Maleah Heck knows how to forgive.
Heck was 6 years old when she said she was sexually abused by her father and at 8 by her uncle. Although she told her mother immediately about the abuse by her uncle, she kept the secret of what her father was doing to her until she was 14.
Her parents had divorced when Heck turned 10 and were living in different homes. However, during visitations with her dad the abuse continued. It wasn't until she began acting out in school, physically fighting with other children, that Heck finally told her mom. Her mother, Sandra Tompkins, didn't want to believe her daughter, but eventually she did, and her ex-husband, Steven Clark, was sentenced to 16 years in prison for sexually abusing his daughter.
For a long time Heck lived with the memories of what happened. She stayed away from her family, was married twice, and had three children by the time she was 27. Heck said she drank most of that time. Her father got her started at the age of 6 when he gave her a sippy cup full of Jack Daniel's and Coke. That was the same night he got her to perform a sex act on him from under the table during a card game with family and friends.
Heck said she never drank while she was pregnant or while her kids were awake. At the time she didn't think she had a problem. Now she recognizes she did. She was using alcohol to numb the memories of what had happened to her.
When she was pregnant with her third child, Porter Heck, complications with her pregnancy kept her from working. That's when she began having nightmares, and the memories of what had happened to her kept coming back.
“Your work becomes your life,” Heck said.
Without work the memories came flooding back. She remembers crying, a lot. One day she and her husband, Bill Heck, were arguing about it.
“It's not what happens in your life, it's how you handle it,” she said her husband told her.
Heck recalls at the time that made her angry and she felt he had no understanding of how horrible her life had been. But she eventually realized he was right. She decided to change her life, starting with the baby blanket she had carried with her since she was 5.
The blanket represented her past; she took it everywhere. She tried to throw it out several times and eventually cut it up, buried it in the trash, and then took the trash out so she couldn't retrieve it. It was after doing that that her nightmares stopped.
She started reaching out to her estranged family: first her mother, then her uncle, and eventually her father. Sending letters first, then eventually contacting them in person. It has not been easy.
Her uncle, who she said had served time for sexually abusing her, died from bone cancer. He died before she could see him in person, but he had gotten a letter from her shortly before he died. When Heck went to his funeral her grandmother told her that he had died with her letter on his chest, so he knew she had forgiven him. She kept track of her father while he was in prison, and she has followed him since he was released, visiting him while he went through an offender's treatment program and still maintains contact – keeping an eye on his progress and watchful that he would not abuse another child.
In 2009 she took several classes, one on public speaking. She gave a 4-minute speech about what she had been through. After class four students came up to her and told her they too had been sexually abused as children. Heck said by sharing her story and being there for others she began to heal. She decided she would like to reach out to others and do a much longer presentation. Currently about once a month Heck is in the schools or talking to groups in the community, sharing her experience. She was recently on the cable-access show, "Theater for Ideas."
“I am a survivor, not a victim.” Heck said.
Everywhere she speaks she brings a shoe box. Inside is her Bible and family photographs, including her uncle and her father. She uses the box as a lectern, placing her notes on top of it.
Heck said she lays out the numbers in her talk. Sixty percent of the kids who become teen parents were sexually abused. Sexual abuse offenders generally have 1-9 victims before they are caught. One in 7 boys is sexually abused before he reaches 18 and 1 in 4 girls. Heck said in 90 percent of the cases the abuser is a family member. During the time it takes Heck to give a 30-minute presentation 15 children will have been sexually abused.
Her reward for speaking is the letters of thanks from the students. The letters are frequently unsigned and she gets many from those who admit they too have experienced sexual abuse. Some kids will come up after class and tell her. These kids she can help by telling the teacher. It is those who do not speak up or sign the letter, which haunts her.