LISTEN: New Radio Mini-Season Follows a Survivor as She Faces Her Abuser

When I was seven, my gymnastics coach betrayed my trust—manipulated me, touched me, violated me. For nearly thirty years I wrestled with whether to say anything to anybody. I felt like it was my responsibility to break the silence—that the onus was on me as a survivor—but I worried about what would happen with that truth once it was out in the world. Would my vision of justice and accountability be heard?

“Silent Evidence,” a radio mini season from The Heart and Reveal, follows me as I finally break my silence, face my abuser and struggle to find a path to justice and healing within a retributive legal system.

Sexual abuse is all around us, but most coverage of the issue looks past the fact that the majority of survivors don’t tell.  One out of every ten people in the US will experience of sexual violence before they reach eighteen, but only 10 percent of those survivors ever disclose to their parents, much less the criminal justice system. As victims in criminal cases we remain nameless. What are billed as measures protecting our identity leaves us invisible and voiceless in the conversation.

Unless we out ourselves we’re not present in media coverage of sexual violence. Reporting on politician Dennis Hastert and retired football coach Jerry Sandusky and even powerful movies like Spotlight zeroing in on the issue sideline the struggle survivors face in deciding to take action. The deeper conversation about justice and accountability is lost.

A survivor’s disclosure to authorities, if it happens at all, is just one piece of a much longer journey to reclaim our voices and our power. But it’s hard to tell these stories because victims are often anonymous.  The intricacies of the disclosure process are unseen. We are nameless and invisible—unless we decide to go public.

“Silent Evidence” breaks through the barrier of invisibility and anonymity with a story focused on the ramifications of sexual violence, as they are lived by me and the people closest to me, over the course of a 28-year journey to go public on my terms. I’m on a quest to understand: What to do about sexual abuse? How do we reduce incidence? What role does punishment and rehabilitation play in accountability? How do we heal?

In collaboration The Heart podcast and Reveal, a public radio show and podcast from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, the mini-season attempts a more holistic approach to these questions, to which there are no easy answers. It’s not as simple as saying, ‘this shouldn’t happen.’ It’s not as simple as locking away a perpetrator. There’s a role for the survivor, the adults in the survivor’s life, loved ones, friends, family, the media, and the civic and legal institutions she moves through. Intimate audio recordings of the process bring the listener inside the story and drive the discussion.

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Tennessee Watson is an award-winning artist, independent journalist and educator. You can hear her on The Heart, America Abroad Media, LatinoUSA and Reveal. She co-produces Wage/Working and has taught documentary arts and facilitated community media projects at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies, The Latin American Youth Center and The Educational Video Center.