The Warrior Voice
Lilada Gee spent years hiding in denial until her faith gave voice to her abuse. Now, her culturally specific message of healing for other Black female survivors of long-term sexual abuse is powerful, empowering and so very badly needed.
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At the same time, all that nauseating grief and shame and confusion and bone-weary fatigue and that searing pain she’d swallowed down for years came burbling up from her gut to her throat, threatening to erupt. Not long after that day, Lilada led an event at church where a few more women shared their sexual abuse experiences, what had happened to them and how they were able to recover. Tamara had never felt so raw. So exposed. She started to feel like she was literally going insane. A few months later, unable to stand it anymore, Tamara drove to Lilada’s house.
“And we sat in Lilada’s living room,” says Tamara. “And she heard me. She helped me.”
Today Tamara, now married twenty-one years with three children, is the owner of Fringe Salon Spa on the west side. She and Lilada are still close friends and she helps out where she can, both personally and professionally, so that other girls can experience the healing she did.
“As long as my doors are open, I will be supporting Lilada’s Livingroom. Because, unfortunately, there has not been an abundance of conversation about sexually abused people,” says Tamara. “It has been difficult to get this information out. I just want to stand behind her and continue to push until it’s all fully broken through.”
Tamara wants to be clear: Speaking out didn’t fix everything. It wasn’t the end of her work; it was just the beginning.
“The good thing is, it gets better and better, every time I do speak out,” says Tamara. “The more that I realize what the reality of things are. And that is that I’m beautiful. I’m safe. I am protected. I’m not alone.”
Thirty-year-old Stephanie Nash is the program coordinator of Madison Empowering Responsibility in Teens, or MERIT, at Kennedy Heights Community Center, and also works at nearby Vera Court Neighborhood Center with the RISEUP high school academic enrichment program. She double majored in social work and religious and philosophical studies at Savannah State University, where she played basketball for the Lady Tigers and was active in her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, Inc. Right now she’s writing a book titled Pieces of My In-H.E.R. Soul, a memoir and self-help guide to healing, empowerment and restoration and her larger vision and goal is to establish a nonprofit to ensure successful transitions and services for people who’ve been incarcerated.
It’s hard to believe she was once in jail herself.
“I was raging,” she explains, simply. “On the inside.”
PHOTO BY DAVID NEVALA
When she went away to college in 2001, she’d left behind her mom, who struggled with addiction and was in and out of jail throughout her childhood, and the place where she’s been sexually abused as a child. She’d left behind a town where everybody seemed to have two parents in the stands at the basketball games, seemed to have the newest shoes and clothes and things she could never afford. Her experiences made her tough, a star athlete and razor-sharp, driven to succeed, with this crazy idea that if she could just put enough distance between herself and the memories of the abuse, it would all go away. That, well, shit happens. Dust yourself off and keep moving.
But, back when she was an eighth grader in Lilada’s Nefertiti girls group at church, something about Lilada compelled Stephanie to confide in her about her own abuse for the first time. Lilada eventually encouraged and was there to support Stephanie when she told her mother, who contacted the authorities—much to Stephanie’s dismay.
“She put me in therapy at the same time, and my first therapist was White,” says Stephanie. “I remember I already didn’t want to go, and I definitely didn’t want to talk to no White lady.”
Stephanie got through that time but became more focused on escaping Madison and never looking back. Today she understands that her unresolved issues of sexual, mental and emotional abuse, rejection and abandonment gave way to anger and rage, which began to burn her alive from the inside out. She found herself, an active honor student, in jail on charges for her role in an auto theft ring in Georgia. After serving six months of a five-year sentence, she got out in 2005 and spent the next few years building a different life for herself. All of which led her back to Madison in the fall of 2010.
“This is where my journey to healing really began,” she says. “I knew that there was a purpose in all the things that I’d experienced in my life and I knew I couldn’t continue to run from the pain nor did I want to carry the weight anymore. It was costing me too much.”
That first White therapist, incidentally, has since become one of her good friends. Stephanie says it was people like her, and her high school basketball coach, and her former principal at East High School, the revered Milt McPike, and, of course, Lilada, who helped her see the value in her life and who loved her unconditionally.
“I am grateful to Lilada for being able to channel the depths of me and who I was back then. She understood so many of my feelings and emotions and even my unhealthy behaviors and in turn helped lay the foundation to the journey of my healing,” says Stephanie. “She helped me to love myself, to see myself as beautiful, regardless of what I had experienced that made me feel unlovable and unwanted.”
So that’s what she commits to doing for the kids she works with today.
“I see myself in the face of every child I come in contact with and that is what fuels my passion for the work I do with youth.”
Jacquesha McFarlane isn’t so sure she wants to talk about her sexual abuse anymore. She will, one on one, if you need her to, if it will help you, but for the most part she just wants to keep it moving. After all, she’s thirty-two now, married, a mom and a stepmom to five kids. She’s got a liberal arts degree from Madison College, an associate’s in business administration from Georgia Perimeter College and a bachelor’s in community and nonprofit leadership from UW–Madison. She’s got her own consulting business. She’s been there and she’s done that and she acknowledges the way her sexual abuse devastated her, but she refuses to let it define her.
“I guess I’m just a no-nonsense kind of person because so much nonsense has taken place,” she says. “I’ve just translated that over into other areas of my life where I don’t take no mess. I don’t take no stuff. From anybody.”
PHOTO BY DAVID NEVALA
But Lilada asked and so here she is, speaking out. Because it was such a big deal, all those years ago, to have Lilada’s support. To know that she wasn’t the only one, that she wasn’t alone. Like Stephanie, Jacquesha was a member of Nefertiti as a teenage girl and later ran the Nefertiti program at Wright Middle School as Lilada’s assistant.
“We would open up to what had happened in our lives and how we got to where we were,” she says. “Developing that sistership among ourselves to say, ‘hey, we are in this together.’ It was always an uplifting and safe environment for us to talk about what happened and it made us feel we could move past it.”
When she does tell you what happened to her, it’s brutal. She looks you right in the eye and she says it straight and it’s bad, it’s really bad. There were some who knew about the abuse, but they thought it was just repeated physical violence, as if that wasn’t bad enough. No, it was worse. He did indeed threaten to “punish” her, but what he would actually do was rape her. Rape by a trusted adult, over and over again, from eighth grade through her sophomore year in high school.
“And that was probably the worst beating ever,” she shrugs, quietly.
Jacquesha escaped but was too afraid to tell the truth about what had happened until she was a junior. The police were called but it was too late for physical evidence, and although the system took her seriously, in the end “nothing really ended up coming of it.” But she did have Nefertiti and she did, eventually, talk about it with those girls.
“Once I opened up about it, that’s when I learned that there were so many more,” she says. “I think had I experienced more younger people talking about the abuse beforehand, I probably would have opened up about it sooner. I didn’t want to be the only one. But once I shared, there were plenty right there in my circle who had been abused.”
That’s why she wonders, sometimes, if she should be more forthright. If she’s got it in her to keep talking about it, just in case she can help others that still don’t know they’re not alone.
“I do work a lot with young kids, but they don’t know that struggle. They don’t know that part of it,” she says. “But what if they did? What might I be helping them through?”
Growing up in Madison has made Lilada “very bicultural,” she says. In her West High graduating class of five hundred, there were maybe eight or nine Black kids. Of the three hundred students in her college lectures, maybe two or three were Black. She’d be hard-pressed to recall any Black teachers. So she really gets these young Black girls today, growing up in a majority white culture that claims to be so progressive yet seems unwilling to address glaring racial disparities.
“Those girls are just so angry, you can just feel the anger and the frustration, you know?” she says. “You don’t just wake up one day and you’re fifteen and you’re mad as hell. These girls are dealing with trauma. That’s why they’re mad as hell. And nobody’s responding to their trauma.”
I imagine it can put a sort of pressure on women like Lilada—professional African American women in Madison—to not only exemplify the triumph over the bullshit, but to educate White girl reporters like me who come calling. When I awkwardly ask Lilada if there are “others” who believe in what she is doing and are willing to take the time to explain for the record why this kind of work is critical, several powerhouse sources immediately line up to throw their support behind Lilada.
Corinda Rainey-Moore is a clinical team manager at Journey Mental Health Center/Fordem Connections Community Support Program. Lilada reached out to her early on to see where their work might intersect.
“One of the things I actually talked with her about was looking at trauma differently, particularly because sometimes with people of color, their exposure to trauma happens on a daily basis,” says Rainey-Moore. “I know this is probably gonna sound a little weird, but sometimes the event itself is traumatic, but sometimes how people respond to your either telling or sharing can be even more traumatic.”
That’s why it’s so important victims have the ability to choose a healer they identify with whenever possible, says Rainey-Moore. “That doesn’t mean that everybody who is a person of color is going to come in and say, ‘I want somebody who looks like me.’ But if that’s what their preference is, they should have that opportunity.”