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Five years ago, while a junior in college, I walked into a Florida police station and reported the memories I had spent a lifetime trying to forget.
I don't regret my decision that day. But knowing what I know now, I would struggle to make that choice again. While I knew there would be costs, nothing could prepare me for the confusion and heartache of the next few years.
There was no guide map for reporting rape a decade after the fact — especially when your rapist is your own brother.
The detective asked me why I hadn’t reported sooner. The question was deeply painful because I had reported as a child — to my parents, a teacher and my pastor — and they all chose to do nothing. My father even walked in on the abuse once but blamed me for it and called me a whore. I was barred from going to counseling or even talking about it.
It wasn’t until I was 22 years old that I finally had the courage to break free from my toxic home environment and report my rapist to the police. I was terrified that the police would minimize my abuse, as all the adults in my life did before. Thankfully, the detective treated it very seriously.
My brother's initial bail was set at $400,000, and he was forbidden to contact me.
The trial was postponed six times over the course of three and a half years, and each delay ripped the wound open all over again. I knew my family would be upset, but I never expected the intensity of their rage and their unabashed support of my rapist. They repeatedly reminded me that I was ruining his life and that they believed he had changed in the many years that passed since he committed his crimes.
My heart screamed. Didn’t I matter? How many victims should there be before his crime is taken seriously? In court, my brother admitted to abusing four other girls, although he could be charged only for the two victims who reported.
My family couldn’t see that their questions already tortured me when I lay in bed at night. “What if he has changed?” “Am I destroying my brother’s life by bringing this up over a decade later?” But I was haunted by other questions too. “What if he hurts someoneelse?” “How will I ever live with myself if I could have stopped it and did nothing?” Instead of judgment, I needed a shoulder to cry on. The weight of this decision was too crushing to bear alone.
The financial costs of reporting were significant and unexpected. In order to report, I was forced to leave home and was ultimately disowned by my entire family. I struggled with paperwork and court dates while balancing a heavy course load at college. After graduation, the expenses of traveling to court and the time off work took a heavy toll as I tried to establish myself in my career as a pediatric nurse.
When my rapist was led away in handcuffs, tears streamed down my face. After waiting a lifetime for this moment, instead of celebrating, I felt an overwhelming sadness.
The court process was grueling. Rape is shameful and disgusting. I begged to have a closed courtroom when I testified so I would not have to publicly share the graphic and humiliating details, but I was told it wasn’t allowed. I was forced to replay my abuse over and over while a defense attorney crudely mocked me. “Did you say no? Did you cry out? If that really happened, why didn’t anyone else see it?” I felt as if I were the one on trial, not the perpetrator. I will never forget watching my relatives line up in the middle of the courtroom waiting their turn to go on record supporting my rapist. First an aunt testified, then another and another, then my uncle, sister-in-law and, finally, my own mother. A friend held my hand and whispered in my ear, “This is incest.”
As the grief threatened to overwhelm me, I looked at the other half of the courtroom and saw every row filled with my amazing friends and nearly a dozen advocates from the local rape crisis center. On the hardest day of my life, I was truly not alone. On Sept. 27, 2013, the judge convicted my brother on two counts of sexual battery of a minor under 12 years of age and sentenced him to three years in prison and a lifetime on the sex offender registry. About the adults who failed to protect me, the judge said, “Frankly, those that did not report this deserve to be in prison.”
Five years ago, I packed what I could fit into one suitcase, knowing that I would never again return home. I wish I could go back in time and wrap that fragile, terrified girl in a huge hug and tell her that one day she would feel OK again.
When my rapist was led away in handcuffs, tears streamed down my face. After waiting a lifetime for this moment, instead of celebrating, I felt an overwhelming sadness. There were no winners in court that day. He was my rapist, but he was also my brother, and I grieved for the devastation this crime inflicted on my entire family. I worried that prison wouldn’t rehabilitate him but only make him more angry at the world.
I also struggled with the finality of court. While life continued to race by around me, I was left to pick up the pieces and find some meaning in this long and painful journey.
Why don't victims just go to the police? Why do many wait so long to report? These have become common refrains as the issue of sexual assault has garnered more national attention. Victims are often made to feel that they need a criminal conviction for their experiences to be valid. We live in a culture that often blames victims for their abuse in subtle ways that seep into the minds of those wrestling with the decision to report. In the majority of rape cases, there’s little evidence, and many victims feel as if they’re the ones on trial, not the offender. The emotional and financial costs of reporting sexual assault can be enormous. Even after a victim jumps over all the hurdles, the likelihood of a conviction is slim to none. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, out of every 100 rapists, only nine will ever see a day in court, and only three will ever spend a day in prison.
We need to take steps to come alongside and support the victims who choose to report. We also need to support those who choose not to. It’s not fair to demand that victims subject themselves to public humiliation, lose friends or, in my case, their family. Like many victims, I felt it was my responsibility to go to the police so that others wouldn’t get hurt. But that’s an unfair burden. The victim is not responsible if others are victimized; the fault remains solely with the perpetrator.
Five years ago, I packed what I could fit into one suitcase, knowing that I would never again return home. I wish I could go back in time and wrap that fragile, terrified girl in a huge hug and tell her that one day she would feel OK again. That the God who promised to be a father to the fatherless would not just provide for her needs but overabundantly bless her life. I wish I had known that even though I would lose my entire family by choosing to report, I would gain friends across the country as I became an advocate for victims of child abuse. I wish I could tell her how amazing it is to be safe and free. I wish I had known that instead of my life ending, this was a beautiful beginning.
The court process was by far the hardest thing I have ever done. Knowing the costs, I would hesitate before recommending somebody else to report. But I have absolutely no regrets. I was able to face the monster that haunted my dreams, with my head held high.
When I began to testify, my rapist stopped court and insisted I move so that I was in his exact line of sight. It was unspeakably painful to look directly into my rapist’s eyes as I was forced to describe his cruel acts. But in that moment, I was transformed from the scared kid who could barely utter a word to a courageous survivor who would soon find hope and healing in the comfort of justice.
I looked directly at my brother and said, “I am a rape victim, but I am also a survivor. I am able to stand here today and say, ‘Your actions couldn’t defeat me. I am stronger than you. I won.’”