by Jennifer McKeen Rodrigues
Jennifer currently lives on the sacred Powhatan land of Fairfax, VA. She is trained as a certified yoga therapist & trauma informed yoga teacher, is a military spouse, & mom. The following story is an excerpt from her unpublished memoirs about the complex trauma she survived in childhood, to include an eleven-year long, rare bone marrow disorder & facing death at six years old. She has had poetry & photography published in several literary journals.
Surviving Childhood Sex Abuse
Freshman year of high school, as I was about to use the restroom in the main building, a vision hit me so hard I forgot how to breathe. What I saw was me as a little girl, nine or ten, standing in the trailer my neighbors used as storage in their backyard. This was a legit single-wide trailer a family would live in, not a storage shed. It was haphazardly packed with boxes, broken lamps, a busted recliner, baby toys from the 1970s, holiday decorations, and filled so tightly that you could barely walk through it. Windows were blocked by boxes and chairs, there was no way to get to the door at the other end of the trailer. It smelled dusty and humid. I was there with my neighbor, Mike, who was several years older than me, around fourteen or fifteen. I couldn’t see what had happened in that storage trailer, but I just knew that, whatever it was, it was something very wrong. In order to cope with whatever was in that flashback, my brain had stored those memories in the shadows of my mind, just as all that unused junk was stored in that trailer. Unlike that trailer, though, my mind never got cleaned out, and so it started throwing memories out like a mom cleaning her kid’s bedroom, something I didn’t know how to handle.
Once the recollections started coming back, the memories became crystal clear in my mind. I’ll give you some back story of my life at that time. I was eight years old. My mom had left and my dad played in a local band nearly every weekend. The bass player, Bubba, our across-the-street neighbor, lived in a double-wide with his second wife, Trudy, and two sons, Mike and Travis. On the weekends when the band was playing, my brother, Craig, and I would stay the night at the neighbor’s house while Trudy watched all four of us kids. This went on for quite some time, a couple of years. Craig and I were used to the routine, though as the only girl among three pretty rough boys, I didn’t like it.
One night was different. This night, Mike insisted I sleep on the floor in his bedroom. I usually slept on the couch or on the floor next to Craig in Travis’ room. I lay on the floor in the dark, watching the outside light softly glow in the arching window in Mike’s room. Then he started to touch me. I was frozen. The only thing I could do was breathe and look at that window. The muted light and the darkness were all my senses were allowing me to tune into. The next morning was the first time I had the thought, “I’m so disgusting. I need to take a shower so badly.” Most kids at that age fight against bathing, but I wanted to spend the rest of the year cleansing myself.
My brain protected me from remembering any sensations from the many times he touched me over the years. When he would take me to the woods next to his house alone. When a group of us kids were watching a movie in my dad’s room, sitting on the bed while he fingered me. When Mike found my dad’s Playboy magazines,
He told me to take my clothes off and pose like the ladies on the pages. And the ballsiest, and luckily, last thing he did. It was a summer evening, and my dad’s band was practicing downstairs at our house. The windows were open; we could hear the music and my dad’s singing. Mike, my brother, and I had been playing baseball outside, but the sun had set and it was now dark. We were lying on the sharp grass, smelling summer and just listening, when Mike said to me, in front of my brother, “Hey Jenn, come lay on top of me.” I was petrified with fear. He had never made an overt statement like that before in front of someone, his actions were always hidden from others. I waited for Craig to question what Mike said, but there was silence. Then, and I can’t explain it, something gave me a push of bravery; I said no, went to my room, and locked the door. But that fear did not dissipate right away.
To be honest, it was very confusing for eight-year-old me, largely because – and I despise writing this, but—before this all started to happen, I had a crush on him. Then one day when I was ten, we learned Mike had been sent off and would not be coming back. I could only think, “Thank God it’s over!” It had only been a year that passed that one of my dad’s friend’s sons, who was well into his teenage years, went swimming with me and he touched me. As soon as he did this, I jumped out of the pool and ran into the refuge of my room, never allowing myself to be in the same room as him again. But I remember thinking, is this how it is, are older boys always going to touch me?
I don’t understand how the people in my life were so oblivious to what was going on. For two years Mike singled me out and succeeded in getting me alone. Taking me to the storage trailer, the woods, and the pool. I felt like I didn’t have a single protector in my life. As I progressed through my teenage years, the flashbacks did, too. They were pervasive and would show up while I was in class, doing homework, or taking a bath. There was no rhyme or reason for them coming to mind.
In my freshman year of college, I read a great article about other women who had survived many different types of sex abuse. One of the contributors had a story similar to mine, I devoured every word she shared. I reread it to make sure I truly understood how she coped and moved on from her past and practiced her method of healing. One coping strategy was to remember that none of what happened to her was her fault, nor did it define who she is. So I repeated that to myself as a mantra. Something else she said resonated with me: he was a kid too. This took some power away from him in my memories and my mind. Now that I have trauma training, I recognize that he was probably also the victim of childhood sex abuse, as tends to be the pattern for abusers. The writer said she forgave her abuser because holding on to that pain and anger didn’t help her, so I mentally forgave that boy. This did not happen overnight. It took time and daily practice. But when I released him, the flashbacks stopped.
Even after the flashbacks ceased, there was a time when I thought that the only thing guys wanted and expected of me was sex, though it wasn’t what I truly wanted. I feel that this was a lingering trauma from the sex abuse. I may have had some opportunities to act out sexually, but when my body said no, I listened to it. Still, deep down I felt that my only role was for sex, something I didn’t realize until college thanks to an incident with one of my best male friends. He was this redneck who loved country music, fishing, and chewing dip. We were the exact opposite of each other, yet got along so well.
He was a drummer in a local band and sometimes I’d go to his shows for support. One time, his band had an exciting gig. He asked if I would dress in something raunchy and dance on stage while they played. I was appalled that he would try to objectify me. I realized right then that my worth was not based on my sexuality, I ended our friendship with a new and complex view of myself.
Afterwards, I had a lot of mending to do; I had to figure out who was I going to be. Unfortunately, at the time I didn’t have anyone to work with, and there were many techniques I ended up employing to change that view of myself. One was maturity, which comes over time, often with experience and awareness. Another was surrounding myself with more wholesome people. Yet another was managing my inner dialogue. I think we can all agree that’s a tough beast to tame into a polite tiger, but it’s possible. Along the road of healing, I learned about a centuries-old practice originally written by Indian philosopher Patanjali in The Yoga Sutras: "when disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite ones should be thought of.” I repeated to myself every day that I wasn’t a sex object, instead, a woman with a good heart and a smart brain. This was a process, it still is, but I’ve come to believe that if you don’t give up on you, or your journey, anyone can be healed: in their way and, on their terms.
When I turned thirty, I was in crisis mode. I realized that I hadn’t healed very much – my life and the people in it were still not what I wanted. Inspired by Eastern Body, Western Mind, written by author and healing teacher, Anodea Judith, I started a thirty-day challenge. I looked in the mirror and said aloud, “I love you.” The first time was as awkward as a middle school dance, and I busted out laughing, but it got easier. Towards the end of the challenge, I didn’t even need to say a word; I felt self-love just looking in the mirror, and that was an immense feeling.
Another effective action I use began after my daughter was born. In her incredible book, The Language of Emotions, Karla McLaren explains that empowering others can help a survivor’s healing process, and that taking control of the situation can help one stop ruminating about what happened in the past. When I read this, I felt like I’d been given an invitation: I was going to empower my daughter.
From the time she was a baby, I would tell my daughter that no one had permission to touch her if she didn’t want them to. It was simple, but it got me into the practice of being comfortable talking to her about her body and boundaries. I know these conversations can be uncomfortable, but I promise: it’s far more painful to find out your child has been abused than to have these talks.
As she’s gotten older and established closer relationships with family and friends, I’ve included family members, peers, and other adults not allowed to touch her when she doesn’t consent. She doesn’t have to hug or touch anyone she doesn’t want to, and I encourage her self-respect by listening to her body and wisdom. I’ve taught her what to do if someone does touch her in a way she doesn’t like, to tell adults she trusts. I understand that not everything can be prevented, but the better she knows how to handle that type of situation, the less likely she is to become a victim.
My journey has unfolded through the decades, with blossoms of growth and moments of stillness. I’ll continue to speak up and encourage empowerment in others. I will never give up on my own or another’s progress. The sad but connecting fact is that survivors of sex abuse are not alone. Don’t look away, keep moving forward.