Blog: Learning to Survive

saying it

Telling people you’ve been sexually abused is almost always difficult — sometimes for you, sometimes for them. Sometimes for both.

In the last three days I’ve found myself disclosing to two people. In both cases there was a context of sorts; we were having ‘normal’ conversations about families, and, rather than brush over, or tell white lies, I told it like it is: my father sexually abused me for about four years, and my mother (not living with us) had several mental illnesses. My stepmother, for her own reasons no doubt, seemed unable to act. So my ‘Christmas plans’ have not included any of my parents for decades.

Why say it like it is? Isn’t it easier to brush over? Short answer: yes, it is. It is easier not to be damaged or complicated — but for most people, whatever has happened in their lives, that’s a lie. My damage and complexity just happen to spring from several places which make most people uncomfortable, or even reel back in some horror: this is too dreadful to be true they seem to say, the expression on their faces passing through pity, disgust, grief, and settling to neutral.

Again, why do this? Because, and it’s quite simple when I think about it: it is not up to me to apologise or ‘be over it’. It is not up to me to hide facts which were completely and utterly out of my control. It is not up to me to protect others’ sensibilities. We don’t protect each other from the bad news of cancer, or bereavement — we say it all, and hope the listener figures out how or if to respond.

In recent years when I finally could bring myself to disclose the sexual abuse, I would rush to — as in the next sentence — say ‘but I’m okay, I really am. I’ve had lots of therapy and I’m really well.’ Some of you reading this blog will recognise this from our long friendships. I did this to save my listener from pain, disgust, pity — and helplessness in the face of this horrible thing. The desire to protect the world from the dirty secret — to carry it, to carry the shame indeed, the unresolved triggers, the mess of it all — always took precedent.

But it’s good for ME to finally say it like it is. In public, without feeling sick or wanting to run away. To stand by my experiences. I was not able to say more than a vague ‘my father…. mumble mumble’ for decades, just hoping someone, even therapists, would understand without me having to actually SAY it. My silence — repeat after me folks — is one of the many silences which enable perpetrators to carry on abusing. It’s that simple. My pushing it away keeps abuse hidden. That simple.

However, what I do know is that not everyone can speak. For numerous reasons. Where we are in our journeys, who we have around us, how involved we want to be in taking a stand.

Which is why I am and so many others are now here, speaking out. Raising awareness, educating, and trying to redress the imbalance. Taking the power away from the abusers, where it has rested for centuries.

So. If you can’t say it — yet, or ever — let us say it for you. Let us share the burden. We will all get there in the end.

***

From my memoir, Learning to Survive. This is the first time I tried to tell someone what was happening. [NB: I have permission to use she/her pronouns; in time they moved into he/him, and into a much happier place. I have asked and have generously received permission to start here. Thank you, Joshua.]

Suzanne

When I am 16 years old, I fall in love with a close friend, and she with me. Although I do go on to have lesbian relationships (sort of) in university, out of love and respect for this person I need to say that in a few years this close friend will be a man. However, at the point in which we are in a relationship, he presents as female, a fact which for me, given what I have been through, I recognise even then as crucial.

            I speak to no one about my relationship with Suzanne, and have no memory of writing anything, at least in the early days, either. As far as my father is concerned, she is a friend, and we are able to spend many happy hours together, many months in each other’s company, before he seems to have an inkling of what is going on. If I could remember, I might place his knowing concurrent with my beginning to write about her in my journal, but of course – this is another empty room, another empty space where memory should be.

            Early on, Suzanne senses my intense fear around my father, about doing anything ‘wrong’ or attracting ‘suspicion’ – and she sees through it. One night on campus as we sit in a classroom working out trigonometry on the blackboard (her father also teaches at the university), she stops. What she says seems to come from nowhere, like she hardly knows she’s saying it: ‘It’s almost like he loves you like more than a daughter.’ She turns to me. ‘Does he? Does he love you like that?’

            I cannot bring myself to say yes or no. But somehow Suzanne knows from my face. Her anger and horror are instant – she makes thick white chalk lines over and over on the blackboard no no no no no. And more than once in the months that follow, I hear her car outside my house, driving around the block and up and down the hills, over and over, the horn blaring.

            We never speak about the abuse, and my father’s possessiveness, more than that. I start shaking too quickly, and it’s all so ugly, and all we want is to be together. I believe that she is saving me, and I think she believes this too, and to an extent, she is.

I saw his face

Over the years I’ve had plenty of nightmares. Shadowy figures, fear of doors opening, lying on my back suffocating. Plenty of those. And only with the recent spate of them, in the last six months or so, have I really acknowledged that all of them are from being abused. As is the development of claustrophobia, and a profound fear of the dark, among other things.

However. Something must be shifting: the night after my last post, I dreamt directly about my abuser, my father, for the first time in my memory. We had been estranged for over 30 years when he died in 2018. In this dream though: I saw his face. I looked right at his face. And I was grown up — a 57 year old woman with some things to say.

In the dream, he was sitting down. I was determined to stand up. And I told my father everything. I railed at him. I listed every last damaging effect that his abuse had had upon me, upon my family, my relationships, my sense of self. I absolutely let him have it. I tore a strip off of him.

I wasn’t scared. At all. I felt indeed — the opposite. I felt so strong. So clear. So just and righteous. I knew I was right, and that he was wrong, and that he had always been wrong. I told him all this, right to his face.

He didn’t understand. He tried to laugh. He tried to move away from me. I followed. I wouldn’t let it go. I listed and listed, until I reached the end of my list. Then I turned and left him, and went into the next room, where my beautiful grown up children were getting on with their lives. I told them what I had just done, and they were proud of me. We had things to do, and we did them, all without my father.

When I woke up, I felt like I could take on the world. I’d left him for good, and he would never understand. He was never going to. But at last I’d said my piece.

I credit this powerful dream in no small part to starting this blog, and to being in touch with so many other survivors and allies now, all of whom are strong, inspiring, and supportive. Together we are getting things done. THANK YOU, one and all.

In my memoir Learning to Survive, there’s a section of poems written around my father’s death. This one is about the last time we spoke, on the phone, in 1986, the very last time I tried to speak to him at all:

***

the last time

I am standing

           in my first apartment

                        before marriage

                        before children

                        before the UK

                        beige carpets

                        second hand sofa

                        second hand bed

                        new cushions (three hours to choose in JC Penny’s)

                        second hand glasses and bowls

                        fiancé hovering

                        in the kitchen

                        in case

my arm aches

            from gripping the handset

hand cramped

            from squeezing too hard

you are asking me

            to meet you

                        somewhere mid-way

                        somewhere

                                    to get past this

you say

                                    we need to resolve this

                                    with our therapists

                                    and I find out later

                                    that yours wants

                                    a Gestalt model

                                    which suits you fine

                                    conflict-resolution

                                    where both parties are responsible

                                    I wonder

                                                not for the first time

                                    if you have told her

                                                anything like the truth –

I say

                                    heart always pounding

                                    always shaking inside

                                    always swallowing fear

I say

                                    you are the perpetrator

                                    I am the victim

and

                                    you laugh

                                                you chuckle

you say

                                    you’ve been reading

                                    too many magazines

                                    you don’t know

                                    what you’re talking about

I stand there

            trembling

I want to hurt you

            like I am hurting

I try to think

            how to show you

                                    how important

                                    how vital

                                    how crucial

                                    this is

I say

                                    if you don’t do this

                                    my way

                                    my rules:

                                    you will never see your grandchildren

and

                                    you laugh again

you laugh

                                    but you never do

                                    see them

Zip

My habit – borne of self preservation no doubt – is to slam a metal shutter down, shut up shop, whenever I sense my mind or emotions edging toward remembering my abuse. It’s only natural I guess. I have become expert at shifting focus, blocking out some things, moving at speed toward others.

Only recently have I accepted that this urge in itself perpetuates damage. It keeps secrets. It tells no one. It suffers in silence.

The difficulty with allowing these memories to surface, to speak them, is that it can feel like I’m giving in. Giving in to the bleak reality that like it or not abuse has etched itself across my life, my day to day living. I’m so angry about this, angry on behalf of my child self who could not get angry: GO AWAY! I want it all to go away.

But try as I might, my triggers – my reminders – cut straight through whatever defences I have raised. And always have done. Regardless of what I want or hope for, they find their way in, just as my abuser did. They are with me daily.

And it turns out that they will never go away. It turns out that healing does not banish memories. Healing means that we learn to speak without risking our lives, without the implosion that silence brings. It’s not a fair trade, these daily reminders. Living with them is hard, and a cruelty. And none of it is our fault.

From my memoir Learning to Survive:

***

Zip

Because of you, it is years until I can bear the sound of one, or the feel of polyester.

            There are many things like this: flaky skin, a backrub.

            Some types of brown shoes. Checked shirts with white backgrounds. Thin cotton pyjamas. The feel of beards and moustaches. Teeth yellowed by cigarettes. Slightly pudgy fingers.

            Sleeping in the dark.

            Any soft caress, from anyone.

            Any romantic kindness. Any kiss on the lips.

            Any sign of desire. Any sigh.

Most of the time now I brace myself; most things surge and fade. Except for the dark: that panic never goes away.

***

holding hands

We are in the middle of #16Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence. Amid this global push to ‘Orange the World’, there are some powerful actions. One of them is Viv Gordon’s Cutting Out, mentioned in my last post.

Here are my paper dolls from that project, recently posted on Twitter. Holding hands. My words, snippets taken from my memoir Learning to Survive, decorate them — because words have cleared the way for me to say how I feel, to name the abuse, to articulate the ongoing trauma. And eventually: they helped me notice the moments of peace, the pure joys of having children, the winter sun today. Words do it all, and I’m grateful I can use them now.

I’m grateful too to be holding hands. In this together.

During the abuse, and for a long time after, I felt ‘singled out’, like a calf driven away from the herd by a lion on a hunt. Looking back, I can see that I was my father’s puppet, at his mercy and disposal: completely exposed and examined, in every intimate way, yet completely, utterly alone. Far away from anyone else, in the dark. It would have changed my life to know that there were others. That we could save each other. That I had some power.

I think of this excerpt from Learning to Survive, as I cut out my dolls and collage my words. I think: I am here for these children now, in ways that no one but no one was there for me.

***

In the Night

I have the dream again, only this time I am freezing. I am freezing because I hardly have anything on, and the wind blowing through the walls, the walls that aren’t really there, is so cold. Still I must decorate; I have to stand on the chair and hang plants, think about colours, make things just so. I begin to shiver, and the leaves of the plant I am holding shake with my shivering. I try to stop, but the more I try to stop the worse it becomes, until my whole body is shaking.

            I manage to hang the plant, putting the chain over the hook. I manage to smile into the darkness, push my hair back as if in front of a mirror. Then I take a step off the chair, and my foot keeps going down, down further than I thought the floor was, and when it touches, I fall after it into a ditch.

            I know I have broken some bones, because they are too cold and brittle. My arms are pinned to my side in the ditch, my face pushed into the mud. In the fall I lose my nightgown, and my bottom is exposed. But I can’t move. I am useless, and leave myself there for dead.

***

turning the corner?

I was sorry to miss the Shameless WoW Festival yesterday at Battersea Arts Centre (life too hectic right now). There looked to be some discussion there around #CSA (Child Sexual Abuse) as well as much-needed activism and lived experience around gender based violence. Insofar as CSA goes: might this be a corner turning?

I hope so. Bringing CSA to the public consciousness — really LOOKING at it — has been like turning around a huge ship in limited space: it will go, it will happen, but it will take lots and lots of small movements. A 1000 point turn, in other words, for British readers.

But the incremental and mighty ‘turns’ are there, now in abundance. Witness the part #CSA plays this year in #16Days (16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence); in particular, look at the work Viv Gordon and her colleagues are undertaking in Cutting Out — we ALL would benefit from doing this, mindful moments to place our concerns, anger, grief, hopes for the future into creative and ritualised action. The paper dolls go into the world to speak for us, hold us, and touch others, hand to hand.

Witness too the writers’ loud voices speaking directly to sexual abuse, sexual assault, and trauma: writers like alice hiller, Day Mattar, Chaucer Cameron, Tessa Foley, Clare Best — and myself. Witness how at last they are being heard: in Poetry and Trauma at Poetry in Aldeburgh, in shortlisting for national prizes, in national forums and readings.

Witness at last the enormous amount of grassroots work now being done by individuals and organisations raising awareness of CSA, developing policies for schools and medical professionals, and offering training for the same. I can’t help but imagine what life might have been like if someone had recognised and noticed my behaviour, or my father’s, during the abuse. If I had known that I was not the only girl going through this, that I was not on my own.

But I didn’t know that. Not for years and years. And any hint from anyone — teachers, friends, a therapist — that they knew something might be wrong, was unspoken. Nothing like this had words then, not words said in public or to each other. Looking back, I think some people in my life had suspicions. Yet they watched me have to leave my family home at 17 as a direct result of the abuse, and could say nothing. Silence damages everyone. In my memoir Learning to Survive, I write this about that time:

***

Us

[My friend] Valerie is perhaps the most upset. I remember she starts crying, right in the classroom. She wants to know why. And I have my answer, the one I use over and over ‘I just want to live with my mother before going away to college.’

            I do not realise that Valerie still cares about me. I do not realise, if I’m honest, that anyone except [my close friend] Alice really cares. Yet my going disturbs the surface, and numerous people – students, teachers – seek me out to wish me well, and ask questions. The Principal of the school asks me in to see if he can do anything to make me stay, and if everything is okay. To which I say No, and Yes.

            Of course it is [my English teacher] Mrs Amos I dread leaving the most. But again, to her credit, she doesn’t try to convince me otherwise. She wishes me all the best. She knows I will succeed in everything I do. She believes in me.

I encounter a curious mix of sorrow and knowingness when I announce I’m leaving. Looking back, I think that the sorrow mainly comes from those who cannot imagine how this has happened. Whereas the knowingness, the unspoken, rises through the eyes of those who may know something or suspect.

            From here, I see our joint powerlessness. I see how mistreatment, how abuse, is too often communicated in silence, implied. How it is up to the women to get away, how other women must urge them silently. How they are brave, deserting everything. Leaving everything – their children, their lives, their homes – behind. Forced to cut and run.

            Whereas really it’s my father who needed to leave. Really he should have been arrested. And I should have been able to stay put, and never lost [my half-siblings], the heartbreak of my life. And they in turn would never have had to carry their own complex and heart-breaking confusions – with no help from anyone — around for so many years.

***

So. Are we turning corners? I really, really hope so. So many are working so hard to ensure that safeguarding is now more nuanced, and that Child Sexual Abuse is part of the conversation. Up until now, too many abuse disclosures result in what happened to me: scapegoating, and the girl/woman/boy/man leaving/running/escaping. Isolation follows, and the attempt to remake a life. Please help us in working toward a time when this is not the only option.

the time is now

There is no beginning of all this, and, realistically, no end either. Childhood sexual abuse is as old as Time of course, and it’s hard to imagine we will ever reach a point of ultimate awareness, when these crimes are universally prevented.

However. There are times when revolution — evolution even — brings us to the point of important change, personally and in society. My own story began 46 years ago, at age 11. I attempted therapy first at 17 years old, then at 21 therapy became necessary. I have been in and out of therapy more or less ever since — mostly to do with the legacy of sexual abuse, but also around the legacy of neglect which led me to that point, and because as a result of everything I struggle to make maps and models in my life; I don’t recognise stability. And good therapists, I have found, can make good role models, good parents, and help you listen to and locate your best self.

Despite all this therapy and integration of my selves, it is only in the last two years or so I have felt the pull to activism around childhood sexual abuse (CSA). And only recently have I become aware of a groundswell of activism and art which bears witness to CSA and which is working hard to raise awareness of CSA.

A fact everyone needs to know is this: about 90% of ALL childhood sexual abuse is committed by someone THE CHILD KNOWS. The majority of these offences is committed by a family member. The rest are perpetrated by a trusted family friend.

My abuse was perpetrated by a family member. Most people I am in touch with who have been abused were abused by a family member. Yet: as widespread as they are, these instances are not highlighted by the media as part of anti sexual assault and violence against women campaigns. Lived experiences of CSA are not featured in symposia or conferences. Indeed, they rarely make it into print or art that is widely consumed.

Shame and silencing, awkwardness, disgust, horror… these things stop CSA at the door. To those who have not experienced abuse or do not love someone who has been abused — CSA can feel like Too Much Information, too yucky, like it belongs somewhere else, just not HERE.

To those who have been abused, HERE is all there is, and what must be carried, with all the accompanying shame and disgust and fury. And we are everywhere. A conservative estimate by the NSPCC states that 1 in 20 children in the UK are being or have been sexually abused. That’s at least one in every classroom. Think about that. Please.

We have got to open our eyes. We have got to help each other. We have got to protect children. The time is now folks.

source: https://learning.nspcc.org.uk/media/1710/statistics-briefing-child-sexual-abuse.pdf