Victims of childhood sexual abuse, too numerous to count, come in all religions, all nationalities, all ages, and all backgrounds. Childhood sexual abuse has no color or religious prejudice, targets no special income group, and plays favorite with neither male nor female. The lingering tragedy remains with its victims for life, no matter how many years of counseling, no matter what type of recovery program. With proper help the trauma is reduced, manageable, goes into that attic in our mind, the one we'd rather never open. But there is always an unexpected trigger lurking, a chance comment, a familiar face, a resurrected glimpse of the past. We can learn to cope. We can learn to live again. We can even learn to be happy. The hyper-vigilance we lived with for years can become manageable. This is the good news for the victims of this epidemic trauma. What of the forgotten victims, the collateral damage? What is their good news?
I am speaking of the enormous number of family members who lived with the actual victim, the mothers whose guilt grinds them into a never ending wall of grief, the fathers who agonize over what they could have done differently, the siblings who were both grateful and ashamed for not having been targeted themselves. Sometimes they are in more pain than the actual victim; it is less apparent. It manifests itself in subtle ways. After all, their answer to a therapist's or doctor's question, "Have you ever been sexually molested?" is "No".
In my particular case when my father entered my bedroom to rape me when I was 13, I had two sisters sleeping in the same room. One sister was a year younger than me and slept on the top bunk. She told me years later that she witnessed it and then the next day retracted her statement saying her husband told her that I'd made it up. Since my father is the one who told me, not once but twice when I was in my mid thirties what he'd done, I found my brother-in-law's assessment absurd. My father's comment at the time was, "A lot of fathers and daughters have this kind of relationship. It wasn't so bad; they do it in the Appalachian District all the time".
No one more than I, wished I had made it up. I remembered the first time it happened. I wanted to be a nun and slept with a rosary in my hand. Someone was lying on top of me and doing something so horrible, so painful that all I could do was scream over and over for help. My mother was a heavy sleeper and by the time she entered my room my father had retreated to the hall, looking in, clutching his robe closed as I begged my mother to help me. She told me I'd had a nightmare and no amount of sobbing and begging would change her mind. The next few years I developed amnesia, remembering only bits and pieces of my life.
My other sister was three years old and slept in a crib near our bunkbed. Jeanne was unable to talk clearly until she was ten and wet the bed till that same age. A car accident took her life at the age of 25. The sister on the top bunk has become a bundle of neuroses, someone fearful to try anything, someone who sleeps as much as possible to avoid having to do battle with anything life presents, someone who recently underwent a double mastectomy for breast cancer. She often thinks I am my father and becomes hysterical and fearful of me.
Once when we had traveled to Oregon together and were on our way home after a week that I thought was pleasant, something unusual for us as we'd always had a hard time getting along, she refused to speak to me for the entire 14 hours that the trip home took. Despite the temperature being in the 90s she had a heavy turtle neck sweater on along with a jacket, jeans and heavy boots. She sat hunched over her, her elbows bent, forearms held vertically in front of her and stared straight ahead. Not knowing what the problem was I decided it best to leave her alone. As we pulled into the Los Angeles basin I finally gave in and asked her what was wrong. She became hysterical, screaming repeatedly at me as her arms flayed madly in front of her, "I hate you. You're dad and I'm terrified of dad. God damn you!" Fearful that she was getting ready to hit me, I moved closer to the door and since she was a woman who never used vile language I think it unnerved me more than anything. I never found out what the problem was and it was many years before we spoke again.
Once upon a time we were what I believed to be a joyful Catholic family, my mother and father deeply in love. My mother, once she discovered what was happening to me in the middle of the night, instead of responding with a justified fury at my father and taking steps to get help, interrogated me as she tried to get at the truth. I had never been told the facts of life, thought you bought babies at the hospital and at the age of thirteen, I was unable to put words to my trauma. When that failed to elicit the desired response, she egged my father into beating me with a belt while she interrogated me until I finally confessed to being responsible for his wrong doing. I was terrified that if I didn't do so it would destroy our "joyful Catholic family". A family system with a denial this strong cannot possibly breed healthy members.
I have two older brothers. The eldest has been an alcoholic all his life, and the other is so deeply imbedded in his Catholic faith that he is unwilling to do anything not written in stone in the Catholic religion. When I shared with them what my father had done, I was grateful that both not only believed me but also were strongly supportive of my recovery program. My alcoholic brother's response made me wonder if he'd have been better off not knowing. He went into a rage, cursing and damming our father, and then proceeded to get drunk to deal with it. Within a short period after this, while having surgery for a hernia, his much damaged body began failing and he was put on a life support system. A call from the hospital told me it was only a matter of hours before he would die. He didn't die. While I sat next to his unconscious body, holding his hand, I reminded him how stubborn he'd always been and that he could live if he fought back. He did and is still alive at the writing of this article and is now one year sober.
My other brother, despite being an intelligent, sensitive, and well-read man, is judgmental in the extreme and as he has grown older turns more and more to the religion of his childhood, Roman Catholicism. Unfortunately he has chosen a path not only of harsh judgments of others but his constant need for control has restricted some of the joy he might otherwise have in his life. Two marriages ended in divorce and his time is devoted to good works, religious ceremonies, and reading books, primarily on the Catholic faith. He is convinced that God has put him in this life to, as he puts it, "set people straight". He does a lot of that and as a result has no friends left. He says, almost with confusion, that they all run when they see him coming. The only thing that has held him together, kept him from being suicidal, is his obsessive hold on his religion.
And what of the man who set all of this in motion, my father? Or did he? It was not surprising to discover a few years ago a saying about my father's father, "No woman is safe with that man." This trauma is, after all, a multi-generational illness. Does this excuse my father? His role model was a womanizer, a man with no boundaries and no integrity in the matter of sex. No it doesn't. I too had a poor role model but I didn't become abusive. I became many things, promiscuous, insecure, suicidal, emotionally fragile and most important, a woman filled with shame. Because of that shame, I made many bad decisions. I too became a poor role model. But one thing I never became was abusive. Every single perpetrator is totally responsible for what he has done regardless of any abuse that happened to him as a child. They also are forgotten victims, often someone else's collateral damage but they are nonetheless child molesters.
The forgotten victims, collateral damage, unable to identify the source of their sorrow, cannot so easily resolve their childhood trauma. In the case of my mother, her denial was established at birth. She was the product of a generation who believed in the patriarchal system. Her motto about my father was, "Even when he is wrong he is right." She lived and even died by that belief. When she found a lump in her breast after many years of marriage to my father, he convinced her that all doctors were quacks thereby denying her the medical care that might have saved her life. Was she able to identify that a weakened immune system brought about by her despair was the culprit that caused her cancer? Not likely. Her hands were tied but then they'd been tied during the entire twenty-five years she was married to my father.
If you have a physical wound and it becomes infected will it heal if you ignore it? No. It will become infected and the infection will spread throughout the body and cause greater harm. You must lance the wound, put ointment on it, treat it with antibiotics and in time, it will become a slight scar, one you look at periodically and try to remember what caused it. Going back in time and talking about what happened to you is like lancing the wound. Going into a productive recovery program is the ointment and the antibiotics. Does this not make sense?
If you cannot talk about what happened to you how can you ever begin to lance the wound? We must learn to talk about childhood sexual abuse, not only the direct victims but also the forgotten victims. Both of my brothers say they don't remember much about their childhood and what's worse, they don't want to. Once my father began his incestuous relationship with me and my mother found out our family was torn apart. My father began working in a nearby town and only came home on the weekends. My mother put Marine Corps blankets on all the windows, darkening our house as if it were a tomb. She spent all of her time in bed sobbing, often having me shave her legs and bathe her while she lay in an emotional stupor as if she were an alcoholic. I hid my terror in poetry that I wrote while sitting in a tree outside of town at a place called Rae Creek. Rae Creek and its heavily wooded area became my sanctuary initiating a lifetime habit of writing poems about whatever I was going through.
If my brothers had been able to talk about the despairing and tormented household they grew up in their lives might have turned out different. If my sister who slept on the top bunk had spoken about what she witnessed and how she felt about it, she might not have lived an empty and fearful life, one where the result of her despair was breast cancer. All forgotten victims must tell their story, in bits and pieces if necessary. But in the telling they are resurrecting the pain that has taken refuge in that soul part of them and stayed hidden. I believe in Real, Feel, Heal. Once you recognize or identify that childhood part of you that suffers you are making it real. It will bring tears. It will bring sadness. But you cannot feel that pain unless you make the trauma real. And you cannot heal until you feel; cry if you must, sob until every tear that ever went unshed comes out of you. It will bring a cleansing; it will bring a healing.
Unfortunately, I have heard of many therapists, counselors and guidance clinics who are telling their patients not to talk about what happened to them. Go only from this day forward for you can't go back and change the past. So let's just learn how to keep the door shut tight and start a new life. I have spoken with their patients. They want to tell their story. They want to talk about what happened to them, to their siblings, to their family. They are dying inside because someone has taken what happened to them and made it not valid. They call me; they email me. What can they do? I tell them they must REPAIR the damage.
As one additional statistic, I have a friend whose grandfather, who lived with her nuclear family, used to chase her around the house when she was a teenager, pull her blouse up and play with her breasts. Her mother told her to ignore him, that he was a dirty old man. I tried many times over the years to tell my friend, to no avail, that she had been sexually abused. As a result, she never entered a recovery program, never lanced her wound. She was married for over twenty-five years to a womanizer and a cocaine addict. A few years ago, she had breast cancer. Three out of five of her siblings had cancer as well. Two died of it. Her mother died of cancer and her mother's four sisters all had cancer as did their mother, the wife of the "dirty old man". It is so easy to see that this root problem contaminates entire families. The ensuing health problems it makes them vulnerable to is catastrophic.
Pandora's Box, a web site dedicated to childhood sexual abuse, says there are 60 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Multiply that times the average number of family members. Even if you allow for some of them making it through without any resultant problems, the statistics are mind-boggling. What to do? What to do?
The solution is obvious. The medical profession must somehow arouse their members to see the enormous role that childhood sexual abuse plays in the health of their patients. It would not be surprising to discover that many of them had the same unresolved problem and had set up their own system of denial. They must come to terms with their own aversion. Once this happens, they can begin to encourage their patients to enter a recovery program that deals with the childhood problem in a productive manner. One must return, as it were, to the scene of the crime, and deal with the wound that has become infected, before healing and going forward with your life in a healthy manner.
Why was this not done in my particular situation? Since my father believed all doctors were quacks I never saw my first doctor until I was nineteen years old, at my first pregnancy. It was another fifteen years before my family doctor began asking me if I'd ever been sexually molested by my father. He was the first to do so and, despite my father's confession, I always told him no. When I was age 45 and had failed at a recent suicide attempt (one of many), I went to him again to ask for sleeping pills and anti-depressants. I was currently married to my third abuser, a man who was so abusive that I felt as if I were losing my mind. My doctor told me he no longer believed I had not been molested by my father and sent me to a childhood sexual abuse specialist, the beginning of my path to total wellness.
The "obvious but not seen" part during all those years included: two nervous breakdowns after failed suicide attempts in my mid twenties, twenty-five years of insomnia and nightmares about something coming over the top of me and crushing me (I thought it was a steamroller ̶ the nightmares stopped after my father's death when I was over 40), sexual addiction, a history of abusers, obsessive, compulsive behavior patterns, low self-esteem, severe depression, suicidal, weak boundaries, a drunk driving charge in my mid-thirties (caused by a blackout I suffered after drinking while taking anti-depressants) and extremes of emotional highs and lows. I had been virtually kept alive all those years by anti-depressants and sleeping pills. For over twenty years I had gone from one psychiatrist to another. Except for the last one when I entered my more than four years of recovery, not a single one had pinpointed incest as the culprit. Few even questioned me about my childhood. Most were a sad waste of time and money.
And what of the forgotten victims, the collateral damage? It is too easy to immediately put a patient on medication for depression. The question that should be phrased to patients who exhibit not only serious health problems as they grow older but seem to have continuous social problems is: Have you ever been sexually abused? If the answer is no, a follow up question should be: Has anyone in your family ever been sexually abused? They may not know and answer in the negative. If they are educated on what the family model looks like that has a member that has been abused they may think differently.
There are common denominators that identify the family system of one that contains not only childhood sexual abuse, but also all forms of child abuse. A strong patriarchal (or matriarchal rather than a shared responsibility) is often the first identifying factor. An obedient/co-dependent mother or father is another. Religiously regimented households have more childhood sexual abuse than any other. Often the eldest daughter is the victim. A parent who is an alcoholic or has other addictions is another common denominator and finally, one of the strongest is a family history of infidelity and child abuse.
There is also a profile of a victim of childhood sexual abuse. It would make sense for one who is asked the question of whether or not anyone in their family was ever sexually abused to take a look at the individual behavior patterns and see if they have a sibling who exhibits any of the following: people-pleasing and rescuing at an early age, insomnia, an excessive need to control, obsessive, compulsive behavior patterns, needy, low self esteem, suicidal, weak boundaries, unhealthy choices in members of the opposite sex, neurotic tendencies, addictions (drugs, alcohol, sex, food, relationships), eating disorders, chronic illness, manic-depressive behavior (emotional extremes), severe depression. The more of these behavior patterns that are exhibited the more likely you are looking at a victim of childhood sexual abuse. Identifying this would be a strong first step. People raised in a healthy environment with a happy childhood are less likely to have serious health problems as they grow older. Recognizing and accepting the truth of your nuclear family system will get you started on the path to total wellness.
It is my belief that the majority of social problems can be traced to childhood abuses. They may range from a lack of affection to rape, violence, and everything in between. If not resolved we not only carry them with us all of our lives, we build on them and we unwittingly impact the lives of others in a negative manner, those who become the collateral damage.
Society must be educated, not only on being able to accept people talking about any childhood sexual abuse that happened to them, but how it has impacted their lives. If this were to happen, the forgotten victims can also acknowledge that this might be a contributing factor to the despair in their own lives and they too can begin to talk about it. Secrecy is the primary reason why childhood sexual abuse continues to plague society.
Can you imagine the burden this childhood sexual abuse puts on the family members who escaped? They know something is wrong, terribly wrong. Even if they are aware of the abuse that another family member suffered, they are confused as to how and why this impacts them. They have a thousand questions. What did I do wrong? Why did it not happen to me? What could I have done to have prevented it? What can I do to help the victim? Why do I feel so guilty?
All these questions are valid and need to be answered. And there is an answer to all of them, an answer that will soothe their soul. If they tell their story, put their pain out there so they can look at it, they may even be able to answer their own questions. Once they see that the victim was a pawn on a chessboard and they were the other chess pieces they will begin to understand. It had nothing to do with them. It didn't even really have anything to do with the victim. It was the family system that set them up. Once they understand this they can move beyond the pain. Now they can reach out to one another, especially to the victim with love, with understanding, with optimism.
One more worry is the children of both the victims and the forgotten victims. Whatever has happened to us as children has an impact on our behavior patterns. One who has been victimized becomes a perpetual victim. Our behavior patterns reflect our own inability to set strong boundaries. As we grow older, our decisions create minefields. We develop personalities and ways designed to hide our emotional turmoil and our low self-esteem. Unconsciously, our children imitate them, thereby inviting the same victimization. It is a vicious and unbreakable cycle unless one gets into a recovery program that will address the original trauma. I had four children, three daughters, and a son. My ex-husband sexually abused the two older girls when they were four and five; the youngest was raped at gunpoint by a masked bandit when she was seventeen while she worked at a fast food restaurant. Ironically, my son, who was never sexually abused, was a police officer on the LAPD for fifteen years. As you can see this is a multi-generational problem. But it is the same for the forgotten victims.
My sister's children have a multitude of problems, alcoholism, insecurities, and poor self-esteem. My Catholic brother's son was diagnosed as bi-polar, a walking time bomb. On Monday, September 9th, 2008 he put a gun to his head and ended his misery. How many people diagnosed as bi-polar are in actuality either victims themselves or forgotten victims that have not received proper treatment. My alcoholic brother has children too but he can't quite remember how many or even where they are. He says they want nothing to do with him anyway. His eyes are sad when he says this. He seems confused as to why this happened. He will never find the broken pieces.
We must start now to face this problem with courage, with resolve, and most importantly with honesty, especially in recognizing that damage has been done in our childhood and that it was not our fault. We must then talk about it. We must talk with someone who understands, someone we can trust, someone who will validate our story. It will put us on a path to recovery, a path that will lead to a joyful and healthy life. The more forgotten victims, as well as victims, we can reach, the better our chance for a healthier world, not only physically, but mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
We're all in this together.