SALT LAKE CITY — It took time for the women of The 5 Browns to come to grips with the sexual abuse they experienced as children.
It took growing up, leaving home and heading to The Juilliard School, coming into their own and learning more about who they are.
Only then did the wrongness of what had happened really hit them.
"For the average person who has survived things like this, it's an average of 14 years before they can come to terms with what happened and be able to talk about it and can be able to start moving past the things that have happened before," Deondra Brown said Wednesday. "You have to be able to have the luxury of that time to be able to heal. You can't be on a strict time schedule."
There's tremendous pressure in the home to keep things quiet and so I think a victim needs that distance of time and sometimes physical distance to be able to come to terms with what happened.
She described that time away from home as a "big awakening" that allowed her and her sisters to "dig through that back closet" to the abuse from years ago. Desirae Brown added that most of the time, 80 percent to be exact, children who are abused are abused by parents and stepparents.
"There's tremendous pressure in the home to keep things quiet and so I think a victim needs that distance of time and sometimes physical distance to be able to come to terms with what happened," she said.
Per legislation that passed in 2008, Utah law allowed Deondra, Desirae and their sister Melody to bring charges against their father for abuse spanning 1990 to 1998, at times when the sisters were under the age of 13.
In March 5, 2010, Lone Peak police began investigating Keith Brown, father to the musically prodigious siblings, including brothers Ryan and Gregory. At the conclusion of their investigation, Lone Peak police recommended 600 counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child against Brown for abuse suffered by one of his daughters. The recommended number of counts for the other daughters on all other charges, including object rape and forcible sexual abuse, is unknown.
Brown, 55, struck a deal with prosecutors, agreeing to plead guilty to sodomy on a child, a first-degree felony, for which he received a sentence of 10 years to life in prison. He also was sentenced to one to 15 years in prison for each of two counts of sex abuse of a child, a second-degree felony. He was ordered to serve the sentences concurrently.
There is no statute of limitations in Utah on when child sexual abuse cases can be filed, a law which allowed for the Browns' case to move forward.
Moving forward, helping others
Now, Deondra and Desirae say they are on the "ground floor" of the issue, working with senators and other lawmakers to see that similar laws are passed on a federal level to protect children in every state. That way, Deondra Brown said, the time it can take to understand and face the abuse would not mean a perpetrator goes free.
"A lot of times, you're still as a child in that home environment, and so it's difficult to do what needs to be done in order to put these criminals away," she said. "We're kind of fighting for rights of children and rights of adults to be able to heal in their own timeframe and not having people tell them how long or short they should have."
The foundation they've started, the Foundation for Survivors of Abuse, has already helped them connect with others who have had similar experiences and have concerns and interests about the laws. But while the Browns have been lauded for taking a stance and being willing to tell their story in such public forums, they say the abuse can divide families.
"I think that's something that survivors should expect rather than be surprised by," Desirae Brown said of the divide. "It's not going to make it any less hurtful and so I think people feel like there's a sense of: 'We need to hear both sides of the story.'
"There are not two sides to this story. There's only one and that's the survivor."
Deondra said she feels an urgency to see these laws passed to protect others, especially as she is a mother. It begs the question of where Lisa Brown, the Browns' mother, is in all of this, but the sisters have declined to take questions about her.
They said that they have found an incredible amount of strength in each other, in their faith and in the support of those family members and friends who have stood by them, including their husbands. Desirae came close to tears when speaking of her two brothers, Gregory and Ryan.
"What has been beautiful in all this are the people who do support you, like my brothers who have been amazingly supportive and have made this process so much better," she said. "To see their support and to see them standing up for what they know is right, it's really meant the world to us."
Back on stage
Getting back on the stage with their brothers and sisters was an important part of the healing process, Deondra said. She said it is there where she again felt comfortable. But Desirae said she initially worried about how people would react to their story and experience.
"We didn't know if people would still want to hear us playing music," she said. "We didn't know if we'd still have a career. But in order to not let all that overwhelm us, we boiled it down to what was the right thing to do.
"And when it comes down to what was the right things to do — let this person go free or protect other people — it didn't matter what any other consequences would be."
We definitely bring our experiences to our music. If anything, being more honest with who we are, with our past, with facing the future, I feel like our music is more authentic and we're playing more honestly in a way that we maybe didn't before.
The music played by The 5 Browns has always been stunning — five separate pianos, backed by five separate siblings playing intricate pieces in perfect time and harmony. But now, Desirae said there might be something more stirring to it.
"We definitely bring our experiences to our music," she said. "If anything, being more honest with who we are, with our past, with facing the future, I feel like our music is more authentic and we're playing more honestly in a way that we maybe didn't before. We're able to fully express certain emotions and feelings that we didn't before."
Neither Desirae nor Deondra refer to themselves as victims. Not once in an entire interview did they use any word other than "survivor."
"One of the things that is most taken away from you as a victim is your sense of self and the control and empowerment that you have in your own life, so, for us, victim has that connotation," Deondra Brown said. "A survivor is someone who's overcome, who has battled, who has moved past and who is moving forward in their lives."
The sisters have watched other survivors of abuse — Elizabeth Smart in particular — come forward with confidence to see their abusers prosecuted and imprisoned. Deondra said she was "amazed" by Smart.
"It was amazing for us to see how she went through that most grueling process and come out ahead," she said, adding that she and her sister hope to make a positive change in the world by speaking about their experience. "We don't feel like the abuse defines who we are. We don't feel like it determines the choices that we make anymore."
The sisters themselves are incredibly strong, composed and confident. They say they still experience good days and bad days. It helped to see their father be brought to justice and helps to tell their story, confront it, share it — and some day get it behind them.
"The truth is powerful and that's a step," Desirae said.
"Even though it's grueling, it's powerful. And then, having my father put in prison. I've done something to make the world safer. I've done something to protect somebody else. I did the right thing."