Writer Cynthia Verna | Photography Richard Lecoin
Cynthia “Chef Thia” Verna is a social media celebrity, award-winning chef, best-selling author, national television show host, and in her most powerful role, an advocate for survivors of sexual assault. Her rapist became the father of her beloved first child, but she’s found her way to personal redemption through spiritually, and food.
I was raped. I’m grateful to God that I don’t remember much of it, because I was drugged first. I was at my job as a cook in one of those fancy hotels in Haiti, and we were sitting by the counter. He gave me a glass of water and after that, I don’t know. I blacked out, and woke up the next day feeling weird, with blood in my underwear. I called my mom right away and told her I was pregnant.
I was about 19 at the time. They never educated us about sex in Haiti, and we didn’t talk about that with family members back then, so in my mind, it was automatic. If you have sex, you became pregnant. It turned out, I was right. I was the first one in my whole family to have a baby without being married.
It wasn’t an easy decision, whether to keep him or not. My faith in God was always strong. All my grandmother ever did was pray, so I thought, “if I have an abortion, it’s a sin.” But you have to face the family, and you have to face that people are looking at you like – she’s a slut. I was back and forth about the decision constantly. Then fear, guilt, and pain in my heart told me not to terminate the pregnancy. I guess you could say that my religion saved my son.
My mom didn’t judge me. She said whatever I was going to do was my choice. When I told my father I was pregnant, he asked if I knew who had done it to me. I told him what happened, and there was no response. I expected him to beat me or to get angry, like I was feeling. I wanted him to have a reaction, but he didn’t. I knew my father loved me, and I know Caribbean fathers don’t really express emotion. But the fact that he didn’t show any at all, it hurt me, so deeply. After my son was born, my dad wrote me a very long letter telling me how disappointed he was.
I blamed myself for the rape, for years. Many times since then, I’ve tried to take my life, but I was never able to go through with it.
Cooking, Dancing and Praying Helped Me Heal
With my son, Alexandre, just a baby, I went to work in a restaurant. I left him with a nanny while I worked, but came to believe that she was doing things to make him sick, so I left that restaurant and opened my own. I was 21 and Alexandre was about nine months old then. Opening my restaurant, Atelier Le Bamboos (Art Gallery in the Bamboo), allowed me to always have him with me and keep an eye on him.
Even before I met him, I felt like I had failed him. The bitterness didn’t start when I was raped, because I didn’t understand what had happened to me. But the older I got, the more I understood the tragedy and the magnitude of that incident, the more I would hate myself. I developed an almost crippling fear because of my own assault, and I became overprotective. I didn’t even trust Alexandre to be left alone with the man I married, the father of my first daughter, Thaïs. Lack of trust was a huge issue in our relationship, and was probably part of the reason we got divorced.
My first husband was about 17 years older than me. He became that father figure to me, and to my son. He’s the one that pushed me to go to cooking school. I had been cooking professionally since I was a child, but never went for formal schooling until he encouraged me to.
I later married a younger man and had a second, beautiful daughter, Enya. After my divorce from him, and more disappointment and heartache than anyone should have to live with, I felt that the world looked at me as a failure. I felt humiliated, again. People see me as this strong person. What many people don’t understand, is that I believe surviving the pain and struggle is what gave me the greatest strength.
It was cooking, dancing and praying that helped me heal. I would do those three things for hours at various points in my life, and would never get tired.
Cooking was like therapy for me. I would actually look at the meat and talk to myself, like I was recording myself teaching me how to cook. Cynthia was listening to Chef Thia. I separate the two in my mind. People would think I’m crazy… but I’m not crazy.
When I’m cooking, when I’m Chef Thia, I’m stronger. I feel like I’m in charge, more powerful, more confident. When I don’t have any food around me, I feel naked. That’s when Cynthia, who is really shy, comes out, and I start doubting myself. Sometimes when there are too many people around and I start getting self conscious, I offer to cook something so I can calm down.
Out of Darkness Came Light
My son is a blessing. Every time I look at him, I can see how strong I am. If I had listened to family, he wouldn’t be here. But I followed my heart. He’s 21 now, and every time I look at him I have this big joy, this big space lighting up my whole heart.
I’ve been very strict with all three of my kids. When my son was 18 and had just graduated, he asked, “Why is it that you are so hard on me?” I had told my son his father wasn’t his biological father when he was nine years old. But he never knew anything more than that.
So I told him about how he was conceived. He’s a calm kid, like an old soul, my son. His reaction was to feel pain on my behalf, you know? Like, “Wow! My mom had to go through that?” He hugged me, he cried. He told me it was okay, and that he was proud of me.
This kid is a gift from God. He’s the one who taught me to be calm, to have faith in myself, and not care what people say. He was right next to me when I called my older daughter to tell her about it too, and her reaction was, “I respect you, Mom, for being able to tell us that.”
I wouldn’t have written my autobiography, Ordeals, without Alexandre’s permission. He pushed me to do it. He’s the reason I started speaking out about rape. He said, “I think it’s a good idea for you to let mothers know that they don’t NEED to have an abortion because they were raped. It’s not that child’s fault.”
We can’t protect our kids 24/7, no matter how much we want to keep them from the bad things in this world. For my kids, all I can tell them is to be strong, to keep the faith that I planted in them, and go back to it when they need to, like I did.
It’s my wish for my children to find things that they are passionate about, and to never stop living.
Read Cynthia “Chef Thia” Verna’s entire story in her 2015 autobiography, ‘Ordeals’, available on Amazon.