By Deborah Pugh
Dusty Steele’s childhood innocence was shattered by sexual abuse, even incest. For decades it haunted and crippled her. But now, by God’s grace, it drives her to make a difference.
Steele’s nightmare began at age 8, a few years after her parents divorced. “My Daddy was obsessed with pornography,” she says. Around age 13 she discovered two peepholes in his bathroom. By then she had become adept at being the designated driver and pretending to be asleep in her room.
“Mother had remarried, and my stepfather was really strict,” Steele says. “I would stay with my Daddy because I could get away with a lot more.”
She saw and did things no child should know. “He drank a fifth of vodka every day, and he had drunks over constantly,” she says. “They would make crude remarks and grope me. One of his friends molested me for about a year. By this point, I had accepted this must be the norm.”
Unfortunately, the abuse went beyond her Daddy and his friends. Once an older relative locked her in his camper overnight and raped her repeatedly. Another molested her after she ran away from home. “I think he thought no one would believe anything I said because I had been in so much trouble,” she says.
That trouble—fighting, bringing liquor to school—got her expelled from seventh grade. “I wrote a paper for English class about a girl being sexually abused by her best friend’s Dad,” she says. “Nobody recognized the signs. I was labeled as a troublemaker, a bad kid. Even close friends’ parents refused to let their child associate with me. I felt so alone.”
By eighth grade, a suicide attempt landed her in the hospital. She says, “I remember crying out to a God I didn’t know. I didn’t know God, but I knew there had to be something better.”
Despite the setbacks, Steele graduated from high school and college and became a registered nurse. In her early 20s, she met a young man at church hoping that marrying him would make her good enough finally. “He was very emotionally abusive. He isolated me from most of my family, but my mother called and got through to me. I left him with nothing but the clothes on my back.”
She attempted suicide again, this time in traffic. “I thought if God has forsaken me,” she says, “why even live?” An ambulance took her to a hospital in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, and someone called a tow service for her car.
The tow service owner and his wife tracked her down at the hospital and prayed with her. The next day, they came back and brought her necessities so she could get back to Mississippi.
Returning home was a lonesome, confusing journey. Steele’s own mother did not know about the abuse because she had never told her. “Questions cluttered my mind,” she says. She felt lost and embarrassed.
She returned to nursing. In 2006 she married, and in 2009 gave birth to a son. “After having Knox, God’s love finally made sense.”
But four miscarriages later, she sank into a deep depression. “Being a mother is the one thing I’m really good at,” she says. “I couldn’t understand why God would take that away from me.”
Her first day back at work after the last miscarriage, she took care of a young mother who had also had a miscarriage. She says. “I sat on her bed and cried with her. Now when I have a patient who has lost a child to miscarriage or stillbirth, I understand their pain and they know that.”
She and Knox’s father divorced in 2014, and three years ago she married Sammy Steele. “Before I married Sammy, I laid everything out on the table—the childhood sexual abuse, the rape, and everything else. I think I was giving him time to run away while he had the chance,” she says. “I just couldn’t wrap my mind around how Sammy could love a broken girl, like me.”
Around 2014, Steele felt compelled to share her story in the hope it would help other victims. “I poured myself into getting my story out there,” she says.
She searched online, placed calls and sent emails looking for outlets. She joined the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, which connects survivors with opportunities to share their stories. She speaks for Turning Point Services in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and has been a guest on the “Stop Child Abuse Now” radio show. In April she participated in the International Association of Forensic Nursing’s Leadership Training and Lobby Day in Washington, D.C.
To help fund travel expenses, and as both a creative outlet and a ministry, Steele recently launched “Dusty Roses,” a craft endeavor that creates beauty from discarded items. She often gives pieces to victims or grieving mothers. “The ones at the end of their rope, I want them to know there is hope. There is healing in Jesus Christ,” she says. “I knew God had a calling for my life. He opened doors for me, and I was able to begin telling my story. My past, which I believed had crippled me, would somehow display a purpose.”
Deborah Roberts Pugh lives in Tupelo with her husband, Larry. They have two grown daughters and attend First Baptist Church