November 10, 2004. The day before Veteran’s Day. The day freedom arrived for me. Freedom from abuse. Even though the years seem to fly by, on November 10 of each year, I am keenly reminded of just how far God has brought me in my healing journey. One month ago, I shared my story of finding my voice after abuse silenced me, with over 500 amazing individuals at a Child Abuse and Neglect Conference in Michigan. Fifteen years ago, I could not see past the day that was before me. My life was filled with uncertainty, fear, and confusion. Fifteen years later, my days look much different. However, I would not be where I am today without the incredible support system God has placed around me.
When I spoke in Michigan, I listed all of the people who have advocated for me in various ways, identifying them by the role they played. Teacher. Guidance Counselor. Social Workers. SBI Agents. Coaches. Youth Pastor/Leaders. Professors. Friends. Family. The list goes on. I have never had to walk this healing journey alone.
I do not believe healing from childhood sexual abuse simply ends one day. I do not believe it is something we can just check off our to-do list. My body and my mind will always remember what happened. But, living in freedom, I have a choice.
Daily, I get to choose to keep pursuing a life of light, renewal, healing, and learning. I refuse to fall back into the place of silence where shame and fear once held me captive.
I am committing my 15th year of freedom to the continued fight for reform of the NC sex offender registry legislation. It is a fight for survivor’s voices to be honored and heard a decade after a court case is closed when abusers are provided the opportunity to petition for removal from the registry. Until all voices are heard and honored, I will fight.
The room that haunts me. The room where I spent hours upon hours with my abuser as he used me for his sexual pleasure. The bed where I laid during so many episodes of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”
The drawing that you see below is a recreated image of a task I had to complete during the forensic interviews when I was thirteen years old. When my disclosure of sexual abuse was reported to the local authorities by my middle school, the local police department decided not to investigate because of a conflict of interest. The case was passed to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation; a move that, in hindsight, I am so grateful occurred. Through the SBI, I met two of my biggest advocates, the agents who were responsible for gathering all the details of what had transpired over the previous six or seven years. In my longest interview with K, one of the agents, she asked me to draw the locations where the abuse had occurred in our house. I meticulously placed every single detail of that room and that trailer on a piece of paper. It was a task I was able to complete with ease. So many nights I had looked around that room just waiting for the episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to end so that I could retreat to the safety of my own bedroom. I struggled to understand how I could remember what seemed to be such unimportant information when I absolutely could not answer how many times I was abused.
What do I remember?
I can remember that there were almost always three blankets on the bed- a sheet, a light blanket, and the comforter. I can remember how the tv sat on top of the tall bureau filled with my abuser’s clothes. I can remember which direction the doors opened to the bathroom, closet, and bedroom. I can remember there was a gun in the desk; though I was told it was just a “scare gun,” I believed it could kill. I can remember the two framed pictures hanging on the wall by the bathroom door. I know there was pepper spray in the top drawer of the dresser. I can map out, not to scale, every room of that trailer even though it has been nearly fifteen years since I stepped foot in it.
I spent hours with K and S as they asked me questions and allowed me to share my story. In each of my interviews with the agents, K and S, I felt safe, heard, validated, and supported. Though I often wondered what they were doing with the pages of notes they wrote, I knew, without a doubt, they were fighting for me. They were advocating for me.
The way our brain encodes experiences of trauma can be extremely frustrating- at least it was for me. As a young teenager, I could not understand why and how I could remember every detail of that trailer, but I had absolutely no idea how many times the abuse occurred. I could remember all the emotions I felt and the words my abuser spoke, but I couldn’t recall what year my abuser confronted me about my first disclosure.
For years, I struggled with feeling like my brain had failed me. I thought something had to be wrong with my brain because I could not recall what I believed were the answers to the simplest of questions. I believed the criminal case against my abuser wasn’t “strong” because my brain was not cooperating. Through counseling and education, I have learned how the brain works and why some memories are easily accessed and crystal clear; whereas, other details of the abuse, I will never know. I discovered that my brain actually worked really hard to protect me as much as it could from the impacts of the abuse. With this knowledge, I was able to stop blaming myself for not remembering. I rest knowing that God designed our brains to work in this manner, it is no mistake.
If you want a quick overview of how trauma impacts the brain, I encourage you to watch this video.
It is so hard to believe that I have been blogging for 3.5 years now. In many ways, it seems like just yesterday I nervously clicked publish to share my first post. I initially shared this piece in July 2016; however, as I have been preparing for upcoming presentations I have reread many of my posts and I felt this one needs to be reshared. One aspect of my abuse experience that I think is important for people to understand is how perpetrators destroy a child’s system of beliefs, often through horrific forms of manipulation. While it often takes repetition over a long period of time to rewire our brains with new, healthy beliefs; it is a form of healing that occurs following trauma.
In a previous post, I discussed how abusers are master manipulators. Initially, abusers may use threats of violence or death to the victim or a loved one; however, they eventually incorporate attacks on the child’s belief system regarding “right” and “wrong.” They normalize the abusive behavior so the child no longer questions the acts the abuser imposes.
There were many nights when I feared that if “we” (no longer ‘he’) got caught, “I” (not him) would be in so much trouble. The script was no longer “little Kendall” and “mean abuser,” but now “bad Kendall” and “stepdad.” The impacts of this script change did not become evident until I started working through things in therapy. It was not until more recently that I realized how a completely separate incident cemented this view. This is what abusers strive to do- to make the victim believe they are to blame and they are no longer valued.
Once again, I cannot recall the year this particular incident occurred but it had to have been a year or longer after the ongoing abuse began. My younger siblings and I were swimming in a pool at a hotel. Just like I can take you back to the exact location on Hwy. 903 in Magnolia in a previous post, I can also take you back to the exact hotel and could likely still draw a near perfect blueprint of the pool and sauna area. Initially, my siblings and I were bursting with excitement because we had the entire hotel pool all to ourselves. After a few minutes of swimming, I noticed through the clear door of the sauna that there was a man in there alone. This man moved to a separate bench in the sauna where it became evident that he only had a towel wrapped around his waist and he began to masturbate. My immediate thought was to protect my siblings by distracting them in the pool. However, I quickly began wrestling thoughts in my mind trying to determine whether I was supposed to go in there and do what my abuser made me do. It was like two conflicting identities were trying to operate at the same time “big sister” and “bad Kendall.” I just remember thinking, “maybe this is what I’m really supposed to do.” Thankfully, before a decision could be made, a family came into the pool area and the man in the sauna quickly left. However, that thought radiated through the years and turned into “maybe this is all I’m going to be worth.” I am forever grateful for the people that pour truth into me and help me fight against this lie I was taught.
A child should never, under any circumstance, feel obligated to sexually service a stranger in a sauna because he has exposed himself to her.
But that is what abuse and a manipulating abuser can do to a child’s mind. My heart aches for the children and adults that are currently facing this battle. I believe so strongly in speaking truth. Truth is the only thing that can combat an abuser’s lies. We need to tell the children in our lives how precious, loved, valued, and important they are simply for being who they are as children of God. We need to tell them that it is not okay for someone to make them feel icky or scared or like they are bad. We need to educate them about abusers and how to tell an adult if someone hurts them or makes them think they will be hurt. We need to explain sexual abuse and teach them healthy sexuality so they aren’t left questioning what is right and what is wrong. These should not be one time conversations- they should happen over and over and over. The conversations should grow in depth and complexity as a child’s mind grows and as they are exposed to new situations. The abuser tells lies over and over to the point that in the mind of the victim, they become truth. The frequency we speak truth to children should exponentially outweigh the frequency of the lies abusers say.
Children need to know, believe, and feel truths about their identity as a beloved child of God, worthy of respect, love, dignity, and deserving of safety. And nothing can take those truths away.
It is so hard to believe that an entire year has passed since I returned home to North Carolina to face my abuser in court for the second time. Hearing the judge grant my abuser’s petition for removal from the sex offender was absolutely devastating. It is still infuriating and feels like a major injustice. It is terrifying to think about how he now attends little league baseball games as he stated in court that was one of his primary motivators for wanting to be removed from the registry. However, with time and healing, I have been able to turn those emotions into motivation and fuel to advocate for change. In this last year, God has opened doors for me that I believe are a direct result of my time spent in court a year ago.
I have had the incredible opportunity to begin speaking with a senator’s office in North Carolina. One of the primary goals I have set in advocacy is for victim notification of petition hearings. If I had not communicated with the District Attorney’s office in the years leading up to my abuser’s petition, I would not have been notified when my abuser was returning to court. North Carolina has an extremely helpful victim notification system that informs those who are registered to receive updates when the status of a sex offender changes. However, it does have a flaw. I received an update once when my abuser’s address changed. Then, I did not receive another update until I got the automated phone call letting me know my abuser was removed from the sex offender registry. There was no automated call to inform me of my abuser’s scheduled court date. I believe this will be a fairly simple “fix” to ensure that victims who want to be notified when his/her abuser petitions the court to be removed from the registry, he/she is informed in a timely manner. I fully support individuals who never want to be notified by a court again once a case is closed. However, I will stand firm in my beliefs that if a victim wants to be notified, he/she should be guaranteed timely notification. I will be forever grateful for the Assistant District Attorneys who listened to my concerns and promised to notify me as soon as my abuser was granted a court date for his petition. Even though the ruling was devastating, I will always rest knowing that I had the opportunity to speak truth in that courtroom.
The Lord has continued to ignite a passion in me to share my story so others can learn from both the strengths and weaknesses of victim services I received through the years. God has opened doors for me to engage with individuals on the national level. This October I will travel to Ann Arbor, MI to lead a breakout session and give a keynote speech for a statewide child abuse and neglect conference. In December, I will have the opportunity to lead a breakout session for the Center for Victims of Crime’s National Training Institute. I first attended this specific conference in New Orleans eight years ago. I never imagined that I would be given that same platform to educate people from across the nation about the impact petition hearings have on individuals who have experienced childhood sexual abuse.
In the days following the judge’s ruling, I flew back home to New Orleans and tried to launch back into my routine. Life did not fall back into place gracefully. I did not feel like the same person I was prior to the judge’s ruling. I felt like I had lost myself. Those feelings were a symptom of the trauma of reliving the abuse as I looked at my abuser from the witness stand. I was changed through that experience. Some of the plans I had for my life had to be delayed while I took some time to heal. God is so faithful and His timeline is always much better than any we can ever imagine. Six months after I appeared in court, I began seeing clients for counseling as a provisional licensed professional counselor. A couple of months after that, I was accepted into the Ph.D. program at the same school where I received my master’s degree. Later this month I will attend my first course as a Ph.D. student.
I know I have mentioned this before, but I believe it is worth mentioning again. If you had told 13-year-old Kendall who had just talked with a social worker at school about the abuse she was experiencing at home that one day she would be standing where I am now- I would never have believed you. Abuse teaches us that we are unworthy, ruined, dirty, and shameful, among other things. You don’t grow up believing you have a voice because it has been silenced by an abuser.
God redeems. God heals. God loves. God will lift the voice of those who have been silenced.
For those of you who have joined me on this blogging journey, your support means the world to me. For those of you who have prayed for me over the years, I can not thank you enough. For those of you who think no one will hear your voice, I am listening.
This journey continues. Stay tuned for more blog posts, updates on legislative activities, and future speaking engagements. If you ever have any questions or want to know how you can advocate for victims of childhood sexual abuse in your own community, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
When I was a young girl, I would have to ride with my abuser on Sunday nights to take my friend home after sleepovers. I dreaded these rides so much that I would often offer my younger siblings any good I had that I thought they may want- from toys to candy to my allowance- if they would simply prevent me from being alone in a car with my abuser. They hated being stuck in the car and to a kid, 30 minutes is a LONG time; so I rode alone. Most of these rides were quiet and benign; however, one night my abuser executed his art of manipulation and made my fears become a reality.
I can’t tell you the month, much less the year this particular ride home occurred; however, my guess would be that I was in the 5th or 6th grade. Although I can’t tell you the date, I can still take you to the exact location on Hwy 903 in Magnolia, just after you passed the apartments on the left, that these words came out of his mouth; “so why’d you tell?” As quickly as he said those words, tears began pouring from my eyes. I knew my silence indicated to him that I had told someone about our secret. I did the one thing he told me to never do. Because nothing in my life had changed since my first disclosure, my abuser now knew that he could continue to get away with using me for his sexual pleasure.
Rather than ending the conversation there, he continued. As tears poured from my eyes and fear that he would kill me before I could get home overwhelmed me, he continued his manipulative tactics. He calmly proceeded to explain to me that “that was our little secret” and that he “was only trying to help me out because he knew how curious little girls are.” He was telling me that he was doing me a favor, that me sexually servicing him was beneficial for me- a child… I was “learning.” For an already confused sexual abuse victim, this wreaked havoc in my mind. As if that was not enough manipulation for him, he continued before we could reach our driveway.
As he was driving down Hwy. 903, he exposed his genitals and asked/told me “if you want to touch or see it again you can, I’ll let you.” I clutched the passenger door and slid myself as far from him as possible. As soon as we reached the house, I barreled out the door and to my room and did not come out again until the next morning. Then, things went back to “normal.”
I recall this experience so vividly. As you can see through this encounter, my abuser continued to implant the beliefs that what was happening to me was normal and okay. An abuser strives to do this. If they can manipulate the mind of a victim into believing they (the abuser) are actually helping the child out and doing him/her a favor, they gain significant control and the likelihood of disclosure lessens. An abuser may first use threats, such as “you better not tell anyone or else,” to gain the submission of the victim. If abuse is ongoing, the abuser is going to continue to manipulate their victim because eventually, the threats do not carry the weight they once did. At some point, injury or death may begin to appear more desirable than continued abuse. This is why the abuser works to normalize the criminal behavior and make the victim feel “special” because the abuser is “doing him/her a favor.” Once a victim begins believing the abuse is normal, it takes a major breakthrough for them to realize that what is happening to them is not normal.
We need to do more to equip our children with the education of normal behaviors and abusive behaviors. We need to create a better dialogue with them so they can come to us as soon as something feels uncomfortable even when someone tells them what they are doing is okay. Most importantly, we must hold those who choose to abuse children accountable for their actions in a manner that will deter future child victimization.
This is an updated version of a post I first published in 2016.
I’m fairly certain one of my earliest blog posts shares the same title as this one, but the words have been a truth I have held tightly through the healing journey. Not my shame. I remember my therapist telling me when I was around 17 years old that the shame I was carrying did not belong to me. Diane Langberg, a respected counselor/researcher/author/speaker, calls this type of shame “inflicted shame.” She defines it as “the shame of one person inflicted on the self of the other. It is the shame belonging to the perpetrator but carried by the victim” (Langberg, 2015, p. 133). Many, if not all, survivors of childhood sexual abuse experience this type of shame. And it is not even ours to begin with.
Shame attacks the identity of an individual whereas guilt attacks the behavior of an individual. Guilt is quite often justified, the result of a sinful action; however, shame is one of Satan’s tactics of holding a person captive. Guilt says, “I did something bad.” Shame says, “I am bad.” Shame infiltrates every aspect of our being and prohibits us from being able to see ourselves and our world as God desires.
When I reflect on my inflicted shame, it began the night the routine abuse started- when I was eight years old and quietly, but quickly, walked from my abuser’s bedroom to my bathroom sink and attempted to scrub his semen off my small hands. That is the first time I felt dirty. Not a muddy, been playing in the woods all day dirty, but a soul-penetrating dirty, that doesn’t wash off under the faucet. It was more than a physical dirty. The shame told me that I deserved what my abuser was doing to me. Shame said that I was unworthy. The shame was compounded by the secret I was instructed to keep. It could not be spoken, “or else.”
The impacts of shame continued to manifest in my life during my disclosures of the abuse and in the years following. When I would speak up about some of the things my abuser did, shame reminded me there were some acts that were unspeakable. Shame said, “you can’t tell anyone about that or you will be judged forever.” Shame during my teenage years told me that “no one will want to know the real you. You are only good for what your appearances can offer.” Shame led me to believe that rather than becoming a doctor, I should aspire to become a playboy bunny. Shame, that was not mine to begin with, tossed me into some deep, dark valleys. It was only the spiritual light that could lead me out of them.
My therapist and my youth pastor are the two people who initially helped me see the light. It took literal years of them pouring truth into my heart and mind before I began to recognize that I did not have to live with the shame my abuser inflicted on me. Here are some of the truths that helped me step into the light.
Psychoeducation on abuse and trauma. I had to comprehend the dynamics of abuse and the power my abuser had over me. I had to see the little girl that was being abused, not the woman I seemed to become overnight who I believed should have stopped what was happening. I had to understand the impacts of trauma.
Talking and trauma narrative. Shame festers in silence. I had to be able to speak the words of my experiences. I had to take back the power which silence had stolen. I told my story at my own pace and in my own words in a therapeutic environment with trusted individuals.
Reclaiming my identity. The identity shame gave me became normal. Even though it was unhealthy and often resulted in more pain, it felt safe because it was what I knew. I had spent more time with the identity of shame then I had as a normal little girl. I had to recognize that it was not the identity God gave me. I sought scripture passages to reveal how God viewed me. I had to make lifestyle choices that would align with God’s view of his daughter.
A whole lot of prayer and accountability. I pray for God to help me see myself and others through eyes like His. My youth pastor, therapist, and others prayed for my healing in the years after the abuse ended. When I feel myself starting to slip into old thought patterns that lead to a place of shame, I reach out to someone I know will hold me accountable. Have people in your life who will speak the truth even when it’s hard to hear and believe.
Take back power. A pivotal moment in my healing journey occurred when I recognized that I could take back the power my abuser and Satan had over my life. I decided that I didn’t want to live according to the desires of my abuser and Satan. I decided that I would grow into the person God designed me to be. I decided to follow God’s will for my life wherever it led. I found my worth in simply being a human that God created for a purpose. I decided my purpose mattered.
I would be lying if I said I never struggle with shame. It is not a “follow the directions and fix the problem” kind of experience. However, I hold on to God’s truths tightly and they have the power to lift me out of the valley when I allow those truths to permeate my entire being. Shame will not be a part of my identity.
Langberg, D. (2015). Suffering and the heart of God: How trauma destroys and Christ restores. Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press.
I can still vividly recall the shakiness and fear that seemed to consume me when the Assistant District Attorney called me to the stand to be sworn in last summer. Based on television shows, you would think the swearing in process is a piece of cake. We regularly see people place a hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. How hard could it really be? Just get up there and tell the truth, right?
I will never consider testifying in court as a “light” event in a person’s life. I can remember my heart racing, my hands trembling, and my voice shaking as I was sworn in and took my seat. Testifying in court is not guaranteed to end in the survivor’s favor. That lack of certain conviction is what played the most significant role in accepting a plea agreement when my abuser was initially charged. I experienced only a glimpse of what a trial feels like when I testified at my abuser’s petition hearing. But that glimpse was enough to help me better understand the trauma that will occur in the courtroom.
Over the years, courts have implemented trauma-informed approaches to reduce the impacts of courtroom testimony on victims. But there is no way you can expect testifying in court to not have impacts on a person as he/she relives the trauma. We should be prepared to walk with individuals in the days, weeks, or months after the court has issued a ruling. Whether the ruling is favorable or not, there will be major impacts.
Facing my abuser in court and testifying on why he should not be granted a petition for removal from the sex offender registry is one decision I will never regret. I don’t have to wonder if there was anything else I could have done to prevent my abuser’s removal from the registry. I had the chance to speak the truth in public in front of my abuser and his family as they sat by his side. I got to reclaim the voice of “little Kendall” and stand up for her. And even though the court’s decision was not in my favor, I would make the same decision again.
I do believe there are times when allowing a plea deal to be reached is best for the case, especially when there has not been a prior conviction. When the case against my abuser was first heard it court, it was the best decision to accept a plea bargain. I believe that plea deals protect children from further trauma. But I also believe that there is power in having the opportunity to testify- especially at petition hearings. It is kind of like the saying “it has to get worse before it can get better.” Testifying is going to be worse (but not worse than the abuse endured), but then you can come out on the other side stronger and braver. It is awful to do everything in your power to influence a decision yet still have it not result in your favor. It is unspeakable to hear a judge say “Therefore, based upon the findings of fact and conclusions of law, the court orders, adjudges and decrees the relief requested by the petitioner is granted…” But, I have absolutely no regrets.
If your abuser is petitioning the court from removal from the sex offender registry, I would encourage you to reach out to the District Attorney’s office and seriously consider appearing in court to make a statement. I am more than willing to talk with you more about the experience.