Gail's Story

“Telling your story will be the beginning of your healing. You will see light at the end of the tunnel.”

Gail Gardner is a pastoral counselor, advocate, listener, writer, and survivor of sexual violence.

She says that she experienced child sexual abuse by a family member starting at age 5.

“The grooming was the most devastating part of it. I was so young when it started. Psychologically, it had a huge effect on my personality and how I viewed myself.”

Gail didn’t feel that she could talk about what happened to her and turned to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drugs and alcohol.

She joined a church, which provided the support and community she was seeking, and soon started her education to become a minister. It was during this period that Gail’s home was broken into and she survived rape. “I was a single parent. My nine-year-old son and I were asleep in my bed when the perpetrator broke in.”

“I wondered—why does this keep happening to me?” 

Gail called the police and was taken to the hospital to get a sexual assault forensic exam, also known as a rape kit.

“It was archaic. I was an African American woman who had been raped, which was not necessarily taken seriously at that time. I was taken to a bare hospital room that only had a tray of metal instruments in it. All of my clothes were taken away and I was only given a sheet to wear. It was freezing cold. They left me in there by myself for so long, just waiting. It was horrible. When the nurse finally came in, she started the exam without saying a word to me. The experience was awful—it was like being raped all over again.”

Gail told some members of her church community what had happened and was met with unsupportive reponses.

“People I had trusted said hurtful things to me. They told me to get over it. Told me that I wanted it. They treated me like I had a disease.”

Gail knew she needed to talk to someone, but couldn’t find any resources in her area.

“At that time, there was no way to get help. There was no RAINN, no local sexual assault service providers, no one to help me at all. I wanted to go to counseling, but as a single parent, couldn’t afford it. I just had to push my way through in order to survive.”

For decades, Gail hadn’t told her mother about the abuse, but after the second incident of sexual violence, she knew she needed to talk about the childhood abuse in order to start healing from both experiences. Her mother and the rest of her family reacted in a supportive way. Gail found that talking about her own experiences freed others to talk about abuse they had endured and led the family to have important and overdue conversations.

“People will say ‘what happens in this house, stays in this house.’ But by silencing survivors in that way, you pass the trauma on to the next generation.” For Gail, supporting and advocating for other survivors has been the most important aspect of her healing. She got her GED and undergraduate degree, then went on to receive a master’s degree in pastoral counseling as well as a master’s degree in education. Not only is she passionate about supporting survivors, but she is on a mission to educate parents, teachers, and anyone who works with children about the warning signs of child sexual abuse. “People need to be informed. They need to know how to recognize sexual abuse and how to support someone who’s gone through it.”

 

Gail has also been involved in advocacy efforts for the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which is essential to providing survivors with the resources they need. Though she is outspoken in supporting critical policy initiatives, she sees grassroots efforts to educate Americans about sexual violence as the most direct path to ending it.

“We need communities to be talking about this—in churches, schools, and families.”

One of the phrases Gail says she often hears from survivors is: “there was no one there for me.” After experiencing both supportive and unsupportive reactions to what happened to her, Gail knows how much of a difference it can make when someone listens and believes you.

“How do you support a survivor? You show empathy and compassion. Even if you can’t identify with what happened to them, just imagine you can and be there with them as they tell their story.”

Gail has also found connections between her work as a bereavement counselor and with survivors of sexual violence. “In my bereavement counseling, many people when they’re grieving the loss of a loved one, will bring up with me that they experienced child sexual abuse. They start talking about it because it’s the first time someone has listened to them.”

“When a child is sexually abused, there is a part of their childhood that has been taken from them. To heal from this, it needs to be recognized as a kind of loss, a kind of grieving.” While working on her memoir, Gail went to the police department to get her records and saw that her cold case from 31 years ago had been reopened.

“They think they’ve found enough information to catch him. Maybe I’ll see justice after all.”

“If you’re allowed to talk, you’re allowed to heal. Every day I get up and I know I am healing.”

Eight out of 10 sexual assaults are committed by someone who knows the victim.

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