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In Plain Sight: 13, Pregnant, and Married to My Rapist

By Dawn Tyree

I first stepped into the ring at 18-years-old, and it had become one of the quietest places in the world for me. I found zen in the silence of that space. No time for the mind to wander, and for me that was exactly what I needed at that point in my life. Boxing had not only become a way for me to feel empowered, but had become a stepping stone on my endless road to healing. I still crave the calm that the ring provides, because despite the number of years that have passed, it is still one of the only things to quiet the noise of my trauma.

I was just a child when I was forced into marriage, and at 13-years-old I honestly believed that I would learn how to fall in love with my rapist. I realize now that it had just been a coping mechanism in order to accept what was happening to me. In order to survive, I felt like I needed to rationalize it, to normalize it, but there was nothing rational or normal about it, or any of the events leading up to that point and beyond.

I was 10-years-old when my father remarried, and my new stepmother, rather than being a loving new woman in my life, had been more focused on work than on mothering. She showed me every day that she had no to time to spare for me. Not long after the marriage, she and my father became busy with plans to start a new business in the state of Texas. Once their plans began to fall in place, they travelled to the business site. I was left behind in California to finish out the school year. Having no family to stay with me, I was left with the man that had not only groomed me for abuse, but had already been molesting me for years.

Initially, he was the kind of person that everyone loved, and could win your heart the first time you met him. I was so young, and appreciated the special attention he gave to me and to my interests. Coming from a fragmented background, he was the one steady thing in my life. By the time I was thirteen years old, instead of my stepmother, he had become the one to explain everything to me about my body. He was there when I started my period. He was the one who rushed to the store to buy tampons or pads and showed me how to use them. He taught me how to douche after sex to maintain good hygiene. He also said it helped prevent pregnancy – it became routine for me after his rapes. I would use hot water and would do it until I exhausted myself. I did not really understand why it would supposedly work, and would just do it because I was told to.

During the time that I lived alone with my rapist, my 22-year-old, and newly divorced step-brother Adrian, moved in with us. Soon after, it was not only Peter, my predatory nanny, but also Adrian my step-brother, who was raping me. They would sometimes fight over me as I listened from the bathroom, where I would often escape. All of this happened while my parents were thousands of miles away. When I phoned my father crying, my stepmother would jump on the call and tell me how I needed to buck up and stop trying to get attention.

My calls for help became futile. I was helpless, and had no one to turn to. I was alone in my pain.

Looking back, I can see how Peter tried to console me by rewarding me for staying silent. At 13-years-old, I was driving his brand-new convertible mustang across the Golden Gate Bridge, and into San Francisco. He would introduce me to new music, play cassette tapes, and then take me to concerts. It was all a temporary escape, perhaps for both of us. We lived as a couple and nobody batted an eye at a 13-year-old girl living with a 32-year-old man.

I became more and more isolated as it got harder and harder to relate to my peers. Any friend I had I would eventually chase away. I remember one instance when I got into a fight with my best friend. When she walked out of the kitchen into the garage, I trapped her by closing the garage door. I needed her to stay, but did not know how to express my feelings. I was afraid of how she would see me once she knew. As I held her captive in that garage, I envied her ability to leave. She was free, while I was left to feel every bit of my captivity.

Toward the end of the school year, our family home in California was listed on the market. I remember having to make my bed each morning and how all of us were careful to clean up after ourselves in the kitchen. Looking back, I sometimes wonder what the real estate agent thought of that household, or if she, like so many others, turned a blind eye.

My parents returned to California when the house sold, and we began to prepare for the next big move. It was during that time that my stepmother invited Peter to join us. I had mixed reactions to the invitation. I was devastated by the fact that my rapist would be moving with us, yet hopeful that somehow the abuse would stop and he would become the protector that I desperately needed.

As we all settled into the new house, my stepmother enrolled me in school. Sixth grade had been my last completed year, and I was looking forward to starting at a new school. It was a blank canvas and a chance to reinvent myself, a chance to seem normal if only on the surface. I was teased at my previous school, which was ironically a private Catholic school where we had religion as a subject, and were told to be kind to each other. I had been very tall and thin, and sometimes had greasy hair, so the kids would call me “Bones Malones”, or “Medusa.” The sex abuse and rapes had me in trauma mode which made me an easy target. I can recall feeling like there was something wrong with me because I could not focus or retain information. As a survivor of abuse, I now know those feelings to be a common response to trauma.

I would never step foot in the new school.

That summer is when we learned that I had become pregnant. My abuser was becoming more and more repulsive, but I denied my feelings. I hated him, though he claimed to love me. He was, after all, the only adult that was always there for me. He begged me to marry him. Promising me that my life would be better with him. No more abusive stepmother. No more stepbrother to haunt me. With him, I would be loved and safe.

When he presented his proposal to my parents, the air was sucked out of the room. No fighting, just three adults figuring out how to manage damage control. Within a couple of weeks, we were married. My father’s signature was all it took, and not before a failed attempt by my stepmother to terminate the pregnancy at home. I imagine that she was concerned not only for 32-year-old Peter but also for her son, Adrian, because I had once told her that he had also raped me. None of us knew who the father of the baby was – but we remained hopeful that it would be Peter.

It was tragic enough that I had lost autonomy over my body years before, but in my marriage, it became worse. There were now expectations. I knew nothing about birth control and at 14-years-old I was pregnant with my second child. When she was born something was triggered within me. This little girl brought all of the trauma I had experienced to the forefront. I was seeing it differently now. I was seeing it as the mother of a daughter that needed to be protected in the way that I had not been. This same trauma put me in a constant state of alert. I had begun to read the room and the body language of the man that I had been chained to. It was also at that same time that I began to plot my escape.

A mother of two by the time I was 15, I faced the cruel reality that planning my freedom was to be just one more struggle to throw on the pile. My parents disowned me when I announced that I wanted out of the marriage. Family members became a distant part of my past. I had no support, and when I finally found the courage to flee, my husband reported me as a runaway. Law enforcement threatened to return me to him. When I tried to go to a shelter, we were turned away because I was too young. I was too young to get legally separated or divorced for that matter. I could not rent a hotel room, lease an apartment, hire a lawyer, or get a protective order. I was too young to get help, but I had not been too young to allow a man nearly twenty years my senior to legally bind me to him.

Custody was yet one more struggle, and it was a constant battle. I refused to give up my children to this predator, but eventually, he was awarded parental rights and visitation. He was never ordered to pay one penny of support, though my children and I lived below the poverty line. When I think about how we would often go without things like toilet paper or electricity, it brings to mind the helplessness I felt. I still think about the child that I was and I weep for her. I weep not only for the child I was, but for all of the child brides that came before me, and all of the child brides currently living that reality as I write this. Through my research, I have learned that my experience is not uncommon in child marriages. Studies show that nearly all child marriages end up in divorce (80% divorce rate) and most survivors have been beaten by their spouses.

As an adult, and recovering child bride, I can see it now. I see how I was groomed to believe there was no other choice. Growing up, the message that my life had no value was drilled into me, not only by how I had been spoken to, but by how I had been treated. It was shown to me daily, first, by my family, and then by the United States legal system. As a result, I often found myself in more abusive relationships. My future relationships would become yet another source of the scars left on my heart today.

I have come to terms with the fact that the healing process is endless, and while boxing has played a part in that, I have found that research and advocacy have been the strongest paths on my road to recovery.

I began my investigations into child marriage in 2018. I had believed that my case was an isolated incident. To my shock, I had discovered that child marriage was legal in all 50 states in 2018. Each state had loopholes that allowed minors to marry.

Research has uncovered that between the years 2000 – 2018, nearly 300,000 minors were married. Some 60,000 of these cases were statutory rape – a crime punishable by a prison sentence.

From 2007 – 2017 the United States Citizen and Immigration Services approved almost 9,000 petitions for foreign spouses, all involving girls under 18-years-old.

Many survivors, advocates, and organizations are working to end child marriage in the U.S. The dedication to this human rights abuse issue has successfully ended child marriage in six states.

Each with 18 no exceptions legislation; Delaware (2018), New Jersey (2018), Pennsylvania (2020), Minnesota (2020), Rhode Island (2021), And New York (2021).

I have been working with Alaska State Legislators since 2019. In 2022, the age for marriage in Alaska, has been raised from 14-years-old to 16-years-old. Not a win for us. Most child brides suffer hardships at those ages. They are not quite an adult, but considered “close enough”. The problem; when they become abused, beaten, and mis-treated, these minors have no recourse. They are trapped, and their husband is the authoritarian.

One of the biggest challenges is denial. People cannot get over that child marriage happens in the United States. Strong data that shows that girls suffer incredible hardship from child marriages.

From forfeited education to intimate partner violence. Child marriage does more harm than good. Our national data shows divorce rates among adults is 50%, and among child marriage is 80%. The economic impact is devastating for survivors of child marriage.

Child marriage remains legal in forty-four States. Nine of these states have no minimum age to marry.

The U.S. Department of State calls child marriage a human rights abuse issue. The American Medical Association says child marriage puts children in danger of sexual trauma, mental trauma, human trafficking, and sexually transmitted diseases. According to the World Health Organization, the leading cause of death for girls aged fifteen to nineteen is complications of pregnancy and childbirth.

In the United States, you must be twenty-one years old to purchase tobacco, yet child marriage is legal.

Child marriage is not a marriage of two consenting parties. There is no equality in a union between an adult and a child. Child marriage is about power and control.

I never knew how my story would unfold. I am healing by using my voice to influence social change. Children deserve to thrive and grow into adulthood without the fear of being pressured to marry. We have evolved as a nation. Our laws and principles need to reflect that.

Ending child marriage globally by 2030 is in The Sustainable Goals Act. Children are the right holders of these laws, and we must act on behalf of our future generations. By supporting and sharing the mission of organizations like “GlobalHope365.org” we can help spread the word about this ongoing fight to end child marriage and human trafficking.