Sunday, October 17, 2010

Tough Conversations

The trio of girls huddled together at the kitchen table giggle nervously.

"It's not bad," Lola insists quietly.

"I don't even think it's true," her friend and classmate pipes up. "I think that she probably just made it up."

Eve's eyebrows raise in a combination of skepticism and discomfort. As the eldest, she doesn't want to betray her interest too much by adding her opinion, but she clearly has one.

"What's up, guys?" I ask, not wanting to overstep my bounds, but curious as to what has them acting like international spies.

Caught, they whirl to face me, on the other side of the kitchen and blurt, "Nothing!" Giggles erupt from behind their sweet, soft hands and their heads come even closer together as if pulled by an invisible drawstring. Just as I'm about to shrug it off, they decide to tell me.

Haltingly and from a distance of at least six feet away, Lola begins talking without meeting my eyes. It seems that there is a book on the shelf in her classroom that has prompted the girls to discuss and wonder and whisper. It is a book of stories authored by teenage girls that is meant to inform and inspire other girls, but at least one of the stories has them disturbed. Not necessarily unhappy, but certainly upset in the sense of the word that calls to mind a stick stirring up sediment in a clear pool of water.

Lola speaks slowly, starting from the beginning of the story and it soon becomes clear to me that the essay depicts one girl's experience of being sexually molested by her babysitter over a period of several years. Lola is too embarrassed to tell me in the same terms used in the book, so she tries to write it down. Before she can finish, I turn to Eve and ask her if what she knows about it. Standing next to me, she talks with a flat tone, looking into my eyes.

I am aghast. The phrase, "it's not bad" continues to run through my brain. How can she think that isn't bad? How did this book get into a classroom for first, second, and third graders? How many of these girls have read this book and how long have they been discussing it without any adult mediation?

We stand in the kitchen and talk about what each of these girls, seven, eight and ten years old, would have done in this situation. Lola and Eve are confident that they would physically fight back, kicking and hitting and the look of disgust on their faces convinces me they would. Lola's friend maintains that the story is probably not true.

They are all three shocked to hear me say that such things happen a lot more often than they know. Lola asks me whether I know anyone who was treated that way and I assure her I do, but that I won't name names because I don't think that is fair. She accepts this explanation, but wants to know more. I don't want to rattle off the statistics, that at least one of every four females in the world experiences sexual abuse of some sort in her life, and those are only the ones who are reporting it. Others like this young girl who were too frightened or confused go unaccounted for. I simply say that it is important for us to find ways to talk about these issues without embarrassment and share our experiences with adults we trust so that the people who are attacking women and girls can be held responsible for it.

I am so happy that these three girls were courageous enough to share this with me. While I am not thrilled about the way it was brought up to them, I know that the book will be removed from their classroom and the teachers will handle it thoughtfully. It turns out that the book was donated by a parent this summer and was not thoroughly vetted before it was put out on the shelf. (Upon doing some research, it seems that there are many such books, aimed at girls, kids, grieving families, pet owners, retirees, etc. and I discovered that they are full of difficult stories. Unfortunately, without reading the entire book, it would be hard to know whether or not it is age-appropriate.) I appreciate the intention of the book, but I can't imagine letting my seven or eight year-old (or even nine or ten-year old for that matter) read such stories without an adult present who could help them interpret and fully understand many of the concepts.

The fact that a mainstream, American publication like this contains multiple essays about sexual abuse (it does, I found the book and read it) makes me wonder how much we as a society have accepted the fact that our girls will be raped and molested. So much so that we can talk about it years after the fact and encourage girls to "tell" on their abusers. I think that doing so is important, but maybe it means that we need to have a much more aggressive campaign to prevent sexual abuse in the first place. Perhaps we need to teach girls and women to be open about the fact that their bodies belong to them and send the message that this kind of act will not be tolerated. We will not be objectified, groped, talked about lewdly or disrespectfully, or put in situations that are dangerous. Our civic leaders need to be completely upfront about the fact that the rules have changed and women will not be victimized any longer, and if they are, we will not waste time hiding or feeling ashamed. We will not, in any circumstance, decide that "she deserved it" or "she wanted it."

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

While this book was probably addressed to kids slightly older than 1 - 3 graders, and these issues should be addressed with the presence of an adult, it is so beautiful to see that these little girls felt so safe in their own body and your house to talk about it. It can also be seen as a reminder to many of us parents, to address these issues with our own kids, making sure that they understand the ownership of their own bodies. Unfortunately, while your kids and friends might be too young to read this book, most of the abuse happen to girls exactly that age, the age of innocence, the age when you think that your parents, other family members, friends just have pure love for you and only want the best for you, that they would never do anything that could hurt you.
I am glad you took this opportunity to start an honest dialogue with them, and in a way, it is not completely surprising that they see it as not too bad. To me it just means that they cannot even visualize how bad it can be and how much it can hurt, but it is just a reminder to us to have this discussion with our kids.
While it is wise to remove the book from the shelves, I think reading about it is safer than not knowing about it, or knowing about it when it is too late. As you mentioned it, these things happen, they happen a lot, even in educated, middle to upper-class families. I would also see it as an opportunity to tell our kids, that whatever happens, most likely never something like this, they should always feel safe to talk to us about it, about anything that does not look right to them.

-Isabelle

Wanda said...

I wish none of us ever had to know about any of those behaviors. And oh, how I wish that women and children were believed when they do speak up.

Deb Shucka said...

I worry for the success of any true shift of consciousness about women and how they're perceived and treated in a culture where Victoria's Secret is sold to preteens, both literally and figuratively.

Speaking from experience, I think the key is a strong adult who is safe, will listen, and has the power to change a situation.

Great story, Kari. Important issue.

Kathryn Grace said...

I wish it was as easy as teaching our girls that their bodies belong to them and this kind of act will not be tolerated. Certainly, that is an important step, and one I took with my own daughters growing up, and which they are now passing on to theirs.

Unfortunately, predators are keen observers. They recognize the signs in an individual whose family has not been able, for whatever reasons, to teach this message, whose family, inadvertently or otherwise, may have taught the child she has no recourse but to submit, that her survival, or the survival of a younger sibling or others she cares about, may depend on it.

This is part of the insidiousness of child sexual abuse.

It strikes me that, statistically, one of the four females in that room may already be a victim of sexual abuse. The fact that one child suggested, "It's not all that bad," gave me pause to wonder what more she might know, apart from the book.

However inappropriate this particular book, and its availability, may have been, the children, boys and girls, experiencing sexual abuse need to be exposed to the issue in the classroom and elsewhere so they might find a truly concerned (not one more predatory) ear and, hopefully, disclose. At the very least, they need stories that will help them feel less alone and give them tools for protecting themselves.

What many people do not realize is that the predator is a master at causing the child to feel they must comply, and they must keep the secret, or deadly consequences will occur.

Thank you for broaching this subject here. Many children of child sexual abuse are convinced they will not be believed if they tell. Quite often, they know the punishment will be severe for their having disclosed. They've learned that the people they should expect to protect them will not, so trusting any adult is difficult. We who care must be prepared to listen deeply and to act swiftly, should a child begin to trust us enough to disclose.

Carrie Link said...

Oh, Kari, wow. No accidents that you are the parent that learned about the book and overheard this conversation? Good job handling the whole thing!

Elizabeth said...

Wow. This is some intense stuff! I can't imagine a book like that being read by such young children. Perhaps I'm naive --

Great, wise job handling it and I'm so impressed that the girls felt trusting and open enough to discuss it.

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