Sexual Abuse: What Finally Made It 'Ok To Tell'

Lauren Book grew up in what looked like a stable upper class home. But over six years, Lauren was sexually and physically abused by the family's female nanny. Her memoir It's OK to Tell challenges commonly held ideas about sexual abuse, and she speaks with host Michel Martin. (Advisory: This segment may not be suitable for all audiences.)

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll check out more of your tweets. That's our "Muses and Metaphor" series for National Poetry Month. But first, we want to go "Behind Closed Doors." That's the part of the program where we talk about issues that many people often only talk about in private. And sexual abuse, especially of children, is certainly one of those issues. But the issue is coming into the light again.

But the issue is coming into the light again. Now, one reason might be the ongoing case against the former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who is accused of molesting a number of boys over a long period of time. Just last week, Sandusky appeared in a Pennsylvania court, where his lawyer's motion to dismiss charges was denied. It's a reminder that trusted people in positions of power can also be abusers.

And this is where our next guest comes in. Lauren Book was 11 years old when a new nanny moved into the family home. Within a matter of months, this woman began physically and sexually abusing Lauren, something that would continue for the next six years.

Today, Lauren runs an organization called Lauren's Kids. She hopes to prevent sexual abuse and help survivors heal, and she tells the story in a memoir called "It's OK to Tell." Throughout the book, Lauren challenges many myths about sexual abuse, including the idea that affluent children are not targets; or that men are the only perpetrators.

She's with us from Tallahassee, Florida, to tell us more. Lauren, welcome. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

LAUREN BOOK: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: And, of course, this is a sensitive subject. This might not be appropriate for everyone listening right now. We just think it's important to mention that because we'd like to give Lauren the freedom to tell the story in whatever way she feels is appropriate.

So Lauren, I just want to remind people who may remember your name, that you were with us a while ago, when the allegations against Jerry Sandusky first emerged, to tell us your story. When this issue surfaces again in the news, is that a good thing - in a sense that you think it gives people the space to talk more about it - or, in a way, is it traumatizing again; does it bring the whole thing up again for you?

BOOK: Well, for me, you know, I've done a great deal of healing and, you know, I'm a thriving survivor, I like to say. So I just look at it as an opportunity to discuss the issue of childhood sexual abuse . And I think it's an important one.

MARTIN: I appreciate that, and so thank you for that. Lauren, I don't want to imply in any way that - I mean, obviously, this should never have happened, and I hope that is very clear. But I do think it would be helpful if you would describe - briefly, if you would - what do you think the circumstances were, that made you vulnerable to this abuse?

BOOK: You know, I think that for me and my family - you know, my mother had a mental illness. There was a lot of secrecy in my family. I can remember one instance, in general, my dad - as a lobbyist here in the State of Florida, and a prominent one - and he said, we don't talk about the things that happen in this house. And I remember that, and that has stuck with me always. I mean, I think those are two really big things that made me vulnerable, too, while these - advances, and preying upon me as a child.

MARTIN: You talk in the book very clearly and explicitly about how it is that your former nanny, Waldy, started to groom you to accept this abuse. You know, obviously, you talk about this is great detail, which we don't have time for. Can you just give us a little bit of a sense of what happened, and what would you like to have known then that you know now?

BOOK: Sure. The grooming process is one in which a predator works to build trust, not just with the child that they're about to abuse, but for the family. And so my mom, like we discussed before, was mentally ill. My dad was working a lot. So for us, the grooming process was, I got to stay up late; and I got attention; and I didn't have to make dinner, make sure the kids got their homework done. So she was building up that trust with me while building up trust with my parents. And so I wanted her around. I was happy that she was there.

I wish I knew now to second-guess, you know, some of those things that she had done - the hand-holding, maybe; the hand on the knee for extended periods of time. And I wish that my parents had a greater knowledge base of the issue of childhood sexual abuse, and what perpetrators often do to begin the abuse cycle. And I think those things would have been important.

MARTIN: Well, that's one of the things I wanted to ask you about because by definition, a lot of this behavior took place when you were alone with her, or there were other kids around. Like, for example, in one instance, she kissed you inappropriately, and then tried to tell you why; you know, she was teaching you something that you needed to know. Is there something that outsiders could have seen, that would have made it OK for you to tell?

BOOK: You know, I think that - I would sit on her lap as a 12-, 13-, 14-year-old young lady; sitting on a woman's lap. That's something that I would, if I saw that, say - you know - this isn't quite right, and try and discuss it with that child.

One of the things is that I called Waldy "baby," and she called me "baby." As somebody now, looking back, I would have hoped that somebody would have caught on to that. We were always holding hands - and always together. I had no friends my own age. And that's something that my parents did pick up on. But knowing that they could trust Waldy, instead of kind of talking to me first, they spoke to her about it.

MARTIN: The title of your book is "It's OK to Tell." And I hope it's OK that we're skipping past some of the behavior itself, because I do think it's important for people to understand that there's nothing ambiguous about her conduct. Is it OK for me to sort of put it that way?

BOOK: Absolutely.

MARTIN: In every respect, her behavior toward you was abusive. It was sexually abusive. It was entirely inappropriate. And the law recognized that, you know, ultimately, because she was convicted of abusing you, and is serving a prison sentence. But the title of your book is "It's OK to Tell." What finally made it OK to tell?

BOOK: It was, I think, a long time of being inside of a very, very sexually abusive relationship; physically abusive, and emotionally abusive. And I had a young man who became my boyfriend, who started to ask questions: Why do you have a bruise on your lower back? You know, what is this from? You can tell me. You can talk to me. It's OK. Feeling that I had somebody that I could share this with, and that I could trust, made it OK to tell him. And in telling him, I grew the courage and the strength to then go to my father.

MARTIN: We're talking with Lauren Book about her experience as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Her book is called "It's OK to Tell," and this is probably a good place to repeat that this is a sensitive topic. It may not be appropriate for everyone, but we feel that Lauren should have the opportunity to be as explicit as she needs to be, to describe what happened and what needs to be done about it.

What about at school? Were there any teachers, or any trusted adults, that you had access to? Did you ever consider trying to tell somebody, or is it just that Waldy made herself so important to you, you were afraid to lose that?

BOOK: I think it's a two-tiered kind of a thing. She was so important that I was afraid - because of the mental instability of my mom. And everybody knew that - around us. So when Waldy came, she was like the savior, if you will, to the Book kids. She was the person who was going to save us from our mentally ill mom, and be there for us when our dad couldn't be there. So nobody thought to question her.

She would come to school during the day and see who I was hanging around. Yes, she was a nanny, but she wasn't my legal guardian. She would come on school grounds, and nobody ever questioned her. The other thing is, sexual abuse happens across all cultural, socioeconomic backgrounds, religion; it matters not. It happens in your church. It happens in your temple. It happens in your mosque. It happens at the school that your kids go to; and in your neighborhoods, in your gated communities. Wherever your children are, they are at risk. And that's why it's important to learn all you can about, you know, tricks predators set; who your children are around; and having that open and honest communication with your children.

MARTIN: Well, I think what you're saying is very alarming to people. And there are some people who would say well, how do you know when the interest that someone else is showing in the child has crossed the line, or should raise a red flag?

BOOK: Absolutely.

MARTIN: How do you know when it crosses the line?

BOOK: And there are individuals that are very beneficial in our children's lives. And we don't just want to do, you know, an all-out witch hunt; that everybody is out to hurt your kids. But what's important is to know who's around your children; to have open and honest communication with that person; to have open and honest communication with your children. Notice how your children are interacting with that individual. How are they acting with that individual, and when that individual leaves? And I think the other important thing is to remember that you can't just close your eyes and think it's not going to happen. And it's not about scaring everybody - that it could be anybody, and it could be somebody in the house right now. But it is about setting up checks and balances to keep your kids safe.

MARTIN: I mentioned earlier that your former nanny, Waldy, was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. But her sentence was actually extended to 25 years because she broke a stipulation of her sentencing that required her not to have contact with you. What happened there?

BOOK: Mm-hmm. Well - and, you know, I go through this in the book. When I saw Waldy the day that she was sentenced, I had seen her for the first time since she had actually fled to Oklahoma and was arrested. She was a very large woman when she was living in our home. And when I saw her in that courtroom, she had lost a significant amount of weight. She didn't look like herself.

And to kind of set the stage for those who had - maybe have not read the book, I was down to 70 pounds; anorexic. I was, you know, self-mutilating. I was in a very difficult place with my sexual abuse counseling. And I saw her, and I felt so guilty that I sent the one person who loved to me to prison - how I could do that. And when I saw her in court that day, she started mouthing words to me. She said, I love you; it's OK; it's not your fault; wait for me.

So I thought, as I walked out of the courtroom that day, I have got to get in contact with her. I'm so sorry. I just don't want her to be mad at me. And so we started a letter-writing campaign back and forth. And in the first letter I wrote to her, I said, I know you can't write me, but I will do this for however long it takes till you get out. I'll wait for you. To my surprise, you know, right after that - it was in December - I got a letter from her. And during that - those letter writings back and forth, she would ask me to get the governor to try and get her out of prison. She would ask for money. And still, in these letters - it's evidence that I could see at that time, that she was still trying to manipulate me, and get what she needed and wanted from me.

MARTIN: The letters that you actually put in the book are very hard to read, knowing what happened. I do think it's important to point out that your recovery period was very difficult, too. So the thought that - that just because someone does tell, that the next chapter - you know, might be equally difficult. Can you talk a little bit about that, if you would?

BOOK: Absolutely. You know, I always say that true surviving does not begin until the perpetrator is out of the survivor's life. That's when true healing and the work really, really begins. And my process was not an easy one. You know, I was in - I went to several private sector counselors before I got help at the Broward County Sexual Assault Treatment Center, which was a free agency. You know, they saved my life, literally, in all sense of the word.

I was very, very thin at that point - you know, 65, 70 pounds; organs shut down. You know, I was in the hospital, in a rehab facility for anorexia. I was burning my skin. You know, I was in a very, very dark place. And it took a very, very long time for me to actually sit down and do the work, to go through that process.

And I think, you know, while it's so scary - and I come in contact with all these different survivors, and they're sharing their stories with me; you know, women, men who try and numb all that pain with drugs and alcohol because they just don't want to feel what's really there. And I think for me, I felt that at that point, I had no other option. I needed to save my life. I needed to pick myself up and keep going, and that I could make a difference out there for other survivors.

And I met a young lady at the Broward County Sexual Assault Treatment Center, and we kind of did some things together. But it was one night with my mom, actually, and she said to me - and I was crying, crying, crying, crying in my bed because of what had happened, because of where I was. And she said, you know what, Lauren? You've got to stop crying. This happened to me, and look at me - I'm fine. And those who have read the book know that my mom is far from fine. And it was at that point that I said, I will not end up like my mom. I will do the right things; to do the things I needed to do, to heal. And that was really a turning point for me.

MARTIN: I just want to end where we started - with your work. And you are working now very hard to educate the public; and to tell people what they need to know to educate themselves, to arm themselves. You testified before Congress about the need for mandatory reporting in the wake of that Penn State football scandal. Just some final thoughts, if you would, about - what other wisdom do you have for people who are hearing this, who are trying, perhaps, to - struggle with this issue right now; or for the rest of us? And what else do we need to hear?

BOOK: Well, I think parents need to realize - and really become educated - in the issue of sexual abuse; know the statistics. One in three young girls will be sexually abused before they're 18, and one in five young boys will be sexually assaulted before they're 18. And children with disabilities are at a 90 percent greater risk of being sexually assaulted in their lifetime. These are staggering numbers, and I don't say them lightly. But I think it's important for people to realize, this is a true epidemic.

But there are things that we can do about them. Parents need to become educated; read on our website - which is www.laurenskids.org. We have a parent interactive tool kit that they can go through with their children. In the State of Florida, we've created a kindergarten curriculum that will be in over 11,000 kindergarten classrooms, that educates children, teachers and parents. And I think that's a very important piece of it.

I think on the second part of it, we need to look at survivors. And survivors need to know that there are people out there that love them and care about them; that they don't need to numb the pain that they're feeling - and the things that have happened to them - with drugs or alcohol, or any other vices that come along the way; that they can become true, thriving survivors and heal; and that we at Lauren's Kids love and care about them. And we're there - we're here for them, as a resource. Our hotline is 1-877-LKIDS-01. And we can provide crisis intervention, crisis management, and referrals to sexual assault treatment centers throughout the country.

I think that also, as we look at this situation with Penn State, it's an opportunity to look at the issues of childhood sexual abuse; and really pay attention to what we need to do, to make our children safer throughout the country. And we need to look at mandated reporting; we need to look at those who are required to report. And we need to put tougher penalties in place for institutions that look to hide behind an institution instead of protecting our children.

And those are some of the things that we're doing in the State of Florida this year, during the legislative session. And those are some of the things that we talked about when we were in Washington - and continue to work with our senators, and congressmen and women, to protect our children.

MARTIN: Lauren Book is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. She details her story in her memoir, "It's OK to Tell." She also runs Lauren's Kids. That's an organization to educate the public, and help survivors of sexual abuse. She was with us from member station WFSU in Tallahassee, Florida.

Lauren, thanks so much for joining us once again.

BOOK: Thank you so much for having me.

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