Laura Sullivan is a licensed independent social worker who lives in Philadelphia.
Let me tell you a story about a girl who was raped. She knew the man that hurt her, a close family member by marriage who had been around for years.
She was 14 years old when the abuse began, in 1985. She was a typical girl living in a typical family in Indiana. A family that, by all appearances, was safe and healthy. When she was 16 years old, the abuse led to her getting pregnant.
That woman was my mother. I was the result of that pregnancy.
I myself am a mother, wife, and social worker. My professional work is focused on children and family systems, and women who have experienced trauma in all forms. I have dedicated my life’s work to helping women who have been harmed, destroying systems of oppression, and supporting those that live in our society’s margins. I refuse to pass generational pain to my children, and I am committed to helping every person I work with find their voice and break their own cycles of pain and trauma.
Because my life began with injustice, I am dedicated to unapologetically supporting women, and pushing for reproductive justice, including the right to have an abortion. My mother was forced to become a parent and the consequences destroyed her, strained our relationship, and caused me pain that I continue to navigate.
My mother’s family — her mother, father, and two older sisters — lived on a farm. Her father was a doctor.
My mom was a bright, fun and spirited girl who made friends with ease.
The man who stole her innocence and broke her ability to trust was about 22 years old when the abuse began, and my mother was 14. The abuse didn’t start with violence and threats, but in a more subtle and deceitful way. He groomed her, pushing her further and further, all while threatening her to keep quiet. It was the beginning of a prolonged torture.
The abuser would make my mother join him in different locations on the family farm. On her walk to school, he made her meet him in a hidden spot along the road so he could rape her. At night he would flash his truck lights into her bedroom window, instructing her to come outside so he could rape her.
This abuse continued for approximately 6 years. He said he would kill her if she told anyone, and she believed him. He said no one would believe her, if she did tell the truth.
Unfortunately, he was right about that. At 15, the only place my mother could reveal the secret was in a journal. Her sister found this journal, read it, then slapped my mother and called her a liar.
I asked if she considered abortion, and she said it was never an option. The misogynistic culture and toxicity of her family’s faith limited her choices on how to manage this unplanned, unwanted childhood pregnancy. To make matters worse, she was shamed, called a slut, and forced to sit in the back of church separate from her family during weekly Mass. Her shame and fear only grew.
Knowing her truth would not be believed, my mother lived out the false narrative that her family would allow.
She had a boyfriend at the time and he assumed he was the father. She gave birth to me and completed high school, and later married that boyfriend. I believed he was my father until I was 31 years old.
The abuse still didn’t stop. Her abuser impregnated her again at age 19.
Trapped in a world of lies, my mother was forced to carry the unbearable weight of the abuse and the secret. I am not sure how she made sense of it, but she kept living and raising her children and loving them the best way she knew how.
To the outside observer, her family and marriage seemed happy, but that wasn’t the case. The man she married — my birth certificate father — was short-tempered, physically abusive and struggled with addiction. He would arrive home late after drinking, yelling and screaming, throwing things and hitting my mother.
Starting at 13 years old, I frequently tried to encourage my mother to leave her husband. Finally after 15 years of his abuse, she divorced him. She had built a career, and began to believe she could make it on her own.
The trauma she endured, however, changed something inside her. She drank to numb the pain, a pain so deep, so powerful it could no longer be contained. She projected her pain onto my brother and me, insulting us and telling lies about us to conceal the depths of her drinking. She kicked us out of her house because she did not like my criticism about her drinking.
She continued to drink until she had nothing left of the life she made for herself and her children. She eventually lost her career and all of her significant relationships. Her health deteriorated to the point of requiring nursing home stays. She went to jail for multiple DUIs, and experienced homelessness. Her drinking continued until she died at age 51.
At the age of 48 she found the words to speak her truth, telling her mother of the abuse from age 14-21. My grandmother relayed this disclosure to me immediately. I now better understand why she was so hurtful. My existence had been the source of her pain since the day she realized she was pregnant.
Even in death, my mother’s truth isn’t fully acknowledged. My grandmother — her own mother — said she “must have wanted it, and liked having sex” with her abuser.
But I believed her from the first minute I was told this story. I believed that this was a story so painful and agonizing it couldn’t be made up.
When my mother herself told me this story, she was lying on a couch intoxicated, a shell of the woman I knew as a child. She was destroyed. Still 33 years later, she was terrified her abuser would kill her. She was still frozen in that space, terrified that no one believed her.
I understand her trauma, both professionally and personally.
I believed her because I believe women. I believed her because I was her daughter.
I was conceived in rape and I am pro-choice. I am grateful for my life. It’s a devastating reality that my life came at the expense of my mom’s pain.
I don’t know what she would have done if she had all options available to her with this unexpected, non consensual pregnancy, but I believe she deserved to make that choice on her own.
I am pro-choice because I do not want my mother’s story, strength and death to be an acceptable ending for any other woman.
If you or someone you know has been affected by abuse, there are resources where you can find help. Here are a few places to start.
- WOAR Phialdelphia Center Against Sexual Violence has a 24-hour hotline (215-985-3333) and offers other services
- RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) resources include phone (800-656-4673) or online chat
- PWC (Philadelphia Women’s Center) offers counseling and abortion services
- The Choice Network helps pregnant people decide on the best course of action, and works with families looking to adopt