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The name Gucci conjures a picture in the mind. Jet-setters, celebrities, artists and models living their best lives. The projection of wealth, status and success. All derived from the perceived life experience of the brand’s original creators, the Gucci family.

The movie “House of Gucci” depicts the family as glamorous Italian socialites living fantasy lifestyles beyond the comprehension of most mortals. But it only scratches the surface. There’s another dark side to the family the movie doesn’t cover. I know, because I’m living it.

I am the granddaughter of Aldo Gucci, the family patriarch portrayed by Al Pacino. For 15 years, my sister and I were sexually abused by our stepfather, Joseph Ruffalo.

My mother enabled my abuser

For me, it started when I was six and continued until I was 22. To protect the family name, I am convinced my mother, Patricia Gucci, colluded with him to conceal it. Unsurprisingly, Ruffalo has denied the abuse ever occurred and my mother and grandmother deny having known about it. I believe Ruffalo has tried to stop me from speaking my truth by pressuring my mother and grandmother, in hopes that I will drop a pending lawsuit against him and my family.

“If this suit moves forward, and it will if something is not done to stop it, damage will extend, beyond the obvious, and issues could arise that would seriously affect your entire estate,” Ruffalo wrote in a 2020 email to my mother and grandmother. “There is a tax issue you may feel free from, but it is definitely not the case.”

Alexandra Zarini in Los Angeles, Calif., in August, 2020.
Alexandra Zarini in Los Angeles, Calif., in August, 2020.

I always suspected Ruffalo was holding something over my mother in exchange for her silence. Her father, Aldo Gucci, went to prison for tax evasion. It has become clear to me that her fear of facing the same fate may have guided her decision to stay quiet.

I will not be silenced. I will not live another day in shame. I will not live in fear because of what my stepfather did to me. I will no longer be controlled by my family. And I will no longer worry about the reputations that will suffer by exposing the facts about my abuse.

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I am also not alone. Far too many families conceal or ignore child sex abuse. Darkness to Light estimates that 1-in-10 children will be sexually abused before his or her 18th birthday.

And 91% of child sexual abuse is conducted by someone known either to the child or the child’s family. It exists in every community in every state across America – and in every country around the world. No one wants to admit it when it happens within their family. Yet that’s precisely when families must step forward, and speak out.

When we pretend it doesn’t happen, or worse, seek to cover it up, we give abusers exactly what they want – license to do it again. Violence against children, in all its forms, must be confronted and their abusers held accountable, regardless of how difficult or painful the experience may be, to protect those who cannot protect themselves.

Coming together to fight sexual abuse

There’s reason to be hopeful. Thursday marks the first-ever World Day for Prevention, Healing and Justice to End Sexual Violence Against Children and Adolescents. It’s the work of the Keep Kids Safe Movement, led by nine child safety organizations committed to the cause. This is a moment that cannot be lost in the fight to rid the world of this plague.

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The stigma of child sexual abuse must end. It will take all of us – parents, teachers, bystanders – to recognize the warning signs, and take action when we see or hear something that troubles us. It starts with a willingness to have an open and honest conversation about the topic. If we stay quiet, abusers win. We must make the protection of children a priority and break the silence. There’s hope for all survivors of child sexual abuse. I am living proof of it.

Alexandra Zarini is the founder of the Gucci Children’s Foundation, an advocacy group committed to ending child sexual abuse.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Child sexual abuse: ‘House of Gucci’ reality is darker than the movie


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