Hi! I’m Jenna Say What?!? and you may know me from my YouTube channel, Facebook, Instagram, or you may not know me at all! Well in short, I’m a cosplayer, gamer, archer, knitter, and survivor of abuse. I weathered the ugly hand I was dealt in life and came out on top. This is the origin for my panel I will host at Oak City Comic-Con, It’s Not Your Fault. It’s an opportunity to share the story of my past, how I came out of it, and hopefully help others in similar situations.
I was born in a suburb of Chicago but moved to Massachusetts very early on. My parents divorced when I was 5 years old forcing me back to Illinois, not to Chicago but the southern half of the state. One girl in my school hated me from the start. Her bullying eventually escalated to commanding boys in my class to hold me down and beat me up as she watched. I hated school, but loved my home life. Mom worked often but my grandma was my close companion and best friend. My mother began dating my future stepfather around age 10. She eloped shortly after meeting him, I remember hiding in my closet, behind my clothes, crying. Grandma found me and asked me what was wrong. I told her the marriage would be a terrible mistake, though she assured me it would be wonderful.
I ended up being right.
My stepfather’s home felt emotionally cold. The upstairs of the house was an unfinished afterthought, something that feels like pure symbolism looking back. Going to school was terrifying. I wrote a note from my bully (who was the popular girl) that said how cool I am and how they should be nice to me, I was prepared to seek out the most popular girl and give it to her and fake my new life. I never needed it. It stayed in my backpack till I threw it out. For the first time, I was loved and accepted at school. Still to this day I am proud of that school. They loved me for the weird, nerdy, gothy girl I was. Home was once my safe haven from school, and now, the roles were reversed.
I never had the best grades. I either couldn’t focus or things weren’t explained the way I needed them to be. I’m still this way. Instead of trying to get to the root of the problems and resolving them, my stepfather saw this as utter failure. He vocalized my failures and grounded me often. This was how he tested the waters to see how much my mother would allow. Verbal abuse was clearly acceptable.
My grades suffered terribly, because hey, why even try if I’m a failure? He reminded me of this daily. I thanked the gods for after school band and chorus practice. I joined every school play, even though I hated them. Anything to get me away from the house. The verbal abuse only became worse over the years, only letting up when his sons, from previous marriages, visited. The boys were my angels of mercy, and I loved them more than they may ever know.
I can’t remember exactly the first time he hit me. I remember one time my stepfather’s verbal abuse pushed me to the breaking point, and I yelled back to him. The memory escapes me as to what was said, most likely that I hoped he would die. He tackled me down to the ground after pursuing me up the stairs, choked me, beat me, and shoved me into my room. Apparently I was stronger than I appeared, since I screamed, “Is that all you got?”
He tackled me again, this time picking me up and throwing me into my room. He either aimed for my dresser on or misjudged the throw, either way possibility was deplorable, and I was knocked out when my head slammed into it. To this day I still have a “dent” on my skull. By age 17, he would strangle me while commanding me to calm down, and if I didn’t, he threatened to break my arm.
Like many other survivors, my stepfather left me in a vulnerable place for other abusers and predators to take advantage, such as my first ex-boyfriend. We started dating him when I was 15. At some point I lost my virginity to him, but not consensually. He toyed with my emotions and used abusive tactics to coerce me into bed. I remember staring at the clock, counting the seconds until he finished. That’s the kind of memory that lingers forever.
The abuse went from bad to crippling. Life was a war on two fronts, abuse at home and in my relationship. I saw no way out. Around age 16, cutting became my escape. I was a shell of myself, I felt little to no emotions. Cutting seemed to be the only way to actually feel something. I have scars covering my arms and shoulders that now serve as a constant reminder of the pain I suffered.
Eventually, I attempted suicide. It’s surreal to think I wouldn’t be here at this moment to share my story if I had been successful, but I digress. My life was no longer my own. The abuse, manipulation, and darkness was the norm for me. I believed all households must have been this way, and that all boyfriends would tell you that you are stupid and that you’ll never learn anything because they were just using “reverse psychology” to help their girlfriends. My ex would use my own arms and hands to hit myself in the face because he was “just playing”. The pain my own hands would inflict felt otherwise. Not one of my friends really knew what was going on, my excuse book was vast and thorough. Why should I have to make excuses for something that’s normal?
You may be wondering what happened to my biological father. Well, I would spend summers at his house in Massachusetts. He would take me on trips to Maine, Canada, Boston, ect. He treated me like a father should treat his daughter. But I always thought it was weird. I would question why he was being so nice to me. I didn’t really trust him because I was beaten down. It still makes me sick to my stomach to think I worried about being around him because he was kind and not cruel.
Around age 19, I resumed dating my abusive ex after breaking from him before. The memory of why or how is hazy, I’ve lost a lot of memories over the years. This time his abuse came for me with vengeance. He systematically cut off all my friends and turned me against my family. It had finally happened. I lost everything but hope.
My stepfather finally kicked me out of the house after my senior year of high school. That day, I ran to the cops, whom had been called on my by my mother regularly, and told them my story. The sheriff that took my parents statements was the cop that patrolled my high school. He looked at me and asked me one question, “What drugs are your parents using?” My mother and step fathers stories were so jumbled and contradictory that he believed none of what I said. By the end of my statement, the three police officers present solemnly apologized, told me to run, and never look back.
I did just that. I lived out of my car, working at McDonalds, not knowing my next move. I would have ran to friends, but my abusive boyfriend had done a sufficient job of driving them away. Two weeks later, my car was stolen while working. The culprit? My stepfather. He hid it at his father’s house, something I wouldn’t know for several weeks.
My boyfriend came for me, and I moved in with him. I had no control, I had no other choice. He controlled every aspect of my life. He wouldn’t allow me to purchase things without his consent, and if I did, I’d have to lie about it. It needed to be a good lie though, because he was more terrifying than my stepfather. He had serial killer qualities that should have been severe red flags, like torturing and killing small animals because, “It was fun.” He once took me out in the woods at night, he didn’t allow me to take my cell phone, and threw me against his truck. Supposedly this was to show me how beautiful the night was, but I feared at that moment he was going to kill me. He didn’t, but looking back, I can see that he was testing the waters.
At age 19 he forced me to go to a strip club. I hated it. I felt dirty. He told me that I needed to start stripping. So dirtiness aside, I quit my McDonald’s job and started at the club the next week. He would come and watch me. News spread quickly through the small town and people from my class came to watch. I was so disconnected and mentally gone, I became my stripper persona; ‘Ginger.’ Ginger saved my life. When someone goes through as much abuse as I had, the brain can do a sort of split. It’s not multiple personality disorder but a deeply ingrained survival mechanism, a mental protection. Ginger emerged, Jenna faded into the background. Thankfully, therapy helped me understand this and come to terms with the next stages I will talk about.
The next year, my boyfriend coerced me into pornography. He even helped me find an agent. Before I knew it, I was in L.A. I don’t remember much from it, I can only handle a few memories from this time. I did this for about a year. I look back and hate what he made me do. If you ever see any of my videos, know this: you are watching me being sexually abused. It’s not funny. It’s not sexy. It’s awful.
One of my few vivid memories of this time came the last time I was in L.A. I was filming in a sketchy hotel and a veteran porn star, we’ll call him “Andrew,” contacted me and said, “Listen, get out of here. You’re too good for this. Too smart. I come from a family of doctors and what do I do? Porn? I’m stuck. Get out before you are too.”
I may never get to thank him for that. So if he ever sees this, thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
There I was, 21 years old and dead to the world. The last recollection I have of my relationship with my ex was a cold declaration that he was going to kill me. I knew he was going to, I could hear it in his voice. Finally, the veil over my eyes was lifted. It was the most awakening experience I ever had. I finally reached out to my friend T.H. and she had her sister come get me. To this day I don’t remember her sister picking me up and I don’t remember what happened three months later. The memory is gone.
I soon left Southern Illinois because it was haunted by my past. It was a heavy decision, but I did it. I made it to North Carolina, with the help of my first supportive boyfriend. I was finally proud to be myself even though I still struggled with depression. So I decided to seek mental help, and I have been proudly going for 4 years. I met my husband in 2013, when we were at the beach during the supermoon. I remember watching the enormous spotlight the moon created on the ocean. I fell to the ground, crying. I finally realized how many times I almost died and thought about the times I would have missed if I was gone, so much happiness and life. I would have missed this very moment.
Cosplay is my biggest method of coping. I was still scared, self conscious, and thought I was crazy, but costuming helped overcome that. I’ve met like-minded people that have “weird” things they do or think. Like I have an emotional attachment to my “work buddy,” a small, green loch ness monster toy. If she’s not there, I lose it. I worry that people are mad at me, I apologize constantly for nothing, or I’ll worry that the car next to me at the red light will suddenly pull a gun on me. Things people don’t even worry about, I worry. Abuse alters the chemistry of your brain. I had to learn on a primitive level how to survive, and because of that, it can never be the same.
Abuse can make you feel completely powerless. It can take away every last shred of humanity you have left. It leaves you with crippling anxiety and depression. There are days when I honest-to-the-gods don’t feel like I’m worth nothing. There are days that I am so overwhelmed by anxiety that I cannot perform daily tasks. I have night terrors so severe that when I wake up, I feel like I still in my abusive ex’s bedroom, because my waking vision can’t force that image out of my head. I still question how I made it out alive, but I’m thankful for it, because it gave me the opportunity to share my story with you now. I want to tell you it’s not your fault, to spread the word about mental health, and how it is okay to ask for help! Know that every Friday, years later, I’m sitting on a couch talking about this very thing because it still affects me.
No child deserved what I went though, and if you are a fellow survivor, you didn’t either. I promise you that things will get better. Seek professional help. If you don’t have the money, call around and ask for sliding scale fees or free mental health care. Just make the call. It can save your life.
*Suicide is NEVER the solution. Please seek help immediately if you are feeling suicidal, such as the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
Just for you, here are some of my cosplays I have done over the years.