Apr 01, 2019

Austinite Aims to Foster Discussion of Sexual Abuse Through Musical

Reporting Texas

Anna Westbrook speaks during the “When #MeToo Comes to Church” panel on Feb. 17 at Hillcrest Baptist Church in North Austin. Westbrook wrote a musical titled “Isabel and the Runaway Train” with the goal of helping people talk about sexual assault. Brittany Mendez/Reporting Texas

Austinite Anna Westbrook, 28, says she has spent much of her adult life dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. Westbrook equates having an episode of PTSD to getting hit by a train, an analogy that inspired the theme of her musical “Isabel and the Runaway Train.”

The musical tells the story of 16-year-old Isabel, who runs away from home and finds herself trapped on a magical train with a sexual predator. Westbrook says the musical and an accompanying workshop have a simple goal — to make people more comfortable discussing sexual abuse.

“There was this pain that I was feeling that I wasn’t letting other people see because I felt like they couldn’t,” Westbrook said when asked about her motivation for the musical. “When I talked to people, they were unprepared.”

“Isabel and the Runaway Train” premiered at the Dougherty Arts Center in Austin in July 2018, and Westbrook is planning to take the musical and workshop on a national college tour in 2021. Westbrook will be showing some video clips from the musical and holding a workshop at the University of Texas at Austin on April 3.

Childhood sexual abuse is more common than many people know, Westbrook says. One in 10 children will be sexually abused before age 18, according to a study from the nonprofit organization Darkness to Light.

Despite the prevalence of the problem, many people have a hard time discussing the issue, says Emma Rogers, a spokeperson for the SAFE Alliance, an Austin nonprofit organization that aims to reduce sexual abuse.

“For people who haven’t experienced abuse themselves, it can be hard to imagine that something so unfair has happened to people they love,” Rogers said.

Westbrook grew up in Connecticut and was abused separately by two men when she was a child, she says. One abuser was a volunteer at the church she attended. Westbrook says she felt confusion and shame about the abuse she keep it a secret for years.

“He was the man who would say ‘God is good’ and the church would respond ‘all the time’ and vice versa, every weekend,” Westbrook said.

Hillcrest Southern Baptist Church in Austin. Brittany Mendez/Reporting Texas

It wasn’t until Westbrook was 19 years old and another young woman came forward with allegations of abuse against the same man that Westbrook says she felt comfortable sharing her story.

When she was 22 years old, Westbrook was diagnosed with PTSD. The same year, she realized that attending church triggered the disorder, and she decided to take a break from organized religion.

“I was so angry at these people who claimed to be God’s people,” Westbrook said.

Westbrook moved to Austin in March 2016. She started attending church again a few months later at Hillcrest Baptist Church in North Austin. The years away from church helped her process the abuse she suffered, she says.

In February 2019, the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News released a report that concluded 700 victims of sexual assault from within the Southern Baptist Convention have come forward with abuse claims during the last 20 years. According to the report, many of those accused have not met justice, and some still work in churches.

When Westbrook read the report, she felt relief, gratitude and a bit of impatience, she says.

“Even some of those statistics were astounding and shocking, but I also wanted to welcome everyone to this world,” Westbrook said. “It’s been this way for thousands of years.”

A week after the report was released, Westbrook was asked to participate at a panel called “When #MeToo Comes to Church,” at Hillcrest Baptist.

From the left, Hillcrest Baptist Pastor Tom Goodman, Anna Westbrook and Hillcrest Children’s Minister Karen Oden discuss how to support survivors of  sexual abuse during a panel discussion on Feb. 17. The panelists addressed a report published by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News regarding sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention. Brittany Mendez/Reporting Texas

During the panel, Westbrook told several dozen people her personal story of abuse and what steps audience members could take when confronting sexual abuse — including being open to believing survivors’ stories, letting victims know the abuse is not their fault and reporting the alleged abuse to the appropriate authorities.

“It was just really wonderful seeing Anna put her story out there, making it known to the public, and saying, ‘Hey, this happened to me and I’m a survivor, it happens to many people, and here’s what we can do to help others,’” said Karen Oden, Westbrook’s friend since middle school and youth minister at Hillcrest Baptist Church.

Oden has served as the music director for “Isabel and the Runaway Train.” In the musical, she says, it takes a long time for the main character to understand what happened to her and talk to her parents about her abuse.

“When Isabel finally talks to her parents for the first time, it’s heartbreaking to watch, but it’s a good example of how parents can talk to their children,” Oden said. “My biggest hope is that people open up the conversation.”

Hillcrest Baptist Church Pastor Tom Goodman said he knew church members wanted to talk about sexual abuse, but he wasn’t sure the best way to bring up such an uncomfortable issue.

“To be able to talk with a survivor, that was important, and I’m glad we had that resource,” Goodman said. “Knowing that we had that resource and Anna is what gave us the opportunity to create the event as we did.”

Westbrook says she is happy she was invited to share her story at Hillcrest Baptist, and she hopes that she can continue to help open up the conversation about childhood sexual abuse with “Isabel and the Runaway Train” and the musical’s accompanying workshops.

“We like to go to big events and hear someone important say something dramatic … but it’s hard to talk about these things with friends and family,” Westbrook said.