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Two years ago, Robin Stone wrote an article for Essence magazine revealing the sexual abuse that had haunted her journey from childhood to womanhood. Response to the article was tremendous, and many readers asked her for guidance in coping with their own similar experiences. For the estimated 3.2 million African-American survivors of sexual abuse, No Secrets No Lies provides much needed healing.
Addressing sexual violence from the perspective of black culture, Stone helps readers understand why the silence of this epidemic may be rooted in racism, and how readers can give themselves permission to reach out for help. No Secrets No Lies combines the advice of physicians, psychologists, spiritual leaders, and abuse survivors to break through the social barriers that have perpetuated the pain for decades.
One in four women and one in six men will experience sexual violence, and according to the Department of Justice, the numbers are only rising. By providing empowering answers to the casualties of this crisis, No Secrets No Lies is a long overdue lifeline.
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About the Author
ROBIN D. STONE is a former Executive Editor of Essence magazine and the founding Editor-in-Chief of Essence.com. She was also an editor for the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Detroit Free Press, and Family Circle, and has written for numerous publications, including Essence and Glamour. As a 2002-03 Kaiser Media Fellow, she researched the impact of sexual abuse, with a focus on Black families. A Detroit native, she lives in New York City with her husband and their son.
Read an Excerpt
No Secrets No LiesHow Black Families Can Heal from Sexual Abuse
By Robin Stone
BroadwayCopyright © 2004 Robin D. Stone
All right reserved.
IntroductionIf only this book weren't needed. But chances are that if you are reading it, you are seeking to help yourself or someone you love to heal from childhood sexual abuse. Know that you are not alone: an estimated one in four women and one in six men report that they were sexually abused as children.
I am among those survivors. For years I was also among the many who live in the shadows of silence and shame. Sexual abuse is a tough subject for most anyone to discuss, but it is especially difficult for those who have experienced it to expose long-buried wounds. For me, doing so took years of healing work, and in the end, it helped me see and understand not only the devastation of sexual violation, but also the damage of the silence, secrets, and denial that often follow.
Today, I am healthy and happy and whole. I have a husband and son whom I love dearly, family and friends whom I cherish, a spiritual center that keeps me grounded and helps me soar, a satisfying professional life, and meaningful connections with my community. But it wasn't easy to get there. Here's how I found my way.
I had been deputy editor of Essence magazine for about a year when, in 1998, our senior editorial team went on a retreat in upstate New York. The editor in chief at the time, Susan Taylor, had invited a motivational expert along to help us brainstorm for new article ideas.
Here we were, at the nation's leading magazine for Black women, gathered to find new ways to empower our readers. The expert started by asking each of us to draw two pictures-one as we saw ourselves, and the other as we'd like to see ourselves. When it was my turn, I held up my intricate handiwork: a harried-looking stick figure with disheveled hair struggling to balance two baskets of eggs, with some eggs spilling and others a cracked mess on the floor.
It was a reflection of my life as a wife and new mother, with a fairly new job and responsibilities as a new executive board member of a national nonprofit organization-or so I thought. As I showed my second drawing, a serene, smiling sister, hair in place, calmly holding only one basket of neatly nestled eggs, I described my ideal life: less stress, fewer eggs, fewer demands. More time for me. And I added, offhandedly, that I hate dropping my eggs because I'm such a perfectionist. It stemmed, I said, from a memory of a relative telling me, when I eagerly showed of my report card with all A's and B's, "You still ain't shit." "I've been trying to prove them wrong ever since," I said.
I suddenly remembered how those words only confirmed what I had long felt: that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't make up for a nagging sense of inadequacy. And quietly, to my surprise, I began to cry. At first, those tears annoyed me. I'm a leader, I remember thinking. Leaders don't break down and cry in front of their colleagues. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the first "me" drawing was a reflection of how I'd always lived: deeply immersed in everything-whether family or my work or my sorority or some other organization. I was always doing something to keep from holding still. I felt as if I was a voyeur in what seemed to be a perfect life, and I was tired of working so hard to avoid what really ailed me.
What I thought really ailed me was a severe lack of confidence. It became even more pronounced whenever I took on a major challenge, and at the time of that retreat, several major challenges were converging. Despite a stellar resume listing major accomplishments at some of the nation's best newspapers and magazines, despite successfully running a nonprofit organization, despite a new husband and baby, I always felt I was perpetrating a fraud, that I didn't deserve the achievements or even the joy in my life. At home, I would rarely relax, and work was all-encompassing. I would go in early, stay late, skip lunch, hover over my computer for so long that my neck and shoulders ached. I rarely gave myself credit for being smart and creative and passionate, for thinking fast and leading and always striving to do the right thing. That lack of confidence was my Achilles' heel, and that relative's remark had kept it tender over the years. From time to time I would try to shore it up by working on the symptoms but not the disease. Assertiveness-training courses, public-speaking courses, management courses, skills-development workshops, leadership seminars, you name it. I polished my presentations and buffed my skills to the point where I seemed to brim with confidence. But I couldn't shake those feelings of not measuring up.
All along, I knew that what really ailed me was a profound sense of shame and embarrassment that had been a part of my life for years. I'd often think: There's something wrong with me, and I have to make up for it. There must be something wrong, because he chose me.
I was a precocious kid in the early 1970s, the older of two girls raised by a single mother in a working-class section of northwest Detroit. Mom somehow found the time and money from her job at the post office to allow my sister and me to enjoy dance lessons and Saturday bowling and summertime softball. I loved writing and dancing and singing in the school chorus. Family reunions would find me front and center in our all-kid talent revues.
Children were abundant in our sprawling but tight-knit clan; cousins often spent the night at one house or another. Mom never thought for a moment that her kids wouldn't be safe.
When I was about nine, my sister and I slept over with family in the country. There, an uncle whom I adored led me by the hand to a back room and rubbed my breasts and between my legs. The incident, as I now refer to it, lasted about five minutes. But it left an impact that I still contend with today.
Messin' with. Touching. Fondling. Groping. Molesting. Incest. Abuse. Assault. Rape. I did not know the words for what happened to me that night with my uncle as the rest of the family slept. Often when we think of being sexually attacked, we see the culprit as someone who pounces from the bushes, not someone who tucks us in. We think of broken bones, or scars, or blood. If there is no visible, physical injury, it can be difficult to see that a deliberate crossing of the boundaries of appropriate behavior is indeed a form of violence.
All I knew is that when my uncle touched me, it didn't feel right. I also knew, literally knew, that what had happened was wrong when he told me not to tell. If nobody could know, it must have been bad. And by extension, I thought, I must have been bad. With the offer of a few dollars, my uncle told me to keep it a secret. I didn't take the money, but I made his secret mine and carried it for more than ten years. My mother became severely ill not too long after I was molested, and as she spent months on a slow, painful process of recovery, I tried in my child's way to take care of the trauma that I had suffered so that I wouldn't burden her. I would attend family gatherings and carefully avoid my uncle, fighting the waves of embarrassment whenever he would try to strike up a conversation with me as if nothing had ever happened. Many holiday get-togethers are a blur to me today; my time at them was consumed not with enjoying my family but with a vigilant act of keeping a safe distance from the enemy-my uncle-while watching to make sure he didn't take my younger sister off into some room.
I was confused and ashamed, and I felt isolated and alone, as no one else seemed to notice my distress.
I learned to take care of myself, but I wasn't always my best ally. I reasoned that I should never do anything to invite attention because I might be "chosen" again. So I became quiet and withdrawn. The girl who once sang on the stage and danced and laughed began to hide in the shadow of a hideous secret. I even hid in plain view: One summer I wore a red windbreaker nearly every day to cover up my growing breasts. I became a model student, striving for perfection to make up for my perceived imperfections. My little girl's mind told me that my uncle had picked me because he knew I was stupid enough to go along with him. I repeated that to myself so much that it rang true.
For years that secret weighed me down. I remember believing that I had done something to deserve what happened, and even as I wrestled with the meaning of what had happened, I sometimes managed to convince myself that it was really no big deal. It only happened once, I'd say to myself, minimizing the experience. I now know why sometimes we are reluctant to see an assault that's sexual in nature as violence. The majority of sexual abuse survivors know their offenders, and abusers operate so smoothly and convincingly that they gain the trust of children without the use of force. And as so many survivors do, I allowed my life to be shaped by a secret that wasn't mine to bear.
If I had known that my uncle had no right to touch me and that I could tell on him, then I might have yelled or screamed that night. If I had known then that our society and our own Black culture conspire to keep children quiet and vulnerable and Black women quiet and exploited, I would have been able to throw his secret back in his face. If I had known how we as a people are still struggling with the crippling effects of slavery and racism, I would have understood that my family's silence after the secret came out was nothing personal. It was inspired by years of fear and oppression and passed on from one generation to the next.
But I didn't have a clue. There were unspoken rules in my family and "around the way"-rules I learned from watching others around me. I knew to respect, not question or challenge my elders. I knew that some stuff you just didn't air in mixed company. I knew that breasts and hips were acceptable objects for commentary, especially from boys and men. I was self-conscious about my newly forming curves. Maybe I'd asked for that uncle's attention by wearing my favorite short shorts, I reasoned. Maybe I'd tempted him by sitting on his lap. What's a nine-year-old to think? For that matter, what's a three-year-old or a sixteen-year-old to think when someone she loves, respects, trusts, and perhaps even fears uses those feelings against her?
You may find it difficult to understand how five minutes can forever affect the course of a life. Or you may see yourself in some part of my story. Those who have been sexually abused know all too well the residue of shame and helplessness that the experience leaves behind. Few of us can imagine the complex network of scars that sexual abuse can create-whether it is one touch or a number of intricate "games" or years of intercourse. For me, I only knew that I needed teachers and family and friends to tell me I was smart and make me feel that I mattered. And whenever I had the nerve to think so myself, that nine-year-old girl would emerge to remind me to think again.
When I was twenty-one and preparing to move to Boston and brave the world on my own, I finally told my mother and stepfather after they gently encouraged me to explain why I refused to go to my uncle's house for my own going-away party. My mother was supportive and calm, at least in front of me. She called her sister, my aunt, to share what I had told her. The uncle, of course, said I was lying. My parents were left to choose whom to believe. They chose me. After some heated exchanges, my mother told a few other people in the family, and that uncle was told not to come around whenever I would be present. Mothers quietly asked their daughters if the uncle had ever "bothered" them. No one else said he did. No one spoke to me again about what had happened, and whenever the family gathered after that, my uncle simply was not there.
I was so relieved that the secret was out, but I didn't realize until later the damage I suffered. The abuse, the silence, and the survival skills I learned as a result played a major role in shaping my personality and my habits today. Without professional help back then, I dealt with the repercussions on my own. I grew up with few girlfriends because I felt "different" and older than most kids my age, and I found it difficult to open up and trust. It was easier to spend time with boys, and later men, because responding to physical attraction was easier than developing and nurturing relationships. Sex with no commitment was OK, I reasoned in my younger, single years, because I was in control of whom I slept with. In reality, I was being used and robbed of pieces of myself. And all the while, whenever I found the time to be still, I'd feel the unsettling sense of shame creeping upon me. Keeping busy kept it at bay. For a long time I knew there was something wrong, but again, I focused on the symptoms and not the cause.
One time, about ten years ago, I tried to fix the symptoms. Citing stress and anxiety, I went to see a therapist I picked out of my insurance company's directory. We never got to the abuse. Whenever I talked about anything related to race, the therapist, who was White, would stare at me blankly. I remember telling her how painful it was to hear a White male newspaper colleague tell me that my ignorance of an obscure grammatical rule was the result of poor education. I should have been angry, yet I thought of my public schooling and heard that nine-year-old's voice say, See? I told you you were stupid, and I went home feeling defeated not by him but by myself. The therapist could offer nothing to counter my sense of humiliation, obviously not sensitive to the struggles of Blacks in White corporate America. I didn't stick around for long.
That day at the retreat, when the facilitator encouraged us to talk about our stress, I looked into the faces of my colleagues, Black women of all hues and shapes and sizes, and saw in their eyes that they understood just what it meant to work too hard, to juggle too much, to stretch too thin in search of perfection. In the cocoon of that sister circle, I felt comfortable enough to let my guard down, and the tears came from years of being tired and ashamed. Another sister cried too. Susan Taylor put her arm around my shoulder and reminded me, "We're so glad you're with us-you bring us so much." It was a compliment that I allowed myself to believe. Later I asked a coworker to recommend a good Black therapist for me to see.
It took twenty-five years for me to understand how five minutes of horror, in the shadow of a relative's house, could affect my life so deeply. I found a new therapist, a Black woman who understood my experience with corporate racism and who made me feel as if I was talking to a friend. With her help, I started to unravel the secret and feelings of shame and self-doubt from my life.
As I began to heal, I searched everywhere for information about abuse within families-Black families in particular.
Excerpted from No Secrets No Lies by Robin Stone Copyright © 2004 by Robin D. Stone. Excerpted by permission.
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