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SocietySeptember 11, 2023

Dear Jane: Coming to terms with my teenage trauma


Jane was 13 when she joined a church youth group. Within a year, she was in an intimate relationship with her mid-20s group leader. She shares her experience in Dear Jane, a limited series podcast out today.

Dear Jane is made by The Spinoff Podcast Network with the support of NZ On Air. All five episodes are available now on SpotifyApple Podcasts and anywhere else you listen to podcasts. The series contains strong language and features, themes of sexual abuse, as well as explicitly sexual material and mention of suicide. Please take care.

It’s an odd choice, I know, to face my trauma head on in a podcast. Especially when, for decades, I’d sought to wipe that teenage chapter from my life story. Whenever friends reminisced about their youth – talking about concerts they went to, mutual friends they dated and boundaries they pushed – I shared absolutely nothing. 

What would I say? That I was only allowed to listen to Christian music, I did Bible exams for fun and the only boundaries I pushed were sexual ones with my youth group leader who was a decade older than me? That was the truth, but I wasn’t about to share it. I was embarrassed by my teenage years, even before I understood how damaging they truly were.

I was 13 when the main leader at my youth group confessed he had feelings for me. He was in his mid-20s and I didn’t see it coming. The attention was alluring, I felt chosen and special. Here was this amazing man of God I’d looked up to – a man who was funny, charismatic, kind – and he wanted to be with me. 

We began dating in secret and within a year, when I was 14, the relationship turned sexual. We both struggled with guilt around that side of things, but not because it was illegal. We didn’t much consider the law, because we were special. We were ordained by God and planned on getting married and starting a family together. We were even so bold as to eventually make our relationship – though not the extent of it – public to friends and family. People were uncomfortable, but not for a second did they imagine we were having sex.

I lived in a fog of guilt and shame and over time went from feeling special to feeling like a dirty little secret. In my mind, I was corrupting this man of God. He was extremely vocal in his faith, insistent that I wear modest clothing, blacklist secular music and refrain from shopping on Sundays. I saw him as holy and myself as fundamentally flawed.

He was devastated when I broke off the relationship four years later, just before I turned 18. In the decades that followed, those complex layers of believing I had been mature for my age, in what seemed like a loving relationship that had the blessing of those around us, meant I didn’t see it for what it was. A non-consensual sexual connection, brought about by a power imbalance. It turns out 14-year-olds can’t legally consent to sex, even ones who are told they’re mature for their age. 

As an adult I found relationships hard. I felt a sense of loss for the ordinary youth I never had. I suffered through some severe mental health challenges. I can’t categorically say what happened to me as a teenager was directly responsible for these hardships, but it makes sense that being exposed to abuse during foundational years can have a serious impact on someone’s sense of self-worth and ability to navigate relationships in the long term.

It wasn’t until I was in my mid-30s that I began to understand that what happened to me wasn’t the result of decisions I’d made. I wasn’t complicit in the harm that was done to me. It wasn’t my fault. Through that realisation, the noise of anger, hurt and need for answers became louder. 

Jane (left) and friends at youth camp (Image: Supplied)

Looking back now, I understand the abuse and the power imbalance is quite black and white. But the decades of telling myself narratives that I had been a stubborn teenager and an “old soul” embedded this idea that I’d somehow contributed to what happened to me.

That’s where the complexity comes in, woven with lots of feelings of guilt, shame and embarrassment. Because to me, the abuse looked, and even felt, a lot like love. I know there are others who have spent years grappling with what seems like grey areas in their own stories. What I’ve learnt in this process is that recognising you’re not in any way to blame is the first necessary step in addressing the trauma. If sharing my story helps others realise they’re not responsible for harm done to them, if it helps validate and give voice to anyone who has been in a similar situation, then I feel a sense of responsibility to speak up to help others. 

The idea to share my experience in a podcast came because I believe podcasts are powerful. They have a unique ability to draw focus into the world being presented and I find that intimacy incredibly affecting – especially when hearing the voices of those involved in personal stories. 

In telling my story in this way, we didn’t need to worry about word count limits or lighting and background scenery. There was very little faffing involved in the recording process, which paved the way for a really authentic storytelling experience. For the most part it was just me and the producer, Noelle McCarthy, tootling about with microphones, capturing very real and raw accounts and emotions.

And it needed to be powerful, because talking publicly about my experience is a really big deal to me. I knew if I was going to do this, open up and expose the deepest, darkest parts of myself, I had to make it count. I knew what I wanted to share might serve as a voice for other survivors, but also as a resource for churches and other organisations with young people in their care. For me, a podcast series was the best way to impact people while also giving myself the time and breathing room to tell my story properly and in a way I was comfortable with. 

Being so at home talking to Noelle, and joined in conversation by people I love and trust, was critical to making myself vulnerable and able to speak candidly. I also had regular therapy sessions with a clinical psychologist throughout the process, which was invaluable support during what was ultimately a very confronting experience. 

In scoping who we could and should talk to for the project, I realised how far the roots of betrayal had spread. So many years after this all happened, I was not the only one trying to process the events and their impact. There were three key people close to me that I knew we had to hear from. My mum, my best friend from the time, and my sister who was also a leader in the youth group I attended. 

I was confident Ange, my childhood friend who joined the church with me and knew about my relationship with our youth leader from the start, would be willing to help. Over the years she’s hinted at being on standby should I ever feel the need to go to the police or share my story some other way, but only when I was ready. 

I was much less confident about asking my family to put their voices to my story. For my mum and sister, the full extent of the relationship I had with my youth group leader is reasonably recent information, which means they are still wrestling with their own feelings of guilt and betrayal. They’re also both very private people, contributing to a podcast isn’t something they’d ever put their hands up for, let alone to speak about such deeply personal stuff.

It didn’t take long for Mum to agree to be involved, but for my sister the decision was harder. The parish at the centre of my story is one she spent much of her adult life in and while she no longer attends that particular church, she is still devoted to her faith. Contributing to a project that could cast a dark shadow on an institution that is dear to her meant she had some intense soul-searching to do before agreeing to participate. 

Ultimately, my sister recognised this happened right under the noses of a loving and well-meaning community and that there are countless other survivors who have suffered under the watch of a variety of organisations who could be helped by hearing a story like mine. Feeling a responsibility to support her baby sister and in the hope of helping others, she too agreed to contribute. 

Most of my family still live nearby to where my teen years played out. That means I’m back in the neighbourhood regularly, and have even been to funerals and baptisms at the church I attended all those years ago. It hasn’t served me to sit in my memories when I drive past his house and the church building, or down roads where he’d park up so we could fool around. In order to keep visiting my family, I had become pretty good at disconnecting the places from the pain, but in making this podcast I had to join the dots back up.

Going back to those locations with the express purpose of revisiting what happened to me wasn’t easy. Talking about specific traumatic events while standing right where they took place was like a portal to the past. One I had avoided for so long, and for good reason. But it felt necessary. For too long I had played down the significance of what happened to me, and facing the true gravity of it all meant confronting the ugliness head on, right where it all happened. It was as if I was going into battle on behalf of my younger self.

As well as talking to people who were there at the time, we also spoke to a clinical psychologist and lawyer, both of whom are experienced in the complexities of cases like mine. Both of whom shared incredible wisdom to help me understand what happened to me wasn’t my fault and what my options are in terms of navigating the complaints process. They also helped us prepare for reaching out to the man at the centre of all this, to offer him the opportunity to speak with Noelle, and ultimately meet with me. 

Making this podcast was hard. Hearing my family talk of their hurt, realising how my best friend was also a victim in this, and confronting the realities of making a complaint. Reaching out to the church to find out how this was allowed to happen on their watch and also making contact with the man responsible for this whole mess. It was hard, but I’m glad I did it. After so many years of having my narrative controlled by someone else, I’ve finally been able to tell my story in my voice and with my words. 

And it is my voice you’ll hear on Dear Jane, but I don’t use my full name. I’m no longer ashamed of my past, but I want to protect the privacy of my children. We’re also not using the former youth group leader’s real name because this isn’t an exposé.

I can’t write about taking part in this podcast without acknowledging the care that was taken by the incredible people who played a role in putting it all together. Every person who contributed, both on mic and off, did so with the greatest of sensitivity and care. I have felt heard, believed and unquestionably supported – for that I feel extremely privileged and grateful. 

I know not all survivors are as fortunate when it comes to being believed and supported. Not all survivors are ready to face the reality of things that have happened to them. This podcast is for those brave women and men. So they can hear their own voices in mine and know they’re not alone. 

Dear Jane is made by The Spinoff Podcast Network with the support of NZ On Air. All five episodes are available now on SpotifyApple Podcasts and anywhere else you listen to podcasts. The series contains strong language and features, themes of sexual abuse, as well as explicitly sexual material and mention of suicide. Please take care.

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