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Rural Alaska

Woman with Northwest Arctic roots breaks silence on sexual abuse in memoir

  • Author: Shady Grove Oliver, The Arctic Sounder
  • Updated: December 24, 2018
  • Published December 23, 2018

Tia Wakole, author of the self-published memoir "Starting A Fire: Bringing Light to the Dark," as a child. (Courtesy Tia Wakole)

The more we share our histories, the more others will feel confident to share theirs.

The more who know, the harder it gets to keep us quiet.

The more who know, the more help we will have to fix this.

The more who know, the more support will become available.

We need to shift the balance in our favor and create a new path for our future generations.

So begins Tia Wakole’s self-published memoir, “Starting A Fire: Bringing Light to the Dark.” Over the course of the next 53 pages, Wakole chronicles her story of abuse and overcoming.

“It’s a hard read,” she says, speaking over the phone from her home in Anchorage.

Wakole was raised in the Northwest Arctic, spending time at camp and in Kotzebue and occasionally in the outlying villages. While her family eventually moved to the Kenai Peninsula, she, like all Arctic people, have strong ties to her hometown.

It’s those family ties that have both supported her and questioned her throughout the writing of this book, which spares little in its many stories of sexual and physical abuse.

“I have no fear with anybody knowing what had happened to me,” she says. “That part doesn’t bother me. The part that hurt the most was the feeling of betrayal — like I’m betraying my family — just because we were raised to keep quiet about it, not to bring your issues to other people. It’s supposed to be dealt with in the family.”

Breaking that silence and creating a platform for others in her community to speak out and share their stories is what Wakole hopes will come from this book.

In order to start writing it, she quit her job of 14 years and gave herself a year to put words to paper.

“I resigned in January and to get the guts up to do it, it took me to the end of September,” she says.

But when it was time, it was time. Wakole says it took her less than two weeks to write the entire book. Once she started telling her stories, she knew she’d made the right decision. She says in part, that decision was spurred by the suicides of several people she knew.

“I’ve had aunts, friends, people older and younger than me who had committed suicide because they’re still dealing with the issues that we dealt with,” she says. “It made me scared. I thought by 45 I would be past this part and things would be OK. I’ve got this amazing life that I’ve created. I’m safe. I’m secure. I’ve really worked hard to do this, but I was still struggling with things that had gone on growing up.”

Breaking the silence

A fisherman and hunter, he was the provider. He didn’t say much but even the men jumped when he spoke. As children, we learned to keep our mouths shut and do exactly as we were told when we were told.

It was never discussed between any of us cousins, but we all knew what would happen if you were left alone with him.

Silence is a theme that comes up often, speaking to Wakole about her past. She’s not alone. When talking with others from the region about abuse, not talking is often the focus.

“Growing up in camp, I remember it just being that way,” she says.

She was never explicitly told to be quiet when she was young, she says, she just followed the example of the other girls and women around her.

“You learn to keep your mouth shut because you see them set as an example of what will happen if you do talk about it,” she says. “And your family kind of turns on you. Everybody turns away and just kind of ignores it and it’s almost acceptable.”

In many of the chapters, there’s a palpable tension built in and around silence. Wakole communicates a lot through what is not said. She describes a wife turning her back and walking away, without a word, after seeing her husband molest Wakole through an open door. She talks about looks people give one another, to warn, to intimidate or just to pretend.

“I was very good at hiding because it had happened to me all my life,” she says. “I was very good at keeping the peace. I always used my sense of humor and smile.”

“I’m a master of dodging anything that would point toward abuse,” she adds.

Now, Wakole isn’t dodging anymore.

Kotzebue, photographed June 24, 2016. (Sarah Bell / ADN archive)

Facing the past

Whether he knew it or not, I spent the rest of my youth avoiding him. It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I saw him again. I was moving furniture into my new apartment. He came out of his unit smiling, asking if he could help. I read his face, searching for any indication of recognition. I got angry when I realized he didn’t remember who I was or what he had done to me.

The book is structured as a path through time. The chapters are sometimes numbers and sometimes titles. The numbers represent abusers in the order of their appearance in her life. The named chapters often take their inspiration from some key element in the particular story.

The first chapter, called “One & Two,” starts with Wakole small enough to fit in her mother’s parky. She recalls her cousin’s two older brothers playing what she describes as “touching, feeling and rubbing games” with her when she’d come to visit.

The quote above, about the man Wakole avoided throughout her youth, appears in “Seven.” She describes him as an older kid from Sunday school who forces her to touch him.

“I scrubbed my hand in a puddle of mud I had crossed on my way home and stayed in my makeshift fort out back until I fixed my face, so no one would ask me why I was crying,” she writes. “I was too ashamed for anyone to know what I had done.”

Coming face-to-face with this man later in life, Wakole says she was angry he hadn’t realized the ripple effect he’d had on her life.

“If I’d see him down the street, I’d jump across the street and down a different road. I was just constantly living in fear just to avoid him and then for him not to recognize that, I got really upset with that. For him to smile at me, that even made me more upset,” she says. “And it happens with all these guys because they’re people from home. They’re people from my family and I face them all the time. People just don’t know because we play it off and we’re so good at playing it off to where nobody knows.”

Family ties

Later that evening, I sat quietly on the floor watching Mom and Aana sew. I knew it was my bedtime but I didn’t want to go downstairs. He was down there. I sat quietly and stayed, still hoping neither of them would notice I was even there. It wasn’t long before Mom looked up at the clock and then at me. I kissed and hugged everyone before slowly making my way downstairs.

Wakole makes sure to point out that while people often talk about abuse as a one-time instance, that’s often not the experience of those who grow up in the small, tight-knit communities of the state.

Abuse doesn’t come at the hands of strangers, she says.

“In rural Alaska, like my experiences in my book, it’s been family. It’s been friends. It’s been baby sitters and pastors and people you look up to,” she says. “And it’s been a constant.”

Not only does it make it harder to speak out, she says, it makes it hard to avoid abusers, who often live nearby — if not in the same house.

“We see them at the post office. We see them at the store. We see them at family functions. We see them constantly throughout our lives. And so nothing can heal because we’re constantly in fear or we’re constantly reminded of what happened.”

As Wakole describes throughout the book, family and friends — often girls or women, best friends, mother and daughter — are sometimes forced to watch each other being abused, often by the same man.

In that way, the trauma passes and is shared between people and from generation to generation, she says. People see, but they don’t speak.

About halfway through the book, readers come to the chapter called “Little Yellow Note.”

Wakole describes the little yellow paper she used as a child to write about the unnamed man (all the men in the book are kept anonymous) “downstairs.”

Her mother finds the note and confronts her about it, but nothing comes of their conversation. Her mother says, “if it happens again … “; Wakole writes, “That’s when I knew it wasn’t going to stop.”

Her grandmother, too, hears about the note and, Wakole says, disowns her, saying her son “would never do that.”

It seems to be a chapter similar to the rest, until the few italicized sentences at the very end.

Starting the fire

It was early evening when I flew back home on a chartered flight. Looking out the window, I saw the yellow tape used to cordon off our house and watched as police worked on the scene down below.

Before shooting himself, he had shot and killed our mom. Not a day goes by that I wished I had got to him first.

I was 12.

Describing the death of her mother, Wakole has to pause. Her voice cracks. She says she had to prepare herself to answer any questions she might get once the book came out, but this one still hurts.

“That part, I still struggle with,” she says. “That’s one of the toughest of my stories, but it needs to be put in there. The severity of what we had gone through and experienced. The hardships we had faced.”

While much of the book, like that chapter, finds itself in the past, the end calls on readers to look to the future. She turns away from telling her story and speaks directly to her audience.

“We need to give our youth back their voices by finding our own and leading by example,” she says. “We need to show them it’s OK to speak open and honestly. It is our responsibility as mothers and fathers, aanas and taatas, aunts and uncles, to stand up and protect our children from harm.”

She puts the responsibility on the shoulders of the community as a whole.

“Raise the visibility of sexual abuse happening in our communities,” she writes. “We all need to become involved.”

To those who may be facing abuse, she hopes they are able to speak out and seek help. To those who hear stories of abuse — who are confided in by others — she hopes they will listen.

“Believe,” she says. “Believe them.”

And to those who may see themselves on the other side of the narrative, as the abuser, as the one who has committed violence in the past, she hopes they can gain understanding and see the impact they have had, “and maybe make amends,” she adds.

“When I wrote this book, it was written without any hate, any animosity, any revenge. It was written without any of that,” she says. “It was just to get it out there for myself. If I could help one person, that’s all I can ask for.”

She ends her story by describing the house she used to imagine as a child. It would be nice, smell good and always have plenty of food and clean clothes. There would be “no fighting, no hitting, no drunks, no one standing over me with his fists raised.”

She says she’s found that good life now. It looks a bit different from her childhood escape, but she’s done it, nonetheless.

“Since I’ve written this book, I didn’t realize how much healing would come of it. I haven’t struggled as hard as I used to. I’m more at peace with everything. I have no secrets to hold from anybody anymore,” she says. “It’s like I’ve been given a new life. It’s just been amazing.”

It’s a sentiment she echoes in her final words.

Having made it as far as I have, I wonder who would I be today without the trauma of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. That’s who I want to be.

Don’t get me wrong, I am thankful for my strength, ability and who I have become, but I know I could be more, be better. I know there’s a lot more potential.

I can feel it.

Hard copies of Tia Wakole’s book, “Starting a Fire: Bringing Light to the Dark,” are available in Anchorage at Originale, 400 D St. You can also request a copy by emailing her at inufoxx@gmail.com. She says all emails will be kept confidential.

If you or someone you know needs help, you can find information and resources through the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. You can also find a list of 24-hour help hotlines on their website at andvsa.org.

On the North Slope, call Arctic Women in Crisis at 907-852-0267 or toll-free at 1-800-478-0267. In the Northwest Arctic, call the Maniilaq Family Crisis Center at 907-442-3969. In Anchorage, Abused Women’s Aid In Crisis runs a 24-hour crisis and support hotline at 907-272-0100.

In an emergency, call 911.

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