It Happened to Me: I'm an Atheist Because I Was Sexually Assaulted at Church Camp

I don't think things happen for a reason. I think sometimes, things just happen.
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LinnieSarah Helpern
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I don't think things happen for a reason. I think sometimes, things just happen.
Oh but to fit in that dress forever.

Oh but to fit in that dress forever.

I was never what you'd call a “religious kid.” My family was so religiously diverse that I made the decision early on to check the “other” box when asked what my deal was with the G-man and call it a day. 

But since my mother was adamantly Catholic and my father was a flip-flopper, I was sent to Catholic school. The early years passed without incident, unless you count that kid kicking the soccer balls at my head, a really inappropriate school-sponsored haunted house where I ran face-first into raw meat, and a sadistic gym teacher/clown who gave me a diagnosed case of coulrophobia.

(OK... that last thing probably isn't considered “without incident” but we're skipping it because my therapist said to just let it go already.)

Then, sixth grade happened.

I know for a FACT sixth grade sucks for everyone. Sixth grade is some sort of science experiment where children are flooded with hormones, their capacity to be cruel is doubled, and their ability to sniff out weakness becomes Olympic-level on-point.

It was in the sixth grade that a 12-year-old boy who looked like Antonio Banderas shoved his hand into my underwear while an entire class looked on and laughed. 

 But after the school brushed off the incident as if it hadn't happened, and my parents pulled me out, the lesson had been learned...

When it came to boys doing awful things to me, it was better just to keep my mouth shut. 

Two years later, that lesson would prove a lot more detrimental to my mental health than a 12-year-old could have predicted. And once again, it all centered around fucking church. (I'd say pardon my language, but I've earned this.)

I could not, will not, go in the woods. You can not make me, Sam I Am.

I could not, will not, go in the woods. You can not make me, Sam I Am.

Just because I'd been pulled out of Catholic school, my mother wasn't ready to let me forgo some sort of Catholic indoctrination. So once a week, I had to go to the Catholic version of Sunday School, and then youth group. 

Sunday School sucked, but the youth group part wasn't so bad. I had a few female friends, and I met my handsome, blonde crush. The best part about youth group, though, were the free vacations! Beach trips, trips to the bigger cities for the weekend... I could ignore all that praying and singing and Jesus BS if it meant I got to play skee-ball or shop at an ACTUAL comic shop. 

When I was 14, a weekend trip was planned for a middle-of-nowhere town in the mountains, but it had a ropes course and this awesome natural rock slide and my crush was going, so hell YEAH I'd sleep in a dingy-ass cabin for a weekend.

I felt like a real grown-up that weekend. The girls traded lipstick and dating advice for relationships none of us had, we snuck Eminem into the music rotation in the main hall, we were regular badasses. But then the inevitable night came when we had to go to some unity bonfire and pretend that we were actually there for the religious part of it all. 

It was already dark and the bonfire was a solid 10-minute walk from the cabins, so two friends and I decided to linger behind as long as we could. When we couldn't put it off any longer, we started into the woods as a group, but we weren't far in when I realized that the watch my grandmother had given me had fallen off somewhere. 

I really liked the watch, and I really loved my grandmother, so I told my friends to go ahead, and I'd find my way on my own.

I turned back toward the cabins, but as this was in the days before cell phones with flashlights, I realized pretty quickly I'd made a silly decision. It was dark as hell and not only was I not finding any watch, but it was questionable whether or not I would actually find my way back to the group on my own. 

My sense of direction sucks at the best of times. I've been known to get lost walking from my car to the house and I park in the driveway. But, I started walking in the direction from which I smelled fire. 

And then I saw... nothing.

My vision went completely white. It was if I were staring at a movie screen after the film had stopped running. I didn't even feel my head hit the ground. To this day, I don't know how long I was out, or what I was hit with, only that it left a baseball-sized welt on my skull, and it fucking hurt. 

When I finally opened my eyes, I was staring directly into another set of eyes, not entirely unlike my own. Bluish-green, large, focused. But these eyes were cold and angry. 

I blinked and blinked, trying to clear my vision, but what I saw never changed. There was a body on top of mine, and it smelled of smoke, cheap cigarettes, and what I'd later learn as an adult was the stench of alcohol seeping out of your pores.

His hair was in a ponytail, coming loose to the side, but it was too dark for me to really make out the color. It wouldn't matter anyway. I wouldn't be sharing these details with sensitive detectives like the ones I'd come to cherish on television years later or a counselor who would encourage me to press charges. 

The details would be my own, and with time, my memory may have just as easily shifted them into any number of hazy unfocused frames pushed to the back of my mind. 

But this I remember with all my being: He was rough, his hands were calloused and cold and held my wrists so tight that I couldn't feel my fingertips. And then, he was a traitor in my body. A tumor. Something that I knew should not be there and as a result, my life was irrevocably changed.

When he was finished, he took off a fleece jacket and wiped himself off. Then? I just lay on that cold, crunching ground, staring up at the moon through the trees. It was then that I heard my name being called through the woods, my mother finally realizing I was missing. 

The creature standing above me didn't say a word; he just kicked me in the foot, perhaps to see if I was still alive, and then... he left.

My mind began racing as voices drew closer, remembering the years before and how “helpful” everyone had been after Marco and Grade 6. I jumped to my feet, pulled up my pants, quickly wiped away the tears I didn't even realize had been there, and told everyone I must have fallen. 

I must have hit my head. Silly, Linnie. So accident prone. Always tripping. Always falling.

That night, I sat in the corner of the cabin, clutching my teddy bear and rocking back and forth, listening for any sound outside that might have been the man returning. 

When morning light came, the others rose with the excitement of going to the natural rockslide, but I was still sitting in that corner, watching the door like a hawk. 

The youth group leader, we'll call her Rosie, yelled at me to hurry up and get my bathing suit on. When I said I didn't want to go, she told me to stop being difficult and get moving. When we got to the rockslide and I didn't want to take off my clothes to get in the water, she told me to stop being a baby and go down the slide. So I did. 

I took off my five layers of clothes and I climbed to the top of that rockslide and I slid all the way down. And when I hit the freezing cold pool of water at the bottom, I decided it might just be best if I stayed down there.

I've never asked anyone how long I was actually underwater; I only know that by the time the massive hands of our lone male group leader pulled me out, I was so cold I couldn't move. I was wrapped in towels and blankets and put in a van to be taken back to the cabins. I saw Rosie roll her eyes as the van pulled away. 

Later that evening, as I sat on a bench watching the other kids play baseball, and wishing I was dead, Rosie yelled at me to stop being a baby and pick a team. I picked up a baseball bat, threw it at her, and shut myself in one of the bathroom stalls.

It didn't take long after that for me to finally be allowed to quit youth group, though it DID involve me attacking a kid who threw a piece of paper at me while I was washing a table. Rosie thought it was clear I needed to “Get right with God” before I could come back. My therapist told me I should forgive her. I have not. Sucks to be you, Rosie.

I'd like to say things magically got better after that, but of course they didn't. I found other, self-destructive ways to deal with a pain I didn't understand. But more than that, I completely walked away from the church, and religion. 

It didn't take long for me to feel that there was something wrong about being raped, and then sitting in church hearing “God has a plan” and “Everything that happens to you, Jesus wants it that way.” Even at 14, that didn't mesh, and it still doesn't. 

I don't think things happen for a reason. I think sometimes, things just happen. And the more people that die every day as a result of religion, the more comfortable I am with my choice to believe that.

Seventeen and a little less aggressively angry at everything...

Seventeen and a little less aggressively angry at everything...

Maybe your story is different. Maybe you dealt with it a different way. Maybe it drove you to faith instead of away from it. But the point I hoped to make is this: If this happened to you, talk to someone. Whether its God, your family, your friends, or someone you meet online with a similar story, talk to someone. You are not alone.