"We [who break the silence] are not the creators of tension.
We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.
We bring it out into the open where it can be seen and dealt with.
Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up
but must be open with all its pus-flowing ugliness
to the natural medicines of air and light,
injustice must likewise be exposed,
with all the tension its exposing creates
to the light of human conscience….”
Martin Luther King
[This post first appeared on Our Stories Untold while Barbra served as editor 2013-2017]
After helping to create and edit the Our Stories Untold Blog for more than two years, I’m finally getting around to posting part of my own personal account of abuse. The code of silence I’ve known since childhood has made it more difficult than I ever imagined to write and post these events. It’s terrifying actually. I’m not sure how I’ll feel when I wake up in the morning or how my life will change after telling it, but right now it feels like I’ve been in labor for far too long.
An entry from my personal journal dated 12-4-86 reads “I fear God is leading me down a path I don’t have the strength to follow. I feel pregnant with a creature that I cannot label or name.”
That creature now has a name and a label. Today I’m acknowledging and taking responsibility for telling my truth and how I came to know it, as honestly as I can recollect it to tell. Today I want to offer my body and soul up to the “natural medicines of light and air” in order to leave victimhood behind forever.
Disturbing content warning. Graphic language. Reader discretion is advised.
Part 1 Early childhood, 1950’s
I grew up on a farm in Iowa. It was a beautiful farm down a long lane with a pond and a stream and woods and meadows and of course, corn fields. My parents were pillars of the Mennonite community in Southeast Iowa. They were church planters and beloved by many including their children. My father was an elder in our Pleasant View Mennonite Church. My mother was a leader of the Women’s Missionary and Service Auxiliary for Iowa-Nebraska Mennonite Conference. She was the Baccalaureate speaker at my Iowa Mennonite High School graduation. Our family was in church three times a week, no other option was up for discussion.
The Graber/Roth clan migrated to Iowa directly from the Alsace Lorraine region of Europe to take advantage of the rich farmland. They became successful farmers, health professionals, teachers, church leaders, and business owners spread from Wellman to Wayland to Mt. Pleasant and beyond. Joseph (Roth) Graber and Barbra Rich Graber had ten children, one of whom was my father. I was the youngest daughter born to Clarence and Saloma (Sally) Bare Graber.
Our home farm environment near Mt. Pleasant saw lots of adventure and good times with relatives and friends coming and going. We held an annual Mother’s Day picnic where we traipsed through the woods with brown paper bags hunting Morrell mushrooms to be fried up with butter for breakfast the next morning. We took walks as a family on Sunday afternoons in the spring to collect Blue Bells and Johnny Jump-ups for an arrangement in a pretty vase on the mantle. In the fall we collected hickory nuts for cracking and eating. We enjoyed hot dog roasts in the woods in the summer and ice-skating parties with bonfires in the winter. My mother welcomed friends and strangers to our table. There was always room for another plate.
I spent hours playing Church as a child. I would hold forth as both preacher and song leader to a congregation of stuffed animals I carefully lined up on the steps. I also played Store with corn cobs and acorns and all manner of special items I sold to imaginary customers through a square hole in a sliding barn door. I spent lazy afternoons under the grape arbor chomping down Concord grapes with cats napping and cuddled around me.
I remember my father singing as he walked through the house. He was a soft spoken, humble, hard working man devoted to his faith. He never spanked me or raised his voice with me, except when he taught me to drive the tractor to pick up hay bales. Then, I remember, there was a whole lot of hollering! He was outwardly respectful to me as a girl and young woman. But I don’t ever remember him looking at me. He didn’t look at me at all, nor did he attend to me with any outward affection or the kind of personal attentiveness that lets a girl child know she is truly seen and heard. Nevertheless I loved my father and grew up believing I had had an idyllic childhood.
After my father passed away in February of 1984, strange things began to occur for me: Nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks, emotional meltdowns, suicidal thoughts, frightening memories, and off and on feelings of unexplained dread and despair, accompanied by an amorphous feeling of deep shame and self-loathing. And there were regressions: where I knew what I was experiencing wasn’t happening in real time, but it seemed to be. My father was the central character in these experiences. My mother was a secondary character.
In these regressions my father was orally raping me (forcing penis into mouth) and taking me to be used sexually by other men in some sort of barn like structure up a flight of stairs. But where? How? When? In these regressions my mother was raping me with an enema syringe while I lay naked on a cold bathroom floor. She was digitally raping me in the bathtub. I’d always known I had a lot of enemas as a child. But it never occurred to me until much later that these were not medically necessary and even more years later I learned that my mother’s compulsion had a name: klismaphilia.
Resurfacing memories of childhood trauma don’t come back like a video where you push the Play button and watch it unfold. They come in bits and pieces: as short sound bites, momentary flashes of memory, strong and unexpected irrational aversions. They make themselves known as sensations, smells, or small details that trigger a wave of unexplained terror or nausea, as a strange sensory ripple through the body or in quick, darting verbal interactions with others who might know part of the story that could let some light in, but when their words come the terror comes along with it and the whole thing shuts down.
I’ll attempt to report some of the “bits and pieces” that helped me discover and piece together the tragic events of my childhood in the hopes that others who have also experienced abuse will know you are not alone. Justice has no timeline. We break the cycle by ending the silence.
My memories from childhood were so sketchy that I asked my oldest brother Dick when we were both adults to tell me what he remembered about me from childhood. He said, “I was just glad you survived, Barbra.” Whaaaa??
A curtain came down in my mind. I smiled. The subject was dropped. We went on to more happy conversation and I never asked him for more information. This is how the silence and denial and the shutting down happens….over and over and over as the years go by.
But there were things I did remember. I just hadn’t yet made sense out of them.
I had a recurring nightmare as a child that seemed strange given my father’s fun-loving, friendly nature and our pacifist Mennonite upbringing. In my nightmare he was coming up the steps that led to our bedrooms with a pistol saying he was going to shoot us all. I would wake up in terror, then realize with relief that it was only a bad dream.
I spent a lot of time behind the couch clinging to a very large flannel Teddy Bear my mother had sewn for me from a kit at the fabric store. I was told I would run there when someone came to the door.
More than one of my siblings told me I was extremely quiet as a child, “as though there was tape across my mouth.” I was told my shyness was so severe that it troubled my mother and older siblings.
Hidden shame, self-loathing and irrational fears were part of my world for as long as I can remember. Perhaps that’s why I became a deeply spiritual and conscientious child. I remember attending an evangelistic meeting with my parents in some other-than-Mennonite local church. When the preacher asked us to stand and gave the ‘invitation’ to come forward to ‘confess our sins’, I began to cry uncontrollably. Mom asked me what was wrong.
“I need to go up there,” I told her.
“No, honey, that’s not necessary,” she whispered.
On the way to the car, walking just behind my parents, I heard Mom say to Dad, “She’s only eight years old!!” I felt confused and ashamed.
I was baptized into our local Pleasant View Mennonite church at age ten, but it didn’t quell the shame either. I guess Mom finally gave up on keeping me at the bench during revival meetings. I made many dreaded, tearful, treks to the altar through out my adolescent and teenage years to pray with a man of God in a dark suit. It was always a man and it was always terrifying. But I felt hopelessly compelled to try just one more time to shake off the shame.
Baptism classes taught us the importance of regular prayer and bible study. So there I was, every night in my bed, reading the bible and praying that I could become more perfect for God. I took to heart the chapter in Ephesians that says “Get rid of… every form of malice. Instead be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as Christ has forgiven you.” And every time I felt angry toward anyone I felt terribly guilty.
Then Bible teacher Marvin Yoder at Iowa Mennonite School in the late 60’s told us that faith is about “trusting that we are loved instead of trying to be good enough.” Really? Could it be true?
Thanks to a curiosity about the natural world around me, as well as a love for learning and the praise I received from schoolteachers, my shyness began to lift. Or perhaps I just got really good at masking it behind a bubbly, perky personality?
By the time I started high school I was an outgoing, creative, sociable young woman. This outward normalcy and giftedness, even super-kid status, is not uncommon for survivors of incest. A simultaneous dread and sludge in the pit of the stomach is also not uncommon. For me it was especially strong when I was in small groups of people. I managed the sludge by becoming driven to succeed at every opportunity, taking on ambitious projects and creating constant activity for myself. I never knew when I would be pulled down into the strong familiar heaviness I tried desperately to ignore by going, going, going and doing, doing, doing.
As I entered my mid 30’s, my hidden mystery self began to find her voice and bubble up into consciousness, a little at a time.
I was 34 years old and had just completed my last semester of graduate school at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles with plans to return to Harrisonburg, VA later in the summer where I would resume a position on the theater faculty at Eastern Mennonite College. Although I’d just graduated from a prestigious program in a field of study that I loved, I felt little sense of fulfillment or celebration. My seven-year marriage was disintegrating. I was heart broken and devastated and felt like a failure. My husband had been transferred in his job a few months earlier and moved several hours north while I stayed in Los Angeles to finish out the semester. When the semester finished I crashed, isolating myself in the apartment for weeks on end, with curtains drawn. The only person I saw was a massage therapist who came with her table to our apartment once a week.
After several weeks of treatment she told me, “You are drowning in something that needs your attention. You need to get out of your pajamas, get outdoors, take a walk, lie under a tree and look up into its branches toward the sky and the sun. Promise me you will do that every day so this thing that’s happening can break loose for you.” Her concern jarred me out of complacency. I started taking walks down the street off Hill Avenue in Pasadena and spent time under a large sycamore tree.
One afternoon I was drawn to a book of Psalms with beautiful pictures of nature that one of my EMU casts had given me as a director’s gift. I began very slowly reading it aloud to myself, changing all the He pronouns to She pronouns and feeling incredibly soothed by that small switch in image and word. “She maketh me lie down in green pastures. She leadeth me beside the still waters. She restoreth my soul…..Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death….”
Then I found my way to Winnie, a psychotherapist who had an office in a church just a few blocks away. For the first time in my life I reached out for help to a mental health professional. When I made the appointment I told her I was terribly depressed about the disintegration of my marriage.
At our first session she asked me to tell her where in my body this “depression” seemed to reside?
“In my stomach”, I said.
“And what color is it?”
“And what is its consistency?”
“Like a sewage sludge at the pit of my stomach and it never goes away, no matter how much fun I’m having, no matter how many accomplishments I accomplish, no matter how many kudos or praise I receive from others. It is always there. Especially in the mornings when I wake up.”
She had me lie down on a massage table. She asked me to focus on that sludge in my stomach and think back to when it first appeared there.
“There’s a hallway of doors with every year of your life on a door. Let’s start walking down that hallway beginning at your present age.”
I walked past my thirties and my twenties. At door 16 I remembered the first time I was sexual with a boyfriend and felt tremendous shame and guilt. The sludge appeared, but not overwhelmingly.
“Keep going,” she said.
When I got to door 3 or 4 I got a flash of a clearly detailed vision. My father was holding me with his arm under my bottom and my arms around his neck. I had a dress on. I felt his rough denim jacket sleeve on my naked bottom.
There was very little light. He was taking money from other men in the room while he held me. I could see the room had wooden rafters like a barn. There was a wooden stairway behind us. He turned and started to carry me down the stairway. As I watched the events unfold in my mind’s eye while lying there on Winnie’s mat, my back arched up and my neck and head tilted back, my mouth opened wide and the most awful sounds, those of a terribly wounded animal began to pour out of me. I had never heard sounds like that coming out of me. (This kind of emotional release with an arched neck and back repeated itself on several later occasions.) It went on for no more than a minute and then as quickly as it came, it passed.
I looked over at Winnie and said, “What on earth was that?!”
She asked what I had seen and I told her. She said, “Tell me about your father.”
“My father was a wonderful man,” I told her. “He never spanked me. I had an idyllic childhood.”
“Then don’t worry about it,” she said. “If you are meant to know more, you will.”
So I didn’t worry. My husband and I decided to move back to Virginia together but our marriage quickly unraveled and we divorced. I continued teaching, directing and producing theater at Eastern Mennonite University and got into therapy to deal with the huge upset I felt divorce was causing in my life. The strange experience that day in Winnie’s office went to the back burner, but it was clearly seared in my memory.
In 1990 Ted Swartz (a former student) and I founded a community based professional theater company called AKIMBO. Pamela Frey, also a former student of mine, was part of that troupe. She had come from Ontario, Canada and was staying with me at my house in Harrisonburg to rehearse AKIMBO’S upcoming performance at the Mennonite General Assembly in Eugene, Oregon. I’d been agitated and on edge all day and it grew worse as evening came. When we got home from rehearsal, the agitation I’d felt earlier turned into an emotional melt down, but I still had no conscious sense of its source. I’ve discovered this is common for survivors of sexual abuse; our emotional life is a mystery to us; we never know what will trigger us or when. Pamela took my hand at one point, took me to a back room, sat down with me on the carpet and asked me, as though talking to a little girl, “Barbra, can you tell me what happened to you when your daddy took you to town?”
[Pamela told me much later that when I started the emotional melt-down, she got an image of a barn-like building and what seemed to be my dad taking me up some steps and leaving me there–wherever “there” was. With the image, she also received a question, and thankfully, she had the courage to ask it out loud: “Barbra, can you tell me what happened….”]
Like the key to a long locked box of memories, unavailable for decades, her question prompted me to go to a place outside my present world. I knew that what was happening to me was not happening in reality, but it seemed to be. I felt like my limbs were tiny, the size of a 3 or 4-year-old child. I was on a floor with very particular floorboards that were dusty and strewn with straw. More than one large man was sodomizing me. I felt the terrible physical pain of it shoot through my body. Pamela stayed close as my body writhed and cried and moaned in a state of abject terror. She comforted me, stayed present, and reminded me to breathe.
Then as quickly as it had come, it passed and I recovered.
We went on with our evening together. I slept deeply that night with my dear friend keeping watch. The next morning it seemed as though the night before had been a dream. I continued on with my summer of directing AKIMBO and its group of talented actors in a comedic performance in Eugene, Oregon. But the strange experience I’d had with Pamela that weekend, feeling as if my body was taken over by the terror of a small child inside, nagged me and wouldn’t let me go. What in the world was it all about?
I threw myself with even more frenzy into my work that year, overseeing seven major theater projects, running to keep at bay the sludge and the dread and the terror, but also comforted, even healed by such richly rewarding creative work and beautiful people with whom to share it.
That Christmas Pamela and another AKIMBO actor were in my hometown of Wayland, Iowa performing at a Christmas banquet for Mennonite youth. She called me one evening and told me something bizarre had happened. Their Iowa Mennonite conference hosts had driven into the parking lot of the Wayland Sale Barn intending to take them for lunch at the Sale Inn Cafe. The Wayland Sale Barn was a well known location of my childhood. Livestock auctions were held there and farm animals were brought to be bought and sold. I had been there with my father on many occasions. Pamela told me she was so overcome by awful feelings of dread that she asked if their hosts could please take them somewhere else for lunch, and they obliged.
“Could this have been where that strange memory-thing happened to you?” she asked me on the phone.
“Hmm, that’s interesting,” I said. “I dunno. Maybe.” I had no idea. And I sure didn’t want to think about it. She said no more, though I’m sure she may have wanted to!
More months passed. I was slamming hoe into ground over and over and over preparing to plant a spring vegetable garden. All at once a group of thoughts and memories merged and slid into a common file: My father holding me in a barn-like place with wooden rafters and my little girl’s vulnerable bare bottom on his arm prompting a torrent of terror in Winnie’s office without conscious cause. My father carrying me down some steps from a small upper room. The dusty floorboards with straw strewn on them. The creepy feeling Pamela Frey reported from the Wayland Sale Barn. Could something have happened there? Had I been taken there by my father and raped there by other men? Had he forgotten my underwear when he picked me up to take me home and that’s why my bottom was bare?
Was I losing my mind? There’s no way this could ever be true! This is not who my father was! This is not who my family is! I knew I had to start talking to others in my family. I was hoping they would tell me it had to be a fluke.
On a visit with my brother Dave and his family in Montana I posed the question to him one evening. “When I mention to you ‘the Wayland Sale barn,’ what sorts of feelings do you get?” I asked him out of the blue giving no background for the reason I was asking.
“I don’t get good feelings at all,” he said. I told him what had been happening to me, the strange flashbacks, the feeling I’d maybe been sexually abused there. He didn’t have his own memories of sexual abuse to report.
“But I would have no trouble believing you,” he said.
The words “I believe you” to a victim just starting to break silence in order to gather together the shattered pieces of her life are a treasure beyond measure.
At some point I woke up to realize I had successfully killed off the toxic god I’d assimilated as a child: one that required me to “take up my cross”, submit willingly to the most unconscionable cruelty of others (even unto death?!), and then forgive them for their cruelty. Jesus on the cross said “Father, forgive them.” He didn’t have to and neither did I. But my Little Barbra didn’t hear it that way.
In place of the toxic god, I was coming to know a wholly new Holy Spirit, the God of my own understanding, my own Greater Power who “knit me together in my mother’s womb” and knew me better than I knew myself. To this Greater Love I began to turn over all aspects of my healing.
“I found God in myself and loved Her fiercely,” as Ntozake Shange’s poem so elegantly gives witness. I also rediscovered the healing power of Jesus, but the telling of that healing adventure will need to wait for another time.
Every morning and every evening I repeated aloud, often in front of the mirror: “I admit that I’m powerless over the wounding of my body and soul and that my life has become unmanageable. I realize there’s a spiritual power greater than me that can restore me to sanity. I turn my will and my life over to the care of god as I understand god.”
I was slowly realizing that healing from sexual abuse is not something I would finish and close the book on like the many other projects in my life. But it also wasn’t something that had to plague every waking minute of my life. I enjoyed years of living in between the bouts of hard emotional work. Here’s the mindset that helped me most:
I tried to accept and walk with whatever came up, follow it into itself instead of run from it, then go on with my life, day by day, sometimes hour by hour and minute by minute. I tried to eliminate ‘should’ from my vocabulary. I tried to let go and let god and not shame or force myself into doing anything that didn’t happen easily and naturally. I aimed to stop trying to please or achieve perfection. I started getting to know and trusting the God in Myself.
I married Dale Metzler the summer of 1994. His presence in my process has been invaluable and cannot go unmentioned in this story. He has kept laughter alive and has never backed away from my tears or my terrors. His love and wisdom entered my life at an incredibly opportune moment in time.
The curiosity and unsettled feeling about the Wayland Sale Barn continued. Dale and I were planning a trip to Iowa that summer. What if we went to check it out? I needed some sort of confirmation that this wasn’t some mentally defective brain warp. I was curious to see what I could see, try to stay present in my body, and observe what happened to me inside and out. I wanted to listen to “Little Barbra”, as I’d come to know her by then. Dale was totally cool with the idea so we committed to seeing if we could make it work. It would be tricky. I knew I didn’t want the rest of the family knowing or asking questions. I didn’t want to alarm my nieces and nephews. My oldest sister had by that time shared her own memories from the sale barn with me so her support was invaluable. She and her husband were thankfully willing to come with us to pay a visit.
It so happened that all the children cleared out of the house and left my sister and her husband along with Dale and me free to head for the sale barn. We pulled into the parking lot. We walked into the Sale Inn Cafe. A lone man was sitting at the lunch counter.
“Hi there!” my sister said to him nonchalantly, “We grew up coming to this sale barn with our dad and wondered if we could just walk around a bit?”
“Sure, be my guest,” he said and kept munching on his sandwich.
There was a door out the back of the cafe. We walked through it and there in front of us was a set of steps identical to the wooden ones I’d seen in my memory. As we climbed the steps and walked into the room I looked at the floor and there were the same dusty floorboards. I looked up and saw the wooden rafters. Suddenly my knees gave way and I was on the floor with Little Barbra. She was in terror, whimpering and crying and repeating over and over, “Don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, please, please don’t hurt me.” I knew I was in the throws of a regression. I knew I would be okay. I knew I was not alone. I knew this confirmed that the memories that had returned were real, not imaginary and that I was not losing my mind, in fact I was saner than I’d been in quite some time and was truly on a new road to recovery of a Self I had long since abandoned.
At some point Dale lit a cigarette, lifted it over his head, and walked slowly around the room like a shaman performing some ancient cleansing ritual. I don’t remember much more. My sister and her husband asked Jesus to cleanse the space. We all climbed back in the van and drove on to the farm where our family gathered to eat and play and work together the rest of the weekend. This is the blessing of compartmentalization, a skill many survivors of child trauma learn in order to survive. I will always be grateful to my oldest sister and her husband for their support of Little Barbra that day.
More pieces fell in place as other relatives became willing to tell me what they remembered. I will always appreciate their courage, their willingness to break silence and speak the truth, no matter how afraid they were to tell me. One told me that sometimes when I was a girl she noticed I “didn’t walk right.” Another told me her mom reported to her that my mom had asked her why a little girl who hadn’t started her period would have blood in her underwear?
My oldest brother Dick shared a memory he had at around 15-years-old. Dad and Mom were talking in the kitchen and evidently didn’t know he was in earshot of them. Dad was saying something about “turning himself in.” Mom came back with “you will not turn yourself in! I’m not going to be left here with all these children. You just have to stop this, Clarence!”
This matches what convicted sex offenders report: that they would never have stopped or gotten help if they had not been reported and put in jail. Was my father seeking help and unable to find it?
Before my mother passed away, my oldest sister got up the courage to ask her to help us make sense of what was happening to us since Dad had died. She later told me Mom broke down crying and confirmed our suspicions.
Enough puzzle pieces now fit together and it was time to face the truth: My deeply religious Mennonite Christian father, beloved by many and doing much that was good in the world, was involved with a group of pedophiles that operated out of a small room above a noisy livestock sale barn. He took me there for other men to use and sexually violate. My mother was complicit with him and she too molested and raped me. We too often forget that penetration of the body by anything, be it an object or digit (finger), is rape.
Because the community was primarily made up of Mennonite farm families and was very small, can I assume that the same men who raped me during sale barn sales on Saturday were standing up and leading church services on Sunday morning? In that case, Little Barbra was introduced to the concept of “God first, others second, and yourself last” by the same people who so cruelly abused her. What a handy teaching for them.
I have had to learn how to hold gently, within the same cupped hand, two contradictory facts:
1) the people in charge of my care committed the worst kinds of crimes imaginable against me
2) those same people offered me love and care and nurture and remain important strands in the fabric of who I am today.
The truth really has set me free today.
But first it gashed open and ruptured my world.
Part 2, Teenage Years, 1960’s
As is often the case, those of us sexually violated as small children experience repeated abusive situations through out our lives. I was no exception.
Another denial in our family has swirled around my Baptist brother-in-law who took on the role of a spiritual leader in our family. In my early teens, he took an opportune moment to suddenly and forcefully open mouth kiss me. I froze. What in the world was happening? I was in shock. I was traumatized, but how was I to know it then? No man had ever kissed me before. Just when I was stepping into womanhood ever so cautiously, having already been violated as a much younger child, an older male member of my family who I had put on a pedestal for his commitment to Christ, became the first person to attempt to sexualize my teenage-child body. That is thoroughly fucked up. I now know this type of fleeting but deeply damaging sexual assault is epidemic in Christian homes and churches. That’s the reason I’m writing about it here.
When I was in my early 20’s I finally made the first of several attempts to talk with Jerry and my oldest sister about what happened years earlier, both individually and together. There was never room for discussion and little if any real acknowledgement of the seriousness of his offense. When I first told my sister, she was digging in a flower bed as I stood above her. She never stopped digging. Her response was “He’s my husband. I can’t do anything about it.” End of conversation. When I first revisited the event with Jerry around the same time. His response was, “Both of us have always known there was a special attraction between us.” Whaaa??? NO. Nada.
Jerry never again tried to kiss me, but he went on to sexually harass me and gropped my butt while coming up the stairs behind me at a recent reunion. I still feel powerless to stop it. Has my early abuse marked me forever? How could I hold so much personal power in other areas of my life but none in sexually predatory situations? I have felt like there was a sign on my back that read: “Easy Target.”
We teach our children in church to always be nice, never curse, to turn the other cheek and forgive others immediately, “up to 70 X 7” as Jesus commanded. But when do we tell them there are certain situations in which hollering and throwing a hissy fit is perfectly in order? We teach them to not gossip or talk badly about anybody, but when do we explain that there are certain times talking badly about someone is really, really necessary?
If I’d been raised by a feminist biker gang instead of Mennonite pacifists would I at some point have given Jerry a swift kick and told him to “get the fuck away from me?” From that moment in the movie theater, he got by with sexually harassing me off and on the rest of my adult life; I overlooked his misdeeds and protected him for decades rather than talk badly about him.
One of my relatives had the hutzpah to respond more effectively. Jerry was pestering her to “come on, just let me kiss you” while standing in line for a meal at a Bare family reunion, just under the radar of any notice by others. She raised her arm high and started pointing at him hollering out to everyone within earshot “This married man is trying to get me to kiss him!” That stopped him cold. I was in awe of her. Something else entirely happened to me in the presence of predatory sexual teasing and pestering. I followed a shame-trail into a ratty hole.
I found this old entry in a personal journal from October 1991 at the age of 38, the weekend of my mother’s funeral.
Mom’s funeral: I confronted Jerry’s harassment. Him: Hi chickie poo honey. Me: I’m 38 years old and my name is Barbra. Him: Oh I’m just trying to get a rise out of you and your Nazi feminism. Me: I’m not a Nazi feminist. He comes to say he’s sorry “Can we kiss and make up?” I glare at him.
This from the man whose initial sexual assault of me as a teenager was a non-consensual kiss. Looks like I thought even pulling off a ‘glare’ was a big step up in the confrontation department.
In recent years I learned Jerry has reportedly preyed on others at about the same age he first preyed on me. This was devastating news for me. Denial is a strange thing. Even with the decades of therapy, study, and advocacy, it had not occurred to me to even ask the question. It was a tragic reminder that by keeping silent I not only delayed my own healing, but actually risked the well being of others.
With the encouragement of two pastor friends, Ross Erb and Mike Metzler, who understand the plague of this behavior going on in Christian families and churches and the likelihood of those who do it to target more than one person, they helped me write certified letters to Jerry’s pastors in Iowa. We let them know of Jerry’s harmful behavior toward me and others. Mike wisely suggested I give few details, but pass along his and Ross’s names and contact information for the pastors in Iowa to call if they should want more information.”Let us stand in the gap for you. You don’t need to spend any more energy on this,” Mike said. I wept. I had never experienced such bold, strong advocacy. No one ever heard from the Iowa pastors.
I have finally only recently, told the rest of my family what I know about Jerry. The response from them has scratched open a scab that feels raw and painful even as I prepare to post this piece. Obviously, the rest of this story is not ready to be fully told and is still unfolding as I write.
“A riddle I haven’t solved: of how we judge those who have hurt us when they show no remorse or even understanding.” Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres
Another riddle I haven’t solved: Why is it so difficult to stand with those who report sexual violation? Why is it so difficult to stand up to the ones in our community of faith or family who harm them? These are not cases that need mediation and reconciliation. They need clear accountability and justice. Has our Christian “love and forgiveness” doctrine washed away all traces of accountability to one another? Love without accountability is not love at all. It was not love that caused me to keep Jerry’s secrets all those years. It was fear.
Part 3 Young Adult, 1970’s
I have recently graduated with a B.A. in English from Eastern Mennonite University and am excited to be chosen to join a Mennonite Church sponsored drama troupe to travel cross-country on its way to the Mennonite Convention in Estes Park, Colorado. Respected Canadian Mennonite writer Urie Bender had just written a drama based on The Gospel of Mark and we would rehearse and perform it as part of the morning Bible Studies led by Willard Swartley. I was to perform the monologue of the “woman with the issue of bleeding” from Mark chapter 5. Through a recent healing conversation with Willard and Mary Swartley about my experiences that summer, I realized that the woman I brought to life on stage was one reason I survived the summer.
[Bender was later charged with serial child sexual abuses. One of the brave victims who brought those charges was also in that drama troupe. The Mennonite Church of Eastern Canada eventually revoked Bender’s ordination credentials, but he has never been criminally charged or spent a day in jail.]
An older married man, Rohn Thomas, from Bloomington, Indiana was also in our group and he raped me repeatedly through out the trip. From the first day of rehearsals he targeted me sexually–I was not interested or even attracted to him, but I’d been trained to be nice or be nothing at all. The pressure intensified into a kind of predatory, aggressive behavior that once again triggered my earlier childhood traumas and I would watch myself from outside of myself, as though in a trance, and like a robot, do anything he asked. He manipulated me into the vilest sexual situations and I was utterly incapable of stopping them.
One night I found the strength to protest and asked him, “Please can’t we just go back to the group?” (As an older member and driver of the group he was able to get the touring van to drive me anywhere any time of day or night.) He flew into a rage, calling me a “prick teaser” and a whole lot more. I shriveled into some sort of frightened version of a former self and from then on was, to an astonishing degree, completely under his power and control. I did not give clear consent but I also didn’t fight him off because my will had long since been stripped from me. For ten years I labeled it an affair with a very sick and screwed up man, but I blamed myself and protected him. (I learned later that there were rumors about him at Goshen College before he ever joined our drama troupe.)
I became suicidal that summer. Thanks to compartmentalization, I was able to function just fine as an actor for the team. It would not surprise me if others in the group had no inkling of the abuse happening to me. I hope if any of them read this they will get in touch and let me know what they knew, if anything. I do not hold any of them responsible. It took me years of therapy to untangle the web of violations I experienced that summer and the way I initially so wrongly interpreted them. Because I had no ability to resist, by the law’s standards it would be assumed consensual. This is why California’s new law and recent Title IX interpretations requiring that consent be a clear “Yes”, rather than simply the absence of a “No” is so empowering to child victims like me.
Thomas is now an adjunct professor of theater at a Midwest university and I’ve contacted the head of his department and his provost to tell them I have reason to believe he poses a risk and that they would be wise to believe any reports about him they receive from students. He is quite possibly still cueing in to women like me whose fight or flight instincts have been destroyed, and who could easily be manipulated.
When I returned to Shippen Street in Lancaster, PA that summer of 1977 I went into what I later realized was full blown PTSD. My body shut down with terrible and inexplicable aches and pains. Simultaneously I would have crying spells and not realize the cause. I also became promiscuous, having one-night-stands with guys who were otherwise casual acquaintances. I have wondered if I became a sexual predator to some of them. If I remembered their names or knew how to contact them I would want to know and make amends. I remember one sexual encounter that found me aggressive to the point of the guy stopping me and saying, “Woah, wait a minute, are you okay?” I was stupefied by what was happening in my body. The body I inhabited in certain sexual situations seemed alien to me.
During this troubling promiscuous phase I remember lying on my bed alone in my apartment and feeling such deep emotional despair and confusion that I slid off the bed to my knees on the floor to try to pray. My father came to mind and I heard myself crying over and over and over, “I’m sorry Daddy, I’m so, so sorry Daddy. I’m so, so sorry.” I remember thinking how odd it was to hear myself saying those words. Why would I be apologizing to my daddy like a little child?”
For doing what exactly?
A dear friend showed up like a guardian angel to nurse me back to health and make me soup but I hadn’t yet the consciousness to tell him what had happened. I was drowning in shame. I was miraculously referred to a chiropractor in Lancaster that must have been a true healer. He didn’t manipulate my joints and muscles as in the previous chiropractic exams I’d experienced. Instead it seemed like an extremely light “laying on of hands.” I believe his spirit sensed I was a victim of sexualized violence and he had a special, perhaps unspoken practice for helping us. I walked out of his office without pain and miraculously good health soon returned–at least physical health. I was able to return to work at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Lancaster directing a performing arts program for the most talented and passionate young kids I’d ever met.
PART 4 Senior Adult, 2015
I am now celebrating my 63rd year of life on the good earth.
Here is my HOPE today:
I hope that any person who may be reading this who is acting out on children or vulnerable adults will be motivated to get help and find a community of others who will hold you accountable. You are not a monster, but you must persist at getting help or pay dearly for your refusal to do so. Your pain and dysfunction may no longer be passed on to others without consequence.
I hope that every church leader and family member who may be reading this who is knowingly turning away, covering up and not reporting a suspected act of violation by a member of your faith community or family finds the courage to report what you suspect or know to civil authorities or an outside, independent agency or group, not to the church leaders who have insurmountable conflicts of interest.
I hope that every survivor suffering in shame and silence will find strength and hope in my words. You are not alone. There is an army of support out here for you. We are part of a growing new civil rights movement for children. We leave victimhood behind when we take responsibility to stand and speak our truth and hold accountable those who harmed us.
If you wonder if you have suppressed the trauma of early sexual abuse, rest assured you need not go searching for the memories. If they are meant to surface at all, they will come find you in their own time.
I hope to continue to bring people together to make a difference in each other’s lives and prevent what happened to me from happening to others. A SNAP self-help support group in Harrisonburg, VA offers a safe place for survivors and their loved ones to help each other heal and to work through the impact of abuse on our lives. We meet the first Thursday of every month from 6-7:30 pm. Contact me at 540-214-8874 for more information and location.
Here’s what I KNOW today:
I was deeply hurt in body and soul by those I trusted.
I spent much of my life denying the depth of that hurt, in large part due to my religious upbringing. That upbringing also played a role in my survival and recovery.
I have now opened up the boil with “all its puss flowing ugliness to the natural medicine of light and air”, without being afraid and without turning away.
Healing for each and every survivor follows its own unique path. I have assumed I was fully healed at least four times in my life, only to find yet another consequence, another impact. This stuff can take a lifetime to heal and many who have never been a victim of sexualized violence don’t seem to get that.
I have always hesitated to tell my story because it is extreme and folks too often respond with, “Well then, what happened to me was really nothing.” That is so not true. The way these experiences damage us is highly varied and nuanced, and like a beautiful and fragile piece of glass, our sacred sexual selves can become damaged and broken just as easily by being thrown against a wall as by being gently dropped on a concrete floor.
I am extremely fortunate to be alive and indebted to so very many persons who have walked with me, believed me, stood up for me, and kept hope alive when I had lost all hope.
Dumb luck or some outrageous act of grace allowed me to remain functional when I had to be, to recover from major emotional meltdowns and breakdowns in time to get up and teach Stanislavsky to a waiting class of theater students. I still don’t completely understand how that happened.
The memories and body experiences of survivors should be believed and taken seriously. Meanwhile the perpetrators they name should be assumed guilty until proven innocent.
Victims who find the courage to stand up and speak the truth about a respected member of a congregation or family don’t have control over the embarrassing consequences and painful outcomes their truth telling brings forth. The responsibility lies with the offenders as well as with those who would protect them by denying, minimizing the truth, and withholding the family’s, congregation’s, and public’s right to know.
Human beings cannot be put into a category of Evil or Good with a thick black line between the two. We are all both and neither. That does not mean we escape accountability for our actions.
Nothing will ever take from me the warm memories and the goodness that dwelt in the same house with the horrors of my childhood. Nothing will ever diminish the love I have for my family or the joys we have shared. In fact turning to look squarely at the ugly, monstrous truth and speak it publicly, holding those who harmed me fully accountable, has made all that is beautiful about my family and my life become more precious.
The sludge in the pit of my stomach was healed by an encounter with Jesus and Pamela Frey on Easter Sunday 1993 and has never returned.
But now this shit has got to stop.
74 previous comments
CAROL ANN WEAVER says:
Sep 15, 2015
Barbra, this is SO good and SO important for you to post this! You are part of the change that is already happening. Without your work, CMU, for example, wouldn’t even “have” a course such as was discussed in previous posts. . . Keep telling your story. “listen to your story and let it sing” — from a song I did for Quietly Landed? back in mid 90s!!
BARBRA GRABER says:
Sep 15, 2015
Thank you for your words, Carol. Your friendship and support through these many years has been a treasure beyond measure!
Sep 15, 2015
This heart-rending, gut-wrenching story proves the words Keats chose long ago: “Beauty is truth. Truth beauty.” Thank you, dear Barbra, for making your life a work of art. And for demonstrating that art, beauty, love, peace, and justice are active, not passive. May you feel love returning to you in massive waves.
LISA SCHIRCH says:
Sep 15, 2015
The first time I heard a story like Barbra’s, about a nice, normal Mennonite family with terrible secrets of sexual abuse, I thought it was a bizarre anomaly. But then I heard more stories over the years, in more Mennonite communities. Sadly, the terror, violence, and trauma of sexual abuse is everywhere, often hiding in plain sight. Thank you Barbra, for the artistry in your storytelling. You help us understand how the normal and monstrous juxtapose in our lives. May there be healing, justice, accountability and prevention blossoming out of this story of one woman’s truth telling. And may your tracks through the uncharted wilderness help others know the steps to take…
BARBRA GRABER says:
Sep 15, 2015
Thank you Lisa for your public affirmation of me along with your private support and friendship. You are a true advocate, one who has sees my strength when I cannot.
JENNY CASTRO says:
Sep 15, 2015
Barbra, Thank you so much for being so very bravely vulnerable here with us. Your story is difficult and yet so powerful, so awful and yet so grace-filled. You hold these tensions and name them so honestly. You shine light into darkness. Thank you.
BARBRA GRABER says:
Sep 15, 2015
Thank you Jenny for publicly honoring my story. Your words mean so much to me. And the work of Mennonite Women and Women in Leadership has been shining a light for some time now. Keep up your good work.
ANGELA MICHAEL says:
Sep 15, 2015
Dear Barbra, I was led today to check OSU blog entries and click on Stories as well. I must have sensed there was a new, very important entry. What you have shared will bring much good into our World and I want to thank you very sincerely.
This site is one of my few remaining connections to the Mennonite denomination or any church. I have distanced myself for some of the reasons you articulated so well. All the best to you.
Sep 15, 2015
Barbra. Wow. Thanks for sharing this. I hope there is healing in releasing this story out to the world. You are an inspiration and a powerful worker for justice, and your story is a reminder that we must never give up trying to shine light on these dark spaces. Thank you, thank you.
CYNTHIA LAPP says:
Sep 15, 2015
Thank you for your courage, Barbra. Keep leading us forward with your truth and compassion.
DEB BERGEN says:
Sep 15, 2015
Thank you. Your descriptions of aspects of the healing process put into words so much that evades capture, the tiresome invasions of seemly settled life with explosions of pain, the way others can perpetuate silence or support healing, the hope that what is good and what is evil can be acknowledged as both real. “Healing” is a nice word for extended surgery of the soul and memory without anesthesia. Each sentence here shows your courage. “Truth is beauty” indeed.
DANA NEFF says:
Sep 15, 2015
Barbra, I feel awe in hearing more of your story. Thank you for sharing. Your ability to function with so much injury inside is again a tribute to the strength in people and our coping mechanisms. Thank you for your willingness to face this head on, to describe the struggle and how it circles around and hits us again even when we feel we are “done.” It has always been affirming to me and my siblings’ stories to know that we grew up in the same area as you. Thank you for your work in supporting others who are on the journey.
MELISSA HEISE says:
Sep 15, 2015
Barbra, Thank you for sharing your journey of healing.
JON STANTON says:
Sep 15, 2015
Barbra – thank you for your bravery, your honesty, and your commitment to help others. My soul felt torn into shreds as I read your post. I pray that the individuals and organizations working to bring light to the darkness of abuse are held safely and securely in God’s loving hands. I pray that light penetrates the darkness and that God’s people rise up and say “NO MORE!”
LEON KRAYBILL says:
Sep 15, 2015
Thank you for writing clearly and directly. There is great beauty in your story – of course not in the trauma, but in the honesty, the shattering of secrecy, the search, the ongoing effort of healing, the remarkable journey of a life time, and the powerful reclamation of self worth. May the healing continue, for you and the church.
BONNIE HOLDEMAN DALKE says:
Sep 15, 2015
Dear Barbra, thank you for sharing your story with such grace and dignity. I am both appalled and comforted by it. I realize that my aversion to certain men was probably well founded. That I sensed that there was something terribly amiss but didn’t know what to make of it is appalling to me. For many years I so totally rejected the church that I told myself that I didn’t think there really was a Jesus. In the last two years I have put the way of love back together in my own way. But it is far from a done deal. I can’t tell you adequately how much it means to me to know you are alive in the world. A fellow traveler.
BOB YODER says:
Sep 15, 2015
Wow…such courage! May God’s continued grace envelope you. Thank you for sharing. May others experience hope.
BETH WEAVER-KREIDER says:
Sep 15, 2015
Thank you for sharing this story. May your courage radiate outward and inspire others to continued acts and words of courage.
JANE THORLEY ROESCHLEY says:
Sep 15, 2015
This is a powerful, horrifying, denial-stripping, hope-birthing story. Thank you for sharing so bravely and for being a leaading voice for others. May healing continue.
RACHEL WALTNER GOOSSEN says:
Sep 15, 2015
Barbra, your powerful and disturbing story of violation as a child, and then again and again as an adult, helps me to understand more clearly why you protested so determinedly against school administrators permitting a renowned sexual abuser to come and speak about peace theology on the Eastern Mennonite campus in 1997. Heartfelt thanks for sharing this, and also for turning your curiosity, courage, tenacity, and spiritual wisdom into advocacy for others.
SUSAN GASCHO-COOKE says:
Sep 15, 2015
Barbra, there are no adequate words to respond to your story … I weep for little Barba, and am so inspired by your willingness to become conscious of your story over the years and find allies with whom to confront the memories. Thank you for sharing your story, and for all your work with Our Stories Untold. It is so important. And yet I would give almost anything to go back and take little Barbra far, far away.
DOTTIE KLAMMER says:
Sep 15, 2015
Barbra, You have my deepest respect. Your story is gut wrenching. After reading it any reader would come away with a clear understanding of the devastation and utter striping away of self that a survior of childhood sexual abuse suffers. You have come through with self dignity after claiming the power to let all know the wonderful person you are. I salute you! I respect you! I congratulate you!
CAROL PENNER says:
Sep 15, 2015
I am so sorry that all of these things happened to you, and so thankful for a healing journey, and your courage to share your story. Thank you…
CRISSIE BUCKWALTER says:
Sep 16, 2015
Barbra – indeed, you write: “We break the cycle by ending the silence.” And your courage and insights are doing just that for you and the many others who were forced on this path as well as for those walking with you. Thank you for being Courage and Breath and Light-giver to all.
I offer you these words for your journey. They come from John O’Dononue, from his blessing A New Year Blessing – your telling begins a New Year for you…(the full text is here: http://www.johnodonohue.com/beannacht-for-josie)
“May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.”
KATHY SHANTZ says:
Sep 16, 2015
Thank you Barbra for sharing your heart-rending story. Your courage amazes and inspires me.
LEON MILLER says:
Sep 16, 2015
I am in awe of your courage and strength to survive. And I am so sorry you experienced these horrors. May you continue to walk into healing and the light of God as you assist other on the healing, freeing journey
ROSE MOYER says:
Sep 16, 2015
Thank you so much, Barbra for sharing your pain and your healing with us. What a gift for those who have suffered such violations to realize that they are not alone. The gift of knowing that there is healing; there is hope. God Bless you, Barbra.
BARBRA GRABER says:
Sep 16, 2015
With permission I’m sharing here an incredibly insightful comment left by Luke Miller following the post of my story on Pink Menno’s FB page. He articulates so well the overlap of the sexual violence experienced by queer brothers and sisters in the church’s rejection of their bodies and the sexual violence experienced by incest, rape and sexual assault survivors in the church’s complicity. These intersections, along with those of race and white privilege, need to be heard again and again. Thank you for your clear voice, Luke.
Barbra, thank you for sharing your story. I read this yesterday afternoon and have been thinking about it since then. The violence described is so difficult to hear about, it was sometimes a bit overwhelming; but overall, what really struck me was how this was also (and maybe predominantly) a story of healing and growth, and miracles.
Especially since I first connected to this blog and to your story through Pink Menno at KC, I couldn’t help but also read it in relation to queer stories, and my own queer story. I resonated with a lot of your journey, especially:
– The need to retire the “toxic god” and come to know the loving, healing, all-present one. My name for this god was the “fire-breathing god” – the angry god up in the sky – and it was pretty shocking when I learned I actually had the power to send him packing (as someone said to me at the time “yep, it’s time to set that god out to pasture.”) I still find that my experience of the Bible is so wrapped up in memories of this angry god I can only connect to the Bible “around the edges” and am always filled with wariness and suspicion of anything coming from it.
– This this this: “I have had to learn how to hold gently, within the same cupped hand, two contradictory facts: 1) the people in charge of my care committed the worst kinds of crimes imaginable against me 2) those same people offered me love and care and nurture and remain important strands in the fabric of who I am today.” I think you just described the bewildering dilemma every queer person who grew up in the church has to deal with, where these people can be certain individuals or the more amorphous “church,” and often both.
– The power of the presence of caring, intuitive people who can hold sacred spaces of listening and acceptance, and how god’s work of healing happens through them and around them.
I’m especially intrigued by this last part, and it connects directly to a conversation I’ve been thinking a lot about recently – how does the healing of soul & spirit happen, and how can we help it flourish for those in our communities who have been hurt (especially the queer mennos of my community, and the overlapping community of sexual abuse survivors in the Mennonite church.) To be honest, I found that aspect of your story so amazing, that primarily it all reads to me as a story about healing and miracles – completely real & human and grounded in your life.
Error! Hyperlink reference not valid. says:
Sep 17, 2015
I feel that just saying “Thank You” is somehow inadequate and an affront to the sacredness of your sharing. But I say it wholeheartedly.
Thank you for telling your story in all it’s horror and healing. I honor you for placing it before us.
LAURA DRAPER says:
Sep 17, 2015
Barbra, I have admired you and your artistry for nearly as long as I can remember, and I and my family have been blessed in so many ways by yours. I know the hospitality of that farm table as child and adult, and carry my own idyllic memories from the farm you describe so beautifully. I also say – I have no trouble believing you. It is healing to hear clarity emerging where murky cobwebs hung. Thank-you so much,for your courage and the art with which you speak.
BARBRA GRABER says:
Sep 18, 2015
Oh dear Laura. Our families had such good times. Your words, as I read them with Dale, made me weep with relief. I was afraid that knowing the beautiful aspects of my family you would tell the world it could not have possibly happened as I tell it. We really have turned a corner on this murky road. Thank you, thank you for writing such a beautiful note to me. I’m quite sure it was Little Barbra that wept and wept at reading it. This is a note I will copy and tape to my bathroom mirror for the days I still can’t believe.
LES HELMUTH says:
Sep 18, 2015
Barbra, thank you for sharing such a compelling, painful and healing story. As it read your story, I’m grateful for your healing process and your willingness to speak the truth of it. May your healing continue.
PAUL A YODER says:
Sep 20, 2015
Barbra, your bravery and courage will hopefully help others to tell their stories AND to name the predators among us. You are an amazing person. Coming out with the truth must be very healing. I hope more men will respond to your story.
CHARLOTTE GRABER ROSENBERGER says:
Sep 21, 2015
Barbra, Our Dads, Dillon and Clarence, were first cousins in our growing up community of Wayland, Iowa. Our grandmothers were sisters and this extended family was very close. Your and my families shared really wonderful times together that I will always remember. But we didn’t realize the abuse that was happening in the same time period. I weep at your abuse. I marvel at your courage to share your story in the light! I Rejoice at your healing! I hope more of the Graber/Rich family will respond to your story.
BARBRA GRABER says:
Sep 21, 2015
Thank you Charlotte for standing with me publicly as a Graber/Roth/Rich relation. You have no idea what it means to me. I too hope to hear privately or here on the blog from other relatives who might have more information to share. The truth can set us free. Gratitude for you.
JANE A MILLER says:
Sep 21, 2015
Thank you Barbra. As you have eloquently said, the memories of the good and the evil things we experienced at the hands of our family members who promised to nurture us are indeed part of us. You have also identified that amazing yearning within us to heal, and then to keep healing- all a lovely miracle of love and truth telling and persistence. Preach, sister!
DARYL SNIDER says:
Sep 21, 2015
Thank you, Barbra. This is such a powerful and inspiring story of both your trauma and your resilience. Exceedingly well written, too. I suspect you put a great deal of time and effort into getting it “right” (or as near as possible). Perhaps it will someday take the form of a theater piece of some kind? All of us benefit from the sharing of such stories, and not shrinking from them. It is especially helpful for those of us who are struggling to make sense of our own experiences, and to determine what needs to be done as we continue on our paths of healing. Peace and Joy.
MARY SCHERTZ says:
Sep 22, 2015
I cannot adequately express my gratitude for your courage. For you, and all survivors, without your voices, none of us can be whole.
KAREN WELDY says:
Sep 22, 2015
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I am so grateful for what you have written. May we all continue to heal.
KATERINA MARIE FRIESEN says:
Sep 22, 2015
Thank you so much, Barbra. Your writings brought back memories from the 2014 Women Doing Theology conference, where we heard stories of pain and abuse, where we sang the song “I found God in myself, and I loved her fiercely,” and then danced together, weeping. You have re-connected me with that sacred space in this sharing, and I am grateful for the renewed grief, strength, and determination to stop the shit.
BARBRA GRABER says:
Sep 25, 2015
Ten days after posting this I am so grateful to each and every one of you who has taken the time to write in your support, encouragement and gratitude. I cannot adequately express what it means. I really had no idea how important and freeing and empowering this naming and telling could be. It gives me renewed determination to continue the work of creating a climate in which survivors of every kind of sexualized violence will feel free to step out of the closet of shame and fear and walk into a new life of their own making rather than someone else’s. All of you who have responded to me here publicly have contributed to the building of that beloved community. Thank you, thank you.
SARA WENGER SHENK says:
Sep 25, 2015
Dearest Barbra. I am belatedly noticing your post and absorbing its horror and its astonishing beauty. I’m grateful that I was able to hear parts of it in person from you at your KC workshop. The way you interpret the complexity of horror and beauty in your story reveals the rare wisdom of one who not only survives but rises to lead others with strength, seasoned grace, and mature judgement. Strong love to you sister!
JULIE K. KEIM says:
Sep 26, 2015
Barbra, my husband, Paul, shared your story wth me. Thank you so much for your courage in speaking out. I was abused as a young adult by two different mental health professionals. I grew up with lots of depression, self-loathing and body hatred. I don’t remember ever being sexually abused as a child, but what I do remember is my father, a mennonite pastor, calling me and my siblings, and waiting in line, helpless, as one by one he spanked/beat us because we were “bad.”
Recently, my mother (in her 80’s) brought this up with me and I thought she was going to apologize to me for being complicit in this, but she just wanted to vent anger at my dad because “if he hadn’t hit you kids so hard, I wouldn’t have had those two nevous breakdowns!”
I believe there is a direct connection between being physically abused as a child (and learning a sense of total helplessness) and being the victim of sexual abuse as an adult. There was so much corporal punishment of Mennonite children in the 50’s and 60’s…do you ever hear from adults who have a similar history?
BARBRA GRABER says:
Sep 27, 2015
Julie I am so glad you shared here and grieve with you the pain you endured through no fault of your own. You bring up such an important point. I DO believe child abuse and neglect of all kinds can set us up for continued targeting as young adults, sexually and otherwise.(The work of Dove’s Nest does a good job of bringing all kinds of child abuse together) The predator/prey aspect of our humanity is still so little understood it seems. There is not nearly enough research being done on these connections. The ACE studies (Google it) are finally getting more attention even though they came out in the 1970’s. I also agree with you that the domestic violence committed in “pacifist” Mennonite homes is widespread. If you ever want to share your story anonymously or by name on OSU I would be honored to help make that happen. Each person’s naming and telling helps us all walk away from the shame of victimhood forever and spurs those perpetrating the violence to get help or be exposed. And it might empower people like your mother to step up, speak up, and protect their children rather than stay stuck in their own victimhood. So much of this “breaking silence” seems to be about breaking cycles that have repeated through generations of Mennonites. Gratitude for sharing and Blessings to you and Paul.
CAROLYN SCHROCK-SHENK says:
Sep 26, 2015
Oh Barbra, such vulnerability. Such pain. Such amazing resiliency. This is holy writing. Thank you for your courage to break open the secrets. And yes, it is way past time to stop the shit.
FAITH TROYER WYSE says:
Sep 30, 2015
I am so sorry to read this story, but I know from my own experiences that you speak a truth so many deny. I do not forgive those who have transgressed against me, nor do I speak that language any longer, but I have found my own “salvation” in standing up for many young people and not ignoring their stories. In this way I have found my self respect. I am proud of you for speaking up in an effort to help others. Carry on.
LOIS ROPP KAUFFMAN says:
Oct 1, 2015
My Dear Friend Barbra,
I weep with tears of outrage for what happened to little sweet Barbra. My soul screams out for all the injustices and pain you had to endure, then, and now, on your journey toward healing. My heart cries for you, my friend. And I weep and pray, that God in His infinite mercy, will pour out continued healing, grace, and strength DAILY, on your pathway. Thank you for listening to our untold stories; for weeping with us, and for being outraged with us. Thank you for being courageous and for your strength! Thank you for being willing to pour your energy and love and LIFE into helping others somehow, begin making any sense of this madness. You ARE making a difference; always know that. Love, Lois
DWIGHT KAUFFMAN MD says:
Oct 4, 2015
Thank you Barbra for sharing your story. I’m sorry so few men have responded. Abuse goes on because people don’t want to believe what is reported. Keep up the good work.
JOCELYN GRABER says:
Oct 6, 2015
Barbra, I’m another Wayland Graber, a bit more distant in relation. Remembering this was also my home community, a friend told me you had posted your story. But it has taken me this long to be ready to read it because it’s harder to hear such stories from home. I believe you, too. Your story is both sickening and sacred. Thank you for being vulnerable and sharing it with us.
BARBRA GRABER says:
Oct 7, 2015
Thank you for having the courage to read my story, Jocelyn. And thank you for believing me.
SADIE SHOWALTER says:
Oct 7, 2015
I just finished reading your story, and am so sorry for what you have had to endure. You have been through things that no one even wants to imagine. I cannot fathom the feelings of despair and betrayal that you must still feel.
This was very well written and thanks for sharing and I trust you are experiencing peace and grace as you move on in your life.
Blessings to you.
RHODA KEENER says:
Nov 3, 2015
Dear Barbara, I’ve just read your story and thank you for so much for sharing this painful part of your life story and also your healing journey. I’m so glad I’ve learned to know you. With love, Rhoda
Nov 9, 2015
ty for sharing this, Barbra. I always knew you were a special lady, but I didn’t know why. Now I do.
your old neighbour,
BRIAN THIESSEN says:
Nov 29, 2015
Feels so good to read this and know i am not alone .my life has been very similar.
Dec 14, 2015
So what happens to the little ones this is happening to today? This is generational..great that your journey is revealed but where is open calling out? Where is the justice for today’s victims…It is still a victim’s hell and an abuser’s paradise in the Mennonite church today. So many here praise your coming out. So do I. It was not easy. I just feel we become part of the abuse when we still do nothing to call it out…. there are still little Barbras and probably little Joes out there living this horror because deep inside and outwardly we still are “Mennonite mum” and so it continues…
BARBRA GRABER says:
Dec 15, 2015
Oh Eunice, you have no idea how timely your plea is for me. Thank you for responding here. This is exactly the question that continues to weigh heavily on my heart. Where is the justice for today’s victims? How many of them are out there hiding in shame and silence, sitting in church pews with their stomachs doing somersaults as they are fed varying versions of “forgive” and “reconcile” or you aren’t being a good enough Christian. My discovery of SNAP (The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, http://www.snapnetwork.org) has been a game changer for me because they are helping us expose the truth more boldly. Did you know we now have an Anabaptist Mennonite Chapter of SNAP? http://www.ourstoriesuntold.com/snap-menno-launched-osu-on-board/ The level of urgency is rising as more and more of us victims discover one another for support through SNAP as well as this website. I urge you to reach out if you would like to join us in this important new civil rights movement for survivors of sexualized violence. SNAP is about 25 years ahead of Mennonites, but our problem is the same or worse than the Catholics. Have you seen the Spotlight movie? I’d highly recommend seeing it. And we’d love to see you (and any other responders to OSU blog posts and stories) at the SNAP conference in Chicago June 24-26, 2016.Thanks again for urging us all toward more courageous action to call it out, call it all out! I love the verse where Jesus says to his disciples: “what you hear in secret, shout from the rooftops.” I have a feeling this is exactly what he was talking about.
REBECCA SHANK says:
Mar 2, 2016
Oh Barbra- I had to write something as soon as I read this. I am absolutely in awe of your strength, honesty and the work you’ve done to bring this to light. You are a brave woman to take a stand and make sure this hasn’t happened to others in this Wayland, Iowa location (I remember you asking me many years ago when I attended EMU). My daughters are 4 and I am physically ill to imagine this in their lives- and I agree with an earlier comment, I would do pretty much anything to take you sweet, innocent little Barbra far away from such hurt. I pray you walk in peace, protection and love daily. Thank you for doing the hard work to share your story.
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Mar 13, 2016
Such a wonderful experience of dealing with child sex assault. I had am a victim of the same. Was forced into oral sex when i was 11-12 multiple times not realising til recent years why my life was so fucked up. Even now i doubt my feelings but when i read your life it is so similar to mine. Now at 50 im trying to deal with it finding the holdeman mennonite church was covering a lot of sex assault in the seventies and probably still is. Now all who knew me understand but now we have the church liable so it’s all hush avoid him. I reported it but it’s so long ago so i’m trying to work through it. Even the law is trying to avoid it as though they are botching the deal maybe getting paid to avoid it so i’ll probably have to sue to protect other kids it seems always new cases pop up.
BARBRA GRABER says:
Mar 13, 2016
Thank you for writing, Brian. I would welcome the chance to hear more of your story, especially about your court case. More and more Anabaptist Mennonite survivors (my mother was a Holdeman) are breaking silence and holding perps accountable through the court system, as flawed as it is. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org or you may call me at 540-214-8874. Have you heard of SNAP, the Survivor’s Network of Those Abused by Priests? We have an Anabaptist Mennonite Chapter now –it includes more than Catholics–and there’s a conference in Chicago this summer. Contact me if you are interested. It is a wonderfully supportive group of survivor/advocates/activists just trying to stop this madness from happening to others. All the best to you –reach out more directly if you are so led.
FAITH TROYER WYSE says:
Mar 13, 2016
Hang in there. Believe in yourself.
SELMA MATHIAS FERRIS says:
Apr 15, 2016
Barbra, I admire how you have turned your hurt and pain into a tale of hope and survival; through the sharing of your story, other victims will understand they are not alone. You have not allowed others to keep you mired in the muck of their selfish motives and desires, but have risen above it to be an advocate for other victims, and to change the status quo that allow sexual predators to go unreported and unpunished. Thank you for stepping up and leading the Harrisonburg-based SNAP meetings; as survivors, we have been kept silent for too long, so it is important to have a place to tell our stories among people who do not judge, but are supportive.
BARBRA GRABER says:
Apr 15, 2016
Thank you so much, Selma. It has been such an honor to get to know you through our SNAP survivors group. Look forward to seeing you soon.
ELIZABETH S. BRUNK says:
Apr 20, 2016
All those years I knew you as the talented, creative young woman in Drama
Class and then as the Director of Drama! I did not know your pain, I just saw
the outgoing, funloving person you are.
It hurts to hear your story, you are indeed a “Wounded Healer” and it is
working! Thank you for all you are doing to help our community and our
church get in front of this epidemic. Bless you
DANIEL UMBEL says:
May 7, 2016
Barbra, thank you so much for sharing your story. I cannot imagine the things you experienced and I admire your bravery and authenticity in sharing your story. What your story tells me is that the ethos of self-denial, infinite forgiveness of the enemy, etc. needs to be balanced by notions of justice and rights. The victims of atrocity should not be required or expected to forgive those who continuously victimize them. It is a free act. But when it is expected of them then it is no longer free. Thus forgiveness and enemy love needs to be balanced by justice and protection of the innocent. I know this doesn’t sit well with certain Mennonite thinkers. But thought needs to give way to reality and to the needs of real people. Thanks again for sharing.
BARBRA GRABER says:
May 9, 2016
Yes, thanks so very much Daniel for this clear summary. Forgiveness and love-of-enemy MUST be balanced by justice and must especially be balanced by protection of the vulnerable and the public safety. As long as untrained personnel in congregations and conferences are allowed (by those that have appointed and ordained them) to hold internal investigations and then keep secret their findings and withhold the name of the accused from the public, we will consider those actions to be protecting and defending the offender at great risk and at terrible cost to the other potential survivors of that person, still suffering in shame and silence. The Luke Hartman case has shown us perhaps more clearly than ever before that invitations for others “with more information” to come forward sends a clear message to active predators and a clear message to survivors that indeed it IS safe to come forward. However coming forward to anyone inside the church, employed by the church, appointed by the church, is not considered without potential conflicts of interest. So any invitation to come forward must include the invitation to speak to outside and independent agencies and persons. Thanks again for your statement of support.
DALE ARMENTROUT says:
May 11, 2016
Breathtaking! Thank you so much for this precious testimony! I take great comfort in knowing that the truth will out and that one day all accounts will be settled.
LAUREN SHIFFLETT says:
Jul 23, 2016
My dear Barbra. I just reread your story tonight. I am so grateful you survived through your own journey and that the powers that be placed us in the lives of one another. Your courage has led to my own and you have played an irreplaceable role in my healing. You are loved, friend. And I thank you.
BARBRA GRABER says:
Oct 5, 2016
Thank you Lauren! I could just read your exact words back to you because my feelings for you are completely mutual! You have brought me courage as well. You too are loved and I thank you.
MARY MAE SCHWARTZENTRUBER says:
Aug 1, 2016
It is just over a week since the last comment was posted, and I have only now read your story and the comments. I came to the OSU site this evening because I wanted to write a note of thanks to staff of OSU for the power of this blog and the ministries you offer.
I want to thank you (OSU) for helping to create a community of support for those who have experienced sexual abuse; a community of those calling for accountability by institutions that have not yet learned how to respond to survivors of sexual abuse and/or to the perpetrators; a community of education striving to PREVENT sexual abuse anywhere, but especially within the Mennonite community. THANK YOU!
This kind of public voice, story-sharing, mutual support, and community strength is a holy power whose tide cannot be turned back. THANK YOU!
And then I found your story, almost a year after it was posted. My heart sinks and weeps for Little Barbra and for her re-incarnations. Words are inadequate…………..
The only worthwhile message I can offer is again one of gratitude: THANK YOU, Little Barbra, for your strength and courage and dignity and creativity, for daring to hang around to become a more integrated part of the Barbra we know and love, the Barbra whom many call “blessed.”
We want to bless you, Little Barbra, as so many of us have already been blessed. May you finally rest peacefully, knowing that the healed and still healing adult Barbra is walking tall and with Wisdom. Your little Spirit is free to roam and play and explore and enjoy!
THANK YOU, Barbra, for sharing your painful story, with such strength and grace. I am in awe. mms
WHY WE NAME NAMES - OUR STORIES UNTOLD says:
Aug 18, 2016
[…] the time you were writing these words I was coming to terms with my own history. And around that same time I started putting names of Mennonite predators reported to me in a […]
CYNTHIA YODER says:
Sep 11, 2016
Barbra, You are so eloquent in the telling of your pain and healing. I especially appreciate and am amazed by your concluding comments. I don’t know what to do with myself now the rest of this afternoon after reading your story–except to be thankful for your healing and for your courage and the work you and others are doing to help victims find healing–and to pray for those who have suffered and are suffering similar abuse. Your old friend from “Primary” days.
BARBRA GRABER says:
Sep 13, 2016
Thank you dear Cynthia. Your words mean a lot to me. With warm memories for sure! Barbra
PATRICK ALLEN says:
May 19, 2017
OMG that happened to me too, my mom gave me weekly enemas from age 13 to 19,gave me a case of klismaphalia for life,I got hooked on drugs,had no gfs or relation ships to this day
May 30, 2017
Thank-you Barbra for sharing your story and for fighting for all of us survivors.
I could not read all the details of your story because it is too triggering for me. I am going through a hard place in my own healing journey.
I am so sorry that you were so horribly abused and for all the ‘fall out’. I too was promiscuous as a teenager as a result of my abuse ….
I pray for peace for you and for the healing to continue.