Friday, July 22, 2016

The words I never expected to hear

Words. The individual components of language. While used to convey meaning, in and of themselves, in isolation, they hold no value. But in context, whether spoken or written, words hold power greater than any tool one can hold in the hand. 

As a survivor of childhood sexual assault, I have  heard a great number of words related to the abuse I endured. Some of them I wanted to hear, some I did not. And while I do think most people try to be supportive with the words they speak, quite a few folks simply miss the mark with what comes out of their mouths. I've listed some of the most memorable phrases said to me over the years. While most of the phrases people have used are pretty  predictable, and many of them quite encouraging; there have also been several that were unintentionally victim-shaming in nature, some that were just outright stupid, and a few that were rather unexpected. 

I think you will agree that the majority of these fall in the latter categories.

"Oh, Trisha. Boys do that sort of thing." 
That's what my mom said to me when I, at the age of 13, told her that I had been raped at 6 years old. She tried to compare being raped to being mooned, because they are totally the same thing.   

"I didn't know he had it in him." 
Those are the words my father used. My dad. I told him only because I thought all daddies wanted to protect their daughters, but I swear it was like my dad was impressed with the rapist. I still just shake my head when I think about it. Apparently neither of my parents had a clear understanding of the word 'rape.'

"He confessed to touching you. I asked him to take a polygraph, but he refused." 
That is what the detective wrote me in email after he interviewed the defendant. I was stunned. I couldn't believe what I had read, and had to re-read it multiple times. It was the first time I truly felt believed by someone with power. 

"Well, you're pretty, you speak well, and you have all your teeth. I can put you on the stand." 
Those would be the words of the Commonwealth Attorney after I told him my story and answered a few of his questions. I had no idea those were the three qualifications for prosecuting a case in Kentucky.

"The judge is tired of this case. I'm tired of this case." 
Words delivered by a disheveled and frenetic young prosecutor as she walked quickly away from me. The judge had just dismissed the case without prejudice, essentially washing away the three years of work to get to that point. We had to start over.

"I know who he is, and I can't believe he would do a thing like that." 
A clerk in the Hardin county courthouse, talking to me, the VICTIM, when I called to ask the status of the case after it had been refiled. 

"This is going to be hard, but if you are ready to fight, I'll tell you how to do it." 
The encouragement that came from Sharon Muse the first time I talked to her.

I knew winning a rape case 36 years after the fact would be difficult. No one needed to tell me that.  I knew it was a long shot. What I didn't know is how hard it was going to be to be a VICTIM in the judicial system. And what I also didn't know much harder it is to be that victim when you try to do it by yourself. 

There is no such thing as a cut & dry sexual assault case. But my case was  even more complicated because:
  • the crime occurred in 1976, prior to sex crime legislation
  • the rapist was 15 at the time of the rape, so technically he was a juvenile
  • the rapist's sister was the court clerk, so a special judge/clerk/prosecutor had to be assigned.
It took a little over a year for the court to decide which law to use in the case. The next two years the defense managed to block a transfer hearing (where I would testify) three times, finally causing the judge to dismiss the case altogether. When he dismissed without prejudice, defense appealed, twice. 

But through it all, I was alone. I mean, I had my wonderful husband, sons, and friends cheering me on; but I was the one to email or call the victim advocate in the prosecutor's office to get status updates. When hearings would get cancelled, the victim advocate would call me the day before and tell me, as if it explained things, "These things happen. The wheels of justice move slowly." I was alone on the front lines, and I had no back-up, no one to cover me. No one who really understood what was going on. No one to explain things to me. (While the victim advocate was very kind, she was quick to point out that she had no legal experience, and could not answer legal questions for me.)

I was in the third year of a four-year court battle when I reached out for help. The original prosecutor had stopped responding to my emails/phone calls. I contacted the Attorney General who told me to get an attorney. I contacted victim advocacy groups who told me to hire an attorney. Why did I need an attorney? I was the victim! The Commonwealth was supposed to protect my interests, right?

When I first met Sharon, I knew it was going to be ok. For the first time in three years, I felt like I had someone in my corner, someone who had both energy and knowledge. Someone who could lead me through the maze of the legal system in ways the legal system hadn't bothered doing. 

The first thing I learned from Sharon was something I already suspected; as a victim, I had no rights. That actually comes as a surprise to many well-educated adults, so if it seems counter intuitive to you, it's ok. The system is set up to protect the rights of the accused, innocent until proven guilty. The prosecutor protects the interest of the state, the law. As a victim, you're just along for the ride. 

Sharon was also the first person to point out to me that the way I remembered the abuse, the words I used to describe the things that happened, they were all normal and very typical of child victims. That I thought he was an alien only fortified my story. That I circled his location on a map when I found out he was stationed in Sicily wasn't silly, it was an important detail that could help a jury understand and believe me.

Sharon then gave me homework, a list of tasks to help me help the prosecutor win the case. She told me how to approach the new prosecutor, what to ask him, what to expect of him and the victim advocates. She was very honest that the case would be hard, but that given the right circumstances, winnable. She was also clear that I would have to continue to advocate for myself. 

By the time I talked to the new prosecutor I was armed with information. I had more details, dates, and names of potential witnesses should he want/need them. I was empowered and emboldened. He was impressed by my understanding of the system and willingness to do some of the foot-work for the case. We were all set to head to trial when the defendant agreed to a plea deal. I never had to testify, but rather I would tell my story in the form of a victim impact statement. 

"Say whatever you want!"
was the only advice the prosecutor gave me about my statement. He gave me no direction of any sort, and simply telling me there were no rules did not help me formulate a cohesive statement.  Again I reached out to Sharon. With her guidance, I crafted a 10 page statement that painted a clear picture of what he did, how he did it, how it made me feel, and how it impacted my and my husband's lives. She called me the night before the sentencing, simply to fill my head and heart with strength and hope. She was one of my tribe in the courtroom that morning. She helped me with the media that day. She brought me a scone because she knew I'd have trouble eating before court. She was an advocate, a protector, a prayer warrior, and a friend. 

She is the reason I tell victims to get an advocate. Not a victim advocate who works for the state. They, in my opinion, are useless. Every victim needs a knowledgeable, strong, passionate person in their corner; someone with fight. Someone with a little anger coated love. Or maybe it's love coated anger. Either way, I needed someone to be angry for me and with me. 

You do too. 

"Brilliant. Controlled rage." 

That's what the prosecutor said when I finished my victim impact statement.

"I'm guilty." 
Those are the words I never really expected to hear. I am so thankful to have it on tape. You can see me react when he says it, you can see me start to cry. I waited 40 years to hear those words, but it was worth it. And I'm so glad I didn't have to do it alone. 

You don't either. There are those like us who are ready and willing to stand beside you and fight with you. All you have to do is ask. 

Sharon Muse
Attorney, survivor, advocate

I am so glad that Sharon Muse and I became friends. Her story of survival continues to inspire victims everywhere. She works tirelessly to educate and empower. You can read her story here.

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