In 2000, Tracy Ertl made a trip to Rome for a special purpose. Throughout her childhood she had lived in a broken, disruptive home; a home where she was a victim of sexual abuse by her own father. For years, she had dealt with the pain on her own, bottling it up inside, never telling a soul.
In Rome, Tracy Ertl went before Pope John Paul II to forgive her father for what he had done, find closure and move on with her life. But it wasn’t long after her confession that she discovered her daughter, St. Thomas sophomore Christine Ertl, was scarred by the same man who had devastated her life so many years before.
A year after her trip, a few girls came forward in Howard, Wis., with allegations that Tracy Ertl’s father, who lived in the neighborhood, had sexually assaulted them. In the investigation, Christine Ertl was questioned and confessed that she had also been sexually assaulted by her grandfather several years earlier.
For the first time in her life, Tracy Ertl had to disclose and relive her experiences of sexual assault that she had never told anybody, not even her husband.
“It was a trying time for my mom because she had never told any of the authorities and having to go from such an extreme childhood and getting out and then having to relive all of that,” Christine Ertl said.
Christine Ertl was initially taken to the courthouse for questioning and, because she was a minor, she later testified her accounts of sexual assault on a tape recorder. She was not present during her grandfather’s trial because her parents did not want her face him. Her recorded interview was played during the proceedings.
“It was very difficult, very challenging,” Christine Ertl said. “I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on. Both my brothers had a very good relationship with my grandfather and it was very confusing for them why grandpa was being sent away.”
In the end, her grandfather was tried in three states, Nevada, California, and Wisconsin, because the family moved throughout Tracy Ertl’s childhood. He was convicted in two states and sentenced to 30 years in a maximum security prison, where he still is today. He will be up for parole next year, but because of his health, his future is still uncertain.
‘When the Easter Bunny is Naked’
As the dust settled on the trial, Christine Ertl and her mother decided they didn’t want their story to end there. Through their own experience, they realized there were few resources for women to turn to in their situation and they wanted to change that.
They decided to put their experience on paper in an autobiographical first-person narrative, weaving through both generations, using Christine Ertl and her mother’s accounts in a book titled, “When the Easter Bunny is Naked.”
The title of the book is based off the first case of rape Tracy Ertl endured on an Easter morning by her father and continues the progression of abuse that followed throughout her childhood. Although striking, the title also holds a stronger meaning.
“The basic premise of it is that no child deserves an Easter bunny that is naked,” Christine Ertl said. “No child deserves role models in their lives that take advantage of them and belittle them and take away their dignity.”
They began writing while Christine Ertl was in middle school and started critically writing while in high school, with her mom collaborating, writing and editing with her along the way.
“It’s written by both of us, edited by both of us,” Ertl said. “It’s really been bonding for us because I’m learning what makes her who she is and she’s learning where I’m coming from and how the same situation can affect us in the same way and differently.”
Though reliving the trying events documented in the book was difficult, Christine and Tracy Ertl used it as a way to rehabilitate and bring closure to a chapter in their lives.
“It definitely has its hard days because there are things you don’t want to think about again and there are experiences that you wish hadn’t happened,” Christine Ertl said. “But by admitting on paper that they did is really a step in the right direction into healing and self-respect and self-dignity.”
“So by making the effort to make yourself public and putting ourselves out there it’s breaking down all of those walls and all those barriers that the abuser can put on a victim and truly become survivors through it. You are never done feeling the effects until you fight back; until you say, ‘I’m going to move on now.’”
It is Christine Ertl’s hope that the book will give other victims the strength to stand up and break the silence they know so many are holding in.
“I would say first and foremost that the silence is broken not only for us personally, because every time we talk about it we take back that control that was taken away from us,” she said. “But also that other people know that they can break the silence.”
“As alone it feels in the end and as degrading as it feels, there’s power and strength and there is grace in coming forward and knowing you’re not alone.”
The Ertl’s business: TitleTown Publishing, Green Bay, Wis.
In the process of writing their book, Tracy Ertl decided they didn’t want their story in the hands of a publisher who may manipulate it.
Tracy Ertl, who is a police dispatcher and former reporter for the Green Bay Gazette, started exploring the publishing world and realized she had a knack for the business. Two years later, Christine Ertl and her mother started TitleTown Publishing in Green Bay, Wis., becoming the first women-owned publishing house in the region.
To date they have released four titles that fall into non-fiction, true crime, inspirational and survivor genres and have four confirmed titles for 2010.
“When the Easter Bunny is Naked” will be the first release of 2010 and will be distributed nationally and internationally in April.
Matt Linden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org