When children are sexually abused, it robs them of their innocence.

They’re brought into a world where they’re treated like an item instead of a person. Some find ways to cope with their abuse, while others unfortunately become abusers themselves.

Such experiences are tremendously difficult to talk about. But in talking about them, those who were abused often find healing.

Shanari Baird, a wife and mother of two, wrote an open letter to her late grandfather who sexually abused her as a child.

She shared its incredibly compelling message, originally published on Independent Journal Review:

An Open Letter to My Abuser,

You were the grandpa who took in my mom, sister and me when my parents separated when I was four. The grandpa who let me drive on his lap on a residential street with few cars. The grandpa who took me to Dairy Queen to get Oreo blizzards–which I still love, by the way–and would sneak me gummy peach rings at night (I still love those, too).

You were the grandpa who let me play Nintendo64 when I didn’t feel good and made me beef taquitos when I was feeling better. I’m pretty sure you were the one who taught me how to ride a bike without training wheels. You were my best friend and I loved you. You are also the grandpa who sexually abused me.

How could you do that?

I want to understand, but I don’t think I can. For years, I thought that what you’ve done didn’t affect me. Before I was in second grade, I told my step mom what you did. The law got involved, you plead guilty, and spent years in prison. I guess I’m thankful you at least told the truth there, minimizing some of the confusion.

Shouldn’t that have been enough closure for me?

It wasn’t until I had my first child that the darkness of your deeds truly smacked me dead in the face and knocked the wind out of me. I spent my elementary school years, my middle school years, my high school years not thinking about you touching me or me touching you.

Even seeing you as a senior in high school, telling grandma to tell you “hi” back on the phone, and having you meet my fiancé once I got a little older almost felt normal.

But, after having a baby, after experiencing such a strong desire to do everything in my power to protect someone so perfect and helpless, I couldn’t get you out of my mind. You cast a grey cloud over some of the moments as a first time mom that were supposed to be the most beautiful. I felt guilty changing diapers and giving baths. Breastfeeding was hard to get used to.

That was the beginning of me realizing how you have crept into my life in the slimiest of ways. You weren’t present or here for me like a grandpa should be, but you have always been here. For the last several years, my anxiety at night has grown. I feel less trusting of others. A type of fear and rage seeps through me when someone doesn’t listen to me, as if I am somehow being diminished and everything will crumple.

But my subconscious knew better. Even though it took becoming an adult to realize I am still hurt, that I am still so angry, I remember for so many years a common theme ran like a thread through my dreams: I was always running away from something or someone frightening.

Sometimes I wasn’t even myself, but a stray animal trying to escape from being caught. I am still trying to figure out how to stop running and process what I’ve been through.

Does “process” sound like something a therapist would say? I remember seeing therapists in first and second grade about the abuse. They made me point to different body parts on a cartoon-looking character and say the different body parts. I felt so embarrassed when I said penis and vagina. Even as an adult who has a fulfilling sex life, those words can still bring on a cringe, like they couldn’t just be an objective term to describe the human anatomy.

I have seen several different therapists since having children as well. I never thought I would be diagnosed with PTSD, but I was.

Fortunately, I think I have a very mild case compared to anything I have heard or read about. But I feel terrible most days. I have perfected the art of appearing normal. It feels fake sometimes, but grasping for “normal” feels relieving, like it’s the only way to survive sometimes.

I am mad you made me and everyone else think you are such a great guy. Grandma still talks about you like you’re the sun and mom has so many good things to say about you. It feels like you and your desires are the only things that ever mattered.

Intellectually, I know it wasn’t my fault, but I remember making deals with you. I’d tell you I’d let you touch me if you got me a horse or a toy. Thinking back, you often groomed me with gifts, but they were always gifts of your choosing. You were never scary. But I do remember getting mad at you one time.

I must have been bothered about the abuse at some point in time, even if I didn’t understand what was going on, because I remember shouting, “Why do you have to do this to me, why don’t you do this to my sister?” I know I was only four or five when that happened, but it still sends pangs of guilt stabbing at my heart to think I would try to offload your sexual abuse onto someone I love so much.

I am mad at you that I feel terrible for not handling the situation more gracefully as a little girl and that I haven’t been able to handle it more gracefully as an adult.
I don’t want what you’ve done to define me and I don’t want to be a victim, but it would be a lie if I said I didn’t blame you for a lot of things.

I blame you for the fact I’ve had to struggle with feeling inferior to nearly everyone I talk to, like I’m still a little girl. I blame you for the fact I hated that little girl inside me, for being vulnerable and needing protection. I blame you for my intense fight or flight inclinations when I am presented with someone I view as a threat, no matter how small.

I blame you for the tangible darkness I feel in my chest that takes form and flares up, making my cheeks red and my breath limited. I blame you for my feeling of disconnection from others, like I can’t fully depend on anyone.

I also blame you for the fact that I am a fighter and a survivor. I work so hard to push, to achieve, to do better. I blame you for teaching me the importance of speaking up and the growing confidence to do so.

Because of you, I want to be more honest, open and transparent. I want to be clear about who I am and not be scared to expose the darks spots if it helps another. Because of you, I want to be a fierce protector of my children and others who don’t have a voice.

I have much to overcome, but I’m grateful for the steps I’ve made. I’m not sure how you got to be the way you were, but I will never let the statistic “those who have been abused are much more likely to abuse another” be true for me.

You’ve been dead two years and I don’t know why I still feel the need for you to understand how your actions have affected me. I wish you would have said sorry. I wish I could know when it all started. I wish I could know how many other got caught in your wake.

Your sexual abuse required me to heal over and over again and I will keep pushing forward as long as I need to. I didn’t cry when you died and I can’t say I wish you the best at this point in my life, but I will keep working towards forgiveness.

If I could speak to that little girl, the one who I’ve felt inside me and hated at times, I would tell her it’s not her fault, that she’s golden and beautiful. That her voice, her body, and her thoughts are important and deserve to be validated, even if you didn’t treat them as such. I just want you to know that I know she was important and you really screwed up.

– Shanari

According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, 20% of adult women can remember being sexual assaulted or sexually abused as a child. Shanari’s story is a powerful reminder of the lasting impact abuse has on victims — but also that people can rise above even the most heinous of situations.

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