At an advocacy event, you’ll notice Gigi Kilroe right away. She’ll be wearing red—all red. “My grandmother told me red was my color and I should always wear red,” says Gigi. “Every time I speak, I wear red.” To Gigi, red suggests passion—“but not romantic passion,” she explains. “For me, red is the passion to come out on the other side of what I endured and celebrate who I am.” Gigi is a survivor of child sexual abuse, dating violence, and college rape. She’ll be 62 this year—and she has a lot to celebrate. Despite her history of trauma, Gigi has found her self-worth, her voice, and her passion for sharing that with others.
Today, Gigi is a part of the Resilient Voices project through the Pennsylvania Office of Victim Advocate, which connects survivors of crime to local outreach opportunities. “Being a member of Resilient Voices has been the best thing for me,” she reflects. “Every time I share my story it shifts away some of the shame and anger.” Her advocacy work is part of Gigi’s own healing journey, but it also allows her to encourage other survivors. As a guest speaker for outreach events such as Take Back The Night and Crime Victims Rights Week, Gigi has shared her story with students, survivors, and inmates. When speaking about her experience of abuse and sexual violence, Gigi emphasizes the powerful healing that is possible: “I’ve lived a lifetime with what I’ve endured but I have had some beautiful moments, and I want to show it’s possible no matter what you’ve gone through.” Most recently, Gigi has authored a memoir, From Within. “My biggest message to survivors” says Gigi, “is that no one has the right to extinguish the light that shines within you.” And that’s how Gigi signs her book: I always write “Let your light shine brightly.”
For Gigi, the journey toward healing began in her thirties, when she first read about date rape and post-traumatic stress disorder—and finally had the language to talk about what had happened to her as a college student. Empowered to learn more, Gigi started to see her personal history as a cumulative experience of trauma rather than isolated events from her past. With the help of a therapist whom she calls “my angel,” Gigi began to peel back the layers of trauma. There was the college rape she suffered as a young adult. Behind that was the damage done by a physically abusive relationship from her high school years. And behind that was the grief over the loss of her mother, who died when Gigi was a young child.
It was layer upon layer…everything was buried.
As a result of her therapy, Gigi learned that she struggled with trust and abandonment issues. She began to confront her tendency in relationships to do anything, give anything, be anything—whatever it took to keep someone from “leaving” her. She realized that her eating disorder was connected to her experience of loss and her low self-esteem. So was her obsession with skin care products. “My bathroom looked like the skin care counter at Macy’s,” says Gigi. “A friend came over and went to use the bathroom and told me it looked like Cleopatra’s Tomb in there…I was trying to fill that hole in myself because I didn’t have the self-love. “It was layer upon layer, everything was buried,” recalls Gigi.
But despite significant steps toward healing, one thing stayed buried for a long time, even through years of therapy. When Gigi was in her fifties, she learned that her older half-brother had molested her when she was four years old. He was thirteen years older than Gigi, and as adults they were never close. When they did have occasional contact, he made inappropriate comments and Gigi never felt comfortable around him. It wasn’t until she learned about the early trauma that things “clicked” for Gigi and she realized that it wasn’t just the comments that made her wary—it was her repressed memories of the abuse.
In her memoir, Gigi reflects on what it was like to put that missing childhood piece into place:
In my soul, I knew nothing would ever be the same. I can describe what unfolded was like a door slowly opening. For 50 years, my mind suppressed the incest. Horrific, buried memories of what he did to me were slowly emerging…This was the cancerous tumor at the core of my soul. The ramifications of his sexual abuse subconsciously affected me my entire life.
As she began in mid-life to peel back this layer of earliest, deepest trauma, Gigi started having nightmares and wetting the bed; she became clinically depressed, and even considered suicide. But she continued going to therapy sessions, and did the hard work of confronting her past—even the parts she could not remember clearly.
It was (and still is!) a long process, and Gigi says the most important step was truly believing that she deserved to heal; that, as she says, “I was worth the journey to get there.” As part of her journey, Gigi confronted her unhealthy obsession with weight and was able to flag when she was using food as a coping mechanism. She learned about self-care. She found new hobbies and interests that allowed her to express herself more authentically than ever before.
I was worth the journey to get there.
One project she calls her “gallery of joy”—floor-to-ceiling family photos that Gigi printed in black and white and framed to fill her hallway. “Every time I walk down my hall, it’s a visual reminder to me of these people who have touched my life, these positive memories—this is what matters.” For Gigi, it’s one way to help her stay focused on the memories of love and support, not the memories of past trauma.
Gigi also enjoys creative expression. When she took a class on stained glass and started creating her own unique artworks, Gigi discovered that she is drawn to any imagery of suns and moons. “The sun and moon combination fascinates me,” explains Gigi. “It’s very calming, soothing; it represents the peace inside of myself that I feel now, what I’ve been looking for all of my life.”
Trying something new like stained glass has given Gigi self-confidence and a way to pay attention to the things that matter—to her, not to anyone else. “I’m not the same person I was even five years ago,” says Gigi. “I feel like I’ve come into my own as a woman and as a person through my healing…I’ve learned I have a voice, it’s okay to say no (even to little things), and I’ve learned that I have to do what’s best for me.
Learning to listen to her own voice and doing what is best for her is at the heart of how Gigi shines as a survivor. In addition to wearing red when she speaks, Gigi also wears a bracelet with a line from her favorite childhood movie, The Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy asks Glinda for help one more time, the good witch tells her she doesn’t need any external help anymore: you’ve had the power all along, my dear; you just had to learn it for yourself.