On September 2, Brock Turner, the Stanford University student sentenced to six short months in a county jail for sexually assaulting another student with intent to rape, was released after serving half his sentence – already felt by many to be incredibly lenient given the seriousness of his crime. One of our writers, Selina Leem, was brokenhearted on behalf of Turner’s victim, and has asked us to publish this open letter to him outlining her own experience of sexual abuse, and the impact it has had on her growing up. Thank you Selina.
Iakwe Brock Turner.
My name is Selina Neirok Leem and I am from the Republic of the Marshall Islands. You probably don’t even know where the Marshall Islands is, right? We are a very small nation, one of the most vulnerable to climate change, in the Pacific, halfway between Hawai’i and Australia. We do not own a lot of land but we do own a big area in the ocean. As coined by our Ambassador for Climate, Tony de Brum, we are a large ocean country. Turner, you must be wondering why I am writing to you.
Turner, when I read about what you did on the internet, how you raped a girl while she was unconscious, I was appalled and my heart bled bitter tears for her. Bitter because I knew the things she would go through after being taken advantage of and defiled behind a garbage dump. I was angry because the judge gave you such a light sentence, because he feared it would be too much for you. Too much? I had scoffed into the air. Too much? Turner, what that judge feared would be too much for you and the things you would undergo, will be nothing compared to what that girl will go through. She will feel dirty, yes she will. She will no longer feel safe in her sleep. She will be attacked with nightmares. She will fear people’s touch. Her mind will turn against her as it replays what happened to her. She will constantly look behind her back and be suspicious of whoever approaches her, especially your sex, Turner. She will live a life no one delights in, no one rejoices in.
Turner, I am an 18 year-old small island girl with big dreams who is a victim of verbal, physical, mental and sexual abuse from Majuro, Marshall Islands. Since elementary school, I have encountered unwanted advances from boy classmates, friends, strangers, and even men within my family. I have had boys come up behind me and cup my bottom. I have had boys try to grab my vagina. I have had boys come up to me and grab one of my breasts and squeeze it like the water balloons they play with. A couple of my cousins would walk up to me, in the middle of the backroad I would take when I went back home from school and tell me, while sneering, to kiss them. In broad daylight. Of course, for any passersby, that was just an innocent encounter between two students – except that my cousins were way too old. They would not feel how my throat would clog up and my heart would hammer furiously as I fought to control my breathing. They would not see me looking desperately around, a plea in my eyes. They might notice them trying to block me as I tried to go around, but would dismiss it as boys being boys and us playing around. An uncle of mine, while watching a film with him, asked me to feel him up his inner thighs. How shamefully naïve I was, I did. He kept urging me to go higher but I pulled back. It did not feel right. And who was outside, laughing as they tossed around coins and dollars as they gambled? My mother, my grandaunt and a couple of their lady friends. This same uncle, while playing with my siblings, I ran to a house and he came in with me. He backed me up against the wall. Beyond that, I cannot remember. I feel angry because I cannot remember what happened. I want to know what he did to me and what I did.
You would think it would stop here. No, it did not. My house was no longer a refuge. Within the close quarters of my house, I was also being harassed, by a man who never should have done so. He watched me as I peed outside my house and said it was no use covering up because he already saw everything. He would lick my ears when it was just the two of us. At the age of 12, he came to me one night in my room, and that was the night where I knew the weight of a man on top of me and how strong a man is, and how weak I am compared to them. He kissed me that night; he did not penetrate me but that was enough to make me feel like the dirtiest, filthiest being on the planet. He turned fond memories of my now late grandfather, waking me up by holding me to the ground and tickling me with his scratchy, gray beard. He made me think not of the joy my grandfather would bring me, but of the strength he possessed to hold me down. He made me feel guilty and worthless for thinking my grandfather could easily have done the same to me. These are only a few of the things I went through as a child. My childhood was not all the unicorns and mermaids I daydreamed about. It was fear and the struggle to hold onto life, whatever meaning it left to me.
“I feel angry because I cannot remember what happened. I want to know what he did to me and what I did.”
At the age of 12, we reported what this man did to the police. They came and took him, he resisted and claimed he did not do anything. My grandfather told me and my sister not to say a word to anyone about this issue. It was an act of shame and we needed to cover it up. At the age of 12, four policemen came to my house. This was only a couple of days after they took him in. I was playing with my friends on the basketball court. I felt so ashamed because tongues would be wagging, and my friends – I felt they knew as I walked towards the car and got in. You know what the policeman who was sitting next to me in the backseat said? “Don’t you feel bad for him? He came here not knowing anyone, and things are rough in his life at the moment and he wanted to take revenge.” At the age of 12, I had a policeman, a man who had been hired by my country to protect its citizens and hold peace, ask me if I did not feel bad for a man who had used me as revenge by sexually abusing me. The other three policemen, their faces solemn, nodded in agreement. They asked me to sympathize with the man and give permission to release him. I said yes. What was I to do? I looked at the men, wondering, “What if I was your daughter? What about me? Does what happened to me not matter at all? Does it not count? What about my mental state? What about my constant biting of my lips, wanting to rip them, and constant brushing of my teeth and lips to remove the stain that would not go? What about me?” At the age of 12, I realized, me a little girl versus a man far older, that he would always win. In fact, he won. He got out the next day, saw me crossing the road and casually asked me a question as if nothing ever happened while I tried my hardest to hold my ground. At the age of 12, my grandfather and policemen serving my country had silenced me. Who would be looked down on once word got out? Who was the one who got soiled? Who was the one shamed? Me.
Turner, I was a scared little girl and a scared young woman. I grew suspicious of every single man in my family, even my father and brothers. I resorted to wearing long, baggy shirts, and long skirts to protect myself from men’s gaze. You see, I had grown up and my body had developed. I was not blind to the development of my body or that I was pleasant looking. In fact, I abhorred it. You have no idea how many times I wished I was born ugly and with no curves. The few times I actually wore jeans, I was attacked mentally with thoughts and images of men leering at me and pulling me into a corner and having their way with me. The gap between my legs had never been so prominent and protruding. The nights were the worst. My room was small and it became claustrophobic. Lying, my body facing the ceiling, is a glaring reminder of how vulnerable I was. I tried different positions of lying down, it never worked. Sweating throughout the night, I refused to remove the blanket I had wrapped tightly around my body – still not feeling at all secured, for I had felt a man’s grip. Every time I closed my eyes, the sensations of being weighed down, an imprint on my lips, roared to life as I opened my eyes to angry tears. There were many slaps and punches I gave to my head and face in order to erase the memory. At night, I was vulnerable and not even my grandfather, my father or my brothers could protect me. Not even my door could protect me. Not even men sworn to protect the country could protect me. I was helpless.
I saw in the news Turner that you had just been released after three months of being in jail. Turner, I am telling you and all those out there who have verbally, mentally, physically and sexually abused others, I might not have been raped by the man who abused me, but what all those boys and men in my life had done to me was enough to shatter me. I cannot even imagine for those who have been raped. All that I have written so far, have you all experienced it? This fear? This uncertainty? This hopelessness? The constant wariness? It takes great support, a strong mind and faith in order to overcome the wreck abusers have wrought in our lives. Many girls in my society have gone through what I have gone through, maybe even worse. What saddens me greatly is that these girls have also been silenced by our society. However, I am not the same girl I was during those years. By going to a new school all the way in Germany, where I found great friendship and support, I learned to trust men again. Maybe not all men but I still learned to trust. To the point where I can hug them. I learned that I was not at fault and there is nothing I should be ashamed about. I learned how to be comfortable and confident with my body and not see it as a target. I learned that what I went through is a problem not only in my country but all over the world, and it is a problem that has been ongoing for centuries and it has not been properly addressed. It is shown in your case again Turner, where you have won and this girl has been silenced. The thing is, you cannot win.
“I learned how to be comfortable and confident with my body and not see it as a target.”
Those many other victims, this girl, and I cannot be silenced. We have been silenced enough. My late grandfather, I do not know whether he will approve of what I am doing now – or if my society will – however we have been silenced long enough and I hope he understands the reason why I must speak out, and share my experiences. This cannot go on. If our roles could be reversed, I wish you could see and feel what we all have gone through. I wish you could understand the consequences of your actions. I wish this judge who feared that you being in jail that three short months would be too much for you could see and feel the wretched life we have to live and try to survive. I wish those policemen could see and feel the grueling hardships I had to face and overcome. I hope when it comes to their daughters, they do not dismiss them like they did me. All of you abusers have wrecked us, but I am tired of cowering and hiding. No, I am not a college girl who was sexually abused on school grounds but I am a victim of such abuse and I know how it feels when and after you have been abused. I will soon be a college girl and I am making a stand here, not because I will soon be a college girl, but because I am saying this is not right.
Selina Neirok Leem is a small island girl with big dreams from the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Read more by Selina.