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Sexually assaulted as a youth, SRJC instructor is a survivor; a victim no more

“I don’t consider myself a victim,” Karen Stanley said. “A victim is passive. I want to help, (to) empower. I’m a survivor.”|

Resources for survivors of sexual assault

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, you can contact:

Family Justice Center of Sonoma County: 707-565-8255

Verity: 707-545-7273

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673 or online.rainn.org

Their story was her story.

Their pain was her pain.

Shame, anxiety, guilt, confusion, they went everywhere with all that and Karen Stanley went with them.

Everywhere.

Where they should never have had to go.

In a Sept. 15 hearing, four female gymnasts who brought Olympic glory to the United States took on the FBI in front of Congress. How could the FBI, they asked, ignore their statements about being sexually abused by a team doctor?

Why weren’t they believed?

And, why did those FBI agents fail to honor their oath to serve and protect?

Stanley, a Santa Rosa Junior College kinesiology instructor and a former soccer coach at the school, watched the gymnasts testify.

“I was overwhelmed in awe,” she said.

The four gymnasts’ testimony was aired live. They spoke in front of millions.

US Olympic gymnasts Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney,  Maggie Nichols, and Aly Raisman, are sworn in to testify during a Senate Judiciary hearing about the Inspector General's report on the FBI handling of the Larry Nassar investigation of sexual abuse of Olympic gymnasts, on Capitol Hill, Sept. 15, 2021, in Washington, DC.
US Olympic gymnasts Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney, Maggie Nichols, and Aly Raisman, are sworn in to testify during a Senate Judiciary hearing about the Inspector General's report on the FBI handling of the Larry Nassar investigation of sexual abuse of Olympic gymnasts, on Capitol Hill, Sept. 15, 2021, in Washington, DC.

Stanley began her story in front of a single person — a former classmate.

“What do you remember happened to us?” her friend asked, referring to the time they attended a Southern California elementary school together.

It was great, Stanley, 23 at the time, responded. It was fun; fine, she told her friend.

“No, no, no,” her friend responded. “Do you remember what happened to us?”

Stanley shrugged.

She had buried the memory deep, as if hiding it would make it magically go away.

She tried to keep it a secret, but it weighed on her like an anvil on her shoulders.

She finally realized she had to confront the memories.

“It took a couple days,” she said. “Then, I got angry. It came pouring out. It was like a faucet turning on.”

Out flowed the memories and the bewilderment. She was screaming inside; screaming outside as she recalled the painful chapter in her life: From age 9 until she was 15, Stanley was sexually assaulted.

“More times than I can count,” said Stanley, 59. “He was a teacher’s assistant.”

She kept silent when it was happening: “No one would believe me. I was a kid. What did I know?”

Maybe she got it wrong. That had to be it, she thought.

Stanley found herself alone, as those who are abused often do. It’s not like you can go to your neighbor and ask them, “What do you do when you are sexually assaulted?” she said.

So, Stanley pretended it didn’t happen, stuffed the pain deep inside and ignored memories of the experiences until she no longer could. She went into therapy.

She blamed herself for what happened — feelings that are all too common among those who have been assaulted.

She learned quickly none of it was her fault. She didn’t do anything wrong or inappropriate.

But it was so confusing, Stanley recalled.

Adults were in charge for a reason. As a premier soccer player, Stanley knew the importance of good coaching and stellar guidance. She became skilled enough to compete for a spot on the USA’s national team if there had been one at the time.

So, when gymnasts Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Maggie Nichols and McKayla Maroney testified about Larry Nassar, the Olympic doctor who sexually assaulted them, their words reached deep into Stanley’s soul.

Kids listen to adults. Kids obey adults. Kids trust adults. Coaches and teachers have the same influence — they are the light that shines, illuminating a path that will lead them to adulthood. Not to nightmares.

“And if there’s a 15-year-old girl out there in trouble,” Stanley said, “I want her to know she’s not alone. There are people out there who can help; who can listen.”

Stanley didn’t call this columnist to tell her story. I called her to ask if she knew of anyone who could reflect on the testimony of those four gymnasts who testified in front of Congress.

Turning to her as a source was an easy call.

Stanley is a Sonoma County institution. In 11 years as SRJC’s women’s soccer coach, she won 73% of her games. She was named Coach of the Year in 1998. She left the post in 2007 to focus on teaching.

Stanley is now in her eighth year as an instructor at the college and has been an active supporter and activist for women’s rights.

She agreed to share her story for a very distinct reason: To declare she is a survivor; not a victim.

“When you are in that kind of situation, you feel powerless,” she said.

“I want girls and women to know they can take back that power away from the abuser. They can reclaim that power. Their voice can make them powerful, like those gymnasts.”

That path to full disclosure, Stanley cautioned, will not be smooth. There will be nights when sleep will be fitful, if it comes at all. Courage is not making that penalty kick. Courage is making yourself whole again.

“I started remembering details I thought I couldn’t remember,” Stanley said.

She forced that mental scrapbook to open and found herself having to decide who could see it and who could not.

“I didn’t think I could tell my parents,” she said, adding her mom and dad have since died. “I told my siblings, but I didn’t tell my parents. I knew they would blame themselves. I just couldn’t do that.”

After years of focusing on her emotional recovery, Stanley felt confident and secure enough to press charges against her perpetrators.

However, Stanley said, police told her, the statute of limitations had expired and she would be unable to pursue legal action.

With justice now not possible, Stanley could have found herself in a dark place. The criminal will go unpunished, yet, the crime still punishes her.

Where could she turn? Escape is all too common in these situations. Raisman testified she could become so sick from the trauma she experienced that she had to be taken by ambulance to a hospital.

“Trauma lives in all of us at the cellular level,” Stanley said.

Cells have memory, is what she’s saying. Cells literally hold the blueprint to our emotional, spiritual and physical health. When you hear someone say, “I can feel it in my bones,” it is not a casual castoff sentence.

Stanley is a spark. She prefers to be a participant in life rather than a spectator. If she sits, it’s only because it’s a long phone call. If she suddenly and inextricably goes quiet, it’s because she’s putting the sentences together like a string of beads.

For the past eight years, Stanley has taught a health and wellness class at the junior college. The title might appear generic, perhaps a wonderful time for a student to catch a snooze.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Her class is one form of her therapy, of her journey, on how she reclaimed her power.

“One of my chapters is on sexual abuse and the perpetrators,” said Stanley, who has a master’s degree in health and wellness. “I begin the chapter by telling my story.”

Cellphones go dark. The topic is raw. And very real.

“I was going to be vulnerable,” she said of her classroom conversations. “There was going to be hate. I had to let it roll off my back. I spent a lot of time working on this. A lot of time in therapy. I knew my truth.”

In the eight years she has taught, Stanley knows she has spoken in front of young women who could relate to her isolation and fear.

According to the National Sexual Violence Center, 1 in 5 American women has been raped or faced attempted rape during their lifetime. And one-third of those individuals experienced their first assaults between the ages of 11 to 17.

“I don’t consider myself a victim,” Stanley emphasized. “A victim is passive. I want to help, (to) empower. I’m a survivor.”

What unfolded 10 days or so ago in a congressional hearing room should be a turning point — not only in sports culture, but how Americans define themselves.

The stage couldn’t have been more public; the moment more important; the issue more dramatic — four gymnasts before Congress condemning the FBI for ignoring sexual abuse.

Winning at all costs, even ignoring sexual abuse as part of that sacrifice, is not and should not be how we live our lives.

Neither should be hiding from the truth. That is why Stanley’s story is so important and why she wanted to share it.

“I’m an optimist,” she said. “Change will happen. You open hearts, you open minds.”

You can reach columnist Bob Padecky at bobpadecky@gmail.com.

Resources for survivors of sexual assault

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, you can contact:

Family Justice Center of Sonoma County: 707-565-8255

Verity: 707-545-7273

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673 or online.rainn.org

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