Carmine Gothard stayed quiet about it for eight years. No more silence, she says.
The Briar Woods High School senior was sexually assaulted when she was 7 years old and kept quiet about what had happened to her until her sophomore year of high school. She finally confided in a teacher.
“It felt like a release,” she said. “It’s scary to share something like that. But when it’s out there, it’s no longer something you have to deal with by yourself. It’s something people can help you with.”
That feeling inspired her to provide a platform for other survivors of sexual abuse to share their experience, whether anonymously or publically. So in November she started a group called Breaking Your Silence that helps victims of assault connect with others who have been touched by that type of violence.
Carmine understands how difficult it can be to tell others they were assaulted, especially when the culprit is someone they know. Time passes and suddenly the incident is years earlier and you think maybe it’s better to keep it to yourself, she said. “Then, you’re too scared to say something because you don’t want to be judged.”
Holding such a cruel secret took a toll. She felt it physically and emotionally. She was eventually diagnosed with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Things got pretty bad,” the 17-year-old said. “If I had found a way to speak up and say something earlier, I think it probably wouldn’t have been as bad. So that’s why I started this, so other people had that opportunity.”
She created a website, breakingyoursilence.weebly.com, and launched two projects designed to give people who have experienced sexual violence a community with which to share.
The first, Words for Bravery, encourages people to take a photo of themselves holding a sheet of paper imprinted with a brief, positive message. They can be sent to Carmine at email@example.com and she will post them on the Breaking Your Silence website.
Right now, the page has photos of 33 people—and counting—holding messages, including one from Carmine that reads “bravery comes one day at a time.”
“It’s meant to help survivors associate with the positive instead of the negative,” Carmine said. “Anyone can send us a photo, survivors or their family or whoever. Everyone is welcome.”
The second project, Sending Paper Hearts, invites people to send letters to victims of sexual assault. “It gives survivors a chance to hear positive words from people who don’t know their stories,” Carmine said. “Sometimes that can be what a person really needs.”
People can sign up to write a letter and survivors can request to receive a letter by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Names and contact information will be kept confidential.
Carmine and a few classmates also started a Breaking Your Silence club at Briar Woods; they’ll hold their first meeting Thursday.
Amanda Dabbenigno, a psychology teacher at Briar Woods and faculty sponsor of the Breaking Your Silence club, commended Carmine for providing an outlet for young people that’s been missing in Loudoun County.
“Not only is she providing support for those in need, but she’s encouraging a generation that hasn’t yet found a way to voice themselves and make a difference in their community,” she wrote in an email. “By creating this project, Carmine and other high school students are bringing awareness to a community that needs it.”
Several weeks after starting Breaking Your Silence, Carmine said she’s been blown away by the response to what she thought would just be “a small, school-central project.”
“I just wanted to help a few people I knew who weren’t comfortable talking about what they’d been through publically, and then others started to join.”
Carmine said her efforts have helped connect survivors throughout Northern Virginia, but she doesn’t have any major goals for the project’s future.
“I’m not concerned with how big it gets. I just want to be helping someone somewhere.”