TW: Child abuse; abuse; sexual abuse; sexual assault
There used to be a long sidewalk that stretched behind my apartment, and wrapped around the entire complex, lined with beautiful trees for what seemed like miles. Every day I would rush out with my bike, alone, excited to see what adventures my bike ride would bring me that day. I remember there was one part of the sidewalk that seemed to climb uphill forever only to suddenly drop downwards bringing that butterfly, stomach-in-your-chest feeling that I would chase after. Wind in my hair, carefree and adventurous, I didn’t need anything in the world except my bike and myself.
I was a shy child, introverted and imaginative, and I spent a lot of time alone. It was difficult for me to make friends, but I had my creativity, so that’s all that mattered. I would make instruments out of my mom’s cooking ware, banging loudly (much to my mother’s dismay), or go on walks to discover what adventures and creatures awaited me in the little pond by the sewer.
With the people I loved, I was talkative, happy, and curious - my mother would probably say too curious.
My mother had a group of friends that she had met within our community. They would meet often and all of them had children around my age, so it worked out nicely. Although I was part of this group, I always felt left out. I think I felt like an outsider; I just didn’t know how to verbally communicate with other children around my age, and I was always better with kids younger than me, or with adults. Younger kids saw me as a leader, while the adults were intrigued by my ability to listen and absorb conversations.
We went over His house often, sometimes with my mom to look at saris (traditional Indian wear). Once I made brownies with his wife and she let me lick the batter, which was the best thing as a kid. I remember scooping up the most amount of batter my small finger could manage, and putting a mountain of the brownie mix right into my mouth, licking up any remainder on my finger. We would even go to events for their side of the family, who were people I had never met before. The day I got my tonsillectomy, he was the last person I saw before they wheeled me into the operation room.
Like many Indian-Americans, my favorite food to eat was Taco Bell. I could go for Taco Bell anytime, and everyone knew this. Whenever I was sick, I asked for Taco Bell. Whenever I was sad, I asked for Taco Bell. Whenever I saw Taco Bell, I asked for Taco Bell. My mom received a call one day and I could overhear her talking. She said something about me being free, and how I had not eaten yet. It was summertime, and I wanted to go out badly, but I had no friends. I waited anxiously for my mom to hang up to come tell me what had happened. She came into the room and told me that Uncle was taking the kids out to Taco Bell, and asked if I wanted to join them. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach, because a week before I thought he had done something bad to me, but I was not sure - I was not sure if my brain was playing tricks on me and I had imagined something had happened. With hesitation, I decided to hold an “experiment” and see if anything happened this time around and I naively told myself to be vigilantly aware. Plus, I was going to get Taco Bell.
When he picked me up in his car, he allowed me to sit in the front, which made me feel grown up. After that feeling passed, I realized that no one else was in the car. When I asked where everyone was, he made some sort of excuse.
The last time I was at his house, we played a penny game. In that penny game, we would have to capture as many pennies as we could while he flipped a penny or threw a ball. I don’t really remember now, but I do remember the feeling I had playing the game, which was joy and amusement. He asked me if I wanted to go to his house and we could play a game, and I excitedly asked, “the penny game?” He answered with trepidation in his voice, which I assumed to mean he had forgotten the game. He said, “The penny game?” I said, “Yes! The penny game!” Without much conviction, he said, “Oh yes, the penny game.” I was ready to go.
Trigger warning - Description of sexual assault
As we approached his home, I had a feeling of dread in my stomach, but I told myself it was okay--to not worry. When we walked into his house and into his living room, he asked me if I wanted to go into the bedroom. I was wary, but it was only for a second because all I could think about was the game we were going to play and so I followed Uncle into the bedroom. I remember when I went into the bedroom, on the right hand side was their bed and straight in front of it was a dresser with a large mirror. He sat down at the end of the bed close to the dresser and asked me to come over and sit on his lap because we were going to play the “comb” game. I asked, “but what about the penny game?” He told me that this is the same game as I was talking about, but I knew it was not. Even then, I was curious to know what this game was about. When I sat, he was behind me and I was sitting right on top looking straight at our reflection. He began to explain the rules of the game to me, and told me that there is a hairbrush on the dresser, which I had to lean over to grab while he tried to stop me. It seemed simple enough.
He wrapped one arm around me tightly to keep me from falling, and kept his other arm free. When I leaned over to grab the comb, He began to tickle me - around my armpits, and on my chest and stomach. I started giggling, and tried to go as fast as I could to grab the comb, which happened maybe two or three times. I could see our reflection, and he was sitting behind me smiling the biggest smile. I went to grab the comb again, except this time I felt a hand slip under my underwear. I knew this was wrong. I started wriggling to get out of his grasp, but his arm that was around me got tighter and tighter and I could see our reflection in the mirror with Him smiling menacingly, and I was starting to get flushed around my face, struggling to get free. The next thing I knew, my 60lb body had dropped to the carpeted floor facing upwards, lying down, and a man that was almost 200lbs hovered over me, tickling me. “STOP! STOP” That was all I was able to get out, while he continued to touch me all over my body. We were not playing anymore. We were never playing.
---Description of the sexual assault ends here---
Remember that scene in Lion King, where Nala and Simba venture off into the elephant graveyard to prove how brave they are, except that ends up backfiring on them because they find themselves surrounded by hyenas? Just when the hyenas tell them they are going to eat them, Simba lets out a roar with the most confidence he could muster. After kicking around and trying to protect myself with my arms, I used all the energy I had left, and embodied my Simba with the most stern voice saying, “I want to go home” and looked Him dead in the eye. I am not sure why that worked, and why he got off of me and told me we could go home, but it did. I was lucky it did.
When we got into the car, I knew I should not have gone. All the doubts about what he had done to me a week prior had vanished. The car ride was pretty silent, and that itching voice in my head, that curious voice, would not go away. I turned to Him and asked, “Why do you do that? Why do you play like that?” He didn’t really have an answer for me. He just looked sideways at me and told me, “I don’t know. That’s just how I play.” Still, to this day, I do not remember what exactly happened the first time around, but I remember the second time with details that I sometimes wish I could forget.
After that, we didn’t say one word to each other. Years later, I found out from my mom that he handed me money before I left the car and told me not to tell anyone, but I went straight home and gave it to my mom. It is interesting how trauma works, and the memories we remember and the ones we don’t. When I got home, I told my mom that I had to tell her something. I knew I had to tell a grown up, because what had happened was not right - they had taught us about good touch/bad touch in school. When I told her what had happened, I asked her to go to the police because we should tell them what happened. Unfortunately, it was the 90s, the #Metoo movement had not happened, and my parents decided it would bring too much shame to me as a girl - “Badha ne kabhar padse” or another way of saying, “Log kya kehenge?” (What will people say). I think a part of them was also scared of the shame - they would have been blamed for sending me and trusting me with this man. My parents were devastated, and their perception of themselves as parents shifted as well. They cut their ties off with the family and never spoke to them again. A year after the incident, I was binge eating so much that the doctor told me I had high cholesterol, because that was all that gave me a sense of comfort. It was probably the same time I started my journey with mental illness.
My childhood was taken away a day too soon. When I would ride my bike, speeding down the hilly sidewalk, it didn’t bring me butterflies anymore. My mother stopped sending me for sleepovers where she knew there were grown men. As I grew older, I could not have a friendship with a man without thinking he was sexually interested in me. I would try to stay far away from men who were teachers in my school, because I had developed an intuition for grown male teachers that were just a little too close to the girls at school. When my mother told me to cover up in front of my uncles, I understood where her distrust came from. I had loose boundaries in my romantic relationships, because I was taught that if my boundaries were violated nothing would happen anyways. All this time, I was never consciously aware of how this incident in my life had shaped my view of the men in my life and how the trust I had for them was shattered.
I was taught at a very young age to be vigilant about the men I come across but I was never given the tools to protect myself emotionally. I was never told that it is men who need to do better. People around me told me to protect myself, and I believed this for a while, so I took pepper sprays with me, I tried kickboxing, I always kept a knife, and before I sat in a car, I would check the back seat and immediately lock all the doors once I got in. I remember calling my friends when I would arrive home late. When a man would walk behind me, I would cross to the other side. I learned these things way too young. Despite doing all of this, too many boys and men still took advantage of me emotionally, physically, and sexually. The worst thing was I became silent and my voice, the simba-like courage I felt, was gone.
I tried to tell a few of my closest friends what had happened to me. I was so disconnected from myself and what had happened, I thought I could play it off as no big deal. I spent many years feeling guilty and thinking that I had brought that incident on myself. I had many years of shame, though no one could probably tell what had happened to me from the outside. It took me years and years of self-searching, therapy, my psychology education, and reading others’ stories to realize that it was not my fault. Even while writing this I think, “Will they believe me? Will they know I didn’t mean for this to happen?” in a society that teaches us to protect ourselves, but doesn’t ask men to do better.
20 years later, in August 2019, I saw in the news that he had been arrested for molesting a teen girl while tutoring her, and it was like a flood of emotions and memories came back to me. Pandora’s box had been opened. In the movement of #MeToo, where people have been empowered to speak up regarding sexual assault, a girl had decided to report him. This time around I decided I will not go silent. I went to the prosecutor’s office without telling my parents to give a statement. It was cathartic. It was painful. It was anxiety ridden. It was liberating. I could finally process my trauma, regardless if he was punished or not, although his incarceration is justice served. When I went home, I told my parents what I had done and my mom’s first reaction was, “Will others find out?”. I told her, “We didn’t stop him 20 years ago, so he was able to continue his evil ways with little girls and boys alike for that much longer. He is the one in the wrong, not me,” and I could see she had a change of heart. The next thing I knew, she was going down to the prosecutor’s office to back up my statement. Because of our statements they were able to trace back his crimes 20 years instead of the last 4-5 years, and I know there are more people he had violated during that time. I thank every single person who had the courage to come forward first, because I wouldn’t have otherwise.
After that moment, I started healing my child-like self that was more adventurous, spoke her mind, is openly creative, but is COMPASSIONATELY angry. I have allowed myself to become angry at the systems in place for the first time in many years, and this is deeply uncomfortable for many people because I am now a social disrupter. Since his arrest, I have destroyed my idea of being perfect and saying the perfect things as to not ruin my image to others--I have allowed myself to make mistakes, which has become crucial to my healing. I have killed my “sharam” ( shame) which doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with my conditioning at times, especially as a brown woman. I wish I heard the stories of more women who would be considered openly “emotional” and “messy” for rejecting the notions of positivity or stoicism which often lead to repression. So I ask you not to pity or feel sorry for me, but to see me as an empowered survivor willing to share her story for healing. This generational healing is something that I want accessible to all children and adults with similar stories. I want to know that you are not alone and it is okay to be angry for what this patriarchy does to us.
This is an overarching societal problem that needs to be reckoned with where we have been sexualized as children and don’t want to deal with the outcome. This is the cost of “virginity”, where there are adults infatuated with young children and taking their innocence. In South Asian communities, we ask children to cover up around certain uncles and aunties, instead of shunning them. I have seen aunties shame five year old girls for wearing bikinis, which automatically sends the message that her body is for sexual objectification. Brown people consistently ingrain the idea into kids that they need to know their limits around adults as authority figures, but why don’t adults need to know their limits around kids? Honor and shame are so integrally part of our culture, but it suppresses the voices of our future generations when we ask them to carry this burden for the family. We are in a society that will get angrier at someone for exposing their midriff and shoulders rather than the systems in place that create child sex trafficking, the killing of disabled children, shunning or death of LGBTQIA+ children, child marriages, child predators, familial predatory behaviors, or the pressures of marketing on children when it comes to beauty standards.
Don’t get angry at my parents or others that don’t report to the police, because it’s easy to point fingers. Let those of us affected by the patriarchy in these ways get compassionately angry - hear our stories, validate our emotions, and amplify even when it is uncomfortable. We all need to look within ourselves to see how we are all complicit in the systems that allow what happened to me happen to millions of children in various and worse ways around the world.
Men have to start holding their peers accountable for change when they see problematic behavior or words, and take the steps necessary to make those of us who are vulnerable to violence feel safer. We have to start calling out the behaviors of our aunties and uncles in our families loudly, to let them know that we find this behavior unacceptable, so we foster a new generation of children who can continue being children--empowered children in touch with their voice and emotions.
Iamme.vi is a South Asian womxn in exploration of their voice through multiple creative mediums. They are a photographer, MUA, and a writer. Their goal is to continuously combine storytelling and social advocacy through the art of visuals. They have a keen interest in speaking on taboo subjects, especially in relation to the patriarchy and mental illness, while learning to amplify others. They hope to facilitate dialogue on the acceptance of emotions in a society that often create shame around them.