Jenn is a survivor of child marriage in the U.S. Here, she tells AHA Foundation her story. It is a harrowing yet inspiring read. Jenn is now at the forefront of the fight to end child marriage in Massachusetts, where a bill banning the practice is making its way through the legislature. She will be testifying at the bill’s first hearing. We are proud to stand with Jenn in this fight and share her story.
These are the opinions of Jenn and not necessarily those of AHA Foundation.
My name is Jenn and I am a survivor of child marriage in the United States.
I do not remember a time when I was allowed to be innocent. I had been molested since before I was able to form words. By 14, I had long understood that my value was sexual. So, when one of my father’s friends began to groom me, I went along with it. He was 42.
The abuse continued for several years, across three different states, only changing when he accidentally got me pregnant. The pregnancy was ectopic, and I was just 16 when I had emergency surgery to save my life. I fell into a months-long depression, which was only relieved when he told me that he would marry me, take me away, and that everything would be okay. I believed him. Many years later, my mother confessed that she had threatened him with exposure unless he “made it right.”
I was still only 16 when my mother took me to the courthouse in the Florida Panhandle to get the marriage license. He was 44. It only took a few minutes to fill out the paperwork and get the right signatures. I don’t recall there being much fuss about it. I vaguely remember the clerk asking a few questions, but nothing out of the ordinary.
No one asked the questions that needed to be asked. No one tried to intervene.
We bought a used wedding gown from the thrift shop and the family preacher married us in my grandmother’s living room. I was thrilled to get married. I could not wait to have a real house instead of living in my parent’s filthy, run-down trailer. I had my entire life perfectly figured out. I would have a job managing my husband’s Pawn & Gun Shop. I would finally give him the son he had always wanted, and then right after that, I’d have a daughter who was my spitting image and my best friend. I had solved the riddle of life and would live happily ever after. I ignored any misgivings I had.
My new home was six hours and three states away from my family. I missed my parents and my siblings dreadfully, but I did not miss the beatings and the constant hunger. I registered for high school, determined to finish my education. They made my husband sign as my guardian since I was a minor and could not enroll myself. He made it difficult to go.
He would accidentally forget to set the alarm clock, or he would accidentally turn it off instead of snoozing it. When I returned in the afternoons, he would question me about my actions. I would have to tell him if there were any boys in my classes. If I sat next to any of them. If I talked to them.
The interrogations would last for hours, and every word I spoke was scrutinized. Mistakes or inconsistencies in my recollection were proof that I was lying. It was just more of the same thing he had always done. He used to say it was just because we were so far apart, but now we were together every day and he was still doing it. I gave up on high school.
I had access to the bank accounts but needed permission to buy even the necessities. Grocery store trips were monitored for both the length of time that I was gone and the amount that I spent there. If I was gone too long, I could expect to be accused of cheating. We argued constantly about my suspected infidelity and slowly I began to feel the edges of my trap.
My first son was born a month before my 18th birthday. Within a few months, I was pregnant again. In total, I was pregnant 5 times by the time I was 20. I have two surviving children from that marriage.
Knowing that I was just another victim in the middle of a long chain of little girls broke something inside me. It broke everything in me.”
Somewhere between my third and fourth pregnancy, I found out about the other girls that my husband had molested. I learned that his first wife had left him because she found out what he was. More stories came out. More women came forward. His family knew of his long, dark history of accusations. He was the uncle and father who wasn’t allowed around the girl children. Everyone knew what he was, but no one said anything. No one stopped him. No one wanted to be the one to bring shame upon themselves or the family.
My family thought I knew. That I had condoned his actions with my silence. The truth was that I never even suspected. I should have. There were so many clues right in front of me. My step-sister had even told me of him sneaking into her bed one night in the very beginning of the relationship. He claimed it was dark and he thought it was me. I believed him.
Somehow, I had blinded myself to what he really was. Because I had felt special, and knowing that I was just another victim in the middle of a long chain of little girls broke something inside me. It broke everything in me.
I started to truly fear what my life had become.
I tried to leave many times over the years. I ran away. I ran back. I tried to kill myself. I thought about killing him. I sat in my closet one night until dawn, loading and unloading the clip of his Glock-19, trying to decide if I would press the barrel to my head or his. All the time, he had me convinced that the fault was mine. That I was unstable and selfish. That I would end up back in the trailer if I left. That my children would grow up like I had, fatherless and in poverty. That I was a terrible person and mother, and I was fortunate that he kept forgiving me and taking me back.
I desperately wanted to leave, but fear and years of conditioning made it impossible. I had little education, no real work experience, and no support system. I had nowhere safe to go.
When I was 21, a Navy recruiter asked me what I was doing with my life. He offered me not just a job, but a career. A clear path out of the darkness and into freedom and independence. I thought of my two small children, the youngest only a few months old. I thought of the ramshackle room on my mothers’ porch that we were currently staying in. I knew nothing of the military, only that I was being offered an out. I said yes, and in secret, I signed up for the US Navy. They shipped me to boot camp in Chicago, and I never went back.
After the Navy, I met my current husband, and we moved to Massachusetts together. I was excited to move to a progressive state, where health care and education and human rights are important. With access to mental health resources, I began to heal. I enrolled in college and got a bachelor’s degree in Accounting. I learned what safe feels like.
Though I love to say that I am finally living my “Happily Ever After,” I cannot claim that I have recovered. Recovery is not an end, but a constant journey. It is a grieving that is temporarily eased by the sharing.
I publicly rip open my wounds in the hopes that baring the trauma of my past will bring awareness to the existence of child marriage here in the United States.”
Today, I fight in hearing rooms, virtual meetings, and in street demonstrations as an advocate against the injustice of child marriage. I publicly rip open my wounds in the hopes that baring the trauma of my past will bring awareness to the existence of child marriage here in the United States. Awareness that this is not just a problem for “other people.” Not just something that happens far away, in cultures unknown.
Child marriage occurs right here in the U.S. at a rate that defies belief. A recent study of data from an 18-year period (2000-2018) found that nearly 300,000 children were entered into a marriage contract before they were legally adults. Most of them were young girls married to adult men. These are not teenage romances; the average age difference is more than 5 years. The youngest child married was just 10 years old. In Massachusetts, one of the most progressive states in the Union, we allowed nearly 1,300 of these marriages to take place. Some of these children were under the age of consent.
Our second attempt to pass legislation in Massachusetts failed last year because the pandemic forced our legislature to close. While we have been waiting for a new hearing, 13 more children have been entered into marriages by their parents. Thirteen more lives are now forever damaged by their own families, by the uncaring legal system, by legislators who cannot find the time to pass a very simple bill with no cost and no opposition.
Not one person I have spoken to hears my story and wants their child to experience my life. And yet, it seems to me that the bill to close the loophole here in Massachusetts sits at a low priority on the docket, relegated to waiting until nearly the end of session for the first hearing.
I fear this bill is doomed to die of neglect—just like the innocence of the children who continue to be entered into a legally binding marriage that they cannot escape. Children innocently trust that life is good and purposeful. Loss of that innocence is irreparable.
Parts of me will never fully heal, but telling my truth and fighting to protect other girls dulls the jagged teeth of my nightmares.
No child should be married off before they are a legal adult. No child molester should be rewarded with the life of their victim. As adults, it is our job to protect the innocence of our children. We have to do better.