By MADDY VITALE
When Cape May County Freeholder E. Marie Hayes wrote a Letter to the Editor and sent it to local news outlets, she put her private life in the spotlight, much more than any time sparring in political debates, on the campaign trail or speaking in public.
She told of how she endured pain, grief and anguish, that she was sexually assaulted, long before the “Me Too” movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault, and when she was even too young to go to school.
A family friend, now deceased, abused her when she was growing up, she said.
And although decades had gone by, nightmares continued to haunt her until Hayes, a retired law enforcement captain who helped so many people in her career, got the help she needed to live the best life she could, without hiding the past.
“For over forty years I hid the facts of my abuse from the world, and thought I was doing a good job of putting them all behind me. Then, one situation at work brought it all back and I was living the hell all over again,” Hayes, a mother of three, said in her Letter to the Editor. “Thanks to wonderful professional help and the support of family and friends, I began to heal.”
Hayes, of Ocean City, retired in 2009 from the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office as a Captain of Detectives. She spent the majority of her career in the Child Abuse and Sexual Assault Investigations unit. She had a talent for gaining confessions from offenders, she said.
In an interview Saturday, Hayes said she was a strong leader who taught others in the ranks to remember that they may be the only ones standing in the way of the attacker and the innocent child. You must, above all, she explained, make sure the child is safe.
Yet for much of her career, she kept her truth hidden, that she too was a victim of sex assault when she was young.
Hayes said she really didn’t know why a particular case about 20 years ago, being investigated in her office as a murder-suicide, brought her personal tragedy to the forefront, but it did.
That was when she began seeing a therapist to get the help she needed for her and her family.
Hayes credited her husband, Lloyd, and her family for being so supportive and never judgmental during some difficult times.
“I thank Lloyd for being so patient and loving, not judging me, never judging me,” she said.
Just months into her eighth year on the freeholder board, following a resounding re-election win in November, she said there were plenty of reasons why she felt compelled to make her personal anguish public and write a Letter to the Editor.
She did it for two reasons. The first involved a recent change to the statute of limitations in New Jersey that extends the time a victim of child abuse can bring their case forward to up to when the victim is 55, or seven years after they realize their abuse.
Hayes said the change in law made her reflect on all of the victims she had encountered through her years in law enforcement who told her they were sexually assaulted. However, the state statute at that time barred them from court proceedings.
“I had interviewed so many victims during my time at the Prosecutor’s Office that the statute barred,” she said. “I remember so many of them.”
Hayes said the other reason she put her personal life out there in the public area was because if it could help just one other person, it would all be worth it.
“There are going to be people who don’t believe you. Don’t let that deter you,” she said in comments directed at sex abuse victims. “This is all about reclaiming yourself.”
“For the majority of my career, I pushed it into the back of my mind,” she continued. “The fact that I handled child cases well, that was God giving me the ability to do those cases.”
In her Letter to the Editor she provided advice she hoped would be heard, perhaps above all else.
“The truth can set you free,” she wrote. “Whether your abuser is ever punished or brought to justice is not the primary reason to come forward. Reclaiming your soul is.”
Editor’s note: Following is the entire Letter to the Editor written by E. Marie Hayes.
Our national conversations about sexual harassment, abuse and violence have become much more prevalent over the past few years and, in fact, have sparked a movement. Gaining confidence from the testimony and courage of others, many women across the spectrum of society have said “ME, TOO.” My declaration of sexual abuse in my past predated the “Me Too” movement but I am an abuse survivor and a member of a club that nobody wants to join. (I want to make clear that although I am directing this letter to women, there are male members in this horrific club and they, too, must be heard.)
The movement has its fair share of critics. Some believe that women are just being too sensitive to “boys being boys.” Others believe that so many women could not possibly be victims and that there is a lot of copy-cat behavior going on. Despite the cynics and nay-sayers, the movement has enabled many women to tell their truth. I am, however, speaking directly to those who have not. It is time. The truth can set you free. Whether your abuser is ever punished or brought to justice is not the primary reason to come forward. Reclaiming your soul is.
For over forty years I hid the facts of my abuse from the world, and thought I was doing a good job of putting them all behind me. Then, one situation at work brought it all back and I was living the hell all over again. Thanks to wonderful professional help and the support of family and friends, I began to heal. And the healing became transformation. I learned that I had PTSD and had never been willing to speak up for myself. My trauma, left unacknowledged, had robbed me of my voice and my choices. I am a smart woman but I could not out-smart the crippling effect of living a lie. I could never be who I am today, or do what I do today, without the acknowledgement that someone brutalized and marginalized me but I refused to let him destroy me.
I understand that speaking out comes with risks. Some people will not believe you, some people will pity you, some people will not want to associate with you for fear that what you have may be catching. If any of these people purport to be your friends, they are not. If any of these people do not want to associate with you, no matter. You must surround yourself with people who truly love you and seek professional help to at least ease the time of transition from the old you to the new you. There are also hundreds of us whom you don’t even know yet who are praying for you and pulling for you. You are not alone.
There is no sin greater than depriving a person of the right to live their own best life. When we do not speak out about those who would seek to disable us we become co-conspirators with them. We give them power because we keep their secret, as if we are the ones who are guilty. Enough! Love the person you are and demand that others love you, too. Tell the secret story so that it can blow away like so much smoke in the wind. Let your truth set you free to be whomever you choose. This is my wish for you.
Freeholder E. Marie Hayes, Cape May County