There is a survivor I know. Just a little, but enough to understand that she is sensitive, courageous and outspoken about what she has been through – and what she is still going through. Her candor is rare and powerful, and so is she. I’ll call this person Audrey – a name that means “noble strength.” Audrey was sexually abused as a child. Like so many of us, her innocence was stolen and her sense of self was shaken by the twisted actions of a person she should have been able to trust.
I knew Audrey was hurting and I reached out to her privately. She explained to me that she had discovered a disturbing fact about her family. There were extended family members who were friendly with her abuser because, Audrey had assumed, they didn’t know this history. But she had just learned that they were fully aware this man had abused her as a child. As they explained to Audrey, they had chosen “to forgive him” for what he had done to her. She was wounded and outraged.
She asked me why. “Why are people like this?”
“Because they are weak,” I told her. It felt like the right answer at that moment, and I meant it. But I woke up that night and thought about how much more I could have said in answer to Audrey’s question. I thought about why people excuse or “forgive” sexual abusers, why they often shut victims down, and why they frequently side with sexual abuse perpetrators instead of their victims. In my own life, I have watched family members go from acknowledgment of my abuser’s crimes to avoidance of the subject and finally an obvious allegiance and preference for him over me. These types of family reactions are backwards, they create a secondary injustice, and the hurt continues because, unlike the actual abuse, it has no end. Audrey’s question was a good one.
Here are some of the answers I came up with:
They avoid the truth about the abuse because it’s uncomfortable.
They need to believe a different version of reality: a neater, nicer story.
They were culpable in some way.
They were abused themselves.
They are also abusers.
They choose to align themselves with power.
They get something from the abuser that they don’t want to lose.
They are afraid of the perpetrator.
It’s easier to blame the victim than address the truth.
They don’t get it.
They are not as strong as we are.
There are many answers, I suppose, but every one is simply inadequate. Victims deserve protection, empathy and love. Their voices should be heard and respected. Survivors’ needs and perspective should be honored over their abusers’. Today and always.
Audrey’s question still haunts me, and I think that’s appropriate. The tragic aftermath of sexual abuse should haunt all of us until we speak up or do something to support survivors – instead of enabling abusers and ignoring their crimes.
Audrey knows that she deserves better. She gets it. But sometimes getting it just hurts too much, especially when certain people in our lives never will.
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I will always have deep and lasting scars. Underneath those scars, however, my wounds have been healing for a long time. With decades of hard work in psychotherapy, a solid support system of friends and extended family, and the unconditional love of my husband and children, I feel whole. I am okay. Better than that, I have created a life that fulfills and sustains me and brings many joys.
There is more to my story though, and this part does not have a happy ending. It’s about my family of origin. Over the past two decades, I tried to maintain relationships with my family members, while remaining loyal to myself and honoring the truth about the abuse. Sadly, I have found this to be an impossible goal. Throughout this long struggle, I have felt ignored, shamed, blamed, ostracized and – ultimately – utterly betrayed. Like the sexual abuse itself, my family’s behavior has left me wounded and scarred. Unlike the abuse, it has never ended.
When I first came to terms with the fact that I had been sexually abused as a child, I was actually eager to tell my mother and siblings (my father was already suffering from Alzheimer’s and died a few years later). I assumed they would sympathize with my pain and offer their support as I faced my traumatic past. Although I had spent my whole life trying to make my voice heard, I was confident that this news would change everything and they would finally realize that I deserved more empathy and respect.
I was in my early twenties and a couple of years into therapy when I revealed that my older brother had raped and sodomized me for a period of years during my childhood starting when I was about seven years old. Examining these events with my therapist, I had begun to understand how my brother’s violations had instilled a deep shame in me, and how my sense of self had been damaged. While I had never forgotten these events, it was a relief to pry open this previously locked door from my past, shine a light on my trauma and discover the origins of my sadness and insecurity. Now that I had begun to face the truth, I was confident that my family would join me on the difficult journey toward healing, change and (hopefully) forgiveness.
They said all the right things at first. They did not doubt my story and my brother even admitted to the abuse. He wrote to tell me that he was sorry. But in an old, familiar way, his apology felt empty somehow. Furthermore, I was disturbed by his apparent lack of interest in my feelings. I pushed for more. I wanted my brother to explore the reasons that he perpetrated these acts as a child, including the source of his aberrant behaviors. Had he been abused too – and if so, by whom?
I hoped my family members would want to learn about the destructive effects of the abuse on my life. I also believed that we had to examine the symptoms in order to cure this ill that had infected our family. Then, we might be able to change destructive patterns and try to prevent sexual abuse from being perpetuated on successive generations . I guess it was naive, but I expected my family members to be willing to look for these answers with me.
That did not happen. I grew frustrated with their silence and apparent disinterest. As my anger toward my brother grew, I wrote and told him about the lifetime of resentment I felt for what I saw as his dominating, selfish behavior toward me. He replied that he pitied me, suggested that I get a refund on my therapy, and instructed me to stay away from him until I changed back to the way I used to be. I have not seen him since.
My other family members didn’t have my back either, as far as I saw it. When I urged my mother to pursue the subject further with my brother, she told me she couldn’t. My older sister said to me: “He apologized. What more do you want?” My family began inviting my brother to important family events while they left me out. When I challenged my mother for not telling me about her 70th birthday party, she replied curtly that she assumed I would not attend if my brother was there. She was right about that – and I was devastated that she chose him over me.
Over the years, and as my brother’s career in the spotlight grew, my family continued to enthusiastically embrace him despite the way he treated me. My mother insisted that he was “a good person” and seemed impatient with my refusal to forgive and move on. Never mind that he had stolen my innocence as a child and responded cruelly to my attempts to hold him responsible as an adult. Nor did she seem to consider that I might be the only person who could determine whether or not he had earned my forgiveness.
Naturally, my relationship with my mom was rocky. I expressed my outrage when I felt the need and stayed away from her when things became unbearable. She was a loving mother in other ways, though, and cared deeply for my children. Over time, I decided that I could keep her in our lives without compromising myself: by understanding her limitations and continuing to advocate for myself when necessary. That worked for a long time. Then, when my other turned 80, I learned through a cousin that she had celebrated with a huge party thrown by my brother and attended by all of our family and many friends. Not only was I excluded, my existence was apparently never acknowledged as they reminisced about our family. When I confronted her about keeping the party a secret from me, she responded that I was just as much at fault for “always being angry” at her.
Despite all of this, I will never walk away from dealing with my past. I know the difference between moving forward and ignoring the truth. Now that I am grown and have a choice, I will never allow anyone in my family to overpower me, keep me quiet or force me to stand in the background and play the part of obedient child or passive, adoring younger sister. Sometimes I miss my family. But I will never trade my hard-won emotional health and peace of mind for their acceptance and approval. Because I have learned the hard way that while facing the truth hurts, it helps so much more.
Healing the damage of the abuse was largely in my control – but I have no such control over my family members’ behavior or attitudes. I created the Second Wound Facebook and Twitter pages for sexual abuse survivors like myself who know the pain of hurtful family reactions. Together, I hope we can create a source of empathy and understanding. We deserve to be heard, respected and supported in our healing. Maybe we’ll never get this from our families of origin, but we can offer it to each other and ourselves.