CW: childhood sexual abuse, molestation
I wrote this originally in 2014 when Dylan Farrow wrote about Woody Allen abusing her in a letter in the New York Times. This piece is still relevant today as Farrow calls out the media for excusing Woody Allen while the rest of Hollywood is under fire because of the #metoo movement
I am Dylan Farrow.
This is something I have been grappling with ever since I read her New York Times letter. It is a true reflection with how I have dealt with my molestation ever since I realized what was happening to me was wrong. Grappling. A mixture of denial and knowing. Feeling dirty but not really having the vocabulary or the agency to feel this sense of disgust with yourself. The guilty feeling that it could have been worse; the shame you feel knowing how bad it really was. In the end, I still think I could have stopped it.
Farrow’s letter is an important letter to read because she is still telling her story even after she has been called a liar, and still is. Her brutal honesty about her issues with dealing with her abuse, how she exposes herself by giving intimate details of the abuse, and her anger over people not believing her are incredibly powerful. It is a story to which too many people relate. When people doubt her abuse, I know it is because they do not know what it is liked to be doubted about something that you do not even have the words to describe. They do not know how it feels to want someone to believe you because it validates your existence; believing you makes you into a person again, a person who does not deserve to be abused. I believe Farrow wrote the letter to be free from her abuse and to empower others to finally free themselves too. This is why I am writing this essay.
Although I try to deny it, my molestation is a part of my life. I carried it with me when I started college and made sure I excelled academically and became a prominent social justice leader on campus. I refused to stay silent because I felt that my voice had been stripped from me in my childhood. I wanted to be a voice for everyone. While I ran organizations that I identified with such as Women’s Collective and Pride Alliance, my campus politics transgressed to other realms of social justice and I was respected for my true compassion and dedication to helping others. My life became all about helping others, from my romantic relationships, to friendships, to my campus activism. I was selfless and determined to succeed. I was proving to myself that I could be a strong, independent, respected woman even though I was molested. I was proving to the world that I was not too damaged to make a difference in this world. And even though I still struggle with my past, I was successful. It was a bittersweet taste at graduation.
I have periods where I have flashbacks and memories, sometimes new but mostly old. There are different triggers for these periods but mainly they are caused by stories in the media. Not long before Dylan wrote her letter, a Youtube video of a woman, not much older than me, confronting her abuser went viral. I cried watching the video. I could relate to her words. The anger in her voice as she told her abuser that what she did to her has fucked her up for life. I felt so great for that woman, so happy that she was able to confront her abuser after all these years. At the same time, I felt jealous because I will never be able to have that moment. I came home late at night after getting out of work at 3 am, crawled into bed and cried. My girlfriend asked me what was wrong and I didn’t want to talk about it. But she made me. It was one of the times I have felt most vulnerable.
I know that part of my activism is so others feel empowered. I want others to have agency over their own lives. I planned Take Back the Night during college and Vagina Monologues to help others feel empowered in their bodies. After all the LGBTQ suicides in the fall of 2010 I planned a candlelight vigil with other leaders on campus to make sure that my peers felt that they were in a safe space. My activism is designed around these moments where others feel that they take claim to their bodies, their identities and have the right to live and be happy on this planet. I hope for others to feel unchained by prejudices and hatred all around them because I know that I will never truly have that moment of empowerment.
I had my moments of empowerment at college along with the people I helped. I spoke about my abuse at Take Back the Night more than once where I shared a space with other survivors and the people who care about them. However, my abuse was not the same as most people who spoke at Take Back the Night; I was not raped during college but molested as a child. I felt close to these women, but at the same time, a million miles away. I did not wake up the next morning and realize what happened to me the night before was wrong. I did not say no. I did not truly fight it. In fact, I did not realize what happened to me was truly wrong until years after. I felt guilty for comparing my abuse to feelings of violation of rape. I had convinced myself that what happened to me was not that bad and that I had no right to say I relate to rape survivors. My mind was telling me that my past was not a big deal but my body rejected this idea and slid deeper into depression.
My senior year I wrote about my abuse in my Women’s Studies senior seminar, revealing it to a close group of people that it was where my feminism lies. My professor tried to talk to me about my abuse, but I brushed her off. I felt psychoanalyzed by her, being pushed to confront my family, and forced to talk about it under her terms, not mine. I decided after writing about my feminism that I wanted to speak at a local survivor art show about my abuse. I wanted to feel powerful in sharing my story in my chosen art form- spoken word- to help myself heal and to help others heal. Instead, I had a meltdown before the show because I had to go alone when I was supposed to go with my best friends. While I commend myself for standing up there by myself revealing something only few people know about me to complete strangers, I do not look back positively at that moment because I have never felt so alone in my life. And my anger at feeling so alone led me to almost lose one of my best friends.
My attempts at feeling empowered have fallen short because I will never be able to confront my abuser. It would ruin my family.
I was abused by my sister for three years. She called it “playing” and we would reenact sexual acts on each other with romantic storylines. I told her I did not like it, and it was voiced clearly to me that it must be hidden from my parents. I am not sure if my sister knew why it must be kept from my parents, I feel that she just knew that it was something she should not be doing but liked it too much to stop. She began to bribe me to “play” with her and bothered me to do it until I gave in every single time my parents left us alone. My parents went to the grocery store. On a date. To pick up take out. Each time was an opportunity for my sister to make me “play.” Once the bribes like doing the dishes were not good enough for me, she blackmailed me. She threatened to tell on me for dumb things I did wrong. She read my diary and used the fact that I had a boyfriend my parents did not want me to have as a way to make me “play” with her. I look back and think it was dumb of me to allow her to do this to me, that I was a willing participant. Then I remember how young I was, and how I did not even know why it was wrong.
It was not until I read A Child Called It did I realize that what happened to me was abuse. I made it clear to my sister that I knew what she did was wrong and she promised not to make me “play” with her anymore. I spent the next year trying to figure out what it all meant. I confided in friends and it came to bite me in the ass. More people than I ever really wanted knew about the abuse. No one helped me. One person wanted me to tell an adult. It became a story I told because it kept people away, it showed people how fucked up I was and that I was a damaged person who had experienced pain.
My parents found out because of an email I wrote to someone who had a history of abuse too. My parents freaked out. They yelled at me. They yelled at my sister. But they punished both of us. I was told it was going to be okay. But in the end, it was my fault for opening my mouth to people. I was not allowed to talk to certain people anymore. I was kept locked up in Michigan with family members who were ignorant about the abuse without any contact with my friends for the whole summer. I was sent to counseling when I came home but it was not talked about beyond that. The situation was over. I am supposed to be healed now. Discussion over.
I spent the next ten years trying to figure out if I was abused or if I made a big deal out of nothing. When I told the people I thought were supposed to protect me, they silenced me. Told me not to talk about, told me not to watch MTV anymore, and told me to move on. I was supposed to be nice to my sister and keep my mouth shut about the incident. In result, I was alone, isolated, betrayed- if my parents could not help me, who could? I have struggled with depression, battled with self-mutilation and struggled to be truly happy with myself ever since.
My relationships with people since then have been about helping other people because I cannot truly help myself. The people I have fallen in love with have been people who needed me to save them. I save people because no one can save me, not even myself. The need to save people also applies to my social justice activism. I try to save other people who suffer around the world because I want them to be free from the pain I still feel. Everyone deserves to feel human, I just have not found the way to validate my existence yet. I hope I find it soon.
I am a caged bird who sings of freedom. And for reasons I cannot explain, there is empowerment in realizing where my song comes from.