TERRE HAUTE —
Malea Crosby has a one-word tattoo that tells her story: Survivor.
It’s a constant reminder to her, every day of her life, that while she once was a victim of childhood sexual abuse and rape, “It didn’t kill me. I’m still alive.” Crosby is more than a survivor. “Actually, I’m a thriver,” the 35-year old says.
She’s using her experiences, her past trauma and pain, to help others affected by those crimes and to improve legislation dealing with these difficult, and uncomfortable, issues.
They are topics “people don’t want to talk about,” she told the Tribune-Star in an interview.
An Illinois native, Crosby is a therapist at Gibault School and has lived in Vigo County for the past 13 years. Now, she works every day with those who have suffered trauma in their lives.
As part of her advocacy, she has testified before Indiana legislative committees at the request of state Rep. Christina Hale, an Indianapolis Democrat. Crosby is involved with INCASA, the Indiana Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and does guest speaking. She is also working with another survivor to form a new organization — the Forces and Voices project — to create awareness and assist survivors of sexual assault.
Crosby, who was featured in the PBS documentary “Shadows of Innocence,” has become an advocate for fellow victims.
“If I can be a voice to encourage others to come forward and start the healing process, I’ll do it all day long,” she said.
• • •
Malea was a high school junior in Illinois when she went out with a male friend to a lake, where they parked.
“We were making out in the front seat. He asked me if I wanted to get in the back seat, and I agreed at that point; I was fine with it,” she recalled, adding that she was a virgin at the time.
That’s when trust was violated — and a crime occurred.
“We got into the back seat, and he took off my clothes and I remember screaming for him to stop. He didn’t stop. He did assault me. It was a very dissociated experience. It was like I was sitting on the trunk of my car looking through the back glass as this was happening to me.”
She had not used drugs or alcohol.
Even though she had been driving, she doesn’t remember how she got home or how she got him home. “I can’t tell you how that happened,” she said.
A psychological separation, called depersonalization, is not unusual in a trauma situation such as rape, said Janet McBride, executive director of the FSA Counseling Center in Terre Haute.
Malea made her way home and changed her clothes, because she was bleeding badly. She then hid her clothes.
Crosby did not report the assault or attempt to get counseling. “I blamed myself,” she said. “I got in the back seat of the car, what was I thinking? Those were the questions going through my mind.”
• • •
Years later, while in college in Illinois, Crosby participated in a Take Back the Night rally, where she told her story during a candlelight vigil. “In my own mind, I had dealt with it. I was done. Things were good,” she said.
It wasn’t until she started a master’s program at Indiana State University and worked with clients “that all of this stuff started coming back. As I was dealing with my own clients, I realized I had to deal with this. I did bury it for a really long time.”
As she worked with a client who had similar experiences to her own, it became a trigger, bringing back terrible memories and feelings.
“I knew from that point, I had to seek my own help or I couldn’t help anybody else,” she said.
It wasn’t just rape that haunted her; she was sexually abused when she was 8 years old, but had never told anyone. “That compounded everything, and I had to deal with it all at once,” she said.
She spent two and a half years in therapy and came to realize how much the sexual violence had impacted her. “I had an amazing therapist,” she said.
Shortly after her therapy concluded (although she still contacts her therapist when she needs to), Crosby participated in the PBS documentary, “Shadows of Innocence,” in which she recounted her experiences.
“That was my turning point. I could let these experiences kill me, or I could do something with it,” she said. “I refused to let these experiences kill me.”
• • •
Crosby says that many sexual assaults go unreported, and much of it has to do with victim-blaming, by individuals and society.
“Were you drinking? What were you wearing? Did you consent to get in the back seat of the car? Did you consent to going upstairs?” are the questions that might be asked of someone who is sexually assaulted.
“That’s all victim-blaming,” Crosby said of such questions. “It doesn’t matter what I had on or what I was doing. I said no — and that is rape. End of story.”
Crosby has been working with INCASA and state Rep. Hale to draw greater awareness to the problem. Last fall, Hale, who had heard Crosby tell her story in the documentary, asked her to speak before legislators. Hale was working on legislation that called for a comprehensive study looking at the problem of sexual assault against young women, and young men, in Indiana.
When a House committee wouldn’t conduct a hearing on Hale’s bill, she worked with other legislators, including state Sen. Jim Merritt, a Republican from Indianapolis who was more sympathetic to her cause.
Ultimately, Hale’s proposal received bipartisan support as an amendment to the state’s Lifeline Law.
Crosby testified again earlier this year when a House committee considered, and ultimately approved, the amendment calling for the study. She attended a ceremonial bill-signing in the governor’s office in late April.
“We have a huge issue on our hands,” said Crosby, who will continue to work with Hale on that study.
Through her work with INCASA and other efforts, Crosby is advocating for change.
“We’re trying, but Indiana still has a really long way to come as far as how we handle survivors,” she said.
She believes one of the answers is prevention through greater education.
“It’s everybody’s problem. We need to be in schools. I would love to get into a school and tell my story,” she said. She believes greater awareness and understanding is critical.
People need to understand that the impact of rape on its victims is “devastating,” she said.
Also, a lot of times, victims don’t know that what happened to them was assault. She wants to help survivors understand the reality of what occurred and that they do have options.
Crosby hopes to use her traumatic, life-altering experiences to help others. “It happened. I can’t change that,” she said. “I can use it for something amazing, and that’s what I’m choosing to do.”
She decided to get her “survivor” tattoo, which is on her hip, April 4, 2011 — almost 15 years to the day of her assault. “Every day, it is a reminder that the horrible experience I endured did not kill me. Early on in my healing process, I was constantly fighting simply to survive. Finally, I am living again.”
Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or sue.loughlin@ tribstar.com.