It wasn’t like I ever forgot. There was a man. His shirt had pearl buttons. His face was scratchy. I was in the bath. Something was wrong, really wrong.
But I didn’t really remember until I was 14.
It was the first summer I spent away from my family, and I couldn’t wait to immerse myself in the spiritual retreat center in beautiful upstate New York. I felt deeply in love with the ashram and with the guru herself. And, as a teenager, what’s better than having a month away from home without your parents?
The teen program was the ashram’s version of summer camp. It was fairly structured, especially for rule-following, dharmic kids like me. This is approximately what the daily schedule looked like:
In the evenings, we gathered for satsang, a nightly group meeting that included lectures, stories, performance, chanting, and simple meditation. I quickly made friends of all ages from around the world, and we would stay up late talking, reflecting on our spiritual questions, and appreciating our time together. The connections we had were deep and real, and continue to nourish me to this day.
I felt holy at the ashram. The grounds included three converted resort hotels. There were gardens everywhere, and colorful statues of various Hindu gods and goddesses. During mealtimes, we sang Shree Ram Jai Ram while standing in line, waiting to taste home-cooked Indian food. The smell of gardenias and incense brought me to a place outside of my regular life, and the drone of harmonium filled my heart with love and longing.
One night, during the meditation portion of the teen satsang, the memories that had been foggy for years became clear. It was like a light turned on in that part of my brain, and I could see everything, every detail of being molested by my grandfather, including my grandmother standing in the room watching.
In shock, I stumbled out of the dark room into the lobby sobbing. My new friends gathered around, wanting to know what happened. I could barely speak through the sobs, but the words and memories started tumbling out.
I think I spent the next three days crying. I felt dirty and ashamed. I thought the Guru was going to be angry at me for crying so much, and for not acting holy and spiritual in a place of worship. I didn’t know how to tell my parents. My beliefs about family, trust, connection, and love shattered. Everything finally made sense, yet I was completely lost inside my grief.
I remember friends taking turns comforting me, holding boxes of tissues. Their willingness to sit with my grief, accept my sadness, and just hold me while I cried grounded me in such important ways. These were teens like me, not quite kids but certainly not adults.
Wisely though, someone must have told a grown up because I was eventually summoned to Manuel’s office, the psychologist for the teen program (not his real name). I suspect this was a volunteer role, and that he didn’t have much experience with teenagers in trauma, let alone the immediate aftermath of realizing your beloved grandparents molested you. He made me lie down on the ground and breathe. I didn’t like that. He made me feel like I was choosing to be sad; that I was choosing my despair.
This is what I wrote in my journal after one of our sessions.
I was 14. It was just a couple of days after I realized this had happened to me.
The next week, Manuel told me that the Guru wanted me to enroll in a special course, a month-long silent retreat that ran from dawn until late evening every day. In this course, I could not speak. I could only chant, meditate, listen to lectures on the chakras, and participate in other ritual activities and service. And as much as I felt honored and chosen to be a part of it, I also felt silenced. If I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t speak about what I was experienced; what had happened to me. I figured that’s the way it was supposed to be – if I just focused enough on spiritual practice, the bad emotions and memories would go away.
I wish there were clear lessons in this story, but I struggle to pull them out. It’s too tangled and deep to even bring all of it to the page over 20 years later. I remembered the worst moments of my life in a place that was sacred to me. The organization responded in odd and unhelpful ways that reinforced shame and stigma, and didn’t leave me with a spiritual grounding for the long healing journey that awaited me.
I returned home that summer traumatized and broken, even though I wasn’t abused at the ashram or by anyone associated with it. But the messages I received distanced me from my spirituality for years to come. I felt dirty in a holy place, and believed I had disgraced this sacred space with my ugly, human emotions. In a matter of months, I developed an eating disorder and started harming myself.
I know I will write more about this, about the intersection of being a survivor and a seeker, spiritual practice and retreats, the power and appeal of charismatic leaders, and the pathway from memory through healing. But for now, a few reflections that are most present for me:
- I think about churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious communities across the country and around the world. What messages do they send – directly or indirectly – to survivors of sexual violence? Are we welcomed there even when drowning in shame? Are we welcomed in the same way that our abusers are welcomed?
- Sexual violence brings us face to face with the most human and most universal religious concept: good and evil. But the reality of sexual violence is that it occupies an uncomfortable place in-between. I was abused by the people I loved the most. I remembered horrible things in a place I adored. How do we learn to navigate this kind of discomfort in ways that promote healing and recovery? How do we ensure that spiritual places remain open and welcoming for survivors who desperately need grounding?
- And finally, the gifts we are given in our deepest moments of pain. I can’t remember the name of the woman whose arms I ran into when those memories surfaced, but I remember her embrace. My soul sister of that summer re-surfaced in my life decades later through a chance encounter. Though it would take me years to emerge from the darkness, those little bits of compassion, hope, and grace mattered then and now.