I’ve been reading a lot about the scandal at Penn State lately. Actually, scandal isn’t the right word – this isn’t a celebrity divorce we’re talking about. This is a horrible tragedy that has occurred, and I am horrified there were adults in a position to stop the suffering and humiliation these children have suffered but instead stayed silent or performed the smallest required amount of action… just enough to cover their ass. These children’s lives have been broken by these events, past and present. I know because it has taken me years to see the ripples made by a single act from my step-grandfather.
I call him a step-grandfather because he was my grandma’s second husband, and because I refuse to let anyone think I shared a drop of blood with him. Grandpa Frank married my grandma before I was born. He wasn’t always in a wheelchair, but he is in all my memories. My mother and I would visit every month or so, and he would ask me about school, and my hobbies, and give me $10 to go “have fun with”. When he woke up from his afternoon nap, I would make him a gin and tonic just the way he taught me. I liked Grandpa Frank.
Twenty years ago, I was 13. My mother finally let me get contact lenses to replace my thick glasses, and some boys were starting to notice me. My mom and I planned to visit Grandma and Grandpa Frank one weekend. I remember that my mom and grandma went out to run an errand. Grandpa Frank was taking a nap, so I sat in the kitchen and watched TV. I heard the soft, rhythmic sound of the wheelchair moving across the carpet – this meant that he was awake, and moving to the living room to watch golf. I knew he would want his gin and tonic, so I got up and followed his chair to the living room.
I made his drink as he moved to the sofa, and he asked me to sit down next to him. I sat to his right, and he put his arm around me. This had never happened before, but I did not think anything of it. He asked how school was going (“fine”) and if I had a boyfriend (“no”). Then he told me I was very pretty, and before I could say anything, he slipped his left hand down my shirt and grabbed my breast. I said, “Grandpa Frank, what are you doing?! Stop!” And he just said, “Shh.”
I shoved his hands off of me, and ran into the kitchen. That’s where I stayed for the next hour waiting for my mom to get home and hoping I did not hear his wheelchair move. I just wanted them to come home, so that I would be safe – it’s not like he was going to chase after me, but I no longer felt safe in my grandma’s home. I wanted my grandma and mom to come and save me. When my mom and grandma got home, it took me a while to have the courage to tell them what happened. And when I did, I was told “Oh, he’s old. He doesn’t know any better.”
Years later, my mom would sincerely apologize to me for not doing something, and I have forgiven her. I never forgave my grandma – in fact, after that day, I did not tell her “I love you” until the day before she died. I truly regret this. As for Grandpa Frank, I refused to ever be alone with him again. I would not make his drink, I would not meet his gaze, I would not talk to him. When he died a couple of years later, my first thought was “Good.”
Hindsight and life experience has shown me how this affected me. A few months after this happened, a boy I really liked sat with me on my living room couch one day after school. He tried to grab my breast in that awkward way that 13-year-old boys do, and I freaked out so much I ran outside and didn’t stop running until I was almost a mile away. He spread a rumor that I was a freak, and a lesbian. A couple of months after that, I was at a party with some kids who were a little older than me, in high school. We got into a hot tub, while our parents and dozens of other adults were around. One of them asked me if the rumors were true, and before I could answer, he grabbed my waist and sexually assaulted me under the water, in front of everyone. I cried myself to sleep for months after that.
I’m not sharing this so that anyone feels bad for me. I also don’t want anyone to think I am totally over it – I still have more issues than I can count. It’s a part of my past, and I have moved on from it and given it as much closure as I can. I’m sharing it because I wanted to finally be able to step up and say, This happened to me. It was not my fault. I am not the one who should feel ashamed by this, because I did nothing wrong. I can’t control what happened to me, but I can control how much of an effect it has on me.
My experience positively pales in comparison to what happened to those boys who trusted Coach Sandusky. Did they tell anyone about what happened? Were their complaints taken seriously, or was their abuse interpreted as “horseplay” by those in a position to protect these children? This situation is only going to get worse as more survivors come forward, and as more people look for others to blame. Please remember that at the center of this story, and so many other stories of sexual abuse, is a child who is hiding from their abuser, and waiting for someone to come save them.