Disclosing Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) is complicated, no matter how or to whom you do it. This is because, at root, the worst fears of the child — or you as a child — to some extent must come true: as a result of your disclosure, your living environment is fragmented, broken. The illusion of your life before disclosure is gone. Even if whom you disclosed to reacts ‘well’ — with compassion, with kindness, with a promise to help — your life, as victim, is upended. There will be physical, emotional, and painful changes. Indeed part of NOT disclosing, of keeping the secret at all, is based on the fear of feeling even worse. And of all eyes looking at you: you did this.
For me, not disclosing during or soon after the abuse was also about the feeling that I can carry this. I can bear it. I didn’t want anyone else to be upset. I desperately wanted life to be ‘normal’. I don’t remember caring what happened to my father, the abuser. I had lost respect for him years before. But I did care about my siblings, about how their lives would be shaken forever. I figured I would be okay — eventually — but I didn’t want them to go through anything like what I had and would. I could bear it. They, I thought, could not.
Feeling responsible for others when that responsibility is not yours to carry is a typical CSA pattern. A typical perpetrator pours attention onto the victim. The victim is unwillingly pinned into the ‘centre’ of the perpetrator’s emotions, actions, reactions. Sometimes the perpetrator makes clear that the victim is the most important person in his* life, and that everything depends on this ‘love’. The perpetrator creates a world which has only two occupants: the victim, and the abuser. It sits like a bubble around the victim at all times, even when the perpetrator is not there. It feels impossible to break through, like the world will break and turn to rubble if you do. And then you would really be alone.
So you learn to live — sort of — trapped in this bubble. You are separate, divided from the rest of life. But it becomes good enough and as much as you can expect. And the whole world, as far as you can see, depends on you staying there. On your silence, on your compliance.
Disclosure is complicated. And because continuing abuse relies on the status quo, disclosure always means some things fall apart. What we need to work harder at in our world is supporting survivors, at whichever stage they disclose. We need to believe them. We need to accept responsibility and be accountable for the inevitable mess. We need to come to their rescue, however horrified and distressed we may feel. It is not up to survivors to clean up the mess or make any of this palatable. It is not their mess. And none of it is palatable or ever will be.
[*my abuser was male]
These two short excerpts from Learning to Survive are about what happened when I disclosed to my aunt. So much fell apart, but unbeknownst to me, so much had been falling apart for years….
Once I separate in earnest from my father and — necessarily – everyone else in Blacksburg and even Roanoke, I take every opportunity to visit instead Ommie and Granddaddy. Over my Oberlin years I see them as much as possible, always on my own, and always with intense relief: home.
I am with Ommie and Granddaddy the Christmas after Roderick and I get together. He and I are writing letters, and sending gifts – I had forgotten my copy of Eliot’s Selected, so he sends me his, complete with annotations. He is going back to the UK and then onto Vienna for January; we do not see each other for six weeks, which remains to this day the longest we have ever been apart.
My father’s sister, my Aunt Lois, is doing volunteer work then, and has some free hours; she and I spend a lot of time together that Christmas break. We have always been more like sisters.
One day we are at the mall having some lunch. It’s a Dairy Queen, with disposable cutlery, paper, and cups. She asks me how I am. How things are going?
I find that for some reason these days I am incapable of lying. My brave face has disappeared. I answer her: not very well really. I’m in therapy. And it’s true, aspects of therapy have been more gruelling than I could ever have imagined.
‘Oh.’ Lois is wise. ‘I’m sorry to hear that. What’s up?’
‘Family stuff,’ I say, and in the distance, I can feel something coming like a train.
‘To do with your mom?’
I shake my head.
I nod. And she immediately – immediately – says, ‘I think I might know what it is.’
How has she guessed? Why now?
And then she says, ‘Because he did it to me too.’
I pick up my drink and throw it across the room. It hits the wall, and coke runs all the way down to the floor.
Lois and I talk and talk. She becomes the third person – after Diana, and after Roderick – to whom I tell as much as I am able. She is utterly, completely devastated that something has happened to me. She wonders about [my sister] – is she okay? But I can’t be sure. Lois berates herself: she should have tried harder to stop him, to make herself believed when it happened to her. She – like me – was ten or eleven. She, like me, cannot sleep in the dark. And unlike me, she manages sooner to lock her bedroom door, even putting a chair up against it. At the time the incidents happen, my father is 16 or 17.
Lois tells me that later she reveals everything to her mother – Ommie – who doesn’t disbelieve her exactly, but who does not do anything. Whose attitude is ‘it happens to everyone’ – because it happened to her too, from her uncle, as it turns out. Ommie stresses that Lois mustn’t tell Granddaddy. So Lois keeps it to herself. And finds, like me, that her life begins to suffer. She avoids my father and his family, keeps her kids away from him, and thinks that everything – why he does it, when he does it – is all her fault. Is all to do with her, because of who she is. Just like me.
Both of us, in that single conversation, and almost at the exact same time, realise that none of this – none of this — is our fault. We are simultaneously released and horrified: it’s not us, after all. It’s him. It’s all him.
Secrets beget secrets beget secrets, and once they start coming out there is no telling where they will lead. That visit, Lois and I decide not to tell Ommie and Granddaddy, not yet. They are in their mid-70’s. I am not certain it will ever be okay to tell them, but Lois now has a fire about her. She is incandescent with fury, and especially so because my father, in spite of hardly ever visiting and rarely phoning, is still looked upon as ‘the golden boy’, with his professorship and PhD. She is determined to tell them, but willing to bide her time. She does not want me caught up in it all, to have more to deal with. And in truth I welcome this; I am relieved that it’s no longer all up to me. The one thing I know – and Lois is sure of this too – is that I have Ommie and Granddaddy’s unconditional love. I cannot predict what telling them will do to their relationship with their son, but I know that they will not reject me. They will not scapegoat me. And I am so tired now of trying to keep everything together, trying to smooth things over. The fatigue overwhelms me. I leave it all, gladly, up to her.
It would be naïve of me to say that this is the end of the destruction my father causes in Beaumont. Lois herself of course is deeply distressed by what has happened to me, and seeks out therapy again; it takes her a long time to somewhat come to terms with it. When she is ready, after I’ve moved to the UK, and when my grandparents are in their 80’s, Lois tells both of them. We never discuss it directly, but I know from her that they never again have more than a monosyllabic conversation with my father. And ten years later, after they die and are buried, after the funerals, Lois tells the entire extended family, who all rally to her side. After that, my father can never go back. The ruse is over; he is exposed.