From Trauma to Truth: My Story

Sermon by Julia Lohrman Audlehelm
June 28, 2020

A transcript of this sermon follows the video.

Part 1

2020 marks new passages for all of us. Trust or the lack of it, has come to many of us through the media, our government, and our own experiences with isolation and the COVID-19 virus. Our racial divides have been challenged in our streets, towns, and forces us to see ourselves as we truly are. With what this pandemic has done to our lives, we all grieve for our loss of community and personal freedoms. We are not sure who to trust anymore. 

Last winter, the Worship Associates had our last face to face retreat to prepare for the next months of services. We were to bring a reading to share relevant to the topic of resilience. In preparation, I shared my reading with Reverend Diane, and she assured me that my story would ring true to many in our congregation. And so, I did. I must thank this remarkable team of our Worship Associates and Rev. Diane for their support and encouragement that brings me here today.

So, here I stand. Most of you know me in one way or another: a woman, wife, mother, grandmother, aunt, an instructor. I am also a grieving daughter and sister, the last in my family line to hold such truths. Fewer of you know me as a dyslexic. Many of you know me as an artist because of a recent drawing presented to Rev Diane upon her departure, or “The GIVING TREE” that hangs in our meeting hall. While growing up, no one recognized my dyslexia as my art covered it up.

And some of you may know me as a survivor of colon cancer. 

I have always disliked that description “survivor.” While going through the colon shit (poor play on words) I remember asking my family to not use that word in my obituary should this thing take me down. I particularly did not want it used after I made it through the removal of the tumor and 12 inches of my colon because it was so easy. It was almost as if it was disrespectful of others who had to face that “Big C”’ with chemo, therapies that might or might not work, and multiple years of treatments.

In fact, I had many disfiguring scars that were well hidden. “Survivor” could have been used many times over if you count an alcoholic and abusive father, 4 major surgeries from pancreatitis, and giving birth to two premature babies. Heck, I had even survived eight years of catholic nuns! 

And then, things happen in one’s life, that change your perspective of trust forever.

Nearly 30 years after this happened, I wrote the following:

WHAT I WANT TO SAY TO MY RAPIST

It was a windy March day when you ran down that path to rape me. I was twelve years old. Walking home from school on St Patricks’ Day.

All these years later I can still feel your hands, the wind, and you tearing at my clothes.You wore a ski mask. The mask covered your face, your hair, your skin. But not your dark, piercing eyes.

What could you have wanted with my legs, or my pubic hair? I was too young to even form the words, let alone understand. You took from me something I did not even know how to give. My mother swore if she found you, she would sit you on a tree stump, nail your penis to it, and push you over. 

There were ten girls in my neighborhood that Spring who were raped. You wore that ski mask and hid from your victims.  And, you were never caught.

You walked away only to continue to rape my mind with your phone calls in later years. You said you watched me in the halls of high school.

You were now a voyeur in my life. You invaded my sleep with your cold hands and your mask. And still, you were never caught.

What became of you? Did you continue to rape? Did you stay fixed on young girls? 

If I met you today, would I feel sure about the death penalty, or would I nail you to a tree stump and push you over? Before I did that, I would tell you of my hate for you. How you violated my soul and what I had always known to be true. I would tell you how hard I worked within myself to go beyond you…to feel inner strength, and self-love, and personal power.

I am strong again. I am strong – not to spite you. I am strong for me! 
I CHOOSE to survive. I am NOT your victim. 

YOU are YOUR own victim.

This…this thing happened to me. As an adult, I learned that things that challenge the soul happen to everyone. Deaths, divorces, even alcoholism and abuse. But the word “rape” was not in my vocabulary, nor my family’s.

As a young catholic girl, I was told–by the nuns—that ‘it must have been the green wool knee-high socks that made me look promiscuous’ on that St. Patrick’s Day. I was told by the police that I could not carry a weapon to protect myself for fear it could be turned on me. 

And then, I was told nothing. Nothing at all.

It became a silent nonissue in our house. My parents, sister, aunt and uncle stared at me funny. And, it was not spoken of again.

I held it all in. I did not know how to begin the process of healing. How do you learn to trust? How do you start to get whole when what you were doing was walking home from school? And when something is eating at you internally, taking you to your soul, you begin to wonder what is soul? What is truth?

I learned as a seventh grader that I could hide lots of things. No amount of “say 3 hail-Marys and make a good act of contrition” could make all this go away. I hid my fears well during those years. I knew so little about sex that I did not associate this rape as sexual. I went on to a public high school, having friends and boyfriends and became involved in regular teenage activities. It was not until college that anyone ever got past 1st base. I could go along pretty well until I saw someone in a mask, or a red hooded sweatshirt, or had to deal with a windy day in March.

I mentioned that I have been a productive artist for many years. I attribute it to dyslexia and motherhood, needing something to do while my young children napped, and my husband traveled in his job. I began drawing homes a realtor friend sold. In a few years, I had become known as ‘Julia with the long last name’, and someone in Des Moines who could draw detailed renderings of homes, businesses, skylines and public spaces. I became involved in an all-volunteer artist gallery. When the “Phantom of the Opera” came to Des Moines for the first time, our gallery hosted an artist display of creative masks. 

I hated masks. I did not care to share why. I tried to tell my fellow artists I would not be displaying anything. 

Yet, when confronted with hidden truths, you can either face them, or continue to run from them. 

So, basically, for 40 years, I hid these truths from the world and myself. And now I had the opportunity to get that scar off my soul by drawing my fears. I wrote my truth, which I just read, and made it part of my mask. I drew the image that had been my nightmare since seventh grade. I drew the ski mask in pen & ink with branches tangling around the neck twisting between my words. It had hollow spots for his hollow eyes. I hung it in the art show, and watched people read my story. Some cried. Some shook their heads in shock. But mostly, they tried to grasp my truth. I found what I was watching was others healing by reading my story. 

And I found I began to heal, also. Thirty years later, through my art, I was able to get that trauma out and acknowledge a part of me buried all those years. It freed me to have some peace with my past. 

Part 2

In 2002, Larry and I moved to North Liberty. I eventually found a great job working with folks with ‘barriers’, or battle scars and hidden truths of their own. Without ever telling my clients about my own scars, I was able to listen, care and help carry their scars. I was a job trainer in the Cedar Rapids area, encouraging their skills for employment. 

I was enormously proud to help develop a program which led many to jobs using their new skills. The need for the training program reached a peak, and one spring session left us with few students, and I was concerned the program would be put on hold. Another student became a possibility, and I needed to get him enrolled as soon as possible to host the class. 

He had a name that was common. 

Someone in my high school had the same name. 

As I read the bio information, I realized it was someone from high school. He had lived up the hill from me. He had been sent away to military school and returned our junior year.  I notified my supervisor that I knew the student. She spelled out the need for one more student to make the program continue. Sooo, I either job-trained a high school peer, or not have a job. And when I met this one more student, he shook my hand with that two-hand familiar shake and asked me how my two children were!

The training program happened. I had a job. He received needed job training that I provided.  

And I was back to nightmares. Here I was, nearly 50 years later, realizing that this man, with all of his history of mental illness, in and out of care facilities, and various kinds of therapies…he was my age, from my hometown, and had a documented history of sexual abuse and stalking. 

It was the hardest self-examination I had ever experienced. This one more student allowed my much-loved job to continue. I deeply believe everyone deserves opportunities in life: jobs, families, decent mental and physical health. This one student had been through years of mental illness, and just wanted job skills in order to have a job. 

And this student showed up one day—March 17– wearing a red hooded sweatshirt, the same day I walked home from grade school and was sexually assaulted by a person wearing a ski mask in a red hooded sweatshirt. I tried not to connect the common dots, but there were many signs which led me to believe this same student of mine could likely be my rapist. 

His eyes were now hollow and sad. Hollow and sad from life and years of therapies. I cannot say I had sympathy for him, but my years had given me an understanding that came from my inner trust and strength from being a survivor.  

I reflected on my own words: “If I met him today, would l believe in capital punishment, or would I nail his penis to a tree stump, and be glad to push him over?”

I have been a Unitarian Universalist since 1977 and had examined capital punishment. I had advocated for women’s rights, human rights, mental health, and personal freedoms. 

I had walked my kids home from grade school every March 17th.

And if it comes to someone who hurts me or mine, would I find the nearest tree stump? 

There is still a little 12-year-old girl inside of me that feels his hands. There is an adult woman who tries to understand all sides of this issue. 

There is a mother and grandmother standing here who answers: YES! I would find that tree stump!

So, how does one get from trauma to trust? 

In recent years, we all learned that both women and men cried silently and loudly with the ‘ME-TOO’ movement. People like Jeffrey Epstein, Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein, and Jeffrey Dahmer are in hells they created. This summer, we have seen families that have been torn apart and rally to our sides with their truths and survivals.

Power can come from saying your truth out loud and take that power away from the rapist.

All of us. We have scars. Layers, not always willing to open for all to see. Whether you call it sexual assault, harassment, or rape, IT IS RAPE! It assaults your entire being to the core.

Trust for me comes slowly. Learning why has taken me sixty-some years to understand. I can reject those scary things in my past and not let them control me. I can look at people –not as if they could hurt me. I found I can first trust myself.

After leaving high school I traveled with “Up with People.” I met a family—a man who I called ‘Doc/Dad’, who reinforced love, and taught me my own value as a human. He was the first man I ever trusted.

I met another man I believed to be trustworthy to the core. I met a man who showed me that I could trust my own sexuality and soul search at the same time.

I went into counseling after the deaths of family members only to learn I was still alive, and I could survive life’s traumas. My years working with people reinforced that we all have hidden traumas. We can bury them or let them guide us. 

The challenges in one’s soul exist and can continue to be hidden or explored to heal. And help others heal. Inevitable traumas in life happen to us all.

Mostly, I try to see that healing and being strong and trusting are not always the goal, but rather are the process; the stepping stones along this path called life. 

I am fortunate—after all these years—that I am here—willing to say my truth.

That I can say: “I choose to survive. I am no longer his victim.”

I AM more than a survivor! I CHOOSE to survive! And I CHOOSE to trust!

These are my stepping stones along this path called life. 

My life.