How I Found Life Beyond Incest and Adult Rape

Survivor Voices contribution by Sherri Callahan

I was born in Boston on April 14 to young parents who met on a blind date. I suppose one could say the cliche’ “the rest is history.”  I have seen pictures of our life during that time. The pictures of my father make me mostly look away. I gaze at my mother in photos wondering what she was thinking.

My mother always wanted to be a mom. She had me at the age of twenty-two. One of the first pictures that stands out to me was taken July 4, 1975.  I was four months old. Our family was at the beach. I appeared to be comfortable in my mom’s arms.  I looked content and happy.  On this same day, another photo was taken of my father holding me. I was crying in this photo. Even as a baby, I appeared to be able to feel the monster inside of my father.

Me as a toddler

My mom told me of how my father would tell her to go take a bath; that he would take care of me for a while. My mom said I screamed the entire time. We lived in Boston, Massachusetts until I was four years old, at which time my father took a job in Texas, and we moved away. I don’t have many memories of my first four years of life in Boston.

I have vague memories of being part of a research study at Harvard.  There was that time that I fell out of a window. I ended up being alright. I had a Basset Hound named Woody who would get out each night and go sniffing around the local Chinese restaurants.  My best friend was Crystal. There are photos of us sitting on the front porch smoking those candy cigarettes. My memories are derived of stories from  my family and photos I have viewed.

After we moved to Texas, we were isolated away from all of our family and support in Boston. Looking back, I believe this was my father’s intent of taking a job halfway across the country.

Once we’d moved, life went from bad to worse. This is where my memories become clearer for me. When I was around my father I became scared and unable to move. 

I don’t believe my first memory of being terrified was the first time I was scared. It’s just my first clear memory. Just the thought of my father would scare me. He was indeed a terrifying man. I carry with me a confusion about why my mother didn’t intervene in my father’s abuse of me. In this memory, I was laying on my parents’ waterbed.  I was rubbing the vinyl side rails. I remember wanting to be anywhere except in this bed. I would wait for my father’s body to jump a bit. This was the signal that he was asleep and it was safe for me to leave.  

This specific night I recall seeing his hand reaching over me. He was a shadow in the dark reaching under my pajamas. I was just four, five years old. I remember thinking clearly, that it must be okay; that he probably thought I was my mom. My little mind was already trying to reason his abuse of me. Over and over in my head, I remember thinking, “He thinks I am my mom. It’s ok.” 

My father groomed me very quickly. By the time that I was in Kindergarten being raped was a normal part of my life. I lived in this bubble, I watched the world going on around me, yet I felt incredibly different and detached from it.  Once, in Kindergarten, I was standing in the big room where they had all of the toys. Everyone was dancing and laughing. I stood to the side watching them. There was a joyfulness in them I didn’t feel was a part of me.  I didn’t belong with them.

I lived each day in that general mindset.

Google stock photo representing how I felt as a child.

School was extremely difficult for me. I was usually exhausted from the night before. I was in sleep deprivation and could not keep up with the pace of class work. I felt like an outsider in their world. I found joy in more solitary things like my animals, little plants, and my stuffed animals.  That was my world where I felt safest. I knew those things wouldn’t hurt me. I was a well-mannered, polite child who went out of my way to try and stay invisible. I always smiled.  Still, forcing myself to be the best child I thought I could be still did not make anyone ever notice me.  

Then we moved to another city in Texas where my mother ran a daycare from our home. She babysat a little boy who had a nineteen year old brother. Albert came to pick up his younger brother every night. Albert also became my next abuser.

The first time Albert abused me, he cornered me behind the screen door. I can still see the steam coming up from a pot on the stove in the kitchen were my mother was cooking dinner.  After Albert put his hands all under my dress, I ran inside crying. No one spoke to me or even asked me if I was alright. Even at such young ages of five, six, seven, I had accepted and resolved that I was on my own.

Google stock photo representing my emotions

Albert also came to see that I was fair game because there was no one paying attention to me.  Albert became a fixture within my family unit.  I was being raped times two, my father and Albert.  He accompanied my family on picnics and weekend trips, which all involved me being harmed. Albert was innately mean, rough, and uncaring. His very existence in my life was a threat.

Once, we went to a little park where there were many other younger kids playing. We were all in the creek playing with little tadpoles.  I was to be seen and not heard, yet I was talking to them, carrying on some kind of deep conversation.  There was a creek and large trees providing shade.  It was such a beautiful day. 

I remember Albert calling me. I put my little bucket of tadpoles by the stone picnic table. He took my hand and brought me to the back of the red van.  He took my shorts off and he raped me. When he was finished he told me to put my shorts back on.  I stood there trying, but my child legs were shaking and my body hurt.  I finally got my shorts up and made it over to the picnic table. When I reached for my tadpoles he knocked the bucket over and started stepping on the tadpoles with his big boots. He said next time I wouldn’t fight him.

I scrambled to save my tadpoles and put them back in my bucket. I couldn’t pick them up fast enough.  I was a nail biter and I just couldn’t pick them up. I was mad at myself for not having fingernails to help me scoop them to safety. As a child, my desperation to save the tadpoles seemed to be a way to override the pain of having just been raped.

Albert abused me until I was eight years old. The only reason I escaped Albert is because he moved back to New York.  While I was relieved he was gone, I was still left to deal with the abuse by my father. 

Life was already difficult and unimaginable for me, and I was only still in elementary school. Looking back, it’s sometimes difficult to wrap my head around how I survived. I feel sad for myself as a child who could barely read in the third grade. So many red flags that went unnoticed by my teachers. I was the quiet, little girl who obeyed. No one recognized that I was spaced out and fearful most times.

Google stock photo representing my emotions

Then, I had a lucky moment when my third grade teacher noticed me, which resulted in me learning to read. I still remember her scent and her raspy voice. She was the first person who ever noticed me in my short time of having been alive. I was grateful. I felt important, because she liked me. I needed that spark of hope as a child. 

As the years went on, so did the abuse by my father. I deeply hated him. Yet, I would do everything I could to try and make him love me. I thought if I could make him love me, he would be nice to me. Nothing ever worked. Nothing would ever work because my father was an abuser.

I came to abhor being in my own skin. I hated being female as I felt we had terrible jobs to do. I pulled further away from everyone and everything the longer the abuse continued.  I was barely breathing, constantly clenched and struggling for someone to notice that I was not alright.  I got my period in fifth grade. This made my father furious. I believe his anger stemmed from knowing that now he had to be aware of pregnancy.  

My father was evil and cruel in every way. I smiled. I tried to live, but I was a mess. My parents became deeply involved in the church.  The church became their answer for fixing me as I was now a thirteen year old. I was mature beyond my age so I was placed in the oldest youth group at church. I highly disliked it and felt like I stuck out because of my age.

How it feels being shunned and bullied at church. (Google stock image)

I wasn’t sure if I believed in God or at least the god they all talked about. I watched the men who raped me receive communion every Sunday. It was an unimaginable feeling. Even as a family we used to walk and deliver the communion and wine to the altar. While quietly in the shadows of night, my innocence was sacrificed.  My father was the epitome of the model Christian man. I was an outcast daughter. 

Once, we had a Christian Youth weekend. It was held at a college.  I went with the youth group.  There were talks, dances and pretty much everything that I abhorred.  I wasn’t like the rest of them. I wasn’t a carefree or happy kid.  There were much bigger things that I had to worry about I recall laying there on the gym floor as everyone was settling for sleep. I watched them all eating Twizzler candy and felt that at least for that night I would be safe.  I was thirteen.  There was an older boy named Don who noticed me. I couldn’t believe that I was noticed by anyone, much less a male. We danced at the dance. He smiled at  me during the church service on Sunday. He kissed me goodbye after that service and said that he would see me again. 

When my “crush” came to visit me at my home, he was not the nice guy that I had met. He raped me right in the front hall of my house. Rape was something which when it happened to me I froze, became a robot, and then shoved it down inside of me. 

One weekend my parents decided to go away for the weekend to a healing conference, and they left me home alone.  Don showed up at my house with five friends. What proceeded to happen included me being raped throughout the day. They had brought guns with them, and the way they terrorized me is beyond anything I wish to detail. I will always wonder if my father helped Don gain access to me, since I don’t believe in coincidences. I was taken completely by surprise. Had I told what had happened, I felt I would be blamed, so I just held it inside of me.

image credit: Times of India

That day marked a time that almost broke me completely. I didn’t want to live. I was getting through high school as a robotic child. There was nothing about my high school experience that anyone would want to live.  Don would came yet another time. This time, to avoid the rape, I unbuttoned my pants and laid down. There was no fight left in my heart and soul. That was the last time that he raped me. School was terrifying to me. I always had to worry about seeing Don and his friends or being cornered by them. I was in constant fear.

The summer I went to Florida, I had no intentions of returning. I had no plan. I just knew I couldn’t live at home any longer. Every day I woke up to the sound of the ocean and a pelican on my balcony. I spilled my guts to that bird the entire time that I was there. I went to Sea World for the first time. That was the Summer I touched a whale and for the first time I felt a connection to something beyond my own skin. From that moment on whales became my passion and what I lived for.  I went home and graduated high school.

image credit: “Whale Rider”

My parents divorced when I was in my early twenties. I was glad my father was gone but always hyper-aware. There were no more lewd comments about my body, no more kissing and no more abuse from him, but I still lived life in fear. I had been conditioned from birth to be fearful. I went on to Community College. College was a better experience. I learned to breathe a little.  There were a few crushes.

I met a man in one of my psyche classes who was awesome. Yet, I wouldn’t go out with him. I felt too damaged and used. I didn’t feel good enough for him.

He would hold doors open for me and smiled when I said, “Save the whales!”

He saw me for me. I am grateful for that experience. I was working two jobs while going to school. I acquired my first car, a black Geo Metro, which was perfect for me at the time. I began work as a Montessori teacher. I got a live-in nanny job.  I was a psychology Major. Psychology came naturally to my understanding, and I loved studying it. I wanted to help little kids so they would never have to feel the things that I did growing up.   After what felt like forever, I graduated with my associates degree and moved on to the University of Northern Texas. 

During my first semester at UNT my world came crashing back down.

image by Frisco Domingo

I found out that my father was getting remarried. His fiance’ had a young daughter. My heart shattered into a million pieces. There was no way that I was going to let that happen. I decided to talk with a detective from a neighboring town.  The detective stated that a third party report wouldn’t do anything because it would just get filed away. I was shocked. The detective was not a kind man. He was pretty cold and distant. At that point so was I. 

The detective told me that I would need to go to the town I was abused in and press criminal charges at the police station. He was disgustingly dismissive.  He stated that he would make me take a lie detector test. I looked him back in his eyes and told him that I would do whatever it took to protect that child from my father. I had no idea the toll that trying to protect this little girl would have on me.

I went home called the police station in the city where I grew up and pressed charges that evening. It was indeed an abusive experience. There was a lot of gawking and trying to talk me out of it.  I was even told that forgiveness was the answer. The next day I got a phone call from a detective. There was a message on my bed with a number. The message asked if I was alright. For the first time ever, someone actually seemed to care. I called him back and the first thing out of his mouth was to ask about my well being. I will never forget how much that meant to me.

In that moment, I felt I had an ally.

The process of charges against my father lasted two years. It was unbelievably difficult. I did it alone and on auto pilot wanting to keep the world safe.  Somehow I managed going to school full time, working full time, and going through the court system.  I kept myself busy and focused on keeping that little girl safe. Finally on September 22 we took a plea deal, and just like that it was over.  My father plead guilty to a lesser offense and received probation. He didn’t have to register as a sex offender. I was utterly exhausted with no will power to go on. The toll that the court system took out of me was vicious. There will always be a part or me that regrets not taking the case to trial. My father ended up violating probation, which resulted to him spending one year in jail, not even remotely an appropriate sentence for a pedophile such as him.   

I continued with schooling.  I worked to stay busy, trying to pretend all was well with me, meanwhile collapsing inside. I found out that my father moved back to Boston taking his wife and his daughter. I went into my mode of trying to keep that child safe. There were allegations of abuse, and foster care was involved.  I ended up traveling to Boston on three different occasions. On the third trip I  testified for that little girl. Her mother’s rights were taken away, she would never have to see my father ever again.  She was permanently placed in foster care and was adopted by her family.  There was relief, but my heart was not well.  I was on a collision course. I didn’t care what happened to me anymore. I was going downhill very fast. 

There was nothing more in this life that I wanted than to just feel normal.  I met someone online. We hit it off and went shopping, to get lunch, everything I that I felt would give me a sense of normalcy in a partner.  On one such occasion, it was August 22,  2003.  He came to my house with no intentions of going anywhere. I froze as he trapped me and one of my orange pillows was pressed over my face. I remember saying stop, please, we were supposed to shopping, but my words fell on deaf ears.  When he had finished raping me, he got up and put his pants on.  I remember following him to the front door where he commented on how pretty and shiny his BMW was . I closed the door and fell onto my bed crying. I felt that this is the life I was destined for. Two weeks later I found out that I was pregnant. 

I was at a loss when I found out. I laid on the floor, holding my dog and crying.  I wanted to be a mother more than anything. Then in December I found out that I was having twins, and they were all that mattered. I never cared more or took better care of myself. I ate healthy food. I took my vitamins. This new life inside me became my spark and my reason for living. My babies were born on April 22, 2004.  Their arrival was one of the best days of my life.

stock photo by Bethany Mattioli

The birth of my twins is where a lot of my healing began. I was able to give my children the life that I only imagined as a little girl. I wanted them to know each and every day how important they were and that I was always there. I wanted to be the best mom that I could for them.  I wanted to be a cycle breaker and do things different. I wanted them to have all the life experiences that I never had. 

I went back to school often bringing them with me to my college classes. In 2014 I graduated with my teaching degree. That same year I was in a documentary “Off The Record.”  I got to know people who were amazing. They cared, listened, and heard me. The film was entered into film festivals and went on to win awards. 

Off The Record from Pursuit of Truth Film on Vimeo.

It is important to me that children never have to go through what I have gone through. The abyss of aloneness in abuse is too vast for words.  Surviving childhood and adult abuse made me I view life differently. There will always be another level to attain in my healing. I used to think I was going to come to a point in my life where I would be finished.  Healing doesn’t work like that. 

Today I teach Special Education.  I love my job every single day.  My Twins turned sixteen in April.  They are the light of my life.  I still connect with those who worked on the documentary. They truly care for my heart, and for that I am grateful. I write and blog to get out the things that are in my head. I still create art journals representing the emotions for which there are no words, just pictures projecting from my head. I have a therapist committed to me for the long run who  hears me and makes me feel valued. My therapist takes the time to read what I write and sees the importance of journaling, something which has been my lifeline for so long.

I have come a long way in this life. I still have a long way to go. I know that I will never stop healing and growing. I will never stop fighting for others. I believe that one day, my heart won’t be so heavy anymore.

I heart your heart.

Sherri Callahan is a strong survivor voice. Follow her blog at:

Support her documentary, Off The Record, by purchasing it for downlod here:

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