TACOMA, Wash. (WOMENSENEWS)–Two weeks ago, Emmy award-winning journalist Molly Shen was one of several speakers at a candlelight vigil in Everett, Wash., recognizing sexual assault victims.
For once Shen, a news anchor for KOMO TV in Seattle, wasn’t telling someone else’s story.
She was telling the story of her own childhood rape.
As she neared the end of her speech she repeated the statistic that has haunted her for years.
“One in three women in this state will be raped sometime during their lifetime,” she said. “Nationally, it’s one in four.”
“Those statistics are the same as when I heard them at 9 or 10 years old. When I heard that I felt like I was destined to be one of them,” she said.
As a sixth grader in Columbia, Mo., Shen was home alone after school when she answered a knock at her front door. A strange man forced his way in and brutally raped her.
Not the Only One
“Hearing her, knowing that she’s a news reporter at major station, seeing her anchor on weekends, knowing it happened to her makes it more real for victims,” said Darra Sue Moore, a sexual assault nurse examiner with the Providence Everett Sexual Assault Center. The center launched the vigil. “It helps other victims come forward and get help. When they see others speak out about their experiences it helps a lot.”
Moore said she watched people’s response as Shen told her story. “I saw the looks on their faces, the sighs, the gasps, all those emotional responses,” she said.
In early March, Shen spoke publicly about the rape for the first time in a widely-read Seattle Post Intelligencer column by Susan Paynter.
“I heard from people congratulating her for her courage and a lot of rape survivors who not only thanked her, but who also encouraged her to speak out more often,” Paynter said. “She is a great example of someone who has survived and managed to be both successful and open.”
Needing Help, But No Support
At the time Shen was raped, there were no policies in place to ensure rape victims received counseling or support, although she remembered a police officer telling them that she and her mother would “need some help.”
At the time, it was an empty recommendation.”Nobody told us ‘This is where to go to get help,'” Shen said. “And if there were somewhere to go, we weren’t aware of it.”
She remembers an elementary school counselor pulling her into the office, asking her if she needed to talk, as well as the counselor’s sigh of relief when she told her no.
Although she and her mother talked about the rape, Shen says now that her mother thought she was protecting her from the pain of the ordeal by not insisting she talk.
Despite the assault and the silence, Shen finished high school, graduated from the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia and started her career in broadcast journalism. For the past eight years she has been a reporter and weekend anchor at the NBC affiliate in Seattle.
In the Background
Over the years Shen has volunteered her time to organizations that provide support for victims of rape and other trauma. But mostly she has stayed in the background.
Now, her story has attracted others who experienced similar assaults.
Following last month’s keynote speech Shen stayed on to talk to dozens of both men and women who wanted to speak with her–both survivors and those who wanted to thank her for speaking publicly about her rape.
“The volume has surprised me. I didn’t expect it,” she said. “I think people appreciate knowing they’re not alone. I think they feel like they know me. And they feel it’s easier to connect with me when they realize we have this shared experience.”
Two months after the column came out Shen said she continues to hear from people from “all over the country.”
One Boston woman named Chris said the column, which had been forwarded to her by a family friend, touched her deeply.
Chris, (who chose not to use her last name) a 53-year-old mother of two, said that for the past four years she has been confronting her own sexual abuse at age 8, by an older brother. She said she was stuck by the fact that Shen was able to tell her mother about the rape, something she herself was not able to do.
When her brother came into her room, she said, “I wanted to call out to my mother. But I could not. Then the thought came that ‘She won’t believe me,'” Chris said in a telephone interview. “It was the late 1950s when this happened to me. We are of Japanese American descent. If I’d have told her, my mother would probably have said, ‘Hush. We don’t air our dirty laundry. We won’t speak of this again.'”
Stronger Desire to Speak Out
Today, with two young children of her own, Shen says the impetus to speak out is stronger.
At a recent fundraiser for sexual assault victims, she nearly made it to the end of her keynote speech without tearing up. Her strong, confident voice was professional–as that of any reporter telling an agonizing story of pain and terrifying trauma–without giving in to emotion.
Only as she thought of her 4-year-old daughter did her voice quiver slightly. She paused and swallowed tears, fighting for control.
The audience of business executives and community leaders were stone still while she composed herself.
She told the audience that she would want her daughter “to fight, kick and scream.” She added that if she had, her assailant probably would have gotten scared and run away. That belief, she said, “spurs me on to want to speak publicly about rape.”
She said she believed she was destined to be raped, but that her daughter is not–because she is determined to change the statistics.
I’ve been hearing those statistics for 25 years . . . and that’s enough,” she said.
Judith Spitzer is a freelance writer based in the Pacific Northwest. Her work has appeared in The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post and many national and international publications.
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