For most of us, growing up in the Black church, we know that certain topics are “off limits.” Too taboo to touch. Sadly, those are the same areas that are plaguing the people in the pews the most. Thankfully Dr. LaKeesha Walrond, the executive pastor at First Corinthian Baptist Church doesn’t subscribe to those rules. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, not only does she preach about rape and sexual abuse from the pulpit, she recently wrote a children’s book called My Body Is Special. In our interview, we spoke with Walrond about the experiences that inspired the book, her path toward healing and what she hopes My Body Is Special will accomplish in the world.
Can you tell me about the experiences that inspired this book?
I’m a survivor. I was molested by my stepfather. That started at the age of 9, I was close to 10. And I really believe that one of the reasons it went on for so long because I didn’t have access to a book like this. I was a child who was raised to be obedient to adults. My mom was very clear: When an adult asks you to do something, you do it. And so I believe he was able to manipulate that teaching that my mom had given me. I didn’t know there was anything wrong with it. I trusted adults, I had never encountered any reason not to at that young age.
So when I started maturing and my body started changing, my mom had me go to my aunt’s house, my Aunt Claudette. She is the aunt that talks to everybody about their bodies. So, she has this book out and she’s showing me pictures, she is telling me that my body is changing, ‘You’re becoming an adult. You will be able to have children. This is your reproductive system.’ She’s teaching me about things that I’d never heard of, never thought of, never even considered. And so, as she’s teaching me, she says, ‘So nobody should be touching you in your private places.’ I remember looking at her and saying, ‘Not even Daddies?’
And I remember the horror on her face. By that time I was 11 going on 12, it was the summer before my twelfth birthday. I knew that I had said something wrong. There was something wrong with that so I immediately put my head down. And she said, ‘What?!’ And I said, ‘Nothing, nothing.’ I just tried to move on. She really didn’t say anything else to me. I kept asking questions. I didn’t want to get in trouble…I just didn’t know. So, I went to bed that night. My mom came from two and half hours away and woke me up and sat with me and we kind of talked. She hugged me and she cried a little bit. I didn’t know what to think or what to expect. Then I fell asleep.
Then, when I went home, over a week later, she had moved. She had moved.
And it was really amazing, one of the things I learned through therapy, which should be an important piece of every survivor’s story, was that my stepfather was physically abusive to her and he was sexually abusive to me. And the thing that my therapist helped me to see was that she wouldn’t leave for herself but she left for you. And that kind of blew me away.
We were living in a four-bedroom house, nice yard, nice neighborhood, nice schools and my mom left all of that and moved us into a two-bedroom apartment where I could be safe. So I could never thank her enough for really saving my life, that she chose to believe me, the eleven-year-old child.
I’ve been in and out of therapy, dealing with that over the years. It came up when I had children, it came up again as my daughter began to mature, it came up again when my kids left for college. You kind of go through these worry moments and it just kind of hits you.
And in 2009, I was dead sleep and at 3:42 in the morning, I was awoken. The spirit just woke me up. To the point where I was like, ‘Really God? It’s 3:42 in the morning. Can’t we have this conversation at 7 or 8?’ I remember sitting straight up. And I reached for my computer and I wrote this book right then and there, it probably didn’t even take me a half hour.
It’s a children’s book, it’s not a whole lot of words but the words have tremendous meaning.
My challenge was that I sat on it. I wrote this book in 2009 and it’s only being published in 2017. And I went back to therapy because I couldn’t figure out ‘Why am I sitting on this book? This book could be saving lives. It could be helping children.’ And what she helped me to realize was that even though I had talked about my child sexual abuse, even though I had preached about it, I had had prayer groups about, I’ve counseled people about it. All of those things were done in the context of safe space. So when I preach about it at FCBC, it’s at a place where people know and love me. So now, this book would be a different kind of exposure and vulnerability. So being prepared for that was the work that I had to do over the past several years, in order to be able to publish this book.
Was it a conscious decision for this to be a children’s book or is it the fact that it came out like this?
I never thought I would be writing a children’s book. I have a couple of other manuscripts, women’s empowerment manuscripts from a faith perspective that I’m working on. So I felt like I would be an author but I didn’t think it would a children’s book and certainly not such a taboo subject. So when I say it was literally led and inspired by the spirit, that’s true. I never said ‘Oh I’m going to write a children’s book’ or ‘I’m never going to write about sexual child abuse prevention.’ That was never a thought in my mind. This was the spirit’s gift to the universe to say, ‘Hey, let’s start talking about this. Let’s start talking about it early.’ If someone had read this book to me when I was 5-6 years old, there’s no way my stepfather that, I believe, would have been able to molest me for almost two years. Because the book gives children the tools.
We have this:
We don’t want to have these conversations with our children.Who wants to sit down and have this conversation with their child? Nobody! But who needs to have this conversation with their child? Everybody! With parents, it’s like ‘Where do I start?’ ‘What do I say?’ So, rather than give children statistics or telling them horror stories that will scare them to death or make them not to trust anybody, you simply say, ‘Listen, nobody should be touching you. Nobody should be asking you to touch them. Not even family members. Not even people at church. Not even people at school. Not even mothers and fathers. Nobody. And if they do, this is what you do. You SAY no and Stop, you DO run and scream. You Go to a safe place. Every child can grasp that.
Eboné Carrington, who is the CEO of Harlem Hospital, read this book to her two-year-old son. And she said she started reading it to him every night because he just loves the book, which of course, made me smile. She said after a couple of nights, she had him in the bathtub and she was bathing him and he looked at her and he said to her, ‘Mommy, my body.’ And he took the towel!
She said she was just so happy because he understands. The book was written for five and up, but knowing that a two, three or four-year-old can understand it. If we can get our kids empowered with this language at three, four and five, imagine how empowered they’ll be at thirteen, at eighteen, at twenty-five.
How did you even come to the decision to start telling your story in church? It’s a safe space but still, you’re putting yourself out there and making yourself vulnerable.
The first time I ever talked about it publicly–and I’m not even going to say publicly. Before we moved to New York, my husband pastored a church in North Carolina. And one Sunday, I had preached and so after the sermon was over, we had an altar call. And there was this one young lady who was just crying, crying, crying. So after the altar call was over, everybody went back to their seat, she didn’t even go back to her seat. She just sat on the front row, crying, crying. So as soon as service was over, I went over to her and I said, ‘Let me pray with you, let me talk with you.’ Basically, she said to me, ‘Have you seen the news?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah I’ve seen it.’ And she said, ‘Did you hear about the girl who was raped on campus?’ And at that time, it was all over the news. I said, ‘Yeah I saw that story.’ She said, ‘That was me.’ So, of course, my heart dropped and I was just sitting there. She said to me, ‘I came to church because I just can’t do it anymore. I can’t live anymore. So, I’m going to take my life today. I just need for God to understand and be ok with this decision.’
Her story was that she was walking back to her dorm from a party and someone came up from behind her, threw her on the ground and raped her. So she didn’t even know who her rapist was. She said, ‘I walk around and I’m scared all day. I don’t know if this is somebody in my class, if I’m talking to them.’ She said, ‘I can’t get the smell off me. I take ten showers a day.’ Going through the hospital with the rape kit, everything was just horrible for her. She said, ‘I just can’t take it anymore.’ It had been three days and the news media were trying to find out who she was.
So, in that moment, I started trying to…I mean, I didn’t know what to say. I was just sitting there like, ‘Oh my God.’ And what came to me was, ‘Tell her what happened to you.’ And girl, when I say to you, that was the last thing I ever wanted to do. I just kind of fought that, trying to minister to her and nothing was getting through. And so finally, I said to her, ‘Let me share my story with you. I’m a survivor. And it didn’t happen to me as an adult. I was a child. And it wasn’t a stranger. It was someone that I knew, someone that my family trusted.’ And when I shared that with her, for the first time I saw hope in her eyes. She looked up at me like ‘What?’ Like, it was just the last thing she could have ever imagined. When I said to her, ‘If I survived this. You can survive this. It is not easy but if you survived the rape, you can survive the healing.’ So we talked and we prayed and she went on, she finished school, she graduated. I haven’t talked to her in years and years but I did follow up with her while we were still living in North Carolina and she was able to get into therapy and finish school and move in the direction of healing.
I felt like I was literally forced. I felt like if I didn’t tell her, that this girl was going to go home and commit suicide. And then I believe that I preached about it a couple months after that, shared my testimony. And I’ve been talking about it ever since.
Did it get easier for you, speaking to her one-on-one vs. speaking in front of a congregation?
The first time I shared it, it was very difficult. I got very emotional when I was talking about it. And then after the service, so many women and men came up to me saying, ‘That happened to me too.’ ‘That’s my story.’ ‘I never told anyone.’ ‘Thank you for sharing.’ ‘I don’t feel alone.’ Once I started getting that kind of feedback, I knew that this was a story that I had to continue to tell.
So to me, the most beautiful part of your story is that your mom believed you and took action. And you know right now, there’s the whole #MeToo movement and there are all these allegations of sexual assault, sexual harassment, rape, etc. And I see a lot of comments people are like, ‘Oh, well I don’t believe that.’ And it kills me because you don’t know who’s reading your comment. There are so many women who have experienced this and you don’t know how your comment is affecting her progress. Can you speak to people watching their language around sexual trauma?
We just have to be very careful about making judgment calls against people that we really don’t know and against situations that we are not familiar with enough to make a comment. And I’m speaking from having counseled and spoken to several women and men who have encountered this. From the person who is a raped by a stranger on the side of the road, to the person who feels like they have to go along to keep their job, so they do it with a smile on their faces. It doesn’t matter. It’s still abuse. It’s still harassment. And so because you see someone smiling, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. It probably just means that they’re strong and they’re not going to let it consume them.
And I think particularly for women, it hurts me so much to hear another woman say, ‘I don’t believe her.’ When first of all, you haven’t spoken to her, you don’t know the whole story, you’re only getting the trinkets that the media is given, even a one to two-minute blog. But there’s no way that we can make those kind of judgment calls if we really don’t know the whole story. So my perspective is, if you can’t say something nice, just don’t say anything at all. Because you never know how your comments can hurt someone and push them back into a place of silence that these women are trying to find the courage to escape right now. The perpetrators have had the power for years and centuries. Praise God for the women and men who are speaking up now and who are finding the courage. There’s power in telling our stories. Because when we tell our stories, we find out that we’re not alone. And what does it cost us to believe another person, what does it cost us to support another person?
You mentioned the healing process and therapy. I understand that it’s an ongoing process and that it comes up at different times in your life. So can you speak about that process and what has helped you move forward with your life?
Yes. So, my story is unique, as most of them are, in the sense that I actually repressed my childhood sexual abuse. And I don’t remember when it happened. My mom reported it and I had to go and get a rape kit. And that rape kit is horrible! It had to be about eight doctors standing around the table because it was a teaching hospital where I got my rape kit done. So there were doctors and interns and this little brown girl laying on the examination table, with no clothes on. And they were poking and prodding and it was horrible. I had to go to the police station where they gave me a doll and I had to explain where I was touched and tell that story. It was just a lot. It was a lot for me. The social worker and therapist started coming to the house and talking me. I just got to the point, I remember telling my mom, ‘I’m not talking about this anymore. I’m done.’
So, the next time the social worker came to the house, I just sat there and didn’t say anything. The social worker stayed there but I didn’t talk. And then the next time I didn’t even come out of my room. I didn’t want to talk about it anymore.
Somewhere between then and college and I found myself pregnant, I started remembering things. To the extent that when I found myself having these memories, I called my mom and I said, ‘This is what’s going on in my mind, these are the thoughts I’m having. Did this happen?’ And she just broke down crying. And she was like, ‘You don’t remember?’ I was just like, ‘Oh my God.’
So that’s when I started going to therapy. And it was in therapy that I started remembering everything. And my therapist helped me understand that it was this mothering nature of being pregnant and having this child and wanting to protect this child that these memories had come back. And we started working through it.
My challenge was, particularly pastoring, anytime a woman comes to me and says they’ve been a victim of any type of abuse, physical, mental, emotional, sexual, I always recommend that they talk to a professional. And you know Black folks we don’t want to go talk, we want to pray. You know, ‘Take it to the Lord and leave it there.’ ‘Have a little talk with Jesus.’ But what I say to them is, ‘Listen, if you break your arm,you’re not going to come to the church and ask me to pray for you. You’re going to go to the hospital where you know there are medical professionals trained to reset it and put a cast on it so that it can heal properly. In the same way, there are people who have been trained to help us heal mentally and psychologically, who’ve gone to school and can tell us the exercises we need to do that can move us in the direction of healing. So the longer you deny yourself the opportunity to go and speak with someone that can help you with your healing, it’s just like sitting here with a broken arm.’
For me, I know that therapy helped me get to this place where I’m able to have this conversation with you, without crying. I’ve been about four times in my life, from anywhere from six months to two years each time. Because this condition is not something that goes away. It’s with you. Sometime my husband would touch me in a particular way and I’d have a flashback and shut down. Being overprotective with my children, not letting them go to sleepovers, asking them a gazillion questions. ‘Well, who’s going to be there?’ ‘Are any men going to be there?’ ‘Are there any older brothers?’ So it manifests itself in many different ways; but it’s up to us to find ways to move in the direction of healing as opposed to the self-deprecating behaviors of the blame, the shame, those things that come along with being a survivor of this type of abuse. I think that therapy is very important. It’s helped me tremendously as well as my faith. I was praying to God and talking to a therapist, just like I would pray to God and go to the hospital. They’re not in conflict with each other.
And particularly now, I think one of the reasons that the #MeToo movement has been so pervasive and had such an impact is because we’ve been taught to be silent about these issues. ‘Don’t say anything?’ ‘That’s your uncle. That’s your cousin. That’s your stepfather.’ ‘It’s going to make me look bad because they’re going to say, ‘Where was I?’ You know, worried about what the family is going to look like and what people are going to say, as opposed to the healing that needs to happen for this child that’s been abused. So, I’ve heard many stories where the mother didn’t believe them or the aunt said don’t tell anybody. So finally, we’re in this season where women’s voices can be heard.
People have this conversation, ‘Well that was 10 years ago, that was 20 years ago.’ Yeah, and that means that woman or that man has been silent for ten or 20 years.’ And it takes about 15-20 years for the average victim to come forward and be able to talk about what happened to them. And it’s even more difficult for men, especially if it’s a same-sex encounter because that’s confusing for them. And they don’t want to have to deal with that shame of sharing those stories. The statistics say that it’s 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men who will be touched inappropriately by their 18th birthday. But of course, we know those stats are higher because we don’t report the way we can report.
How have you seen the book have an impact on people already and encourage them to share their stories?
While it is a book that is geared toward the prevention of child sexual abuse because a lot of times we’re not talking about it, until it’s already happened. So we’re in recovery and recouping mode. So this gets us ahead of the game. Before the book was published, I sent the book out to several agents and they didn’t pick it up, and that’s why I decided to go ahead and self-publish. But I found that, as I was sharing the book with different people, I shared the book with a social worker, I shared it with a psychiatrist, I shared it with a teacher, a mother, a father, different demographics so I could get feedback from everyone. Some of the people, as they were reading it, started crying. ‘Where was this book when I needed it?’ ‘Where was this book when my cousin was touching me?’ ‘Where was this book when my uncle was touching me?’ So, I find for the adults, it is healing because somewhere in the pages, it communicates to them that it wasn’t their fault.
Many survivors carry with them the burden of fault, that’s my own made up term. But it’s the burden of fault, and I carry it too, which is ‘Why didn’t I say something earlier?’ ‘Why didn’t I know better?’ ‘Why didn’t I say something to my father?’ You go through this blame. ‘Why did I go to the store?’ ‘Why did I go to that party?’ Somehow our brain finds a way to blame ourselves. And it was through therapy that I realized, it wasn’t my fault. And that’s why I can tell other survivors it wasn’t your fault. I don’t care how old you were. I don’t care if you were being fast. If you’re 13 and somebody’s 30, they should tell you ‘You’re being fast. Go sit your behind down.’ The burden of responsibility is on the adult, not on the child.
So, I find that when people read the book, in the pages, they find that healing, they find that affirmation, they find that space where they can release that burden of guilt and shame that we care. So it’s my hope that even as adults continue to read this to children that they will continue to find healing in that and that the children will continue to find empowerment and understanding that their bodies do belong to them and that they don’t have to be manipulated. Because really the abusers are just taking advantage of the innocence and ignorance of children.
One of the things that I’m hopeful that this book will do is that many of us at our homes, we had ADT or Brinks security system. And when they install it, they put a little sign in front of your yard. So, when people are driving by, and they want to go and rob someone or break into a house, that ADT sign is a physical deterrent. They’re looking at it and saying, ‘If that alarm goes off, I’m probably going to go off and I’m probably going to get caught. Let me go to the next house.’
And I’m hoping this book serves as the same thing, a physical deterrent. That when that offender comes into that house, or into that child’s room and sees this book, that they know, ‘Oh yeah, I can’t touch that one. This one knows something.’
Hands off! Hands off our children.
I’m grateful that we are talking about it. I talk about how we live in silence. And I talk about that story in the Bible where Tamar, her half-brother Amnon raped her. And then Absalom her brother said ‘Just be quiet about it and I’ll take care of it.’ And he did, he killed the brother. We want prosecution, we don’t want death, right? But the point is, he told her to be quiet. And that is what so many of us have heard. So just having the opportunity to share my voice, to share my story with others, hoping and praying that through my story, they’ll find the courage to tell their story. The last time I preached that sermon a few months ago, a woman came up to me, 92-years-old. She just looked at me. She held my hand, she shook her head, she had tears in her eyes and she said, ‘You know,I never told anybody until now. I was nine years old.’ This woman’s 92 and this happened when she was 9. So all of those years, she never said anything. And even then she didn’t say anything but she was saying something. So it’s about recognizing the power of our voices and that when we are bold and brazen enough to share our stories, it just helps other people in so many ways. I just want to encourage us to continue to share our stories, with our daughters, with our sisters, with our friends. People we can help move and push forward in the direction of healing.