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On the road to healing ... survivors of sexual abuse
OXFORD HILLS — He got her before she was old enough to have a safety plan.
"At first he just put his arm around me. He was my mom's boyfriend and I had known him for a couple of years and my dad was in [another state] and he was really cool and he stood up for me when Mom was yelling at me."
Composed and direct, 18-year-old Tristina sat across the table next to her mother and began her story. They were here to share their experience with sexual abuse by a Registered Sex Offender. Only he wasn't registered at the time. He was simply mom's boyfriend who, eventually, lived in their home.
"Then they started dating and he moved in. I didn't get weird vibes or anything. He started giving me compliments and stuff ... and telling me how pretty I was."
I asked her how old she was.
"Then one day, we were watching TV on the couch ... . I don't even know where Mom was ... and he just started sticking his hand down my shirt. It was weird and I said 'I don't think you should do that' and he said 'no, it's alright.'
"It felt kinda weird but he was an adult and maybe I just didn't know ... . Adults are right about everything and I just didn't know how to think about this.
"And he said 'don't tell your mom and he just started, like, every night and it progressed further and further ... until ... well it happened and he did it and I really don't remember the first time he did it but I do remember Mom was upstairs sleeping.
"He made me think it was okay. He told me the only reason he was with Mom is because he loved me and wanted to be with me. I loved him too. I was very naive ... I didn't know ... I was 13.
"When my mom and me would fight he said he didn't like that and I said ' yeah, I hate it.'"
"And he said the only reason he was here was so when I was 16 he could take me away from it ... 'you don't need to be in this house and be around your mom like this and we'll run away together ... .'
"I was so young and I thought I was doing it for myself to better myself."
I asked how old he was.
"He was 32."
How long did this go on?
"It went on for three months from October to New Year's. He started saying weird things right after I turned 13 [in August] but he didn't start doing things until October."
She had just started eighth grade.
"I think a lot of what he did was to get to me so I would like him and not my mother.
"He only did it [intercourse] a few times because I was squeamish."
Did he use protection?
Had you been sexually active prior to him?
"I had never had sex ... I had a boyfriend ... a 'boyfriend' ... and we had kissed but that was as far as I had ever gone."
So what did you know about sex?
"Well, I had Sex Ed. We had it very briefly at the beginning of the year ... 'this is what he does, this is what she does and this is what happens.' ... That's it; then we moved on.
"I remember sitting on the couch and he was on top of me and Mom came downstairs and he jumped off of me and she's like, 'what's going on?' and I was curled up and really quiet and she said 'come here' and we went into the bathroom and she sat me down and said 'you need to tell me if something is going on ... . What's going on? ... I can't help you if you don't tell me' ... and I started crying."
"I sat her on the toilet," her mother said, picking up the story with damp eyes.
"And I kept saying 'I can't help you if you don't tell me what happened and I know you're scared' ... but at that moment I said 'you need to tell Mom so I can help you.'
"'Okay... has he touched you? Just say 'yes' or 'no,'" she stops for a moment, her voice breaking. Taking a deep breath she continues, "and she nodded and, at that moment, I died."
"I gave her the phone and said 'go upstairs and if you hear anything, call the police!' I was afraid – I had seen him in action and he was very violent."
Tristina jumps back in. "I think the reason I never said anything was because I didn't think of it that way ... I thought of that as being forced and being told 'you have to do this' and then being tossed aside ... it wasn't like that.
"I think what really messed me up was that he never forced me. He always said 'if you don’t want me to do this just say so' and I would stay quiet."
So it became consensual by lack of the word 'no'?
"Yeah. Because after the beginning after I said 'well, I don’t know' it just happened ... he was a big man and I didn’t know if I said 'no' he would make me do it and I didn’t want him to do that so I didn’t say anything.
"My mom always told me ' if anyone touches you or does something wrong or forces you ... you run and tell someone' but it wasn't like that."
And did you think that you were in love with him and everything would be wonderful?
"I think that was what was going on in my head. I'm not really sure. It was complicated."
How did you feel when your mother took you into the bathroom?
"I was scared – see, I didn't know what was going to happen ... he never scared me per se ... I was never afraid of him ... he never said anything threatening.
"I didn't think what he was doing was bad ... I was scared for him and I was scared for me ... I didn't know. I didn't know if I was wrong telling Mom ... I was so confused.
"I went upstairs and sat on my mom's bed and I curled up and I just waited ... waited for something to happen."
And what happened?
"I think you came upstairs Mom, and packed his stuff – I'm not sure, I don't remember clearly."
Her mother picked up the story.
"When you went upstairs I went and I stood in the living room. When I had come downstairs I knew something was wrong. In hindsight, I should have sent her to the neighbors but at that point I just wanted him out. In my heart, I wanted to kill him for doing that to my child. But I just stood there and looked at him and I said 'do you know what my daughter just told me? I want you to pack your ---- and get out of my house.'
"You know what he said to me? 'Well I'm taking my tattoo stuff – you want a tattoo before I go?'"
"He swore he didn't do anything; he said she was lying; he could never do such a thing – it took hours to get him to leave but he left.
"I did not immediately call the cops – I needed to talk to someone ... to find out what to do. Tristina came downstairs and said she wanted to take a shower, I took all her clothes and her underwear. Then I called a friend of mine ... everything became a blur after that."
Tristina continues, "After that Mom and I had a strained relationship. I went to my grandmother's. I remember I was on the bus and my cousin was on the bus and I remember telling my cousin and she said 'I have to tell my mom.'"
"Her mom called me the next night and we all got together with my grandmother and they told me I needed to call the cops and report this because he cannot go free. So my grandmother called the cops. I started staying with my grandmother. I was mad at my mom."
"I thought she blamed me for all this."
"That was the blur," interjected her mother.
"There was still part of me that was, like, 'this isn't right to do to him because he didn't do anything wrong ... he didn't force me' – now I know he manipulated me.
"Then, I didn't understand what that was about.
"I felt she was blaming me for it so we just started fighting and I didn't want to be with her."
"And I thought she was pushing me away," added Mom.
"Me and my mother had been having problems and my mother had seen me victim-acting a long time and we fought a lot about that. I was drowning my pain on the weekends and my mother didn’t approve. Then when this happened my mother said 'I told you I had a bad feeling.'
"I told her 'but Mom, everyone loves him, the whole town – how was I to know?'"
"I left town and focused on fixing myself. I sobered up. I wanted my daughter to feel safe ... it was hard... it's been hard... ."
In hindsight, were there signs that you missed?
"Yes, yes I did. At first I didn’t notice ... but then I remember the day I did notice. I remember Halloween and I made her a very elaborate costume and I remember he looked at her and said ‘you look sexy’ and I turned to him and said ‘she’s 13; she doesn’t look sexy– you’re sick!'
"And he explained it away by saying he was just being funny and he didn’t mean it that way and I said 'that’s not funny – my daughter’s 13, she’s not sexy!' and he apologized a lot and convinced me that he didn’t mean anything by it but it stayed in the back of my mind and after that we started fighting a lot. And I couldn’t get him to leave; it was overwhelming.
"I was going through a depression and drinking sometimes and suffering from my own abuse. I was trying to take a stand for myself and stop with my victim actions and stop living the way I had been. He took advantage of me; he saw me at my weakest point and he saw a door and walked through it.
"I remember during the three months when we would fight and he would say these terrible things about me, putting me down really loud so my daughter would hear it."
"I think he would always be like trying to pit us against each other. She became different ... . She became hostile to me and I didn’t understand why – I went to her school and asked why she was acting like this and they said it was because I took her out of homeschooling and put her into school and she’s just picking up on things other kids do. I have a lot of questions still, why no one noticed anything – she went from ‘yes ma’am' to 'screw you’ and I wanted to know what was going on with my kid."
"I didn’t act that way in school," Tristina interrupted, "I didn’t show things ... I didn’t want anyone to know."
"Kids change when they hit 12 or 13," her mom continued, "so I thought ... it was my first time having a teenager ... so I thought it was that.
"And then, after charges were filed, I was ostracized. I was shoved aside and made out to be this terrible person [by people in town] and my daughter hated me."
What were your feelings when you found out what was happening?
"I felt like I died inside. I thought I knew how to catch something ... I had always been so careful and now my most horrifying-I-never-wanted-to-look-into-my-daughter's-eyes-and-see ... and now I did.
"A lot of guilt. I went nuts for a little bit ... absolutely nuts and then one day I woke up and said 'this has to stop; I’m not helping her doing this, I'm not helping her by beating myself up.'"
"I have friends who came to me after all this," Tristina continued, "and said 'he did that to me.'"
Both mother and daughter said it has been a very long and rocky road for them. Tristina never really understood what was so wrong. It was clear that she had blamed her mother in many ways.
"I have had a lot of counseling," said Tristina. "Some of it sucked but some of it has really helped. But I didn’t deal with my problems until just recently ... a couple of months ago.
"I have an adopted 'grandfather' who is a minister. I guess I got sloshed one night and I called him – I do that sometimes because I don't talk about myself usually – anyway I called him one night to talk about my boyfriend breaking up and I said 'you know how you take all of us swimming sometimes and you have seen me in my bikini – how come you never touched me?'"
"And he said 'because I love you, I really care about you.' At that point I realized the difference ... apparently I had been doing something wrong ... . It totally threw my head in a whirl ... I had never thought that way."
"And it was a breakthrough for us because she called me and told me about this," her mother jumped in, "and I said 'I am so proud of you that you know there are things you have done that are just behaviors from what happened to you and now we can fix it. Now we can fix it.'
"This is my child; she should be going to college, having a normal boyfriend ... these are the things we have struggled with."
Tristina found the best help at R.E.A.C.H.
"Beth, she is like a mom – I can tell her anything and she is like my mom ... she even smells like my mom! She is wonderful and I love her."
The man who did this to Tristina was released from jail two weeks ago. He lives a few miles from her.
Are you afraid of him?
"I don’t know. I never saw him the way Mom saw him. We got a restraining order against him but in court he got to cross examine me. I realize now how even in the courtroom he was trying to manipulate me.
"I am still trying to recover from this."
What would you like to see happen from this story?
"I want people to realize that this is not okay. It really destroys families because it does and it has. A lot of my family and me are distraught and I don’t want to be around family. I just want to be off by myself. I get along with my family but I am not close ... ."
Why? Are you embarrassed? Do you feel somewhere inside you that they should have seen what was going on and protected you?
"I think maybe it's that ... I still haven’t worked through it a lot myself and it's been like five years and now things are getting better and I am coming to terms with a lot of things but it takes a long time. I am still in counseling.
"I just want people to realize that this is not okay and it's not just people getting grabbed and raped; it can be a whole huge complicated thing that can go on for a long time.
"I think people need to be more cautious and hopefully somebody will read this and get help."
Who can someone tell?
"They can go to R.E.A.C.H. because they are really really good ... some R.E.A.C.H people are survivors themselves. They understand."
"And I want stronger laws," said Mom, "longer prison sentences, more help for the families, more education – manipulation education – she understood what rape was but not manipulation. She was groomed.
"It can’t be shoved underneath the rug anymore; we need an open forum in the schools ... the kids need to be able to go to someone they are comfortable with.
"You can’t teach the right way without teaching the wrong way. If it's going on in the child’s home … ."
"I think there shouldn’t be a class for it but a peer education class," said Tristina. "It feels okay to talk to your peers [when it doesn't to talk to an adult]."
Would you go into school right now and talk to your peers?
"Yeah I would ... I would if it would help somebody ... I would."
Tristina has earned her GED and is going to college in the spring.
Mom is very involved in community action and forming an organization to fight abuse.
Both are still healing.