BY AJMAANIE ANDRE
URBAN HEALTH MEDIA PROJECT
MIAMI – Charlene Bouie felt different from other children from an early age. It was decades, though, before she fully understood why: She’d been sexually abused, multiple times, by the time she was a young teenager.
Then as an adult, she was physically and verbally abused by her ex-husband, a man who had experienced childhood violence himself when his grandmother’s boyfriend murdered his grandfather.
This intergenerational cycle of abuse and trauma is common in Black communities, Bouie said. That’s because of historical injustices and racism among many, who are more likely to be plagued by poverty, housing and food insecurity, gang activity and emotional distress. All these factors increase the risk of violence in a community, studies have shown.
“Abuse is a learned behavior. Some people witness it in their own families growing up; others learn it slowly from friends, popular culture, or structural inequities throughout our society,” according to the National Domestic Violence website.
Studies have shown women who are sexually victimized as children are more likely to experience persistent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), physical and sexual revictimization, and domestic violence, among other negative impacts.
Bouie, who now lives in Lauderhill, Fla., sees herself not as a victim, but as a survivor.
As the founder of Coffee Break With Charley, a domestic violence awareness organization launched in 2001, Bouie aims to help others as a passionate advocate for victims of sex trafficking, physical and emotional abuse, and other issues affecting women and families whose voices are silenced in today’s society, she said.
“The Black community has become one filled with trauma and no means of releasing that pent-up anger and emotion that riddles and manifests itself in the most minute of ways,” she said.
Bouie grew up in Coconut Grove, a neighborhood in Miami. For many years, Bouie said, she believed that she was first sexually abused at the age of 13 by her stepfather’s grandson. The abuse led to “control issues,” she said, such as not allowing anyone else to make decisions for her. The need to maintain control was so extreme, she said, that it led her to try to figure out why she felt that way.
Reading books, particularly on molestation, helped her begin to understand where the trauma and the control issues were coming from.
Bouie got married, had three children, and in 1983, moved to Seattle.
Abuse can last years
Just as Bouie began to understand the impact of her childhood traumas, she experienced abuse within her marriage. Bouie was in her early 20s, and said it was hard to find herself amid the abuse. Now however, being far away from home and with her children, it was only a matter of figuring out how to cope — and eventually escape.
“I stayed in the marriage five years too long,” she said. “I started to seek out the things of God. There has to be a better way, there has to be solutions to this,” she said. Bouie joined a church in Seattle, which became her refuge.
It was also the place where she found the courage to leave her marriage, she said.
“I waited until the tax return and a payday, because we had joint accounts, and I took all the money out of the bank,” she said. “I left and never went back.”
Bouie had been a stay-at-home mother, and after leaving she got a part-time job working in the school system so that she could be home with her children when school was out. In time Bouie established a stable lifestyle for her family and gained a better understanding of herself. Years passed, and while hosting a book club in her home in 2001, some members encouraged her to create a broader platform to address issues they regularly discussed.
So Bouie organized a conference at a local hotel.
“From that conference, women came from everywhere just to hear what I had to say, address issues of Christianity, how you respond when it comes to things: domestic violence, sexual abuse, and how it’s addressed within the church,” she said about the origins of Coffee Break with Charley. After moving to south Florida in 2003, Bouie built the organization to appeal to non-religious people, too.
With the help of her faith and growing understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder and the fallout of abuse, Bouie came to realize that her sexual abuse occurred much younger than she thought — as young as three years old.
“I remember being touched and I remember being told ‘you’re a pretty little girl,’” she said. “I remembered all of that and then after that, I didn’t want to remember anymore. I knew enough at this point and then I began to journey through the healing process.”
No need to ‘suffer in silence’
She first sought therapy when she was in her 40s. A psychiatrist and member of her church counseled Bouie without charge for a year, she said. “From that I learned more about how to navigate through my emotions, how to be in control of things… I still have triggers, but [now] I know what to do when they happen.”
Suffering in silence is a common thing for those within the Black community, and reaching out and going to therapy seems a last resort, if it’s used at all, Bouie said. “As a people — as a race — and we don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “People then turn to the streets rather than therapy, or violence rather than counseling.”
But breaking the cycle of violence and trauma is possible, she said.
“We’ll have to unlearn the things that were embedded subconsciously and consciously — the things you think and the things that have been projected upon you,” she said. “So, it’s a lot of work.”
Editor’s note: Ajmaanie Andre is a junior at Miami Lakes Educational Center in Miami. She was a participant in the Urban Health Media Project’s fall 20202 workshop “Surviving and Thriving Despite Trauma.” . The workshop was funded by The National Council for Behavioral Health (www.thenationalcouncil.org).