Twenty-eight years after her stepfather began sexually assaulting her, Tracy Ross took her stepfather back into the mountains where the assaults began, Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, and confronted him. She wanted the answers to the big four questions: When did it start? When did it end? How many times did it happen? And why?
Since coming back out of those woods, she’s been telling her story, first in an essay published in Backpacker magazine that won the National Magazine Award for best essay in 2009, then in a book, The Source of all Things, published earlier this year. She’ll tell it again on Oct. 13 at the fifth annual “Brave, Bold and Beautiful,” Moving to End Sexual Assault’s event to honor sexual assault survivors.
Ross was living what she would call her dream life, writing for outdoor sports magazines and living in the mountains, but she was struggling with depression, had bounced in and out of a bad marriage, and says she knew it was because of this hole in her history. As a writer, she went in search of answers for her own story the way she would approach any other story — she hiked into the relevant patch of wilderness, the stretch of Idaho mountains where her stepfather had begun to molest her, taking notes throughout the trip, and in a natural amphitheatre called The Temple, began to grill him with questions.
“It was just so much worse than I thought it had been,” she says. “I didn’t know if I’d be able to forgive my parents. I didn’t know what to do with the information because I thought I’d come out and feel like a million bucks and I came out and felt really raw and scarred and just icky for my childhood self.”
The creative process changed her perspective.
“I could see myself as a character and have compassion for myself,” she says. “It just became really enjoyable to work on because I felt creative in a whole new way.”
She did publish the story, and the response was a flood of letters with messages like, “Thanks for saying this for me because I could never put this into words myself.”
While it’s tough to feel so exposed, she says, she’s had great support.
“Now that it’s out there, people know about it, my family has had to atone for it, I’m in a much happier place,” she says.
But it has taken a toll on her family. Her parents, both her stepfather and her mother, who had refused to believe Ross when she, at age 8, told her mother she was being abused by her stepfather, have supported her through the process. They continue to visit her at her home, though Ross says she will not send her children to stay with them, and she does not leave her children, two boys ages 10 and 8 and a 6-week-old daughter, alone with her parents.
“They did ask me to change their names, but I just said, ‘No, why? Why would you want to do that? Here’s your chance. You say you want to move on. You say you’re sorry. You say it’s time to get to the bottom of it, well, let’s do it,’” she says. “I just feel like, it’s our story.”
It’s been a journey of discovery, a coming of age story for a woman in her late 30s.
For other survivors out there, she says, “Whatever you can do to uncork the bottle is going to be good for you.”
Though the mountains were the setting for the start of her abuse, Ross returns to them time and again.
“That’s just always been my place,” she says. She communes with nature by skiing, or by sitting on the porch of her Nederland home and listening to the wind or watching a hawk sail by.
There’s a bottom line out of all of this, she says: “To me, the past isn’t as important as what you do with it.”
At the Moving to End Sexual Assault (MESA) event, Ross will share her story in a presentation that will also recognize the Longmont Ending Violence Initiative, the CU Office of Victim Assistance, and another survivor.
“I think [Ross’s] story will highlight the individual nature of survivors,” says Mike Murphy, MESA’s development director. “Each individual has their own path to recovery and hers is certainly unique.”
Murphy recruited Ross as the event’s keynote speaker after a friend recommended her book to him.
MESA was founded in 1972 as Humans Against Rape and Molestation, one of the first rape crisis organizations in the country. Over its history, it has provided rape response and a victim advocacy program, including a 24-hour hotline. Their annual celebration and fundraiser is at 6 p.m. on Oct. 13. More information is available at movingtoendsexualassualt.org.