Jackie Hill Perry
A sexual abuse and trauma survivor
Jackie Hill Perry
It’s hard to describe the indescribable, especially considering age and how it makes memories dim and inaccurate at times. I don’t remember plot points. I don’t know what color shirt I had on. I don’t know if it was blue or orange or black like the room it all happened in. And I don’t remember how he got me to follow him into the basement; if he bartered the promises of toys or candy with me; if he led me by the hand, or if I ran after him like any child under 7 does when around a teenage boy that they trust.
But there I was, completely unaware, with no context for how familiarity with someone by no means excludes them from harming the ones that they know. If anything, it’s always proved to be the currency of abuse. To know him already was to leave my heart unguarded. So, imagine my surprise when I was told to do something that I’ve never done or known or seen or heard. This act. My inability to breathe during it. The dark basement. The adults upstairs never coming to see what a 16-year-old boy might be doing with a first grader.
My mother, at work, believing her baby to be safe, trusting that the people she left me in the care of would protect me as only she would. But there again is the contradiction of familiarity. You expect it, and the people it describes, such as family or friends, to mean that they are trustworthy. You hope their nearness makes them that, or at least you hope to have enough wisdom to be able to discern if there is a serpent up their sleeves. But he’s crafty enough to hide from even the most protective eyes.
When the teenage boy, the one whose name I will forever remember and never speak, was finished. I was able to breathe again. And he never told me not to tell, or maybe he did, and I just don’t remember. But what I do know is that it became a secret because to tell someone, I thought, was to implicate myself in an act of doing something that ought not be done. Being a child, I didn’t have the capacity to even consider that his evil was not also my own. I’m the one that followed him into the basement. I’m the one that whispered in between the shadows. I am the one that silenced my laugh to replace it with silence. I am the one who let him take my breath and my body from me. I didn’t speak of that day until I learned of its name.
Naming what happened to me
I was 14 and watching an episode of “Oprah” because Oprah is America’s therapist. There was a woman speaking, with wet eyes and a cracked voice, and she was telling Oprah about the molestation that occurred in her home. She described the scenario in which her innocence was overcome. And as I listened to her story, I thought of the basement’s darkness and what happened inside of it. What I heard from her and what I remembered sounded the same, except I’d never given it a name like she did.
To me, it was just something that happened. But according to this woman, I was a victim of sexual abuse. To call it by name allowed me to connect dots. The consequences of abuse like fear and shame and control dominated my days. But it had a source that I could not acknowledge until it was reintroduced to me. It was not merely that a teenage boy did something to me when I was little. That’s far too abstract, which mutes the heartbreaking reality of what actually happened. It was that I was molested and violated by an image-bearer who did not see me as one. What happened was perversion, demonic, a tragedy, the product of a corrupted bloodline, a cursed humanity, a dying boy spreading death because he thought to steal from me would give him life. To call it by name, no matter how painful, was to make sense of it all; to put flesh on floating bones and watch it walk.
If I wanted to be healed, I needed to be specific about what had been broken. I always thought that healing was an immediate act of God dependent upon the measure of my faith, like the woman whose bleeding stopped the moment that she touched God’s clothes. Though I had no hem to hold, I had all of the time to pray; to ask God to deliver me from what that almost-man did to me. But what I’ve come to learn of God is that his healing is gradual and unassuming, and it usually begins with the hard work and sometimes unintentional revelation that the trauma actually exists.
Unearthing the pain
Everything related to my molestation that needed to be healed had to be recognized first. It wasn’t until my now husband began his pursuit of my heart that much of the unearthed pain surfaced. He liked me, and I liked him. We followed each other on Twitter and liked each other’s posts. But when we voiced our attractions for each other, and he followed through, I shut down. I became hard, unfeeling. And for the life of me, I did not understand why.
I wanted to love him freely. I wanted to let him hold me. I wanted to be vulnerable, but I couldn’t. He wanted to lead me well. But complementarianism as it looks when lived was terrifying when I remembered what happened the last time I let a boy lead me. I learned my lesson on letting a man use my trust as food for his demons, and it made me hypervigilant, always needing answers to motivate me to action, always questioning things so I had enough information to guarantee safety. How could I know that this new boy wouldn’t be and do the same? That he actually wanted me and not just my body? What proof did I have that I’d be able to breathe when he was in the room, and that I wouldn’t have to hold my breath until he finished?
Trauma makes you inquisitive. It makes you doubt everything and everybody. It makes you squint your eye at the familiar, rummage through your memories, and project what you gathered onto anybody that might mimic it. It makes you afraid to be yourself, to be honest, to have faith in anything other than God and your own feeble attempts at self-preservation. And it makes you jealous when you see other people who only held their breath underwater and not in basements, so they have no fear of swimming in the dark; when you see a woman being held by their lover, and they love it. They don’t resist his affection for fear of what it might mean or do. They delight in his love, and they tell him why. They don’t see vulnerability as a threat, but a gift. The sexually traumatized can only imagine a world where they don’t have a ghost in their bedroom at all times.
I cannot tell you how frustrated I still am, because it does not matter how much theology I have attained now, I am still affected by what happened to me then. Even though my mind does not remember all of the details, my body does. I am all of 30, and I still feel like a 7-year-old on most days. I am still so fearful of following anybody, anywhere. I have made a living out of showing people how to breathe, but here I am, still holding my breath, still wondering if when I surface there will be someone to say, “Jackie, you will be OK.”
Jesus has the final say
At this point, heaven is my ultimate hope of healing. It isn’t that God is not healing me now, because he is. He is using my husband’s patient love, my community’s constant ear, and my therapist’s insight to mend me, but I am not satisfied with that. And I don’t believe that I have to be. This incomplete healing is what propels my hope for a more sufficient one—a healing that is not limited by space and time. A healing that isn’t undone by what triggers me here.
There, in heaven, is when I will be made whole. And not merely by faith, but tangibly. I will see it. I will feel it. I will know it. I won’t need a sermon or podcast or conference to convince me. It will be an eternal reality because what is mortal will be swallowed up by life. This body, with all of its fear and shame, will be done anew. I will no longer have to force myself to think on whatever is good and pure. I will do it on its own accord. Whatever memories I will have, they won’t have any control over me.
They will remind me of Jesus and how he suffered too. How men made in his image did not recognize him as God. They abused his body before killing it, but they could not control the body nor the God that they abused. His resurrection is all of the proof that I need that he will make all things new—and not just this world and the heavens and the church, but me, my mind and my heart and my body will resurrect into something glorious.
In heaven, I won’t have to hide behind the delusion of strength to protect myself from pain. I will still be weak, as all humans are, but I will be stronger than I have ever been. In heaven, I won’t have to be afraid of intimacy. The one-flesh union between spouses and the closeness experienced between Christians of all kinds is but a metaphor of what is to come. I am constantly finding leaves to cover my nakedness, but there we will be completely exposed and yet unashamed of what our neighbors will see. They will see us for what we are and what we’ve always wanted to be, which is free.
In heaven, there will be a man that has never taken advantage of me. A man that has always used his power to serve. A man who unrobed to cover my shame. I have followed him out of darkness and into light. And with him I can breathe at all times. There he is, seated at the right hand of his Father and mine. Fully victorious, not only over my sin, but also over what the sins of other people have done to me. Neither their sin nor mine was missed during the crucifixion. Jesus sees and settles the dust that the devil kicks up around us. The serpent, though crafty, is still a created thing who will bow before the King one day. The devil and the death that he brings will die.
And this is our hope: that all will be made right one day, even when it doesn’t feel like it.
There will be a new heaven and a new earth with new people living on it—people that we can know well and trust thoroughly. And don’t think that when I speak about heaven I am disregarding the trauma of today. I speak about heaven because it reminds me that today and all of its troubles are not eternal. So I can be honest about my struggle without being cynical, and I can look forward to what is to come without being negligent.
Jesus is healing me, and Jesus will heal me. It is an already-and-not yet-reality that has made my days much brighter. Yes. It hurts, still. But, what has happened to me or us won’t hurt forever. Trauma will not have the final say. Jesus will.