Healing from the trauma of domestic violence and sexual assault can be elusive. For Shirley Christie, bicycling from Boston to Seattle, then South to her hometown of Pasadena, Calif. — covering 4,000 miles over 105 days — was the right route. Christie will discuss her journey, “Cycling to End the Cycle,” at the Jewish Federation-Northwest on Monday, Oct. 13 at 7 p.m.
“When she told me she was going to make a cross-country bicycle trip, I said, ‘yeah, right,’” says Tucsonan Lynn Saul, Christie’s sister-in-law, a retired attorney who specialized in domestic violence. “And she did it!”
Christie, 60, is married to Saul’s younger brother and lives in Augusta, Ga. Raised Catholic, she didn’t convert to Judaism, but the couple and their three daughters, now grown, have participated in synagogue life.
“I’ve known Shirley since the early ’70s but I never knew her story [of surviving sexual assault] until last year,” says Saul. Christie worked as a caregiver for the elderly for around 10 years, says Saul, who wonders if that career choice “had to do with nobody caring about her as a child. She has always been a super-caring person. And what’s interesting is she’s always volunteered for domestic violence hotlines.”
Why did it take Christie so long to “come out” about the sexual assault perpetrated on her by her father, great-uncle and grandfather? “It started,” she told the AJP, “when I was still in diapers” and continued until Christie was 19 and arranged to live with cousins in Detroit. “My mom said she caught my grandfather molesting me. My mom had no power. She was initially raped by my father before they were married. She couldn’t go to her own family. I know she was forced to marry my father. She was also the victim of beatings.
“Psychologically, it took a lot for me to get out,” Christie says. And, for her, it was still about shame. “I know victims are not to blame. I know in Catholic families there’s so much shame. I’ve talked to so many women, married for 25 years, who finally tell their husbands” about abuse they’ve suffered.
“I volunteered for domestic violence organizations for 30 years in four different states,” she says, “but I didn’t want to be the poster child for domestic violence.
“I’ve been with my husband for 41 years. We’ve had our ups and downs like any relationship, but compared to the way I grew up my life has been really good.”
Christie tried traditional counseling to deal with her childhood trauma. But it didn’t help. The oldest of six siblings, “one of the good things we learned growing up was to love the outdoors,” she says, which may have contributed to her “thinking about doing this [cycling] trip for around 20 years.” In May, Christie was finally ready to help raise awareness of domestic violence and sexual assault by telling her own story, including “being violently raped by my father from the time I was 9.”
The physical exertion of cycling solo for three months, fixing flat tires, sleeping in a tent and counting on the kindness of strangers had a huge impact on her. “Most of the trip was very positive,” she says. “I got the courage to ask a couple I met in a diner if I could pitch my tent in their yard.” When Christie came down with a cold one family invited her to stay in their house for three nights.
She almost quit when she reached Chicago, but family members encouraged her to continue. “It’s really incredible that she took this on,” says Saul. “She’s not an athlete or anything like that.”
Christie made the trip against the west-to-east prevailing winds that most cyclists avoid, because, she says, “I wanted more of a challenge.”
For more information, contact Anne Lowe at 577-9393, ext.130, or [email protected], or visit Cycling to End the Cycle’s Facebook page.