Her earliest years are spotty, like inkblots splattered on what looks like an exquisite picture. But, without warning, shards of memory can slice the canvas at any given moment. The way the hot afternoon sun looked as it cut through the blinds when Lilada Gee woke from her nap that day, a tiny six-year-old girl, lying on top of her abuser's erect penis. The paralyzing, toxic fear creeping through her veins as the venom of responsibility first pierced her. As right then and there, from that moment on, his outrageous crime became her burden to bear.
"Immediately, shame filled me. Fright filled me," recalls Lilada. "So when he swore me to secrecy, I was good with it. Because I wanted to pretend like it never happened."
How it happened for Lilada was deeply personal, but what she couldn't know then—and what her abuser counted on—was that it was happening to other little girls like her all over the place. Sexual abuse is not unique to any one particular race, socioeconomic group or cultural background. It's everywhere—one in four American girls and one in six boys are victims. It's pervasive and it's choking and it blooms in silence, multiplying and creeping like a toxic mold in the dark, feeding off the rotting fruit of secrecy. Sexual abuse makes you believe that there is no one else like you out there. No one that feels the way you do, has been where you've been. It tells you you are dirty, that there's something about you that asked for this, that it's your fault. That no one will believe you anyway, if you tell. So you don't. You help keep the awful secret, becoming both hostage and coconspirator, aiding and abetting your own devastating crime.
Or, maybe, you do tell. In a best-case scenario, your abuser is prosecuted and convicted. Your family embraces you and you get some good therapy and you start to believe the truth, that it wasn't you. That there is nothing inherently wrong with you. That you are good and whole and beautiful and strong and that your perpetrator was the sick one. That you're not alone and you never were.
Or, more likely, there are years and years of bruised gray area. Maybe you freeze. Maybe you stuff it down and deny and hide it for so long that it's far too late to collect physical evidence, once you do thaw. Maybe your world explodes into fractious fragments of he-said/she-said, so-what/shut-up wreckage. Maybe you face cross-examination from friends, from law enforcement, from social service agents, from the court system.
Maybe you get up the guts to speak out to a magazine writer. Maybe she believes you, but maybe at the eleventh hour your deeply personal story is stripped down by the publication for fear of litigation. Maybe you feel, once again, the weight of the burden of proof that has always fallen on you, not your abuser. Maybe it's devastating. Maybe it isn't. Maybe you're used to being dismissed by now, as a Black woman in America, which is a whole other story. Or maybe it's this same story, too.
From the outside, Lilada Gee's life looked pretty good, and for the most part it genuinely was. Her mom, once a broke high school dropout and divorced single mother, managed to relocate to Madison, graduate Dean's List at the University of Wisconsin, remarry and raise two babies, who each went on to earn multiple degrees of their own. There was always food to eat, a car to drive, a place to live.
"We always had an abundance of things, and certainly the appearance of a really nice life," she says. "No one would have ever imagined the depth of child abuse [I was enduring]."
Despite these trappings, Lilada still had a longing inside, a kind of innate loneliness and sadness, and her abuser sniffed it out like a quiet canine. She understands this now because of years of therapy, of medication, of reflection and prayer and tears. But at the time, she only knew there was something missing inside. He knew it, too, and he perverted it. The truth is, little Lilada trusted and cared deeply for her abuser.
"I loved him to death and followed him everywhere and loved being with him," she says. "But unfortunately, people who are perpetrators, they find that longing and that vulnerability and they tie into that."
For years—years—Lilada endured unspeakable torment in silence. What the abuser did to her body was bad enough, but what he did to her mind might have been worse. "I almost wished sometimes he'd beat the hell out of me, but he used his love that I had for him instead," she says. "He said, ‘If you tell I'll go to jail.' So it just screwed up what love was, what trust was, for me."
Her escape came in a kind of a roundabout way when, at the age of nine or ten, her kid brain contorted her church's message and she started to believe she was committing a sin. After a year or two of worrying she might be going to hell if she didn't "confess," she finally approached her mom. She couldn't bear to say it all, so she squeaked this simple sentence out before her throat could close around the words: "He keeps messing with me."
It'd be nice if everything was instantly better, but of course it wasn't. At first her mother "did everything I would have hoped and imagined she would have done, embraced me, cue the happy music, all that kind of stuff," says Lilada. But these things are complicated and messy, fraught with missteps and multiple layers. And so she suffered more violations and betrayals as her abuser came back in and out of her life, over and over for years. He tried to lay his hands on her again but Lilada, now a young adult, had finally earned better tools with which to stand up to him. He never raped her again.
Lilada grew up, married, had two kids of her own, divorced. She earned a UW–Madison bachelor's degree in education, psychology and African American studies, and got work as a Dane County Human Services social worker. In the mid-1990s, she was part of the founding team for the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development with her brother, Dr. Alex Gee, Jr., pastor of Fountain of Life Family Worship Center. The Nehemiah Center's mission is to support and empower Madison's African American community, particularly its marginalized men.
But Lilada, who also became an ordained minister, found herself especially compelled to help its females, those sisters and mothers and daughters she knew were walking in the same painful shoes she'd finally shucked. The more she worked with women like her, the more she knew she needed to confront her own demons.
"I'd ministered to all these women but I was still so broken," says Lilada. "I didn't even realize how broken I was until I started looking at the pieces of my life."
One Sunday, she walked up to the pulpit and finally told the congregation what had happened to her as a child. That's when something magical started to happen. That's when the healing became larger than herself. The story became bigger than her own.
"After, women and teen girls just started showing up at my house and sitting in my living room and telling me their stories," she says. "We'd cry together. We'd pray together. Lilada's Livingroom is an outgrowth of that."
In 2010, Lilada founded Lilada's Livingroom, a nonprofit providing culturally specific tools to support and empower Black women and children affected by sexual violence. It's a formalization of years of work with the countless teen moms and abuse victims she's ministered to and the professional advocates she's consulted with, on her couch, from her pulpit, on teleconference calls, in speeches and from the pages of her 2006 memoir, I Can't Live Like This Anymore!, in which she goes public with her own story. She's made a deliberate decision to make her work Afrocentric. Part of it is that it's her path—it's what she knows, it's who she is, it's how she can best serve. But part of it is that it's so very badly needed.
"I decided to focus my life work on this issue, to not only do the work but come up with strategies in empowering other people to do this work in a way that reaches our community," she says. "Because I figure if Black women don't come together to address these issues, no one is."
Lilada works with women all over the world. She's received awards from both the Investigation Discovery Channel and the National Network to End Domestic Violence. She has traveled to Thailand to work with sex trafficking victims. She's traveled to Skid Row to help women in sexually controlling relationships. She's led cultural competency training for sexual assault advocates all over Wisconsin. But it's her work right here in liberal, progressive Madison that's arguably most critical of all.
"In this state there are about fifty certified sexual assault service provider agencies. Of those fifty agencies, there are absolutely zero sexual assault advocates that are Black and just one Black sexual assault nurse examiner. Examiners are the first people who touch a victim to collect the evidence after she's reported a rape." says Lilada. "Wisconsin is a progressive leader in domestic violence and sexual assault in the nation. For the field to not be representative of those who need service, in this progressive state, is scandalous."
Of course, it is possible for well-trained professionals, regardless of cultural ethnicity, to heal and empower sexual abuse victims. The most devastating wounds of sexual abuse are universal. And none of this is to dismiss the vitally important work that Dane County professionals are doing in this town to combat sexual violence.
But it's irresponsible to downplay the effectiveness of being seen and understood by someone who shares your own cultural lens and experience, or the powerful catalyst of self-identification.
That first moment you see someone else stand up and speak out, someone who looks like you, sounds like you, moves like you. Maybe she goes to your church. Maybe she went to your school. Maybe she looks like your sister or your mom or your aunt or your grandma, and it finally hits you like nothing else has. You know it in your bones that you get her and she gets you and there she is, saying, "This happened to me." And that's when you can finally say, out loud, "Me, too."
And there's more to it, too, if you're a Black American. If the very fabric of your DNA is woven with hundreds of years of sexual victimization, much of it legalized, no less, even socially acceptable. If hundreds of years of Black men falsely accused and strung up has led you to instinctually protect your own, to keep your family's secrets close and out of the system. If you can't even do something as simple as walk into a store without feeling guilty until proven innocent, how do you know it's safe to lay bare your most brutal secrets to that cop or nurse or social worker? How do you know you don't have to first explain institutional racism to even the most well meaning White person before you can comfortably even speak your name? And why is it even your job to do so, anyway?
"I'm not a scientist, but I believe at some level this has even affected us at a genetic level. To have that many years of stress and trauma and oppression, the chemistry of the body has had to change," says Lilada. "So when you look at Black women and lack of resources and everybody talking about ‘We treat people the same,' I'm like, bullshit. No you don't. The implication that for some women who need a cultural framework to deal with their sexual victimization, who are not afforded that through any of these state and federally funded organizations, what a disservice. Not just to those women, but to their husbands, to their children, to the community around them."
Tamara Brown was a twenty-two-year-old newlywed and new mother that day nearly two decades ago, as she sat there rapt on a church pew listening to Lilada Gee testify about her sexual abuse.
Until then, she'd been doing just fine, thank you very much. Her own sexual abuse had happened a long time ago, throughout her elementary school years. She'd since married, had a baby, gone to cosmetology school. Sure, she'd grown tough and quiet, maybe no longer the carefree, outgoing child she once was, but no longer vulnerable, either. The abuse was way back in her rear-view mirror. It certainly didn't affect who she was today.
Except it did, really. She was having a hard time being intimate with her husband, a gentle, patient man she deeply loved. Worse—and she still hasn't shared this part with many people—she was struggling with breastfeeding her baby. It was terrifying. It felt wrong. She had to repeat it over and over in her head as her sweet baby nursed, "This is natural, this is normal."
Witnessing Lilada's story that day made everything all better and everything so much worse, all at once. Here was this woman standing up before God and everybody, telling her story. And Tamara felt it was her story, too. She wasn't the only one. She wasn't alone. And she didn't have to keep it a secret anymore.
At the same time, all that nauseating grief and shame and confusion and bone-weary fatigue and that searing pain she'd swallowed down for years came burbling up from her gut to her throat, threatening to erupt. Not long after that day, Lilada led an event at church where a few more women shared their sexual abuse experiences, what had happened to them and how they were able to recover. Tamara had never felt so raw. So exposed. She started to feel like she was literally going insane. A few months later, unable to stand it anymore, Tamara drove to Lilada's house.
"And we sat in Lilada's living room," says Tamara. "And she heard me. She helped me."
Today Tamara, now married twenty-one years with three children, is the owner of Fringe Salon Spa on the west side. She and Lilada are still close friends and she helps out where she can, both personally and professionally, so that other girls can experience the healing she did.
"As long as my doors are open, I will be supporting Lilada's Livingroom. Because, unfortunately, there has not been an abundance of conversation about sexually abused people," says Tamara. "It has been difficult to get this information out. I just want to stand behind her and continue to push until it's all fully broken through."
Tamara wants to be clear: Speaking out didn't fix everything. It wasn't the end of her work; it was just the beginning.
"The good thing is, it gets better and better, every time I do speak out," says Tamara. "The more that I realize what the reality of things are. And that is that I'm beautiful. I'm safe. I am protected. I'm not alone."
Thirty-year-old Stephanie Nash is the program coordinator of Madison Empowering Responsibility in Teens, or MERIT, at Kennedy Heights Community Center, and also works at nearby Vera Court Neighborhood Center with the RISEUP high school academic enrichment program. She double majored in social work and religious and philosophical studies at Savannah State University, where she played basketball for the Lady Tigers and was active in her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, Inc. Right now she's writing a book titled Pieces of My In-H.E.R. Soul, a memoir and self-help guide to healing, empowerment and restoration and her larger vision and goal is to establish a nonprofit to ensure successful transitions and services for people who've been incarcerated.
It's hard to believe she was once in jail herself.
"I was raging," she explains, simply. "On the inside."
When she went away to college in 2001, she'd left behind her mom, who struggled with addiction and was in and out of jail throughout her childhood, and the place where she's been sexually abused as a child. She'd left behind a town where everybody seemed to have two parents in the stands at the basketball games, seemed to have the newest shoes and clothes and things she could never afford. Her experiences made her tough, a star athlete and razor-sharp, driven to succeed, with this crazy idea that if she could just put enough distance between herself and the memories of the abuse, it would all go away. That, well, shit happens. Dust yourself off and keep moving.
But, back when she was an eighth grader in Lilada's Nefertiti girls group at church, something about Lilada compelled Stephanie to confide in her about her own abuse for the first time. Lilada eventually encouraged and was there to support Stephanie when she told her mother, who contacted the authorities—much to Stephanie's dismay.
"She put me in therapy at the same time, and my first therapist was White," says Stephanie. "I remember I already didn't want to go, and I definitely didn't want to talk to no White lady."
Stephanie got through that time but became more focused on escaping Madison and never looking back. Today she understands that her unresolved issues of sexual, mental and emotional abuse, rejection and abandonment gave way to anger and rage, which began to burn her alive from the inside out. She found herself, an active honor student, in jail on charges for her role in an auto theft ring in Georgia. After serving six months of a five-year sentence, she got out in 2005 and spent the next few years building a different life for herself. All of which led her back to Madison in the fall of 2010.
"This is where my journey to healing really began," she says. "I knew that there was a purpose in all the things that I'd experienced in my life and I knew I couldn't continue to run from the pain nor did I want to carry the weight anymore. It was costing me too much."
That first White therapist, incidentally, has since become one of her good friends. Stephanie says it was people like her, and her high school basketball coach, and her former principal at East High School, the revered Milt McPike, and, of course, Lilada, who helped her see the value in her life and who loved her unconditionally.
"I am grateful to Lilada for being able to channel the depths of me and who I was back then. She understood so many of my feelings and emotions and even my unhealthy behaviors and in turn helped lay the foundation to the journey of my healing," says Stephanie. "She helped me to love myself, to see myself as beautiful, regardless of what I had experienced that made me feel unlovable and unwanted."
So that's what she commits to doing for the kids she works with today.
"I see myself in the face of every child I come in contact with and that is what fuels my passion for the work I do with youth."
Jacquesha McFarlane isn't so sure she wants to talk about her sexual abuse anymore. She will, one on one, if you need her to, if it will help you, but for the most part she just wants to keep it moving. After all, she's thirty-two now, married, a mom and a stepmom to five kids. She's got a liberal arts degree from Madison College, an associate's in business administration from Georgia Perimeter College and a bachelor's in community and nonprofit leadership from UW–Madison. She's got her own consulting business. She's been there and she's done that and she acknowledges the way her sexual abuse devastated her, but she refuses to let it define her.
"I guess I'm just a no-nonsense kind of person because so much nonsense has taken place," she says. "I've just translated that over into other areas of my life where I don't take no mess. I don't take no stuff. From anybody."
But Lilada asked and so here she is, speaking out. Because it was such a big deal, all those years ago, to have Lilada's support. To know that she wasn't the only one, that she wasn't alone. Like Stephanie, Jacquesha was a member of Nefertiti as a teenage girl and later ran the Nefertiti program at Wright Middle School as Lilada's assistant.
"We would open up to what had happened in our lives and how we got to where we were," she says. "Developing that sistership among ourselves to say, ‘hey, we are in this together.' It was always an uplifting and safe environment for us to talk about what happened and it made us feel we could move past it."
When she does tell you what happened to her, it's brutal. She looks you right in the eye and she says it straight and it's bad, it's really bad. There were some who knew about the abuse, but they thought it was just repeated physical violence, as if that wasn't bad enough. No, it was worse. He did indeed threaten to "punish" her, but what he would actually do was rape her. Rape by a trusted adult, over and over again, from eighth grade through her sophomore year in high school.
"And that was probably the worst beating ever," she shrugs, quietly.
Jacquesha escaped but was too afraid to tell the truth about what had happened until she was a junior. The police were called but it was too late for physical evidence, and although the system took her seriously, in the end "nothing really ended up coming of it." But she did have Nefertiti and she did, eventually, talk about it with those girls.
"Once I opened up about it, that's when I learned that there were so many more," she says. "I think had I experienced more younger people talking about the abuse beforehand, I probably would have opened up about it sooner. I didn't want to be the only one. But once I shared, there were plenty right there in my circle who had been abused."
That's why she wonders, sometimes, if she should be more forthright. If she's got it in her to keep talking about it, just in case she can help others that still don't know they're not alone.
"I do work a lot with young kids, but they don't know that struggle. They don't know that part of it," she says. "But what if they did? What might I be helping them through?"
Growing up in Madison has made Lilada "very bicultural," she says. In her West High graduating class of five hundred, there were maybe eight or nine Black kids. Of the three hundred students in her college lectures, maybe two or three were Black. She'd be hard-pressed to recall any Black teachers. So she really gets these young Black girls today, growing up in a majority white culture that claims to be so progressive yet seems unwilling to address glaring racial disparities.
"Those girls are just so angry, you can just feel the anger and the frustration, you know?" she says. "You don't just wake up one day and you're fifteen and you're mad as hell. These girls are dealing with trauma. That's why they're mad as hell. And nobody's responding to their trauma."
I imagine it can put a sort of pressure on women like Lilada—professional African American women in Madison—to not only exemplify the triumph over the bullshit, but to educate White girl reporters like me who come calling. When I awkwardly ask Lilada if there are "others" who believe in what she is doing and are willing to take the time to explain for the record why this kind of work is critical, several powerhouse sources immediately line up to throw their support behind Lilada.
Corinda Rainey-Moore is a clinical team manager at Journey Mental Health Center/Fordem Connections Community Support Program. Lilada reached out to her early on to see where their work might intersect.
"One of the things I actually talked with her about was looking at trauma differently, particularly because sometimes with people of color, their exposure to trauma happens on a daily basis," says Rainey-Moore. "I know this is probably gonna sound a little weird, but sometimes the event itself is traumatic, but sometimes how people respond to your either telling or sharing can be even more traumatic."
That's why it's so important victims have the ability to choose a healer they identify with whenever possible, says Rainey-Moore. "That doesn't mean that everybody who is a person of color is going to come in and say, ‘I want somebody who looks like me.' But if that's what their preference is, they should have that opportunity."
Rainey-Moore trains providers on how to work with people of color, how to be culturally competent and meet people where they are. How not to label a victim's reluctance as noncompliant or noncooperative, how to take into consideration that the system may have taught them that their personal information has not always been "used to their best interests." After all these years of all this work she does sees a positive shift in the number of women of color finally speaking out and she welcomes it, believes it's critical not only to abuse survivors but the community as a whole, White and Black.
"I think Lilada putting herself out there really set the stage for women to be able to heal and people of color to talk about what has happened to them," says Rainey-Moore. "I'm really feeling proud to be connected to this, what I consider a movement to take back our lives. I consider it to be relevant work. I feel it's needed work, in fact it's long overdue, and I just think that the more we talk about it, the more people will come forward, the more perpetrators won't be allowed to continue. And that people know that somebody will listen."
Jacquelyn Hunt also works for Journey Mental Health Center, where she's been a clinical substance abuse counselor for fourteen years. Substance abuse and sexual abuse go hand in hand, of course. Drugs and alcohol are logical solutions when you need to numb out, to self-medicate, to set fire to that trauma. Hunt believes all professionals work with a level of cultural competence, that no matter what race or ethnicity, a professional can help all ethnic groups. But there are still huge barriers to women of color seeking access to mental health services, still a significant group within the community in pain because they don't feel safe opening up.
"African American women have issues with trust and the formal systems that are in place don't necessarily reflect or mimic who they are," says Hunt. "So they're often pre-judged, and there are stereotypes that are placed on them that aren't placed on other cultures, and so for this reason it is very important to have people who look like them serving them in that capacity."
Hunt's got another point, too, about the need for Black women helping Black girls, and it's a fascinating one.
"African American girls and women … have mostly been hurt by African American women. Be it in the form of moms who didn't protect them or other significant African American women in their lives with whom society does not agree on their methods of rearing children," says Hunt. "These women and girls have a missing connection which is critical for them to have in order to form positive images of themselves and to allow for the type of healing and restoration in their lives which is needed."
Sherry Lucille is a guidance counselor at Memorial High School. She says that even as a "fully intact grown-up woman," middle class and married and professional, she still sometimes feels that judgment, that fear, that need to prove herself or explain herself to majority culture. And so she can't even imagine how much worse it is if you're young, if you're poor, if you're abused.
"I can see that going into a police station where almost everybody is not like you, or going into the hospital where almost everybody is not like you, and feeling like there's a cultural divide, there's an income divide, there's an educational divide and then there's a race divide. You know, how am I going to be perceived?" says Lucille. "Are people going to really understand that I'm here for help? Are they really going to help me and not maybe somehow trip me up because of something that I've done that is not like how they would do it?"
In the twenty-five years she's worked as a counselor, she's seen a greater interest and sensitivity to issues like these, but she still remains one of the only Black women in her field in Madison. She can feel the way some of her Black students relax in her presence and it makes sense to her, this need, the importance of it.
"I really do feel that Lilada has a pure heart for this and a sincerity and that she just wants to make room, you know?" says Lucille. "Make room for this and have people understand that there is a need. I don't think it should be a strange thing that an African American provider would want to meet that niche."
Betty Banks is retired now from a career in early childhood development, and she's also the co-founder of the nonprofit Today Not Tomorrow. Although her background is in parenting, she says she's learned a lot from Lilada about the pervasive impact of sexual abuse on families and "fully agrees" with Lilada's Afrocentric approach.
"I think in good parenting practices, there also has to be some attention paid to who we are as African Americans and how what has happened to us does impact our families and the kinds of values that we need to give to our children," says Banks. "So that they know how to navigate systems that may not always be fair. That are, in fact, racist."
Banks is supporting Lilada because, as the leader of a nonprofit, she knows how hard it is to get the attention and the focus of community that may or may not understand your mission. Because she thinks she's courageous, and relevant, that her work is vitally important.
"She is smart and she is a warrior," says Banks. "She's going to stand for what she believes in and there are all kinds of things she's up against but she's willing to do it, and I feel strongly that I need to stand with her."
It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I think about it. Lilada Gee, willing to expose herself so thoroughly so that other women know they're not alone, even when—especially when—she risks further trauma within a city that, for whatever reason, seems to squirm away from the idea that Madison has a race problem, that America has a rape culture problem. Seven more bold Black women—every single one that I contacted—talking to a perfect stranger about incredibly painful, incredibly complex things, just because Lilada asked them to. None of them had to talk to me. Every one of them said yes.
Their voices rise up together and we pluck all those words from the charged air, gently press them firmly upon these pages. To be shuffled and relaid, edited and fact-checked, scrutinized and, finally, yes, sanitized. With any luck and grace, the power in speaking out remains intact. Maybe things might even change, because the catalyst for the biggest movements can come in what seem at the time to be the tiniest, simplest things. Because for all she has seen and all she has heard, for all the women and girls and all the ground they've covered together, for all the accolades, triumphs and setbacks, for all the thrills and all the pain, nothing in Lilada's life has been more critical than that moment thirty-some-odd years ago when that bruised and muzzled little eleven-year-old girl finally spoke out.
"That day when I was able to tell my mother as much as I was able to tell her, I was able to find my voice again," she says. "And so much of our strength and our being and our identity and our dignity, all that courage, is in our voice."
Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz is a frequent contributor to Madison Magazine.
Lilada's Livingroom is launching the Black Woman Heal! Tour this spring to inform, inspire and initiate a healing movement in the Black communities of Wisconsin. For more information, contact LiladasLivingroom@gmail.com or visit facebook.com/LiladasLivingroom. Lilada's Livingroom is located at 655 W. Badger Rd., Madison, WI, 53713.