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I Believe You

This phrase, “I believe you” has entered my mind in different ways over the past few weeks. These words are important to hear but I’m learning that the context in which they are said could imply various meanings and end results.

When I was sixteen my mother told me that as a child she had been molested by her father, my grandfather. I believed her. I had no reason not to. As she gave more evidence to support her story, it all made sense. Her story was not meant to tarnish my image of my grandfather but to encourage me to delve into my storage cabinets in search of any abuse I might have suffered and stored away. There was nothing there.

When I was five years old my grandfather had been my primary caregiver during my year of half-day kindergarten. He had every opportunity to abuse me and did not. Of this, I am certain. I only have wonderful memories of this man. What I needed my mother to understand was that I believed her, but this was not my experience with him. My relationship never changed with him, nor did anything change with my mother because of my loyal toward him. What I settled on was a good man who, at one point in his life, had been capable of a bad thing. I did not deny the capability but embraced his ability to change.

When my mother was 35, she was raped by a man, a co-worker, someone she trusted who had been in a position of authority. He was a well-respected leader in the church and our small community… but he raped my mother on multiple occasions over a 2 1/2-year period. She told no one for seven years. She was paralyzed by shock and intimidation, but a great deal of her silence came from the fear of not being believed. He had perfected his manipulation skills and even when she thought she was safe, he found a way to her. She was never safe, and she was always alone. Who would believe her?

Even as adults, we want to be believed. We want to tell our stories, our truth, our good, bad and our ugly, and simply be believed. We want to be validated and confirmed. Many times, our truth sits dormant until an experience or a comment gives it breath. As our truth gains momentum, we still question if we are strong enough to give it life. Our strength relies on the desire for someone to say, “I believe you.”

Eight years after the first rape and six years following the last one, my mother decided to confront her abuser in a private meeting with his employer, two therapists and her pastor. She had leaned into this option instead of prosecution because it was less about making him pay than it was about telling her truth. She would not relive her horror on a stand. She would not spend years providing extensive evidence only to be scrutinized and belittled. With confidence she told her story. He denied any wrong-doing and instead painted a picture of a consenting affair. As she retold details of the first rape in a dingy Florida hotel room, he conceded that perhaps he did not understand the difference. In the end she felt heard and believed. There was an implied message saying, “This is not our experience with this man, but we believe you.” She exited that meeting slightly lighter than before.

Interestingly enough, when my book was published, many people who had known this man during his lifetime not-so-privately uttered the words, “I’m not surprised!” I have yet to meet anyone who has had a similar experience with this man, but I’m sure she exists. Who I have met are those who spent uncomfortable time is his presence, understood him to project a boys club culture, or felt like they barely escaped a predatory incident. Unfortunately, there are also those who hold this man on a pedestal for all the good things he did. They choose to honor his name and his accomplishments, but they do not know his truth. It’s not just my mother’s truth that exists, but his truth as well. I don’t know if he ever took responsibility for it.

This may come as a surprise, but I am not out to demonize a rapist. Had there been a trial, I’m sure there would have been multiple character witnesses praising this man for all the good he had done in the church, the community, the world. For God’s sake, he saw a need for children’s services following natural disasters. Someone with this vision couldn’t possibly be a monster, or a rapist. But to my mother, he was. While he was changing lives for the better, he was destroying hers.

In her book, Know My Name, Chanel Miller states, “Society gives women the near impossible task of separating harmlessness from danger, the foresight of knowing what some men are capable of.” My mother had no reason not to trust this man until he closed the hotel door behind him and declared she was to be his birthday gift. I have landed on the statement that good people do bad things and bad people do good things. No one fully understands the capability of another until it becomes our personal experience. But experience (or lack thereof) is not a reason not to believe.

I recently listened to a podcast titled “We Can Do Hard Things” where Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who raised her right hand and spoke her truth in the Kavanaugh hearings, described her time on the stand and her life leading up to and following that decision. He thought process surrounding the words “I believe you” came from a different perspective. She said, “It’s not about belief, it’s about caring enough to do what we need to do.”  She was told by almost everyone that giving her testimony in this case would ruin her life, but she responded by saying, “There’s a clarity in knowing that you have to do the right thing, that you have to tell your story.”

What she found following her testimony was somewhat contradictory. The overall response was, “We believe you” but she described these words as if they were supposed to be her reward. As if hearing “I believe you” should be enough. The discouraging part was that those three words were followed by a huge but…  I believe you, BUT I’m not willing to take the next step. I’m not willing to take a stand and do the right thing. I’m not willing to right the ship of a judicial system that places a greater cost on the victims than the ones perpetrating violence. I’m not willing to make myself uncomfortable by fighting for something that has been normalized by society. I believe you meant nothing.

Chanel Miller was raped on the Stanford campus, outside a fraternity house, on the ground, behind a dumpster. In conjunction with the state of California, she chose to prosecute Brock Turner, the freshman, star swimmer who had sexually assaulted her. She had no idea what she was in for, Following a year-long trial, the jury came back with guilty verdicts on all three charges. The jury had said, “We believe you!” BUT, when it came to sentencing, after hearing her 12-page victim impact statement, the judge reduced a maximum 14-year sentence to six months in the county jail. Again, a reward but no willingness to take action. The defendant had letters describing him as a law-abiding citizen up until that point, He had no prior accusations or convictions of rape, and he was remorseful. So, because he said, “I’m sorry” and had never raped anyone before, the jury’s voice of belief meant nothing.

In 2017 the Me Too Movement brought to light the vast number of women who had been harassed, assaulted, and violated in ways that we had been taught to be insignificant. It provided an opportunity for women to utter two words or raise a hand without stepping into the spotlight of complete vulnerability. It allowed women to join in solidarity and be a part of a whole, knowing that the whole responded with the honesty of “I believe you!” I wrote one of my first Facebook posts about my mother during this time, offering a “Me Too” for her 16 years after her death and 38 years after her first rape. It was a terrifying relief, even for me, to offer these words but they opened the door for me and somehow, I felt from that moment on I would be believed. BUT is that enough?

Telling our stories is not a witch hunt, it’s simply an attempt to live. It’s not about revenge but a tomorrow without pain. Chanel Miller made the comment that after the assault she tried to live her life. She didn’t pick up a pitchfork, she went to work, she took shower after shower. She inclusively wrote, “She tried to believe she was unchanged, to move on until her legs gave out… [until] she hit a point where she could no longer live another day in the life she tried to build.” My mother hit this point. She tried to forget, to create a separate life, to go on. But one day her body spoke up and said, “You can’t do this any longer. You must tell your truth, or you will die.”

From Day 1 of her truth everyone she told said, “I believe you.” In fifteen years of writing, I never came across words of frustration where she felt she had not been believed. Maybe in 1986 belief was enough. In today’s society I don’t think it is. We are better than that. Today we need to follow belief with a willingness to support change. We need to create a culture that clearly says, “You can’t do that!” We need to re-write policy that has a zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior and lets perpetrators know that this is not a safe environment for them. We need to promote safety in telling and restoration in the aftermath. Quite simply, we need to say “I believe you” but we need to do more. Survivors do not want a reward for speaking their truth, they want action.












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