I wrote an article awhile back for the local newspaper about walking to school with my friend Becca Steinberg. Becca and I passed a man in a parked car who had his penis hanging out. He was sunning himself, pretending to be asleep. Becca and I both noticed his alarmingly naked appendage. We were both profoundly embarrassed.
We never said anything to each other.
We never told the school administrators.
We never went to the police.
A few years earlier, as I explored in the article, I had been walking home from school by myself, through the park. Becca’s mom never let her walk through the park but I was the youngest of four and my parents were more permissive.
“Hello little boy!” A man said to me. Thinking about it now, I realize the man was a young adult, perhaps 25 or 30 years old. But I was only in first or second grade and he seemed very old to me at the time.
“I’m not a boy,” I answered indignantly.
“Prove it,” the man said, smiling.
I was too young to understand anything beyond the conversation we were having, which I took literally. I had no idea I was in a dangerous situation and perhaps just a few steps away from becoming a missing child on a milk carton.
“I don’t like trucks,” I ventured.
The man scoffed in a goodnatured way. He knew lots of boys who didn’t like trucks! I’d have to come up with something more convincing.
I don’t remember exactly what happened next but I do remember that I was sitting on a bench pulling down my pants and showing the nice man my privates, pointing in between my legs in triumph. The definitive proof: I had a vulva! I was not a little boy!
I pulled my pants back up. He invited me to his car — he had a dime there and he wanted to give it to me. I felt a rush of shame. I realized in that instant that I had done something very very wrong.
No one had ever told me it is not okay to pull down your pants for a stranger. But I had been told it is not okay to get into a car with a stranger. I knew that was dangerous. I had done nothing more than prove to him I was a girl and he was offering me money for it. I didn’t want money. I wanted to get away from that bad man.
I ran home as fast as I could, my heart in my throat.
I never told my parents about the man in the park.
The local paper got many letters to the editor in response to my column. One was from a reader who was very angry. “Shame on you,” she wrote to the editor in chief in a letter she did not want to be published. She was offended and upset — not by what had happened to an innocent child but by the fact that the column had been published. She argued it wasn’t appropriate to talk about these kinds of issues– child sexual abuse, the victimization of children, poor communication between parents and children — in a family newspaper.
She wanted me to shut up about my experiences.
She wanted me to remain silent.
A healthy reaction to learning about child abuse, in my mind, is to work twice as hard to protect children. You hug your kids tighter. You tell the children in your life that they can tell you anything, at any time, even if it’s the middle of the night, even if they think you’ll be angry. You thank the victim who came forward for being brave and honest. You tell her you are sorry that something like that happened to her. You remind her that you always have a ready shoulder to cry on, if she has more tears to shed.
Unfortunately a more common response to child abuse and sexual assault and other difficult topics that elicit strong emotions is to wish that it will all just go away, to pretend that if we don’t talk about it it doesn’t exist, and to shoot the messenger (“shame on you!”) for making us uncomfortable.
Silence about injustice is never the right answer.
Silence about child abuse is wrong.
I will continue to write things that make you uncomfortable.
I refuse to be silent.
Don’t stay silent.
Don’t be afraid to make people angry.
Don’t be afraid to speak.