My name is Sophia. I have been living with a secret since I was eight. It’s a shameful thing and every-time I think about it, I feel sick and I wish I could curl up and just die. No one at school knows but I keep wondering if they could tell just by looking at me. Do I look different? They don’t treat me like I am but I feel different. I feel that there is something wrong with me because of what’s happening to me. Maybe if I were ugly or fat, he wouldn’t trouble me. Every-time we are together, he tells me how pretty I am. I don’t want to be pretty. I don’t want him to notice me. I wish I were invisible.
I wish I could tell somebody but who would believe me? He keeps telling me that this is our little secret and not to tell anyone. He warned me that no one would believe me anyway. So, I keep quiet. I lie there, staring up at the ceiling and let him do things to me. I hate it but what can I do? He’s my uncle. He was my favorite uncle until he started violating me. It happens whenever we are alone in my grandparents’ house.
During the day, I try to keep busy so as not to think about it and at night, I cry myself to sleep. Whenever I visit my friends’ homes, I envy them. They seem so happy. They are not orphans like my little brother, Tony and me. Our parents died in a car crash ten years ago. We are living with our paternal grandparents. I love my grandfather because he reminds me of my Dad whom I loved very, very much. My grandmother and I aren’t very close. She complains that I’m too much like my mother whom she never accepted. She had wanted my Dad to marry an Italian woman. My mother was Puerto Rican. My grandmother is more partial to Tony because he looks more Italian and a lot like my father.
I wonder what she would say if she knew what her favorite son was doing to me. One evening, I found out. My grandfather and Tony had gone to a Baseball game and my grandmother had gone to visit a friend. It was after seven when she got home. She was at the end of the corridor when she saw Uncle Matteo coming out of my bedroom. He froze when he saw her. Then, he recovered, smiled and said, “Hi, Mama. Sophia was just showing me the school project she’s working on for school. She needed my input.”
My grandmother believed him. She smiled as he leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. “Have you eaten?” she asked. “I can fix you a nice bowl of Tuscan Soup.”
He shook his head. “No, Mama. I have to go. I have Maybe next time?”
She looked disappointed. “Where are you off to in such a hurry?” she demanded.
“I have a date.”
“Who is she? Do I know her?”
He shook his head. “No, Mama. One of these days, I will bring her here and she can have you delicious Tuscan Soup.”
“All right. Run along. Whoever she is, she must be special for you to pass up my soup.”
He kissed her on the cheek again. “Ciao, Mama.” He turned and hurried down the hall. “Ciao, Sophia.”
I didn’t answer. I stood there, happy to see him go. I wrapped my arms around me, feeling dirty. I felt so ashamed. I wanted to run away and go where he couldn’t hurt me anymore. I thought of my mother’s sister, Aunt Teresa. I’m sure she would let me live with her. Taking a deep breath, I turned to face my grandmother. “Nonna, I want to go and live with my Aunt Teresa.”
She stared at me. “Why?” she asked. “Aren’t your grandfather and I taking good care of you?
“I’m not happy here.”
“What do you mean?” she demanded crossly. “We feed you, put a roof over your head and we let you do what you like as long you follow the house rules. Do you think your Aunt Teresa can do a better job raising you?”
“Nonna, I’m not leaving because Nonno and you.”
“Well, it’s up to you. I wouldn’t stop you.” She turned and walked away. I could tell that she was upset and I was sorry but I had to leave. And I did that weekend. My grandfather dropped me off at Aunt Teresa’s house. He was sorry that I left because he would miss having me around but I think he understood. He knew that my relationship with my grandmother was strained. He promised that he would visit me with Tony every other Sunday.
My Aunt Teresa was more than happy to have me. Her daughter, my cousin Natalia had moved out and into her own place so I got her room which was much nicer than the one I had at my grandparents’ house. I settled in very quickly. I helped with chores as I did at my grandparents’ house and I did some of the cooking too. I wasn’t as good as my grandmother but I was improving.
One night, I had a nightmare. I dreamed that I was back in my grandparents’ house and Uncle Matteo was in my bed. His mouth and hands were all over me. I woke up, sweating and shaking like a leaf. The next morning when my Aunt Teresa and I were alone, sorting the laundry, I told her about the abuse. She was visibly upset. She hugged me tightly and I began to cry. It felt so good telling someone. I felt as if a heavy burden had been lifted off me. When she drew back to look at me, she said, “The Bible clearly says, that no one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations. What your uncle did to you is criminal and he should be reported.” And she reported him.
My Aunt Teresa had a friend who was a social worker come and see me. She told me that I wasn’t to blame for what happened to me and that I did the right thing telling someone. That made me feel better. I started to live again and I began to read the Bible my Aunt Teresa gave me. I started to go to church with her and I loved it. I met wonderful people and made new friends.
My grandmother was angry with me and doesn’t want me over at the house anymore. It’s on account of me that her son is in jail. My grandfather was broken up about it and he apologized to me for not being there to protect me. He swore that if he had known, he would have reported the abuse himself. He and my grandmother are no longer together. Tony has moved in with Aunt Teresa and me and my grandfather is living with Uncle Alberto and his family.
It wasn’t my intention to cause any trouble for my grandparents but I had to tell someone my secret. And now I’m a part of a Youth Program called Give Voice. It encourages teenagers and youth to break the silence about their own abuse or to report to someone they trust when they suspect that someone they know is being abused. It’s a support group where we feel safe talking about our experiences and there’s also a mixture of fun and other activities.
I created a pamphlet for Give Voice which we hand out at schools, colleges, universities, libraries, shopping malls, on the streets, subways, bus stations, doctor’s and dentist’s offices, hairdressing salons, barber shops and other public places. We want to get the word out that there is help out there. Don’t suffer in silence. Tell someone you trust. Put your abuser where he or she belongs: behind bars.
When it comes to any type of abuse, silence is not golden. Tell, cry, yell, do whatever you have to but don’t keep silent. Abuse should never be kept a secret.