“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”
Some say that violence is hereditary.
Some know that statement to be true. They also know that cycles can be broken.
Valerie was born into a family in historic Franklin, Tennessee. In this idyllic town just half an hour from Nashville, a family of six lived what looked like a normal life. This little girl’s life was anything but normal, and it was made as such by those who should have served as her protectors, her lifelines, and her guardians.
As we sat down to talk on a chilly October evening, I had no idea the story she would tell. All I knew was that Valerie is responsible for an organization that educates about child abuse and aims to stop these cycles. The beautiful woman sitting before me, to the naked eye, is a gorgeous beauty queen with a perfect life. The reason her organization exists, however, was due to a far darker past than anything I had expected.
Long before her birth, Valerie’s family tree was wrought with dysfunction. Her great grandmother, Betty Burg, was the first woman in the state of Tennessee to receive the death penalty after being convicted of murder. Accompanying the violent streak running through this bloodline was a string of rampant divorce, poverty, and abuse among family members.
By the time she was born, Valerie’s birth mother had already decided that she didn’t want this child. Her grandmother named her when her birth mother refused to give her a name. From the start of her life, the echo in her ear was the same repeating anthem: “You are unwanted. You are worthless. I wish you had never been born.”
At two years old, she was raped for the first time. Perhaps one of the most haunting statements I have ever heard spoken was this one, during the course of our interview:
“I don’t even know how many times or by how many people I have been raped and molested.”
In early childhood, Valerie developed a thick tongue speech impediment. She smelled bad from a lack of regular bathing, and was told by her birth parents, Trisha Ann and Larry Jackson, that she had ruined their lives. They would scream at her, “I wish you’d never been born!” At the age of five, Valerie ran away from home for the first time. Escaping through the rain, she stayed beside the road and would jump into the muddy ditches on either side when she saw headlights approaching. Eventually, police officers were notified of her presence and found her. Unaware or unwilling to recognize her terror at the prospect of going back to her family, they returned her to her birth parents that night.
When she was eight, Valerie and her sister and two brothers were given to the Baptist Tennessee Children’s Home when their birth mother and father divorced for the second time. She was molested by three boys in the home during the course of her six-month stay. She also met Jesus for the first time during this season.
She heard the story of Job and was in awe of how obvious it seemed to her that God had all the power in the story. She asked to be baptized so that God would fight for her – that type of protection and love was something she had never known before. And just when it seemed as if life had hope, her birth mother picked them all up from the children’s home and took her children back to their house. According to Trisha Ann, Valerie was still as unwanted as ever, but she could only pick up her oldest son, “the one she really wanted,” if she agreed to take the other three home as well.
For the second time, Valerie was sent back home with Trisha Ann and Larry Jackson, despite her insistence to other adults that she didn’t want to go.
The unspeakable acts continued as she got older. She was branded a “whore” because she had been molested, although the culprits were other family members and friends allowed into Valerie’s life by her birth parents. Her birth mother once used a 2×4 to beat her, then continued to beat her with the larger of the broken parts as it fell apart mid-beating. Depending on the day, she was either starved from several meals at a time or force-fed food that she didn’t want to eat. If she couldn’t keep the food down and threw it up, she would sometimes be forced to eat her own vomit.
School was mortifying to attend. Valerie smelled like urine most of the time, due to her birth parents’ refusal to allow her to bathe regularly. As she began to enter womanhood and started her period, she was forbidden to use tampons or sanitary napkins, being told they were ‘wrong.’ Since she couldn’t simply miss school for a week every time she started her cycle, Valerie would go to school with folded shop rags in her underwear, trying to ignore the sniggers and jokes from the other kids. A victimized young woman was forced to endure mocking and humiliation at the hands of her caretakers, and still no one said a word.
Valerie had already begun self-medicating with alcohol and cigarettes during her stint in the children’s home at the age of 8. By 9 years old, she had smoked marijuana for the first time. Despite all of a child’s desperate attempts to fix these problems, things never seemed to change. She tried to gain extra weight in an effort to become unattractive to her molesters. She literally scrubbed her forehead while trying to “rub away the sign that must have said ‘molest me’ on my face.” And at 10, she attempted suicide for the first time. Before she left home, she would try to take her own life two more times.
Her brother, Newman, received the worst beatings of the four siblings, because he fought back. Newman was the brother who taught Valerie to fight back.
The most poignant story she told, however, had to do with her other brother – the oldest sibling. When something would happen in the house, Trisha Ann would tell the kids that all of them were going to ‘get it’ so that she would definitely punish the one actually responsible. Because Newman was the one who always fought back, he was the one the other three often tried to protect. They each had methods to distract Trisha Ann, but Kary, the oldest, came up with the most effective. Valerie mentioned to me that he had the best Donald Duck voice she had ever heard, and began to cry as she explained why. Kary would fall to his knees when approached for his turn, and through tears, with his hands together as in prayer, he would beg for mercy – in his Donald Duck voice. Trisha Ann found his routine comical, and would sometimes become disinterested in the beatings. It is still sickening and heartbreaking for Valerie to recall.
Kary is the only sibling who has never married. He prefers no contact with the outside world if at all possible. According to Valerie, he was the most damaged of all of them.
Everybody knew, and no one said anything. These kids were subjected to the worst of the worst, and it wasn’t a secret. But no one came to their defense. No one stood up for their rights to safety and love.
I am still confused by the notion that any parent could treat his or her own flesh and blood this way. Throughout this entire interview, Valerie spoke of her experiences so matter-of-factly. She has had a lifetime to come to terms with the reality of her past. I, however, am still a foreigner to many of the horrors running rampant around me. It was even more of a shock to discover that this couple still lives within five minutes of my own home.
At 18, Valerie left home. For a while, she couch-hopped and slept out of her car. Eventually, she moved out on her own and was later married and now has two children.
When she was 29, she faced a crisis moment with the flashbacks that had plagued her for her entire life. As she puts it, “There was a movie reel going on in the back of my head 24/7. No matter what I was thinking about or doing, I was always having flashbacks at the same time.” It got so bad at one point that it began to destroy her marriage. On the bathroom floor, sobbing uncontrollably, Valerie cried out to God to take away the flashbacks and give her peace. Otherwise, life was too terrible to bear.
And for two weeks, for the first time in her life, her mind was clear of the horrors of her childhood. It was almost as if she didn’t realize it until the next memory came.
Her in-laws became the parents she never had. She still refers to them as Mom and Dad, titles she refuses to bestow upon her birth parents.
One day, at 32, Valerie and her mom (the ‘real’ one) were walking through a mall when Valerie saw a sign-up for a pageant. While it may have seemed silly to some, she decided to enter. Even through all the abuse and stress of growing up, she had matured into a beautiful young woman. While she didn’t win the first pageant, she was determined to give it to the Lord the second time around and work as hard as possible.
For a year, a local reporter with whom Valerie had a good friendship shadowed her as Valerie tirelessly devoted herself to being the number one contender for the next year’s competition. Her friend used the year they spent together to write a story about her childhood and family life. The more people became aware of her experiences, the more she realized she now had a role to play in making sure other kids didn’t suffer the same way she did. Her story was powerful. As she prepared for the pageant, she also worked with one of her brothers to form a non-profit organization.
When Valerie won her second contest, the local paper decided to publish the story her friend had written. After asking what her siblings thought, as they had never publicly spoken of what they had experienced, she approved the publishing. It was so moving that it ended up as the front page feature in the newspaper.
Unaware of what the article would contain, Valerie’s birth parents called to congratulate her and tell her she had finally done something worthwhile, and that they would be purchasing several copies of the paper the next morning when it came out.
They were not happy to discover their secret had been publicly displayed.
Valerie now runs a non-profit organization, Child Abuse Awareness Resource Education, or CAARE. Their motto is: “I am one heart, one mind, one body, one soul. For that reason, I care.” Starting in Murray County, Tennessee, Valerie began traveling to schools to speak to hundreds and sometimes thousands of students. Not only has she found her voice, but now, people listen – lots of them. She uses these school visits to educate children on what child abuse is, how to report, safe people to whom they can report, and how to end cycles of violence in families. CAARE also “adopts” babies who have died as a result of child abuse to be the face of CAARE. These lost children represent all she is fighting to eradicate from our society. The recurring theme of CAARE is that Valerie doesn’t want it to be about her; she wants the mission to be about the kids.
Teenagers from local schools have come together as her presidents and vice presidents, impassioned by her fervor and determined to support such a cause. CAARE has already expanded into at least three other counties in Tennessee. In just the last six months, CAARE has transitioned to be a youth-run organization, with Valerie directing while allowing the kids to take the lead. CAARE is now by kids and for kids. These high school students now shadow people working in any place where child abuse is an issue – the office of the district attorney, political offices, schools, and more. They have created a documentary, started a website, and begun organizing events to fundraise and affect political change. Just recently, they attended a town hall meeting with a congressional candidate, armed with statistics regarding the rise in child abuse in Tennessee and followed by the question, “What are you going to do about it?”
The politician’s response? “I don’t know. You tell me.”
So that is what they have decided to do. These kids, backed by the life experience and determination of Valerie, have been brokenhearted by the lack of effort to stop this pervasive issue, and have now made it their mission to change the face of politics and law in Tennessee over the next 15-20 years. Their first steps have been the job shadowing people currently doing what they want to do as adults, and contacting teens from other schools to encourage them to join the fight.
In Valerie’s words: “Isn’t God incredible?”
From the girl who had no voice, to the woman with a voice to reach thousands for the better, Valerie has endured more than her fair share of trials. She has experienced more depravity in her life than most of us will ever understand. But through her faith in God, her unwillingness to give up, and an undying passion for the children she now feels called to protect, Valerie has used her voice to make things happen – to make things change. And that, to her, makes it all worth it.
Photo credit: 535 Photo
Valerie Whatley is the National Director of CAARE (Child Abuse Awareness Resource Education), a non-profit organization based in Murray County, TN. Together with the kids who help her run the organization, she is passionate about seeing real and lasting change to stop cycles of child abuse. Visit their website by CLICKING HERE to learn more about what they do.
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