Woman shares story of sexual assault to help survivors
SUGARLOAF, Pa. (AP) — Colleen Cavallo was 14 years old when she went to a party at a house blocks from her home where five boys brutally raped her.
For 20 years, the Sugarloaf Township woman stayed silent, blaming herself for the violent sexual assault that left her bloody and in shock.
“It’s like a part of me died,” Cavallo said. “It was such a violent attack. In a matter of minutes, they not only physically changed me forever, but they effectually destroyed my emotional and psychological self at the same time.
“I feel a part of me was murdered that night. The part of me that knew who I was.”
Cavallo, now a nurse, wife and mother, came forward in the wake of the #MeToo movement to tell her story, hoping to protect her daughter and assist other survivors find help.
It has been five years since she first broke her silence, telling family members and a counselor.
“I think the #MeToo movement is so long overdue,” she said. “What a testament to my story to see so many women that have been through so much . how many have stayed silent for so long?
“If there is anything that is going on in today’s society that we can draw hope from is that women and girls are empowered to say it’s wrong and I’m not going to let you get away with it,” she said. “What a gift, for them, to be growing up in this time.”
Cavallo recalls that before the party, she broke up with one of the boys who raped her, and one of his friends asked her out. She said, “Yes,” causing friction in the clique.
“They all decided together that I was trying to get in between their friendship, and this is how they were going to get back at me,” she said. “They were definitely punishing me.”
The new boyfriend asked her to go into a bedroom alone during the party, and she agreed, knowing they’d probably mess around.
“The other four ambushed me,” Cavallo said.
After the attack, she suffered in silence, she said.
“I felt like I had put myself in a bad situation and I should have known better,” Cavallo said. “I was at a party. I was 14 years old. There was alcohol there. These guys were like ‘it’ in high school . the most popular. They had parties that everyone wanted to be at. They were just the coolest guys. I couldn’t fight them.”
A few weeks later, school came back into session and one of the guys approached her in a car as she walked home, she said. He asked if she was OK and offered her a ride home, Cavallo recalled.
“I don’t know why, but I got into the car. He had this look on his face,” she said. “I thought maybe he’s going to apologize.”
He drove a block down the street, pulled over and the other boys got into the car, Cavallo said.
“They drug me into the back seat,” she said. “They drove me back to the house and tried to do it again, but I fought harder this time. They did not get me in the house.”
As she tried to flee, Cavallo was knocked off the porch of the home and they drove off, leaving her lying on the ground.
“Again, I went home and I didn’t say anything,” she said. “I don’t know why. You go into survival mode.”
Cavallo began to change. She isolated herself from her family, her school work suffered and she often lashed out at loved ones. Later, she got involved in drugs, contemplated suicide and dated the wrong men, while struggling with feelings of shame, guilt, depression and anxiety.
“If it wasn’t for my parents and family, I would certainly be dead, in jail or addicted to something,” Cavallo said. “The only thing that saved me was my foundation in faith and to be blessed to come from the family I came from. They respected me enough to find my own way.”
Many young rape survivors don’t tell anyone and it’s up to parents or teachers to see the changes, said Maryann Lawhon, a family friend who sat with Cavallo as she told her story.
“She put this on herself,” Lawhon said. “Even now, 20 years later . I went to a party. I put myself in a situation. I don’t know why I got into the car. I was hoping for an apology.
“I did the wrong thing again, still equating the poor judgment of a 14-year-old to the criminal actions of the people who assaulted her,” she said.
Cavallo feels most survivors struggle with seeing the rape as a criminal act against them.
“You don’t see the heinous violence that you were a victim of,” she said. “You only see that they chose you.”
Her teachers weren’t going to see a change because none of them knew her, as she just started at the high school. Her parents did see a change and got her into counseling, she said.
“I started to talk about it, and then, I just shut off,” Cavallo said. “It took 20 years for me to find help and start to talk about it. I don’t know why I didn’t go sooner. I really think that the trauma was just so severe . that I was truly in a state of shock for all those years.”
She felt worthless and empty, continuing to blaming herself for the attack.
“I feel it’s very common for rape survivors to feel that way,” Cavallo said.
Her story is a typical survivor story, said Janet MacKay, executive director at the Victims Resource Center in Wilkes-Barre.
“Most survivors never told anyone, they blame themselves and often don’t connect their coping behaviors to the assault,” she said.
While women often blame themselves, it’s not their fault, MacKay said.
“If someone wants to commit sexual assault, there is nothing the victim can do to prevent it,” she said. “It isn’t the fault of the victim.”
MacKay encourages survivors to contact one of the victims resource centers across the state through the www.PCAR.org website.
“Anyone can call our agency for help 570-823-0765,” she said. “It doesn’t matter when it happened to someone. There is still free help available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Cavallo feels it has taken another five years since first talking about the rape and seeking help to fully “snap out of it” and realize that the rape wasn’t her fault.
“There were a lot of years that I was just snuffed out,” she said. “The more outspoken I am, the faster my healing comes. The more I say it out loud, the more it makes sense that it had nothing to do with me and it had everything to do with them.
“Violence doesn’t measure your worth,” Cavallo said. “The measure of your worth does not equal the measure of their worthlessness. Remember that whatever drove them to do this . had nothing to do with you. It had everything to do with them.”
An American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds and the ages 12 to 34 are the highest risk years for rape and sexual assault, according to Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, which also has resources for survivors on its website, www.rainn.org.
More women, like Cavallo, are speaking out in light of the #MeToo movement and more awareness programs are being requested, MacKay said.
Cavallo hopes finding her own voice will help raise awareness and help other survivors seek recovery, especially now when women are empowered to speak out and are supporting each other.
“Women’s voices go unheard,” she said. “What matters to me in all of this is to urge anyone to say what happened, and not only for their own healing, but also for justice. Everyone deserves that.”
Information from: Standard-Speaker, http://www.standardspeaker.com