Keeping secrets usually becomes second nature to children by the time they’re tall enough to reach the forbidden cookie jar on the counter, but for one little girl in South Africa, keeping a secret was a life-or-death matter.
Ilonka Deaton is a singer, author of two books and worship leader at Franklin First United Methodist Church. She spends her time with her husband and children, bearing strength and confidence in her Christian faith, but life wasn’t always this way.
Growing up just outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, Deaton always had a passion for singing, and one day she entered a national music competition — and won. At 12 years old, she signed a record deal and toured around with her single mom and her manager, performing music and living the up-and-coming-popstar dream.
That is, until just before her 13th birthday.
About a year after the competition, her mother’s job conflicted with her rehearsal, so her manager, who had become a trusted family friend, gave her a ride. In her autobiography, Deaton describes the following events in vivid, violent flashes.
“Disappointment, fright, deflation, I felt too much too soon, and with such intensity, it confused me,” she writes. “With strength and force, he silenced me by placing his one hand over my mouth and with the other forcing me to a nearby table. Then he did the unthinkable, something that no child should ever experience.”
Deaton’s manager raped her, a child who hadn’t even turned 13 years old. He told her he did it because he loved her, and he threatened to kill her mother and her if she uttered a word — “This will be our little secret. … People won’t understand.”
Over the next five years, Deaton’s manager traded her around the music industry, selling her for sex. He told her, if she played along, her career would do better, and if she spoke up, her mother could pay the ultimate price.
She became a padlocked safe for the unthinkable, later yielding the name of her book: “Keeping Secrets.”
It wasn’t until she was 17, trapped in her dressing room with her manager, that he was finally caught in the act by a police officer, and she was rescued.
At least, physically.
Her mind continued to spin for years with the heavy thoughts and emotions that followed from her experiences: confusion, depression, anxiety.
She and her mother moved to Nashville when she was 19. Her mother had gotten a teaching job, and even though more than 8,500 miles separated Deaton from her abuser, she continued to live in silence. She attempted suicide at 25.
“Those are the kind of things that follow any person who has gone through any kind of sexual abuse in their life,” she said. “It was three months after my suicide attempt that I was invited to Christ Community Church here in Franklin, Tennessee.”
At Christ Community Church, she heard the preacher talk about “a man named Jesus, who loves broken people.” She thought, “I’d love to know that guy. I’d love to know that Jesus.”
Deaton said, though she grew up in church, the legalistic Christianity she was taught painted a very different picture of God than the one this preacher spoke about.
“I didn’t think that Jesus himself could care less about my everyday life,” she said. “I thought God was just the eye in the sky, watching over me from up there.”
She explained her early church experiences were ones of condemnation, guilt, and shame — things she said victims of trauma were prone to already.
“Your mind kind of gets into such a deep survival state that you think that you condoned (abuse) in the first place, but you didn’t. It’s extremely confusing,” Deaton said, explaining that, while an outsider might blame the abuser, victims often can’t immediately look at the situation from a healthy perspective and are quick to blame themselves.
“You are going to internalize it and think, ‘What did I do? Is it my fault?’ And the shame and guilt just starts spilling over you. And then, if you have someone on the outside of you externally saying, ‘You wanted this. You’re nothing. You’re not worth anything you think you are,’ and breaks you down further, it only compounds that issue.”
She said it took years of therapy to work through those thoughts, and recovery was not easy.
When Deaton was at a low point, she prayed a simple prayer: “If you are who you say you are, please help me.” She describes in her book feeling joy for the first time in a while: “There were birds singing in rhythm. I couldn’t remember the last time I had heard birds sing. I felt light and joyous, like I was 10 years old.”
However, she said walking through healing is uncomfortable and scary, even with those moments of joy. She described it like walking through a tunnel of fire — the flames never touched her, but the threat was fearsome, and she didn’t know what would be on the other side.
“You know how the discomfort feels, and you’ve become comfortable with the discomfort that you’ve lived in, but you don’t know what it feels like if it’s going to change,” she said.
As Deaton walked through therapy, she said she needed someone who wouldn’t judge her and loved her no matter what, and for her, Jesus was that person. She recalled one exciting moment when she realized she could talk to God about anything, even the details of her day.
“I’ll never forget the day I told the Lord, ‘Man, I really like coffee with cream. I’m so grateful for you giving this plant on earth so that I can make this, because I really enjoy it,’” she said. “It transformed my relationship with Jesus, because he became a friend.”
She said she has come to realize that the ideas she learned in church growing up, that one needed to work to gain God’s favor, were wrong. He always loves her.
Deaton encouraged anyone who has experienced trauma or difficult times, in their moments of desperation, to ask God for help.
“What do you have to lose to give him a chance?” she asked.
Her autobiography, “Keeping Secrets: One Woman’s Story from Sexual Slavery to Freedom” can be found on Amazon, along with her second workbook-style publication designed for women working through their own struggles, “Sacred Freedom: How to Fly Again and Gain Freedom from Keeping Secrets.”
Deaton leads worship at Franklin First United Methodist Church about every other week. Her next services are Sunday, Oct. 20 at 8:45 a.m. and 11:15 a.m.
For a list of free resources for those seeking healing from any kind of trauma, visit her website at ilonkaministries.com.