TUN Fellow Claire Plagens
For her fellowship project Claire wrote a personal essay about her experience being a survivor.
The numbers were added to replicate page breaks in the original submission.
This piece explores the lived experience of an adult survivor of child sexual abuse.
Survivors, I am with you. I believe you. You are not alone. Your safety and wellness are very
important to me. Please read with care and protect your heart.
If you are in need of immediate support, reach out here:
National Sexual Assault Hotline: a service of RAINN
Telephone hotline: 800-656-HOPE (4673)
National Helpline for Male Survivors: a service of 1in6
Resources in Michigan
24/7 Sexual Assault Hotline: 855-864-2374
I was eighteen, and I’d just moved to East Lansing for college. I got my first job at a non-profit in the neighboring town called the Firecracker Foundation, an organization that provided services to child survivors of sexual assault and their families. I was an administrative assistant – I drafted emails, tracked donations, took notes during meetings. On my first day, we moved all the organization’s belongings from my boss’s attic into a small, shared office space about a mile down the road. At the time, the block we were on felt particularly empty and quiet, except for the pub across the street and the small thrift store next door. Once we’d finished moving for the day, Tashmica, the organization’s executive director and my supervisor, suggested we celebrate with a drink. I declined, sheepishly sharing that I wasn’t old enough yet. She threw her head back in laughter and insisted we go anyway. So we did, and she asked the bartender for a tall glass of milk for me. I am pretty sure she was only half-joking. It has been almost a decade and she still asks if I want a glass of milk when we visit together.
Tashmica is and was a force. She moves with strength and conviction. She has the type of laugh that is contagious and life-giving and fills up the whole room, and the devotion she has for the work that she does is magnetic. We often had meetings on her front porch, which sat behind her beautiful, billowing garden, and her little dog Lucy was usually in her lap or at her feet. The work always felt personal, because it was, not just for Tashmica, but for the rest of us on the team, too.
I am a survivor. And when I was eighteen, very few people knew that I was one. I had spent my adolescence in “survival mode”; on high alert, always waiting for the shoe to drop, wound viciously tight as to avoid experiencing the unsafety in unraveling. I had been taught to schlep those hurting, shameful parts of myself around on my own, without disturbing anyone else. The disclosures I’d made as a child that had gone ignored or dismissed taught me that much. As a teenager, I thought that the very best thing I could do for myself – and for my family – was to become divorced from the things that I had experienced as a little girl. And I thought that “justice,” “healing,” and “closure” were unobtainable, abstract concepts in the context of my trauma, meant for other survivors but distinctly not meant for me.
I became fixated on fighting for those things for others if not for myself. I worked at the Firecracker Foundation with Tashmica. I got a degree and then another, both in social work. I went to marches and rallies, organized with other survivors on my college campus, interned at a handful of other organizations that provided services to survivors and their families and communities. I studied and won awards for my research and advocacy. I spoke at conferences and on committees with state and federal legislators. It was a lot, but it was a lot on purpose. I was busy. I was distracting myself. I was trying. Deeply avoiding and quieting my own lived experiences while being submerged in advocacy work for and with survivors often felt unbearably complicated. I still struggle to explain why it felt like somewhat of a solution for what I was experiencing at the time. But I was basically still a kid in the midst of the important task of Getting Through, and I was getting through the best I could.
I started to learn about and interface with the systems of accountability that we collectively recognize here in the US. From the outside, these systems often operate in largely inaccessible ways, with painfully complex laws and statutes that exclusively rely on punitive and carceral solutions. For many victims and survivors, these processes are not what they want or need to heal, but are the only options presented when seeking safety for themselves and others. I quickly realized how the nuances in each case impacted their trajectories and outcomes. If an assault happens one block off campus, the university is not liable and Title IX-related recourse may not be an option. To avoid a jury trial, a prosecutor may offer a plea deal that significantly diminishes charges, perhaps avoiding sexual misconduct being on a perpetrator’s record entirely. A day or year too late in coming forward and you may have no path forward due to various statutes of limitations. Victims might sit in the hallway of the emergency room for many, many hours before being seen by a nurse examiner and hospital staff may neglect to dispatch a victim advocate. A police report number must be presented to access the crime victim compensation application and other supports, like breaking a lease to leave an abusive living environment.
The roadblocks and demands that landed on the backs of victims and survivors felt endless because they were. It wasn’t at all like Law & Order: SVU. There weren’t any Olivia Benson’s around courageously fighting for what was right. There weren’t any glittery bows tying these stories up with triumphant, hopeful endings, either. Sometimes survivors weren’t believed. Sometimes there wasn’t enough evidence. Rarely did survivors get to “have their day in court,” and even less often did they see their perpetrators held accountable in the ways we constantly tell them they would or should be. Usually there were just strings of raw, thorny moments stuck together in time by nudges of solidarity and support from the few of us who chose to stand by. The survivors I knew were profoundly strong and brave, but they seldom saw that in themselves. They were depleted, isolated, marred. They were hurting and afraid, which I understood intensely, and we were reliant upon a deeply flawed system for relief.
In Michigan, the statute of limitations on second through fourth degree criminal sexual conduct (CSC) is 10 years from the date of the assault or the victim’s 21st birthday, whichever is later. As a 21 year old senior in college, buried deep in my work and studies, I began wondering if my experiences were up against a clock too. (I would later learn that the abuse I’d experienced was a collection of first degree felonies. First degree CSC does not have a statute of limitations.) It wasn’t the first time I’d considered reporting, but it was the first time I felt confronted by the possibility that if I left it any longer, I may not have the option available to me. My abuser, a family member on my mother’s side, was starting to have children of his own, and the deep-seated desire to protect others from his harm was bubbling up against my dependence on remaining detached from the situation. The complex history and relationship I had with my abuser made me fear “getting him in trouble,” and I felt like a monster for even considering the idea of entering into a process that could end with the loss of some or all of his life to jail time. I wanted to understand
why he had chosen to hurt me, and why the adults in my life had failed me so miserably, but I had seen what the process had done to others and didn’t believe I had the fortitude to make it through. And still, I felt selfish for not having done enough to stop him as a kid, and there was a burning obligation to “make it right” as an adult. The severe dissonance between the beliefs I held about myself and those I held towards the survivors I’d worked alongside added a layer of turbulence while I weighed my options. It was agonizing. And then I realized that the magical readiness that I had been waiting for, the ‘a-ha’ moment when everything would fall into place and choice would be clear and make sense, was never going to come. I was never going to be prepared. There was never going to be a “right” time. There was simply going to be a better time, perhaps the only time, and this was it.
I continued working and going to school while we sorted out details and waited to meet with the police. My internship with a domestic and sexual violence agency in town had started that fall, and I was working three days a week in their shelter facility on the crisis hotline. It was January, and the multi-day sentencing hearing for Larry Nassar was wrapping up. The sentencing hearing in Ingham County was historic as more than 150 victims and survivors shared victim-impact statements over the course of several days. On the final day of the hearing, local nonprofits had organized a crowd of support to appear outside of the courthouse. The shelter had asked me and another intern, my friend Sydney, if we could go to the public library down the street to host a sign-making event that afternoon. We had a small room in the basement reserved for us, and we sat there for a few hours while community members and volunteers wafted in and out. They somberly and wearily wrote their messages of hope and affirmation on poster boards, often disclosing their own experiences of abuse to us as they did so. The crowd outside grew despite the weather, everyone bundled up and huddled close, and I knew many of their faces: former clients, classmates, old bosses, friends. Even those I’d never met before were familiar, fragmented in recognizable ways from living, working, and surviving in a community experiencing this kind of extraordinary crisis. Medals honoring the survivors’ bravery were passed out as they made their way out of the courthouse, and crowd members coordinated to ensure reporters couldn’t access the survivors on the way to their cars unless they chose to engage. It was a deeply emotional and, for the most part, near silent demonstration. But the community showed up that day and their message to the survivors affected by that case was clear: We are with you. Your truth matters to us. You matter to us. You are not alone.
January 2018. Still from Athlete A, documentary by Bonni Cohen and Jon Schenk on Netflix.
Two weeks later, I drove myself an hour and a half down to the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO) to make my in-person statement to the detectives assigned to my investigation. I spoke to the detective and his sergeant in a dark and decidedly uninviting interrogation room, unlike the soft interview rooms many departments have created for crime victims. I wondered if they had a separate room for interviewing perpetrators, or if my abuser had been in the chair I was sitting in, too.
The officers were stiff from across the table. They asked me to recite the statement I had written down for them aloud. They asked me to clarify how I had been restrained during one of the assaults, so I lifted my arms to show them. They asked why I had waited until I was 21 to report, and I explained to them that I had told – my parents, my high school English teacher, my friends – but that none of the adults in my life had intervened. They shared that they were having trouble locating my abuser and asked me if I could drive by the address to confirm the number on their house on my way out of town. “Just send me a text when you have it,” he told me, short and without eye contact, as if driving by the house I was assaulted in as a little girl was a simple task and one that could safely be done on my own. And then, towards the end of the interview, the detective asked if I had decided to come forward because of “that Nassar thing.” It was a casual comment, thrown in at the end of the conversation, sort of like he’d put the pieces together - my line of work, my experiences, my relationships - while we talked that morning.
A cold shock plunged down the back of my neck, and I gave them a restrained, “No, that had nothing to do with it.” Calling the Nassar case “that thing” was painfully reductive for how massively devastating and disruptive the case had been - for those survivors involved directly, of course, but also for those survivors simply living, working, and trying to heal in that community too. At the time, I couldn’t go to work or class without it being brought up; couldn’t stop at the drugstore or go out to eat without seeing a headline or news story; couldn’t walk down the street without spotting a teal ribbon wrapped tree trunk or telephone pole honoring the survivors involved in that case. I couldn’t even sit in a police station 90 miles away, discussing the details of the abuse I’d endured as a little girl almost a decade prior, without talking about the Nassar case. I struggled to feel inspired or hopeful or like I had a sense of solidarity with other survivors, despite the way the media talked about the situation, and felt guilty for how exasperated I was instead.
I was tired. Maybe even resentful and a tad envious. For me, there was no “sisterhood,” no community. I had fought tirelessly to make space for myself in the offices of legislators and leaders, only to have that space filled with a narrative that wasn’t mine before I even had the chance to speak. Sometimes I was told that voicing my lived experiences or identifying myself as a survivor in professional settings was inappropriate, sloppy, a testament to my character and unreadiness for the “work,” despite seeing others, particularly those involved in high profile cases, respected as subject matter experts, lauded for their bravery and their truth. The detective’s question was a simple one, and made sense given circumstances. But in its simplicity was the foundation of my advocacy for the next several years: dispelling the idea of “good” or “worthy” victims and survivors, and calling out the impending fallout of sensationalizing victimhood in the #MeToo movement.
My abuser was arrested in early March. I walked at my college graduation on the first Saturday in May, and the following Monday I was in court. His parents - my aunt and uncle who had been involved in raising me - and his girlfriend were there. His parents were sequestered, but his girlfriend sat behind him throughout the hearing. The judge interrupted me spelling my name for the record, asking me to speak up, my voice quiet and muffled and wavering in panic. In our preparation minutes before, the prosecutor told me I didn’t have to look at him when they asked me to identify him – I only needed to know the color of his shirt and jacket, and to glance at the back of his head to pick those out when I was escorted into the courtroom. My advocate Brooke sat on the bench behind the prosecutor, and I focused on her as much as I could while on the stand. I was asked many things, including if I was a student, replying, “Yes – well, I graduated with a degree in social work two days ago.” For some reason he chuckled at that, sitting up in his chair more forwardly, and I reflexively looked his way. He was smirking, eyes sunken, his frame much smaller and frailer than I remembered. He was different but still the same, and I suddenly felt small again.
His defense attorney, a severe looking woman in her forties, dragged me through a line of questioning so foul I thought my bones were lighting on fire as she spoke. It deeply rattled me. Truthfully, it still does. I was led out of the courtroom when she was done and waited to hear if the judge bound the case over to circuit court for trial. She did. As we left, we watched my abuser and his family hug each other and then his attorney, with pats on his back and his hand clasped in his girlfriend’s. In the parking lot, Brooke asked if I was okay, if I wanted to grab coffee before heading back. I declined. My knees were like Jell-O, my heart sunken and missing from my chest, my head detached from the rest of my body. I just wanted to get home.
A page from the court transcript of the preliminary hearing in May 2018. ‘Q’ is the defense attorney. My responses are marked ‘A’.
We were referencing an incident that took place when I was twelve.
After his initial arrest, he had been released on bond with conditions, including a GPS ankle monitor. Several times throughout that summer and fall, I would get a call from pretrial services to notify me that his monitor was off – a dead battery, a tampered or broken strap – with instructions to check in with the detective the following business day. I had very little awareness of the activities happening in court, and often learned of new developments by searching for public documents online. The detective and prosecutor called me when dates were changed or pushed back, or if they needed something from me. The case was not about justice for me – it was about public safety and justice for the State (it was, after all, the State of Michigan vs. Him), and my presence was only dignified in so far as it served that pursuit of theirs. I knew that, I guess, from having watched it on the sidelines in school and at work. But I didn’t realize just how dehumanizing it was until I became the evidence myself.
Trial was initially slated for August. Then September. Then later in September. Then early November. Then the week of Thanksgiving. I was told to brace for just one more delay, likely until after the new year. It was an impossible guarantee, that it was the last delay. But I clung to it, exhausted and weary and alone, genuinely uncertain how I was going to continue. I became quite desperate for an ending. My life had been ripped wide open for ten months at that point, and strangers were poking around at it with a sharp, hot stick. My family, both immediate and extended, had long since retreated, and friends became withdrawn and exhausted by my constant distress. I was on autopilot, in that familiar survivor mode from my adolescence, and had barely enough in my tank to make it from one day to the next. I tried my best to keep myself centered and focused on my “why,” but even that had become muddled and poorly defined as time wore on.
For the safety of the kids in his life. For those he may have harmed in addition to me that I did not know. To learn why he chose to hurt me. To see him and others in my life who failed me as a little girl forced to face their mistakes and abuses.
That’s what this is all for, right?
It had all become so weakened and blurred, and I was struggling to convince myself that those reasons were enough to carry me through.
At the end of October, I got a call from pretrial services. It was Sunday morning, and I was about to head out for my weekly grocery shopping trip with a friend. A woman greeted me from the other end of the line. She was quiet, an apologetic and regretful timbre to her voice, and said, “I’m just calling to let you know he’s not being monitored anymore, and to contact the detective on your case as quickly as you can.” Her message was direct and jarring, with a new script that was unlike the others I’d received from that phone number before. I asked if he’d been arrested, or if he was hospitalized, and ran through other explanations that might make sense. She stopped me and simply repeated herself to me, adding, “I would maybe call your family. I can’t say anything else. It’s our policy.”
It was a strange conversation. Maybe he had violated the terms of his bond. Maybe he had returned to some of the things that had gotten him in trouble with the police in the past. Maybe he had removed the tether entirely and decided to run. I didn’t know. I didn’t know.
I called my mother, and it rang twice before she answered. She didn’t say anything. The silence hung in the air, and then it clicked. I asked if he was alive. She didn’t say anything. I asked if he had died. She didn’t say anything. I fell to the floor and asked again. She didn’t say anything. I heard her breathing. I asked one more time.
“He’s gone.” It was an accidental overdose. Fentanyl.
I hung up without saying anything, and for about 30 seconds, violent, heaving sobs came from my chest. And then, just as suddenly as I learned the news and crashed to the floor, it stopped. Everything stopped. I stood up, washed my face in the sink, and drafted an email to Brooke, who was away at a conference. “I just found out he overdosed last night. I didn’t know if I should email or wait to tell you in person or something but I’m not exactly in the clearest of head spaces so I figured I would just pass it along.”
I left my body that day. I made my friends dinner and paced in the kitchen while they watched a movie on my couch. I taught a class the day after. I sat across from my therapist in her office and told her none of it had mattered. He was gone, and all that remained was an unfathomable, indescribable wake of devastation. There were kids without a dad. A mom without a son. I would never know why he had hurt me or if he was sorry, and the web of people who had failed me and him both got to return to their lives as if there had never been an investigation at all.
The detective didn’t know who I was when I reached out to confirm what I’d heard. The prosecutor left her job three weeks later. I never saw or spoke to either of them again. There was no justice, no healing. There was just a life, my life, in pieces, and I was alone in picking those up and putting them back together. It has been four years. I am still crawling my way back to myself. I am still sorting through that year of my life and the years that led me to it. I am still tending to the younger versions of myself that carried the years of betrayal and deep pain that erupted out of 2018. And I’m still coaxing my story back out of me.
I attended a performance of the Vagina Monologues on campus with my friend Ale early on in college. The show explores women’s experiences with body image, sexuality, and violence, among other things. At the end, in somewhat of a tradition, the show’s director had asked survivors in the audience to stand. Ale hesitated, and I hesitated, and then she reached for my hand and whispered, “I’ll stand up with you if you’ll stand up with me.” I squeezed her hand back. We stood, and so did hundreds of other survivors in the audience. I realized then that we were not alone, that all the standing people had squeezed hands and exchanged whispers before standing too, each of us with a story and a full and colorful life beyond the traumas we all shared. That moment profoundly changed how I felt about being a survivor.
But I lost that sense of connection, that sense of hope, in big and small ways in the years that followed. I learned that in our communities, there’s such thing as a “good” survivor or victim; that only certain narratives that are worthwhile; that there’s a willingness to engage with others’ experiences when their stories are unprecedented or are abstract to the majority; and that there is a line in the sand - a deep fissure, actually - that prevents us from engaging when it involves holding our loved ones and ourselves accountable for their or our own behavior, both abusive and enabling in nature. Those realizations, heavy with loss and disillusionment, coupled with the immense grief and trauma of the last few years, led me sharply inward. I stopped sharing my experiences with the same level of vulnerability or regularity online. I couldn’t bear to be in the environments I had existed in throughout school. I struggled to maintain relationships with those I met during that time of my life. I began thinking others must be tired of hearing from me, and that nothing I had to share was of importance or hadn’t been said already anyway. I stopped daydreaming about my desire to work with and for other survivors. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, I stopped writing.
Writing and sharing pieces of my story in the past usually served as a tool for my advocacy - I could only justify opening up when it might’ve been in service to others in some way. It had to feel permissible and appropriate, or when I thought my words might convince those in power to do more or do better. If I was lucky, I might be able to connect with a person or two who might feel less alone or isolated reading what I chose to share and know that I believed them and hoped they were able to find peace and healing. But I could never stand the idea of my story being shared simply because it is worth being known.
As I find my way back to myself and those I love, I’ve realized that the sharing of our stories, and of each other, is everything. Our stories teach us how to love each other well. Storytelling is healing. It is strength. It is declaring, “I am here, and you are here, and that is enough.”
So, while I am rekindling the fire in my belly that has long since gone out, I will leave us both with this:
Your story does not have to look a certain way to be worth knowing. Sharing our stories - in their complexity, their mess, their sour endings, their clunky, awkward, painful parts - is one way we build shared connection and community. It is the way we understand ourselves and, importantly, each other. It’s how we inform change. And it is how we learn what justice, healing, and closure all look like when they’re actually lived in.
So maybe that is where we start. I’ll tell my story, and I hope you’ll tell yours. Because I am here, and you are here, and that is enough.
Claire Plagens is a survivor, social work professional, and advocate. She received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Social Work from Michigan State University. While a graduate student, Claire concentrated her studies on gender-based violence in the context of activism, advocacy, and organizational and community leadership. Claire is currently a project coordinator with the National Council for Mental Wellbeing. She lives in Michigan with her pup, Juniper.
(c) Claire Plagens 2023 for The Untold Narratives