yes things fall apart

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….

*

no quieting

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.

            ‘Your father?’

            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.

*

remember this

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.

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.