Escaping in Silence
I don’t remember the time of year or anything else about the trip. I only remember the fear, the confusion, and the loneliness that followed.
I was 11-years-old when my parents and I were heading on vacation to Valdosta, Georgia to visit my grandparents, Nanny and Papa, and extended family on my dad’s side. Valdosta: a pure representation of a small town in the deep south. If you look up Valdosta, GA in Google images, one of the stock photos shown is of a Cracker Barrel, if that gives an idea of what it has to offer. To paint a picture of the dark side of deep southern culture the town encapsulates, many years later, the house across the street from my grandparents’ blew up due to a meth lab mishap.
My dad has eight or nine brothers and sisters. I honestly still lose count to this day because after this vacation - that turned into my nightmares, I stopped having an interest in about the entire extended family and any desire to be associated with them. Though somewhat irrational, I believe I compartmentalized this time and all of the people tied to it in order to protect myself.
It was nighttime and my favorite cousin, who had always played games with me in our younger years, was now a 16-year-old teenager. I was still a mere child, but my body was depicting otherwise, unknowingly to me.
We were sitting in the back seat of his parents’ van innocently talking about our lives since I hadn’t seen him in a few years. He blasted metal music, a band called “Slip Knot,” a name I still can’t hear, let alone the music itself, without feeling nauseous and on edge. Thankfully, I don’t come across it often.
Somewhere in the conversation he abruptly made a comment on my clothing. I can still visualize the outfit in my mind: a little bright, yellow floral tank top from Old Navy paired with classic blue jean shorts. It must have been summertime. He nonchalantly mentioned something about it being tight. I did not understand the importance of the amount my garb did or did not press against my skin. This then led to him asking me what I knew about sex. Sex? This was a topic I had thus far gained very little knowledge of other than the puberty pamphlets my mother had tossed me without discussion, one for boys and one for girls. I believe she snagged these booklets filled with simplistic, technical descriptions from the pediatric doctor’s office where she worked as a registered nurse.
I had gotten my period the year prior, at an early age of 10-years-old in the 5th grade, but I guess my brain had not yet processed what getting your period really meant. That you were hormonal, your body was now of baby-making age and expressing that, and therefore some men felt it belonged to them.
Though unsolicited by me, he told of instances of sex he had had with his previous girlfriends and followed up with a question: Do you want to have sex with me right now? Now I was frozen. This wasn’t just a conversation anymore. This was becoming something I didn’t know how to process. Why was my cousin asking me this? This is sickening. Before I could respond with no, he moved in on me and pinned my arms down. Both my fight and flight kicked in at this moment. I screamed and thrashed my whole body into him, throwing him off of me. I’m grateful to this day that he was a scrawny, weak, piece of shit. He reached over and pushed down the automatic lock button as I reached for the van’s sliding door handle. I frantically scrambled to manually pull the lock back up as he grabbed at my arms and my shirt, trying to pull me back towards him while laughing.
I was quick and precise; I thrust the door open running as fast as humanly possible across Nanny and Papa’s lawn and into the house. The rest of my family was in the kitchen chatting in a collective cheerful tone. I went to take a seat at the table. Sitting in a deep silence, I caught my breath. The adults didn’t seem to notice the panic and confusion in my watering eyes.
I don’t remember how much longer my parents and I were in Valdosta or what we did the remainder of our time there. For the next 5 years or so, this story was my dark, perplexing memory. I only revealed the details of the haunting experience to my two closest girlfriends and my little pink and yellow diary with the lock. I refused to go back to Georgia and for whatever reason, this refusal was accepted by my parents. The next time I did go to Georgia was when my Papa passed away, I was about 16 or 17. My clearly needed attendance at the funeral, where my perpetrator would undoubtedly also be, is what prompted me to finally tell my older siblings and parents what had happened to me so many years prior. My sister was upset. My brother was pissed off beyond belief. My mom, a prideful woman, was confused which later led to denial and indifference on the matter. And my father was shocked, I left him nearly speechless. The most unfortunate part? What could anyone do? This was an issue of the past and only long-term psychological and emotional damage had been done, not physical. My trust being broken by an extended male family member held no real merit. There was nothing to prove and no one to confront. At least that is what I learned since no one, myself included, took any action...to my knowledge. We were numb and powerless.
Guilt. That’s what I felt after telling my family. Especially when thinking of my dad, this was his family I was talking about...and I was tainting their name with my story. From that early age and to this day, I’ve held a disdain for many characteristics of southern culture because my brain associates that experience with it. After I told my family of my escape from a potential sexual assault, the subject was mostly taboo. Over the years when I’ve thought back on the time, I’ve had moments of feeling embarrassed, sad, and confused. Now I think of how fortunate I am to have escaped before it was a sexual assault.
We know all too well that not everyone can say that in American society and around the world. From age 11 on, I learned time and time again that some men think my body belongs to them and I have to be tough. Like most women, I’ve had to dodge unwanted advances, some which caused a feeling of real danger. Defenses must always be kept up, it’s exhausting.
So, what are we going to do about it as a society?
I hope to see better education on and resources for sexual and mental health, perspective-taking, and empathy. I’d like to see even more people insisting that abuse of power is not acceptable. There needs to be prevention against the Larry Nassars of the world. No little girl should have her innocence and trust in humanity robbed of her and I’m going to do my part to fight for them.
Written by Heidi Hendrix
Heidi is a writer and comedian residing in Brooklyn. She grew up in North Carolina and loves to travel. She can frequently be found sprinting through the city trying to make it to places on time, dancing out of boredom, and drinking excessive amounts of coffee. Look for her in stand-up comedy shows around the city. Check out her blog: www.whatsherstory.weebly.com/ and Instagram blog: @comedy_nyc dedicated to showcasing great comedy shows in NYC.