Trigger warning: This post talks about child sex abuse. Please take care of yourself.
My sister has been looking through old photos that my mother had and posting some online for those who are pictured in them. Recently she posted a picture of me in the front yard of our house. Based on the year and the season it appears to be shortly after I turned 14. I shared it also because I don’t have a lot of photos of me in my teen years, but looking at that image has proved to be a bit unsettling. At 14, I was still short and thin, my hair was still red, and I was smiling. As a young person I was always told I had a great smile. It’s impossible to tell if it was a smile for the camera or if I was really happy in that moment. While I have many happy memories from my childhood, I also have some horrible memories that are sometimes brought up by pictures like this.
The photo would have been taken when I was approaching the middle of over seven years of ongoing sexual abuse. I look at that smile and I know that behind it there was lost innocence, sadness, fear, guilt, shame, and probably dozens more emotions that I couldn’t even begin to define. I look at pictures of me when I was around ten years old and I can’t help but think how innocent I was, and how small and vulnerable, and it makes me want to cry. That’s how old I was when it started. I look at my high school graduation picture, which would have been taken when I was still 17, and I think of how much pain was hidden behind that smile. The abuse ended at some point in that seventeenth year, but the aftereffects of it lingered for years, and clearly linger still even though I have gotten so much stronger.
One time as an adult I came across a man from my hometown who tried to seduce me. He told me that years ago, when he looked out the window at me playing in shorts (like the ones I wore in the picture my sister posted), he always wanted to rape me right then and there. He was not the person who abused me. He had never touched me, or even tried, but years later, finding out that he had those thoughts was unnerving. The picture of me at 14 reminds me again of that disgusting revelation, and it’s left me a bit triggered.
Looking at childhood photos and thinking of childhood memories should be a happy pastime and for some it is, but for untold thousands of survivors it can be difficult to revisit their past. For some, the memories are so painful they can’t even be recalled. Unlike those survivors, I remember well. I remember details that it might be best to block out and forget. But I also remember that despite it all the child in those pictures, from ten to seventeen, was a positive, hopeful, idealistic person. He was a boy who lived through those awful moments of abuse, but still appreciated life for the wonder it had to offer, who believed, like Anne Frank, in the essential goodness of people. Somehow, I still do.