April 19 at 9:50 a.m., Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation Seminar, Chattahoochee Tech, 5198 Ross Road, Building 400, Acworth, www.chattahoocheeTech.edu/service-learning
April 21 at 8:45 a.m., Harlem United Methodist Church, 115 W. Milledgeville Road, Harlem, Ga., harlemgaumc.org
For more information, contact VOICE Today at 678-644-5589 or log onto voicetoday.org.
Childhood sexual abuse by the numbers:
1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused
The average age of those abused is 9
70 percent of sexual assaults in the U.S. happen to a child under the age of 18
90 percent are assaulted by someone they know and trust
1 abuser can victimize up to 400 children
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
For most of her life, Angela Williams kept the abuse to herself. There were no words for the horror and the guilt and the shame she felt. And who would believe her?
In some ways it was just easier to pack it away, soothe herself with drugs and alcohol, to attempt suicide.
Then one day at age 35, nearly 20 years after the abuse had finally stopped, Williams said her therapist suggested she take a trip to be alone with herself and the memories of the abuse. And she did.
There, in a park off the Chattooga River, in a scream mixed with tears, Williams said she laid her burden down and the words came to her. She was not the person her stepfather made her out to be. The abuse was not her fault.
It was a hard-earned truth but one the Marietta mother of two would use to forge her way out of the darkness, launch the nonprofit VOICE Today, and begin helping other victims of childhood sexual abuse find the courage to speak their truth, too.
The grass-roots effort seeks to “break the silence” associated with child sexual abuse through awareness and education. “Our mission is to prevent child sexual abuse and help survivors heal by providing a voice of healing to survivors, a voice of protection to children and a voice of prevention to adults,” Williams said.
On April 1, Williams — who was recently named an “unsung heroine” by Saving Our Children And Families Inc. for her efforts — will host the second annual White Out public service campaign to raise awareness about and help put an end to childhood sexual abuse. Every hour she will post prevention tips on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites. (Links can be found on VOICE Today’s website: voicetoday.org.)
Also in April, which is National Child Abuse Awareness Month, Williams will be speaking at events across the state, including the Emory University Global Summit on April 14.
“We have got to get people talking about the issue of child sexual abuse and then take action, to finally let survivors know that people care about their suffering,” Williams said.
For years, Williams suffered alone. “My mother didn’t want to look into my eyes to see what was really there,” she said.
And so, she said, from age 3, when her stepfather began touching her, until age 17, she spent her days trying to figure out how to avoid him, wishing she were invisible.
“Every chance he got, he’d touch me, feel me,” she recalled. “If we were working, he’d put his hands in my pants, rub up against me with an erection. From very young, I was told I was a whore, called a liar. He’d break my crayon, tear up my coloring books.”
She thinks she was 8 when the touching escalated to rape.
“I remember the weight on top of me and not being able to breathe,” she said.
If she cried he threatened to give her something to cry about.
“I remember feeling like I’d died inside,” she said.
Her mother, a schoolteacher, would always be out of the house, shopping, at school or at the beauty salon.
“He’d always summon me to their bedroom. If I didn’t come I’d get punished or he’d punish my mother,” she said. “He wouldn’t even stop if I were sick. The only day I could count on being safe was Christmas Day.”
By age 17, Williams said, she’d had enough. She took 64 sleeping pills and drank a half bottle of vodka.
“I thought that was the hardest day of my life, but the next day proved to be the worse,” she said.
That’s when Williams finally garnered the courage to tell her mother, who then gave her a trash bag and told her to pack her belongings.
She sought refuge at the home of a friend, whose father, a local attorney, agreed to file for her emancipation. If she wanted to file charges against her stepdad, he told her, it would be her word against his.
“Looking back I wish I had had the courage to get justice, but I didn’t,” she said.
Whatever courage Williams lacked to seek justice, she summoned to get on with her life.
In 1983, she graduated high school and, with money from a Pell Grant, loans, jobs waiting tables at the Moose Club, and cleaning homes and offices, she managed to keep a roof over her head and get through college.
Three years later, she graduated with a journalism degree from Georgia State University and began work as a receptionist for a real estate developer before working her way up to marketing director.
At 3 a.m. one morning in 1987, police arrived at her mother’s home in Savannah. Her stepfather had been killed in a car accident.
Showers of relief and responsibility rained down on her.
“I had wished him dead a thousand times,” she said.
But not even death could wash away the horror and shame she still felt. Even after she married in 1985, after giving birth to two children, Williams was haunted by the abuse she’d suffered. The nightmares escalated. She worried she might abuse her children, too. She rejected her husband’s touches. She started to drink and take drugs to numb the pain.
Then one night in 1995, she finally agreed with her husband that she needed help and went into therapy.
“I had some really ungodly beliefs about myself,” she said.
That day in the woods she told God, “I’m going to lay my life down, quit pretending and striving, and let you guide.”
“It was the best decision I ever made,” she said.