The Survivors Project: Tish R.
In its Nov. 14, 2012, print edition, Philadelphia Weekly ran an excerpt of its first book, The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse. The issue featured just eight of the 57 first-person stories we published. Here is another.
Editor’s note: Please take great care in reading this story, as it may contain graphic descriptions and other passages that may trigger strong emotional responses.
Name: Tish R.*
Location: The Poconos
Occupation: Speaker with the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN)
Age abuse occurred: 3-9
Life isn’t at all what I actually lived. There’s a deep secret that they made me hide. I hid it from everyone, including myself. I have to face reality: My grandfather sexually abused me for more than six years.
Born to teenage parents, life began rough for me. On the run from her parents, Mom was 14 when I was born. Daddy was 16 and had the financial support of his father. Living in hotel rooms, my parents set the stage for a life of instability; as I grew up, I would be in constant search of comfort. By the time Mom was 19, she had four children from two different men. She was single, and alone with us, but she did the best she could. By the time I was 6, Mom’s parents were her only source of support, and even then life was still rocky. In January 1987, I returned from a long day of first grade to find that Mama had “friends” over. She instructed me to place my favorite toys in a red milk crate because my siblings and I were leaving with these nice adults. We stayed in a foster home for five days, and then arrived at our maternal grandparents’ home. Mom’s brother-in-law came over from Georgia and took my sister and brother to live with them. I stayed with Nana and Pop while the baby of 18 months went back to live with Mama. Over the next few years, the three of us kids would go back forth between family members until Mom eventually ended up with the boys, and Daddy got us girls. Giving us away would prove to have disastrous consequences for us all. The family dynamic was changed forever.
I lived with my daddy until I graduated high school and left home. Years of living with an alcoholic father, who was verbally, emotionally and physically abusive, made me even more empty inside. I left that small town and headed north two hours to the only people who had always been good to me—Mama’s parents, Nana and Pop. I found great comfort in them because I could see them every day. Nana was more of a mother to me than a grandmother. By the time I reached 30, she was my best friend. Our phone calls were so important to me and I loved all the advice she gave me on parenting, home making, family and even spiritual guidance. I loved my conversations with Pop about politics, news, family drama and yes, football. They truly were important figures in my life. So important that my husband called them for permission to ask for my hand in marriage, and Pop even walked me down the aisle to my handsome groom. They both helped me try to understand my childhood.
In 2011, our family moved to the Poconos. A year before that, I had begun to have extreme physical pain while living in New York, where I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Nana, a retired RN, helped me understand my medical condition. When I moved to the Poconos, I had to find new doctors, including a therapist. This is around the time when the reality of what happened to me started to set in. Huge black holes in my childhood memories began to come into focus.
I’m 6 years old, living in the apartments with Nana and Pop. My aunt and I share a room. I am sleeping on the bottom bunk, with my back to the wall. The hall light comes on, and soon I see Pop sitting at the edge of my feet. He moves the blankets and slides his hand up my leg. Soon he has his hand over my panties as he is rubbing my vagina. I’m starring off at my tall dollhouse, yet I pretend to be asleep. Maybe he will stop. He doesn’t. I want to cry but tears won’t stop him, nothing ever does. Finally, he is done with his extracurricular activity, and I have survived one more night.
As I recall this memory, I am a 30-year-old wife and mother of two—but inside I feel like that scared 6 year old. I try to function in every day life, but I can’t. I feel like a child having to make adult decisions. Only in therapy am I allowed the freedom to express my emotions of hurt, anger, confusion and disgust. At home, I have to function like a normal wife. I can’t go on. I sleep all hours of the day, pretending to be OK for our children, hoping my husband would understand that my world is shattered. But he doesn’t understand. Nobody understands. I can’t stand to look at myself. How did I get here? I hate who I am, I hate my body, I hate this pain inside me, and I just wish I could die. It’s like the abuse is happening for the first time. I hate that I hid this from myself. I was better off when I didn’t know—or was I?
More memories come. I’m trying to comprehend it all yet remain in a relationship with Nana and Pop. I have told only Nana about my repressed memories of being sexually abused. She is extremely adamant that repressed memories don’t exist, that there’s “no way this could have gone unnoticed for 24 years.” I’m so confused, yet I know that these memories are true. I know that I have to confront Pop. I have to tell him that I know the truth. I’m scared of what this would mean. What if Nana leaves him? He is 72 years old, he can’t be alone, and he needs her. My heart aches for him. However, I can’t live with this secret. I reach out to the only person who would understand, my aunt. My mom’s oldest sister was sexually abused by Pop. I have always known that. Pop and Nana told me many times that he did it, but that it only happened once. During our phone call, she tells me that it happened to her for three years. I am shocked. The truth is clear; I must tell him.
The very next day I sit in my truck and place the hardest phone call of my life. It’s a sunny Tuesday in June as I dial his number. Pop answers and I begin: “Pop, I love you very much, and never want to hurt you, but I have to tell you something very important. I know that you touched me sexually when I was a child.” I describe the memory and he responds, “No, you are a liar. You need to see another therapist. I only touched your aunt.” I close the conversation with, “I’ll always love you but I know the truth.” On the phone, I was cool as a cucumber, my voice steady and quiet, but when I hang up I come undone. I collapse under the strain of fear, shock and disbelief. What have I done? I return home and email Mama and Nana. I have to tell them now! It’s all out!
I’ve finally shared my secret. Yet no one helps me.
Mama was just diagnosed with lung cancer. Nana says we can’t focus on this, we must focus on Mama and Mama alone. For the first time in 11 years, my birthday comes and there is no phone call from Nana. It’s official—I’m all alone! Mama doesn’t call, text or contact me either. For two weeks I’m all alone with my memories. How could I do this? I should have kept silent. At least then I would still have them.
Mama got worse so I finally went down to Georgia. The cancer was in her lungs, lymphnoids, adrenal gland, breast, liver and in her brain by the time it was detected. She was given months to live. I rushed down to be with her but I was nervous because I would have to see Nana and Pop. For two long weeks I stayed with Mom, trying to put the past in the past so I could have my family back. But it made me even more miserable. When I finally returned home, more memories had flooded the gates. And I couldn’t shake them.
I’m 8 years old riding in the car with Nana. I am in the front seat; we are following Pop and the other kids in the truck. It is raining so hard we can barley see the vehicle in font of us. Nana is talking to me. “He does it because he loves you.” Her voice is shaky. “You two have a special relationship. You must not tell the other kids, or they will get jealous.” The sound of the windshield wipers going back and forth ring louder and louder as I hear, “You can’t tell anyone” and “No one will understand” and “The other kids would be jealous.” At 31, my heart is broken and I’m sick to my stomach. I can’t believe it: SHE HAS ALWAYS KNOWN.
I’m in therapy when I realize that I need to find my voice. I need to speak up. I rush home and call RAINN (the Rape, Abuse And Incest National Network). I have been searching for a place to “belong” since I realized the truth. RAINN had the word “incest” in its title and I knew they would understand. I phone them asking for help. Desperate to find answers, they refer me to the rape center in the Alabama town where all this took place. I tell them my story and then find myself on the phone with the local police department. The dective listening on the other end is very kind and compassionate. He takes my story down and all the information that I can give him. Two hours later, my aunt calls me frantically, and says, “I can’t believe how selfish you are.” She says that Pop is down at the police station. At that moment, another call comes in and it is the detective. He tells me that Pop confessed to sexually abusing my aunt and I. To this day I remember the words “He confessed.” As I prop myself up by the nearest tree outside, I listen as the detective tells me what happened. As the call ends, I fall to my knees, screaming through tears, “I’m not crazy, I’m not crazy.” I called Mama and she was angry. How dare you do this? She said that she wasn’t going down this path with me. I said, “I love you, Mama, but I have to do this.” I really couldn’t blame her; she was fighting for her life and finally had the one thing she longed for her entire life—love from her mother and father. She couldn’t give that up to be with her daughter. It would be the last real conversation I would have with her. On Sept. 23, I called to tell her I loved her, but she was already near the end. On Sept. 29, she died. I couldn’t go to the funeral. My husband and our children and I had a small ceremony for her at a local lake, where we released red roses and balloons.
After six months of trying to determine how to handle this, I flew down to Alabama and signed the official warrant to have Pop arrested. In August 2012, just a year after the phone call and the confession, I went and testified in front of a grand jury. Twenty-four strangers. A week later, he was indicted and charged with child sexual abuse.
Today as I type this, the DA called and offered me his plea: guilty, 10 years (with time served), registered sex offender for life, and a paternity test to be conducted to determine if he is my birth father. I have accepted the terms.
It’s been a long year and half since the memories of what happened to me came alive. I’ve come so far in my healing, yet I have so far to go. I have no contact with Nana and Pop. Many days, I still miss them but what I miss is a fantasy of a loving relationship that never really existed. A healthy, happy, true relationship we did not have. I no longer worry about Pop being alone. I pray for him to be alone with his thoughts, memories of his actions and his shame. He needs to heal from his sins.
I have come to accept the manipulation, the lies and the truth. Pop started touching me when I was 3 years old and continued until I was 10. The memoires are so vivid and clear; how I wish I could make them go away. Some have been dealt with but there are many more to go through. I just have to find the strength.
I joined a support group, where I learned that I was and I am worth fighting for. What happened to me was not my fault. It was his decision to act, but it’s my decision to speak the truth and fight for my healing, which makes me stronger and stronger each day.
I am a speaker with RAINN, have counseled a child that was abused by a peer in his class at school, and continue to see my therapist (probably always will). When this all started, I was depressed and full of anxiety, fear and uncertainty. Now I know I know I needed to go through that so I could free my inner child. She was trapped, living in the constant storm. But I have helped her heal. I know I still have a long journey, and I accept that. I have learned through all of this that is it under extreme pressure that diamonds are created. When I am finished with this journey, I hope I am one giant carat!
The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse is available for purchase on Amazon.