I’d read words like this and dismissed them. Cavalier, I reasoned (once again) that I had moved beyond my trauma. This has been a persistent pattern in my life. Ghosts-of-trauma-past knock on the door of my life, and I summarily shoo the memories away as if they were pesky flies buzzing around my periphery or a legion of unwanted salesman peddling overpriced magazines. Push against. Ignore. Move on. All better.
Or so I thought.
I had been researching to exhaustion, trying to find the names of the teenage boys who raped me repeatedly when I was five years old, but only ended where I started: with one last name.
Then Glenda, a friend of mine who had heard my story in Switzerland, told me she would help me uncover the mystery—but asked to invite her friend Nancy into the investigation. I agreed. Armed with my address, every possible memory I could salvage (there were many, and, come to find out startlingly accurate), and that single last name, Nancy inconvenienced herself—because that is what love does—and spent time at the Seattle Public Library pouring over records. Within a week, she had the answer I had searched decades for.
I still don’t know the name of the other perpetrator, but the one whose last name I knew now had a first name, a birth date, and a death date. I exhaled when I found out cancer had taken his life. I would not have to confront him. The fear of did-he-perpetrate-against-others persists. I simply do not know. At least in the legal system, no such felonies were listed.
What I did find out was this: the boy lived directly next door to the babysitter who forced me to venture out as a five-year-old with him and his predatory friend. Eva was as complicit as any entity that allows, profits from, or encourages sexual exploitation because I revealed the rapes, yet she chose to do nothing. Not only nothing, but she continued to push me out into the evergreen air to be violated under canopies of Douglas firs and hemlocks.
Armed with this new information, I made a decision. When we were back in Seattle, my husband, Patrick, and I would return to the place I had never revisited, so I could see everything, pray about it all, and find some peace from the trauma. Immediately after, we would have lunch with Glenda and Nancy, then venture to an island to celebrate our anniversary.
Knowing what I know now, I should have realized trauma and anniversaries do not mix.
As Patrick drove toward Alki beach in West Seattle, my stomach began its knotting—my breath shallowing, my heartbeat elevating. As we pulled up in front of the little white house I had called home during that traumatic year of my life, I wondered at its smallness. The white picket fence grayed and chipped before it, and the porch sagged. The day was crisp, the air scented with winter conifer. I breathed it in, smiled broadly, while Patrick snapped a picture. This home? Unsafe. This neighborhood? Brutal. My state on that street? Bereft, frightened, alone.
And yet I smiled.
We prayed together, asking God to bring further healing.
Afterward, we drove the one block it took to find Eva’s house. Between hers and the perpetrator’s stood a paved walkway, as if some homeowner from years past had been on cheerful terms with his neighbor and proposed such a permanent path. Did bouquets of flowers show up on each other’s porches on May Day? Did they exchange jams and jellies? The two homes loomed so close together that for the rapist to leave his house and knock on Eva’s back door (oh how I remember those knocks), it took maybe eight easy steps. Eight steps to ruin a little girl’s innocence.
How convenient it had been for him.
I shuddered. But I still smiled. Another snapshot recorded. Another prayer prayed as I remembered the interior of their house—that Boy Scout festooned bedroom where the violation continued while his mother baked cookies in the kitchen. She must have been the most uncurious mother on planet earth—her teenage son and his friend “playing” with a five-year-old’s small body.
I still blame her.
Remembering the Horror
We then located my elementary school—the place where I have no memories other than being teased for having a boyish haircut. I told Patrick, “The scary park where everything happened is connected to the school somehow.” But he shook his head and said he didn’t think so.
Another picture. Another prayer. I exhaled. But the grief thickened.
We drove another few blocks and entered Schmitz Park—a tangle of overgrown underbrush, too-tall evergreens, and a few walking trails. The sun could barely find its way to us, the trees crowded so thick. It was exactly as I remembered, down to brambled ravines where the perpetrators dragged me. I remembered the terror of helplessness I felt as I watched potential heroes walk the path above me, nonchalant. The boys had silenced me, threatened to kill my parents if I yelled. So I kept quiet, while people meandered above the ravine, oblivious.
We prayed. Patrick took a picture of me standing amid the evergreens while a single shot of sunlight highlighted my head. This would be my story of triumphant redemption over this trauma, I imagined. This picture would prove my pluckiness.
And, just as I had remembered, the park did connect to my school. Which is why when I speak about childhood sexual abuse, I tell adults to err on the side of listening belief. Everything I remembered was uncannily accurate. Every detail. This was no made up story.
We met Glenda and Nancy for lunch. I thanked them—though I had a hard time finding the words to do so. Theirs was a sacrifice that loomed like the scent of heaven. Glenda must’ve perceived that I was not the type to be satisfied with half-answers. No. The investigative reporter in me had an insatiable need to know who those boys were. I craved to know everything to make my peace. When the puzzle sat maddeningly incomplete, God saw fit to send Glenda and Nancy to unearth the missing pieces and hand them to me as sheer gift.
But even with the picture interlocked and mostly completed, my heart roiled.
We snatched a ferryboat to our island retreat while my stomach roared to insistent life.
The moment Patrick parked the rental car, I ran into the cabin, threw open what I hoped was the bathroom door, and vomited. Though logic smiled for snapshots, my body wretched in memoriam. For hours. And hours. So much so I wondered if I needed a hospital to replenish all that had been lost. I had hoped for a peaceful bow on a tragic time—what I found instead was trauma’s persistent presence.
Eventually, my body rid itself of everything within, and I flew home to Texas utterly spent. I had overestimated my ability to endure such memories. And I was left with those pictures of smiling me at every traumatic location. I read books. I stumbled onto quotes from Bessel A. van der Kolk like, “Long after a traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones. This precipitates unpleasant emotions intense physical sensations, and impulsive and aggressive actions. These posttraumatic reactions feel incomprehensible and overwhelming. Feeling out of control, survivors of trauma often begin to fear that they are damaged to the core and beyond redemption.” I wondered if hope would win.
And, yet, I still stand.
Eventually I realized winning and losing are unfair words when one has endured complex trauma. Better to use progress or resilience. Because that girl who had been violated so violently—who dared to stare down the demons lurking in Schmitz Park—is still here. She stands on two strong legs, still clinging to the savior who saved her at fifteen, ten years post violation. She listens to hundreds of stories of others who have walked their own trauma paths, and, hopefully, offers hope in return. She possesses empathy taller than an evergreen—it is her superpower, and it infuses every one of the books she has penned. And she is married nearly twenty-nine years to Patrick, the husband who prays for her still. She has parented three children, giving them an entirely different childhood than her own. And she dared to brave the haunting memories—a gutsy move.
Yes, trauma lingers. And triumph is not easy to define. The last name still haunts, as does the anonymity of the other boy I have yet to uncover. Jesus holds me in the in-between, in this liminal space between then, now, and not yet. One day the evil that is sexual abuse will be vanquished, heinous wrongs will be judged, and tears will cease, but today? Today I will take the next step toward healing, a little wiser, still fragile. I will walk forward for others. I will take a step for you. Because I firmly believe that the traumatized need mentors who have faced sexual abuse’s raging relentlessness and, yet, still stand.
Cover photo by Kyle Anderson.
 See: Bessel A. van der Kolk,The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma