TW: discusses sexual abuse and domestic violence against children, mentions of suicidal ideation
My name is Ava Cargan, I am a first year at Hamilton College and I am a survivor of sexual abuse. My abuser was my stepbrother, Thomas Bodnar, who had entered my life after my biological mother married my stepfather. What many don’t know, is that sibling sexual abuse is actually more likely than a child being sexually abused by a parent and sibling sexual abuse is the most often unreported for a number of reasons. For years, I didn’t say anything out of fear of my abuser, a fear that people wouldn’t believe me, and most of all, a feeling of shame that I was being abused by a sibling. My sexual and physical abuse continued for 4 years, and emotional and mental abuse followed for 2 years after. I was 10 and he was 14 the first time I was assaulted by him, this continued until a few months right before he turned 18 and I was approaching 14. After he turned 18 and legally became an adult, the rest of my abuse after this point was mental up until I reported him at the age of 16, when he was 20. Here is a copy of the docket sheet of the charges that I pressed.
On December 11th, I had my official court day where my abuser was sentenced to 11-23 months prison time, however, I received the news that after that prison time he would not be registered under Megan’s Law and was not going to be considered a felon. Megan’s Law is the name for the law that requires the United States to make information on sex offenders public. In my case, he is not getting registered in Pennsylvania because he was a minor when he was physically abusing me (he was ages 14-17). The claim that was made by legal representatives behind this shift in law is that “he didn’t know what he was doing” when he was a minor. However, the patterns of his behavior, the premeditated assault and planning that went into much of my abuse, and planning to make sure he didn’t physically assault me after 18, prove that this is extremely wrong.
He knew what he was doing.
After all of what has occurred in the past 2 years of my life since reporting my abuse, my rocks were my detective and my social worker who were by my side throughout the case. However, the court system thoroughly failed me. In my case, I was initials and not named in files or in charges. Throughout the whole case he had been named, and in meetings with legal representatives I heard the words “Thomas’s rights” more times than I can count, and especially more times than I heard the words “Ava’s rights”. When I went to court, I wrote a statement to be read by my social worker in front of the courtroom, judge, legal counsel, and my abuser. Initially, I was going to keep my statement private, contained to the courtroom and only for my legal counsel to have a copy of. Now, in response to the decision that “he didn’t know what he was doing” and that after his very short prison sentence for the seriousness of his crimes, I am publishing the statement that was read in the court about how I was impacted by his decision to abuse me. I am just one of a huge number of children who are sexually abused, and I believe that it is so important not to stay silent about being an abuse survivor because of the number of lives it could save. With that being said, here is a copy of the statement that was read in the court, all about how I am going to be impacted by him the rest of my life, but he is going to continue life as a normal part of society after his time in jail.
My statement to the Court:
For the past few weeks the only thought I’ve had while trying to figure out how to write this statement is “how do i articulate years worth of abuse in just one statement” - and I’ve figured out that there is literally no way for me to express how I had my life ruined in words because the statement “you ruined my life” doesn’t even begin to cover it. I’m 18 and take 8 medications daily to cope with everything that happened to me, I have horrible nightmares that I have to be woken up from, I can only sleep with the lights on, I can’t have people hug me, grab me from behind, I can’t be in crowds anymore because too many people bump into me and having too many people touching me at once causes me to breakdown, I can’t eat certain foods, I can’t play certain games, I can’t go in my own basement, I can’t sit alone in my room. Worst of all, I have uncontrollable flashbacks, moments where I can sit in lectures at college and feel his hands on my body with no warning, I wake up sweating after dreams where I see Thomas in my room at night, I mentally shut down with no warning since everything that happened to me.
It all started just a month after I had turned 11 when Thomas and I went through a phase where we liked to play monopoly. We thought it was fun to play monopoly for hours together, which that summer resulted in me starting to have sleepovers on the couch in the basement so that my parents wouldn’t hear 11 year old me creeping up the stairs at 2 or 3 in the morning because I knew I wasn’t allowed to still be awake. Now even 7 years later I can’t play monopoly with my family anymore because when I was younger it was the precursor to what would often be me getting assaulted. Now, I lie to my parents and tell my siblings I don’t play monopoly anymore because I miss playing with my brother who passed away. For years I told myself that everything was my fault because I fell asleep on the couch, but how was 11 year old me supposed to even predict that this was going to start the next few years that I wouldn’t ever be able to recover from.
In the following years I was tormented beyond belief. I would shower only in my parents bathroom where I could double lock the doors and would always put towels and clothes around the crack of the door after I figured out that I was being watched. I would try to plan to shower when he wasn’t in the house, but when that didn’t work, I had elaborate ways of blocking myself off from the rest of the house, but no matter what I did I was still terrified. Whenever I got changed, I made sure that the crack between the door and the floor was always covered. Whenever I was alone I always made sure that the door was unlocked.
When I was sleeping is when he would hurt me, but for years he never figured out that I had never actually been asleep, not a single time. For years I couldn’t sleep at night because I was so terrified of being in my own bed. I started locking my door so he started opening it with a butter knife which created such a distinct noise that even now I am terrified of it. Even the sound of the silverware drawer opening causes my stomach to drop, even 2 years later. Hearing the sound of a door unlocking sends a physical pain through my chest despite the almost 3 years it’s been. Basic, everyday noises in our house can send me into fight or flight mode. The trauma of being scared to shower, scared to sleep, led me to stop eating, stop functioning, and I felt like I had started rotting as a human being; I was suicidal, unable to take care of myself, and since she was terrified, my mom took me to therapists. I got told that I was beyond their care and that’s when I was sent to a partial hospitalization program after my sophomore year of high school. This is where I told someone that I had been assaulted for the first time, and still didn’t tell them everything that had happened to me. Once they found out I had been assaulted by a member of my family that lived with me, I was told that the condition I was in made a lot of sense - and a social worker was sent to my house. I was nauseous when I could overhear the phone call being made through the therapist's wall. There’s no way that I can describe the feeling of hearing this call being made. I was scared, scared of what was going to happen when people found out, especially when Thomas found out I had told my therapists what he’d done. But I also felt a sense of relief, knowing I might be free from a secret and from an abuser that had been destroying me, and had caused me to want to end my own life at 16.
At this point I had felt ruined - my mom was bathing me because I couldn’t do it on my own. I would have to sit in the tub while she washed my hair, washed my face, and filled the tub with bubbles to try to comfort me. Anytime I ate solid food, I would immediately throw it up. I stopped being able to eat solid food and started relying on smoothies and other drinks for calories. Now, years later I’ve found out that I have gastroparesis, likely as a result of mass amounts of trauma, and at this point in my life this will be incurable. I will live the rest of my life unable to eat solid food without being in pain. For the rest of my life I won’t ever have a stable mood, the rest of my life is going to be filled with bipolar mood swings that cause me to feel like I’m crazy. For the rest of my life I am going to feel paranoid at night, feeling on edge everytime I hear a noise outside, door shut, see a shadow, I am going to be severely anxious every night with nothing that can be done to help. Worst of all, for the rest of my life I am going to suffer from PTSD, and I won’t ever stop having nightmares, won’t ever stop having flashbacks where I can feel him on me, smell his clothes, smell his body wash, and hear his voice.
That’s the best way I can describe that my life has been destroyed but it doesn’t cover it. There’s no way to sit down and write every time I remember being assaulted by someone who was my brother without breaking down - and honestly, I don’t want to sit and write everytime that I’ve ever gotten assaulted because I already have to live with it everyday without needing to write it down on paper. When writing this statement, for me it was less about documenting every single thing that had happened to me, because I’ve already done that, but it’s a way to bring awareness to the ways that my life is still impacted even though the abuse has stopped. I know that everyone tells me that I’m going to be just fine because I am strong - but ultimately as a result of what’s happened to me, my mental and physical conditions are incurable, and I will live with what happened to me every single day for the rest of my life.
The need to speak up now:
There were a multitude of reasons that I came to the decision that I was publishing my statement: In my case, he got 11-23 months for 6 years of abuse. When I pressed charges against him, I was capped on how many times I could charge him for assault. In court, it always felt like they cared about his rights more than mine, and I became another victim that was put down by the system. I also believe that it’s so important to share abuse stories. My story of being abused by a step-sibling is something that happens to so many children, and has probably happened to other Hamilton students as well. Sharing my abuse story, I hope, encourages people to speak up as well, and hopefully saves lives of other people who felt put down by the system that seemingly protects abusers more so than the victims.
This time felt like a good time for this to be published, as just a few weekends ago I had a former friend at Hamilton make a comment to me that my assault was my fault. For a while I was being abused and for years after I also assumed that it was my fault as well. However, and I cannot stress this enough, it is never the victim's fault for what happened to them, it will always be the perpetrators fault. This comment being made to me, and another friend as well, was further motivation for me to start sharing more of my story and officially publishing my statement. Everything that happened to me was in no way my fault; I was an innocent child who did not deserve what was done to her. Here are pictures of me taken the summer that my abuse started:
My abuse and assault was never my fault, this was a child who couldn’t protect herself from someone who was mentally ill and wanted to hurt her. It is so important to emphasize that the victim is never at fault.
I will not stop fighting for my perpetrator to finally get what he deserves for what he did for me, and I simply will not shut up until every perpetrator of sexual violence has to be registered, regardless of age the crime was committed. As we move forward, my mother is planning on creating petitions specifically about my case to change the laws of registration for Megan’s Law in Pennsylvania. Knowing that in May my mother has a plan to go to Harrisburg with the intention of changing Megan's Law in Pennsylvania, I want as many people as possible to know my story; and people to know that I am going to keep talking about what happened to me.