Award-winning multimedia journalist Maya Golden’s searing but redemptive memoir, The Return Trip, takes readers on a harrowing journey. The book offers a no-holds-barred look into the sexual abuse that began when Golden was 5 years old and charts her course through a troubled adolescence and young adulthood. Along the way, she probes the long-term impact of repeated sexual violation and zeroes in on the ways religious institutions, educational systems and familial denial continue to intersect and allow the perpetuation of violence.
Eloquent and impassioned, personal and political, The Return Trip vividly describes Golden’s descent into an addiction to pornography and obsessive sexting and covers her circuitous path toward healing and sound mental health.
It’s simultaneously gut-wrenching, hopeful and insightful.
Golden spoke to Ms. reporter Eleanor J. Bader before The Return Trip’s Nov. 14 release. Their wide-ranging conversation touched on the book as well as the work of the 1 in 3 Foundation, a group Golden founded to support survivors of sexual assault.
Eleanor J. Bader: Your first abuser was your older half-brother, Nathan. Are you still in touch with him?
Maya Golden: No. My entire family cut off all contact with him and he is no longer in any of our lives.
In the epilogue of The Return Trip, I describe my last contact with Nathan in 2006. Although he tried to contact me by email, he called what he did to me “a childhood mistake.” As I wrote in the book, I told him I was “extremely disappointed” by this email since he did not take any responsibility for actions that resulted in years of therapy for me. Thankfully, my parents and other brother have been supportive but I am still unsure if they really understand the complex post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) I’ve experienced.
Bader: You grew up in Texas in the 1980s. Was there any sex education to teach you and your peers about healthy sexual behaviors?
Golden: When I was in fourth grade, the school separated the girls and the boys and told us about our periods. This was probably the most in-depth discussion of how our bodies functioned that we received.
Later, in high school, we were told about sexually transmitted disease transmission and told to be abstinent until marriage. That was it. The teachers only stressed the downside of sex and never addressed the empowerment that comes from healthy sexual behavior. Silence about sexuality was cultivated by the entire educational system.
My son is now 10 and the school has classes on good touch/bad touch, but at home we have lots of conversations about body parts, bullying and boundary setting. It may be my own trauma speaking, but I work hard to teach him to be respectful of his body and the bodies of others.
Both churches and school districts promote a culture of abstinence that is unrealistic. … We need to teach teenagers how to make healthy decisions and set limits.Maya Golden
Bader: You grew up in the church and write that the pastors repeatedly promised Hell and damnation for those who have premarital or extramarital sex. How did this factor into your trauma?
Golden: I feel that both churches and school districts promote a culture of abstinence that is unrealistic. The message that sex should only be between a man and a woman and should only occur after marriage has not changed since I was a child. It leads people to feel guilt and shame about what they are doing.
We need to teach teenagers how to make healthy decisions and set limits. Religious bodies and schools need to promote open conversations but we, as individuals, can also talk to our children, our nieces, nephews, cousins and grandchildren and avoid the fear-based lessons of the past.
In many ways sex is still considered a forbidden fruit. It can be difficult for parents and care providers to watch their children grow and know that, as they become adolescents, they will be curious about sex. I think in many cases, when older people become uncomfortable, they revert to the messages they heard when they were young.
But the World Health Organization estimates that one in three women will be subjected to sexual or physical violence in their lifetimes—often from an intimate partner or other family member. Sexual violence is pervasive, and sexual shaming and silencing make it worse.
We have to let survivors know that the abuse they experienced was not their fault, and that it is okay to tell someone about what happened.
Bader: Tell me about the organization you founded, the 1 in 3 Foundation.
Golden: The 1 in 3 Foundation works with people who have experienced trauma and have developed unhealthy coping mechanisms. We utilize a 12-step model, but that’s just a small part of what we offer.
When I attended an inpatient therapy program called Shades of Hope, which I write about in the book, I learned that trauma is body-based. Before Shades of Hope, I’d spent two decades in therapy, but talk was not enough for me to heal from the amount of trauma I’d been through.
We often need trauma-release programs. EMDR—eye movement desensitization and reprogramming—works for people suffering from anxiety and panic disorders, depression, dissociation, eating disorders and PTSD. Survivors use this therapy to recenter their trauma and expel their memories of abuse. Trauma-informed yoga can also be helpful.
1 in 3 offers all of this as well as free or low-cost individual and group therapy.
Bader: Is 1 in 3 restricted to a particular catchment area for its work?
Golden: Right now, we are based in Smith County, Texas, and serve the eastern part of the state. All of our work is outpatient. We’re hoping to expand and have been approached by women in Oklahoma who’ve asked us to create a secondary foundation to serve Indigenous women in that state. We would love to do it if we can raise the money. Eventually, we hope to go national.
Bader: How is the 1 in 3 Foundation funded?
Golden: We receive funding from private foundations and individual donors. I work at the foundation part-time and receive a very small stipend. I continue to work as a freelance journalist and consult with other nonprofit organizations.
Bader: Does 1 in 3 advocate criminal justice involvement?
Golden: When I started 1 in 3, we were solely focused on survivors, but we quickly recognized the need to treat the catalysts, the perpetrators. Sexual abuse is a crime, and maybe harsh criminal penalties help as a deterrent, but there is an educational component that is also imperative. I believe we need to start when kids are very young and discuss the repercussions of abuse and the harm abusive behaviors cause to victims.
We’ve worked with a Washington, D.C.-based group, Men Can Stop Rape. We’ve spoken to teenage boys about healthy masculinity, healthy relationships, and consent. Although not all perpetrators and abusers are male, we think that it is especially important to teach boys and young men about the long and short-term consequences of rape and sexual assault for victims.
Furthermore, since I am a sports journalist, I’ve had access to coaches and have talked to male athletes about this. We want athletes to model positive relationships.
Bader: Writing the book must have been difficult since it forced you to repeatedly revisit the trauma and describe some unhealthy responses to it.
Golden: In some ways it’s been a bit of a roller coaster. Overall, I feel like I am doing well though.
One of the hardest things involved narrating the audio version of The Return Trip. Writing about this was hard, of course, but when I gave voice to that little girl and revisited the abuse, I was triggered. I had nightmares. In fact, reading the book aloud was far more emotionally depleting than I expected and I had to take breaks. Nonetheless, I wanted to be the person to read the text, tell the story, and break the silence. I never considered having someone else read it.
Bader: You write that growing up, you felt as if you existed for other people’s gratification and you became a “people pleaser” who neglected your own needs. What advice do you have for others who do this?
Golden: It’s been quite a journey and I know that at times I still engage in pleasing people. The ramifications of what happened to me are still there. I know it may sound corny, but on a daily basis I’ve started saying several different affirmations. These include the words “I love myself no matter what.” I’ve survived so much and want to acknowledge, out loud, that I understand my self-worth; I want to put out positive messages for myself. I tell myself that I do not need to have 40 plates spinning at once in order to keep other people happy.
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