The beginning, end, and everything in between

An Observer reporter recounts her sexual abuse and recovery

Hannah Soukup and Indie Wilson

 

Note to readers: The following story contains descriptions of sexual abuse. Observer staff writer Hannah Soukup recounts her abuse at the hands of her former stepfather. Observer staff writer Indie Wilson provides context on how common this type of abuse is and what the consequences are for victims. 

 

Uneasiness 

“Honey, we’re not getting back together,” my mother said. “Stop getting your hopes up.” 

I have heard these words since I was 3-years-old. I never realized the impact my parents’ divorce had on me, but the undeniable hope I had to get my father back broke my heart when my mother made it clear that their marriage was over. 

My mother met my future stepdad on a dating app. I considered him a second father, and at the beginning, he was nice. My parents had joint custody, but I primarily lived with my mother in my stepfather’s home and saw my biological dad a fraction of the time I was with my mother. As years living under my stepfather’s roof, I realized how cold and callous he could be, but I felt he was all I had, so every one of his actions were excusable to my prepubescent mind. 

I learned to appreciate my parents’ split. Two difficult people cannot be together. It’s as simple as that. I grew up thinking my biological father was my personal superhero who could do no wrong, but much to my surprise, he could. Both of my parents made mistakes during the breakdown of their relationship, and it took a long time for me to recover from their blatant disregard of my feelings. I was always the parcel to be had, and the minute one parent appeared to be on my good side, it was hung over the other’s head. 

Before the divorce was finalized, both of my parents were in serious relationships. My father’s was sweet and comfortable; my mother’s was new and exciting.

As I was in my mother’s custody a majority of the time, I got accustomed to my new-found stepfather. My mother was not home much, so we grew very close. My biological father often seemed uncomfortable with how close we were, and to him, it all seemed strange how my stepfather put more effort into our relationship than the relationship between he and his two biological children. 

Never did I second guess the intentions my stepfather had during those early years, but he would break my heart soon enough. 

 

The Breach of Trust 

“Mom, I think something bad is going to happen to me,” I pleaded, not knowing if my mother’s seven-year marriage would falter under the strange touches her husband was giving me. 

“Nothing will, I wouldn’t have married someone if I knew they were going to hurt you,” my mom reassured.

I was about 10 when the strange touching started. It all started with subtle massages and late night visits which I did not want, nor was I aware of the intentions behind them. As a naïve child with an already dysfunctional homelife, I was unaware of how a real father figure was supposed to treat their child. 

“Dad, he gave me a back massage,” I said to my biological father, not understanding the true extent of its meaning. 

My father looked stunned, and the next night, I overheard the aggrieved conversation between my mom and dad. 

“That’s not normal, Shelly,” my dad said with a worried tone. 

They argued back and forth, and for those few hours, I was glued to the vent listening in on my father belittling the seemingly healthy relationship my mom had with her husband.

These small arguments turned into a growing tension within my family. Before I knew it, I was unable to spend time with both parents simultaneously. 

Being a young, impressionable child, I tried to villainize my mother which strained our relationship and prevented me from telling her anything that went on under her roof. No matter how dire a situation was, I did not feel comfortable coming to her because of my growing anxiety, so most of my trauma went unnoticed. 

 

The Beginning of the End

I was 15 when I got my first boyfriend. Up to this point, all of the odd compliments and strange touches seemed coincidental, but the more I paid attention to my stepfather’s actions, the more uncomfortable I became. 

A few months into my high school relationship, my stepfather started to encourage inappropriate behavior. He would attempt to teach me things that I had no interest in doing, but the more he coaxed me into certain behaviors, the more pressure I felt. 

It was Valentine’s Day 2020, and I had a few too many drinks. My stepfather fed me drink after drink which was a common occurrence when my mother was not home. Her brother had recently died, and she tended to neglect the household during this time. 

When my mom was on her way home from work, I was inappropriately touched. At the time, I was too alarmed to do anything about it. 

“Don’t tell anyone; I’ll go to jail and my marriage will be ruined,” my stepfather threatened. “I don’t think you want that to happen.” 

Minutes after the sexual abuse, I stared at my ceiling trying to comprehend what had happened. My mother came home and all seemed normal, but I was screaming for help through my gaze. 

 

Stepfathers and abuse

While millions of children live with stepparents in well-adjusted homes, research going back decades has shown some troubling findings. In a commonly cited study published in the “Child Abuse & Neglect” journal in 1984, it was found that 1 in 6 girls suffered abuse at the hands of their stepfather. This compares to 1 in 40 girls who have experienced sexual abuse from their biological father. In the study “Child Abuse and Other Risks of Not Living with both Parents,” published in “Ethology and Sociobiology,” researchers found that in children whose parents found new partners, kids were 40 times more likely to be sexual or physically abused than kids who lived with their biological parents. 

More recent research has confirmed that families living with male who is not the biological father of the children in the home are more likely to experience maltreatment and to be monitored by child protective services. According to a  2009 study published in the journal “Child Maltreatment,” men who are not the biological fathers may not feel a strong connection with their stepchildren. 

 

The Reveal 

The very next day– February 15– my abuse was revealed. I didn’t expect to tell anybody about the inappropriate touching, but when my biological father and I were having our monthly conversation about everything we had been struggling with, it slipped out. 

“How did he touch you?” my dad asked anxiously, prompting me to demonstrate. 

I did, and he shuttered. 

“Honey, that’s not normal.”

“Please don’t tell mom, she won’t believe me,” I pleaded. 

He did it anyway, and I’m so grateful he did. If it weren’t for my father, much, much worse could have happened to me. In a sick, twisted way, his act of saving me saved  my relationship with my biological. 

The rest of the night was a blur. I spent hours sobbing on the couch cowering under a blanket. After my mother was alerted, I begged her not to say anything to my stepfather. I was incredibly afraid of what he would do to me if he found out I had told someone about his manipulation and abuse. She said she wouldn’t, but by the next day, he was kicked out of our house. 

Law enforcement was alerted, and I had not yet understood the full extent of the situation I had been put in. 

 

The Aftermath 

“Mom, wake up, I’m scared,” I whined. 

My mom rolled over to comfort me, “He can’t hurt you anymore, I promise.” 

As a 15-year-old girl, I was embarrassed that I had to sleep with my mother for the months following my abuse. Internally, I was afraid my abuser would come back considering he still had access to the house. 

While trying to process what I had gone through, my mother and I were faced with the hurdle of finding a new home. My stepfather had given us a time limit to move out. There was nothing we could do about this because, unbeknownst to my mom, his name was the only name on our house. 

A month later, while we were settling into a new place, the investigation regarding my stepfather had just begun. Around March 2020, I had to go in for a forensic interview to detail what exactly happened. 

Reviving buried memories was a turbulent step. I could barely look at myself in the mirror without blaming myself for what had happened. This was even more difficult when I started putting the small, once unimportant, pieces together of all the strange things my stepfather did. 

Suspicions of cameras, inappropriate footage, and more came to light. Warrants found evidence in our former home to confirm the abuse. Per Kane County court records, on March 20, 2020, my stepfather was charged on 14 felony counts and 1 misdemeanor. Most of the felony charges were aggravated criminal sexual abuse to a family member and victim under 18 years old. My stepdad– my perpetrator– was arrested on the same day.

 

Fallout 

Studies confirm that sexual abuse victims face many challenges, even after the abuse has stopped. Sexual abuse and childhood rape are the most common causes of post-traumatic stress disorder in women. Other conditions like depression, anxiety, suicide attempts, and lack of trust frequently develop. Child sexual abuse may affect brain functioning, include dissociation, memory impairment and reduced social functioning. This type of abuse correlates to many conditions, including eating disorders and problems with relationships.  About 30% of people with eating disorders suffered from sexual abuse as a child. 

 

The Healing 

In early 2022, I prepared for my day in court. Having to testify against my former stepfather was one of the most traumatic things I had had to overcome. Looking him in the eyes and acknowledging what he did still hurt over two years later. The justice system was incredibly difficult to navigate at such a young age, and I never expected to be sickened by a man who I would have put my life in the hands of. 

I am glad to say that I have overcome all of the challenges I faced after my abuse. The constant night terrors and severe eating disorder nearly ended my life, and I was forced to build myself up from rock bottom.

If I was told that I would be where I am at 18, I would not have believed it. After extensive therapy, medication and self-healing, I have learned to not blame myself for what happened to me. 

As a child of divorce, I have never felt that I had a solid support system, but it’s surreal that my family has stood by my side through my ups and downs and exasperating healing process.  

According to Kane County court records, on May 11, 2022, my stepfather was found guilty of four felony counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse and one misdemeanor of sexual exploitation of a child. The guilty verdicts were liberating for me.

I wish I could say that after the prosecution, everything got better, but it has not. From my experience, it never will be. I am moved on, and I am content, but there will always be an internal scar that can never be fully healed. 

Regardless of the several times I have been to court, the anxiety has not completely gone away. This is not because I’m afraid of facing the man who did this to me, but it’s because I have to relive every horrible thing he did. 

On Nov. 30, 2022, I went to court one final time to read my victim impact statement before he was sentenced for his crimes. I typed up my statement and read it. In the days leading up, I read it, smiled at myself in the mirror and thought: You are so incredibly strong.

I knew I was prepared for any consequence my stepfather is faced with. At one time, I felt that in order for me to feel at peace, he would have to face jail time. After carefully reflecting on my abuse, I now know that true peace comes soon after courage is restored. The judge did not give him any jail time; instead, he was sentenced to four-years on probation, drug and alcohol treatment, sex offender treatment, and he must register as a sex offender for life. 

Looking down at the tear-stained paper in my hand, I didn’t feel scared. I felt empowered. There’s always a stage of healing where you feel like ‘you made it,’ and I can finally say I’m there. 

 

If you are a victim of sexual assault and want help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 or chat online at online.rainn.org.