Gail's Story

Gail's Story

  • Pastoral counselor
  • Teacher
  • Advocate
  • Listener
  • Encourager
  • Writer
  • Thriver

Telling your story will be the beginning of your healing. You will see light at the end of the tunnel.

She silently survived years of sexual violence. Now, she speaks out for herself—and others. “If you’re allowed to talk, you’re allowed to heal.”

Gail Gardner was a single parent, asleep in bed with her 9-year-old son when a perpetrator broke into their home and raped her. It wasn’t the first sexual assault she’d survived.

“I wondered—why does this keep happening to me?”

Coping with a Lifetime of Abuse

Gail was only 5 years old the first time she endured child sexual abuse by a family member.

“The grooming was the most devastating part of it,” she shared. “I was so young when it started. Psychologically, it had a huge effect on my personality and how I viewed myself.”

Years passed, but Gail didn’t feel that she could talk about what had happened to her. She initially turned to drugs and alcohol as a means of coping, but then she joined a church that provided the support and community she was seeking. Before long, she had started down the educational path to becoming a minister. 

It was in the midst of these efforts toward healing that an aggressor entered Gail’s home and introduced new trauma to her life. 

Navigating a Cold and Uncaring System

Gail called the police, reported that someone had raped her, and was taken to the hospital for a sexual assault forensic exam, also known as a rape kit, but she described the experience as “archaic.”

“I was an African American woman who had been raped, which was not necessarily taken seriously at that time. I was taken to a bare hospital room that only had a tray of metal instruments in it. All of my clothes were taken away and I was only given a sheet to wear. It was freezing cold. They left me in there by myself for so long, just waiting. It was horrible. When the nurse finally came in, she started the exam without saying a word to me. The experience was awful—it was like being raped all over again.”

“I was an African American woman who had been raped, which was not necessarily taken seriously at that time.”

Gail revealed what had happened to her to members of her church community, but she was met with unsupportive responses.

“The worst part of it was that I was treated like I was the perpetrator,” Gail explained. “People I had trusted said hurtful things to me. They told me to get over it. Told me that I wanted it. They treated me like I had a disease.”

Finding Support as a Sexual Assault Survivor

Desperate to talk to someone, Gail searched in vain for resources in her area.

“At that time, there was no way to get help,” she explained. “There was no RAINN, no local sexual assault service providers, no one to help me at all. I wanted to go to counseling, but as a single parent, I couldn’t afford it. I just had to push my way through in order to survive.”

Decades had passed without Gail telling even her mother about the child sexual abuse she’d suffered at the hands of a family member. Now, having also survived sexual violence as an adult, she knew she needed to open up if she had any hope of healing. 

Unlike her church, Gail’s mother and family members responded with immediate compassion and support. As Gail disclosed the abuse from her childhood, others began to acknowledge the abuses they, too, had endured. Drawn together by pain, love, and a desire for healing, the family was, at long last, engaging in deeply necessary, long-overdue conversations about their most traumatic experiences.

“People will say, ‘What happens in this house, stays in this house,’” Gail said. “But by silencing survivors in that way, you pass the trauma on to the next generation.” 

Helping to Heal

Supporting and advocating for other survivors has been critical to Gail’s healing. 

After completing her GED and obtaining her undergraduate degree, Gail earned two master's degrees: one in pastoral counseling and another in education.

She became mission-driven to educate caregivers, teachers, and anyone who works with children about the warning signs of child sexual abuse. “People need to be informed,” she stated. “They need to know how to recognize sexual abuse and how to support someone who’s gone through it.”

Advocacy in Action

Involved in advocacy efforts for the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), Gail saw policy change as essential to providing survivors with the resources they need. Along with her bold support of key policy initiatives, she promoted grassroots efforts as the most direct pathway to educating Americans about sexual violence—and one day ending it.

“We need communities to be talking about this—in churches, schools, and families,” Gail said.

“We need communities to be talking about this—in churches, schools, and families.” 

Supporting Survivors

One phrase she often heard from survivors was: “There was no one there for me.” Having experienced the full gamut of reactions to her own story, from unsupportive to supportive, she knew firsthand the importance of survivors being heard and believed.

“How do you support a survivor? You show empathy and compassion,” she stated simply. “Even if you can’t identify with what happened to them, just be there with them as they tell their story.”

In her work as a bereavement counselor, Gail found even more opportunities to connect with and support survivors of sexual violence. “Many people, when they’re grieving the loss of a loved one, will bring up with me that they experienced child sexual abuse,” she shared. “They start talking about it because it’s the first time someone has listened to them. If you’re allowed to talk, you’re allowed to heal. Every day I get up and I know I am healing.”

A Guide for Those Who Are Grieving

Gail Gardner described herself as a pastoral counselor, teacher, advocate, listener, encourager, writer, and thriver. 

“When a child is sexually abused, there is a part of their childhood that has been taken from them,” she recognized. “To heal from this, it needs to be recognized as a kind of loss, a kind of grieving. Telling your story will be the beginning of your healing. You will see light at the end of the tunnel.”

“Telling your story will be the beginning of your healing. You will see light at the end of the tunnel.”

While working on her memoir, Gail visited the police department to obtain her case records from 31 years prior. Once labeled a cold case, the investigation into Gail’s rape had been reopened.

“They think they’ve found enough information to catch him,” she marveled. “Maybe I’ll see justice after all.”