We have had a really lovely ten days in our household: one ‘child’ and partner with us for Christmas, and the other and his wife surprising us with a visit from the US tomorrow. I have loved every moment of stringing fairy lights, having sherry (yes, my American and elsewhere readers: it’s a thing, and a very good thing), eating good food, going on some walks, and opening some presents.

Overall, and as is the pattern for years now: we are so relaxed, so easy, so loving and full of good humour.

In the last few months, I’ve had a couple of Twitter conversations about celebrations in families where Child Sexual Abuse was a feature. My own memories of Christmases, birthdays, Thanksgivings, etc are opaque. I remember them — such as they were — as fraught times, tense times. Never daring to put a foot wrong, say the wrong thing — or worse, attract the ‘wrong’ kind of attention, whatever that might be.

My family was not violent. I remember one tap on my bottom my whole childhood. There was no corporal punishment of any sort, ever.

Yet I was afraid. All the time. And especially at celebrations, which seemed by their nature to threaten to spin out of control. And I was certainly afraid of anything out of the usual routine. Anything I could not predict. Because that unpredictability might lead to more abuse — out of sight, under others’ celebrating noses. Anything different just seemed to produce an opportunity for my father. Maybe it was the enforced proximity — more chances to strike? I don’t know. I know I tried anything and everything to avoid being alone with him. Mostly — I think — this involved always being around other people, always talking (so that I would be missed if not there, perhaps?), and always volunteering to help.

I remember almost nothing tangible about the 11 Christmases I spent with my larger family. I only remember one present, one that didn’t happen: I remember desperately wanting an opal necklace one Christmas. When it came to it, my stepmother received an opal necklace, and I did not. I was cut to the quick, and knew even then, age 13 or 14, that someone was putting me ‘in my place’. I had bookmarked the page in the catalogue and everything…. But I didn’t get the opal.

I was a child my father abused, and claimed to be in love with, most nights. But I wasn’t his wife. Someone — whoever bought the opal — was telling me that. I knew this of course, but the icy isolation of this punishment made me feel like it was all my fault: I was being punished for having his attention, no matter that I didn’t want it. It somehow seemed the natural order of things that I be ‘frozen out’ of Christmas celebrations.

As for birthdays and Thanksgivings, I think I’m right in remembering we barely celebrated them. No birthday parties. And no Thanksgivings? Can this be right?

It is as if — in my waking, daily life — every effort was made so that I NOT feel special. It worked. In my daily life I felt almost invisible at home, unimportant, damped down. Yet my father claimed otherwise at night.; he sought me out, he gave me gifts, he said he ‘loved’ me. In the day I felt punished, ignored. At night I wanted nothing more than for the attention to stop.

With all of the abuse and twisted loyalties going on in our household — against the background of that — I can’t seem to settle in myself how much of this bleakness, fear, tension, is actually ‘normal’ in families around celebrations. What do the children in ‘ordinary’ families feel? Do they have fun? Or are they always worried? Do they like being around grownups? Or are they just waiting for it all to be over?

Once again, I have no bearings when it comes to any of this. I have no idea how much conflict is to be expected around celebrations and holiday times. All I know is that I dreaded trying to find my way through it, all the while trying to avoid my father. I even hated it anytime he spoke directly to me in front of anyone else, family or not. My fear of him ‘giving it away’ by too much attention, and how that would shame me, was profound. My ‘double life’ was completely entrenched.

And yet: were these tensions actually present? Were they able to be perceived by others? Or were they all ‘in my head’? It’s so easy to fall into believing that I’m making something out of ‘nothing’, much like how my unspoken fears around the first steps of my father’s grooming and abuse were waved away: it’s no big deal, it’s ‘natural’, ‘I’m just preparing you for when you are older’.

In other words: what you feel isn’t real.

It is so so hard to believe your feelings again after such gaslighting. Even harder to stretch your perceptions back in time, and believe those feelings are accurate reflections of how things were generally in those years, and how we did Christmas. I just don’t know. Those years feel so emptied, the cold wind whipping through them, that every last bit of warmth, of possible care, blew away long ago. I don’t know what to think.

I am relieved and proud that my grown up family and friends — our celebrations — are authentic. I trust that now. But to get here, I had to start from scratch, had to learn over and over that that there was nothing secret going on, nothing unsaid. I had to start over, and did.

in hope or in despair

The Flying Child’s recent blog post about arranging to see her abuser again — and what happened in that visit, in public — has stayed with me for several days.

Over and over in these days, I replay the scene in which I did something similar: I went to go stay with my father — my abuser — for one night when I was 20 years old. He was living alone in an apartment in Washington DC. The excerpt from LEARNING TO SURVIVE, below, recounts what happened.

That night marked the last time I saw my father. But it didn’t mark the end of me trying to ‘solve’ the family dynamics, of me trying to make him accountable, accept responsibility. Of trying to get an apology. These useless hopes, this belief that maybe just maybe I could ‘fix’ something — went on for another 10 years or so, through letters, therapy, and a few more conversations. To no avail: I do not believe he ever accepted that his actions, his arrogance, his delusions and pathology, were at the root of every single messed up relationship not in only his life, but in the lives of every member of his family. Delusion is indeed the word.

And so I return to why I — and Sophie of The Flying Child, and others, I’m sure — thought seeing our abusers again would be anything other than excruciating, or at worst, dangerous. For me, I can see now, I desperately wanted everything to be over, to be passed. I wanted him to be a father — as in fatherly, parental — and thought, somehow — because the warped world view of abuse also affected my self-perception — that I could lead him to that change of role simply by inhabiting a daughter role fully, and pretend nothing had happened. It’s important to note here that Child Sexual Abuse also skews how the victim views themselves: in my case, because my father seemed unable to ‘control himself’ in my presence, for years, I thought I had some influence over him. And I wanted to ‘use’ this ‘influence’ for good. Somehow. Looking back, knowing what I know now about abuse, I can see that this odd inflated ‘power’ dogged me for years. My perception of all relationships alternated between me having ‘no power’ and me having ‘all the power’. Just like how I registered the abuse.

So when I went to see my father, deep down I wonder if I figured that this was a time when I had all the power. That he would be able to see I needed to be free of him, and that the only way I wanted him in my life was as a father.

I was crushingly wrong about all of it. And yet only ten years later did I truly give up hope — and this giving up involved me cutting ties, me set adrift all on my own. As victims, we are forced into isolation, loneliness and confusion in exchange for escaping unresolved abuse and its attendant distortions. As a result our pain and despair can appear self-inflicted. Yet another way in which the abuser screws us. We strike the world and our families as self-destructive and stubborn. When all we are trying to do is save ourselves.

From Learning to Survive:


The summer between my junior and senior years of university, I see my father for what turns out to be the last time. I have worked all summer in a yet another restaurant in Roanoke, a country and western one this time. My father is doing some work in Washington DC, also looking for a permanent job there, never having made the progress he wanted in academia. He is living on his own in an apartment at the weekends. I am not certain what takes me to DC – perhaps I am seeing my friend Daniel, who lives close by, or perhaps I still have the particular blindness that comes with abuse, the compartmentalising that leads me to think that everything is manageable. In any case I am there on my father’s floor in a sleeping bag.

            It is an uncomfortable night. I become afraid that he will come in, that he will touch me. Eventually he does come in, but ‘only to talk’; he wants to ‘see how [I am]’. I am lying on the floor; he is crouched next to me. He wants to talk about the abuse somehow, to discuss ‘it’ – but I cannot imagine how this will happen. Ever, really, at this point, and never with him.

            I survive the conversation, virtually mute. He touches my hair. I am afraid I am going to throw up, although I have never thrown up in his presence before. Paralysis sets in. I know now that I want to hit him, to push him away, and that this is why my arms ache. For the first time then though, I know, I really, truly know it’s not safe: that I’m not safe. That I must go away for good, and not come back until things have changed, if ever. I leave after that night, and never see him again.

            Once the compartmentalising breaks down, it is impossible to put the cat, as it were, back in the bag. I know now that because I am by senior year mostly happy, settled, and with direction, I am for the first time grounded enough to open Pandora’s box. Apparently my body and mind now believe I can withstand whatever emerges, although I do not know this at the time, and although at many points over the next two and a half years, I do not feel I will ever make it through.