I knew intuitively about sexual abuse long before I knew anything about the details of actual sex. My parents warned me about abuse back when I was still small and quiet and had hair the color of corn silk. They used soft words:
“If you don’t feel safe, ever, tell us. And run away.”
They used hard words, too:
“If any boy in school touches you in a way that makes you feel bad, punch him in the nose.”
The hard words surprised me. Really? A ticket to punch a boy in the nose?
They meant it, though, as much as they meant that I should look both ways before crossing the street.
Other kids got lessons about table manners, I guess. But as the child of social workers who had seen way too much abuse, I got routine reminders of the importance of openness. Because evil happens in the dark, where people don’t tell the truth.
I obeyed. Though I never had occasion to punch anybody in the nose (a minor disappointment, since I liked the drama of the idea) in circumstances of sexual threat—or at least perceived sexual threat—I told. I ran away, and then told.
At the behest of the campus chapter of the International Justice Mission, I just sat in the quiet hall of my dorm watching the documentary Nefarious, in which Benjamin Nolot displays his findings after traveling the world to expose the sex-slave trade (see video clip below). Nolot told, and told well. My mascara ran.
I recognized all the ingredients of abuse that my parents taught me about as I matured. Abuse, this complex event that means disruption of brain chemistry, mangling of the memory, and tearing of the soul like paper, this thing too hard to say aloud in an unsafe place—has ruptured the lives of millions of other women, when it might just as easily have ruptured mine.
Not until I came to college did I notice that Christians don’t usually talk about sexual abuse in the open. That difference between the incoming freshmen and myself in my class became almost comically apparent. I spouted abuse statistics over meals using therapeutic vocabulary (“self-protection,” “hypervigilance”) and wanted to know everybody’s “story.”
“You only do that,” my mother told me on my first Christmas break, “because you don’t know how painful abuse is.”
I felt the kind chastisement keenly. I hadn’t yet learned that in approaching someone’s story of abuse—part pleasure, part agony—you have to take your shoes off.
I grew up in a house where it was safe to talk. Younger brother-types from the prodigal parable splayed their hearts out at our dinner table, telling tales. Bold talkers flock together, I guess.
All over Manhattan, for the sake of public awareness about terrorism, signs are posted that read, “If you see something, say something.”
In the case of sexual abuse, jaw-dropping beauty can come from the “saying.”
The once-prodigals at the table summed their stories by saying, “God took the dirtiest part of my life and made it the best part.”
Nefarious ends the same way, with bruised people reveling in the love of God. Our silence about abuse could mean silence about the most exciting and urgent opportunity for ministry in the world.
So if you see something, say something. And may God make us ready—for the sake of the wounded among whom we walk, wounded ourselves—ready to hear what is being said.