Photo: Michael O'Neill
I first learned about sex the year I was 9. I was living in Milwaukee that summer, staying at an uncle's home, when a 19-year-old cousin raped me. As I trembled and cried, he took me for ice cream and convinced me not to tell—and for 12 years, I didn't.
It was a very long time before I understood how completely my life had been changed—how in one instant, I was no longer a child. When you are sexually violated, it's not the physical act that destroys you. It's the weight of the secret you feel you have to keep, the person you have to become so no one will discover what you're hiding. It's losing a sense of appropriate boundaries and unconsciously confusing mistreatment with love. It's holding on to the belief I had all the way into my thirties that I had done something to cause the abuse. That I was a bad girl. The single greatest feeling I carried with me through childhood was of being alone.
I spent most of my teenage years trying to convince myself of my worth by becoming the smart girl, the nice girl, the one who spoke well before an audience and earned excellent grades. Both then and in my twenties, I sought validation from men who meant me no good. I gave my power away to those whose offer of love was more important than the love I had to give to myself.
A teenager's sense of herself comes from how respected and valued she felt as a girl—and that begins the moment she enters the world. Before a child can even talk, she looks to her parents and other adults to confirm that she counts, that her existence means something. Toni Morrison once told me that when a child's parents enter a room, that child is unconsciously asking herself, 'Do my mom and dad's eyes light up when they see me? Do they think I matter?' I believe that when a teenage girl seeks gratification in the arms and eyes of sexual partners, she is ultimately seeking what we all crave—connection. And as I've talked with scores of parents and experts over the years and reflected on my own experience, I've learned that a teenage girl is often seeking that connection through promiscuity because something in her home life is awry.
Part of the wonder and beauty of childhood is that every experience is new. I remember the first time I was allowed to wash the dishes—my grandmother put a little stool in front of the sink so I could reach. I recall being so afraid I'd drop a dish, that it would accidentally slip from my hand and smash to the floor. I wondered, 'Can I really do this? Will I get it right? Will I be okay?'
Adolescence is all about discovering your individuality—stumbling along as you learn who you are in the world, and deciding how your values differ from your parents'. What I know for sure is that the same questions I asked myself as I stood at the sink follow every woman through girlhood and adolescence. When a teenage girl seems unreachable and is making choices that threaten her, that's exactly when she most needs her parents to move closer to her, not back away. At her core, she is still just a girl who's asking, 'Can I really do this? Will I get it right? Am I okay?' I know for sure that the most valuable gift a loved one can offer is a resounding yes.
What Oprah Knows for Sure
From the November 2002 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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