Words and Photos by Valerie Dimino
In one of our early meetings about what would become The Man Behind the Curtain: A Memoir, the book we would coauthor in 2022, Jessica Renee told me, “Every time I tell my story, I apologize for my story.”
It’s a feeling all too common for victims of abuse. They’re the ones carrying the guilt and shame; they’re the ones balancing the weight of silence with the consequences of speaking up.
For Jessica, those consequences were severe: after the sexual abuse she’d suffered for years at the hands of her stepfather was reported, her family and church community chose to proclaim his innocence and instead cast her out as the sinner. She was made to feel sorry for something that was never her fault.
It’s why she knew she needed to speak up further by sharing her story in a book, and it’s why I knew I wanted to be the one to help her do so.
Jessica and I are deeply grateful that the Rochester community has been so willing to engage in the difficult conversations a book like ours brings up. Local indie bookstores, libraries, book clubs, and so many wonderful individuals have helped us feel welcomed and understood. After all that Jessica endured, it is immeasurably important to be heard, believed, and supported in this way.
We’re eager to continue these conversations. Please visit valeriedimino.com to learn more and get in touch.
Thank you for helping us pull back the curtain.
An excerpt from The Man Behind the Curtain: A Memoir
by Jessica Renee with Valerie Dimino
Over time, my mother’s methods of torment became more aggressive, and increasingly strange. If they hadn’t happened to me directly, they might seem darkly comical, like snippets from a movie trailer about a woman gone mad, a maniacal religious fanatic—the viewer thinking that no one could really act this way. But she did. She threw holy water on me. When she first brought it into the room, I was afraid of what its powers might be. I made her touch it first, to know it wouldn’t burn. She smacked me on the forehead, shouting, “Devil be gone!” She must have wanted so badly to erase what was happening that she thought she could cleanse it out of me. If only she could ever understand just how badly I wished the same thing for myself.
She once had a group of women pray over me while I was sleeping. I woke to the shadows of their looming figures, as if the room were closing in on me. There were movements and murmurings I couldn’t quite pinpoint or make sense of. I was still groggy and thought maybe I was dreaming or having some sort of hallucination in my half-awake state. I thought maybe I had gone back in time, back to the abuse, or it had come back around to find me. There was the same rush of confusion, the same desire to push away while feeling frozen in place, as I tried to get my bearings. Four women I didn’t recognize were standing around my bed, towering over me and chanting some sort of prayer. It was largely indistinguishable, but there were a lot of references to lying tongues. They wanted me to tell the truth.
A lot of the prayers I heard in those days were “for” me, as if they were generous favors from kind hearts. But in praying “for” me, my mother and her newfound, fanatical friends, who had become like Mitch’s fan club, meant for me to awaken to the version of the world they kept insisting was real, one where Mitch was innocent and where I would come to my senses, admit that I’d made everything up, and thereby absolve my soul. They prayed for the truth to be revealed. And, of course, they prayed for Mitch as well. Perhaps we both needed some prayers—but their correlation was backward. They saw Mitch as the victim of my sins.
I did not, and will never, consider those prayers to be well intended. Misguided, maybe, at best. But such stubborn blindness is nothing but infuriating to me. They refused to hear me, to see me, as the broken child I was, pleading to be understood. The only brokenness they saw was a kind they thought they needed to fix, to scrub out. They weren’t willing to believe they were aiming their scrub brushes at the wrong person.