A Safe Place

I’m a news junkie.

I love to read what’s happening in and around the world everyday, and I think I come by it honestly. For as long as I can remember, my grandfather has been reading the local newspaper from cover to cover on a daily basis (though the sports section is his favorite, of course). My dad does the same. I vividly remember him reading the paper every morning while we got ready for school. And now as an adult, it’s become part of my own morning routine (though my newspaper is really just the other side of the computer screen). After coffee, and reading, and a little bit of prayer comes my daily peruse of the news. 

Now at this point if you’re asking yourself, How can you take that?, then you’re on to something. Because lately, the news is just a real downer. I mean, every single day the headlines and stories that follow seem worse than the ones the day before. It’s full of division, and hatred, and just plain darkness. 

I can’t imagine this is the first time someone reading the news has felt this way. My grandfather, who fought in World War II, and my father, who grew up in the politically embroiled sixties in the deep South, probably felt the same way many times. But for me, the word hopeless has come to mind a lot during my morning news readings in the last few months. (Expert tip: That’s why I pair it with the Bible. Hope for the hopeless, ya’ll!)

The news out of Washington this week has specifically left me in a place that’s hard to even articulate. I’m not going to get into the details about what’s been happening with the Supreme Court nominee and the subsequent hearings. I know opinions are differing, and polarizing, and strong, and the purpose of this blog isn’t to get into all of that. You can Google it. I think due process for both sides is part of what makes the American democracy and judicial systems fair, and I hope, as with all things, that the truth will rise to the surface. 

But more than anything, what’s left me so bothered is the familiar narratives that have played out alongside this story. 

The first?

Boys will be boys.

Excuse me while I get on my soapbox for just a second.

I can name you a ton of boys who have moved through high school, college, and well into their adult lives without engaging in sexually forceful behavior toward another person. My dad, my brother, my brother-in-law, my friends’ husbands, the men I work with everyday, the students I’ve gotten to know in my church’s high school ministry. That list goes on and on. So no, boys don’t just act that way. And when we brush off aggressive, and forceful, and inappropriate behavior that ignores consent and disrespects another person with the old “boys will be boys” adage, we’re doing the boys in this world a huge disservice. We’re setting a standard of behavior that is way too low for them and assumes the worst about them. Because no, that’s not what it means to be a boy. It’s certainly not what it means to be a man. 

Okay, soap box aside, the other narrative that’s taken over in the wake of this story seems to be this one: 

If this really happened, why didn’t she say anything all those years ago? 

Now in a moment of true transparency, let me tell you that, as a woman, this question crossed my mind, too. I initially wondered the same thing, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. I think that has a lot to do with my background. Because I’m one of the lucky ones—one of the seemingly few women in the world who is fortunate enough to never have had to report anything. I’ve never walked through a moment like this in my life. I grew up surrounded by safe and trustworthy adults. My dad was even a social worker for a long time. His job was literally to help people feel safer. So not only is it hard for me to put myself in the place of someone who may have gone through something like this, it’s hard for me to imagine not feeling like I could tell the adults in my life without full assurance that they’d believe and support me. 

So as I’ve tried to do with a lot of things I don’t understand, I decided I was going to learn. Unfortunately, the list of women I know who did go through things like this and worse is long. And most of these women have grown up to be nothing short of amazing. They’re wives, mothers, and friends with careers and legacies that I admire. And with a lot of counseling and even more Jesus, they’re walking free from the pain of the things that were done to them in the past. They’re healed, and whole, and using their lives to help others be the same, in big and small ways. 

And in literally every single one of their stories—and I mean every single one—they waited a long time to speak up. They didn’t immediately tell anyone in authority (or anyone at all really) what happened to them. Some waited weeks, some months, some years. Some are still waiting. Some may wait forever. 

In an effort to understand what was going on in the hearts and minds of these women who I know, and love, and believe, I asked them if they’d share some of the reasons they struggled to come forward with their own stories. And with their permission, here’s what they said. 

People around me suspected it. I knew they did. But because they never said anything, I didn’t think I should either.

He was a family member, somebody that everyone else in my family really seemed to love. When I did tell one person in my family once—someone my age—they said, “No way, he wouldn’t do that. He’s so nice!”

There were other people there who saw it happen. They laughed when they talked about it at school the next Monday. It made me feel like I was making a bigger deal out of it than I should.

I did tell someone. And then I got removed from my home. My mom didn’t want me to stay there anymore. She chose him.

This other girl in my high school did speak up, and she got humiliated. Nobody talked to her, people wrote things on the bathroom wall about her, and eventually, she left the school. Nothing ever happened to the guy. I didn’t want the same thing to happen to me.

He was my father. Who was I going to tell?

The list goes on and on and on. 

Searching #WhyIDidn’tReport on Twitter is a great research tool to educate yourself with stories just like these, too. They’re hard to read and at times, even harder to believe. Not because I think those people are lying, but because I can’t imagine a scenario in which someone who was hurt in such a way would be met with such a lack of support and help. 

If you’re anything like me, that list is upsetting to you, too. As a woman, as a human, as a Christian. It makes me sad that there’s even a glimmer of doubt that the people in this world who have been victimized and vulnerable won’t be given the help they need to recover in a way that’s safe and supportive. 

So as I’ve been reading the news unfold and listening to my friends share so honestly about their own experiences, I’ve been asking myself a lot of question. And the one I land on over and over again is this one:

What can I do? 

I can’t solve the problems of politics. I can’t answer all of the painful and complex questions on sex, and abuse, and power, and time, and alcohol, and sex. But I can focus on myself. I can ask what I can do to make the needle move even just a little bit so that narratives like this don’t remain so commonplace. 

My grandmother (someone who sadly knew abuse in her own life) used to tell me that if I wanted to do something, I just needed to do it. I didn’t need to wait on anybody else to take action.  

“You have everything you need in you to do something about anything you care about,” she’d say. 

And while I can’t do anything about this narrative on a national or global or even political level other than use my voice and my vote, I can do something about myself. I can do whatever it is that I can do to make sure that everyone in my life sees me as a safe place. I can work to be the kind of person others know they can come to without fear. I can make sure I’m supporting those who do come to me by getting them the help they need. I can make sure I’m speaking truth about identity and confidence and boundaries to both the boys and girls in my life. I can do whatever it is within my power to make sure I’m never an adult that someone who is vulnerable feels afraid to come to because of worry over how they’ll be received. 

Because all of us deserves that much, don’t we? We need each other.

I honestly don’t know how to end this blog because I’m still turning over a lot of things about this in my own mind. I feel so strongly about the fact that this world needs to be a different place for boys and girls alike—a place where stories like this don’t continue to be the norm in my morning news headlines. I know that there are so many stances on what’s playing out on TV in the Senate even as I type.

But I also know that somewhere in there is the truth, and I think truth is something we all pray will always rise above the lies. 

Sara Shelton