numbers for support groups and therapists.
“This one,” he said about one in particular, “this one I talked to and I think would be perfect for you. She runs a teen group.”
He handed me the paper. It said “Libby Bergman” on it with a phone number. I thanked him for the info, acknowledging that I knew he was only supposed to give me guidance on my education, not my whole life, and he had gone above and beyond.
Five years later I sent Mr Beckman a bouquet of tulips. You never forget the people who changed your life.
I made an appointment with Libby. I convinced my mom to take me, which was terrifying in itself, but I was even more nervous about the appointment. I’d never told anyone, even Mr Beckman, any details. When I was seven I didn’t have the words and I’d just barely found them now.
Libby didn’t make me tell them. Instead, she asked me a series of yes or no questions. Every time I answered yes, I know I looked at the floor, my hands, my feet. It is one of the things that people who have not been in that situation usually don’t understand. It’s shame, and embarrassment. It’s having to acknowledge something appalling and repulsive. It felt like it was my fault for not telling, even though I didn’t know to tell at first.
Libby was not appalled or disgusted. Instead she said, “I think you would be perfect for our Thursday teen group.”
Every Thursday I met with Libby, and a group of girls who had also been sexually abused and/or assaulted. All by someone they knew, most by someone they trusted.
It was good to not be alone anymore with my secret. To meet other girls in various stages of recovery. But what was most influential to me were the activities we did. We wrote letters, we talked about how people who are abused tend to become abusers themselves, and how to avoid that. We made art projects about our values and beliefs and dreams that helped us determine who we were outside of “sexual abuse victim”.
What we learned was how to live our lives without being a victim. How this really bad thing that had happened to us did not need to define our whole lives. How we were so much more than the thing we couldn’t control.
My abuser sought help, too. He came to the same place, for a men’s group. Usually they only took men who were court ordered, because the program is hard, but my abuser talked to his employer and made a deal that was acceptable to Libby. If he quit treatment, he lost his job.
Eventually, we had a face to face meeting. My abuser read me a letter. He apologized. He cried.
I found it disgusting. I was angry. How dare he cry when I was the one who had suffered?
Libby was there with me the whole time. She was my ally and I knew I was safe with her.
It would take me a couple of years past that meeting before I would forgive my abuser. It was never a requirement, it was always up to me, but thanks to Libby and her team I had the strength to look it in the eye and put it to rest. I wrote him a letter. He thanked me for it with the most heartfelt and sincere words. We started a new chapter.
One of the things we learned with Libby, was that everything was different now. Now there were rules. Rules about who can be alone with who, rules about behavior and safety. My family adopted all the rules, and we still follow them today.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, my abuser came to talk to me about the rules again. Just so we were both on the same page. The things we learned with Libby have helped us navigate future generations. They helped us create a healthy family out of the wreckage.
One of the first things I told my daughter, when she was old enough to understand, was that we shouldn’t have any secrets, ever. No secrets, it’s one of the rules.
Libby ended up leaving the center she worked at when I first met her, a few years after I graduated from group. I’d spent nearly five years in weekly therapy sessions.
She started a non profit organization originally called “The Center for Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment”, carrying on the same lifesaving work, and focusing on families who might not otherwise be able to afford the help.
Over the years, I’ve arranged a few fundraisers through my employer, and when I’m feeling especially sad, I find donating to Libby and the work she does, helps.
I tell people she saved my life, and I don’t feel that’s an exaggeration. Still today women and girls are ashamed to tell their secrets. Having a safe space, with people who know how to help, is vital.
In the last few years, Libby changed the name of her place to “The Family Enhancement Center”, though they still do the same vital work, and still with funding that comes completely from donors.
If you visit the website you can see Libby in a few videos. You can also donate. Donations, like all non-profit donations, are tax deductible.
If you are looking for a good cause this holiday season, helping a young child recover from the abuse and betrayal by an adult is a often overlooked but severely needed service, and Libby and her team have thirty years plus of experience.
My life wouldn’t be the same without them.
You can visit the website at: familyenhancementcenter.org
If you can, please help a little girl to tell her secret.