Over two decades ago, I sat on a school bus next to a boy from my Christian elementary school. It was the first time I came face-to-face with the thought that men only wanted me for my body and I had no rights to it. It would take years for me to realize the impact his actions had on my mind, on my heart. I never wanted to see him again.
Then, one day, I went looking for him.
Sometimes healing takes you back into places you would rather not go. This past Fall, I spent a week at a writer’s intensive with Mary DeMuth. She has a heartbreaking story of abuse as a child and part of her journey of healing was to go back to the park where two teenage boys raped her regularly. She took her husband back and walked through the park, because that’s what would help her heal.
This year, I’m focusing on healing.
Part of that process means looking at significant moments in my life and making sure the wounds left aren’t still bleeding, so to speak.
I’m used to writing from a bit of an “expert” perspective on issues. Not that I am an expert in anything, but, typically when I write, the leader and teacher comes out: Here’s the issue. Here’s why it matters, and here’s what we need to do.
That’s not this post. This is one of the most intensely personal posts I’ve ever written. This isn’t written to try to tell you how to heal or deal with trauma in your own life. It is simply a glimpse into my journey.
I write because there are so many women out there (see the recent #metoo movement) who wonder what healing and moving on looks like. I write because I’ve stood on a stage, acknowledged the silent victims of sexual assault in the room and said, “You can know freedom without ever knowing justice.” I feel like I owe them a glimpse into what that looks like for me.
So many women want to know if their journey is some form of normal.
What happened on the school bus decades ago… I don’t talk about it much. The memory is a bit dull and rusty around the edges. It’s fading (thankfully) as I get older, but I can still feel the emotion of it- the embarrassment, the shame, the “please when is this going to be over?”
I can revisit many memories, but there are three in my life I would love to never remember again. This is one of them.
In fact, the first time I recall talking about it in my adult life I was going after my pastors for how they were treating a victim of alleged abuse. They had stood on the stage and called her a liar, and publicly absolved the men accused of wrongdoing, and reinstated them to positions in the church.
“It couldn’t have happened the way she said it did,” they said, “that’s in public! That’s not probable.”
“It doesn’t get more public than a window seat on a public school bus,” I told them. “And the reason I never told anybody was because I knew no one would believe me.”
I was no older than nine years old when my classmate asked me to take off my clothes for him. On the school bus. He was incessant, telling me he had sisters so he had obviously seen it all before. It was no big deal, he said. If I was his friend, I would do this.
This went on for days.
Eventually, I did. I remember staring out the window. Sick. Confused. Scared. While he took off his pants and sat beside me. Both naked from the waist down.
I never told anyone. Who would believe me?
I cannot imagine what it must be like for victims who have endured more.
After the bus, things changed. He began telling people he was my boyfriend. One day, on the way to the playground, he and another classmate were arguing over whose girlfriend I was (for the record: neither’s).
To prove I was his, the boy from the school bus grabbed me and kissed me on the lips. I protested – frustrated, embarrassed. We both got in trouble. I had to sit beside him on the bench while our classmates had recess.
For years, he was allowed to come over to our house. He would come into my room and sit beside me on the bed. It felt like he was always with me. When I tried to protest, I was forced to “get along.”
There was no sanctuary. No safe place. No rest.
My room wasn’t safe. My bed wasn’t safe. My church wasn’t safe.
Nowhere was safe.
I once went back home to visit and he was at my old church- our old church. My brothers saw him staring at me from across the sanctuary. The moment service was over, he hustled across the auditorium toward me. I ran. I had a full-blown panic attack.
I never wanted to see him again.
There has never been a desire for justice. You can’t hold elementary age children permanently responsible for actions they don’t fully understand. One out of three perpetrators of sexual abuse are minors and there’s no great way to deal with this.
I’ve never wanted to out him. We were kids, and, if this field has taught me anything, it’s that he was likely the victim of some sort of sexual abuse. That’s why he did what he did. It’s never been a desire of mine to ruin his life anymore than it probably already was.
I just want to move on with my life and pretend this never happened. That’s what I want.
I want to not be so territorial about my room, my bed, my personal space. I want to function without suspecting every man of some sort of perversion. I want to have boundaries without needing to explain them or defend them.
If I could go back and do it over, somehow wiser as a nine-year-old, I would have told somebody what he was asking me to do. If I felt there was somebody I could actually tell.
Then, maybe, he would have gotten help. Maybe I would have gotten help and wouldn’t be having panic attacks as a grown adult running from him in church. Then again, maybe no one would have believed me and everything would have been worse.
Over the years, as I’ve seen cases involving child abuse, predators, etc, I’ve heard several times that the ones who abuse as a child grow up to be predators as adults. The statistics are sobering.
One day, I thought back to how he told me he had seen his sisters naked. Wait… was that normal? Was I the first person he asked? Why would he ask me to do that?
So, I started to look for him. I don’t know what I was hoping to find. Answers to questions I didn’t know I was asking. Was he in jail? Had he hurt other girls?
Should I have said something?
I had gone from never wanting to see him again to desperately needing to know where he was.
I was overcome with guilt The thought that my silence could have somehow inadvertently hurt others drove me to keep looking. I searched sexual predator databases, searched newspaper articles from the state where he last lived. I even tried to log into my old MySpace account to see if I could find him.
After hours of searching, I recalled his sister’s name, and found her. An old family picture she had posted on her wall confirmed I had the right person.
I found myself just staring at his face, frozen in time. He was ten years old in the picture, just about the age he was on the school bus. I stared, choking back emotion- not anger, not sorrow, just emotion. It was like ripping a scab off a wound. You think it’s over, and then it starts bleeding everywhere and you realize it isn’t over.
A suicide awareness post on his brother’s Facebook page made me wonder if he was dead- and then I felt horrible for that. If I had said something, maybe they could have gotten him help…. I started searching through obituaries.
Then, I tried one last search.
And I found him– alive, happily married with a family, living back where we grew up.
I scrolled through pictures, looked into the eyes of his children, looked at posts from his wife. (Watch what you share on social media).
They’re happy, I thought.
And for a moment, I didn’t know what to do with that. Was I angry that he seemed to “have more” than I did? Had I secretly been hoping he had landed himself in jail? Did I wish him dead?
Had I really forgiven him?
I sat there, staring at the screen trying to figure out what I felt and what I needed to feel.
What does forgiveness look like in this context and how to you balance that with experiences?
Perhaps there isn’t a right answer.
I looked through a couple more pictures- him kissing his wife. Him smiling into the camera with one of his daughters. The family standing outside of a livestock trailer. There was nothing- no reason to believe that the people in his life were anything less than loved and cared for.
What if, Jessica… what if he’s a victim just like you? What if he was just acting out on you something he saw or had done to him? What if his story is more like yours than you realize?
Can I forgive the 9 year old him, even though that little boy will never ask for forgiveness?
Can I accept that little boy is gone, now grown into a man who probably forgot about the school bus long ago?
Can I live with the fact that he is living his life, that he is happy, that he probably isn’t waking up every day wracked with guilt over what he did?
I thought about it a while. Then, I closed the internet window and shut down the computer. Yes, I can, because that’s what healing looks like for me.
There is no “justice” in this case, not because the incident is so old, but because we are both different people. We are two children, since grown.
This isn’t a case of an adult, knowing what they are doing, taking advantage of a child. If that’s your story, please know you can pursue justice. Still, many won’t, because the idea of a court case is too hard. Because the fear of having someone stand on a stage and call you a liar is too real.
National Sexual Assault Hotline (USA): 1-800-656-4673
For those people, I stand on that stage and tell you I’m sorry. I’m sorry that this is part of your story, because it should never be part of anyone’s story. I tell you that if it haunts you, you should sit down and talk it out with a counselor so you can know healing and freedom.
Healing for me has no justice. It never will. If it somehow comes to light that he has hurt other girls, I will be the first to seek justice for them. I will take the stand and visit that bus and the moments that followed if it means helping protect others.
But for now, healing centers on forgiveness and grace. It is being able to walk forward, forgiving that little boy who has long since grown up. It is acknowledging what happened was wrong, and never should have happened. If I had told somebody then, things might have been different now. But I didn’t, so here we are.
Healing is knowing that, while things forever shape, they don’t have to define. It’s knowing I don’t have to live trapped in that moment in time- feeling helpless, voiceless, and scared.
Healing is knowing that I have a worth, identity and value that exists outside of my sexuality. It is knowing that I am redeemed and whole and am not “damaged goods.” It is knowing that, yes, I can love. I can trust. I can be in a relationship without needing to be afraid that my boundaries will be broken.
If I’m honest, for me, healing is less about forgiving a boy who crossed a line, though that’s definitely part of it. Healing, I’ve found, is more about forgiving that little girl who never told.