I am going to take a turn from my usual topics about writing and publishing to talk about something really personal.  I want to tell you of a very personal struggle that nearly consumed my life. This is a story about a cupcake, abuse, and years of hurt and turmoil.

When I was about 11 years old, I was molested by a foster brother. He was about four years my senior, but we were very close. My sister and I spent most of our time with him. We played with him, we laughed with him, we confided in him. I trusted him completely. And then suddenly everything changed.

Fast forward to my teen years, sitting at church, listening to my teacher give a lesson on chastity. You know, that really awkward lesson where you try to tell kids what to avoid without actually telling them what to avoid? The teacher showed us a cupcake and asked each of us if we would like a bite. We all leaned forward with interest. Snacks at church? Heck, yes! Then the teacher licked the cupcake and offered it to us again. Who wanted it now? We shrank away from the licked cupcake in disgust.

“This is what happens,” the teacher explained, “when you let a boy touch and kiss you inappropriately before you are married.”

What if he was bigger and stronger? What if I was scared? Confused? What if he was someone I should have been able to trust? What if I didn’t want it? What if my parents were only six feet away, yet I couldn’t bring myself to scream? What if I was only a kid? 

I stared at that licked cupcake with tears in my eyes.

“Don’t worry,” the teacher laughed, completely misunderstanding my reaction. “I brought cupcakes you can actually eat.”

I left the classroom in a daze, burning with shame. I threw my (unlicked) cupcake in the trash. I had never really liked cupcakes, anyway. Now I hated them. In the hallway, I overheard this same teacher talking to some parents.

“This lesson really leaves an impact,” she said. “It’s powerful. One of my students was so moved by this lesson that she told me she served cupcakes at her wedding to celebrate how she made it to her wedding day without toeing the line.”

And that was when, at the age of 14, I had this horrible “realization:” I will never get married. No one will ever want me. I am a licked cupcake. 

I wish I could go back in time and give Young Me a hug. I wish I could hold Young Me and just let her cry all those tears she didn’t know how to release. I wish I could stroke her hair, tell her that she was kind and loving and fun. I would tell her that she had an awesome future ahead of her. I wish I could tell her that so many of her dreams would come true. She would have real, lasting relationships once she allowed herself to heal. I would tell her that she would make great friends. That she would marry a wonderful man who would think the world of her. I would tell her, “You are not a licked cupcake.”

I AM NOT A LICKED CUPCAKE.

I know that now. But when I was young and hurting, I didn’t. I honestly believed that I had been “ruined.” I honestly believed that boys were crazy hormonal beasts who would turn on me because they just couldn’t help it. I honestly believed that smiling at a boy could, like a magic spell, turn him into a monster who would pounce on me. I spent ten years of my life scared and depressed because I thought I was broken. I was a fifth-grader who begged to stay in at recess because the boys would harass me when the teachers weren’t looking. Because I was blonde, because I was tall, because I had big boobs, because I was “shy.” Let me get this straight: I wasn’t shy. I was terrified. There’s a big freaking difference.

I was drowning in the guilt and shame. Never mind the fact that I was a stellar student. That I was a talented artist and singer and writer. That I had healthy hobbies and habits. That I was kind and helpful. That I had a loving family and involved parents who removed me from danger as soon as they knew what had happened. None of that mattered because I was “ruined.”

And all I ever heard was, “Don’t wear short skirts.” “Don’t show your shoulders.” “Show too much skin and the boys will get ideas.” “Don’t flirt.” “Don’t spend time alone with a boy.” “Don’t give them any ideas.”  So I would cover up as much as possible. Then adults (yes, ADULTS) would call me a slob for not caring about my appearance. Oh, trust me. I cared. I cared so much it hurt.

In my youth church program, we had a list of traits that we were trying to exemplify. Things like knowledge, divine nature, and choice and accountability. I loved those values and recited them every day. When I was just about old enough to “graduate” from the youth program, a new value was added. Virtue. It was represented by the color gold, touted as the most important of all the values, and suddenly all of our lessons were all about “virtue.” As in, how not to entice the boys to turn into monsters (because apparently, they couldn’t help it) and how to protect your purity. I felt like I had been kicked out of the club. I was devastated. Now I was reminded every week how I wasn’t good enough, how I didn’t belong. How I was broken.

“PROTECT YOUR PURITY,” they would say. But what if it was too late to “protect my purity?” What then? No one ever talked about that. No one talked about what to do after the line had been crossed. “Repent,” they would say. So I would try. But how do you repent for something that wasn’t your fault? I wasn’t promiscuous. I didn’t go to parties or drink or date or spend time alone with a boy. I didn’t flirt. I hadn’t even had my first kiss. I did not “ask for” what happened to me. I was eleven years old when a teenage boy who was supposed to be like a brother to me attacked me in my family’s camping trailer. I was the victim. So why did I spend the next ten years struggling to find the will to live beneath the crippling weight of guilt? I seriously thought that BEING DEAD would be better than admitting to any future suitor that I was not “pure.”

I realize now that the rhetoric is all wrong. The way we talk to kids about sex and sexual relationships and sexual abuse is completely messed up. The actual abuse was terrifying and confusing enough, but the way adults talked to me about my “purity” was crippling. I saw a psychiatrist who told me – behind my parents’ backs – that I needed to let this go or I would ruin my attacker’s life. He was a foster kid, after all. Didn’t he deserve a home? So shut up and smile. You’re fine. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Boys will be boys. And remember, I was eleven.

That one well-meaning Sunday school teacher didn’t know about my situation. And that shouldn’t matter. She shouldn’t have changed her lesson to coddle the “broken” one in the room. Because maybe I wasn’t the only one. She should have changed her lesson because it was WRONG. Young women are not cupcakes. Being “licked” cannot destroy their worth. I can’t believe that a God of love and repentance and forgiveness would ever want a young woman to feel the way I did. And yet, so so many of them do. We teach them to be ashamed. Isn’t that just sickening? It breaks my heart to know so many women who struggle with these same feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness, often because of circumstances beyond their control. Abstaining from sexual relationships before marriage and living a life of virtue should be a choice made out of respect and faith, not out of fear.

We need to put away the harmful metaphors. Shame should never be the way we teach about sex.

I am NOT a licked cupcake. I am a woman. Despite the years of depression and suicidal thoughts and feelings of shame and worthlessness, that scared young girl grew up. Now I am the adult, watching some of my students (my elementary students) suffer from the same heavy burden that nearly killed me. I will never tell them to be ashamed. I will never teach them that they can be broken or ruined. I want my students to know that they can turn their sadness and anger and shame into compassion, into energy, into power. I want them to know that their dreams are still valid. That they matter. Nothing anyone could do to them could ever destroy their worth. They can never be broken.

I want to end this post with a poem I wrote a while back that captures how I felt throughout those dark years:

Caring Enough

“What cup size are you?” he asks.
I’m cornered at recess
by a curious classmate
who won’t stop staring.
I scowl at him.
“Just asking,” he says
and shrugs
like it’s no big deal

I wrap my arms around my chest
and try to disappear.
I never wanted this.

“Straighten your back,” she says.
She’s an older woman
who wears so much makeup
it’s like a mask.
She says, “Don’t slouch.”
She’s a friend of my mom’s,
so I nod my head to be polite.
But inside I’m boiling with rage
and shame.

I hide in my room
To avoid my mom’s friends
And try to disappear.
I never wanted this.

“Don’t act so ashamed,” they say.
“You’re beautiful. Be proud of it.
But not too proud.
And not too loud.
And for Heaven’s sake, smile.”

But I am ashamed
And confused and frustrated
Why won’t they all just leave me alone?

I hide my hurt deep inside
and try to disappear.
I never wanted this.

“You shouldn’t dress like that,” she says.
“The boys will never ask you out
when you dress like you don’t care.”
She’s the assistant principal
who pulled me out of the lunch line
to lecture me about my clothes.
But she doesn’t know
that this big, ugly hoodie
is my armor.
It’s the only thing
that makes me feel safe.

I fake a smile to hide my disgust
and try to disappear.
I never wanted this.

And how can she possibly say I don’t care
When I
care
so
much?