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American Childhood: breaking the code of silence

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

**This post contains discussion of child sexual abuse and religious trauma**


All-American Girl

As I leaned my head full of baby-soft hair closer, Mom gently stroked the wavy, golden locks, reluctant to push her brush all the way through the tresses. I would always cry when we pulled my hair up in braids because it felt as if she wouldn’t stop tugging until every last inch of my scalp was swollen and red. Not that I was dramatic about things–even back then. But that day, she went easy on me.

“We’ll just comb it to the side and put a barrette in, honey. How do you like that?” She smiled at me sweetly as her soft lips leaned in to touch my forehead with a loving kiss, then she turned my little shoulders toward the mirror.

I couldn’t look. I buried my head in her long, blue skirt and cried again. I didn’t care about my hair. Everyone told me that I should be excited about my first day of school, but I didn’t understand why–not really. I had been perfectly happy where I was. Why we had come so far just to go to a school, leaving us nowhere near family and friends was lost on me. No, there was nothing to be enthusiastic about, and I refused to try.

“It’ll be okay, Shelly. I promise. You’ll find new friends, and we will have all kinds of adventures here together. You’ll see.” Mom always tried to be positive.

My four-year-old heart couldn’t quite grasp the concept of new friends being just as good or better than the sweet sights and sounds of the only home I had ever known, but I soon mustered up enough excitement for being allowed to ride the bus for the first time. At least there was that–and my big brother, Jon. He held my hand, promising to look after me the whole ride, and to meet me as soon as school was out. He was my favorite.

I collected myself the best I knew hair did look kind of cute, and my new favorite dress had flowers on the collar, allowing me to have an almost genuine smile. I summoned the strength to soldier on, gripping tightly to my brother's hand.

After a tiring early morning route that sunny, September morning in 1979, we arrived at our new school where a teacher welcomed the group of twenty or more bright-eyed little ones into a cheerfully decorated pre-kindergarten classroom. The white walls were arrayed with robust, green chalkboards and rows of wooden desks in straight lines filled the room. The perimeter of the space was decorated with colorful letters on shiny, illustrated cards hanging in orderly fashion, where every boy and girl wore neatly-pressed clothes and a “yes ma’am” on their lips.

It was all drippy sweet. Who could have thought that something sinister was hidden?


My story started out with a wholesome scene as an innocent four-year-old anxiously beginning her school career, but not more than a year had passed before I, too, became a victim of child sexual abuse. Within a culture that was created around the idea that women are seductresses, and men simply can't help themselves, it isn't surprising that the statute of limitations had long run out before I had the courage to breathe a word of my dilemma to an adult.

A couple years ago, I veered away from my fiction and started writing a memoir about my childhood experience of growing up in a religious sect. I knew it was part of my story that I was being drawn to open up about as a writer, but something kept holding me back.

I had begun using the word cult to describe our movement a number of years prior when our former leader's daughter was brave enough to give a TedTalk on the subject, clearly conveying that her father was, indeed, a cult leader. I sent my mom the video, asking her to take a look. I told a few close family members and friends how I was beginning to view my whole experience, and began facing much of my trauma associated with it.

So often, we make excuses for things we don't understand or know about, and my case is no exception. I would hit a “writer’s block”, and constantly rationalize why it was better for me to remain silent in order to protect the ignorance of those who could never understand.

But things have changed.

I recently watched the Paris Hilton Documentary, This is Paris, witnessing her break the chains of her secrets and slowly reveal her truth. And another thing struck me. As a mom myself, I could feel the depths of Kathy Hilton's own trauma when dealing with the fact that she didn't know.

They. Didn't. Know.

They didn't know because we were silent. Muzzled in a world of manipulative control within a society that catered to authoritarianism, we were to be seen and not heard. And maybe that's an antiquated notion that my grandparents grew up with, but it is still ingrained in American culture.

I believe my parents were not aware of some of the abuse that went on–about the mind games and ultimate control the organization sought to have on our lives. No cult leader starts out with a message that is overtly manipulative, exposing the fact that you will one day, if he has his way, become a sex slave. No institution reveals that mind control, religious abuse, and predatory behaviors which exploit human weaknesses will be common practice.

Without tools like Steven Hassan's BITE model, and instant access to this information because of a device we simply keep in our pockets, perhaps we wouldn't be where we are now.

Maybe stories like Sarah Edmondson's of former ESP, NXIVM who was literally branded in order to become a sex slave to Keith Raniere wouldn't seem as common place if people like Mark Vicente hadn't documented every move and used his influence to make the HBO show, The Vow. Here’s the thing, though. All this has come to light, and now we know.

The more we tell our stories, the more likely we are to do something to stop abuse.

Breaking my silence to a few church leaders and close family as a young woman was in and of itself a traumatic experience, and though I gained much support from my parents, it was mostly hushed away as something that shouldn’t be discussed. And yet, the more I talk about it now, the more I find men and women alike who have this story. They grew up here. Next door. Down the street. Across town. And we all walked in silence. Forty years at a time.

If this is American culture, there is no one living within these borders who is unaffected.

Finding out this year that places like Provo, the one Paris Hilton attended, and many others–even in my own home state–are still in existence because of brave young women like Amanda Householder on Tiktok, has allowed me to find the courage to speak up. In a fear and shame-driven society, no one is exempt from the potential of being abused.

So instead of hiding behind the embarrassment of my past, maybe the culture we're forming now can allow me to embrace the part of my story given to me as a tool for advocacy. These traumas shouldn't be part of anyone's childhood, and perhaps you never knew there were so many of us.

But now you do know. And we can all do something about it.


To sign the petition to shut down Provo click here.

To sign the petition to reform the troubled teen industry click here.

To find the abuser database of documented crimes within the IFB cult click here.

To learn more about the statute of limitations in your state click here.

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