Tarana Burke Recalls Seeing Man Who Raped Her As a Girl — How Her Mom Helped Her Realize She'd 'Won'

Tarana Burke, the founder of the Me Too movement, talks to PEOPLE about her new memoir Unbound

Tarana Burke
Tarana Burke. Photo: Jamie McCarthy/WireImage

Fifteen years ago, activist Tarana Burke was at the annual Father's Day party in her old neighborhood in the Bronx when she saw the man who raped her when she was 7 years old.

As his gaze went past her, Burke realized her rapist didn't recognize her.

"I don't know that I've felt that kind of rage ever," Burke, whose memoir, Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement, was published on Tuesday, tells PEOPLE. "It's hard to explain what it felt like to see somebody [when it] felt like they'd ruined my life."

Burke, now 48, remembers thinking, "You don't even know me. How dare you not know me? I've thought about you nearly every day since I was seven and you have the luxury of looking right through me. It's just not fair."

Her mother — who didn't learn about the sexual abuse Burke experienced until she founded the Me Too movement in 2006 — showed up for her. (When Burke was a child, she feared telling her mom about the abuse because she believed her stepdad would go after her rapist and end up in jail.)

In the cab ride back to her mother's house, Burke wondered if the man didn't recognize her because it'd been years since they'd last seen each other.

Not so, her mother said. According to Burke's memoir, she told her daughter, "No, he didn't recognize you because you turned out to be a smart, beautiful, accomplished woman despite him trying to take that from you."

Tarana Burke memoir
Tarana Burke's memoir cover. Flatiron Books

Her mother's support transformed that awful experience into "one of the top five moments" of her life, Burke tells PEOPLE.

"My mom comes from the era of tough love, of, 'All right, kids, suck it up. It's going to be all right,' " she explains. "And she didn't do that in that moment. She just gave me everything I needed."

With her mom's help, Burke says she realized, "This man is not important. He is inconsequential."

She recognized that she'd "won," Burke wrote in her memoir.

This is just one of the many powerful — and harrowing — memories that Burke recounts in her new book. For years, Burke kept quiet about the multiple abuses she experienced as a child and young women. But now — four years after the movement she formed to support survivors went viral — Burke is ready to share her story.

"Shame cannot withstand community. It cannot withstand numbers. That's the power of Me Too," Burke tells PEOPLE. "Me Too is really, first and foremost, for us. It's for us to see each other."

"I saw the power in being in a room full of people and having somebody tell their story," she continues. "The moment somebody says, 'Oh my God, that happened to me too,' you feel a sigh of relief, you unclench your jaw, you relax a little bit, because you feel seen and you're not alone."

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While the Me Too movement has sparked important national conversations, Burke says more work needs to be done so that Black women, girls, trans and gender-nonconforming survivors are also heard.

"I say this in the book, and I say it often," she says, "that sexual violence doesn't discriminate, but the response to it does."

While Unbound grapples with these larger issues, it's also a deeply personal story that Burke's mother plays a central role in. She's complex, smart and, most of all, a fierce "defender of her children," Burke tells PEOPLE.

"I wanted to humanize parenting to some degree, and show just how difficult it is," says Burke, who shares in Unbound that her own child is also a sexual abuse survivor. "We don't talk enough about how difficult it is for parents of survivors of child sexual abuse. That's a difficult, difficult place to be."

After Burke's mom read her book, she sent her a handwritten note. It read, in part: "I can only describe you with one word and that's courage."

For more information about Burke's foundations, visit metoomvmt.org and acttoo.metoomvmt.org and, for the initiative she launched with National Women's Law Center and TIME'S UP Foundation, visit We, As Ourselves.

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