Daughter of assault shares her feelings of inadequacy, guilt
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series on rape written by Jazelle Hunt, a Washington correspondent for the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA.)
BY JAZELLE HUNT
NNPA NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – The first time Tiffany Perry learned about her conception, she was too innocent to fully understand the gentle explanation her mother was offering, too young to process such a heavy and complicated behavior.
What she distinctly remembers is watching “Oprah” with her mom a few years later, as a 10-year-old.
It was the television episode in which Oprah Winfrey revealed to the world that she was a rape survivor.
“When [Oprah] said herself, and started crying…my mom just fell apart,” the 39-year-old Jersey City, N.J. native recounted. “I tried to console her, but she was inconsolable. It was just so intense.”
At 15 years old, Perry’s mother was raped by her foster mother’s 21-year-old married son. His wife had invited Perry’s mother into their home to babysit their child and to escape her foster mother’s wrath.
Mom kept silent
Her foster brother raped her repeatedly for two weeks, sometimes at knifepoint. Despite being a virgin at the time and under the care of the state, few people bothered to inquire about the details of the pregnancy. Plus, the fact that he had threatened to kill her, kept Perry’s mother silent.
“Maybe, as a Black person, they just saw this as another teenage pregnancy, and nobody really asked any questions,” Perry said, trying to explain the unexplainable. “I can’t say with certainty…but I’m thinking that if she was White in a foster home and her belly started to grow, then maybe a flag would’ve went up somewhere and somebody would’ve investigated more as to why this foster child is pregnant.”
In subsequent years, freed by the “Oprah’’ episode, Perry’s mother became more forthcoming.
“As I grew up, she told me more details of the attack. It was like she had been carrying this around the whole time.”
Tried to be ‘perfect’
But opening that door triggered another set of emotions in Perry.
“I went through different feelings of inadequacy, feeling like I had to overcompensate because I was a child of a rape. Even now, when I say the word ‘inadequate,’ I get choked up,” she said, her voice trembling with emotion.
“My mom was awesome, she never talked down to me….my mom always praised me, always gave me love,” Perry said. “But I felt like…I owed it to her to be perfect so she doesn’t feel like keeping me was a mistake.”
And there was the question of what she would say when asked about her father. Perry chose to say that he was dead, that he had left, or that she didn’t know him, depending on the questioner. But even while denying his existence, there was also a deep craving to know about this man, wherever he was.
More than anything else, she did not want her mother to feel badly.
“I didn’t rape her, but when I was younger, I used to feel like it was my fault,” she recalled. “The dreams that she probably could have fulfilled – if she had stayed that innocent virgin who wanted to be a lawyer – she wasn’t going to be able to fulfill those because I was here.”
New York-based author, activist and scholar Ewuare Osayande wasn’t born of this violence, but also grew up in its shadow.
His mother spent her childhood at the mercy of a sexually abusive stepfather. The oldest of eight children, she was the only one who was not his blood relative. The abuse was the family’s open secret.
She grew up to date, marry and divorce abusive men.
Justice Department data show that Black women are more likely than their White counterparts to be assaulted, sexually and otherwise by strangers and by family members.
“It was never the case where my mother cowered in the face of her abuse. She didn’t hold her tongue, she always spoke her mind,” Osayande said.
Help for Black men
Today, Osayande is the creator of Project ONUS: Redefining Black Manhood, a series of anti-sexist workshops for Black men. It took time and life experiences before he was able to connect the dots and realize how his mother’s abuse – some he had witnessed, some he had not – had affected his own development.
As the son of a rape and abuse survivor, and as a formerly abusive person, he also realized he had to address his own internal conflicts and beliefs.
“It’s been a very real, clear determination on my part to make sense of the life I’ve experienced as a Black man, in a gendered way,” he explained. “It’s been my desire to become an effective ally in that struggle, in that engagement in the world in which Black women exist, and experience.”
Secondary survivors need help
In the sea of services for survivors, most resources geared toward family and friends coach them on how to best support the survivor in their life. Although crisis centers and hotlines are equipped to aid and counsel family and friends of survivors, few resources address the challenges these relatives face.
The book, I Will Survive: The African American Guide to Healing from Sexual Assault and Abuse, cites a study that draws parallels between the emotions of boyfriends and husbands of women who have been sexually assaulted, and the wives and girlfriends of war veterans.
“Not surprisingly, past or recent sexual trauma can present unique challenges for the survivor’s partner,” writes Lori Robinson, author of the book. “You are a victim too. Some experts call you the secondary victim. After all you are experiencing many of the same emotions sexual assault victims feel.”
Tiffany Perry’s breaking point came about 20 years ago. A probation officer contacted her out of the blue, looking for her father. He had given her name and birthdate as his next-of-kin. She learned that not only did he know about her, but he knew where she lived. To this day, the two live less than an hour apart. She has never contacted him, but has learned a bit about his life via a cousin and aunt on Facebook.
“When I went to go look for support groups for children of rape victims or children conceived out of rape, they’re pretty much nonexistent,” Perry said. “[Rape] is so common we don’t even cringe when we hear about it. Rape is inhumane, and people are not treating it like it’s inhumane. They just treat it like ‘Well, it happens.’”
The project was made possible by a grant from the National Health Journalism Fellowship, a program of the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.