Friday, June 15, 2012

The Teller of Secrets

Twenty-two years ago, I packed up some essentials and headed to Camp Tanasi for the summer. I'd turned sixteen just months before and--although I'd been a Girl Scout for a decade--this job, as Junior Counselor, was my very first. It paid little on top of room (platform tent) and board, but I was excited about work experience, also for adventure; I'd never been away from home for longer than two weeks, before.

I spent part of the summer teaching young campers to canoe, the other part teaching them to horseback ride. It was during my time with budding equestrians that I met a girl (the only girl from that long-ago summer) whom I've never forgotten.

She'd stuck pretty close to me since the first day, this petite girl with Dorothy Hamill hair. I didn't think much about it; I'd learned, already: young people bond quickly when they're separated from their families. But one night, a storm hit, and some of the horses screamed and reared. The adult counselors set about attending to all the animals and unsettled campers save the one girl who, hysterical, wouldn't allow anyone near her but me.

She cried so hard, at first, that she couldn't speak, and--when words came, at last--they climbed out of a dark pit in the middle of her. She confessed things I knew she'd never uttered, before: her mother had been hitting her, she told me, and she pushed up the sleeves on her t-shirt and showed me fading bruises. Days before, she'd had a faint, yellow one on her face: another thing about which I hadn't given much thought.

No sooner did she empty of tears and secrets than she began begging me not to tell, and--feeling like a traitor--I hated it but knew I had no choice. The Camp Director called in Child Protective Services, and I was told they asked her questions and photographed what remained of her bruises. She avoided me for the rest of the week.

At summer's end, when I had my film developed, I discovered a photo of the girl from early in our week together. Pre-storm, she'd beamed up at me, and I'd captured the adoration in her eyes. I framed the photo, and five years later, I gave her last name to the protagonist in my first novel.

I'd been insulated before I met her, and I guess you might say that--in my mind--she gave child abuse a face. She gave secrets a face, and she gave silence a face. She also cemented my identity as the one who tells secrets. The one who speaks. 

I keep others' secrets unless I believe people to be in danger, but I don't keep my own. That's not to say I tell everyone everything, but I don't carry a thing in my heart that I haven't uttered to someone. And I speak as much as I please. If someone says or writes something, and I feel compelled to disagree, I do it freely and without regret. Just yesterday, a preacher's wife in East Tennessee tried to bully me on facebook, but I'm beyond bullying. I'll not be silenced unless it's by the Lord. I have words, and I use them.
I believe they have the potential to save lives: especially my own.

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