I was 12 or 13 when I had a dream that Jesus was reaching out to me and he was asking me to reach out to him.
When I was born, my big sister and my mom created homemade birth announcements to welcome me into the world. My five-year-old sister drew pictures of a little baby in a blanket on each card and the inscription my mother added read: “I am not at all as small as I look from the outside.”
I was in Junior High and I’d just returned from Africa. I remember playing “Truth or Dare” with neighborhood kids, and the dare for me was that a neighborhood boy would lie on top of me and pretend he was having sex with me. During that time I had a neighborhood friend Vanessa* who wanted us to stop by the “Candy Man” trailer that a neighbor kept in his driveway. He lived on the way to her home so we stopped by a few times. Every time he would sell us candy he would make jokes like “What’s long and hard and full of semen (seamen)?” And I was like “What?” and confused. I thought he must mean a navy ship with sea men. Also, the few times I would visit Vanessa’s* house, I remember her dad in the living room jacking off to porn. I was too embarrassed to talk about it to my parents. They never talked to me about sex.
I first met Jan Gleysteen when I was 12 years old when he came to the Warwick River Mennonite Church community in Newport News to give a slide lecture around 1990.
Just a year earlier, my family had returned from Africa where I had spent the majority of my young childhood. My father had worked in international development for many years. We had not known Jan Gleysteen during those years, but we often hosted people and enjoyed diverse stories and cultures. It was only natural that my parents invited him for dinner and an evening of conversation during the time he was lecturing in the community and at my parents’ church, Warwick River Mennonite in Newport News, VA.
I remember my parents telling me before going to his lecture/slide show, that Gleysteen lived through the war and survived by eating wallpaper paste. My empathic soul felt so bad for him that of course I went ahead and attended the lecture; however, I remember sitting in the sanctuary and getting bored by the pictures, not really wanting to be there but having to stay to be polite. That was the story of my life, getting trapped listening to other people talk, doing things I didn’t want to do in order to be polite and not be seen as rude.
Soon after that night at dinner with my family, Gleysteen started to send me pretty decorated cards in the mail. This continued on a regular basis over the years. Once or twice he wrote to the whole family, sending beautiful calligraphy, some 1989 editions of his own newsletter, and a copy of his book about steam engines.
When my sister recently discovered that Jan Gleysteen was posted on the Mennonite Abuse Prevention List as a credibly accused offender, she forwarded the link to me because she recognized him from his brief interactions with our family.
When I saw his picture I had an extremely strong, negative, visceral reaction and felt nauseated. Looking at his picture took me back to a memory of an experience with him at a Mennonite Church Youth Convention in Wichita, Kansas in 1995 that I’d not really thought about at all or hardly even brought to memory since that time.
In 1995, shortly after graduating high school, I had traveled from Virginia to Wichita, Kansas to attend the Mennonite youth convention with my youth group leader, Tanya*(pseudonym). I was 17 years old and had never been to a church youth convention before. Since I was about to be a freshman at Eastern Mennonite University, it seemed like something I should do to prepare for my first year of college. Tanya and I were the only ones from my church that went to convention that year.
Gleysteen somehow found out that I was at the convention, and he posted a note for me on the message board. Those were the days before cell phones, so the message board was how people communicated to find someone at the convention.
The note was another one of those pretty cards he had been sending me since I was 12, with my name written in calligraphy on it. He was inviting me out to eat with him at a restaurant. Since I thought of him as a friend of our family, it felt natural to me that this grandpa-like man (he was 64 at the time) would offer to treat me to a meal out.
But before telling you about my experience with Gleysteen at the Mennonite Convention in the summer of 1995, I need to review the years of my younger life prior to meeting him and explain why I was the perfect teenaged target for his sexually predatory attentions.
By 1995 I had endured more sexual trauma than any girl, anywhere should ever have to endure, especially from within a faith community that espoused the values of caring for the suffering and being like Jesus who loved ‘all the children of the world.’
My father worked in international development in Africa during my earliest childhood years. We lived first in Zaire, and then when I was 7, we moved to Mauritania.
Mauritania was an Islamic republic, and some men did not shake hands with women, believing they were unclean, but I didn’t know that. So as a seven- or eight-year-old in Mauritania, I’d be walking down the street to buy a loaf of bread, and boys and men would come up to me and reach out their hands to me as if in greeting. I had no clue that it would be inappropriate to shake their hand. When I reached out my hand, instead of shaking my hand, they would grab my crotch. I remember feeling terribly upset and angry and violated. I stormed home; but I didn’t know how to explain to my parents what had happened to me. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t have the words to describe it.
I remember being upset in Mauritania that I had to wear dresses according to Muslim custom. I knew I’d be more protected in pants, but that was not allowed, either. If I wore pants, boys would throw rocks at me and call me ‘slutty woman’ in French. So I’d be stomping home either way, feeling humiliated and not having words to tell anyone.
A little girl my age named Layla lived adjacent to us on the other side of a wall. I’d try to climb the wall to talk to her and play with her, but girls weren’t allowed to play. She would be hollered at to get back to work. One day I heard someone screaming. It was Layla’s 12 year old sister.
I asked Layla, “Why is your sister crying?”
She told me it was because she didn’t want to get married and they were force-feeding her camel’s milk to make her fat for her husband. I watched from the wall, saw them hit her hard when she wouldn’t drink. She finally sat up and drank the milk. I had seen the man she was being forced to marry. He had gray hair.
I remember another young girl from the community where we lived in Mauritania inviting me to her home. It was 1987. I walked in and saw that the walls of the room were covered with pictures of naked white European women posing with lions, their crotches spread wide open. I was looking at a wall full of blonde pubic haired crotches and lions. I was a little blonde white girl getting her pussy grabbed in the street. I was horrified.
I asked my friend “Why are these pictures on the walls?!”
“They say they are beautiful,” she told me. I remember men walking into the room. I told them I had to go home, but they wanted to feed me first. I was nine years old, speaking French to Arab men and not knowing how to get away. I had been taught I should be sensitive to other cultures. I was afraid that if I left I would offend them. I don’t remember anything else from my time there that afternoon.
My next memory is walking home in the dark. I thought I would never get there. It seemed like it took a long, long time. I was hardly able to find my way. The next day I was so sick for so many days that my mom almost took me back to America. I never told her about the pictures on the wall or the feelings of fear around the weird sexual things I was exposed to in that house. She couldn’t find a doctor for me but she found a French veterinarian who came and gave me a shot of aspirin to get my fever down. I remember fainting and my mother carrying me to our bathroom.
Several volunteers from the Peace Corps showed up to visit. I remember my mother put me into her bed. She sent the volunteers away. The thought of trying to host a bunch of Peace Corps workers when her little girl was so sick must have nearly put her over the edge. I remember hearing them say as they left that my mother was “getting freaky.” She must have been beside herself with worry over me. I wonder if I will ever know the full truth of what happened to me as a nine year old girl in that house of men with pictures of lions and naked women on the walls.
NEWPORT NEWS, VIRGINIA AND WARWICK RIVER CHURCH
By middle school years, I was back in the United States and my family was living in Newport News, Virginia.
I auditioned for and was cast in a play that was being put on by the Peninsula Fine Arts Museum at Christopher Newport University. I was chosen to be one of the Siamese children in the musical “The King and I.” In the green room the older boys would put their fingers in my friends’ and my vaginas. We would be sitting around and next thing we know we hear a guy say, “turn out the lights” and suddenly it’s dark, and then these older teenage boys are walking up to us and putting their fingers in our vaginas. I remember one of them talking about how my friend had ‘a hairier pussy’ than I had. He seemed happy that I had less hair. My friend was made to feel ashamed by a bunch of teenage boys because her pussy was too hairy. Are you kidding me? What the hell?! Teenage boys are raping middle school girls and comparing their pussy hair. Are teenage boys taught ANYTHING about the terrible harm they can do to little girls?! There was no adult monitoring what happened backstage or in the green room. No one was looking out for my young friend and me.
In 8th grade I heard about field hockey. I tried out and was accepted onto the high school field hockey team. After every school day I’d go practice with the team. I loved it. More about field hockey later...
I remember the first time I met Jeremy Parks. He was asking to play tennis with my brother. He was a popular upperclassman at Menchville High School. I was a lowly freshman. He would drive up in a fancy car and take my brother to play tennis. I was really interested in theater. The school theater program produced “Anastasia,” and Jeremy had the lead role.
During the try-outs we acted a scene in which Anastasia’s Russian family gets shot and falls to the ground. I was playing a young girl in the family, and when I fell down my face landed in Jeremy’s armpit. Next thing I know he is offering to drive me home from practice so my parents don’t have to. He was the guy who played tennis with my brother, so my parents didn’t question his offer, and it saved them some time. Next thing I know, he’s telling me, “the drama teacher feels like you aren’t performing as well as you could, and she wants me to give you lessons on the side. She said to tell you to set up appointments with me.”
I felt like my entrails fell to my feet. “Oh, my God! I wasn’t doing a good job!?” I felt just terrible. I was a failure and didn’t even know it! So of course I wanted his help. He was in show choir, a special music performance group. I was 14, he was almost 18 and a star actor in the school play. He had his own band. Wow, this popular guy wanted to spend time with me and give me acting lessons?! He was also playing tennis with my brother so he must be okay, right? He had soon discovered that my Dad worked ’till 7 and that my mom was a teacher and didn’t come home till after 4. So he would offer to drive me home from practice on a regular basis “in order to help out.”
Jeremy lived with his grandparents. He would always sneak me into his house through a back door and take me directly to his bedroom. A few times I told him I’d like to meet his grandmother. He didn’t like the idea, made it sound like we wouldn’t want to hang out with his old boring grandparents. But at one point, I must have met them. One time I heard the grandfather tell the grandmother, “Don’t you ever allow our grandson to use his bedroom as a hotel.” She cowered and then changed the subject to talk about vegetables or something.
Jeremy was very manipulative. He would ask if it was okay to touch me. My body and my voice would freeze. I’d want to say “No way!” I never said, “Yes.” There was a sense of terrible fear, not desire, in me. The culture in which I’d been raised both as a Mennonite and in Africa discouraged me from saying no to anyone about anything. I carried the belief that if I said no, I’d either make someone angry or hurt someone’s feelings, and that wasn’t okay in my world. He seemed so much more powerful than me in every way. And none of the sex stuff ever felt good, it all felt horrible. I had already been taught at the age of 7 back in Africa that men could grab your pussy whenever they wanted. At the age of 13 I still didn’t have words to understand what was happening, let alone protect myself or defend myself.
He also took advantage of my very compassionate nature and caring personality. He would make tearful confessions about having a gay boyfriend. He would threaten suicide if I would suggest that I didn’t want to be his girlfriend. He would try to remove me and isolate me from my friends. My friend was about to have her fifteenth birthday party, and he made every effort to make sure I would not show up. He made plans to pick me up as though he was going to drive me to her house and then he refused to take me there. He drove me around and around, and I was stuck in the car with him. If I protested even slightly, he would become angry and accusatory.
Needless to say, I was soon under his total control and he raped me again and again, including penetrating me with objects, until I became pregnant at the age of 14. My baby boy Bryce was born October of 1993, when I was a junior in high school. Some friends of our family wanted to adopt Bryce, giving me the opportunity to be part of his life, for which I’m very grateful. Now he’s 23 years old and a beautiful wise young man. I have more to say about the experience of being an ‘unwed mother’ at a very young age:
First you get raped, and then you fall deeply in love with this baby inside of you and then you are forced to give the baby up. All that physical and emotional and spiritual psycho-social pain is so very much for a young life to bear. And then this church that is meant to be your support starts sending messages that you are a slut. Instead of feeling supported, you are put into a position of being a potential victim of more predators. And then the pro-life people drool over you to be their poster child, an example of somebody who “chose life” even though I’d never even used the word “pro-life.” All I did was fall in love with my baby Bryce.
I called so many abortion clinics when I found out I was pregnant, but I couldn’t afford it. I hadn’t told my parents. When I realized it would be too expensive, I just wanted it to be done and over. I had gone to this Catholic pregnancy test place. I couldn’t get one story out of my head. There was a woman there who told me she was alive because her mother didn’t abort her. That really tugged at my young compassionate heart. It is ironic that I can’t imagine my life without Bryce now.
I was in tenth grade and 14 years old, with straight A’s and the captain of my field hockey team when I discovered I was pregnant. In the moment I found out I was pregnant I beat a pillow against my body, and I wept and wept and then I called Planned Parenthood and they said it would cost me $265, and I couldn’t afford it.
Ironically, a girl in my class at school took me to her church and the topic that morning was abortion. It was all about why people who are not Christian don’t understand that an abortion is taking a life.
I got up the nerve to tell my mom, and she told my sister who was away at college. My sister was concerned that there was no female ob-gyn for me to see in the area, and she reached out to a family friend in Massachusetts who was an ob-gyn. Soon after, I answered the phone, and it was our family friend Jean. She told me that she and Eric had just finished a conversation about infertility and had decided they would only have a baby if he or she fell into our laps.”
As part of the adoption process, I saw a counselor in Virginia Beach who was just terrible. She believed that every time I went to counseling, the biological father should be there because “that was his right." She never asked how I got pregnant. She never asked if it was a result of rape, or whether I was ever in love with the father. She would cry during counseling sessions because she felt sorry for the rapist. She was so distressed at me for not feeling comfortable having him in my room with me during the birth and spent our sessions trying to compel me to do that. I carried Bryce to term, ten days past due. And then Bryce’s biological father showed up without my permission. I should have sued that damn counselor for arranging for the rapist to be the first to hold Bryce while I was having my episiotomy stitched up.
Here’s what it’s like, from my own experience, to be a young ‘unwed mother’ who decides to keep her baby: you decide it’s worth shaming yourself in front of others rather than having an abortion because you have fallen in love with what is growing inside you. You get this distinct feeling this person inside is meant to be. Then the church uses it against you, a young vulnerable child who has been through an ordeal, to promote their own agenda. I would never feel it was my right to tell another young teenager what she should do. I did this on my own. It was my choice and other girls and women deserve the same choice to abort or carry their baby to term.
The first Mother's Day after giving birth to Bryce, the pastor asked all the mothers to stand and be honored. I turned to my mother with anxiety and asked "Do I stand?" She said fiercely, "Yes you stand! You're a mother!" Later, I wrote an essay in high school called “Do I Stand?” I was 16 and had given birth to a beautiful baby, but at the same time I was ashamed. So I always struggled. I thought if I stood people would be thinking, “Why is she standing? We know what she did.” But if I stayed seated I was not acknowledging the precious son I brought into the world through my own body.
Of course, the whole congregation at Warwick River Mennonite knew I’d become pregnant and given birth to a baby. No one ever asked me how it had happened that I got pregnant. It was never referenced as a rape by anyone. Why? When a 14 year old gets pregnant, adults better be asking questions and filing police reports! I didn’t realize statutory rape had been committed against me until I got to college and my nursing training had a unit on sexual violence.
The wife of one of the elders at Warwick River Mennonite Church wrote me a letter. She told me if I would pray, “God would forgive my sins as far as the east is from the west.” I thought if I was considered the rapist’s “girlfriend” then what he did to me could not have been rape, so I did think of myself as a sinner, and I prayed for forgiveness. How sad that was what I was taught to think. How sad that no one taught me what consent meant, and that in truth it was not my fault and I had certainly not “committed a sin.” Rather I’d been sinned against.
One day the church pastor phoned and asked my mother whether I would like to make an apology in front of the church so that I could be ‘reinstated.’ Someone had complained that I’d not confessed my sin of getting pregnant before marriage–never mind that I’d been raped. That was the first time I had ever heard my mother’s voice become angry in a way that was protective. It was shocking. She angrily responded with, “I didn’t know she had been kicked out of the church!” I remember my mother was so angry that the pastor jumped into his car and drove over to our house to calm her down.
Soon after the birth of my baby when I was 15 years old, a 30-something male youth leader at Warwick River Mennonite Church named Tim Yoder showed special interest in me and kept asking me to go with him on “dates.” I remember he bought tickets to a Broadway show and invited me to go; I told him I did not want to. He was so much older than me, and he creeped me out.
He persisted. I had zero interest in him and was very disturbed by his attentions. He arranged for roses to be delivered to me in the presence of my friends at my public high school, and I heard he told people in the community about his fantasies in regards to me. I remember feeling terribly embarrassed, totally confused, and grossed out by his actions and attentions. I was 15! He was in his 30’s! I was grieving the loss of my innocence and a precious baby I’d grown to love in my body. I was so vulnerable and broken, and here was this adult male creep looking to turn me into an object of his sexual fantasies! Where were the adults responsible for protecting me? It was as though he targeted me because he knew I was vulnerable. Since I was no longer a virgin, was I in his mind, “There for the taking?”
Tim Yoder told me he was going to dress up as a UPS man and deliver “a special surprise package to me” at my school. This terrified me. One time he split his pants open, supposedly by accident, during a youth game where you had to bend over and pick a piece of paper up with your mouth. When he bent over everything split open from the back to the front. And though everyone laughed, in retrospect I wonder if he had planned it, if this was another game or gesture toward me. It was as though he wanted to expose himself to me and watch my horrified reaction. During the times our youth group gathered to listen to music, he would want to casually “dance” next to me, constantly bumping against me.
I finally worked up the courage to tell our youth group leader that I felt uncomfortable around him, in the hopes that she would help protect me from him. Her response was “Oh, I thought you liked him, too.”
Tim Yoder’s attentions and my youth group leader’s strange response when I told her of my discomfort were frightening and confusing. Why would she think I “liked him too” as though we were a couple? I realize now just how much that must have crushed my young spirit. I remember I blurted out in tears, crying to my parents that I didn’t want to go anywhere with him!!!
But Tim Yoder kept persisting. Next he showed up at our house under the auspices of getting my father to look at his car. My father’s attempt at befriending him and talking to him did not support me or advocate for me either. My mother says she got a sense that something creepy was going on but somehow could not find the words to speak up for me. I remember hiding upstairs when I knew Tim was talking to my parents. I had told both my dad and my mom that I felt creeped out by this person who was acting like we could potentially be a couple. My Dad said he would talk to him. “Good”, I thought, “Now that my Dad had spoken with him maybe I’d feel safe.” But when I asked my Dad, “What did you say to him?” all he said was, “I asked him ‘what do you think of my daughter?’ and his response was, ‘I understand her.’” That’s all I remember.
Although the adults of the church must have sensed on some level that there was something off about the focused attentions of a 30-something youth pastor on a 15 year old girl, why was nothing proactive, clear, and decisively in my interest done by any adult to protect me as a minor? Is this still happening to young teen girls in Mennonite churches?
My mother says she had been concerned that because I had been a victim earlier, predators might seek me out, but still she did not take measures to make sure I was safe and protected from him.
In retrospect today, I realize Tim Yoder and my youth group leader were both cousins and colleagues; so I wonder whether she felt it was more important to protect her cousin than me. Or were they just both, along with my parents and myself, one more product of a very dysfunctional church culture? Why had no adult felt free and compelled to take action to protect me? No one seemed to notice that I was not safe, and I was not even close to being able to protect myself from this much older church youth leader.
It appears our Mennonite church culture is a serious risk to young people.
Around the same time, another man from Warwick River Mennonite, a divorced man named Jeff Hanbury, who appeared to be in his forties, began calling for me at our home. We had just gotten Caller ID, and suddenly his name showed up dozens of times a day. My mother tells me that she was also outraged and disgusted by his obsessive behavior toward me.
She told me she would stare at that name wanting to call back and yell at him to “Stay away from my daughter!” but couldn’t do it. Something stopped her. She said she just wanted it to go away but it seemed to be hard-wired into her, as it was and still is in many Mennonite women, not to be confrontational.
The few times that I did happen to answer the phone when he called, he would try to befriend me and ask me to go places alone with him. My young self must have been wondering what the heck was going on. Why was this happening? Why was I the target of these older men’s attentions who were from my church? Fortunately, miraculously, I was always able to muster up the strength to give an excuse and tell him I wouldn’t be going with him. Then I just continued to ignore the phone calls until they stopped. But what if I had not had the inner strength to do that?
I cry for that precious teenaged Anje today. She had already been through hell, and instead of getting healthy loving wholesome Christian support from those who were supposed to care for her, some men in her church saw her as easy prey, ‘damaged goods’, someone who would likely have few boundaries with which to protect herself and no one seemed to have her on their care and protection radar, or if they did take notice of the danger I was in, were conditioned to ignore it.
I was so vulnerable.
Five months after giving birth to Bryce, in the spring of 1994, I was raped again. I was 16 years old by that time. My friend Candace wanted me to go with her to a party. I had been on the straight A honor roll and got academic awards like being taken to lunch by the principal with the other straight A honor roll students. I wasn’t a partier, but I also didn’t want to disappoint my friend Candace. Soon after we got there, guys I didn’t know started handing us drinks, and I remember one of them commenting on my muscular thighs.
I wasn’t used to drinking alcohol. Maybe something was put in my drink. I really don’t know. In any case the evening was for the most part a blur. But I have never forgotten being dragged from the floor of a room by my hair up onto a bed and a guy turning me over on my stomach and crawling on top of me. I was terrified because my body couldn’t move. I only had my voice left. All I could muster to say was, “I hope you are wearing a condom.” And then I passed out. When I woke up, it was close to morning, and I remember crawling over bodies to find my friend and we left. I drove us home. She asked me a few questions that I didn’t know how to answer.
Try as I might to heal as a survivor, it seemed that the violations I had suffered in my early years were continuing to make me a target for other predators.
MENNONITE YOUTH CONVENTION
So back to the summer of 1995 in Wichita, Kansas, at the Mennonite Youth Convention. I was 17 years old.
I met up with Jan Gleysteen at a restaurant away from the convention property. It was only after we met that I realized I was his only guest. Somehow I thought there would be others there too. It seems the restaurant was in the downstairs of some hotel in Wichita, but parts of the memory are foggy.
I remember the conversation at the restaurant becoming very uncomfortable for me. He pressed me for private information, and somehow got me to start talking about my painful past. Had he already heard about it from someone? I ended up telling him things I’d told almost no one, but all the while feeling very weird about it. He probed into why I had gotten pregnant at fourteen, and why I chose to place the baby up for adoption rather than have an abortion.
I felt sickened as I talked. Now I realize it was because the birth father of my son had raped and abused me. Gleysteen gave me words of praise for “choosing life,” and delved into describing to me the pain (he surmised) I must have felt when I had to give up a child due to my young age at the time of the pregnancy. I remember feeling frozen while Gleysteen was talking to me. He was an old man by my standards, and it seemed really weird for him to be talking to me about such personal private matters. But I had been trained in the Mennonite way of always being kind and polite, sweet and cooperative, especially with my elders.
By the end of our meal together he must have learned exactly just how fragile and vulnerable I could be. I remember standing up from the table to leave. I remember him hugging me in a way that was very creepy. It was like a full body hug, and it took me totally off guard. At that point my memory goes blank. I don’t remember another thing about the evening. I have a vague memory of being in a room with him that was not the restaurant. I have a brief memory in which I see the window of a room that was not in the restaurant, somewhere else, but where? What could have happened? I had not abused drugs or alcohol, so what made my memory go blank and my mind foggy?
SNAP Mennonite tells me another victim of Jan’s from the 1990’s talked about losing memory during her time with Jan. There is just this big blank in my mind. I don’t remember returning to the hotel after he had dinner with me. I don’t remember leaving the restaurant. I don’t remember waking up the next day or the rest of the convention.
I’m still not certain of the truth of what happened to me, but hearing what happened to others, I feel certain that Jan Gleysteen was somehow grooming and targeting me from the time I was very young and making me an object of his sexual fantasies and then manipulating things for his own benefit, certainly not mine. His hug at the restaurant was sexual assault. He was sexualizing me, and it was deeply disturbing to my already sexually traumatized 17 year old self.
So the big blank blot is there in my memory, yet I have a deep sense of having been violated somehow. Why else would I have had such a strong physical reaction to his photo before I’d even read the details of the post? I know as a medical professional that the body doesn’t lie about sexual trauma. The brain can get confused, but the body tells the truth and leads us to the truth.
After this event with Jan Gleysteen in Kansas, I said nothing to my youth group leader, because she had already sent a clear message when she dismissed my complaints about the frightening and unwanted advances of Tim Yoder at Warwick River.
I thought that Jan Gleysteen cared for me as a family friend of my parents. Instead, he abused and trampled on my already traumatized innocence and my beautiful fragility, further damaging my soul which was actively trying to heal.
EMU FIELD HOCKEY
By the summer of 1995 I was 17 years old and ready to enter Eastern Mennonite University as a freshman. In the two short years prior I had been raped, became pregnant, and had a baby whom I loved torn from me. Five months later, I was coerced to become intoxicated and drugged at a party and raped again. I had been sexually harassed/ assaulted/stalked by three adult men in my Mennonite faith community, one who was in his 30’s, one in his 40’s, and one in his 60’s.
It is no wonder that I contracted mononucleosis the spring of 1995, so I was also recovering from that. I had also spent 6 weeks before graduating high school recovering from a field hockey accident in which I was whacked across the face with a hockey stick and endured both a blow-out eye-socket fracture and a fracture of my left cheekbone during our opening game.
But by fall I was well again. I so looked forward to playing field hockey at Eastern Mennonite University. I had been a starting player my senior year at Menchville High school despite my pregnancy and injury. Field hockey kept me sane through those rough years in high school. I had survived it all and had done a damn good job of it. Field hockey allowed me to forget it all, just throw my whole self into the game.
Then my life intersected with Linwood Vrolijk’s. He was my field hockey coach at EMU and a 30-something, Mennonite family man. I was thrilled he chose me to play with the Lady Royals. I was only 17 years old and one of the few first-year students on the team.
I had just begun my college experience. Everything was new to me. I was excited but also scared and timid about being accepted by the team, doing a good job for the team, and all the rest of the fragile vulnerabilities one feels in their first semester of this brand new world of college.
It was our first away game. We stopped at a restaurant. As I was going into the restaurant, Vrolijk suddenly and without warning came up behind me, grabbed my arm and twisted it sharply behind my back. He said into my ear in an aggressive tone, “I’m going to pin you.” Then he shoved me up against the wall hard and pressed his body forcefully up against my backside, rubbing his crotch into my rear. Then he let go, didn’t say another word, and walked into the restaurant.
I was completely thrown off guard, but I quickly dismissed it as him ‘trying to toughen me up.’ I thought maybe this was some hazing ritual to test new players. I sure didn’t think to challenge him or report what he had done to me. How should I know I’d just been sexually assaulted? No one ever talked about those things in my world. They weren’t supposed to happen there. So I shut it all down like I’d been doing for most of my life. I was likely severely re-traumatized and triggered from my prior sexual assaults. By that time, with all the history I’d had of never getting an adult to listen to my concerns about the way men treated me, it didn’t even sink in that I had any recourse other than to just keep my head down and my mouth shut. So I did. Even when some time later, a team captain asked me if Linwood had ever done anything to make me uncomfortable, I told her, “Not really.”
But all was not well with me. I remember one time a sudden pain in my pelvis occurred during a college Tai Chi class; it got so severe that I ran over to the home of an EMU professor Barbra Graber with whom I’d previously made a good connection. She was a friend to my aunt and had a dog who had protected me before. She took me to the emergency room and the doctor could find nothing wrong with me. I’ve since learned that this sort of pain can be a symptom of PTSD from sexual assault.
I helped Linwood Vrolijk’s EMU hockey team go on to win the Old Dominion Athletic Championship that fall of ‘95, and we were headed for nationals for the first time in EMU’s history. I forced myself to play out the entire season after he assaulted me at the restaurant. I told myself I “was not going to be a quitter!” I even scored a goal as a non-starter freshman.
But when it came time for the 'Final Four' National Championship in New Jersey I was filled with dread. I hated away games. They had never felt safe to me again. The long bus rides, the stays in hotels with Linwood. There were too many stops at restaurants. I asked to be released from the Final Four trips and chose to stay behind. When I went in to tell Coach Vrolijk that I wasn’t going to go he didn’t even ask why, he just told me they didn’t need me anyway since they had one player more than necessary for the tournament.
I remember feeling relieved, but how sad that I did. Field hockey was my life. It was at one time literally my salvation. It was the best thing in my very troubled young life. A predatory field hockey coach ruined the best place I knew to go where I could feel strong.
I’ve only recently learned that someone else reported Linwood Vrolijk to EMU for sexual assault a few years later and that the talk around the community was that he “admitted to it, apologized for it, and was re-embraced” by the Mennonite community. EMU reportedly made a deal with him to resign quietly in exchange for keeping the accusation out of his employment record. When I recently learned he was coaching at Eastern Mennonite School as well as at a local soccer camp for young people called Shenandoah Valley United, I was terribly concerned.
With the support of SNAP Mennonite I took my report to the Harrisonburg Police Department. A very kind corporal came out to Barbra Graber's home so that I didn’t have to go in to the station to report. He told me that since my assault took place outside of Harrisonburg jurisdiction, he could not pursue it. I don’t remember where the assault took place. However the case was assigned to a Detective Dyer with the HPD. I hope my story will encourage any others who were hurt by Linwood to speak up about him and go to the Harrisonburg Police Department. Detective Dyer is a very approachable and kind officer of the law and has been assigned to the case, which remains inactive due to insufficient evidence.
I wish I could somehow reach out to all the other hockey players who were coached by Vrolijk at EMU to see if any experienced what I and others did. My brother-in-law and sister went to EMU on my behalf and asked if SNAP Mennonite could get the email addresses of Linwood’s field hockey and basketball players from them so they could, confidentially and independently of EMU, let the players know about the two more recently reported assaults. EMU would not turn over the email addresses. Why? Do they think a women’s hockey player alumnus would sue them for privacy infringement? Or are they are playing into Linwood Vrolijk’s hands or fearing a lawsuit by him?
I want to close with a poem I wrote as a teenager, as a survivor of sexual violence. I entered it in a contest in high school the year after I had my baby Bryce and gave him up for adoption.
The Heart’s Unreaped Secrets
Rock her in the cool of your clouds,
Shield her eyes with your soul-blinding shrouds,
Circle her mind with your comforting glow
Deafen her ears to the cry of the crow.
Safe in her ring of iron-bound walls,
Her ears shun the memory’s merciless calls,
Till, carried on wings, comes the ring of a bell,
Bones chiming where her unconsciousness fell.
Each chime told a tale, and impatiently swelled
Like the crest of a wave her rattling bones held.
They crashed on her brow and they soaked her blockade
Till her eyes furrowed deep in the ruts they had made.
The skeleton’s song from the throat of the bird
Was the same tune her heart’s ear had long ago heard,
And she flinched from the pain as her memory woke,
She re-caged the birds and all harmony broke.
The once-golden sun now hangs blood-streaked and cold
For secrets unreaped by the heart’s labor grow old;
And the bones guard the secret with feverish tears,
Shackled and bound to her innermost fears.
I received an Honorable Mention and the teacher told me I would “have easily gotten first place” if I’d not, in the last stanza, used the word ‘labor’ when talking about ‘reaping’. She crossed out my chosen word ‘labor’ and wrote in the word ‘scythe’. Then she subtly chastised me for not knowing that the only appropriate word to go with ‘reaping’ would be ‘scythe.’ How strange. ‘Labor’ for me was a loaded term–and intentionally so, since I had been through labor. Couldn’t she handle the unvarnished truth being expressed by me instead of nit-picking?
I am so proud of my son, my poem, and every other woman that has endured undeserved criticism. I’m proud of myself for surviving to tell these sad atrocities committed against me.
Today I’m standing tall with others on this website and saying #MeToo.
If you care to contact me privately and confidentially, please send your email via bgraber@SurvivorsStandingTall.org and your communication will be forwarded to me.