At 14 years old, she vowed she’d never tell her story again. She said she wouldn’t talk about how he told her, “We will keep it our little secret,” or “All good dads do this.” She swore she wouldn’t talk about her family vacations she just wanted to forget, or how he threatened to put an end to their dog’s life if she ever told anyone what he did. Telling someone would mean she broke the silence about her childhood filled with sexual abuse.
Her name is Nicole Bromley, and now, at 33-years-old, she continues to break that vow she once made to help others find their voice. Bromley spoke at Keene State College on April 9 about the confusion and anger she dealt with while growing up in a home where her stepfather sexually abused her. At her speech during Breaking the Silence On Sexual Abuse & Trafficking, she explained to an audience of over 100 people she couldn’t walk across the hallway in a towel after showering without her stepfather trying to follow her into her room. She also explained to attendees that the first day court cases against her stepfather began was also her first day of high school. Shortly after, her stepfather committed suicide.
The Alumni Recital Hall at the Redfern Arts Center went silent as she told the crowd she felt like it was her fault she went through this, that she was to blame for doing something wrong.
“I’ve never met a survivor who didn’t feel like it was their fault,” she said.
Bromley is the founder and director of OneVOICE, a group dedicated to “educating and raising awareness of sexual abuse, trafficking and other related issues,” according to the group’s website. She is also an author of a number of books — one of which helped a former KSC student start to heal.
Melanie Sachs explained, “I was sexually abused when I was twelve, and when I was thirteen-years-old, it was around the time Nicole’s first book came out.”
Sachs said the book came out at the right time and, “Not too long after reading her [Bromley’s] book, I sent her an email knowing that her schedule’s really busy and that I probably wouldn’t get an email back.”
About two weeks later, Sachs got a response from Bromley. Since then, she has also broken her silence with what she described as a dark time in her life.
“It meant so much to me that she took time out of her busy schedule to, one-on-one, sit there and write those emails to me,” Sachs said, reflecting on how she felt ten years ago. Today, Sachs is another speaker who aims to help people speak up. For Bromley, though, talking about her experience wasn’t always easy. In fact, she said she doesn’t remember much about the first time she told a crowd at a camp during a “shout out.” She shared how her legs, “just walked up there” to the front of the group of hundreds of young adults. “I think that I knew I was ready to tell,” she said, “It had been a year since my stepfather’s suicide, and I hadn’t told anyone and it was something that was eating me up inside, and I felt like it was a story that needed to get out.”
Bromley said the crowd was shocked, but what happened next surprised her even more. She began to receive “penpal” letters, where young adults who listened to her that day shared similar situations with her.
“Now looking back, I know I wasn’t alone and there were other kids at that camp who needed to tell their stories too, but they needed somebody like me to tell first,” she said.
KSC senior Johanna DeBari, a member of Mentors In Violence Prevention, also related to Bromley. DeBari explained she is also a survivor of sexual violence, and knows others who endured the same behavior.
Debari said, “The hardest thing for me is when they [victims] talk about how they felt,” and how, “the things that I thought in my head that I told no one, they’re saying out loud,” was a validating moment for her.
DeBari has also broken her own silence, by speaking at the “Shout Out” event at KSC just two days later.
After listening to Bromley’s story and watching videos at the Breaking the Silence event, in which numerous sex trafficking victims were interviewed, DeBari said, “My heart breaks for them [the victims] because they do get it. I don’t want people to understand what I’ve been through,” she said.
“I want them to be able to stand from a distance and say, ‘My God, that’s terrible, I’ll never understand,’ and it’s hard for me to hear people tell their stories and say, ‘I get what you’re going through’ because I’ve been through it, and maybe I’ve been through worse things,” she shared.
DeBari stated she was sexually assaulted as a college student. Being older, she explained she had more of a grasp as to what happened in terms of assault.
“Having that happen to children is just beyond my understanding,” she said.
KSC junior Hersch Rothmel, another MVP member and attendee, said the most difficult part to hear stories about were victims who were only children.
“It always, always, always is someone who we never think of,” Rothmel said. He explained the perpetrator is typically, “the nicest guy in the town, it’s always someone that people trust, that people know [and] think of as a great guy.”
He also said, “It’s easier to get angry, it’s harder to love and try to heal with someone who’s done a really bad wrong to you — and I would never expect someone who experienced sexual violence to forgive that person, but I think that if we’re going to get anywhere, it’s necessary to be able to look perpetrators in the face and give them the love and understanding, to an extent, that they never received.”
Rothmel explained he believes the healing process is communal and also involves the perpetrators themselves.
Bromley also shared, “they [perpetrators] are chained up in this too, and it’s not going to stop until justice is served or they get help.”
Rothmel said he was inspired to listen to people who, “have the courage and the willpower to be able to talk about their stories, no matter how bad or depressing a story is, the fact that they’re able to be there talking just speak volumes.”
DeBari mentioned speaking out about her assault during “Shout Out” and said while she first felt extremely nervous, “Me doing this shouldn’t be something that I’m terrified of,” she continued, “This is a moment of empowerment.”
One way some students said victims can get help is a shift in the way society views sexual assaults.
KSC senior Stephanie Morse said, “Blaming the victim — that needs to end.”
She referred to part of Bromley’s speech and pointed out, “It doesn’t matter what you were wearing, it doesn’t matter how drunk you were, it doesn’t matter how high you were or anything; you’re still the victim — and we need to stop blaming the victim.”
Brittany Ballantyne can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org