LOVE WITH ACCOUNTABILITY: A Mother’s Lament & A Daughter’s Postscript – The Feminist Wire

LOVE WITH ACCOUNTABILITY: A Mother’s Lament & A Daughter’s Postscript

Content Notice: This article is part of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire. The purpose of this forum and the #LoveWITHAccountability project is to prioritize child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in national dialogues and work on racial justice and gender-based violence. Several of the featured articles in this forum give an in-depth and, at times, graphic examination of rape, molestation, and other forms of sexual harm against diasporic Black children through the experiences and work of survivors and advocates. The articles also offer visions and strategies for how we can humanely move towards co-creating a world without violence. Please take care of yourself while reading.

 By Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Ph.D., with Aishah Shahidah Simmons

A Mother’s Lament

My name is Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons and I am the mother of my only child/daughter, Aishah Shahidah Simmons, who was sexually molested by her (step)grandfather from when she was 10 until she was 12years old. When Aishah told me that her grandfather was sexually molesting her, I did not believe her. I told her that she was having a bad dream and that her beloved Pop-pop would never do anything like that.  He presented as an upstanding family man, hard worker, proud provider for his wife, Aishah’s grandmother, who he loved dearly and tenderly cared for. My daughter’s grandmother had a lingering illness and did not work outside the home.  She doted on Aishah, her “Pie” as she called her. For her, the sun rose and shined on Aishah. The feeling was mutual between the two of them; my daughter loved her grandmother dearly; I thought more than she loved me and I was a bit jealous of their relationship at times.

But I also felt so fortunate that my daughter had grandparents who cherished her and I felt that she was SAFE staying with them when I had to be out of town for long stretches due to my job which had me traveling across the country and sometimes internationally during the course of my work. I needed my daughter’s grandparents’ home to be SAFE so that I could travel and work without worrying about her well-being, knowing that she was loved and PROTECTED by both grandparents (or so I thought).

For my daughter to tell me that her grandfather was sneaking into her bedroom, late at night, and was touching and feeling her vagina and forcing her to kiss him in the basement were  monstrous acts beyond my imagination.  It could not possibly be true, I thought.  It was he who drove me, Aishah and her father home from the hospital after her birth. He carried her in his arms as her father wheeled me to the car in a wheelchair. I did not believe it! I told her so.  If it were true, massive changes had to occur; changes that would disrupt my life.  I hoped that it was just a bad dream and that the matter would go away. Oh how I wanted/needed it to go away!

It did not go away! My daughter insisted that this was happening. When I would question her about the facts, she would be perplexed about why I didn’t believe her and cry hysterically. I finally began to believe her but I did not know what to do. While I was becoming outraged at the possibility that my daughter was being sexually violated by her grandfather, disgracefully, I was also concerned about what would happen to my job if she could not stay with her grandparents when I had to be on the road. Her father and I were separated at that time and I had serious doubts about leaving Aishah in his care for extended periods of time because of our ideological differences about child rearing. The issue of how to raise Aishah was the one big contention between her dad and me and unfortunately, this possibly played a role in my inaction during Aishah’s ordeal at the hands of her grandfather.

I told her dad that Aishah’s grandfather, his stepfather, was coming into her bedroom late at night and sexually molesting her.  He, too, did not believe it, saying that there was no way his stepdad would do anything like this. I shared that I, too, had not believed it initially but that Aishah was so insistent that it was not a dream, that she was not making it up; that I now believed it was true. I said that we had to do something to stop it, but what?  As noted above, Aishah’s father and I had been separated for several years. He was also dependent on his parents providing child care for our daughter when either one of us was on the road. As a busy international human rights activist and labor organizer, he also traveled a lot. Also, as I mentioned, his mother had a serious illness and was totally dependent on her husband for her comfortable life style and the excellent health insurance (via his job) that provided the doctors who, we all believed, were keeping her alive.  Aishah’s dad kept saying it would kill his mother to tell her that her husband was sexually molesting her granddaughter and that we had to keep it a secret from her AT ALL COSTS!

What is so outrageous about my and Aishah’s dad’s behavior was that we were equally, if not more concerned, it seems in retrospect, about his mother’s wellbeing,my job, his job, our Movement work and our reliance on them for childcare than we were about the tremendous harm being done to our daughter!

After much hang wringing and discussion, Aishah’s father said he would speak to his stepfather, warn him that we knew and tell him that he had better never touch her again. I agreed to this plan. Later, I was told that this conversation had occurred. What I find shocking and shameful about my behavior is that I made myself content with this and never spoke to her grandfather myself. I am dismayed that I did not confront him myself, me the activist referred to as an Amazon by some of my male SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) comrades because I instituted one of the only sexual harassment policies on a project in Laurel, Mississippi that I directed during the Mississippi Summer Project in 1964 when I was barely twenty:

Everyone on my project had to go through an orientation that included a segment on sexual abuse and were told that they would be exposed and dismissed if they committed such crimes. As a result of that I became known as an Amazon and many of my SNCC male comrades refused to work on the project…”[1]

I have been the victim of sexual assault on several occasions and risked life and limb to stop these attempted rapes: Firstly, from my Morehouse “Brothers” while a student at Spelman College. I had also fought off a high Nigerian Official who was on a State Department Tour of the Country, I helped to host as a Spelman student. The most terrifying attempted sexual assault and battering was by one of the first African American Football Players with a major NFL Team, the Houston Oilers during my years at Spelman. He also tried to run me down with his car after I escaped from his cluthches. The most painful of all sexual assault attempts I endured was from a fellow SNCC “Comrade,” who I had to fight off at the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project Orientation in Oxford, Ohio. This was by someone I admired and trusted as Aishah had admired and trusted her grandfather. But even more painful than the actual attempted rape by a SNCC comrade, was that when I reported him to a SNCC official, I was told that they (SNCC Leadership) did not have time to deal with a trivial matter such as this. Adding insult to injury, I was told: “Why are you making such a fuss; you should have given him some!”  I cried myself to sleep that night and a few nights after as I now had to add worry about being raped by a fellow comrade in addition to dogging bullets from Klansmen and other white racists who had vowed to kill all of us who were going to Mississippi that summer.

In spite of having endured these sexual assaults, I, in reality, did nothing to SAVE my daughter from being sexually molested in her grandparents’ home by a family member, someone I thought she was SAFE with.  WHY? This is a question I cannot answer to this very day. It troubles me deeply that I cannot explain my inaction.

Additionally, Aishah’s father and I agreed that he was supposed to spend nights at her grandparents’ home when our daughter stayed overnight, which was often, to act as a deterrent to any additional molestation. I’m not sure that this plan was adhered to. Yet, I continued traveling for my job, leaving Aishah there while deluding myself into believing that the situation was taken care of.

This was a LIE!  It was not taken care of. Yes, my life went on as usual as did Aishah’s dad’s. The only person left to suffer in fear and anguish year after year was, Aishah! What happened to her, and her dad’s and my inaction has haunted her and my relationship for thirty-seven years!  Aishah has had to struggle without my understanding and support for what happened to her beyond the molestation for almost four decades.  This is because what is even more outrageous than my not intervening directly with Pop-pop, is that her father and I expected her to continue to go to her grandparents’ home, sleep in that same bedroom where she was molested, help out with her grandmother’s care after she developed Altzheimer’s , spending days and nights with the man who molested her for two-years, for three decades after the sexual violation!

Oh, yes, I apologized after she began to lash out at me for leaving her there all those years and for tacitly expecting her to function with her grandfather as if nothing had happened long after he stopped sexually molesting her. As far as Aishah knew, neither her dad nor I had done ANYTHING!  On the surface nothing had changed between us and him. As far as she knew we had done nothing to end the nightmare, nor was he publicly or privately censured in any way for his crime, by me.

For these decades, I could not understand why Aishah could not “just get over it!” I was in denial about the great harm that had been done during and long after the actual molestations took place. There was the great harm of Aishah’s father and me acting normal around this man. Never letting on to other family members that he was not as he appeared, but was someone who caused our daughter great harm, who we were protecting for our own selfish reasons. To add insult to injury, we expected our daughter to keep it a secret; to never tell her grandmother (it would kill her we kept repeating over and over!) nor all of the other family members who regularly gathered to celebrate birthdays and holidays over these three decades.  We acted as if all was normal! I never understood the tremendous harm I was inflicting on my daughter. What is worse, I never thought about what she must be going through at all those parties, dinners and gatherings held there. We wanted her to put it behind her; to forget about it; to not upset the happy family. I did not understand until less than three months ago why Aishah was still angry with me; why our relationship was so troubled.  I was oblivious to the fact that the harm continued way beyond the two years she was being actively molested.

As a Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, and Human Rights Activist, I am shocked and ashamed of myself.  I am ashamed that I let my only child, a woman child, suffer all these years in silence.  I am ashamed that I did NOTHING, really, to take her out of the horrible situation she endured during and long after the molestations occurred by wanting her to keep QUIET; to keep it SECRET! To go their regularly and act as if nothing had happened. I don’t know how I did this!  I am just now admitting and coming to terms with my INACTION with this GREAT EVIL that I covered up and expected Aishah to cover up!  I am just – thirty-seven years later – coming to terms with the terrible spiritual, psychic, emotional and physical toll that this has taken on Aishah for almost four decades.  I am just now becoming ACCOUNTABLE to her for the LOVE I have always proclaimed that I have for her, my daughter.

I am so sad about the overt and covert harm that I caused my only child.  I am grateful that in spite of this great harm I have caused, Aishah has persevered, rose like a Phoenix from the ashes and held me ACCOUNTABLE for my silence and cover up of a monstrous evil.  She has broken silences with her film NO! The Rape Documentary,  with her numerous published writings in print and online, her national and international lectures, workshops, and now, her project #LoveWITHAccountability, I can only pray that she forgives me and that I continue to learn from her example, her writings and the personal experiences she shares with me on how a parent should act when their child is sexually abused:

First and foremost: Believe Her! (or Him) Check it out! Confront the perpetrator

Secondly: Remove her/him from the site of the molestation and do not make the child continue to go there and act as if everything is normal!

Thirdly: Charge the perpetrator with the crime to family members and possibly the authorities unless he/she makes amends, especially within the family unit!

Fourthly: Get professional help for your child, other family members and yourself!

I am proud of and salute Aishah’s work to stop this horrible scourge of sexual violence against girls and women that is a pandemic numbers in this country and around the world. Thank Goddess and Gods, Aishah is silent NO More.


A Daughter’s Postscript

After talking extensively with my mother in response to my deep feelings of unexplained irrational guilt about a one-sided view of my grandfather in her “peace,” we both agreed that I should write a postscript.

What happened to me as a 10-12 year old child was egregious and it became horrific because nothing was ever done. My grandfather is definitely guilty of sexually molesting me for a period of two years. However, he is not the only one who caused me severe harm. As my mother shared, I told her about my molestation while it has happening. Initially she didn’t (want to) believe me but ultimately, she eventually told my dad. They were bystanders who never did anything. I was left to navigate my way by myself as a child who became an adult.

This is not the sum total of who Pop-pop (my grandfather) was or who my parents were and are. Up until writing my “Removing the Mask: AfroLez®femcentric[2] Silence Breaker”chapter in Jennifer Patterson‘s edited anthology Queering Sexual Violence: Radical Voices from Within the Anti-Violence Movement, I only wrote about my parents in glowing terms without ever exposing their contradictions. They are both prominently featured in my film NO!. My father is also the celebrated subject in my short video In My Father’s House, which is about his unwavering support of my lesbian coming out process. For me, my life is about the profound contradictions and deep complexities.

Nana (my grandmother) wasn’t ever told what her husband did to me. She was my closest confidante up until my first year in college when she began the initial stages of developing Alzheimer’s disease. I didn’t tell her and neither did her son, my father, or her ex-daughter in law, my mother. If it weren’t  for her husband, my Pop-pop, Nana would’ve been in a nursing home when she developed Alzheimer’s disease. Despite the fact that she was mentally unaware of her current reality, her husband was her literal savior, and simultaneously, he was my terrorist when I was a defenseless 10-12 year old girl. What would it have meant for my parents to hold him accountable? Would he have admitted to his molesting me? Would my grandmother have believed me?

I will never know those answers.

Throughout my twenties and my very early thirties, during my grandmother’s demise, my grandfather became the celebrated hero for being a dedicated and committed husband who carried the lion’s share of his wife’s care. In my eyes, he was the flawed hero whose painful contradictions were only acknowledged in private when I brought them up with my parents.

After over a decade of living with Alzheimer’s disease, Nana only spent the last three days of her life in the hospital prior to her becoming an ancestor. This is because of my grandfather’s unwavering commitment to his wife. It was during her most unconscious state in her hospital room in late December 2001 that I laid my head in her lap and sobbed. I finally told her what I never could tell her when she was conscious and alert.

Without ANY hesitation, I celebrated my grandfather for ALL that he did for his wife when I wrote and delivered Nana’s eulogy at her funeral. After her burial in December 2001, I continued to lovingly engage with my grandfather until shortly after I played a pivotal role in saving his life nine years later in March 2010. It was then that the weight of a mask  that I wore for 31-years almost suffocated me. I began taking the steps to yank it off and destroy it.

I was angry because the assumption was that I should “be there” for my grandfather during his critical time of need. And while I was there and I believe would do it again, I could no longer accept this inadvertent belief that I must sacrifice myself for the man who terrorized me and  the man and woman who allowed it to happen. That was no longer acceptable.

To my father’s credit, he said, “Okay.” He didn’t make me feel guilty about my decision. He supported it. Without any input from me, he also believed it was his responsibility to tell both my aunt and my cousin (her daughter) the reasons why I completely disappeared from any and all activity connected to my grandfather’s care. My grandfather became an ancestor in February 2011 and after much thought and deliberation, I did not attend his funeral.[3]

How do I heal from 37-years of intentional and inadvertent denial from two beloved people, my divorced parents, who did not walk their human rights defending talk when it came to addressing my child sexual molestation?  Since late August 2016, this is the question that my mother and I are experientially learning minute by minute of every single day by day without attachments to the outcome. It is not a parallel journey, but my belief is that my father is also pushing himself to face what feels like the unfaceable. This is our familial version of #LoveWITHAccountability.

End Notes

[1] NO! The Rape Documentary. Aishah Shahidah Simmons. AfroLez® Productions, 2006. DVD.

[2] Coined in 1990, by Aishah Shahidah Simmons, AfroLez®femcentric defines the culturally conscious role of Black women who identify as Afrocentric, Lesbian, and Feminist.

[3] Simmons, Aishah Shahidah. “Removing the Mask: AfroLez®femcentric[2] Silence Breaker.” Queering Sexual Violence: Radical Voices from Within the Anti-Violence Movement, Ed. Jennifer Patterson. New York: Avalon 2016. Page 31. Print.

Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Ph.D., is a Senior Lecturer of African American Studies and Religion at the University of Florida. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Religious Studies and a graduate certificate in Women’s Studies from Temple University. Her primary academic focus is on Islam with a specific focus on Islamic Law and its impact on Muslim women. She conducted research in Jordan, Egypt, Palestine and Syria on the Shari’ah’s impact on women, and the contemporary women’s movements in those countries to change these laws while on Fulbright and USAID Fellowships.

She currently teaches Courses on Islam, Women and Islam, Modern Islamic Thought, African American Religious traditions and Race Religion and Rebellion.  Her manuscript, Muslim Feminism: A Call for Reform is under review and she is under contract with The New Press, for  ISLAM does not equal FUNDAMENTALISM.  She has published several articles including: “From Little Memphis Girl to Mississippi Amazon,” in Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts By Women in SNCC, Holsaert, Norman et al (eds.) University of Illinois Press; “Martin Luther King Revisited: A Black Power Feminist Pays Homage to the King,” in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion; Striving for Muslim Women’s Rights—Before and Beyond Beijing: An African American Perspective in: Windows of Faith: Muslim Women Scholar-Activists of North America.  G. Webb (ed.), Syracuse University Press 2000; Are We Up To The Challenge?  The Need For a Radical Re-Ordering Of The Islamic Discourse On Women in: Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism. O. Safi (ed.) London: One World Press 2003); and others.

In addition to her academic and spiritual studies she has a long history in the area of civil rights, human rights and peace work. For 23 years, Simmons was on the staff of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker peace, justice, human rights, and international development organization.  During her early adult years, Simmons was active with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), becoming active during the Sit-Ins as a student at Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga. This involvement led to her leaving college to work full time with SNCC in the summer of 1964 as a volunteer in the historic Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. She is the recipient of the Gainesville, Florida’s 2010 Rosa Parks Quiet Courage Award, the co-recipient, with Aishah Shahidah Simmons, of the  Scarritt-Bennett Center’s 2010 Ann L. Reskovac Courage Award,  and the Gainesville Commission on Women’s 2011 International Women’s Human Rights Award. She is featured in the internationally acclaimed award-winning  NO! The Rape Documentary by her daughter Aishah Shahidah Simmons, and the award-winning PBS Documentaries This Far By Faith by Valerie Linson and Freedom Summer by Stanley Nelson.

photo credit: Daniel Goudrouffe

photo credit: Daniel Goudrouffe

Aishah Shahidah Simmons is a Black feminist lesbian incest and rape survivor, award-winning documentary filmmaker, published writer, international lecturer, and activist. She is a Just Beginnings Collaborative Fellow, and a Visiting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice, where she is also affiliated with the Evelyn Jacobs Ortner Center on Family Violence. She is the creator of the film NO! The Rape Documentary and the #LoveWITHAccountability project. An associate editor of The Feminist Wire, Aishah has screened her work, guest lectured, and facilitated workshops and dialogues to racially and ethnically diverse audiences at colleges and universities, high schools, conferences, international film festivals, rape crisis centers, battered women shelters, community centers, juvenile correctional facilities, and government sponsored events across the United States and Canada, throughout Italy, in South Africa, France, England, Croatia, Hungary, The Netherlands, Mexico, Kenya, Malaysia, India, Switzerland, St. Croix U.S.V.I, Germany, and Cuba. You can follow both #LoveWITHAccountability and Aishah on twitter @loveaccountably and @Afrolez.