Home » Transcript: Jill Tolles on Finding Courage to Talk About Child Sexual Abuse

Transcript: Jill Tolles on Finding Courage to Talk About Child Sexual Abuse

When I was 11, I went to one of my best friend’s birthday parties and I kept noticing her uncle taking pictures of me in my bathing suit. After we ate cake and opened presents, he asked me to take a walk with him in this wooded area next to their house. And he held my hand and told me how pretty and mature I was, and he told me that he hoped I would stay good friends with his niece, so that in three or four years he could have me for himself. I was 11.

This time, although it took me two weeks, I did tell because every night I was scared. I was afraid of what that meant, and what he might do. Do you know how his family responded? They told me that you can’t take anything he says seriously, he’s always had just an “odd sense of humor.”

When I was 13, we had a crazy eighth grade science teacher. He was known for getting chalk on his hands and slapping girls on the butt so he could leave a hand-print. He would sing songs in class about, “Asbestos, asbestos, I’ve always loved ass-bestos.” He even had a sign in his classroom that said, “I’m not a dirty old man, I’m a sexy senior citizen.”

One day, when all the kids had filtered out of the class, I stayed behind to put some supplies away in the closet, and he walked in and approached me, presumably to give me a hug, and, before I knew it, he had pushed me against the shelves, and was starting to put his hands down my backside. And I shoved him away, and I ran out, and as I ran away, I remember hearing him yell that he was, “Just kidding”. At this point, I didn’t tell anyone, because by then I figured, “What’s the point?”

It wasn’t until I was 17, when a beloved teacher showed a video and led a discussion about child sexual abuse in my class, that I finally had a name for what had happened to me, and I found the courage to go and tell my family.

Research shows that there are many factors that help a child to recover from this kind of trauma, but one key factor is that of the support of the mother. That day my mom listened to me, she believed me, she stood up for me, and she got me the help that I needed to begin the healing process. That day, my mom was my hero.

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So, according to “How to Give a TED Talk”, this is where I’m supposed to say something funny. Because I know — thank you for laughing — because this is so uncomfortable. I know – I know that this is uncomfortable, it is uncomfortable for me too. You see, I dealt with this over 20 years ago. I did the hard work of working through the painful memories of acknowledging fully what had happened to me, and by the grace of God, moving on.

I learned about healthy relationships, and trust, and boundaries, and listening to my gut, and I forgave. I did not deny, I did not shove it under the rug, I didn’t minimize what happened, and I most definitely did not excuse it. But I forgave it, so that it would no longer have power over me.

And I decided that although these things happened, that this is not who I am; this is not my identity. And move on, I did. I married an amazing man. We started a beautiful family, I started a career and I moved on to other things that I’m passionate about, that I advocate for, other good causes out there. And I would have been perfectly happy to leave this in the past. I would have been happy to never have to talk about this again. It’s not that I would deny it, or share it occasionally when it was appropriate, but it’s not really something that I wanted to talk about.

Until I realized that if silence is a predator’s best friend, if shame and denial are the ingredients that help this epidemic to grow, then how can any of us stay silent? And so I thought that maybe instead of just focusing on how uncomfortable this conversation is, we could focus on how this is an opportunity to have courage. The courage to have this conversation because there are kids out there that are counting on us to have this conversation.

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So if there is any boy, or any girl that is listening to this, you have a right to be safe. And if there is anyone who is harming you, or doing things that make you uncomfortable and making you keep unsafe secrets, it’s not your fault. And you can have courage — you can have courage and be a hero for yourself, and maybe somebody else. Find a safe adult; find a counselor, or a teacher, or a safe family member. And if the first person doesn’t listen, then have courage, and keep trying, until you find someone who can get you to the help that you deserve.

And to the safe adult on the other end of that conversation, on the other end of that hotline, have courage to listen, to believe, and to get that child to the help that they need.

And to my brothers and sisters, to the one in four, to the one in six who are survivors, this is not who you are. You can heal, you can find the courage, and for some of you, you may be called to share your stories so that other people can heal, and learn, and listen.

And to every single one of us, we need to have courage to open our eyes and to see that, “Yes, this is real. Yes, this does happen all around us.” We need to have courage to open our ears to listen, to thank that child or that survivor for trusting us with their story, and to learn about the ways that we can get involved, and we can help turn the tide on this epidemic.

And to every one of us, we can have courage to open our mouths, to speak up and report, if we know abuse is occurring, and to speak up and share this idea worth spreading, because I do believe it’s an idea worth spreading.

We can all be heroes, and we don’t even need a cape. We just need to have the courage.

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