Molestation and rape are traditionally taboo subject matters, especially within West Indian cultures. So, when a person comes forward with their story about abuse, the world should take notice. Rarely do we stumble upon those who can carry the weight of their troubles, while facing adversity straight in the face. If you never met someone who could, I would love to introduce you to Karlyn Percil, a child sex abuse survivor who was recently featured on Oprah’s OWN: The Life Project – where she shared her painful ordeal.
Karlyn opened up about her troubled journey and how freeing herself from the pain made her soul so much stronger.
Who is Karlyn Percil? Give us a bit of insight into your history?
She’s a country girl who grew up doing her homework by candle light with no electricity. She bathed in the river every day, walked an hour and a half to catch the bus to school. She was a model for a few years who participated in pageants.
She loves reading and also wrote a Beauty Work Book for young girls. But she was also a person who was sexually abused as a young child and who is now working with Unicef & the Toronto Police Service in Canada to ensure that young girls and boys grow up happy and free from sexual abuse.
Tell us about your feature on OWN (where you discuss your experience with child sexual abuse)? How did the show opportunity come about?
A friend sent me the casting call and I sent in my story. I was ready to talk about it. I was tired of hiding the real reason why I wanted to redefine beauty & why I encouraged women to love themselves. I was a model when I was younger and when I spoke about not feeling beautiful people always looked at me like I was crazy. I remember when someone said that I had no right to say I wasn’t beautiful because of how I looked. But they didn’t know my story – my “Elephant Story.” There is a lot that can get in the way of loving ourselves and feeling beautiful. And it’s so crucial to deal with the things that get in the way, because it can affect our happiness and goals in life.
What opportunities were you afforded since the show aired?
I’ve been so busy working haven’t really capitalized on much. I know…bad. But the impact it had on so many women some of them I don’t even know who have reached out to me, saying, your story touched me or it gave me strength to deal with mine or I felt better knowing that I am not alone – these emails were priceless. This is exactly what I hoped to achieve. To start the conversation on shame and the things that can take the power away from us.
Why did you keep the abuse a secret?
Because I blamed myself. That’s what victims do – we carry the guilt and stigma associated with being abused and suffer in silence because we feel ashamed. We think that no one will believe us, so we stay quiet and say nothing, hoping that it will stop or go away.
Did you have anyone to turn to?
At the time, I didn’t feel that way. When you get older, you know better, you know that you can talk to your parents, etc., but based on the West Indian culture, we don’t talk about stuff like that. So, I was afraid to talk to my parents or anyone else for that matter. Things get swept under the rug, never to be spoken about because of the shame it would bring on the family. No one thinks about the innocent 2, 3 or 7-year-old who has been violated at the hands of an older cousin.
Hit the flip for more from Karlyn…
How important is it for women to face shame + guilt, so they can become wholesome?
It’s as important as the air we breathe (lol). Seriously. Shame and guilt can hold us back from love and from truly living and experiencing life. It prevents us from pursuing our dreams. Shame is so powerful, it can cripple us. It is that little voice that tells you “you are not good enough and who do you think you are?” It also tells us “no one wants you” and when we try to raise our hands and say “I am good enough and I want a life filled with love where I am accepted as I am,” but we can’t because shame has more power over us. If we don’t deal with the shame and the guilt, we end up settling for less in everything we do. We stay in the relationships that don’t serve us, we stay in the jobs and don’t ask for the salary we deserve – and by doing this we end up not tapping into our full potential. We exist but we don’t live.
You are from the West Indies – do you think it is part of the culture to hide shame and appear strong to the world?
Oh yes. That is all I know. That’s all a lot of us know. We don’t talk about our “business”. We talk about everyone else, but we don’t talk about the things that get in the way of our happiness. So, we put it behind us and we pretend that we are ok. That we don’t have to face what happened to us because we tell ourselves, “look at me, I have a good job, I’m OK”. Then we get angry at life, at others and at our family members. Sometimes some of us are so angry, we don’t even know why we’re angry, but we’re angry at everyone we come across. We can’t get help for our mental illness or admit that we were sexually abused because society will point a finger at you and accuse you saying, “It’s your fault”.
It took me a long time to understand that breaking down, crying and admitting that I am not OK is what strong looks like. For the longest while I thought it was the opposite.
Why are many West Indians known for such a hardcore exterior? Is that what prevented you from sharing your abuse story earlier?
Because we were taught to be that way. I thought being strong means not sharing what others define as being a weakness. You have to show the world that you are strong and that you are OK. It doesn’t matter if you have been abused, if you have been cheated on, if you are suffering with mental illness – you don’t talk about it – that’s a weakness. That’s what I knew growing up. That’s what a lot of West Indians know growing up. Yes, that prevented me because I wanted to be “strong.” Talking about these things would’ve meant that I was weak. And I didn’t want anyone to know that I was weak. After all I am a strong black woman (lol). I played to that stereotype until I truly understood what it meant to be a strong woman. I am blessed and thankful that I know that I can be strong in my vulnerability, which is the only strength every single woman should aspire to.
Why did you share your story on child sexual abuse, which is such a taboo subject? Did you receive any backlash from family?
Because it’s something that affects over 150 million girls worldwide. And I am part of that statistic. I was tired of pretending that I didn’t know where the feelings of not feeling beautiful, or feeling in adequate came from. I knew but I avoided my truth. I decided to share my story because I wanted to unlock my inner greatness – maximize my potential. I wanted to fall in love with no inhibitions, no boundaries – I wanted to feel love and be a part of it – 100%. And in order for me to tap into me – all of me I needed to get rid of the internal barrier. Karlyn deserved a chance of love and happiness. And most importantly I wanted to give other girls that chance too – we ask our young boys and girls to be all that they can be but we fail to address something that takes away their right to be great. We fail to talk about it. I spoke at an event this year and this 15 year-old told me this” “I just want to know how to forgive myself and move on. How can I like myself again?” It almost broke my heart.
Yes, there are some family members who didn’t agree with me talking about what happened to me. And they are entitled to their opinion and being upset and that’s okay. I expected that to happen.
Because you are a victim of child sexual abuse, did that affect your relationship with men? If so, how?
Hell yes… (can I say that?) LOL. I didn’t love all of me – I loved part of me – so I had trust issues and I had a huge wall up. I did let people in, but I never allowed myself to fully let go. And as much as I wanted that butteflies in the stomach love and that love that made me say “Yes this is it – I feel that he is my life partner,” I didn’t allow myself to let go. I had to deal with my trust issues and learn to love myself fully because until I did I would not be able to give my relationships a fair chance. I couldn’t give love if I didn’t have love for myself. We can’t give what we don’t have. And I think that’s why so many women are so frustrated in relationships – we haven’t truly given love to ourselves but we keep looking for it in others and when we don’t find it, we get frustrated and we feel hurt. Once I learned to love me, I knew what I deserved and what I was worth. So I no longer settled. I spent some time alone and I was ok being alone for a while until my life partner Jason appeared in 2011 – now we’re engaged!
Tell us about your Elephant Stories? Why is that project so important to you?
Elephant Stories are our real stories. Not the story about who you are, where you’re from and where you work. Elephant Stories are the stories that contribute to the internal barriers – the barriers that hold us back and stop us from pursuing our dreams. You’ve heard about the elephant in the room idiom? That’s where it came from. I knew that being a survivor of child sexual abuse was contributing to my internal barriers, but instead of dealing with it, I buried it. I only shared part of my story. No one knew my Elephant Story. I kept it a secret, I kept it hidden and by doing so I gave it power. I allowed it to have power over me and this is how shame thrives. When we hide our Elephant Stories, shame grows and holds us prisoners in our bodies. Sharing my story gave me power over my life. It gave me permission to design my life – to fall in love and to pursue my dreams. And when I read some of the stories on there I am inspired every day.
So, based on what it did for me, I have decided to share this powerful tool with other women and give them a medium to share their own Elephant Story through my website. They don’t have to share their name – they can be anonymous.
In the same breath, This project is important to me, because I believe Elephant Stories can transform lives. And as Mary McCarthy quoted: “We are the hero of our story.” But we can’t be the hero if we don’t own it. We need to take control of the pen and not fall victim to what happened to us in the past. I want every woman to be free from internal barriers – I want us to pursue our dreams so we can change the world and make it a better place for the generation coming after us and for our daughters and our sons – they deserve a better life. Let’s give it to them. Let’s write our own ending.
My favorite author, Dr. Brene Brown, a shame and vulnerability expert sums it all up nicely: Owning our story can be hard, but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky, but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy. The experiences that make us the most vulnerable, only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness – will we discover the infinite power of our light.” ― Brené Brown
What are the most important steps towards self-love?
I actually outlined the barriers I had and what I did to overcome them. I conducted a free Self-Love Class online. You start by first having an honest conversation with yourself by identifying the barriers. Ask yourself: “What’s preventing me from loving myself fully? Then once you’ve identified these barriers do the work to remove them. The basis of my online course was Affirmations + Exercises. And you will do the work because you are worth it. Give yourself a chance to love who you are fully. You’ve been given a wonderful life, make the most of it. When you do you will be kinder to you. You will make better decisions for you. You will give yourself a life you love and deserve because you know that you are worth it.
How do you balance your career and your role as being an advocate for empowerment?
I have an amazing fiancé. Before Sheryl Sandberg released her book, he was already practicing one of her tips – “Being a real partner in the home”. We don’t have any kids, but with my full-time job and doing my life work, it can get hectic. He helps out a lot at home, and we share the cooking duties. He cleans the fridge, garbage and groceries. I do the cleaning and laundry. And I love what I do so it’s not a job. I love helping women – it’s wonderful serving my sisters. I have a monthly SisterTalk Circle where we meet up and talk about our elephants, love, life, career and it’s one of the best nights in the month. We laugh, we cry, we celebrate each other and we push each other forward. It’s truly amazing. When you surround yourself with other women who have dealt and who are dealing with their elephant, it’s such a joy being around them. They light your candle just by being who they are.
What advice would you give to a woman who has been abused, but hasn’t told anyone?
I would tell her – know that you are not alone. And that what happened to you is not your fault. You can also share your story anonymously through the Elephant Stories Journal – it will lift a huge weight off your shoulders because you can now claim that power. I’ve had a few women who have disclosed that sharing their story made them feel free and powerful. I hope that you find inspiration through these pages. You are valuable and you are worthy and who you are matters – remember that always.