Dorothea Ottaviano, New Hampshire
Portrait by Lori Pedrick

I must be special

He was at least 18. I was about eight and wouldn’t have known if his actions were wrong or inappropriate. These things were not talked about. I don’t recall what was done, if anything, to me. I do remember my first observation of how male anatomy works. I can’t say if it occurred more than once. What I remember is thinking, I must be special. He has chosen me. I carried these feelings into my teens. I was attracted to older boys, older men, and they to me. I still question if they truly liked me or if they liked the flirtation and sexuality I projected. I was always seeking that feeling of specialness. Sex became my validation.

       As a logical adult, on a subconscious level, I realize my worth is not measured by what I can offer physically. But back then, when no one intervened or offered any alternatives, I was stuck with my reality, with the only way I knew to attain that feeling of being wanted. It was so deep-seated that it underpinned all my future relationships with men.

       The impact of that one event became more prevalent throughout each stage of my life. Still, I couldn’t piece it all together. The thing that happened remained suspended in isolation. It took years to excavate the artifacts of my childhood, to finally unearth the cause of such profound insecurity and trust issues. My pattern of choosing unavailable men, for instance. The reason is obvious now; it was a defensive measure. I sought security in knowing how things would end right from the beginning. These revelations should be encouraging, something to build on, but they are tempered by the knowledge of the time I’ve spent—roughly 44 years, or 23,126,400 minutes—attempting to understand why. I will never get one second of that time back. It is a wound that will never truly heal.

       I have reached a point in my life where I’ve accepted the fallout of my experience. I’ve gained some things through this difficult process: a passion for women’s rights and the courage to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. With each year that passes, I shed another layer of inhibition; shed another veil as I gain the courage to use my voice for justice. If I cannot achieve enough healing for myself, I hope to for others. As Marianne Williamson said, “Women are still in emotional bondage as long as we need to worry that we might have to make a choice between being heard and being loved.” Well, I’ll take my rights as a woman, to use my voice—over the approval of men, a system, society, culture, job, or, any religion.

       Each day, I get a little closer to no longer grabbing cover to hide my naked body. Instead, I will walk confidently across the room, extra weight and all, knowing that this body, this amazing human, marched proudly for her country, gave birth to a spectacular daughter, knelt down in desperation and pain, but got back up again. I may not be able to say I know how to trust, feel secure, or, safe all the time, but I can say I do have a gift and I will use it to help others.

       If sharing my experience helps lessen the time another person spends trying to recover, I will be happy. In closing, I offer the following to anyone who is trying to understand their own behaviors as a result of being violated at a young age: never judge a child with an adult mind. Instead, offer that child your hand. Walk together. Because, the only way through, is through.

— Dorothea Ottaviano