By Cairo Amani
It started with our dolls.
My cousin and I would bring our babies riano my uncle and he’d pretend to be a doctor. It was innocent enough at first, until he began touching the dolls inappropriately. And until he replaced those plastic patients with us.
I was four when it happened and around 10 when I told someone. I was on the couch watching Oprah with my dad. He was a big guy or he always seemed to be to me. Ex-military, quiet, thoughtful and not particularly expressive, my dad was my protector and I didn’t know him as anything but. Oprah’s episode was about people telling their family members that they’d been molested or raped. I asked him to turn it off for a moment and when he did, I knew immediately I could trust him.
I didn’t get into detail and to this day I have only given details to one person. But my dad hugged me and apologized that he hadn’t suspected something earlier. I felt brave and loved.
So I told my mom.
“Oh…you know…” she began. “[Your uncle] is innocent. He really doesn’t know any better.” At 10, I didn’t know what she meant. It would take me until my 20’s to recognize that my uncle—with his vacant smile, his slow way of speaking, his sole interest in trollies and the ability to talk for hours on end about them—had signs of Asperger’s or some other social disorder. No, at 10 all I knew was that my mother was not sorry. As we spoke over the phone, she didn’t miss a beat in her race to defend him. And for that whole conversation, she didn’t once ask me how I was.
I didn’t tell anyone else for two years.
In middle school I wrote a mini memoir. I mentioned my uncle’s inappropriate behavior. The principal called me in to speak with me. I assured him my dad had it under control.
A few months later my uncle came to visit us.
I’m not sure what my dad’s train of thought was. Maybe he wanted to give my uncle the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he thought he had the situation under control. He didn’t. I was growing into a woman now and more curious about men (since women were out of the question). I remember staying up late talking to my uncle, unsupervised in our livingroom. I flirted.
One morning I woke up to a note he’d slipped under the door. I can’t repeat it. I gave it to my dad. I’ve never seen him angrier since that moment he kicked my uncle out of the house in his pajamas, threw his bag and his clothes into the hallway of our project housing building, told him not to ever come back.
A year later, my uncle went to jail for raping two young girls. One of them was five years old. I remembered myself at four. I remembered him at 17.
My dad answered some of my uncle’s calls but never sent him money, even when he recited bible verses and talked about how he was a changed man. My dad never asked me if I wanted to say hi, not until I was 18. I refused.
In college, I blurted out the details to my best friend. We were silent for a moment. Then we laughed awkwardly and we never talked about it again. I proved to myself I could do it and I haven’t wanted to tell anyone the entire story since. And even if I had never even told it to that friend—it would’ve been fine.
At 20, a cousin let me know that even if I flirted with my uncle, at 12, it wasn’t my fault. I was innocent. I was a kid. I was relieved.
In light of the Bill Cosby situation, which I still think about even though the media has almost left it behind, I recall the trolls asking, “Well, why did she wait so long to say something?” It is probably because she isn’t sure if someone will say, “I’m sorry this happened to you,” or if someone will say, “Well, it’s not his fault”—the latter of which can set a person’s progress back years.
It’s okay if you don’t want to take that risk. You’re not responsible for putting your attacker behind bars. You don’t have to become a spokesperson for women across the globe. It’s okay not to talk about it. And if you want to or think you need to, it’s also okay to tell people. When people are sexually abused, they are robbed of their freedom. So it becomes intensely important that their freedom is returned to them—and it can be in as small a way as choosing whether or not to discuss their trauma.
It started when I was four. It stayed with me my whole life. It was with me the first time I wore a bikini to the beach. It was with me the first time I was with a man and the first time I was with a woman. It’s with me when I’m walking home alone at night. It’s with me when I’m catcalled. It’s with me now as I write this article. But even though 15-year-old me was worried guys wouldn’t date me if they found out, 26-year-old me knows only one truth from this whole ordeal: I don’t owe anyone anything.
Neither do you.
Cairo loves moleskin notebooks, considers Scrivener a godsend, and enjoys reading, dancing, and board games that involve doing silly things for points. You can find out more about her here: about.me/cairoamani.