By Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz
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.