Fiction: Silence

Fiction: Silence

WO Silence ARTBy Jennifer Palmer

Jocelyn settles onto the lumpy mattress, closes her eyes. Listens.

The faucet in the corner leaks, a forlorn plop sounding as each drop hits the tarnished sink. The ceiling fan, the lone luxury of the place, clicks with each rotation, keeping time with the beating of her heart. The thin walls do little to mask noise from outside: the cacophony of car horns, the crackle of tires, the dull roar of the freeway. The person upstairs rolls over in bed, the creak of worn-out box springs clearly audible. Next door, she can hear the sounds of playing, a little girl humming to herself.

A door crashes against the wall in the little girl’s room and Jocelyn jumps, then curls instinctively, protectively, around her middle, her face against her knees, her hands shielding her head. The humming stops, replaced by a masculine voice, its angry tone cutting through the girl’s protests. A slap, the sharp, sickening sound of flesh hitting flesh, then a dull thump. The child cries out, prompting more shouts from the man. The door slams shut. All that is left are whimpers, soft sobs, muffled gasps.

Jocelyn shakes on the floor for an eternity. Gradually, the tremors lessen, then still. She uncurls, her motions furtive, before she remembers where she is. She looks at the faucet, the fan, the window, marveling at her freedom, then reaches for the wall. Leaning close, she listens, but all is silent next door. Perhaps she imagined it. Surely that’s it.

She gets to her feet, washes her face in the basin, looks at herself in the cracked mirror. She shakes her head slightly, as though to rid her mind of some thought, some ghost, then hurriedly splashes water on her face. Time to get to work; she managed to land a job at the diner down on the corner, and her shift begins soon.

Hours later, she returns, her feet sore, her back tired, a dull ache behind her eyes. Hunger battles against nausea, and she nibbles some soda crackers pilfered from the waitress stand at work. Everything hurts. Waiting tables is a thankless job, but she has money in her pocket, a start towards rent and groceries and a life free of him, and so can tolerate all the rest.

Her bedtime routine is simple. She washes her face, brushes her teeth, crawls onto the bare mattress on the floor. She breathes deeply, willing herself to relax. She is safe.

She drifts toward sleep, but the nightmare one wall over repeats itself. The door crashing open. The angry voice. Slaps and thumps. A child’s cries. Again, she huddles on her side of the wall, shivering in mute solidarity with the girl next door.

When it is over, she reaches for her phone, hands shaking, then stops in terror. He is there, looming over her, fists upraised.

“Little whore! Who do you think you are? Just like your mother. Worthless.”

She shrinks into the corner. Her hand moves involuntarily to her stomach, rests there for a moment. She closes her eyes, inhales deeply, then picks up the phone. It takes her three tries to punch in the number. She whispers to him as it rings. “You’re not really here. I am free of you. You’re not really here.”

A voice on the other end of the line, kind, calm, asks about her emergency, waits patiently as she chokes out her story, encourages her to repeat herself, just a bit louder, please. She says the words for the girl next door that nobody ever said for her.

“He’s hurting her. Come save her. Please, before it’s too late.”

She sits alone in the dark and waits for what seems like hours before the siren echoes outside, before boots ricochet in the stairwell, before fists fall on the thin wood of her neighbor’s door.

“Police! Open up!”

Curses then, muttered threats, a door thrown wide. Muffled conversation—she can’t quite make out the words—but her neighbor grows more and more belligerent. His daughter begins to cry. The man shouts something about his rights and is met by the calm, firm response of the officer. The door slams; the girl’s sobs recede. Jocelyn rushes to the window, sees a uniformed man helping a small form into the back of a cruiser, and a small prayer whistles out from between her clenched teeth.

“Keep her safe. Please, keep her safe.”

She lies down, then, closes her eyes, feels the barest flutter, the hope of the future, in her womb. As the tears leak out from underneath her eyelids, she listens. The drip of the faucet. The click of the fan. The horns and the tires and the freeway. And beyond that: silence.

Jennifer Palmer worked as an electrical engineer until her daughter was born, but has always been a writer at heart. She now scribbles in her journal between diaper changes, composes prose in her head as she rocks a baby to sleep, and blogs about finding the beauty in everyday life at She lives with her husband and daughter in the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California.



WO Scream Art

“NOOOOOOOO!!!” My oldest daughter screamed as loud as she could. She was the third one to yell at the dinner table.

First was my 4-year-old daughter. Then me. Then my oldest daughter. Then my 9-year-old son. And finally, my husband.

After each scream we cheered. Big, real cheers. Around the table. Half-eaten plates in front of us, darkness outside, the baby in his high chair. He wasn’t used to all that noise. I wonder what he thought.

“Let’s do it again!” We all took turns, louder and louder, wilder and wilder. If you walked by our house that evening you might have pounded on the door, worried, asking, “Is everything okay in there?”

“Not really.” I would have answered, if answering honestly.

When my husband screamed, I felt uncomfortable, even a little scared. His was a roar that echoed from the depths of him, from a part we know exists but see rarely, the frightening, intimidating rage of a father whose child had been harmed.

Mine, perhaps, cracked as it passed my lips.

Not because my rage was less than his. Rather mine had come already.

It had come in waves, pushing to destroy, annihilate, torture. It wanted to burn, break, kill. My screams had already moved into the air, into nothing.

I did it when nobody was around, a couple times while driving alone—the few moments I had alone—screaming out loud, envisioning what I’d do to the trash who had hurt my daughter, if I could, and if he weren’t a child himself, one who’d spent his first years in foster homes, unattached, broken, disturbed, dangerous, old enough to know better, manipulative, terrifying, with parents who preferred the depths of sand over actual air.


The one I’m in now. The one I didn’t ask for. The one created by two hours at a house with a sick child, and a powerless one, mine. Mine was the powerless one. By trust in parents who didn’t deserve it. By “friends” who came in the back door, quickly, casually, quietly, with a smile that overwhelmed my mother’s instinct.

“You must empower her. Her agency was removed. She needs to have her power rebuilt.”

So we yell, loud. We scream. We wail. We throw our hands out and kick. She beat the shit out of a giant stuffed puppy in her therapist’s office. Then she stood up triumphantly and declared, “He’s dead.”

We sat silently as she walked over to the dollhouse, to play again.

Later, she pulled the puppy up and said, “He’s not dead anymore.”

I felt sad. I wanted him to bleed forever there on the soft carpet.


I don’t want to teach her to protect herself. I don’t want that to be her reality. I don’t want her to know that people who are stronger can do things to her if they please.

I want the puppy dead. And her, I want her to not even notice.

I want to go back to a month ago when she didn’t even notice. When there wasn’t even a puppy to decimate.

When I told the other kids, they banded together in support of you, their little sister. When I told the older kids, they too were launched unwillingly here. We don’t keep secrets in this family and we can’t be separated because the assault was on one body. It was on us all.

A friend said we are a soft place to land, this home. Our house. The people in it.

Come in, child, we have you.

Your older sister reads you stories on the floor more than she used to. Your brother plays games with you and lets you win sometimes, or overlooks your cheating, even though he’s young enough that it’s still hard for him. And at dinner, oh, at dinner, the thousand times we’ve sat together, meaninglessly, and talked, fought, chatted, flailed, we fight over who gets to sit by you.

You smile. Laugh. Throw your head back.

Your dad and I probably have tears in our eyes. We glance at each other, at each child, but mostly at you these days. You were stolen from us, for mere moments. You were taken and changed against our knowing. Our greatest fear and agony was that your spirit would break, that you would change somehow (your light, your power, your joy), move beyond the reach of the arms we thought were long enough, just inches beyond our fingers. You were torn from the fabric of our bodies and minds and left alone in a room for mere moments with evil. But that was all it needed.

It is not the evil you suspect. It is the evil you refuse to suspect.

We can only bring you home.

We can only sit here and scream in unison on your behalf and watch your eyes light up at the power of our sound. We can only scream the wails of a hundred thousand hurt children today, yesterday. One of our own. You. The scream crushed and crawling half-dead across the floor, bleeding and pathetic and hopeless, wracked with the knowledge of powerlessness, of children just out of reach, of our own baby’s body violated.

But the scream of the power of moving on, up, forward, tiny fists held in the air, triumphant and shaking, unruly blonde locks held in the hands of a brother, sister, mother, father and the ever-widening circle of people beneath you, around you, holding, cradling and rocking you, as you fall softly, kick, scream, wail and rise again.

Note: The author of this piece prefers to stay anonymous.

Anecdotes of a Girl

Anecdotes of a Girl

By Jacqueline Maria Pierro

WO Anecdotes of a Girl ART

My Father

It is the dead of winter yet my bedroom window is wide open to a black sky devoid of stars and compassion. Frigid. I’ve removed the screen and pulled back the curtains allowing full entry should Peter Pan find my house and fly me away, enveloped in fairy dust to the Never Land. As I watched the dawn creep upon the dark, my tears fell cold upon my cheek: Peter wasn’t coming. I have only one visitor that night; another visit in which I had to stare with empty eyes at the room’s hideous skin—my posters of innocence were obnoxious now, the cotton candy paint I’d picked out in Home Depot was ugly now. I guess I was ugly. Well, not to him. But I wished I was ugly to him, or plain, or just his kid—the kid that you play softball with in the front yard and read Grimm’s Fairy Tales to at night and maybe build stuff with, like clubhouses or go-carts. I wasn’t that kind of kid though; I am the one who he visits at night, who he makes keep his secrets and then they turn into my secrets.


As my reality becomes unlivable I start to read an endless amount of books. When Peter failed to find me I decide to read about Narnia. Soon I was crying silent tears and waiting for Aslan to roar in and let me bury my small face in his glorious fur. Then I read the Bible and prayed for Jesus, God, Mary, Joseph, any one of the Apostles to appear in a sort of diaphanous manner, speak in magnificent echoes and carry me away on a song to Heaven. Then I read Sybil and tried to convince my psyche to formulate new and stronger personalities to compensate for the frailty that I felt. I was shattered inside yet my skin stayed together holding it all in; I was both the captor and captive of the particles which bound me together. Stuck and lost within endless walls and secrets.


He brought me home presents in his briefcase. I ran down my long block on my skinny legs anticipating his arrival each day. Or I peered out the window and counted cars, trying to guess how many would pass before I would see him stroll down our street in his business suit. His briefcase always held some sort of treat: a cool pencil, stickers that smelled when you scratched your nail across them, a small set of magic tricks. One evening when I was twelve he came in my room after work and opened his briefcase to give me my treat. It was some sort of lacy red panty and bra set. He said I could wear it for him if I felt comfortable enough, like maybe when my mom wasn’t around or something. I took it and crumpled it into my drawer as far back as it would go and sometimes when I caught a glimpse of it I would feel sick, like I was going to pass out or like I couldn’t really breathe too well. I think I just hated that thing. On a Tuesday when no one was home I took it out of my drawer and tried it on and looked in the mirror. And then I felt like I hated myself.


As I walked home from school that day when I was 12 I felt this overwhelming urge to just be normal. And then I saw him standing at the end of our driveway with this smile on his face saying he was happy to see me. I wasn’t happy and I told him that I wanted to be normal and that I wanted him to just stop. To just leave me alone and to love me, but in some other way that doesn’t make me feel bad. He nodded his head slowly and said that he understood and he was sorry, he would never do things to me again, but that of course our relationship would change and he couldn’t be that nice to me anymore. He said he would have to treat me like shit because I obviously didn’t love him and that I better not say anything to my mother.. So I told him that he could treat me like shit then. I walked inside and that began the next few years of him not being nice to me. I guess I was just a disappointment so it was easier to call me names or hit me when he was angry.


When it was warmer out I started to find freedom in running away. I left my house with a backpack full of books rather than clothes. I ran to fields of broken glass whereupon I could escape into tales and legends and words and pages; the words danced and sang to me—they were my elixir, soporific and hypnotic—they gave me temporary amnesia. Some days it was raining and my clothes stuck to me in the most uncomfortable way and I just couldn’t go back to that house to change and maybe open my drawer and see that ugly lacy red thing that he wanted to see me in.


Home was just an illusion that I clung to but I wasn’t going to go there because he was there. Often I watched the night silently turn to day in some random house or another; I was almost 14, the secrets that I had inside had devoured my spirit. So I wandered. I played chess with those old guys in Washington Square Park and explored Manhattan; I could feel its pulse beating under my feet and I had to write the skyline in words, ascribe letters to each smell, to the cacophony of sounds that somehow made sense, and to the faces. I walked across the George Washington Bridge to the familiarity of New Jersey and was drawn to the walkways along the Hudson River where I would sit and write what I saw from afar. But I wanted to go home. To make microwave popcorn and sit in my cozy chair and watch TV shows and see my family. I knew he would be there; I had never told so I was the bad one—the black sheep, the runaway. The difficult child.


When I was 14, I told my mother. It just came out, my mouth was moving and I heard the words but I didn’t feel like I was actually telling her everything; it was more of an uncontrollable spewing of words. Oh, her face. In my wanderings my eyes had seen the unspeakable, things that a child really shouldn’t have seen (was I ever a child?) but her face—that is an image that I can never escape. Shattering (I knew how it worked) starts on the inside and sometimes it slowly permeates the skin so one can actually see the blood drain to make way for the anguish which takes up so much space. I have crushed my family with my truth and soon the cop cars and lights and the guilt and embarrassment in his eyes made it all real. I ate Frosted Flakes as they led him out in handcuffs. They had disgusted faces.

I never saw him again.

Author’s Note: Ironically, shortly after the completion of this essay, my father tried to contact me. Throughout my life I’ve felt this strange, little desire to communicate with him; however I’ve come to realize that I was actually craving to communicate with an “alternate version” of my father. But there is no alternate versionhe is that man whom I’ve written about; he exists on these pages and not in between the lines. And so I don’t think I can pick up that phone call.  

Jacqueline Pierro is a student at Columbia University in the City of NY and single mother to three amazing children. After graduating in May she will continue work on her novel in progress.



Forgiving My Mother

Forgiving My Mother

WO Forgiving My Mother ARTBy Anne Penniston Grunsted

In a lifetime of moments, most are quickly forgotten. Only a tiny number are retained, and most of these are filed away in our mind, reminiscences that can be pulled out or put away as desired. But a few, our very most profound moments, transcend the vagaries of memory and etch themselves into our very brain. They become part of us, always present. My etchings include the moment my son emerged from my partner’s womb, the phone call telling me my father was dead, the day my mother looked away when she could have stopped me from being raped.

The day my mother didn’t protect me.

It happened when I was five or six. One of my older siblings had recently run away from home, an act of defiance that left my mother reeling. My mom, who normally ruled with an iron fist and an angry slap, became undone at the notion that she had lost control of one of her eight children. Anxiety consumed her. She literally became sick with it; for months she could not leave the house without experiencing a severe case of diarrhea. Overwhelmed, she disconnected. And we children who hadn’t yet grown up and achieved separateness from her, were stuck in the house, stagnating, afraid to disturb her.

My father was a warm and hard-working man, but completely out of his depth with respect to my mother’s issues. He kept a careful distance from the drama in the household, so careful that I never considered asking for his help in any matter concerning my mother. I knew she would fiercely retaliate against me if I dared circumvent her authority, and he would never be vigilant enough to protect me from her.

My mother had long assigned many of the tasks related to my care to my older siblings, and during this time of turmoil, she assigned my brother the job of turning on the water for my nightly shower. It was a ridiculous chore, one I was more than capable of doing. But that’s what anxiety can do; she was irrationally worried I would burn myself and so overlooked the very real problem of having an eleven-year-old boy supervise a small girl’s bath time.

Every evening he forced me to undress in front of him.

When I argued that he should turn on the water and leave before I undressed, he said that if I didn’t do what he said, he would tell our mother. And in those days, the angry attention of my mother was still the worst scenario my mind could conjure.

So I did what I was told, to keep the peace.

But it’s the things that your mind can’t imagine that become the basis for the most difficult kinds of anxiety. As I sought to avoid my mother’s negative attention, fear of my brother was exerting ever-increasing pressure inside of me, demanding release. I lived in constant dread and with the growing certainty that something terrible awaited me beyond the undressing in front of him. I was too young to understand what that something was, but my fear of it and him soon eclipsed my desire to escape my mother’s attention.

And so, after a few weeks of the undressing, I turned to her.

And thus begins the moment that changed my life forever, an instance of immeasurable harm.

I approached my mother, trying to be casual, trying not to upset her. “Can I take my shower by myself?” I asked.

“No. You’ll burn yourself.”

“But I don’t like him helping me.” And then I paused, taking a giant leap into the unknown, telling her as much as I had the words for. “He makes me undress in front of him.” My casualness gave way to uncontrollable sobbing.

My mother’s jaw clenched and her eyes hardened at my revelation. She did not misunderstand what I was telling her, but if the truth had penetrated her conscience for a moment,it was quickly, and by sheer force of will, expelled from her mind.

As if to emphasize her rejection of my plight, she physically turned away from me, denying me comfort. She said nothing to me, then or ever.

And she chose not to save me.

Instead she called to my brother who was listening from the next room and told him to “knock it off.” That was the final word, the only discussion.

Now, “knock it off” is an appropriate rebuke when your child has thrown a tennis ball against the side of the house for the hundredth time, or is laughing uncontrollably because someone has passed gas in church. It is not how you stop a pedophile. That requires engagement, and my mother had none of that for me.

She did not stop the shower ritual. She never listened outside the bathroom door to see if I was safe. I don’t know if she ever gave the moment a second thought. And because of her inaction, my abuse continued, and then worsened.

When, a few months later, the terror moved from the bathroom to my bedroom, I chose not to risk another rejection from her and instead learned to disassociate while my brother stuck his hands between my legs and fondled me. I recited the rosary obsessively, dozens of times a day, the repetition numbing my mind and the prayers acting as my penance.

A couple of years later, after my brother lay on top of me and penetrated me, I spent months pounding my stomach at night, praying that I wasn’t pregnant. And, again, I told no one. Because I had no one to tell.

It ended, finally, because after several years of abuse I made it end. One day when my brother grabbed me, I was so scared that I accidentally peed on him. He recoiled. After that, I purposely peed on him any time he touched me.

That was nearly forty years ago. My mother has been dead for seventeen of them. I never confronted her. I knew she was not resilient enough to accept responsibility; I had no desire to crush her. So I am left with the question of forgiveness for a crime that was never acknowledged.

My feelings towards my brother are easy. I barely consider him human, so nonexistent is his remorse for what he did. My mind recalls him as the smell of dirt and sweat and semen, a noxious odor, but one that dissipates soon enough. I have severed all contact with him and have no issue holding him fully culpable for his actions. If forgiveness means I need or want nothing further from him, than he is forgiven. If it means that I have understanding or compassion for him, then he is damned.

But it’s not so simple with my mother. I inherited her propensity for anxiety. I too have wilted in the face of burdens both real and imagined. And while she failed me so monumentally in this crucial moment, she was in other ways often very present in my times of need, especially in my adulthood when she no longer was burdened with the day-to-day responsibility of raising children.

She did good things. And she did terrible things. So if forgiveness means I have compassion for her, then she is forgiven. But forgiven is not forgotten. In many ways, my mother’s failure to protect me was much worse than my brother raping me. His presence in my life is an unfortunate cosmic coincidence, but he and I are not part of one another in any soul-entwining way. Damage caused by my mother, the person I loved and needed the most in my childhood, permeates my every fiber.

How has this etching impacted me? On a physical level, my abhorrence of showers and baths has at times created a physical distance from others. Emotionally, I have protected myself by (figuratively) pissing on people the moment they fail to meet my expectations. The anxiety I inherited from my mother has found full flower in the knowledge of the horrible and dark things people do to one another. I don’t believe people are inherently evil, but I do not trust them to be good to me.

A few years ago, after my mother was gone, I told my siblings what had happened, hoping they would embrace me, make me feel loved and protected thirty-five years after the fact. Hoping they would heal me. But with a couple of exceptions, they also turned away. They didn’t so much disbelieve me as want me to be quiet, to protect their lives from the crime against me.

But why should I keep quiet? Telling my story gives me back the power over my darkest moments. We expel our physical human waste, so why let horrible memories rot inside us, spreading their poison through our lives? Having compassion for my mother does not preclude me from stating her accountability as a mother who did not protect her child.

My healing comes in telling my story. It’s in laying bare the reality that the most pivotal moment of my life was too big for my mother. It’s in being the voice for that little girl who had no one to turn to. And it’s in showing other mothers the power they hold in their children’s lives—the power to protect or the power to crush a soul. To tell them to be vigilant and wholly and soulfully engaged when the etching needle is poised to leave its mark.

Author’s Note: Maybe not so coincidentally, I am married to a former child abuse investigator. We work hard at being vigilant with our own son without turning attentiveness into smothering. I am largely out of contact with my family of origin. I miss them, but I need to keep enough distance from my past to allow for a happily ever after with my partner and son.

Anne Penniston Grunsted is a Chicago-based writer who focuses on the topics of disability and parenting. Her work has been published in Role Reboot, Chicago Parent, and she won the 2014 Nonfiction Prize from Beecher’s Magazine.

Conversation Starters

Conversation Starters

By Catherine Buni

What happens when a small group of public school staff and parents start talking about preventing sex abuse?

Art Conversation StartersMelody Dillard is a parent who lives outside Hanover, New Hampshire. As a child, she attended Bernice A. Ray Elementary School in her town. Her child goes there now. Dillard is happy about this. “It was a place I could feel relief,” she said.

When she herself was in second grade, Dillard colored a crayon picture of a basement and several terrified children. “I know I was trying to tell someone I was being sexually abused,” she told me. “I always felt safe at the Ray School.” But no one ever asked her about the darkness she’d drawn. Thirty years ago, she said, no one talked about children’s sexual health and safety. Not even at the Ray School.

Susanna Carls teaches at the Ray School now, and, in late 2010, she sat in the office of Ray School counselor Pam Graham. Graham had convened a meeting with the K-1 teachers to review the year’s social emotional learning curriculum. The day was bright, but as Carls listened, she thought about students who, she felt, might be at risk, because of domestic violence, cultural resistance, economic hardship. She imagined children sitting in class in the aftermath of sexual assault, as she once had. She thought about the children’s fathers and mothers, what they might, or might not, be willing or able to notice or question, say or hide.

Carls (who has two children and asked that her real name not be used) had been a quiet, reliable student when she was a girl. She’d had several close friends, but they never talked about their bodies, their sexual health or safety. Nobody did, she told me. She used to pray at night.

Once, sitting next to her mother in the car, she’d said her prayer out loud.

“Please just divorce him.”

“I’m working on it,” her mother had said. First, she’d told her daughter, she needed to save more money.

“I could give you a reason,” Carls said, then held her breath. She felt sure her mother knew that something, something she didn’t know how to say herself, was wrong. But they rode on in silence, and for years her prayers went unanswered.

Where was her stepfather now? Carls had no idea. By the time she’d been able to grasp the crimes he’d committed against her, it was too late to press charges.

Now, listening to Pam Graham, her words full of care and purpose, Carls felt agitated. Is it ever a good time to press charges? One of Carls’ classroom parents was in the throes of a trial herself. During a recent parent-teacher conference, Melody Dillard (who also asked that a pseudonym be used to protect her family) had told Carls about the searing experience of testifying against her childhood abuser, about the relief of publicly stating the truth, about the heartfelt expressions of gratitude from some parents, but, from others, rejection and even rage. Carls felt suddenly clear. “I don’t know why we’re not dealing with sexual abuse,” she blurted. “Sexual abuse is part of my history, and I don’t want it to be part of other people’s histories.”

Graham listened carefully. In fact, only months before, she’d been trained as a crisis-line volunteer for the region’s domestic and sexual violence advocacy center, called WISE. On one of her first calls, she had found herself in the local ER, at 3:30 a.m., with a teenage girl who’d just been raped. When Graham arrived, the nurse had shrugged. “She’s in the shower,” she’d said. How could an ER nurse not know a rape victim should not shower until after the exam? Graham had asked herself in disbelief. How can we still know so little?

“Keeping it a secret didn’t work,” Susanna Carls was saying to her now. “I had hinted a lot, wishing someone would point blank ask me. I’d hoped someone else would bring it up. It took more than twenty years to get healthy again. Maybe it could’ve been only two.”

Maybe it could never have happened at all.

*     *     *     *     *

Reports of child sexual abuse have dropped 58 percent in the last two decades, says the field’s leading researcher, David Finkelhor, Ph.D., director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center. More education, media exposure, and awareness, better law enforcement, better offender treatment and victim support, better psycho-pharmaceuticals, all have led to better guardianship. But even with the progress made, the numbers are still staggering. Estimates vary, depending on the source. According to Finkelhor’s 2011 research, some one in five girls (down from an estimated one in four) and one in twenty boys (down from an estimated one in six) will be sexually abused before the age of 18. Of the children abused by adults, some 40 percent will be under the age of six.

As I’ve seen at the Ray School, as we see in every community, regardless of location, ethnicity, class, or religion, it is statistically likely that every one of us is connected to people—colleagues, friends, and neighbors—who’ve experienced child sexual abuse, whether we hear about it or not. Of every 100 incidents of child sexual abuse, it is estimated that only 10 to 18 are reported to authorities.”How can we think of ourselves as having success,” asked Finkelhor in October, during a symposium hosted by the Seattle-based nonprofit Committee for Children titled “From Research to Practice: Preventing Child Sexual Abuse,” “when somebody can be molesting so many kids for such a long period, with so many people you would think would have done a good job outing him and didn’t?” The somebody he was referring to was Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky, who for at least fifteen years had groomed and assaulted children on campus under the cover of his colleagues’ silence.

A tipping point? Fueled by outrage, grief, and awareness, but also by threats of insurance loss and lawsuits–$60 million, Penn State’s penalty; 30 to 60 years, Sandusky’s sentence—individuals at youth-serving institutions across the country are flight-testing an emerging array of policies and programs that might help.

The country’s first sustained sexual violence prevention program is reported to have been introduced in 1976, after a nun from a Columbus, Ohio, parochial school learned that one of her second-graders had been raped. “She called a local agency, Women Against Rape, and asked for help, and, soon after, the Child Assault Prevention Project was born, built on the ground-breaking recognition that women and children share the same cultural status, a cultural status that supports epidemic levels of sexual violence against them, young and old alike.”

Nobody can say for sure how many schools and youth-serving institutions have introduced sexual violence prevention programming since, but we know the number is growing.

Some implement proactively, the Ray School, for instance, or the Unitarian Universalist Association, an early pioneer in both policy and programming, perhaps best known for its Our Whole Lives curriculum. Others implement in response to crisis—Boston’s Catholic schools, for one, which adopted Committee for Children’s Talking about Touching, a pre-K-3 program taught in 25,000 schools nationwide, after revelations of widespread abuse there. Some are introducing prevention because of state law, as is the case in Vermont, where 2009 legislation, called Act One, mandates all schools to implement sexual violence prevention as part of comprehensive health education, a national first. In some schools, of course, the topic remains taboo. In some schools, post-trauma crisis is the norm, immediate needs so great that looking upstream to prevention could be called a luxury.

Ideally, says Bridgid Normand, Committee for Children’s Program Development Manager, current research-based models are implemented systematically, and include policies and procedures for a safe school environment, training for all staff, parent engagement and education, and a child-focused curriculum. In reality, implementation is as varied as the educators themselves, their states and workplaces, politics and religion, with too many schools still relying on programs that focus on teaching children to protect themselves, perpetuating the notion that victims are somehow responsible for being assaulted. This, despite our newfound awareness of how effectively the grooming process silences children, and the obvious but recent shift towards the understanding that adults, not children, are responsible for keeping children safe.

Normand, along with Finkelhor, is quick to note that even the best prevention programming is still only one piece of a complicated puzzle. As the CDC frames prevention, from HIV/AIDS to obesity, all four pieces of what’s called the social-ecological model for change—Societal, Community, Relationship, and Individual—must be on the table to sustain long-term cultural change.

But while change in schools and other institutions that care for children is just one piece of the puzzle, it is an important one; some 55 million children go to school in the United States every day. The parent-educator connection is a powerful force—most educators are parents too—one that can be engaged with questions as simple as: What are your child safety policies and hiring practices? Do you offer training and instruction?

But what specific programs should schools implement? There is no clearinghouse of current best-practice curricula, says Carol Shakeshaft, Ph.D., a professor of Educational Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University who is developing an online training program focused on prevention of sexual abuse of students (1 in 10 students report being sexually victimized by school employees, she says, predominantly teachers and coaches). Different programs work for different communities, Shakeshaft says, depending on staffing, culture, and resources. Though some state departments of education track options and make recommendations, at this stage, she says, programs are often discovered by word of mouth, many times after calls to the experts—Deborah Donovan Rice, Executive Director of Stop It Now!, for instance. When their Helpline receives an inquiry about what a school can do in the younger grades, she says, they recommend Care for Kids, a pre-K-2 program developed in Canada now taught in 13 U.S. states. When Pam Graham from the Ray School called WISE in late 2010 and asked for help, it was Care for Kids that Kate Rohdenburg, WISE’s Program Manager, recommended too.

*     *     *     *     *

Two months later, on a rainy March evening in 2011, Rohdenburg stood at the front of the Ray School auditorium. She’d wrapped a cloud-gray scarf around her shoulders, and, hands clasped behind her back, waited for the mothers and fathers to settle in. Susanna Carls sat on the sidelines with Pam Graham, several other staff, and the school’s principal, Matt Laramie, a parent of three who’d supported Graham’s call to WISE for counsel.

“How do we prevent sexual violence?” Rohdenburg, 26, began, after a brief introduction.

She scanned for hands. More than seventy percent of the Ray School’s mothers and fathers held advanced degrees. They worked nearby at Dartmouth College, at the U.S. Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab, at the Dartmouth Hitchcock Memorial Hospital. More than fifty mothers and fathers had turned out, but none raised a hand.

“Well,” Rohdenburg said, “how do we promote healthy relationships?”

More silence. “With Care for Kids,” Rohdenburg continued, “we’re trying to teach young kids and the adults who take care of them communication, empathy and reinforce protective skills, to recognize and reinforce positive interactions. Talking about healthy sexuality is an ongoing conversation, sort of like sneaking in veggies—by the time they’re teenagers they don’t want to talk to you anymore, but, if you start now, you’ll have already gotten all the good stuff in them.”

The parents laughed. A good break. Another good start.

*     *     *     *     *

“Care for Kids is about life skills, not sex,” Rohdenburg is careful to say early in her Care for Kids parent presentations, a foundational piece of the program, in addition to weekly parent take-home and exercises once classes begin. Rohdenburg does not teach what we call sex ed—not the definition of intercourse, not techniques of contraception, not protections against STDs—a critical fact of her funding, which is earmarked for prevention. She does not speak about bad touches or bad people.

Care for Kids teaches kids the language and skills of empathy and consent, in age-appropriate ways and over time, says Linda Johnson, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Vermont, from her office in Montpelier, the national training and distribution center for Care for Kids, where Rohdenburg herself was trained. These are skills necessary for any healthy relationship, skills demonstrated to prevent offending behaviors.

Care for Kids also teaches teachers and parents how to look for signs and symptoms, how to address children’s questions and responses, and how to teach children healthy, empathic interpersonal behaviors. But, says Johnson, for adults to master these skills, they must first acknowledge and address their own discomfort that feeds the silence that covers for child sexual violence.

And so, Rohdenburg said to the Ray School parents next, “I want you to think about the first messages you ever got about sexuality.”

At first the room was quiet. But then, slowly, the parents started to whisper and laugh, lift up spectacles and wipe their eyes.

“Who wants to share?” Rohdenburg asked.

A woman threw up a hand. “I was walking home from junior high school,” she said, ” and a guy in a car pulls up next to me and asks if I can give him a—blow job.”

There was a burst of laughter.

“For $50, he said. I thought he wanted his car washed. I said, ‘No thanks,’ but he kept asking if I’d give him a blow job. He finally drove away. It took me a week to figure it out. I talked to a friend…I would have never talked to my mother.”

“I remember Playboy was around the house like the New Yorker,” a man said. “There was never any acknowledgement of it…we all just silently took it in. Nobody ever talked about sex, and it was just lying around everywhere.”

“And we’ve got the Internet now,” said Rohdenburg.

“When I was a kid,” another woman jumped in, “my parents talked to me about stranger-danger…But it’s not a stranger, it’s a teacher or a coach.”

“And we talk to strangers all the time!” said Rohdenburg, “so we’re not modeling that behavior for our kids. It’s confusing.”

*     *     *     *     *

It is confusing. Why do so many seemingly normal people sexually assault children? The research suggests that there is no one reason why sex offenders abuse. Media focus on creepy predators lurking in locker room showers or on the Internet, but they are the exception. One study indicates 34 percent of offenders are family members, 59 percent acquaintances. Upward of 94 percent are male, with 30 to 50 percent still children or adolescents themselves. “Not all people who abuse are the same and not all of the reasons they abuse are the same,” says Joan Tabachnick, a national consultant on offender treatment. “Some people are sexually attracted to young children. Some abuse because they have access to children and are drinking, depressed, jealous or just need comfort. Some are developmentally delayed and don’t understand the implications of what they do. Some are psychopaths. Some have grown up in a culture where the signs of sexual abuse are ignored and somehow justify to themselves that it is okay.” What we do know, says Tabachnick, is that the cost of child sexual abuse is huge, both socially and economically. We know that when an organization or a community creates a culture where sexual abuse is talked about and not tolerated, where inappropriate behaviors are discussed and addressed through organizational policies, and adults are educated about healthy sexual development—people are less likely to offend. Some may even get help. Some, of course, simply move on to places where silence is still the norm.

Despite prevention’s complicated, unfolding terrain, Rohdenburg is confident, hopeful even. She says she believes a culture that rejects violence against children and women is possible. But every so often, she lets slip a burst of exasperation. “When eighteen American boys and men rape an 11-year-old girl in Texas, we talk about what clothes she wore?” she’ll say. “That the 18 men who raped the 11-year-old-girl will have to ‘live with this the rest of their lives?” And what was it Penn State’s Joe Paterno said on his way out? Oh, yes. “The kids that were victims of whatever they want to say, I think we all ought to say a prayer for them.'”

“Say a prayer?” Rohdenburg highpitches. “Freakin’ do something.”

Mostly, Rohdenburg asks a lot of good questions. Her favorite, and I’ve found you can ask it of anybody, anywhere, is “Does that make sense?”

*     *     *     *     *

Rohdenburg checked her watch. It was getting late. She opened the floor to questions. “What if a child falsely reports?” (False reports are rare, though the question is important, because we must keep adults safe as well as children.) “What, exactly, will you teach?” (Six lessons: Bodies; Babies; Feelings; Bedtime; Touching; Secrets and Surprises.) “Is there a version for Catholic schools?” (Yes.) For almost an hour, Rohdenburg and Graham fielded questions. And then someone asked, “How do we know it works?”

The parents waited for an answer, an answer even the experts are still tracking. As Finkelhor puts it, researchers are working in an environment of “evidentiary chaos.” The adult responsibility focused programs being adopted across the country are, however, showing evidence of strengthening protective factors and decreasing the likelihood of child sexual abuse. They are improving hiring practices and reporting, parent-child communication, social and emotional competence, and resilience for both parents and children. Research is showing increased sense of personal efficacy for kids, more positive body image and attitude, and, for those who’ve been abused, a decrease in self-blame. “Knowing that recent improvements have come while we’ve had school based programs in place,” Finkelhor says, “it makes good sense to continue using and improving them.”

But the parent asked again, “How do we know it works?”

Off to one side, Susanna Carls stood up. For a moment, she said nothing, just stood there in the silence, the color in her cheeks rising. “To me,” she finally said, “if there are kids who are helped, great.” The parent made no response. “Teachers will be present for all of this,” Carls continued. “If there’s a child who’s uncomfortable, we’ll call the parent. . .” she paused, and, for a moment, Carls and the parent simply looked at one another. That’s when she said, “I was sexually abused as a girl. I didn’t say anything for years. I wish I’d been given a voice. I wish someone would have talked about it.” She sat down, and the room filled with quiet words of wonder and realization and sympathy. Thank you and Oh and I’m sorry.

After Rohdenburg’s presentation, the parents lingered. They lined up and asked more questions. And then, tucking away their handouts—about healthy relationships, who to call with questions or concerns—the parents headed home.

A month later, in April, Rohdenburg returned to the Ray School. Of eighty families, three had opted out of the program. Two families cited religious reasons, Graham said, and one parent created her own prevention curriculum, which Graham admired—families are, after all children’s most important teachers. In the perfect world, every kid would come home every day to a CDC-ideal “safe, stable, and nurturing environment,” to a parent or two who understands healthy sexuality and is not afraid to talk about it.

From what I saw during Rohdenburg’s “Touching” classes in May, kids really like Rohdenburg. Rohdenburg really likes kids. She is not afraid of the prospect of their mutiny. More important, she is not frightened by the fact of their sexuality.

“Hi, everyone!” she said, opening one class, “Do you remember me?”

“Yes!” Seventeen children yelled happily back, a strong signal of the connection and comfort needed to effectively teach the Care for Kids’ content.

“Last week,” said Rohdenburg, “we gave a baby a bath!” Her scarf was sparkly this day, the colors of a peacock feather.

“Do you have the dolls today?!” a child asked excitedly.

The kids had clearly loved giving “baths” to their plastic baby dolls, one boy, one girl, one beige, one brown, during their “Babies” class—Babies need help with most things and deserve to be looked after. Children, as they grown, learn to do more things by themselves, but they still need some help.

For a minute or two, Rohdenburg named body parts, and kids called back. “Public!” “Private!” “Public!” “Private!” Elbow, penis, shoulder, buttocks, nose, vagina. They’d learned the Bodies’ lesson two weeks before—Our bodies are good and special and deserve care and respect (including our private parts). Boys and girls have many parts that are the same and some that are different.

A child shouted. “We need a special soap! If it gets in your eyes it doesn’t hurt!”

“Once a spicy noodle went in my eye!” called out another, wiping his face and sticking a dirty finger in his mouth.

Rohdenburg crinkled her nose. “Owwww,” she said. “I’m sorry that happened to you.”

The kindergarteners and first graders of the Ray School’s K-1 classes spoke boisterously and often and out of turn. They jumped up during circle time, skipped to the recycling bin without asking. Rohdenburg listened and let them roam.

On occasion, a teacher strode into Rohdenburg’s circle. “They’re not usually like this,” one said. “They’re excited to have a guest speaker,” explained another. In one of the four “Touching” classes I observed—Sometimes we like touching and sometimes we don’t. Touching is never a secret. Any person can say “no” to touching. Don’t touch a person who says “No touching.”—one teacher turned the classroom over to Rohdenburg entirely, allowing the children what Rohdenburg calls “agency.”

In every class, Rohdenburg handed each child a colorful strip of construction paper, a yard long. Each child traced his or her hand, cut out the tracings, and then stapled one raggedy-edged cutout hand to each end of the paper strip. When asked, they flew from their tables, paper arms flapping, and formed a circle. They took turns asking a classmate if a paper hug or handshake or high five would be okay. “Can I hug you?” they asked, their age-appropriate lesson in consent. “Is it okay if I hug you?”

It’s not proof, it’s not evidence, but it was hard not to notice that in the one classroom where complete freedom of expression, or “agency,” was allowed by adults, most of the children, when asked by a classmate if they could be “hugged” said, “No.” They opted for a high-five or a handshake instead. In the classrooms where adults exercised control over the children’s speech and bodies—”1, 2, 3, eyes on me!” “Raise your hand!” “Sit down!”—all but a few children answered the question “Can I hug you?” with a quiet “Yes.” How young we are taught to meet expectation. What expectations, then, to teach?

*     *     *     *     *

I return a year later, in spring 2012, and watch Graham teach the class called “Feelings”—Everyone has all kinds of feelings. When you are not sure what you are feeling, we called that “mixed up” or “confused.”—and another called “Secrets and Surprises”—Sometimes we want to keep a secret, sometimes we don’t. Touching is never a secret. When you are sad or confused because someone asked you to keep a secret, you can ask two or three grownups for help. Graham tells me afterward, “I do my best to let the children express themselves fully.” There’s more to do, she says. She’s using the school resource guide that accompanies Vermont’s Act One to guide her. They want to integrate programming in older grades. Introduce more staff training. Better parent training, perhaps in smaller groups for comfort. Were there staff or parents who sought help from WISE or Stop It Now! or another resource? Were some children spared abuse because the culture of the Ray School community was changing? She doesn’t know. She says that since the Ray School has begun integrating sexual violence prevention, other colleagues have shared stories of their own survival of sexual abuse as children. Two kindergarteners have made disclosures to their mothers, both of whom called Graham, a mother herself, so they could work together.

Says Matt Laramie, the Ray School’s Principal, “When you see the cycle broken, this early, it’s joyful.” Says Melody Dillard, the parent who’d sat in the Ray School’s classrooms a generation ago, waiting for someone to speak. “This is how things are supposed to be.”

About the Author: Catherine Buni writes about the environment, education, and health – and the wild places where they meet – from her home office in central Vermont. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Outside Magazine’s Family Adventure Guide, and WorldHum, among others. Read more of Catherine’s work at

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