Tracy Ross Story: Mother, Daughter and Stepfather Confront Sexual Molestation for First Time

PHOTO: Tracy Ross stepfather DonniePlayABC News
WATCH Family Confronts Molestation Past

A mother, a daughter and the stepfather who molested her as a child made a remarkable decision to discuss their family's three-decade-old secret fully for the first time on camera.

In a recent interview with "Nightline," Tracy Ross, her mother Doris and her stepfather Donnie sat down in Nederton, Colo., for their first interview together to address finally the betrayal that nearly destroyed their family. Ross's parents' last names were requested to be withheld to protect their privacy.

Tracy Ross, the senior editor of Backpacker Magazine, wrote a book about her harrowing childhood called, "The Source of All Things: A Memoir," released last month.

"The whole thing has been a revelation for me," she said.

Now 40, Ross was just 8 years old when the man she calls Dad, now 68, first molested her during a family camping trip in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains. The molestation continued off and on throughout her adolescence.

"I asked myself, you know, how could I do this and cause all that pain," he said. "It's a terrible thing to have to own up to, to recognize and to go forward and try to solve it and try to get over and get through it."

Donnie and his daughter have been working hard to find a way forward. Donnie said he would do just about anything for Ross's forgiveness.

"I don't know another perpetrator who is doing what he was doing, I really don't," she said. "Who's engaged in this dialogue and saying, 'look, here I am. I am every guy possibly. Not the ogre, scary guy, and look what I was capable of doing?'"

Ross said she spent years angry and depressed, acting out sexually and experimenting with hard drugs. It was only after she became a wife and mother of two that she was overwhelmed with a need for answers from her father. She was ready to confront him. In 2007, she asked him to accompany her on a hike back into the Sawtooth Mountains to the campsite where the first incident happened.

While on that hike, Donnie confessed to Ross that he had molested her between "25 and 50 times" -- many more times than she had remembered.

"I told her that I'd be as truthful on things that she wanted to know about that I didn't, that she didn't know about," he said.

He told her that he sometimes "drugged" her while she slept. Ross believes this might explain her inability to recall each instance clearly.

"He would use my mom's sleeping pills to take me out of the equation, in a way," Ross said. "To knock me out so I, that he could, or so that he felt not traumatize me more."

"The Source of All Things," by Tracy Ross

Courtesy Free Press

Although Ross told her mother, Doris, what her father did immediately, she said her mother has struggled to face it for all these years.

"I just was oblivious," Doris said.

While Ross has been outspoken about forgiving her father, and even applauds his bravery for joining her in talking about the molestation, she said she is still "working on" forgiving her mother, who remains married to Donnie to this day.

"I'm very angry with myself and thinking 'where were you?'" Ross's mother said through tears. "Unbelievable shame at what, I didn't take care of my daughter."

Tracy Ross on Telling Her Story: 'It Breaks the Silence'

Ross's biological father died when she was 7 months old, plunging her mother into depression. She was 4 years old when her stepfather came into their lives and at the time he seemed, to the family, a knight in shining armor.

"He swept me up immediately into fun and adventure," Ross said of her father. "He had knowledge and ability to ski and hike and do all of these things that as a kid I loved. I loved being outdoors and he brought this effusive light into our lives. He definitely saved our family."

But the man she trusted most also became the person who hurt her the most. She reflected on that night when he first molested her during the camping trip.

"I just remember waking up and feeling like I was suffocating and the feeling of hands like sand-pappery hands on my body, in places that they shouldn't have been," Ross said.

The next day she told her mother what had happened, but said her mother did nothing to address the abuse.

"She did not help," Ross said. "She called my dad in. They told me that I had had a scary dream."

For years after the first incident, Ross said her life at home was dark and the molestation worsened.

"At some point when I enter puberty, my dad started stumbling in on me when I was in the bathtub or I would feel him outside my window with the blinds cracked open, watching," she said. "Then he would come into my room and molest me."

Ross said she at first tried to put on a good face, but she felt as if she was living in hell. When she was 14, she ran away to a friend's house.

"I knew in my heart that if I didn't do something that it was going to cross the line into rape, so I waited until my dad went to bed and I got up and ran away," she said.

Her father formally admitted to molesting her, but then in private told his wife that he was only admitting to it to reunite their family.

"I felt abandonment again," Doris said. "I felt I just basically didn't know what to do. I was just, I was terrified. I was traumatized. I was, I mean, I thought I don't want to make, those are not excuses."

Since the release of her daughter's book, "The Source of All Things," Doris said that now she is committed to dealing with what happened to the family years ago.

"The blinders have come off," Doris said. "They've come off, and I didn't stand up for her, at that time. But I am standing up for her right now."

Ross said that through sharing her story and its message of forgiveness, she has found a way to move forward. She hopes her book will inspire others to confront their pain.

"I feel like I'm an example of somebody who can go on and live a happy life and live a successful life because I faced the dark stuff of the past," Ross said. "It breaks the silence."

Donnie said he understood the personal struggle his daughter went through. He was also molested by a family member as a young boy.

"I justified in my own mind that what I was doing was OK," he said. "I knew that it was wrong, but I justified it was correct. And that's why I did what I did."

Ross's parents said they agreed to talk about their family's secret openly because they want so badly to make things right with their daughter and they also want to be involved grandparents to Ross's two sons and a baby girl on the way.

They realize they have work to do before Ross will feel comfortable leaving her kids alone with their grandfather. But Ross knows better than anyone that this is a work-in-progress.

"For me, forgiveness is a continuum," Ross said. "When I say it 'ebbs and flows,' there are days when I don't want anything to do with my parents, and there are days when I say, 'look how hard they are trying to make this right.'"