If you consider yourself a personal-growth-oriented person, it’s likely you’ve at least contemplated the “write a letter to someone who hurt you” exercise.
For a while, this activity seemed to appear in the plot of every TV movie about moving on from anything at all. And when I started reading self-help books in my early 20s, it was always listed as a seemingly mandatory part of the journey.
Initially, I didn’t want to write it; I thought it would just be a long string of volatile statements. But somehow, what I expected to be an angry tirade formed itself into a thoughtful and composed letter.
In that letter, I put down the weight of my perceived failure to stop my abuser from hurting me over a two-year period. I told him his actions were unacceptable and he’d caused me irreparable harm.
But as I read the letter back to myself, I felt numb. Simply writing those things didn’t feel the way I expected them to. No one had promised me immediate results, but I had still imagined getting more out of the experience.
In writing that letter, I felt like I was shouting into the void, and in that endless blank space, all I could see was a vast empty universe of unfairness.
So I did what any completely unreasonable person would do; I found him online. This was somewhere back in that weird pocket of time in the early 2000s where people had both a Myspace and a Facebook.
I sent the letter to my abuser via Myspace, not entirely sure if he’d even receive it. But there was a chance, and that made me feel sort of proactive. It was at least a small step up from doing all that work and not sending the letter.
And then I went on with my life, checking back every so often, gradually accepting that no response was coming. Until about a month later.
There he was in my Myspace inbox. One very long message, and three follow-ups. I collected myself, taking a moment to acknowledge that reading these messages was probably a terrible idea. And then I did it anyway.
My abuser’s response read like an after-school special; he wanted to make sure I “lived my best life.” He told me he was “extending an olive branch” and he hoped I would take hold of it. I’m remembering that sentence now for the first time in years, and thinking about how it not only felt empty, but also deeply insulting.
An olive branch is widely understood as a symbol of peace between two warring parties; it’s something that fits a scene where two sides are in disagreement with both potentially causing harm to one another.
I missed the irony when I got this letter in 2006 or so, but looking back, the olive branch reference revealed exactly how much this problematic person failed to have any concept of the damage he’d caused.
I was not a warring party that needed to accept a truce. I was his abuse victim, and I had been a child at the time. No apology could erase what happened, but a call for a truce felt like being spat on.
The letter went on and on, painting a picture of his rough home life. His parents were mean to him. He was just so unhappy.
He never once mentioned making a mistake, nor did he take any ownership.
Then came a revelation nothing could have prepared me for — he blamed the grown-ups for the way they had failed to take action.
The abuse had taken place over a two-year period of time at a youth program we’d both attended. I’d spoken up several times and been dismissed, but in the final month, several peace-talks were carried out among the teenagers where each was asked publicly if they’d seen me being molested.
In spite of the fact that at least one other victim had come forward months before me, I was accused of slander — which, being 13, I had to look up in a dictionary.
Full disclosure: I blamed the grown-ups as well, though in addition to my abuser and not instead of him. Even taking into account how poorly sexual violence was often managed in the 90s, this story sounds absurd. It was confusing to me as a pre-teen, but as a woman nearing 40, it sounds made-up.
At the end of his four-part response, my abuser concluded with a poem. I’m 99% sure the title was “Let Yourself Be Happy.” I can’t find anything online by that title, but I promise, it was as cliché as it sounds.
I was flabbergasted. I sat in one spot for several minutes trying to process my feelings, but there was nothing but disbelief.
Note to the wise: This is probably why you’re not supposed to send the letter to the person who hurt you. I broke the transformation-mindset rules and I was paying the price.
I was completely out of my mind with rage and I figured it couldn’t get any worse, so I wrote a response to his response.
It would have been easy to cuss him out, but I wanted to make him actually understand what he’d done. My tone remained calm, but I was more direct than the first time around. I told him he had been sexually abusive and he should at least take some goddamn responsibility. Yes, there was also blame on the grown-ups who’d made horrible choices in handling the situation, but he was the one whose hands had made their way to places where a 12-to-13-year-old girl is not meant to be touched, especially without consent.
At 16, he had been old enough to know better and it was not a “schoolyard squabble” as people made it out to be. It was abuse and it was unacceptable. And it wasn’t a one-time mistake by a teen with raging hormones, it was two years of abuse.
It took a while — longer than the first set of responses, but one day I opened my Myspace page to find a letter.
He had been out to dinner that week with his mother, and found himself being waited on by the other girl who’d accused him of abuse. She’d had a different experience because she walked away from the program almost immediately instead of sticking around like I did, idiotically expecting justice.
In his final response, my abuser came closer to an apology. The aim was off, but the intent was sort of there if you squint hard enough. It wasn’t enough for me to forgive him at that moment, but it was almost enough to pity him. He was a very small man and I do believe it was cosmic intervention that well over a decade after the abuse he inflicted, right after receiving my letter, he ended up being waited on by his other victim. With all of these weird things coming together, he had at least been given a brief glimpse of himself.
I didn’t experience the spiritually freeing level of forgiveness I’d hoped for, but putting everything out into the universe helped me to untangle this sick person from my story. He did not deserve to live rent free in my head, nor did the feeling of his hands and his breath on my body, which had come back in flashbacks for years.
I never contacted or heard from him again. I did, however, warn him in that last message that if he ever touched a girl the wrong way again, I would know. A weird, grandiose threat, but I had to put it out there.
He deleted his Myspace after that, and I once checked for him on Facebook, but did not find his name. I secretly hope it was because of me.
One time in that two-year period when the abuse was going on, I actually worked up the courage to confront him.
“If you ever put your hands on me again, I will hit you so hard you’re going to run crying home to your mother.” I’d said, stone-faced.
But mostly, I spent a lot of that long period of abuse sitting quietly while my reputation was beaten to a pulp. I watched the other teens look at one another blankly, most of them comfortable concluding that since they had not witnessed abuse, it hadn’t occurred.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I took the route of the other victim; the girl who left before she could experience more abuse.
Who would I have grown up to be if the allegations of abuse had been immediately believed and taken seriously, and if my abuser had been appropriately punished for his actions?
But the truth is, that’s not my story.
Because of one abusive teenage boy and several clueless and negligent adults, I learned that justice isn’t the norm, and it’s one of many stories that have led me to a passion for creating change in the world. And while I will never be glad I went through what I did, I’m proud of who it made me become.
I truly don’t recommend doing what I did and actually sending the letter you wrote to the person who hurt you. Then again, I also don’t regret it; I needed that experience. I didn’t really get peace out of it ... I just got more indignation.
But maybe that was ultimately a good thing.
It’s normal to want to let go of the trauma that abuse has attached to our lives and I can’t fault anyone whose only hope and determination is to put it behind them or bury it. But I have also learned that pretending these stories away is part of what allows them to continue to occur.
It’s not our responsibility to become activists; but if we want to see change, someone has to do the work of speaking out.