To tell honors the self—be the telling about something brimming with accolades or about something that bows the head in moments of shame and guilt. Telling liberates. It opens the way for forgiveness to sweep in. Telling saves.
Somehow we learn to swallow telling at a very early age. In elementary and middle school, even in high school scenarios, we learn that it isn’t cool to tell, that somehow it’s better to embrace your own hurt, shame and guilt for not telling than to “dishonor” the person(s) who hurt you. We learn to swallow the seed of toughness, of being able to accept disrespect to our bodies, minds and soul, to place another higher than ourselves.
Some parents chide their children about being tattletales. “Be quiet,” they say. “You don’t have to tell everything you know. Nobody ‘likes’ a tattle.” And if that isn’t bad enough, sometimes adults turn the venom of blame on victims instead of directing it towards the perpetrators of a wrongdoing. Sometimes we teach the betrayed, the hurt one, to protect a family member. We just don’t tell certain things. What will people thing of us, of our supposed loved ones who may be sick? In schools and on some mean streets, nobody wants to be a “snitch,” because, as the saying goes, “Snitches get ditched.”
The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell way of thinking needs to trail the “Don’t Tell If It Will Expose Another Acrimoniously” syndrome straight to the dumpsters. It has no place in our everyday. It leads to salacious secrets, buried hurts, and brooding shame.
Tell. And if no one listens, tell again. Tell until someone listens.
I broke my forty-one year silence and finally told beloved friends and family members about a rape that happened when I was a teenager at a classmate’s house party in Waterbury, CT. I told about the one that happened when I graduated from Tuskegee Institute at twenty-one. I have written the first draft of both experiences just this month, November 2014. I will edit and share the telling with others in December. And then I will share my telling with the world, along with the stories of other women who have survived rape and sexual molestation in a coming, ground-breaking anthology, TO HONOR THE HEART. I first spoke the words, “I was raped,” on a talk show while I interviewed Imani Evans, an amazing poet and the life force behind Women Healing Women, Inc., on The Claudia Moss LIVE Show in October 2013.
Why did it take me so long to tell, to honor my heart?
I bowed to shame. I was the smart one, the sibling who always strove to do the right thing. By the book. Yet I couldn’t go to a house party and not be molested. In my childhood, my father was a stern disciplinarian, who rarely allowed my siblings and me to hang out like other teenagers. The few times he let us go were wonderful, and then on a fated evening, the unspeakable happened. In my fifteen-year-old mind, there was no way I was going to tell him, my mother and siblings to suffer more disgrace. So I never told a familial soul…until I told my baby sister last year.
In my coming personal narrative, I tell what happened inside as a result of me not telling. What I learned to live with. I dimmed parts of my life and lived in shadows. Not telling does that to you. It immerses you in distance from yourself and others. And after I told I opened to dealing with what others had to say or what I thought they would say. No one wants to be thought of as that “wounded woman,” who has been raped, who has been hurt. But I learned that telling buoyed me above all of that. Telling was a salve to my spirit.
In September, while I was in St. Louis, a stranger who called himself Mike knocked on the front door. Tired, I’d remained up the night before, reading and writing, but my son had telephoned earlier, so I was up enjoying a telly conference with my sisters. I was alone. Not expecting anyone, I was jarred. My voice lowered and I strolled to the front of the house. With every part of me summoned to attention, I peeked down the stairs to get a look at the glass front door.
I could only see baggy jeans and the bottom of a heavy, chestnut-colored coat. My voice barreled down the staircase, annoyed. Interrupted. “WHO IS IT?” I prompted. That’s when he gave his name. My next question: “YES?”
“We were in the neighborhood and want to talk to you about a tract.”
Now that’s strange, I thought. My mind flew to the high-school track across the street, where I walked in the afternoons. Was he coming to ask me not to walk the track, but that couldn’t be it, could it? Then, suddenly, it occurred to me he meant tract. An informational piece. That’s when he said he was a Jehovah Witness.
“LEAVE IT IN THE SCREEN!”
I peeked around the corner from the top of the stairs from my second-floor vantage point, as my sisters listened. The male voice sounded thirty-something. Caucasian. The wide-legged stance looked twenty-something. If he bum-rushed the door, a part of my mind was already calculating an escape. Though states away, my sisters on my iPhone calmed me.
He seemed stymied, as though he wasn’t expecting my response or my decision not to descend the stairs.
I watched him pivot to face the street. He stood for a few motionless minutes before reaching in his coat pocket to fish out one piece of paper. Since when did Jehovah Witnesses begin witnessing alone, at 9:00 AM? A solitary male? With one page of what must be the WatchTower? Hmmm.
Waiting seconds longer, he finally walked off the porch, and I walked to the front windows, stood askance and watched a short, twenty-to-thirty-something white male across the street. The morning seemed too warm for the thick coat he wore. I studied him as he strode to the corner and climbed into a vehicle that might have been parked on the empty street before the house if he was speaking to the neighbors. When he drove away, my sisters and I began to discuss what had just happened.
A day passed.
I steeled myself. I wasn’t running, fearful that this man might return in the night. Deep within, I knew he hadn’t come to witness. I passed the night with one eye open, fatigued. And then I decided to report the incident to the police via their nonemergency department. I must have told my story at least six or seven times. Some officers were brusque. A female officer explained that no crime was committed. I said I understood, but something inside whispered that I should TELL. A few officers were compassionate, the last promising he’d have an officer to ride the street and that he was sorry I’d had that experience while visiting.
When I disconnected from the last officer, I leaned against the wall, exhausted. Felt like I’d been through a rigorous bootcamp. Emotion coursed through me. My eyes teared. The last officer’s words and tone touched me. “Call 9-1-1 immediately, if you see this man again,” he advised gently. I promised I would.
I’d told, I whispered to myself. I’d told the most important people. Though emotionally depleted, I felt victorious.
Later, on my final day in the city, I was told someone matching the man’s description had been robbing residents in the area during early morning hours. My heart seemed to whisper, “There is a peace, a power, in telling. Speak.”