Speaking Out about Staying Silent


When I was eight years old, I never knew which night my father would come into my room. When he was done with me, he’d always say, “You tell anyone and I’ll kill you.” Petrified and ashamed, believing his threat, I never told anybody. This secret stayed buried in a dirt pile at the back of my brain. For 40 years. But now I tell. I started telling a few years before each of my parents died.

My silence had layers. The first layer was fear. The second got formed from believing it was somehow my fault; this wouldn’t happen to a “good” child. Another was shame for having come from a family that would abuse and not protect its children.

In sexual assaults, there are victims, offenders and bystanders. Bystanders are those who know or suspect something is wrong. The late Coach Joe Paterno was our nation’s most famous bystander. If I could have spoken directly to him, I would have said, “Carpe diem, Coach Paterno! Seize the day. One hell of an opportunity lies before you. Step up to the microphones and the cameras; face those thousands of adoring Penn State students who are outraged at your being fired and say, ‘Stop worrying about me. I got fired because I didn’t do everything I could have to protect those boys. Because I didn’t do everything I should have to stop a man from harming them. Take this energy you’re spending on me and use it to change the world so this doesn’t happen to your children.’” If only he had.

Everyone who has heard about this tragedy is now a bystander.

In the aftermath of the Penn State earthquake I’m thinking about the 39 million people in our country who’ve been sexually assaulted (according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). And thinking about the kids who are going to be abused today and tomorrow makes my pen stop and my brain freeze. Someone’s going to be sexually abused for the very first time today and we’re living in a world that can’t keep it from happening.

There are bystanders who don’t want survivors to tell, who can’t endure the awful exposure of people they love, trust or know—present or past. My family has responded in all the ways one can imagine—some believe and support me—some are angry I told and shun me—the rest are stunned to silence.

Telling brings a freedom that’s palpable. For me it’s been a release from a coat of armor glued to my skin and a rusty chain wrapped around my heart. All keeping the very best of me locked away.

The majority of survivors haven’t told yet, haven’t felt safe enough, supported enough or connected enough to tell just one person how they were harmed. The culture’s got a lock on keeping these secrets. Nothing will change as long as the truth is locked away.

Why has this Penn State fiasco stirred up such a maelstrom of attention and outrage? It appears much larger than the public reaction to the very same thing that’s been happening for years in the Catholic Church. Could sports be a higher form of worship than religion in our country? Whatever the reason, I am sorrowfully glad it is so. A window of opportunity has opened in our airwaves and around our kitchen tables.

I’m calling out to everyone who was disturbed, enraged and confused by all the stories coming out of Penn State, wondering what any one person could possibly do to help. You can help. You can make a difference. There is power in the simple act of listening; help unlock the secrets by listening. Silence is broken when 1) survivors tell and 2) the people they tell listen.

The Penn State aftershocks are bringing painful reminders to countless survivors. Some will be moved to speak, many perhaps for the first time. Get ready to listen. It’s the first step. Thirty-nine million of us are sitting on a vast morass of truth. Believe it. The sooner our country gets to that truth to see how wide and deep it is—the sooner we can start figuring out together how to prevent it from happening over and over, again and again.
Donna Jenson, founder of Time to Tell, is the playwright-performer of the one-woman show, What She Knows: One Woman’s Way Through Incest (www.timetotell.org). Versions of this commentary appeared in three newspapers, including The Chicago Tribune. She can be reached at djenson@crocker.com.