Trauma Speaks to Trauma: A High School Story
The recent release of Leaving Neverland on HBO, and the conversations and heartache that have followed it, is the latest reminder that, if our eyes are open to it, we are surrounded every day by stories of sexual abuse. Here, Laura Wade Shirley, a Core Facilitator with The Allender Center, reflects on the prevalence of these stories and how recent events confronted her with her own story from high school. Laura Wade reminds us that, as we affirm the importance of these conversations, it’s also crucial to be aware of how they might spark painful, unexpected memories of our own experiences. Just a warning: Without being graphic, Laura Wade’s story includes scenes and contexts that will be familiar—and perhaps triggering—for many who have endured the trauma of sexual abuse.
The past few years, we have heard more and more in the media about the sexually abusive culture in which we live. From the #MeToo movement to Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, Larry Nassar, and the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, there is a tide rising which is shifting our awareness of this dark sexual culture. Ultimately I am thankful for the exposure, as this issue is less taboo and therefore it will be easier for people who are suffering to find a voice in the midst of pain and shame. Yet, hearing stories in the news can trigger, or at least remind us of, our own stories. This happened for me after listening to the Dr. Ford hearings last September.
Often trauma speaks to trauma. People across all generations, races, and genders are not that different from each other in the vulnerability we experience. Like many others, Dr. Ford’s testimony touched and impacted me and brought to the forefront of my awareness my own stories of sexual harm in my last two years of high school.
Dr. Ford’s testimony touched and impacted me and brought to the forefront of my awareness my own stories of sexual harm.
My high school decided to add a volleyball team to our sports program. At the time, I found life and purpose in athletics, so of course I was excited to learn a new sport. Quickly, I came to love this sport and all that it required of me. Volleyball has connection and unity, the giving and receiving of the ball being passed around the court. But a darkness soon loomed in my world as I was learning this sport. It began with my coach saying inappropriate sexual comments to me. He started slowly. He was grooming me, making me feel special with late night phone calls and telling me more than I should know about his life. This attention felt good at first. Some of his comments about my body would catch me and I would feel uneasy, but he would laugh them off and invite me to do the same. I was an athletic 16-year-old who tried really hard to keep myself from anything that was sexual. Due to pain earlier in my life, I had cut myself off from the reality of my own sexuality and body.
It didn’t matter who was around. In fact, sometimes my coach enjoyed an audience watching as I squirmed under something that he said with a proverbial sexual edge. For example, as we were loading onto the bus one day, he stopped me in front of my teammates and said, “You have nice legs, you should wear shorter shorts.” The sexual innuendo in this comment is not lost on a group of high school girls.
Soon after that comment, he decided that our volleyball team would wear the “traditional” uniform; we would begin wearing “lollipops.” He ignored the fact that many of us said we didn’t want to switch and would rather wear the biking shorts we had worn the previous year. He said he needed someone to try on the lollipops and asked me to come to the elementary school where he worked to try them on. I was scared and nervous; my body knew what he was capable of. When I walked into his dark, windowless office, he said, “Here try these on.” When I asked where the bathroom was, he told me I didn’t need a bathroom and I could change right there. My 16-year old-self said out loud, “NO—where is the bathroom?” Wow! I am proud of her! There were not many times she was able to find her audible ‘NO,’ and I do not fault her for that—but this time she did.
I was probably able to do so because months prior, this coach had locked me in a closet and said, “You won’t leave here until I get a hug and a kiss.” I had been scared and tried to justify it, tried to make sense of it, yet he had been setting me up for this for months. After getting out of that closet, I had walked out to my car in the rain and felt gross, disgusting, scared, and triggered. So this moment in his office was huge. I said NO! It didn’t stop his aggression or advances towards me, but I am proud of that part of myself for her voice.
A few years later, as I moved toward graduation, I began to get a sinking feeling: I was leaving, and I knew in my gut that he would pick someone in my absence to take my place in his sexually abusive ways. And I was certain who he would pick. I just couldn’t leave without trying to protect her. So I began to tell my basketball coach what had happened. Sadly, she had suspected all along.
Shortly after graduation, I sat down with my basketball coach, a friend of mine, and the athletic director for me to tell my story to the director. My voice was shaking, I was scared, and yet I knew what he had been doing needed to stop before my friend and teammate was picked next. It was not as public as Dr. Ford’s testimony, but it was terrifying. The phrase I remember from this conversation is the athletic director saying, “I have known Laura Wade all her life, and I have known Coach Hunt for 10 years. I just don’t know what to do or who to believe.”
A week later, I walked alone into the principal’s office to tell my side of the story. My memory of that conversation is vague, but I remember my fear and shaky voice.
Nothing happened to Coach Hunt that year—at least nothing of significance. He coached the next year and he began to groom and abuse my friend and teammate. It was because of her I had gone forward to tell my story, and yet, though I could not name it at the time, it was also for me!
Whether we are talking 1992 or 2019, sexual violence is swept under the rug. We are making steps, but slowly. Ground was taken back during those weeks for me, as I found my weak, shaky voice coming out and saying This is not right! It would have felt better and been helpful to have the school back me and stop my perpetrator, but even still: chains were broken as I spoke the truth.