Like many women who grow up within the church, I was taught to smile more, present well, and always say please and thank you. I was to be always pleasant, even when I felt the complete opposite of that. So, when I experienced sexual violence by a trusted clergy member, I didn’t know how to process the anger my body held or what to do with it when confronted with my abuser in my house of worship. Instead, for a time, I experienced an overwhelming sense of numbness.
Perhaps it was because I was watching my former church community adore him while I only knew him for the ways he harmed me. Or maybe it was the way he would greet me with a hug in public church settings even after the abuse ended–knowing I would be scolded if I refused him.
My family were active members who attended church services and programs several times a week. My abuser was also an active member who volunteered services as a sound room technician, a youth leader, and a member of the men’s praise and worship team. He was unavoidable. With every encounter, my anger intensified. It showed both at school and at home, but because I’d struggled with my studies growing up, my worsening grades and lashing out was overlooked. It simply wasn’t a large enough smoke signal to be seen.
I wanted to share what he did, but my fear wouldn’t allow me to. Instead, I convinced myself I was the only girl he had abused–a lie he told me, and one I desperately wanted to believe. In my mind, if I didn’t matter to me, and I was the only girl he abused, there was no need to speak up. Eventually though, my anger became too heavy to hold.
The first time I confided in someone, an entire year had passed since the abuse ended. It was on a Saturday evening after a youth event held at the church, in which my abuser chaperoned. I remember repeating the words, “I hate him. I hate him. I hate him” privately to an adult within the church. Her first question was, “Did he hurt you?”
I told her everything that happened. Part of me wanted her empathy, while another part of me worried I would get in trouble. What I was not prepared for though, was to hear my abuser was a repeat offender who joined the church shortly after “getting saved” and serving years in prison in the 80s and 90s. I later learned his charges included both sexual assault and kidnapping.
My anger reached a boiling point. The years I spent keeping the abuse a secret didn’t matter. My fear, and the belief he hadn’t hurt anyone else, were the only things keeping me silent. Because my anger began to outweigh my fear, I told my father immediately. The next day, I was in a police station reporting the abuse.
The next eight years of my life were occupied by police interrogations, phone calls with prosecutors, and trial prep; only for the trial to be delayed several times. Most times it was at the request of my abuser’s attorney, and it would occur weeks or even days before the trial date. It was a tactic I believe was used by my abuser and his attorney to motivate me to drop the charges.
With every letter or phone call I received about a new trial date, with every news article released covering the abuse, I grew angrier. As an outlet for that, I began to write about my experiences. First in journals, and eventually through spoken word performances and published poems. If the court wouldn’t hear me, I wanted to find people who would. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was controlling my narrative. I spent years reckoning with my own shame, and sharing my story on my own terms was my way of fighting that. I felt as if I was taking my power back. I felt free.
The first poem I published about the abuse was titled On Testifying Against Your Abuser. It was featured in an anthology and written before I received a final court date. It was largely written about my fear of testifying while awaiting a trial. To my surprise, my abuser’s attorney found and questioned the poem, causing me to grow even more fearful, and eventually, that fear outweighed my newfound confidence and turned into shame.The anger I had learned to embrace, once again, turned into numbness as I spent about a year unable to write any poems at all. In retrospect, I recognize my abuser’s attorney questioning my poem was only a tactic to scare me into silence. It worked.
When spring of 2020 hit, all court cases were delayed. Stuck in isolation with my own thoughts, I wanted to write again, but I wasn’t ready to share my story. I began writing a fictional character who I later named Amina Conteh. She was a 16-year-old girl, who like myself, experienced sexual abuse at the hands of the only church home she knew. I wrote a story about a girl who was loud, messy, and made honest mistakes. Much like my teenage (and adult) self, I wanted to prove that if my messy, loud, and occasionally naive main character was worthy of love and community, then so was I. Despite struggling to have empathy for myself, I never doubted Amina was worthy of all those things and more. Eventually, I began to believe that to be true for myself and every survivor of sexual abuse.
My words, originally written out of anger, became a labor of love. In 10 months, I had a complete novel–but still no trial date. I queried the novel, expecting to wait months for a response, but within two weeks I had nine agent offers of representation. My hope was that my court case would be tried before landing with a publisher, but within a few months, I had a book deal and still no court date. A few months later, we announced the acquisition of the novel. I was thrilled but couldn’t help but think of what happened years ago, when my poem was questioned by my abuser’s attorney. Shortly after the announcement, I received a phone call from my lawyer: we had another date set for my case. I was assured several times it was unlikely this court date would be rescheduled. I did not mention the novel to him.
Weeks later, trial prep began again. I was confident and so was my attorney. Just a couple of weeks before trial, my attorney told me my abuser’s team found the deal announcement of my novel. Familiar fear from years before resurfaced. I asked what this would mean for me, as I’d had my words used against me in the past. My attorney was honest that he was unsure of what would happen.
Days later, he called me to tell me that my abuser wanted to negotiate a plea deal. The call was meant to deliver good news, but I only felt angrier. I never imagined I would wait eight years to see a trial, and to be quite frank, I’m unsure if my teenage self would have reported what I’d experienced if I’d known that at the time. I battled with my fear and shame for long enough and was ready to speak my truth. Him agreeing to a plea deal after years of refusing one felt like another way of trying to silence me. That call from my attorney was one that I would have been grateful for eight, five, or even one year prior to receiving it, but in that moment, I didn’t want it.
I told my attorney I wanted to take the case to trial. I had found a new confidence and while I knew that didn’t guarantee a guilty verdict, I wanted to speak my truth. I spent many years mourning the life I lived before the abuse. Despite my typical church kid complaints of having to attend services several times a week, my former church community was the first and largest community I had. Rumors spread, most in his favor, and the narrative was no longer mine. Me testifying in court would mean his supporters from the church, his wife, and family, would hear the truth about what happened. I asked my attorney not to sign any plea agreement papers. Days later, I received another phone call. My abuser changed his stance from “innocent” to “guilty” without being offered a plea deal.
I spent many years living in fear. During the abuse, I feared my abuser. After the abuse, I feared speaking up. While waiting for a trial, I feared sharing my testimony. But with him pleading guilty, this was the moment the power dynamic finally shifted. He chose to plead guilty, because for the first time in years, he chose to act out of his fear. And while Amina’s story and my own differ, it was the fact that I was strong enough to write her story, using my own experiences, that made him fearful. When I realized this, I began to feel powerful.
On March 11, 2022, my abuser was sentenced to 12 years in prison, in addition to a minimum of 10 years that he will serve for other crimes. Despite choosing to change his plea, the psychological evaluation he was forced to take found he had no remorse. While this devastated me, I found strength in knowing that my abuser choosing to plead guilty, despite his lack of remorse, was a testament to my power. The threat of my words became a weapon. And although I never got to tell my story in a courtroom, my novel was written because I finally reached a point of being unashamed to do so. My abuse didn’t silence me. He changed his plea, after eight years of refusal, because he realized he couldn’t silence me.
There are many differences between my experiences and the experiences of Amina, the main character of my book. While her story isn’t mine, writing her story–one of a teenage girl who learns how to reclaim her anger and speak up–helped me find the courage I once buried. Now, I view my anger as both a tool and a defense. My anger is what my abuser was afraid of. It’s what gave me the courage to speak when I felt I couldn’t. I like to think my anger–the reason I initially chose to speak and ultimately write the novel–is what saved me.