The Vine

By Chris Stark

vineA few days ago, after unexpectedly reading an online article about the investigation of an international child pornography ring code-named Holitna, I sat in my back yard, in the sun, and breathed. Shadows from the vacant house next door’s giant cottonwood tree blinked across the stubby grass in front of me. My dog lay against the house among the vine that my partner and I disagree about—she wants to dig it up because it will ruin our siding and I want to let it grow, because I can’t help but identify with living things that are being, or are about to be, destroyed.

Federal agents uncovered Holitna because they were able to trace a toddler’s stuffed bunny in one of the photos. A Boston-area, married, father-of-three, hotel manager sent the picture of an 18-month-old Dutch boy to another man whom he believed had sexual interest in toddlers and babies. Except the “man” he sent them to was an undercover federal agent. Thanks to the stuffed toy authorities managed to trace the photo of the boy. They have identified 140 victims and are combing through hundreds of thousands of images of child pornography with “no end in sight.”

Distressed and stunned, I sat for quite some time, unmoving, observing. My dog. A handful of sparrows. A blue dragonfly. A few years ago, reading such an article  might have spun me into flashbacks and overwhelming emotion. I might have stayed in that space for days, and struggled to find a way to go to work, take care of my animals, interact with any variety of people including grocery store cashiers, neighbors, and coworkers. Something as simple as inquiring about the price of toothpaste could be incredibly difficult, because internally I would be emotionally and mentally reliving the terror of my past—which includes being tortured, yes tortured, in child pornography. A decade ago it might have burst into full-blown crisis which could have taken me weeks and even months to still. Now, I can usually handle my past through deep breathing, situating myself in my current life by paying attention to my surroundings. Regardless, of where I am at with my own ability to cope—whether I am immersed in the horror or whether I am able to stay in the present, those children, including infants and toddlers, in the Holitna ring and the other rings that are being uncovered more and more these days are me. I am them.

Eventually, I stood, carrying grief as big as the sky. For the Holitna children, for the children used with me when I was a girl, for the girl I once was. We blur into one. I did not want to talk with anyone, but I did, as I did when I was a girl, and my life depended on compartmentalizing the abuse and then acting as if everything were “normal”.  I had to make invisible my hurt or I would have become disposable to the men who were selling and raping me. So I spoke with a friend about a remodeling project at my house. I asked my partner to bring home a slice of cheese pizza. I texted a friend on her way to Florida. But I didn’t tell anyone about the article because I wanted to get through the day without allowing the images and screams and terror always present in my psyche to come forward. The paradox, for me, is such that I pay an emotional price if I tell someone about the article and they don’t understand my response to it as a survivor, and I pay a price if I tell someone and they empathize with me, as a survivor. Because when someone empathizes with me I risk that my psyche will release the images, sadness, and horror of my past. I risk being immobilized, terrified, and disconnected from my present day life. Ultimately, I fear ending up unable to fully function, which is how I spent my 20s.

Since male family members sold me to other men who abused me and made pornography of me,  I had a largely sad, terrifying, violent childhood that included incest, prostitution, pornography, and domestic violence. I wish I were the only child who suffered in multiple ways such as this, but I am not. After 23 years as an activist, speaker, and writer, I have met many women and a few men who were used in child pornography, and I also read about children being hurt now. I wish the men who raped and otherwise tortured me were the only ones doing this to children, but they’re not. The child rapists might enjoy hearing the crack of the toddler’s pelvic bone when he penetrates her (see Big Porn Inc). He might kill her, maiming her body beyond its ability to survive. He might talk about, and possibly act upon, his desire to literally consume a child, as did some of the men in Holitna. He might be like the men who hurt me—organized, networked, and methodical. They know how to physically and psychologically prepare young children to survive repeated, violent acts of sex. Their aim is to preserve many of the children they are harming, because, after all, a dead child can’t be sold again. A living one can. And, if they are using their own children in the pornography, and one of their children died, they would have to deal with covering up their child’s death or disappearance.

My life is very different than it was in my 20s when I did not know if I would have anything that resembled a “normal” life—one not engulfed in terror, isolation, and excruciating pain. I am grateful that I am able to do something as seemingly simple as read about the horror of child pornography without being launched into fear and memories. For even though grief is an overwhelming emotion, grief feels like comfort to someone like me. Even though I am much better than I was in my 20s, my PTSD still spikes for a handful of days after reading the article—I jump when bicyclists pass me from behind while I am out on a run. My heart pounds when a car honks. My emotions clutch when I read a newspaper article with the words “infants and children” in it. I always live in two worlds.

What has not changed for me is my intense identification with plants and animals. As ridiculous as it may seem to others, I will always be unable to value siding over a living plant. Although intellectually I understand the cost of repairing siding, I can’t imagine not feeling anxiety over ripping out a living plant, over ending the life of something that just wants to be. The destruction, of myself and others, in my childhood was too extreme. I cannot forget what it took to survive, and I cannot stop how the trauma of my childhood still impacts me. But most of all, I can not ignore the way children are still being destroyed in pornography. We are leaves on the same living vine.

My partner and I came up with a compromise. The plant remains. It grows up a trellis instead of our siding.

Christine Stark is the author of the novel *Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation*. For more information:


Letter to the Editor – 10/9/12

Jerry Sandusky today will be sentenced for abusing boys and young men who, over the past 15 years, had put their trust in him as a friend, mentor and guide.  When the judge’s ruling is announced, many in the public will think sentencing marks the end of this tragedy.  Though the trial may be over, the process of healing for his victims and our society continues.

Since the allegations broke in the media last fall, we’ve followed the case, expressing shock and dismay, wondering how a tragedy of this scale and scope could have possibly escaped proper reporting to the authorities.  Questions raised in private and public forums ran the gamut from, “Was Dottie Sandusky blind to what was happening under her own roof?” “Didn’t any of these kids’ parents suspect something was terribly amiss?” “How could adults—adults in positions of authority, no less—place a school’s or a sports team’s reputation over the need to protect innocent children from falling prey to a sexual offender?”

But have we had the courage to ask ourselves the most difficult questions: “What would I have done?  Why did this case get so much more attention than others? What can I do now to prevent the child sexual abuse that’s endemic in our society?  How can I help protect our youth?” Yes, you have that power.  Each of us, individually and collectively, is responsible for ending the sexual abuse of children.

Start by asking about the sexual abuse policies and reporting procedures in place at your child’s daycare, school, summer camp, religious organization or sports team. Make sure that everyone participating in or managing the program clearly understands that sexual abuse, exploitation or harassment isn’t tolerated, and knows how to respond sensitively to those harmed, talk to those with problematic behaviors and report suspected abuse.

Talk about it.   It’s estimated that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused or exploited as youth.  Chances are great that if you weren’t victimized as a child, sadly, someone close to you has been. Through sharing our experiences and stories of strength and healing, we bring this epidemic out of the shadows.  We make it easier for victims, and for those who may be prone to becoming abusers themselves, to ask for help.  Admittedly, conversations about child molesting are not comfortable by any means, but they are critical in preventing childhood sexual abuse in our society.

Ask leaders from your faith community, neighborhood or school district to publicly discuss the obligation that each and every one of us has to protect our own and others’ children from harm and to create environments in which it is highly unlikely that anyone will sexually abuse a child or profit from abuse or exploitation.

Jerry Sandusky was found guilty of repeatedly sexually abusing young people.  For the rest of their lives, his victims and their loved ones will wrestle with the untold pain and trauma he inflicted.

This case, like countless others, is a public wake-up call to demand a change for children. Working together, we can create a society that values and protects children, and ensure that potential abusers get help long before a single child is harmed.

Today is the day. You have the power. Demand a change for children.


Donna Dunn

Donna Dunn is Executive Director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault.  Demand the Change for Children is a collaboration of individuals and organizations working together from a preventative, child-centered approach to end the sexual abuse and exploitation of children.