I have created Survivors Standing Tall (SST) as a welcoming space for fellow survivors and their loved ones who have something burning inside, something wanting to be to created, sung, danced, painted, or spoken out loud to the world. It is especially a place where outrage and anger, disgust and despair are considered acceptable and necessary states of mind in the course of healing and finding the legs for standing tall. Survivors Standing Tall is not necessarily looking for happy endings or stories of redemption, because that is often something we feel compelled by our faith communities to force into being long before we are ready.
I've also created Survivors Standing Tall as an archival home for my past and future writings on the topic, gathered together in one location. Some of the writers with whom I worked closely as editor on Our Stories Untold posts requested that I move their writings from OSU to SST, along with my own.
Please note that the blog posts on this site dated before June of 2017 originated on the website Our Stories Untold, with gratitude for the work of OSU's founder Rachel Halder, and present director Hilary Scarsella.
HOW I GOT HERE
The character playing victim's attorney Mitchell Garabedian in the Oscar winning film "Spotlight" sits in a restaurant with a Boston Globe reporter, munching on a sandwich.
"If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse a child," he says.
I was raised and abused in the village called Anabaptist Mennonite.
As is common for many of us who are sexually violated as children, I became the target of continued abuses off and on through out much of my life, nearly all of them by boys and men inside the Mennonite community. But I kept every incident hidden away as fast as they occurred. I pushed them down into a massive fog of repressed but not quite forgotten memory. It's what I needed to do to survive.
On a national lecture-drama tour of Mennonite colleges, I said publicly for the first time that I was an incest survivor and named my father as the perpetrator. It was 1992. I mentioned it briefly during my time at the podium. That was all I could handle. But it broke a little crack in those decades of silence. Going public to Mennonite audiences brought many more Mennonite-related survivors of sexual abuse to me over the following years and decades. I also started a file of the names of Mennonite perpetrators. I've never stopped considering it a privilege to be a friend and ally to any survivor or family member who needs to tell someone, or talk to someone who understands.
From the summer of 2013 until the summer of 2017, as editor at Our Stories Untold blog, I helped survivors and their loved ones tell their untold stories for the first time. I wrote about institutional church cover-up in cases in which I was directly involved. I saw first hand how getting 'onto paper' and into the public sphere a secret, shame or burden that we have no good reason to carry holds many benefits. It is a powerful step in healing our own wounds, helps make it safer for others to come forward, and holds to account the church officials who choose to put the public safety at risk by protecting one of their own.
Four years of editing Our Stories Untold helped me more fully understand the impact of sexual violation on my own life and it fueled the slow discovery that I really, really did not have to remain silent about my own hidden pain. After two years of helping others tell their experiences, and with the support of others, I was ready to write out more details of my own untold stories. On September 15, 2015 those details went live. Nearly 60 years had passed since my little girl Barbra's first violation.
I hid my personal account in the Stories section of the blog, which had no email alerts or intentional circulation. That was all I could handle. I was shocked when it began to circulate widely, bringing hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of readers. More survivors (mostly Mennonite) reached out to me until I realized with growing astonishment and horror that the problem among Mennonites is epidemic, pandemic, and a public health crisis. I also realized I now had the strength to not only stay among the living, but to stand tall and speak up. I was overwhelmed by the loving, supportive Comments left online after my post. I realized with relief that there were many others from my Mennonite community who believed me, saw me, and stood with me. I discovered I had relatively little to lose in coming forward compared to other survivors I knew. Thanks to so many who have buoyed me up and believed in me, I'm at a place now in my elder years, where the work of advocacy and activism does not drain me or depress me, but rather fills me with hope. Every awful testimony I hear makes my resolve even stronger to keep at it for as long as I can. I am today both sobered and encouraged to see the thousands of articulate and passionate young survivors taking the microphone from so many corners around the globe.
Supportive groups of special women friends played a critical role in getting me here and slowly helped me crack through and begin to dissipate the anxiety I often felt, but worked hard to hide, when relating to groups of people.
I dreaded Sunday School classes my entire life, tight circles of chairs in closed rooms. Committee work, board rooms, small group projects, I forced myself to do, but often dreaded. Trust is tenuous. Betrayals devastating. The anxiety that comes from extending vulnerability to others can still make me curl up inside. I eventually came to understand these fearful feelings stemmed from having been sexually violated by a group, a pedophile ring, made up of men from my community who I was supposed to be able to trust. That trust was horrifically betrayed. Some haunted old hidden feeling that has no words can still start to rumble when I enter a working group, any group, where authentic engagement and participation is expected.
But there is one special group that deserves mention here. It has lasted longer and gone deeper than any other.
I first met what became my Southwest 7 women's group at a conference of biblical feminists outside Los Angeles in the mid 80's. We started to meet regularly in the greater Los Angeles area, sitting in a circle for support and friendship. When the meeting times would roll around, as much as I wanted to go, I resisted going and found some excuse. But they kept pulling me back in; and something kept making me go. We spent a magical weekend together in Santa Fe in 1986 and then made plans to try to keep gathering once a year, every year. We recently celebrated 30 years together, now spread from Kenya to California, Virginia to Washington. The Southwest 7 helped me beat into submission a self defeating, irrational, but very real fear of small groups of people. They have walked with me from the time I was completely blinded to the truth of my life, to my standing tall within it today. They most certainly helped get me here and will no doubt help keep me here at this place of advocacy and activism.
I was born in Iowa, the youngest of six children born to Clarence and Sally Graber. We grew up on a dairy farm near Mt. Pleasant, a town some distance outside the large Mennonite communities of Wayland, Kalona and Wellman. I always felt like the odd-one-out going to Mt. Pleasant public school through my elementary school years. We didn't have TV; I could not wear pants (except under a skirt! Gah), even to football games; I had to sit on the sidelines during P.E. square dance class; and I couldn't go to the movie theater with my friends --until Mary Poppins came along.
Arriving at Iowa Mennonite High School was a dream! I was with other Mennonites! I suddenly belonged! IMS turned out to be a wonderfully, safe and nurturing experience for me. Though I've talked to others who were not as lucky, I can't recall a single sexually violating incident in those four years as a teenager in the Iowa Mennonite High School communities. I'm grateful for that.
Eastern Mennonite College led me to Harrisonburg, VA where I graduated with an English degree in 1972, then in 1981 returned to join the faculty of what became Eastern Mennonite University. In Harrisonburg I met my husband Dale Metzler, who has been my rock, my business partner, my best friend. He keeps me laughing, isn't afraid to see me cry, and has my back.
I never birthed babies, perhaps because of the experiences of childhood. I just know I never felt a strong desire for children. There seemed to be enough of them in the world. I was blessed with 13 beautiful nieces and nephews. And Dale's children became beloved 'bonus' children to me when we married in 1994. They are far away in California but have brought us the joy of three grandchildren and two grand-doggies.
Filling the role of Director and Professor of Eastern Mennonite University’s theater program over nearly two decades between 1981 and 2005 remains the highlight of my work life and I can see now how it helped me to break silence and stand tall as a survivor. I had graduated with an English degree from Eastern Mennonite College in 1972 and my time there encouraged me both creatively and academically. Like IMS, EMU was a safe and nurturing place. But like IMS, I've learned it was not that sort of place for others.
Teaching and making theater with a group of EMU students and colleagues offered a well of opportunity for healing my shamed, suppressed and silent child-self. I was fortunate to explore my creative voice in front of Mennonite audiences. Mennonites were abusive to me, but they were also my tribe, my family, and in many ways my nurturers.
Theater allowed me to tell without really telling and explore without exploring too deeply, the horror and ugliness of my own pain as part of the human condition. There were so many layers of shame and fear to find and release before I had the strength to stare the demons down. I was blown away by just how powerful the natural, sacred healing power of creativity could become and threw myself wholeheartedly into one creative project after another with students and colleagues I came to cherish. I discovered that many wounded children like me are drawn into theater as adults because theater, as engagement with creativity of any kind, from cooking to poetry, gardening to music-- heals. It really heals. And it can improve our chances of staying alive.
With collaborative ensembles of students and fellow faculty, a variety of original theater productions were born: “Storm: an improvisation on the theme of the Sexes” explored gender and relationships; “Home Coming Home” with EMU music professor Kenneth J. Nafziger, included a section on family abuse; and “Drippings of the Honeycomb,” a multi-media theater event, used the raw, emotional, truth-telling sacred texts known as The Psalms. Without even realizing it, creating theater with others was helping me heal.
While at EMU, Ted Swartz and I founded a community based professional company called Theatre AKIMBO. A fellow survivor and company member Lee Eshleman came up with the name. Tragically, Lee took his own life in 2007. May he rest in peace. For nine years, with former students and EMU colleagues, AKIMBO created original comedies and dramas taken from Mennonite themes, including sexual abuse, meant for Mennonite audiences.
In 1993 AKIMBO toured Mennonite colleges and universities in the US with Dr. Carolyn Holderread Heggen. The lecture-drama entitled Sexual Abuse in Christian Homes and Churches was based on Heggen's groundbreaking book of the same title that she wrote out of her experiences as a therapist to many Mennonite victims. As I said earlier, it was on this tour that I uttered publicly for the first time from a podium at Bluffton College that I was a survivor of incest. I named my father Clarence Graber but gave no further details. That was all I could handle.
The work of this tour and the stories from other Mennonites that came out of it were later featured in a video by Menno Media with Jerry Holsopple called “Beyond the News: Sexual Abuse.” For this project I collected anonymous survivor accounts through a survey delivered through EMU's campus mail to EMU faculty and students. I got around 30 handwritten accounts back and used them to write monologues, including one about my own experience that I performed myself. It terrified me, but I knew I had to do it. It felt safer speaking my truth from inside the character I would play on camera. She could shelter me from public disclosure that was too frightening at the time. It was all I could handle.
I remember getting through the taping of my monologue on camera without emotion as I sat up on a tall stool in a multicolored dress. When I got off the stool I couldn't walk and collapsed into Ted's strong brotherly arms while cleansing sobs poured out of me. Beyond the News and the friends who worked with me on it offered a significant healing milestone for me.
AKIMBO went on to create original dance and theater performances in a variety of church gatherings and conferences. Three dramas called “Suzanne, Tamar, and the Concubine," were taken from sacred texts in which violence against women is clearly depicted and performed to accompany a presentation by Marie Fortune of Faith Trust Institute at the 1992 Sexual Violence: Framing the Ethical Questions conference.
I received a terminal degree, a Master of Fine Arts in Acting, at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles in 1986 and took an additional year of graduate coursework in the Program for Gender Studies at USC. A profound cultural shift and renaissance in women’s spirituality was taking place in Los Angeles in the 1980's. As a research assistant for Dr. Gloria Orenstein, a scholar in the ancient religion of the goddess and the return of the divine feminine, I studied a time in history when god was a woman and women were priests.
As a graduate assistant to feminist theologian Dr. Sheila Briggs, I discovered the tragic history and practices of patriarchal (Catholic) Christianity: the history of the denigration of female and transgendered bodies; the severing of the original relationship of humans with nature as a deeply healing, sacred source of health. I learned how the power of the Catholic church was accomplished through the terror of 'witch hunts' and the torture killing of millions of women and transgendered persons, as well as my Anabaptist ancestors. I realized to my astonishment that words like 'pagan' and 'witch' carried entirely different meanings when examined through the lens of the history of earth-based religions and the sacred feminine. Because I was abused by many men, these feminine images of the sacred were like a healing balm to me. What a relief to find other than Father God images for the world of Spirit.
Meanwhile, the largely unacknowledged truths of my personal and family life were quietly percolating just under the surface of this flurry of activity. I was running away from my past as fast as I could, to the point that I never stopped doing, working, running from one activity to another. Survivors are some of the most ambitious and productive people I know. And there's a unique timeline for each victim who commits to healing. It seems to unfold in its own good time. More about my own winding path is detailed in My Untold Stories.
RELATED EDUCATIONAL AND WORK HISTORY
I attended my first SNAP Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests Conference in Chicago, IL in 2014. The next year I joined with others to form an Anabaptist Mennonite chapter of SNAP, now known as SNAP Mennonite. If you are interested in joining this informal closed email group of Mennonite survivors and allies, be sure to get in touch with me.
As mentioned earlier, after going public as a survivor in 1992, I began a file of the names of perpetrators coming confidentially to me and other allies I knew from Mennonite-related survivors. SNAP showed me there was indeed something I could do with that file of names. In April 2016, The Mennonite Abuse Prevention List, an archive of documents on credibly accused Mennonite church worker perpetrators, was first launched on the SNAP Survivor Network website. An updated version of the MAP List was created and launched in January of 2018 on its own independent, secure server. The MAP List works from a list of nearly 100 Mennonite church worker perpetrators who have been reported to me, to other Mennonite advocates, or to SNAP Mennonite-- confidentially and informally. We call it the Master List. So far only 22 of these names have been processed under the standards necessary to post them publicly on the MAP List itself. We are dependent on others to send us the necessary documentation on each case. It is a time consuming, tedious job and will take a village to accomplish. Find out ways to get involved and help us out!
I facilitate a SNAP Survivor’s (self-help) Support Group in Harrisonburg, VA. It is safe, inclusive, confidential and anonymous and meets on the first Thursday of every month. All sexual abuse survivors and their loved ones of any religion, and/or no religion, are welcome. Feel free to call or text me for the details. SNAP Mennonite colleagues run another support group in Lansdale, PA. You can check out SNAP support groups near you from around the world.
Feel free to contact me at 540-214-8874. 9-5 M-F are the best times to reach me. Text first or leave a phone message to identify yourself as I often don't answer unidentified calls. Confidentially email me but be forewarned that I get behind on email, so if at first you don't succeed, try me again!
Here's to protecting the children.
----Barbra Graber 1/30/18