Why do women take so long to tell? Telling is more guilt, shame

Teri Carter
Teri Carter

When Beverly Young Nelson held her Nov. 13 press conference about the abuses of former judge Roy Moore down in Alabama, I keyed in on her high-school yearbook. I focused on that yearbook the way you focus on a bad car wreck, on the carnage, and I hit the “record” button so I could watch her entire story over and over.

And yet, looking back, it was not her yearbook at all. It was the way Nelson talked about her neck, the way she described Moore pushing his hands on her neck, the force and the fear she felt, as he tried to shove her face into his crotch.

He was in his 30s. She was 16. Why, everyone asks, didn’t she tell?

I know why. I know why because the same thing happened to me. And I did not tell a soul for 34 years.

I told on the weekend of my 50th birthday. I was on a trip with my high-school girlfriends in Breckenridge, Colo. We had been hiking on one of those perfect, sunny, spectacular summer days, having a great time laughing and telling our same old stories the way old friends do.

Then, we were coming down the mountain in a gondola when one of the women mentioned his name. She was telling a joke. Everyone laughed, but I felt a wave of panic, an intense, physical wave like the kind you feel when you dream you’re falling, and it seemed like I was watching this scene from outside myself, from outside the gondola even, like I was dangling from the cables, struggling to hang on, altogether invisible to the women who’ve known me longest, and the best.

On the 10-minute walk from the gondola to our condo, I played in my head what to say. I knew if I did not start talking, start telling, the instant we were inside, that fear would win. I would change my mind.

“Everybody grab a drink,” I half-heard myself saying. “I’ve got a story to tell you.”

There was a low, murmuring clatter as the women mixed their cocktails and gathered around the condo’s dining room table — my sheet-cake with its blue icing, our high school colors spelling out “Happy Birthday Teri!” as the centerpiece — but the only words I heard were, “Oh god, there’s a story.”

I stared into my friends’ worried faces. And I carefully peeled the label off a beer I did not bother to drink as I told every last detail.

Over these decades I have listened to so many friends tell their secrets. The woman whose father was such a great-grandfather that she can never tell her family lest she ruin him for them. The woman who grew up behind a literal white picket fence whose father laughed while holding her mother at gunpoint. The man who told me he’d been raped repeatedly as a teen by his parish pastor, only to realize the same pastor had raped his mother and his sisters.

I have listened and I have felt shock and compassion and amazement. I have hugged them and cried with them and thanked them for trusting me with their stories, for being brave. And I have naively encouraged them to name names and tell their stories to the greater public — “Tell everybody! Expose the bastard!” — and been incredulous at their expressed regret in telling me, at their decision to go on maintaining their secrets.

What I know now is this: After I told, I only felt worse. I only felt more shame and fear. Shame that people, my people, knew. Fear that the few I’d told would tell others and that I would be talked about with pity.

Telling does not equal healing. Telling is not cathartic or therapeutic. Telling does not mean feeling better or lighter or relieved. Telling is not the end, just another horrifying beginning.

When I got home from my big birthday celebration in Colorado, I knew I had to tell one more person. My husband of 20 years. But unlike the long, detailed account I gave my childhood girlfriends, I only had enough energy left for the basics.

I promised I would tell him the whole story later, but it’s been two years. Later may never come. And now feel guilty about that, too.

This additional guilt is what I feel every time I hear someone ask with rolling-eyed disbelief, “If it’s true, why did she wait decades to tell this story?”

Telling is not a relief. Telling is simply an additional burden to bear; the extra, overwhelming weight of being forever linked, publicly, by body and by name, to the person who abused you.

Like Beverly Young Nelson down in Alabama, my abuser signed my yearbook, too. Lucky me.

Reach Teri Carter, a writer in Lawrenceburg, at www.tericarter.net/contact.html.