“Jessica’s Story” — a series about a survivor of sexual abuse coming forward to tell her story — began with a simple email.
“I am the victim of the State vs Keith Chandler case,” 19-year-old Jessica Washburn wrote in an unsolicited email to The Laconia Daily Sun, “and I was wondering if I could write something for the paper?”`
Thus began a series of email exchanges.
We explained that, although we didn’t identify her in the stories we did about the sentencing of her stepfather in May, we apply a different standard when it comes to letters. “Like most papers, we don't identify victims of sexual abuse in news stories unless the victim has self-identified. At the same time, we don't publish submissions anonymously or use pseudonyms in our opinion section.”
In other words, she would have to use her own name if she wanted to write a letter.
She had no problem with that, she said, because she wanted to help others who might find themselves victimized and reluctant to reach out to authorities or trusted family members.
She submitted a letter.
“Until now, I was simply known as the victim,” it read in part. “But I am so much more than that. I am a strong, 19 year old woman, who wants to help more people.”
We asked Washburn if she wanted to do more than write a letter, and if she would be willing to allow one of our staff writers to tell her story.
Again, she agreed.
“That sounds wonderful,” she said. “I want it to have as big of an impact as possible!”
As the paper’s managing editor, I had concerns and questions and knew we had to proceed cautiously.
Was she mature enough to understand the potential ramifications of going public with her story? Did she have an adequate support system?
I understood that, while the paper’s interests and Jessica’s interests would undoubtedly overlap in the telling of her story, there might also be times when our interests diverged.
I called Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public affairs at the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence in Concord. I knew and respected her as a leader in her field, and asked if the Coalition would be willing to counsel Washburn.
“We don’t want to exploit this woman,” I said.
I understood there was a risk that, after talking to a counselor, Washburn might decide not to proceed with a story.
But that was always her prerogative, I reasoned, and I emailed Washburn and passed along Sexton’s number.
“One of the things I think is important, Jess, is that you have someone in your corner,” I said. “Amanda has a mountain of integrity and will be totally on your side. I contacted her because, while we very much want to help you tell your story, it's important to me, as the editor of the paper (and, frankly, as a father and grandfather of young women), that somebody is looking out for you during this process. Amanda can do that for you and help you make a better-informed decision. She'll be totally honest with you about the pros and cons.”
“I already know the pros and cons about what could come out of this, but I believe it’s worth it,” she replied. “Everyone has been really supportive so far, with the exception of some family members, but at the end of the day what really matters is helping other people.”
Washburn eventually connected with a counselor from the Coalition and chose to proceed with her decision to go public.
What follows is her story.
She hopes it helps others, and so do we.