I am not a victim
On my teenage affair
Although I’ve written about countless personal stories over the years, I’ve never so much as alluded to this one. I share it now, not as a clickable title, but as an offering to my sisters (and brothers) who battle with the pain and anger of hidden wounds.
“Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” — Yoda
Last year, an old childhood friend of mine (let’s call him Sam) called me out of the blue with a question — or a set of questions, rather.
The 16 year old daughter of his family’s close friend had been discovered to be having an affair with a friend of her father’s, who was more than 20 years her senior. The (Christian) family was in turmoil, attempting to deal with the fallout, and in his efforts to help them, Sam wanted to pick my brain for advice.
From the girl’s perspective, of course. Because I’d been in her shoes. Pretty much exactly — only he wasn’t my dad’s friend, he was my high school teacher.
By Sam’s account, the girl had been perceived to be a bit precocious in other ways lately, and her family was interpreting her behavior as an attempt to lash out and punish her own father.
“What makes them think that?” I probed.
“Well there just really doesn’t seem to be another explanation for it,” he said.
I chuckled in spite of myself.
“You don’t think so?” I paused, measuring my tone carefully. “Has it occurred to her parents, do you think, or to you, that her actions could have nothing to do with them? That maybe it was just about her exploring herself?”
It seemed hard for Sam to grasp the idea that the girl’s actions had not been about eliciting some kind of reaction from the authority figures around her.
“Huh,” he said, audibly processing.
What to “tell people” was another big concern. Her family wanted to protect her reputation…but admittedly, according to Sam, their own as well. They were a regular churchgoing family, and the girl’s inappropriate paramour attended the same church, so navigating the social positioning was a very real struggle for them.
I listened to Sam wrestle through their struggle, compassion in his voice, the situation he painted overlaid with shame.
I sighed, and rubbed my temples, a very old, very familiar feeling arising in the pit of my stomach.
They still had it all wrong. After all these years. They were still making it all about them.
“She’s not broken, Sam,” I said, soul-weary. “She’s not damaged goods. She’s still herself. Sixteen year old girls explore their sexuality. That’s what they do. Some more inappropriately than others. Her choice in a partner was poor, yeah, and that needs to be addressed. But everybody doesn’t need to act like she’s some piece of rotten fruit. Heaping your own embarassment on her is going to give her nothing but sexual dysfunction. Her family needs to focus on managing their own reactions, and not project them onto her — she’s got enough to deal with.”
I could hear his brain return a server error over the line.
“So you…you don’t…you didn’t…”
“Feel broken?” I helped him. “No. That’s what everybody else around me needed to be in order to fit me into what they believed. Everybody else needed me to be either the villain or the victim, but I didn’t feel like either. I was just me.”
I tried to explain the whole Madonna-whore complex concept to him, but that seemed to return mostly server errors as well.
It didn’t make any sense, what I was telling him.
It completely contradicted the narrative his parents and the rest of our church community had crafted about my Rebellion of Which We Do Not Speak.
Their version centered around my being a victim. Around my not having agency — being seduced by an older man, my naiveté and innocence foregone conclusions.
I disagreed (and still do). I made lists of pros and cons. I considered carefully. I chose my actions deliberately, and with intention.
They’re not actions I’m proud of. I think they made sense in the context of my combined sheltered upbringing and quiet but wildly precocious curiosity. I think the experiences helped to strengthen me and make me who I am, so I can’t say I necessarily regret them.
And yes, of course I was young and naivé, and advantage was taken. There’s a plethora of information I didn’t have when I made those decisions. But now I do.
But just because I was vulnerable doesn’t mean I was a victim.
My actions are what they are. What happened, happened.
But if all that is true, then my family and childhood community’s only choice would be to conclude that I had erred, and betrayed and hurt them, while simultaneously maturing into a sexual human.
It was way easier for them, for me to be the victim. It probably would have been easier for me, too. And I could have justified it; if it had been a few months earlier, before I turned 16, it would have been considered Statutory Rape by Michigan law.
But I’m not a victim. I had agency when I made those choices.
I made a mistake. And I was taken advantage of. And I learned.
And when the sophomore girls stuffed hate notes into my locker because they associated me with the shameful departure of their favorite teacher, I tore them up and sprinkled them in front of their lockers. And when the church elders came over to try to “exorcise” my shame, I peaced out into the woods. And when my small rural town became devoid of oxygen on account of all the gossip, I grabbed my AP transcripts and headed for community college dual-enrollment across the country.
I will be no one’s victim.
That place is a dark, repeating maze which bears nothing but more pain.
Although I may stumble — or be forced — to this place from time to time, I will not linger.
I will regenerate, and create, and to do that I must turn inwards towards my own strength for solutions — not outwards.
I’ve got important shit to do.
We all do.
Self-awareness, mindfulness, and active love; these are hard fucking work as it is, and failure is inevitable.
There’s no time to be weighed down by wounds.
There’s only time to heal, and grow.