one of my fave images from tracey & clester’s city hall wedding was featured on huff post weddings
i had another great opportunity to shoot in my local area again with erin and peter. although, they were naturals, they got a little practice before their fall wedding at the rock island lake club later this year…
a great afternoon with erin and peter! thank you to my wonderful husband, brian, for assisting me.
i have a story to tell. it strays greatly from the love and happiness that plasters the walls of my blog. it is a story that is unsettling, a story that may anger some that i know and maybe even some that i don’t know, a story that may make you uncomfortable, a story you may relate to and find comfort in knowing you are not alone, a story that i kept to myself for 12 years because it felt embarrassing, a story that i knew had the potential to tear my family apart if told and a story that did tear my family apart, but i’m going to tell my story anyway…
…because, sadly, it is the story of many.
i hadn’t seen him in quite a few years. he had moved to the west coast, but family politics dictated that he was invited to my oldest sister’s wedding in 2002 despite his long absence from our lives.
i wish he’d never made the trip.
he wasn’t my cousin. he was my cousin’s cousin. i saw him a fair amount growing up since he lived next door to my actual cousin. they were about the same age, 10 years older than me. his insecurity and desire to be loved was pungent in the air when he was around. we all just turned our heads and let it be. even at such a young age, i felt sorry for his desperation. i saw the way he would try to be the hero at the expense of my cousin often pitting my cousin’s parents, my aunt and uncle, against him. but as time went on…i saw him less and less.
…and i can’t say he was missed.
when he showed up to the wedding he was on a real kick about family and being ‘cousins’. i went with it. i’m too nice of a person to make an already desperate person feel more desperate. i was 23. it was a fun party. his mother and him were going to be driving after the wedding. somehow we ended up encouraging them not to drive after a night of drinking and just crash in one of our rooms at the venue.
when it was finally time to settle down in our room, we had more people than we had beds for. being so late and after a long day, we just crashed wherever. i cant tell you exactly who else was in the room except i remember my friend that i invited to come to the wedding with me was ousted to the floor or an arm chair or something and i don’t know how that happened and, to this day, i feel bad he didn’t get to sleep in a bed that night. funny the things you remember. there were three people in my bed. i couldn’t tell you who the third was because what happened was so traumatic that that detail escapes me. my guess would be my sister. my ‘cousin’, who i will refer to as ‘creep’ for the rest of the story, crawled into the middle of that bed as i was lying on one side. i moved as close to the edge as possible because it felt awkward that that was the spot he chose to sleep. i wanted to say something, but i couldn’t. i was weak. that weakness angers me to this day.
my back was to him. i made sure no part of my body was touching his body. it was an uncomfortable way to try to sleep. and then it started. he moved closer to me. i felt more uncomfortable. i was so close to the edge i had very little room to move, but i nudged my body a little more as if to say, ‘you are too close to me’… he nudged himself closer… and then i felt his hand slide down my pants.
if you look up the symptoms of trauma you will find a list of what i felt all in those few seconds as his fingers worked their way closer to their ultimate destination. all in that instant i felt numb and disconnected. i was in a room with many people and yet i felt alone. i felt confused about why my ‘cousin’ had the desire to touch me in a sexual way. i was in disbelief trying to convince myself this wasn’t really happening. i felt shameful as if i was somehow responsible for what he was doing to me. i felt physically ill as if i may vomit from his touch. i felt angry. angry with him for violating me and angry at myself for not speaking up. it’s as if i was screaming inside, but nothing would come out. i was beating myself up. if you know me, you know i’m not the kind of person you push around. i will call it like i see it and i will stand my ground. but there i was…
i thought maybe if i didn’t react at all he would stop. he didn’t. i thought if i moved my body in a way that his ultimate destination would be harder to reach he would stop. he didn’t. i thought if i moved his hand away he would stop. he didn’t. i thought if i pushed him back with my body, as if to say ‘move away from me’, he would stop. he didn’t. i moved his hand away no less than three times before he finally stopped.
i don’t know how i even slept that night. i laid there thinking about what had happened and where else i could escape to. frozen. not wanting to move. not wanting to cause him to stir again. not wanting to feel any movement from him. wanting no reminder that he was still there, right behind me with fingers smelling of my vagina and his own mother asleep in the same room. i kept telling myself, “speak up, michelle. say something. make him leave. what is wrong with you? why can’t you just say something….anything?”
although i had experienced plenty of unwelcome comments, gestures and advances in my life, i had never been violated in that way, i always understood why a victim of sexual assault may be afraid to speak up, but now i was feeling it for myself. the emotions gyrating around my entire body… disgust, anger, confusion, shock, shame… over and over again, making me physically ill.
i was battling myself.
he was fast asleep.
the next morning when i woke up i avoided him the best i could, but it was inevitable that i had to say goodbye to him and his mother. i’m a better actress than i thought.
when he was gone, i felt relief that it’d likely be a few years before i’d have to see him again, but now i had to face my family. it felt like a now or never situation… speak now or forever hold your peace. even though i knew they had no idea what happened, i felt like i had it written all over my face. i can vividly picture myself alone on my sister’s deck later that morning trying to collect myself and get my face to hide the lie i was about to carry for a long time before i walked into the house to face everyone.
i kept asking myself, “why couldn’t i tell anyone? what was I so afraid of?” i felt mortified by what happened. it was embarrassing to me eventhough i did absolutely nothing wrong. i didn’t give any mixed signals. i was his little ‘cousin’ for christ’s sake, why would i try to entice him?
the thought of that makes my stomach turn.
but i also knew this…this side of the family had already stood by the side of one of their brothers who sexually abused his daughter for many years. i was privy to this when i was four years old because my mother never felt like she had to lie to me and of course she wanted me to stay far, far away from that piece of crap i cannot dignify with the label ‘uncle’. one would love to hear a story of a child admitting to something so horrific and her family corralling around her with love and support.
that’s not the story.
my uncles never shunned their brother for what he did. in fact, he was invited to some family events which, of course, sent the message to his daughter that what he did was ok. that was the mentality of many people in our family. to turn their head’s the other way as if nothing ever happened. to silently send the message that what he did was ok at the expense of his daughter’s feelings. brothers come before anything. i was always aware of this. i knew it was wrong that family members acknowledged him and invited him to remain some part of the family after his despicable behavior. you didn’t have to tell my elementary school brain that, i had enough sense. i will never understand the mentality of anyone that gives more support to a child molester than his victim. shameful.
when you witness that kind of victim blaming and support for the perpetrator of someone you love so much for your whole life, it sits with you. and when something of that nature happens to you with someone else in the family, you know what you are in for. so you stay silent.
…for the sake of the family.
my mother and sisters and i are very close. we share the kind of love that makes others envious. it is one thing i will never hesitate to be proud of and am ever thankful for. i knew i could tell them, but once my mother had that information, i knew her relationship with her brother would change because i knew the reaction him and my aunt would have toward me. they considered creep their son. so i stayed silent so my mother didn’t have to lose another brother. she’d lost enough to death, to sexual abuse, to distance…
i had to see creep a couple more times after that night, one of them being my other sister’s wedding. she didn’t want to invite him, but my mother insisted because she knew it would cause problems in the family if he wasn’t invited. my sister and i both hoped he wouldn’t make the trip. i had my secret reasons and i tried to find a way to avoid having to put on the act again. this was not the time to tell. it would ruin my sister’s wedding. so i stayed silent.
…for the sake of the family.
i grinned and beared it that day. i held back my vomit when he wanted to toast to ‘cousins’. i hoped the lie i was keeping wasn’t written all over my face. i proved, yet again, to be a better actress than i ever thought i could be.
…for the sake of the family.
i made a vow to myself that night…. if i ever got married, there would be no compromises. he would not be invited. i would not subject myself to all of those awful feelings at my own wedding. no way, no how… i gave myself my own word.
…then that day came.
i could find no way around keeping him off the guest list as my mother rattled through who must be invited. i had to stop her when she got to him. i told her he was not going to be invited. she told me he had to be and i said, ‘no, there is no way he can be there.’ i had to tell her why. i’ve lived a colorful life, but i imagine that was one of the harder things my mother ever had to hear out of my mouth.
i told her i would tell my cousin, the one who had to put up with creep’s pathetic acts for his whole life and whose parents i really feared the backlash of. when i told him what happened, he did not doubt my words for one second. he was pissed. it was decided that my cousin would call up creep and explain to him why he would not be attending my wedding and when the call was made, creep didn’t deny it for a second. he knew exactly what my cousin was talking about. i found both relief and disgust in that fact.
creating a way that my aunt and uncle and creep’s wife would not suspect a thing, he was told he would receive the invite and would have an excuse ready about why they wouldn’t be able to make that date. he was to reply ‘no’. his wife wouldn’t have to know and my aunt and uncle wouldn’t have to know so that i could still have them at my wedding. i was ok with this. they could die never knowing what happened as long as creep wouldn’t be at my wedding, nor would i ever be forced to see him again. it worked. i felt a huge sigh of relief that it wasn’t a secret left for me alone to carry. i had others with me. but now we all kept a secret…
…for the sake of the family.
i thought the story ended there. months pass by. i make the trip to see my aunt, uncle and cousins for a big family dinner. a concerted effort had been made in recent years to get together more often. i sensed a bit of tension from my cousin in the parking lot, but i didn’t know if i was just misreading things. we went inside and my aunt and uncle arrived. i hadn’t seen them in a couple months and since i spent a lot of time with them growing up, i was happy to see them. my parents collectively had 10 siblings, this makes for a lot of aunts, uncles and cousins. but this aunt was one of my closest, one of my favorites. i spent countless hours splashing around in her pool and around her dinner table. she had more face time with me than many of my other aunts.
i went over to my aunt with open arms, ready for her to smile back at me and give me a warm hug and kiss like she always did. but she was so cold to me. she barely accepted my hug and kiss and immediately turned her face away from me to silently say, ‘get away from me.’ everything around me stopped. i went numb. i made a b-line for my mother and, with tears in my eyes, asked what had i done to my aunt?
my mom had tried to protect me when a couple months earlier my aunt and uncle were out visiting creep and, for reasons i cannot understand except being a completely insecure and pathetic person that will do anything to make himself the victim to get the love and attention he has spent his life vying for, he volunteered his own version of the story. no one will tell me that version. it’s probably better that way. i get sick thinking of what kind of excuses he must have crafted up in order to turn himself into the victim.
so this guy… who for 12 years got to walk around with his head up high because i kept a secret for the sake of the family and then was given an out where his wife and his coveted aunt and uncle never had to know what he did, voluntarily brought the subject up with his sack of lies. can anyone say, ‘fucked up much?’
when i walked over to my mother, with tears welling up in my eyes. she told me when creep told his version of the story, my aunt immediately called up her own son to ream him out because ‘brothers’ come before sexual assault in this family. then she gave my mother the cold shoulder. my mother thought it would pass and after a couple of months it appeared to. she never thought my aunt would treat me with such disdain.
old habits die hard.
so there i was… taking the one weekend i had off for months to be with my family. still holding onto a painful secret for the sake of the family, walking blindly into a situation where lies had been told and my violator was now the victim in my aunt’s eyes. i could not hold back the tears. i ran straight for the door and went outside which likely spared the internet a viral video.
my mother followed me. i just kept saying, ‘what did i do? what did i do?’ my aunt then came outside and ‘for the sake of the family’ went out the window when she offered me her forgiveness, as if i had something to apologize for.
let me just repeat that.
she offered me her forgiveness to spare me having to apologize to her.
as if i had to say i was sorry for my ‘cousin’ putting his unwanted hands down my pants. she really truly believed she was doing me a favor by forgiving me and sparing me the apology she thought i owed her.
now let’s just take a moment to use some logic here. what motive could i have had to have made up a story like that? if i didn’t want to invite him to my wedding, wouldn’t it be easier to say the place has a limit or our budget can’t accommodate that many people or some other simple, reasonable excuse? what could i possibly have to gain by sharing a story that felt so shameful and embarrassing and is a serious accusation against someone in order to avoid having to invite them to my wedding? these are the questions i wonder if my aunt ever thought about when she jumped to the conclusion that i must be a liar and it was so awful of me to insist someone who sexually violated me not be at my wedding.
clearly, not everyone has sound logic…
you know those moments of adrenaline when everything slows down and you become unaware of everything that is around you and only focused on that one thing in front of you? that’s what happened when my aunt’s offer of forgiveness came out of her mouth.
i literally lost my breath.
in my head i said, “you’re dead to me.” it was like there was a stranger in front of me and she just died right there. i looked to my mother, we locked eyes for a moment and i saw a look of shock, anger, fear and surrender… fear for what was about to come out of my mouth and surrender to the thought that she should try to stop me from saying what she knew i was about to say. to say i let my aunt have it would be an injustice to the wrath of fury i carried for her in that moment and to the passion i have for standing up for what is right and for myself. i’m not the kind of person you push around and keeping that secret had me feeling like i was pushed around for 12 years and now i was ready to stand my ground because victim blaming and shaming is wrong and i saw enough of that for years out of that side of the family.
i’d had enough.
when i was done responding to her offer of forgiveness which went something like, “forgiveness? for what? i didn’t do anything so i won’t accept any fucking forgiveness from you… blah blah blah” and in my head it went something like “take a fucking hike. you just died right here, right now. you are dead to me. this is the last time you will ever see me.” she gave me, the victim of her ‘son’s’ wandering fingers, a look of utter disgust, like i was the most vile thing she’d ever laid eyes on and she raised her eyebrows in disapproval and said in a nasty tone she’d never used with me before, ‘oh, would you just let it go. it was 12 years ago.’
you have to wonder the pile of skeletons in her closet to have a mindset like this.
i would hope by this point in the story your mouth has gaped open in disbelief that a woman would expect an apology from her niece for being sexually violated and would tell her to just let it go because it was a long time ago. the ironic thing is… now i can let it go. now i don’t have to keep the secret because my violator revealed it himself. i don’t have to protect the family anymore because the destruction has been done and he did it himself. i’m not responsible for the destruction of my family, he is.
he destroyed it when he put his hands down my pants that night 12 years ago.
people that know me would tell you i’m not someone you mess with. i think my mother had that figured out by the time i was four, god bless her. a cousin of mine once warned a guy about messing with me telling him “she will chew you up and spit you out” and that was pretty spot on. i have a huge heart full of love to give, a strong desire to help others, i am smart and quick-witted, passionate and strong and not afraid to voice my thoughts. the fact that i was silenced by this act would probably shock most that know me. the michelle they know would have elbowed the guy in the groin, kicked him off the bed and out the door and shamed him right there, but that is exactly why i need to speak up for myself. as strong as i am and as adamant as i am about standing up for one’s self and as outspoken as i am… i was silenced. being silenced is a very powerful thing. to have your voice taken away from you is traumatic. i want others to know that even the very strong people you know out there can be silenced by an act of sexual violation- you are not alone. i always felt mad at myself for letting him get away with it all these years and telling my story has felt like one of the more brave things i could do and i write this as a part of the process of getting my voice back and for speaking up against victim blaming. i’ve felt like a hypocrite at times for supporting the idea that victim blaming is wrong while being too afraid to speak up for myself and i don’t want to feel that way any longer.
i have no idea what to expect from this kind of post. maybe some potential clients will be turned off by it. that’s ok, if you haven’t read my “happiness now” blog, then you may not understand why i try to live genuinely and that sometimes that can be intense. i expect some family members to be embarrassed and ashamed and, quite frankly, they should be. if you are standing on the other side of the line that has been drawn choosing to stand for the violator, you should be ashamed for what you stand for. i’m just sorry it took this long for the line to be drawn. trust me, if my 4 year old self knew how to draw that line, i would have done so a very long time ago. at this point, i can’t worry about what others think, that is what kept me silent for so long. i’ll leave this for the internet to carry for me because i am done doing so.
to me it is not tragic to have so many family members turn against me in an act of victim blaming. what is tragic is to feel you have to keep your mouth shut about a despicable act or your family will oust you. having that kind of threat linger over you is a much worse feeling than those people actually dropping out of your life, trust me. when you free yourself from the burden of carrying a secret and shame and disgust and the threat that saying anything will rock the family boat too much….you are empowered. being empowered is a much better feeling than keeping family around that keep you silenced.
i wish i knew this sooner.
the explosion that happened that night with my aunt and i seemed to turn what happened to me into everyone else’s issue. my aunt believing i’d wronged her and was deserving of an apology, creep turning himself into the victim and believing punishments should be handed out to those who acted inappropriately, my cousin having to deal with keeping some peace with his own mother and cutting me out of his life to do this, another cousin deciding this was about her and running to social media to publicly state that she wished her family could just forgive and let things go before she even knew my side of the story and after my sisters asked her to remove the post to spare my feelings, my mother mourning the loss of yet another brother…. it became about everyone else. interesting how one man’s unwanted hands down a woman’s pants could affect so many people, but that is what sexual assault does and often the victim is left feeling like they’ve created a wave of chaos and that the chaos they carried inside of them for years is pushed aside as everyone else worries about themselves.
so i write to find my way, to find my voice, to end this and to let everyone know the truth, the trauma, the hurt and now the freedom from a secret and family mentality i will no longer stay silent for. this is my place on the internet. i own it and i will own what happened to me by putting it out there to the world and i will own the bravery that comes along with doing that.
but i also write this for even bigger reasons than myself…
in a few weeks, i will have a daughter. i am writing this for her. i am writing this to be brave for my own daughter. i hope she never experiences any of the feelings i had to, but i want her to know she never has to stay silent for the sake of the family or for the sake of anyone. she has a right to speak her mind. she need not worry what waves she may create, i can handle them and i will weather them with her and so will her father who will never be intimidated by her strength, he will only encourage it. as much as i’ve lost most of that side of my family, i don’t feel as though i’ve lost anything because by speaking up and by standing my ground for what is right- i gained more than they could have ever given me. i want my daughter to know this- sometimes, what you think you have to lose by speaking up for yourself is nothing compared to what you have to gain.
i cannot tell her to live this way, if i do not live this way myself.
so to my future daughter… always stand in your truth, don’t let anyone push you around and if you ever feel silenced, remember, it’s never too late to speak up and break the silence. you do not have to carry the burden of other’s shameful acts. i will support you. you come from a family of strong women. remember, you are my child and will gather all the strength of these women, as i have myself and you will take all of our strength and become even stronger than me.
do not go gentle into that good night.
and now finally, i am free. i am free from the shame. i am free from the mentality that has haunted my family since before i existed. it has been spoken. the line in the sand has been drawn. i did not lie down and take it. i did not go gentle into the night. i got my voice back. i am finally free from the burden of carrying a secret for the sake of the family. i am free to tell my story…
…and i am telling my story because, sadly, it is the story of many.
weddings often take me out of my area so i really enjoy when a couple wants to come to my area to do their engagement session. i met up with rachel and andrew in beautiful bucks county’s tinicum park….
looking forward to working with rachel and andrew in just about a year at the florentine gardens!
i’ve always wanted to shoot a city hall wedding, but never had the opportunity. although big weddings are fun, there is something really sweet and intimate about a city hall wedding. when tracey called me to chat about her queens borough hall wedding, i was excited that her personality was the right fit for mine and my style of shooting, that i was available and that i wasn’t going to be too pregnant to take on the job! and… to make it more fun, tracey is pregnant as well, just about 3 weeks ahead of me!
i love how different the moments before getting married are for a city hall wedding. it’s a bit of logistics with paperwork and other couples waiting to get married. i thought the anticipation of waiting for your turn was pretty neat…
and this little cutie pie is leah, tracey and clester’s daughter. i gotta give her credit for hanging in there pretty well for what is a pretty unentertaining place for a kid, despite the momentous occasion she was partaking in…
love this shot of clester walking leah around to entertain her while they wait…love the look she gives me. (i also think maybe the bride in the background thought i was taking a pic of her, hah)
such an honor to photograph tracey and clester’s wedding. i couldn’t be happier with my first city hall wedding experience and i’m very excited for tracey, clester and leah’s new addition!