SECOND IN A SERIES
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – The first time Tiffany Perry learned about her conception, she was too innocent to fully understand the gentle explanation her mother was offering, too young to process such a heavy and complicated behavior.
What she distinctly remembers is watching “Oprah” with her mom a few years later, as a 10-year-old. It was the television episode in which Oprah revealed to the world that she was a rape survivor.
“When [Oprah] said herself, and started crying…my mom just fell apart,” the 39-year-old Jersey City, N.J. native recounted. “I tried to console her, but she was inconsolable. It was just so intense.”
At 15 years old, Perry’s mother was raped by her foster mother’s 21-year-old married son. His wife had invited Perry’s mother into their home to babysit their child and to escape her foster mother’s wrath.
Her foster brother raped her repeatedly for two weeks, sometimes at knifepoint. Despite being a virgin at the time and under the care of the state, few people bothered to inquire about the details of the pregnancy. Plus, the fact that he had threatened to kill her, kept Perry’s mother silent.
“Maybe, as a Black person, they just saw this as another teenage pregnancy, and nobody really asked any questions,” Perry said, trying to explain the unexplainable. “I can’t say with certainty…but I’m thinking that if she was White in a foster home and her belly started to grow, then maybe a flag would’ve went up somewhere and somebody would’ve investigated more as to why this foster child is pregnant.”
In subsequent years, freed by the Oprah episode, Perry’s mother became more forthcoming.
“As I grew up, she told me more details of the attack. It was like she had been carrying this around the whole time.”
But opening that door triggered another set of emotions in Perry.
“I went through different feelings of inadequacy, feeling like I had to overcompensate because I was a child of a rape. Even now, when I say the word ‘inadequate,’ I get choked up,” she said, her voice trembling with emotion.
“My mom was awesome, she never talked down to me….my mom always praised me, always gave me love,” Perry said. “But I felt like…I owed it to her to be perfect so she doesn’t feel like keeping me was a mistake.”
And there was the question of what she would say when asked about her father. Perry chose to say that he was dead, that he had left, or that she didn’t know him, depending on the questioner. But even while denying his existence, there was also a deep craving to know about this man, wherever he was.
Wanted to know her roots
More than anything else, she did not want her mother to feel badly.
“I didn’t rape her, but when I was younger, I used to feel like it was my fault,” she recalled. “The dreams that she probably could have fulfilled – if she had stayed that innocent virgin who wanted to be a lawyer – she wasn’t going to be able to fulfill those because I was here.”
Instead of pursuing her dreams, Perry’s mother had to shift her focus, looking after the needs of an infant rather than look forward to a career as an attorney.
“Sometimes she was a little more paranoid than I would think is regular,” Perry said. “When I was growing up my mom was so strict, or smothering, when it came down to me, particularly.”
Once, her mother sent her to the corner store for a few items. There, she ran into a family friend, an older man. He offered to buy her something – she chose cookies – and they parted ways.
She thought nothing of it – until her mother went into a rage.
“She flew off the handle. She beat me with an extension cord. And she told me, ‘Don’t ever accept anything from a man, they can’t be trusted, you don’t know their intentions.’ I’m six. I don’t have a clue what she is talking about.
“She cried. When I got older and reminded her about the incident, she explained to me that she didn’t trust anybody, she didn’t trust any man. And she wanted me to be extra careful. She wanted to put that fear in me.”
It instilled both fear and confusion, blurring the lines of what was acceptable with the boys and men in her world.
“It’s just assumed whenever a woman gets raped, she never gets pregnant, or if she does get pregnant, the child is automatically aborted or adopted,” she said. “There’s this group of people who’ve been conceived by rape and nobody ever discusses us. I want to talk about it because we exist. I exist.”
New York-based author, activist, and scholar Ewuare Osayande wasn’t born of this violence, but also grew up in its shadow.
His mother spent her childhood at the mercy of a sexually abusive stepfather. The oldest of eight children, she was the only one who was not his blood-relative. The abuse was the family’s open secret. She grew up to date, marry, and divorce abusive men.
Justice Department data show that Black women are more likely than their White counterparts to be assaulted, sexually and otherwise by strangers and by family members.
“It was never the case where my mother cowered in the face of her abuse. She didn’t hold her tongue, she always spoke her mind,” Osayande said.
Today, Osayande is the creator of Project ONUS: Redefining Black Manhood, a series of anti-sexist workshops for Black men. It took time and life experiences before he was able to connect the dots and realize how his mother’s abuse – some he had witnessed, some he had not – had affected his own development.
“That processing has been life-long,” he explained. “I’m a divorcée. In that relationship, I found myself becoming like the men I swore for years I would never be. It never got to the point where I became physically abusive, but certainly emotionally abusive.”
As the son of a rape and abuse survivor, and as a formerly abusive person, he also realized he had to address his own internal conflicts and beliefs.
“It’s been a very real, clear determination on my part to make sense of the life I’ve experienced as a Black man, in a gendered way,” he explained. “It’s been my desire to become an effective ally in that struggle, in that engagement in the world in which Black women exist, and experience.”
Secondary survivors need help
In the sea of services for survivors, most resources geared toward family and friends coach them on how to best support the survivor in their life. Although crisis centers and hotlines are equipped to aid and counsel family and friends of survivors, few resources address the challenges these relatives face.
The book, I Will Survive: The African American Guide to Healing from Sexual Assault and Abuse, cites a study that draws parallels between the emotions of boyfriends and husbands of women who have been sexually assaulted, and the wives and girlfriends of war veterans.
“Not surprisingly, past or recent sexual trauma can present unique challenges for the survivor’s partner,” writes Lori Robinson, author of the book. “You are a victim too. Some experts call you the secondary victim. After all you are experiencing many of the same emotions sexual assault victims feel.”
Tiffany Perry’s breaking point came about 20 years ago. A probation officer contacted her out of the blue, looking for her father. He had given her name and birthdate as his next-of-kin. She learned that not only did he know about her, but he knew where she lived. To this day, the two live less than an hour apart. She has never contacted him, but has learned a bit about his life via a cousin and aunt on Facebook.
Perry’s mother remains her primary source of support.
“When I went to go look for support groups for children of rape victims or children conceived out of rape, they’re pretty much nonexistent,” Perry says. “[Rape] is so common we don’t even cringe when we hear about it. Rape is inhumane, and people are not treating it like it’s inhumane. They just treat it like ‘Well, it happens.’”
NEXT WEEK: Should we have faith in the faith community?
(The project was made possible by a grant from the National Health Journalism Fellowship, a program of the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.)