Yesterday, while scrolling through the daily news, I stopped at an article covering Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles. The headline made me cringe: “Little Girl Abandoned by Father and Drug-Addict Mother Is Adopted by Christian Texas Family, Becomes Best Athlete in the World.”
Immediately I felt angry. Not at the father and mother who, as the article claimed, abandoned their four children. I wasn’t even angry at the foster parents, who Biles shared had a trampoline but wouldn’t let her jump on it (although I won’t lie, they sounded like total assholes). No, I was pissed at the media and at the reporters and journalists who felt it was OK to intrude on the most painful parts of a person’s past and expose it to the world for our entertainment.
Like Biles, I had a childhood that included abuse, neglect, abandonment and parental drug addiction. It’s a piece of my life I rarely share, partly because it hurts and partly because I don’t feel those experiences should speak for who I am now.
As I read and watched countless stories covering Biles’ traumatic past, I felt moved to speak up. Not to shine a light on my own story but to pull the plug on the toxic trend we have in the media of serving readers an all-they-can-eat buffet of someone else’s heartache.
Did anyone ask Simone Biles if this was the story she wanted to share?
After news of her difficult childhood went viral, one callous NBC sportscaster claimed her maternal grandparents, who adopted her, weren’t her parents, causing Biles to speak up: “I personally don’t have a comment. My parents are my parents, and that’s it.”
No comment. She didn’t choose to share her story; others chose to share it for her.
This is where I take issue.
While I believe stories of survival are powerful and have the ability to help others without a voice find a place to begin healing, I also know that our pasts are our own to mine and not public property for any overzealous reporter to chip away at.
Not only does it violate someone’s privacy, but it can also trigger painful memories. To this day, I struggle when talking about being abandoned as an infant, about bouncing from home to home until my brother and I had a permanent place to live, about why, even now, I get scared when someone slams a door near me.
It’s still hard to talk about, and I’m 36 years old. Imagine how hard it was for Biles, who is just 19 years old, or for 26-year-old Olympian Kayla Harrison, who was uncomfortably questioned about the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of her former coach. Imagine having the world watch you compete against other talented athletes, and reporters sticking microphones in your face while asking questions of a past you’ve long put behind you.
Imagine reports that don’t just talk about your amazing vault jump or powerful fighting style but also about your time spent in foster care or how someone you don’t want to remember touched you as a little girl.
Maybe, just maybe, forcing people to relive the pain and trauma they already overcame is shitty and insensitive. Maybe these young women would rather talk about what they’ve achieved as athletes and competitors, not about a past they had no control over but were forced to reconcile nonetheless. Maybe, in their own space and time, they would have gladly shared their stories, in a way that makes them feel safe and empowered.
Maybe by preying on people’s pain, the media has stripped these athletes, these women, these survivors of the chance to own their past. Maybe by our country’s insatiable appetite for hard-luck stories, we’re also a part of the problem.
We don’t have to be piranhas feeding off others’ wounds. We can respect someone who has worked harder than many of us could imagine by allowing them to tell their own story, in their own time. We can celebrate their victories without dissecting their life in the process. Really, we can.
Just remember, victims of abuse don’t owe their stories of survival to anyone. It’s not our right to know how someone overcame a hard life or what that life entailed. Don’t make it harder on them than it’s already been.