If you could imagine the pillow talk between Brisa De Angulo and Parker Palmer, it might be about their work or the future they are planning together. But it also might be about the past and the nightmare each of them lived through when they were young.
Brisa and Parker grew up on different continents, in dramatically different family circumstances.
Brisa remembers an idyllic childhood with loving, supportive parents who believed in the dignity of every person. Her father had left home at 12 to escape the physical torture he suffered behind closed doors. He worked tirelessly and studied hard to become a surgeon and public health advocate. Her mother also survived an abusive home to become a teacher. Together, they wrote more than 40 books on human rights. So, it is not surprising then, that when Brisa was two, they moved the family from the United States to an impoverished area of Bolivia where violence flourished but services were non-existent.
“My parents chose that community because it didn’t have access to electricity or water or roads to get there,” says Brisa. “They started the first clinic to provide health services.”
Brisa caught that spirit of otherness early on. At the age of seven, she began tutoring children in her own backyard where they could feel safe and enjoy learning, as she did.
“It was an accepted part of the education system for teachers to beat and severely punish students. I wanted this to change!”
Six years later, she wrote an entire curriculum, and with the government’s permission, she opened her own school. Seven students were enrolled for the first day and without desks, Brisa had to improvise, using rocks as chairs. Soon, more students showed up and money and supplies began to trickle in.
“We would get a thousand dollars or a thousand bricks. So we built a wall line by line every year until we had a classroom.”
Brisa started a lunch program for the elderly and she made the National swim team. Her life was very busy, very full and very happy. But all that changed dramatically when a troubled older cousin came to live with them and, within weeks, he began to prey on Brisa.
“It was a long season of my life filled with darkness and suffering. I was repeatedly raped and tortured by a well-respected adult who was also an honored church and community leader.”
Like so many victims of sexual abuse, Brisa hid what was happening to protect her family. Her cousin played on her fears, saying no one would believe her, threatening to rape her little sister if she told, and warning that telling would destroy her parents’ reputation in the community.
Over time, Brisa stopped swimming and playing music. Always a top student and the ideal daughter, she now dropped out of school. She became bulimic and anorexic and attempted suicide several times.
Her parents were upset and baffled. They tried everything to discover the source of Brisa’s dramatic change, never suspecting the evil lived right in their own home.
A psychologist finally helped Brisa reveal her wounds. Her parents were totally devastated but committed to finding healing and justice for their daughter. But, outside of her loving family, Brisa encountered a different response.
“When I broke the silence and sought help, I was ostracized, blamed, and humiliated. Bolivia’s machista culture objectified me, just as it does all women and girls, which enabled others to ignore me, and if not ignore me, then blame me for the horrific acts of my aggressor.”
Brisa was interrogated by the prosecutor for hours in a small room, without her parents present. She was threatened with jail for lying and told whatever happened was her fault. Judges and lawyers refused to get involved with her case because no one wanted to admit that raping an adolescent was even a crime. And, certainly, no one wanted to punish a man for such a common occurrence.
When the case finally did go to court, even members of her extended family testified vehemently against her, calling her a prostitute, pressuring her to protect her cousin out of family loyalty. There were death threats and her home was set on fire. But Brisa stood strong. She had faced sexual assault, intimidation, emotional and psychological anguish and public humiliation, but instead of making her cower, it made her stronger and more determined to make a difference. At that moment, A Breeze of Hope Center took shape. Brisa was just 17 years old.
“My own experience of suffering sexual violence and the horrors of seeking justice in a broken court system, itself embedded in a violently male dominant society, motivated me to take action. I felt it as a sort of calling. I couldn’t resist. Even though at age 17 I was so broken and wounded, I couldn’t contain my voice. My own pain was there, but the pain of knowing that other girls were suffering the same thing forced me to speak out.”
While Brisa’s story unfolded in Bolivia, more than 3500 miles away in Northeast Alabama, Parker Palmer was emerging from his own violent childhood.
In public, his father was a trainer of professional athletes, including tennis champion Andre Agassi. But, at home, he was a really strong, violent, at times, psychotic man, both emotionally and physically abusive to Parker and his mother.
“I grew up in a broken family plagued by alcoholism, narcotics abuse, and domestic and sexual violence. For years I watched my mother suffer horribly at the hands of violent men, my father and first stepfather. I also witnessed and suffered horrible psychological, physical, and sexual violence.”
Parker’s earliest memory at age 2 was struggling for breath when his father put a 25 lb. disc on his chest. Eventually, his parents divorced and Parker and his mother were put into state protection. But after Parker’s father lost his parental rights, he kidnapped Parker and, for three months, no one knew where he was.
Federal Marshalls found Parker in Texas and returned him to the care of his mother and grandparents. But even there he was surrounded by relatives addicted to drugs and alcohol. His life was in chaos. By the age of seven he was running loose in the streets where he fell in with two older teenagers who took him under their wing and then initiated a pattern of sexual abuse that lasted for years. For Parker, who had known so much violence and abuse in his young life, the pattern seemed inescapable.
“That experience of not knowing what do, that sense of betrayal, confusion, terror, threats, violence and the fear -- what do I do? who do I tell?”
Parker finally told his mother who reacted with silence, but moved them out of the neighborhood a month later.
“There should have been some type of intervention or explanation. But I think she did the best she could in the circumstances. She was barely getting by; she didn’t eat so I could eat. She would sell a pint of blood so she could feed me.”
His mother eventually remarried and the family moved several times more. In Junior High School, Parker got involved in sports which gave him an outlet for his anger and aggression. But the cycle of violence seemed to follow wherever they went.
“When I was 14, I came home and my mom’s face was purple. My stepdad had beaten and raped her. Three years later, he did it again. That time we packed up everything and left Alabama.”
With college on the horizon, Parker set his sights on Eastern University in Pennsylvania. It turned out to be a serendipitous choice because also enrolled that year was Brisa De Angula.
Their connection was immediate. So was his commitment to joining her in working for children traumatized by sexual abuse.
“My life really turned around when I met Brisa, to whom I am so gratefully and joyfully married. Her moral compass unceasingly points toward justice, which gives incredible breadth and depth to her vision of social change. Her pursuit of justice presents itself with forceful gentleness and stubborn persistence.
This striking quality of Brisa’s opened my eyes to the fact that I, too, could be an active participant in reshaping our world.”
According to research Brisa conducted in 2009, 34 percent of children and adolescents in Bolivia suffer sexual abuse before age 18.
A Breeze of Hope, founded in Cochabamba, Colombia, when she was just 17, offers children free access to social workers, lawyers, therapists, and volunteers who provide support.
Since its founding in 2004, A Breeze of Hope has impacted the lives of more than 1,500 child survivors and their supportive family members. They have educated and trained over 88,000 people in sexual violence prevention and over 10,000 in Early Childhood Development. In addition, A Breeze of Hope maintains the highest conviction rate in the world in criminal trials against child sex offenders (98%).
For both Brisa and Parker, their work has been deeply rewarding both professionally and personally.
“My healing has been intimately bound up with healing of these other children,” says Parker. A wounded healer, I really like that idea. I’ve still got open wounds. Sometimes I experience my own trauma in very visceral ways, almost physical sensation.
By turning back into that suffering, by staring it right in the face and going through it, not with myself, but with others, by participating in the healing of another, I‘m also participating in my own healing.”
“It’s great to see every day how something that was meant to harm me has been used to help heal so many children.” says Brisa. “My pain is freed when their pain is freed. I have lived the truth that we are wounded in community, yet we also heal in community.”
To discover 10 ways you can help A Breeze of Hope in its mission to help child and youth victims of sexual abuse, go to www.abreezeofhope.org