When I was 17, I smiled constantly, still hiding the worst secret of my life. By that point, I was barely conscious of keeping it. Seven years earlier, when I was just 10 years old, a town scandal had unfolded, pitting girl against girl. I had determined, at that point, to forget all that had happened—the lie I’d told to protect a man considered our version of powerful.
When I began fifth grade in the fall of 1991, it was also my third year of piano lessons with the beloved Howard Lotte. He was a sixth-grade teacher who taught piano at his house to many young girls after the school day was over. By then, I was finally graduating from boring “Hot Cross Buns” songs to popular ballads. I loved the theme from “The Young and the Restless.” But my lessons were growing disquieting. Earlier that summer, the infallible Mr. Lotte had slipped his hand beneath my armpit and onto my breast while I played through my weekly assignment. I remember the blinking metronome, the darkness of the basement with its closed door, and the intense panic that led me to promise myself I’d never breathe a word of it to anyone.
That season, I discovered I wasn’t the only student Mr. Lotte had violated. When rumors started to spread that he might not be as virtuous as he’d led us all to believe, our small town went into what felt like an overnight tailspin. But, because this was 1991, people weren’t asking about Mr. Lotte. Instead the scrutiny centered on the seven young girls who actually dared to speak out about what he’d done. Much of the town believed these girls had conspired and that Mr. Lotte—their dear friend, fellow teacher, and friendly neighbor—had simply been framed. Speaking out, apparently, was a worse sin than the crime that had been committed.
The police conducted a long investigation while the town itself continued to argue over this man’s innocence. Girls tend to imagine things, people said to each other at the mail box, the grocery store, the school parking lot. Why should he pay the price? Even the children at school were not immune. These young women whose identities ought to have been kept private were named on the playground and in the hallways between classes—as if they were the perpetrators. It seemed less important to everyone whether or not he’d actually done it. They wanted to know who had said he did.
To be known so notoriously at such a young age felt impossible. I was so afraid of being named among them that first I lied to myself about what Mr. Lotte had done to me, as if telling myself he hadn’t touched me would make it disappear. Then I lied to my parents, then to my classmates, and finally to the police when they interrogated me. After the investigation wrapped and Mr. Lotte served a short sentence, I renewed my promise to never think of the lie I’d told or Howard Lotte again.
It turned out that no one else in town wanted to remember it, either. The whole scandal and all of Mr. Lotte’s crimes became part of our communal amnesia—our feeble attempt at moving forward without offering any apologies or admitting any mistakes. The girls who told the truth about Lotte’s crimes had to forgive and forget their classmates’ mistreatment of them or else remain loners and outcasts. Mr. Lotte stayed in his house, stayed with his wife. He no longer taught at the school, though he appeared around town every now and again—shopping at the grocery store, walking in the park, holding the door open for someone at the hardware store. Sometimes people said hello, sometimes they looked away. No one dared utter his name for a very long time.
The shame of a childhood secret can be a heavy burden, whether you remember it or not. Throughout my adolescence and into young adulthood, I always felt like a fraud, and I tried to compensate for it by keeping a squeaky clean reputation. But my fear festered. I felt I couldn’t trust even my closest friends. I suspected every classroom whisper was about something I’d done. As I got older, I waited for the men in my life to hurt me. They can’t help it, I told myself. That’s what men do. I believed their actions had no consequences. They got someone pregnant, and it was the girl who held the shame. They cheated and it was the girlfriend who couldn’t keep her man interested. Somehow, the female was always to blame. I assumed people never told the truth. I thought others were hiding something because, of course, I was hiding something.
My attempts to be “good” in its legal sense—no cheating, no (more) lying, no disobeying—overshadowed the value of inner truth. I had fallen in love with my own illusion. I wanted to be pure. I wanted to be innocent. But beneath these desires was another lie I had become tied to: because Lotte had done this to me, I was dirty. Damaged. The one lie I’d told fostered others in its wake—that if I let this be true, it would destroy me. That no one could love me. That I couldn’t be smart, sexy, and sophisticated and be a victim of sexual violence. In fearing that others would only see me as a victim or as a liar, I had come to define myself that way, too.
As I became a young woman who always felt so old, I started to see that shutting off all my feelings about Howard Lotte caused me to cut off my feelings about everything else, too. I couldn’t feel the love that others extended toward me, and I couldn’t extend my full love in return. Friendships I valued ended abruptly or faded out completely. Phone calls and invitations went unanswered. I was lonely, and yet felt powerless to fix it. By the time I reached my early twenties, I couldn’t stand it. I knew I was facing a choice: to let the lie continue to reign over my life or to finally dethrone it. So I did what my ten-year-old self thought was impossible: I told my boyfriend, my close friends, and my family—but before any of that, I told the truth to myself.
As I started to be honest about my past, I witnessed a truer, stronger version of myself come to life, a young woman no longer petrified of speaking out about abuse. After more than a decade of buckling beneath the weight of self-assigned shame, I finally held Howard Lotte accountable for his actions, if only in my heart. He had wronged me, and the act of speaking this simple, yet incredibly difficult truth created a tidal wave of emotion. I grieved not just for myself, but for all the other silent girls in my hometown and in so many towns beyond it. The grief eventually gave way to an inner imperative to tell my story, to search out the lie and all it had cost me. This story formed the crux of Cinderland, my first book.
It shouldn’t surprise me that I’ve received a host of varying reactions since the book’s publication. A few have accused me of exaggeration, or worse—re-abusing the victims by speaking out about it now. Some have said I shouldn’t bring up something that happened so long ago. But this sentiment proves why stories like mine are so important. Countless women have needed their silence to protect them in very dangerous situations, and it still may not be safe for them to tell the truth, no matter how much time has passed. Silence is not evidence of healing or closure; it’s a symptom of a very painful wound. Lionizing the act of keeping quiet only ensures these kinds of secrets will continue to be kept, and it trivializes the kind of damage that lasts.
Amy Jo Burns is the author of Cinderland, and her writing has appeared in The Butter, Dame, Good Housekeeping, The Rumpus, and Salon. She currently writes for Ploughshares.