Big Questions, 2018

transcript of survivor’s story
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Later in life—I really can’t remember how old I was, I might have been in my twenties or thirties—I went to give a talk at a university. And I mentioned the sexual abuse I had been through as a teenager with my coach on stage that night, just part of a life story…. So I went to give a talk, and I just kind of glanced over the sexual abuse issue [20:46] And now that we’re in the MeToo generation, and I’ve written this rather powerful piece for New York Times that has kind of received a tsunami of response, and now I’m trying to be involved with the National Archive of Sexual Abuse in Washington—terrific people like Reese Witherspoon are helping to fund it, etcetera, [21:05] now I’m out speaking the story more and more and may write a book this year about it.

But I went to give this speech at a university. Right now, honestly it’s so long ago, I can’t remember where. But I remember the night because, at the end of the talk—and I honestly mention it often on stage because I think people need to see someone who’s strong, living a pretty darn good life, is fairly successful, fairly happy, get beyond that trauma of a childhood young situation that’s humiliating, that’s terrifying, that’s life-changing. It silences you. That’s the anger of it the most. But so the end of this story is, I may literally mention it, I try to deftly throw it into a life story on stage when I was younger.

I was taken to this restaurant that night to be with a lot of the professors and administrators from the university. And it was an unfortunate choice of restaurant: it was loud, you could hear fork clanging and the acoustics were terrible. And I was put next to, at the dinner table—in this big round table, you couldn’t talk to anybody but the person right next to you—an elderly woman. And, when she reached her arm out to grab her glass of water, the butter or whatever, I saw the numbers etched in her wrist. And I said, “oh, you’re a survivor.” And she said, “I am.” And I said, “I know this sounds insane, we’re in this noisy restaurant. But you and I have been having this intimate conversation, mouth to ear because we can only hear each other, do you feel like telling me about it?”

She was three. Kracow, Poland. Her father said—now that the Jews in their neighborhood were being rounded up and sent to Birkenau and Treblinka and Auschwitz—he said, if they come to here, to our house, they can kill me, I’m not going. They can shoot me dead right here.

Well, they did. They came to get their family. Shot the father dead ’cause he wouldn’t go. The mother and her six-year-old daughter and this woman, the three-year-old, went together on some horrible train ride in the winter, peeing and pooping on the floor of the train, just inhuman. They get off at the death camp. They walk down the stairs of the train. The mother and the sixteen-year-old, six-year-old, are hustled over, ushered to the right, and this three-year-old—she’s telling me this story in this restaurant—are hustled over to the left. And now thinking of my own little story that I just told that night. And she was made, Cal, that day, into the SS officer’s little concubine. For the next two-and-a-half years, until the resistance saved, you know, all that people at that particular camp, she, every day, had oral sex, anal sex, intercourse, you name it, with these grown men. She was three! And then four and then five. I started to weep at this restaurant.

She held my hands—she was about, like, four-foot-eleven. She took me over into the corridor with the waiters coming in and out, and she said, “you know, I heard your story tonight.” And I said, “well that’s why I’m crying. I’m so ashamed of ever mentioning my little story compared to what you went through. How did you ever get this light in your eyes? You’ve shown me pictures of your husband who’s passed now and your children and your grandchildren. You’re esteemed at this university. How did that ever happen after that?”

She said, “because when I was rescued, I was adopted by a French family the day I got to France. And that mother took me into the backyard, she held me, and she said, ‘I think it would be best if you told me the whole story. Get it out. Let’s just get it out. And I can never replace your mother, but we are gonna make a meaningful, loving family for you right here in France.'”

She told the story. The mother had no idea what she was about to hear. And, when they finished, they both cried together. She held this little girl, and she said, “tomorrow, you are gonna take this story and you’re gonna stuff it into your soul, a dark corner of your soul because you’ll never be able to forget it. But you’re not going to live it on your skin. You can’t believe it, but people are good. Most people are good. And you are gonna wake up in this house tomorrow. You’re gonna embrace the sunrise, and you’re not gonna live that story on your skin anymore. You’re gonna live a beautiful life.”

And you know what Cal? I had been in therapists’ office(s), I had been telling that sexual abuse story of mine for a long time, the same words, the same relief of the rage I felt, what not. That woman’s story that night took me to a different plateau of thinking, “okay, it’s a dark thing in my soul, I can never forget it, but I’m not living it on my skin anymore. I’m not gonna let that take my life down.