One in 6 children is sexually abused, 90% by someone they know and trust, within the family fold. I was one of those children. An author of five books, I now turn myself to raising awareness, breaking the silences, and sharing lived experiences of CSA (Child Sexual Abuse). We must speak and stop this. The time is now.
On the advice of my consultant, I’ve been forced into ‘complete rest’ recently. Somehow my lower back started acting up, and six weeks later not only is it not recovered, but I keep ‘setting it off’. It’s a rollercoaster.
As a consequence of my indeterminate (thus far) back issue, I haven’t been to dance or do hydrotherapy in weeks. Complete rest for me is extremely difficult. I am used to just throwing myself into things, and my body coping. The advantage of being strong and bendy is that I’ve always been able to do virtually anything without any serious consequences. I always get injuries, yes, but they clear up more or less in a few weeks. Now I am finding that things simply aren’t healing; my chronic pain has escalated, and it seems that my early arthritis (common with hEDS) is impacting everything.
Free movement in my environment has been crucial to my mental health for decades, and, probably more than anything else, preserves my wellbeing and my belief in the future.
I noticed when I had my hip replacement operations that within a couple of weeks I felt low. Everything seemed to stop. I felt paralysed, unable to help myself. Useless. But each time, I knew the end was in sight: slowly slowly I began to move again. I had goals. I did physio diligently. And in each case, I was walking well by six weeks post-op.
My current situation is different however. The end of my immobility is not in sight. The cause of this pain and reactivity is unknown. It’s not clear that I will dance again, though I will do everything in my power to get there. I have no exercises to do, no agency in this. Except to be patient.
Which is not my top personality trait, if I’m honest!
I suspect that immobility triggers many Child Sexual Abuse survivors. There are several aspects of this for me:
I froze while I was being abused .
I could not walk or run away from my father; I was stuck.
I could not push my father off of me. I could not move my arms. I was afraid he would do something ‘worse’.
I stayed still in order to ‘disappear’.
I felt in danger of imploding, the withheld fear and panic inside me almost overwhelming.
Helplessness — true helplessness, powerlessness — is extraordinarily grinding. Your body seizes up much like your mind does. You turn into a rock, and cannot reach out. You cannot do anything to help yourself. You simply cannot. You feel yourself slipping into invisibility, nearly losing yourself in the process.
Immobility, for me, equals being nothing. Not being able to dance, for me, risks dissociation. It can also bring the inner turmoil of CPTSD: bad dreams, flashbacks, the ramping up of despair.
I am completely aware of what immobility means for me. But my reactions are not something I can control. They are hard-wired.
I am much stronger now than I was when I was a child, of course. I have more to live for, a lot more hope. And I know that whatever happens, I can bear it. But lasting through, time and again, does come at a cost.
(Side note: I won’t be excerpting Learning to Survive for a little while. I’m all good though, and am so grateful for everyone’s companionship and belief.)
This is really a kind of epilogue. There was another important thing that happened when I went to the US — specifically, to Texas.
Some of you may remember the little town between San Antonio and Beaumont, where my grandparents would meet my mother, and I — like the bundle of acceptance I was then — would be passed one way or the other, depending on my mother’s health: from my grandparents back to her; or, more often, from her to my grandparents. This town is called Luling.
When I was staying with my San Antonio relatives this time, my Beaumont Aunt Lois asked if we could meet just outside San Antonio, to avoid confusion and traffic. She was picking me up to take me to Houston airport, and from there I would fly home back to London.
She told me she was thinking about a little town, and I said ‘You’re not going to say Luling, are you?’. She was, and did. Chills ran up and down my spine, and she said along hers too.
Yes. Luling it was then. We were once again going to bring the two sides of family together, over 50 years later.
The image featured at the top of this post is the sprawling Bucee’s where we met. A long way from the tiny diner which appears in all of the background photos here on this site. And yet: it’s the place we where we met, once again, and where I passed, completely willingly, from one car to the other.
I couldn’t help myself. I was…ecstatic. Of the three relatives there with me, the San Antonio and the Beaumont sides — no one could remember if they’d ever met before. But they all shook hands, shared stories, under the blaring full Texas sun. We were all together. Something had healed for me, knitted as one. Finally.
Three weeks ago today in San Antonio, Texas, my cousin Jamie (more about my love for him here), my cousin Linda, Jamie’s wife Patricia, and I scattered my mother’s ashes across the graves of her (and their) beloved grandparents’ graves.
I read the Hopkins’ poem God’s Grandeur , and anyone who wanted to say something, said something. There was no sugar coating of the difficult relationships we all had with her, but we all loved her.
It was wonderful to be with people who knew her, and who cared for her and for me, no matter what. My people.
The journey to Texas with my mother’s ashes was traumatic; I do not recommend it. I was completely unprepared for the separate examination and testing the box would need to undergo. On my own in an airport of rushing people, security folks handling ‘my mother’, I just stood there and sobbed and sobbed. The low point. But I had to get her to San Antonio. Which I did.
(After security, I found a place in the terminal to cry more, send a sad note to the family WhatsApp, and blow my nose. Within a couple of minutes I spoke with E in Boston, heard from M in Pittsburgh, and spoke with R in Cambridge. I am so grateful for my solid, loving family.)
I had not been to San Antonio in 34 years, since leaving for the UK. Yet there, especially after the scattering, sheer elation took me by surprise. I was so happy. I felt like having a party – dancing! Home at last. My home, which I had truly thought lost to me forever. It was so much more powerful and empowering than I could ever have imagined.
My mother would have been delighted, through and through. And would have utterly relished the cracking Tex Mex we had afterward for lunch. We toasted her with margaritas.
This is a photo of my grandparents’ old house in Beaumont, Texas. I took it nine days ago.
The house looks small to my eyes now, though of course as a child it felt palatial: so many big rooms, sofas cool to the touch, cool floors too, even those winding further back into the house, deep soft carpet. The garden full of chameleons I watched turn red on the brick walls, a sandbox my grandfather made for me, and swings.
When I was very little — younger than six — this house meant safety, security, and peace. It meant good food, praise, friendship, and love. It feels impossible to overstate this central truth: my grandparents made me who I am today. They rescued me from the unstable — neglectful — life with my mother and her boyfriends, over and over.
Nine days ago in Texas my aunt Lois and I filled every moment we had together with conversation. We have always been close, almost like sisters, despite our nearly 20 years’ age difference. This post makes clear how and why we always had such a connection — but the truth is too that we ‘never meet a stranger’ (in her father’s, my grandfather’s, words), and we are able to talk for hour upon hour. No exaggeration, the first day we saw each other this time, we managed to talk for eight hours straight. Yep!
I’ve always known — I remember, indeed — that I stayed with my grandparents in times of particular crisis. I was happy with them, and always longed to be there, so I have always taken comfort in my memories of all this. My conversations with Lois two weeks ago revealed a bit more, a couple of surprises: that at one point I stayed with them for at least a year, and that Lois assumed they were going to adopt me.
Lois was at university during this time, so knows few details. But it’s clear that they all considered my mother a danger to me. I don’t know why they didn’t adopt me, but I suspect that my grandparents deferred to my father (their son) — which, as we know, sent me from the frying pan into the fire. But they weren’t to know that. In any case, I was taken aback last week by the realisation that everyone knew I wasn’t safe. I am struck afresh by this refrain of my life: it wasn’t my fault; it wasn’t me; it was his/her doing all along.
I hadn’t been back to Beaumont in 20 years. My parents’ hold on me — my father’s wedge-driving, my. mother’s toxicity — effectively kept me away from a place and people I now know I truly love — and who truly love me.
Lois took me to the house, to the school where my grandmother taught; I saw my beloved cousin again, and I met his three beautiful children for the first time. Lois also ordered an autumn bouquet, which we placed on Ommie’s and Granddaddy’s graves, which I’d never seen. Being with them there was joyful really; in my mind I thanked them, told them about their great grandchildren, and let them know how happy I am now in my life, so much due to them.
My own parents are both gone. My father doesn’t have a burial place, and I scattered my mother’s ashes last week in San Antonio (more on this soon). With this trip to Virginia and then to Texas, I feel set free, an orphan released into love. I embrace the times with my grandparents, and all of my Texas relatives, with a full heart. It’s impossible to know what goes on behind the closed door of any house, but I do know that this house always felt like home.
Obviously, mine centred around my memoir LEARNING TO SURVIVE, and my connected work to do with Child Sexual Abuse.
It was such a very good thing to do. Lucinda was wonderful, the audience was palpably attentive — and I felt like some of what fires me in this world for the last couple of years took flight.
The interview is necessarily general in some ways, but does bear witness to some of my own experiences, my own lived experience, the nature of it, and touches on the beginnings of how this all has impacted my life, and lives of so many others.
I want to thank everyone who came, and everyone who shared their own experiences then and subsequently. We are in this together. We are making progress and raising awareness. Together.
The link to the interview on the Goldster page is here. It is free to access. Scroll down to the ‘most recent’ programme.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what holds survivors of Child Sexual Abuse back — from telling someone, from seeking help — and pushes them toward desperation and too often, self destruction. What directs us at all costs away from feeling like victims.
Because a victim must be helpless. And powerlessness feels like weakness, close even to complicity.
Victims of Child Sexual Abuse are NOT weak. No way. They are, indeed, some of the most resilient and tenacious people you will ever know in your life. They — we — have to be. We had to find ways to survive. To preserve, somehow, parts of ourselves.
One of the ways we protect parts of ourselves is to excise — to extract, remove, rip out — or ignore, brush over, push down — toxic feelings which the abuse forces upon us, the most pervasive of which is probably SHAME.
SHAME is the feeling that the whole self is wrong. Yes. I cannot emphasise this enough: and if the whole self is wrong, then anything the self does is… wrong. Life, and living, can become One Big Wrong Thing. Shame can become something that feels impossible to row back from, to know where even to start.
And because it’s so comprehensive, so all encompassing, most of us disconnect at some point. Something in us insists on being preserved, remember. Our instincts are always first for survival. We are hanging onto every last bit we have — which usually doesn’t feel like, or isn’t, much.
In order to do this, we don’t tell, we often don’t admit the abuse even to ourselves. We bury the fact of the abuse, we mummify it. When I first faced the terror of having been abused, the damage and shame, I used to think of my life as being on parallel train tracks. And I thought I had ‘jumped tracks’, I hoped permanently. That train track over there is the ‘bad’ part of me. I’m NOT on that track. I’m on this track here, a long way from shame.
However. The train tracks of shame run parallel to our lived reality whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not, no matter how hard we try. And sometimes, often, the tracks converge at an unexpected junction. Sometimes there’s a wreck. Sometimes the choking feeling of shame just emerges, triggered. And then if we’re lucky, the trains part ways and we are okay for a while.
This all-consuming shame is not a coping mechanism. It is the opposite. It is engendered by our abusers. It is planted there, inside us, and grows, completely out of our control. In fact, drowning in shame prevents us from coping; it cripples us.
Shame feels dirty. We feel dirty. We don’t want anyone to know that we must be dirty. We do everything we can to stay off those tracks. But sometimes we get stuck on those tracks, those shame tracks, for a long long time.
We need to keep reminding ourselves that the shame we feel is NOT ours; like the abuse itself, it was FORCED and/or MANIPULATED onto/into us. This shame is not an authentic part of us. This shame tells us we have done something — EVERYTHING indeed — wrong, and that it is all our fault.
But NOTHING — ABSOLUTELY NOTHING — ABOUT THE SEXUAL ABUSE WE ENDURED AS CHILDREN IS OUR FAULT.
Despite us ending up carrying the shame, and despite so few convictions for CSA, so little awareness, and so much surrounding disgust and horror:
NONE OF THIS IS OUR FAULT.
So what do we do about this shame? What do I do about it? Well, I run from it for years. I keep it so firmly on those other tracks that I can’t even name it. I’m not a victim, I tell myself, I am not brimming with self-disgust, emptied of all else.
Yet the energy required to run on two tracks (at least) at the same time eventually defeats me. For me, and only for a short while, the tracks converge and crash, never to be separated again. I have to figure out what to do about this ‘other Patricia’ — the one for whom everything is wrong, everything is dirty, everything is impossible. The shamed one. The one ashamed of simply beingalive. Yet alive she is, and hurting.
As I have said so many times: I was lucky. I am lucky. I had help. I had love. I had a few people to catch me when I was falling so, so fast.
It’s horrible to feel so worthless. So useless. So used. So left on the tracks to die.
I don’t know how to dispel pervasive shame. I do know that words alone don’t do it. Words alone don’t do much, when it comes to emotions beyond and before words, and emotions that flourish in a place where there are no words.
In my own life, DOING has helped me overcome shame (most of the time). I have walked the walk until somehow I am really walking it, with my whole heart. I speak out. I don’t hide. I vent. I rail. I don’t Give. A. Shit. I put that shame over there, scream at it, beat it with my fists — and show it that once and for all, I have survived.
I raise my children to know these stories exist, my story exists. I don’t speak to my father before he dies (after 35 years’ estrangement), nor my stepmother, still counting. This is me DOING. This is me BEING how I want to be, how I imagine my best self to be: passionate, strong, thoughtful, committed, loving. I take care of the Patricia he hurt; I look after her. I understand that he never knew the ‘real’ me. Never. And that he never will.
I do this until I believe in and am able to enact these things. Which is moment to moment, and always pretty much now.
An excerpt from LEARNING TO SURVIVE, when I realised I ‘just’ need to hang in there, that I have another ‘self’. That I will certainly escape.
Most years we drive further south at Christmas – to see either [my stepmother’s] parents in Florida, or Ommie and Granddaddy back in Texas. It takes about three days.
To save money we all stay in the same room in the motels along the way. For me, it is another welcome splash of rare freedom: he won’t dare, for sure.
One such night he is changing. [My siblings} and I are all piled into the other double bed. My father misjudges, and his penis flaps between his legs, which he then catches as he slams his legs back together. [My siblings] of course think this is completely hysterically funny, and it’s contagious, because then I’m laughing too. My father instantly loses his temper, and after dressing, comes over and throws back the covers, slapping me and one of them – whoever is in reach – hard on the bottom.
That shuts us up quick. It is the only time I ever remember being physically punished my whole childhood. Even then, as now, I am struck by the ludicrous hypocrisy of it all: does he really think it needs hiding? He has tried to get me to do things to it, with my mouth and hands.
In my last journey south with the family, I am nearly 17. The abuse has stopped. We are still all in the same motel room.
I have been involved with Suzanne for nearly a year.
In this final motel room, my father is irritated. He is irritated and unreasonable about everything. I know he is somehow angry at me – Suzanne, I reckon – and I don’t care. He can’t and won’t corner me tonight.
I leave the hotel room, taking T S Eliot’s Selected into the bleak and fluorescent lit corridor. Being in a secret love – which he cannot reach – I cherish my solitude. I lie down on the sofa bench there, and open the book.
The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.
It is a familiar section, and one I know then and now by heart. That night, as I’d done so often before – in a pattern I’d set up since the moon landing – I imagine a home I will make somewhere else. On Eliot’s streets, even. I invent the fronts of the houses, the shapes of the rooms, the soft blankets, hot chocolate, smell of wood on a cold night. In my head, this house is always very tiny, and I am almost like a doll, hiding there. But alive, living, and alone.
Suddenly – and it’s like a flash, like a fact blooming in me – I know that I will make a home somewhere else. That this is not a dream. It is real. And that the home will be for real people, not dolls: that I really can leave. That I really am leaving. In 20 months I will be leaving for university, leaving my father and his petty disgusting ways. And there is absolutely nothing he can do about it. I can leave! I really can. And will.
Yesterday I went into town and picked up my repaired bracelet, pictured here. I wear everything permanent on one side, my left: my bracelet, my watch, and my engagement and wedding bands.
Yesterday as I walked back to my car in the underground car park, bracelet newly restored, I was overwhelmed by the rich and familiar smell of oil on concrete. The smell of my beloved grandfather’s garage, and somewhat, the smell of him, working in his overalls there, fixing things as he always did. I spent hours out there with him, just pottering. Him and me.
Yesterday I got in the car and cried. My grandfather died 20 years ago this month. I couldn’t go to his funeral, as my father would be there. I also cried for my father-in-law, who passed only 18 months ago, who was my father for over 30 years with no fuss, and unconditionally.
It’s my father-in-law who gave me this bracelet, on the birth of his tenth grandchild, our young Max, 22 years ago. I wore it daily for years, wearing out the clasp. But it’s back now.
My watch? Bought with inheritance from my mother-in-law, over 30 years ago too. I only knew her one year, but she made a profound impression on me. I have always longed to have known her longer.
I miss the older people in my life whom I trusted and loved. I miss them so much. I know I was lucky to have any, but I don’t take this for granted. I treasure it. They taught me all I know and have ever known.
My grandfather and my father-in-law would both be so proud and happy for the marriage of our first son Eliot, in two weeks. My grandfather held him at six weeks old; we have a picture. And of course, my father-in-law saw Eliot grow and become someone special; they were close.
So I’m holding onto what matters, clinging to it. Not much else in my young life was worth much, to be sure. But I have always known that somewhere I was loved, really cherished. That has never left me.
There are lots of passages in Learning to Survive about my paternal grandparents, Ommie and Granddaddy. They half-raised me, and saved me over and over from the whims and instabilities of my mother. This section is about what it was like to stay with them, their authentic and entirely loving ways.
I believe it is some years before I understand that my favourite people in the world, Ommie and Granddaddy, are my unseen father’s parents. Rather, for all of my early life, I feel they belong only to me.
They live in Beaumont, a big city in deep east Texas, which first built up around the oil industry, like its larger regional cousin, Houston. Being only a few miles from Louisiana and its swampy backcountry however, Beaumont is never able to take on the cosmopolitan mantle of Houston. It remains fast-growing but provincial, and in the 60’s, all of the Deep South characteristics and traditions are still in place.
An electrical engineer, my grandfather is a successful part of Mobil Oil’s rise in the 40’s and 50’s. The house I visit is the result of a certain prosperity, designed and built by my grandparents in a then up and coming area of the city. It is a sleek, rambling ranch-style bungalow, set in a large plot of land, with an expanse of lawn and neat caladium-frilled trees in the front. Around back are Granddaddy’s spacious vegetable patch, my swings and a sandbox he makes for me at some point.
Even now, I can recall the anticipation of arriving on their street, their block. My eyes search for their house, the long driveway, Granddaddy’s pick-up parked on the side, and Ommie’s car in one side of the double garage. We might pull up outside if there are things to unpack, and then walk through the other half of the garage, with its pungent smell of oil on concrete. Someone swings the screen door open; it often squeaks, and always clatters behind you, pushing you through the doorway, announcing your arrival.
This is the homely way in: on the left is a toilet where Granddaddy washes up from working outside, and Ommie’s enormous laundry room through to the greenhouse. Then you are in the kitchen, with its small table and every inch of counter space laden with food. Outside that window is the hummingbird feeder, with its bright red liquid. Through the kitchen is the lounge – comfortable chairs, a huge half-circle sofa, the television, lots of Readers Digests, a candy dish of clear sweets, and a whole wall of glass doors looking out into the back garden.
By contrast, the whole front of the house is more formal, with a dining area, a living room no one ever sits in except at Christmas time or with visitors, the piano, and the front door with a sort of entrance hall. The front and back of the house make up a large rectangle; off one end of that rectangle is the hallway to the three bedrooms and two bathrooms.
The living room, the hallway and the bedrooms are all unusually silent places. Heavily carpeted, you can never hear anyone walk or speak between the bedrooms. The curtains in the living room are always drawn to keep the upholstery from fading, and the windows in all the bedrooms are surprisingly small, high up. Sleeping at Ommie and Granddaddy’s house is like sleeping in a cocoon. I always want to be there, always want to stay.
In truth, I begin to expect to stay with Ommie and Granddaddy; I look forward to it. We traverse the highways between San Antonio, where my mother lives, and Beaumont. I settle into the high twin beds in my grandparents’ house like they are in my own bedroom — more so, as they never change.
It seems, at one point, or maybe more than one point, that I am always with them. My Aunt Lois tells me that I stay with them for months on end, one time almost a year perhaps. Ommie continues to work, teaching Spanish at the high school. I remember going to see a friend of hers who owned a grey parrot that speaks Spanish.
In Beaumont, I even go to nursery, and Sunday School, where I listen to the lessons and remember a colourful room to play in.
Ommie and Granddaddy take me everywhere. To my grandmother’s hairdressers once a week: a small operation with four or five brown Naugahyde chairs and women who never stop talking. Every once in a while Ommie gestures toward me, mouthing ‘big ears’ to get them to stop gossiping, but they never do. I sit and watch and listen, sipping my coke from a small glass bottle through a straw. Ommie is at her most animated with these people, with her women friends – they even talk while under dryers, their hair up in curlers, flipping through magazines and exchanging views. Sitting on my chair to the side, every once in a while someone comes by, tells me what a good girl I am. And they tell Ommie too, ‘what a good girl she is.’ By the cashier, Ommie reaches out, puts a hand on the top of my head, ‘I know it,’ she says proudly.
I go everywhere with them. Granddaddy takes me out in the pick-up truck, sometimes even in the back if I promise not to move around too much. He drives around the block so I can feel the wind in my hair. For longer journeys, though, I sit next to him in the cab. Together we go to the hardware store, the gardening shop, the fishing tackle store. I inspect tiny drawers full of screws and nuts and bolts, and once, lots of extravagant fishing flies lined up on the counter. It’s not my world, but with Granddaddy in his overalls, his hand around mine, or often, his hands resting on my shoulders, I get a peek at it.
It is Granddaddy who sets up the swing and slide in the backyard, and who builds a sandbox around the bottom of a tree for me. Outside, it is always hot and wet, but with Granddaddy working next to me, I play. The chameleons on the house fascinate me; I stand completely still, just waiting for one to run from the green grass to the red wall so I can watch it change colour. In the front, together we see the squirrels fussing in the tall trees, running through the thick spiky grass. I sit on the front step and watch him mow, watch our neighbours mow their front yards, the hands they raise to one another. And always, should anyone stop to talk, my grandfather waves me over, rests a hand on me: ‘This is our granddaughter,’ he says, ‘come to stay with us for a while.’ And whoever it is, sensing something, or maybe just liking what he sees, says, ‘Well isn’t that nice. Isn’t that nice for you?’ And my grandfather, with a little squeeze, says, ‘It sure is.’
Two or three times in the last couple of months I’ve ended up in conversations about Child Sexual Abuse — with friends at hydrotherapy, and line dancing. Not soul mates, but folks I talk to and who talk to me. Whom I’m glad to see, and vice versa.
It has been a long time since I’ve disclosed to acquaintances. And I’ve come so far in such a short time when it comes to being open, not apologising, not rushing to make them feel somehow okay about my experiences — so far indeed, that I have been surprised all over again at the responses:
oh, it hardly bears thinking about, paired with a pursing of the lips. Horror.
this happened to YOU? (to someone middle class, educated, from a ‘good’ family)
it turns my stomach, said with a flat hand outward, keep it away. Disgust.
Sigh. There is SO MUCH work to be done, still, in order to have ‘normal’ conversations about CSA. So many misconceptions, factual and psychological.
We MUST think about child sexual abuse, as upsetting as we find it. Not acknowledging its existence perpetuates it. Silence creates secrecy. It perpetuates abuse. This is a simple equation.
Abuse doesn’t happen ‘over there’ somewhere. Abuse happens everywhere. But the stigma surrounding it — that it only happens in ‘bad’ households, in ‘deprived’ areas, to ‘uneducated’ people — ensures it’s kept at arm’s length. Refusing to acknowledge how widespread it is — you guessed it — perpetuates it. If people don’t believe it happens everywhere, they won’t believe it happens anywhere near them. So it will continue. Another simple equation.
Sexual abuse IS disgusting. But for 1 in 6 children, it’s a REALITY. These children don’t have the luxury of turning away in disgust. By not acknowledging this reality — again, as upsetting as it is — again, we perpetuate abuse. We abandon children to the perpetrators.
The shock of sexual abuse is real. Finding out that a friend or acquaintance was abused, or that a child you know is being abused, is pretty awful. There’s no getting around that. We all know abuse is BAD.
I’ll admit that it’s easy for me to forget how upsetting those who have not been abused or are not involved in intense dysfunction can find the whole idea of sexual abuse. I probably mention it several times a day in conversation, and have done now for a few years. It’s my ‘normal’.
However. Hear me out. NORMALISED doesn’t mean that CSA is RIGHT or OKAY. ‘Normalised’ means in the open, discussed — not ignored, skirted around, backed away from. ‘Normalised’ means part of a life. A sad part of life, an upsetting part of life, to be sure — but day to day reality for perhaps 15% – 30% of families in the UK right now (the victims and their families, and the perpetrators and their families).
When we ‘normalise’ CSA we aren’t saying it’s ‘fine’. We are saying this happens. Everywhere, and to every kind of person, across all ages and stages. We are also saying perpetrators are close by. We are also saying be alert, make space for children to disclose, be open to the possibility. We are saying: we see this, and we want to stop it.
The gap between survivors for whom CSA is an openly discussed reality, and those fortunate enough to claim they have ‘never known anyone’ who has been abused, those who are so horrified that they physically and mentally turn completely away — this gap is hard to bridge. We need to be able to acknowledge the awfulness of abuse, the horror of it indeed, alongside being able to take practical steps to help, to raise awareness, to see it as possible anywhere, and possibly perpetrated by someone in or well known to the family.
CSA is a terrible thing — destructive, damaging, a lifelong sentence for survivors and their loved ones. But not allowing ordinary conversation and awareness of CSA is another kind of terrible, the kind of terrible which guarantees more and more suffering for those who are drowning in silence, the 1 in 6 children, the 11 million adult survivors in the UK.
This poem is from Learning to Survive, written within days of my father (my abuser) dying. This is the openness, the awareness, the acknowledgment of complexity I know is possible. The place where we are not keeping secrets anymore, and friends and colleagues know and understand, without horror.
It has taken me a long time — years — to allow myself to feel feminine. This is not to imply that all women need to be feminine — far from it — but I’ve always been drawn to fashion, accessories, and ‘dressing up’. So the idea of the feminine has always appealed to me.
However. For most of my adult life I have worn somber colours — blacks, greys, browns. I have steered clear of anything bright, or patterned. I have steered clear of anything overtly feminine, except in small ways.
It almost goes without saying — now that you are here, and you know this blog is generally about Child Sexual Abuse — that I have been careful most of my adult life never to wear anything which might be considered ‘too feminine’ (read: ‘revealing’), either.
I have been afraid, all my life, of attracting unwanted attention from men. And because the ‘attention’ I got from my father didn’t make sense, and felt out of control — I thought ALL men were like this. Liable to put their hands on me. That I was liable to ‘make’ men ‘lose control’. Logically I knew this didn’t make sense — but it was what my experiences as a child, and then as a young adult survivor, told me: men only wanted one thing, and if I don’t ‘give’ it to them, I better be careful.
In my last post I mentioned that I’ve been fortunate enough to be working with other survivor/activists and with academics at the University of Bristol Dental School, developing ideas for increased access to and trauma-informed care in dentistry for CSA survivors. The experience has been eye-opening in lots of ways, and hugely empowering. It has been a gift to sit with others who get it, and who want to make a difference.
In the first workshop, we were asked to draw ourselves as a plant that had everything we needed. I am VERY far from an artist, but I instantly knew what plant I’d be: a pink clematis, climbing up the warm brick wall of my grandparents’ house, supported and loved and feeling beautiful. This is what I drew:
Notice that the flowers are PINK. I was surprised I drew this — pink? I don’t really do pink. And yet, I thought again: in the last year, I have purchased a mauve pink top, and just recently, a bright pink cardigan. And a few weeks ago — I went for the bright pink nails heading this post.
There’s another reason femininity — and specifically pink — have made me wary in the past. Because I associate pink with the body. With orifices, with genitals, and with danger.
But NOW! Something in me has been able to reclaim pink. Enjoy it. Revel in it. Pink is lovely. It’s not dangerous. It’s not attention-getting. It’s not about sex.
As for revealing clothing: this too seems to have turned a corner for me recently. I haven’t worn a real bikini except in front of my nuclear family in decades; revealing skin has up til now made me very, very nervous.
But NOW! For the first time I can remember I’ve got up the nerve to purchase a bikini for wearing when we go away in late August. I WANT to be like other women and not worry about it. Not be ashamed. With empowerment and understanding, I’m more settled in all aspects of my body and my femininity than I ever thought possible.
Next up: pink bikini?! Hmmm.
This extract from LEARNING TO SURVIVE captures some of what it’s like to feel disassociated from my body, constantly observed, and fantasised into a ‘relationship’. Which I hated.
The next summer, I end up in Blacksburg. I am keen to spend time with Alice and her new college friends, and have no trouble getting another restaurant job with evening shifts. I have the days to myself, and stay out of the house as much as I can; Alice and I go to a pool every day to swim, sunbathe, and drink margaritas. On my nights off, I go to the clubs, having several probably quite dangerous sexual encounters with strangers. There is also a woman I work with who appears desperate to sleep with me. I resist. And, as ever and at this point, none of this activity is important to me, despite various one night stands actually ringing my home phone in an effort to see me again. Sex means absolutely nothing to me, yet I seem to attract people, constantly. I wonder, in time, whether this happens to me becausethey know something about me, sense something, smell something almost. Sleeping with men – going straight to the sex, no enjoyment, seems required of me. I don’t know how to do anything else, or see myself, or them, otherwise. I don’t want to cuddle. I don’t want soft words. In fact: softness and fondness make me feel a bit sick. The sooner it’s over, the better.Let the hormones take care of business. Then leave as soon as you can.
At the time, I feel I am wise beyond my years, that I know something others my age don’t: this is all there is; get used to it.
That same summer, the household in Blacksburg acquires a set of weights and some gym mats. They are in the basement, in the half of the downstairs sitting room which has never been used for much. After a serious knee dislocation during a modern dance rehearsal at Oberlin, I am in rehab, building my leg muscles, generally getting back into shape, and use the weights every other day, doing core exercises etc as well. When he’s home, my father comes downstairs to watch me. He says he is learning about weights, and smiles, laughs a half-laugh. But I know he’s simply coming down here to look at me. When June comes home, he quickly gets to his feet, goes upstairs.
Encounters like this are common, I realise now. From age 16, when the abuse stops, right up until the last time I see him, at age 21, every time we are alone he behaves as if I am party to a secret, a secret between us. He behaves, I realise now, as if we are in a secret relationship. As if external forces have ‘broken us up’, but we still long for each other.
For me of course, nothing could be further from the truth. He repels me, disgusts me. His laugh, his hands rubbing together, fingers clasping. His physical awkwardness. I have a hard time being around him at all. I have no wish ever to see him again. Yet: here I am. Here is the family. Here is Blacksburg. Here is where I grew up.
What I struggle to accept now is my tolerance of the situation. How do I not storm out and never come back? How do I eat in the same room? How do I smile? How do I breeze in and out every day? Secrecy, I guess, is hard to break the surface of. It holds firm, membranous and tough, despite the liquid chaos underneath.
And I suppose, if I’m honest, a part of me still hopes. I hope that this will pass, and I know that some part of me is strong enough to last until it does. I continue to hope – for years – that he will change. That he will seek help in the ways that perpetrators I later witness are forced to seek help. I know – deeply and with real regret – that everything about his attitude to his relationship with me is wrong. What takes me so many years to do is give up on him. Give up on the family, give up on [my stepmother]. And it’s this giving up which brings lasting pain, to this day.
I feel like I’ve been ‘gone’ for ages. But I’m back, after four (?) weeks of resting, teaching, discussion — and investigations into my body’s insistence in going off piste.
First, we went away for a few days. I painted my nails pink. More on pink and what this means to me in another post!
Second, I participated in several weeks of a research project being carried out by the Dentistry School at the University of Bristol — with the aim of a co-produced outcome between survivors of Child Sexual Abuse activists, and academics, all of us keen to improve access to dentistry for survivors of CSA. More on this incredibly worthwhile endeavour in another post. And watch this space for the first outcome!
So to my health. Regular readers may recall that I’ve been dealing with nighttime coughing and choking episodes since January. After numerous interventions (two rounds of antibiotics, steroids, change in asthma treatments) and tests (peak flow, CT scan, X-ray), my own instinct was that something in me had been ‘triggered’ and had gone into ‘overdrive’. Fortunately, and finally, a GP in my surgery contacted me, remembering that she had had another patient with similar symptoms. She wanted to refer me to an allergist/immunologist, as it was also clear that I had an ‘allergic disposition’.
I decided to go privately, as the wait on the NHS was likely to be around nine months. My own instinct (and that of my GP) was that this was somehow related to my mast cells (a theory I raised a month ago on this blog). It took me three days, but I found a formally trained allergist who openly declared an interest in mast cell issues.
In preparation for the tests he wanted to run, I had to come off all antihistamines. I have been taking two one-a-day antihistamines for years. Coming off of them produced a TON of nasty things: sweating, all over body itching, a low fever, headaches etc. Interestingly, my chest did NOT worsen. But clearly: the antihistamines were suppressing a LOT that I was unaware of. I had one set of tests, then a few days later had to come back off the antihistamines again. This time I had dramatic joint and muscle pains, incredibly painful. Argh.
However. Long story not-so-short: blood tests, patch tests, and skin prick tests later, a bit of a shocker. It looks like I am allergic to NOTHING (nothing we found, anyway). I have been having ‘allergic type’ symptoms for 30 years — hayfever, asthma, various food intolerances — which have gradually worsened to the point of being quite debilitating… and yet I’m allergic to nothing. What IS evident though is that something is driving my symptoms: the overall antibody level (Ige) is significantly raised, indicating ‘allergic’ response levels are raised regardless.
Anyway. It turns out that most people who experience what I am experiencing are women. Most are middle aged, middle class, and make efforts to be healthy in their lives. Like me. And yet: something in their bodies seems to be constantly in ‘fight or flight’ mode, essentially.
I’ll let that sink in.
Did I mention CSA to this consultant? Yes I did. Did I outline the statistics? Yes I did. Did I make clear that there is research which shows that CSA survivors are much more likely to develop inflammatory conditions, autoimmune conditions, and chronic conditions? Yes I did. We talked about how the immune system seems to shift with trauma, physiologically. He was open, interested, and listened. He believed me.
So. My guess is that my chronic uticaria/mast cell activation springs from childhood trauma. I don’t like those apples at all, but I suspect this is the root of it. I suspect too that the several thousand of mostly women my consultant has treated for this have also undergone some kind of trauma — be it serious illness, domestic or sexual abuse or neglect. And the body (which keeps the score) has reacted like this.
That’s the super irritating news. The good news is that with several months of high dose antihistamines and montelukast (Singulair in the US), my agitated system is very likely to calm down enough to be able to very much reduce the meds or get rid of them completely. This is his experience. He also (wisely) advised me to stop trying to ‘figure out’ triggers; this in itself can ramp up the system, which intensifies reactions. This all makes sense, and I’m now enjoying NOT worrying about what is ‘setting me off’!
As I’m only now confronting the lasting physical ramifications of my childhood, there is little in LEARNING TO SURVIVE which considers it directly. This though from the end of the book does capture the sense that you don’t ‘get over’ abuse. You can’t. It stays with you, in many forms. What we strive for is how to manage it, and how to live well in spite of it. We are the ones who have to learn to live with it all.
My own father died unexpectedly in October 2018, while I was in the middle of planning this book. He was an abuser. I am a survivor. That isn’t all he was, nor is it all I am. But it has shaped me and continues to shape me, no matter how hard I have tried and continue to try to keep it away from what matters. I do not know and now will never know the extent to which his sexual obsessions shaped him, but I am also, unsurprisingly, not sure either the extent to which I care.
I have for the most part grown around the deep-running grief and betrayal that I can name. But after years of saying (perhaps more in hope than belief) I am ‘past it’, that I am ‘totally fine’, I now accept that the legacy of abuse never ends. You never ‘recover’ to the point of completely letting go. These days I ask different questions – no longer why and why me – but rather: who would I be if this had not happened? What might I have written, done? Who would my brother and sister be? And my mother? My aunt? My stepmother?
And then, of course: how has the abuse affected my own children? All aspects of my relationship with my husband, and the way we live our lives? The things I am afraid of, the things I can’t explain. The lasting sense I have that life is fleeting, and apt to disintegrate. And that I must always be prepared for the worst to happen. That what I think and feel, when it comes to it, aren’t of real significance. Would these anxieties still be here? And if not, might I have taken more risks, been more ambitious? Had, more so, the courage of my own convictions?
I have no answers to these questions, and never will. There remains so much, so much I don’t know and will never know, and despite my survival, all of our survivals, there is so much too with which I will never be at peace. And there is so much loss. The ripples of my father’s paedophilia, his deluded selfishness, his refusal to accept responsibility, go on and on, and continue to damage all of us, and all of our loved ones. When the ripples hit the shore, they just come back again. They never disappear. It is this fact which brings the most despair for me, and these days, anger.
This book emerges here and now partly because this is a story I need to tell, like all stories which find a writer. This book is also here, I hope, partly as a way of helping to make the invisible, visible. To help stop this. To be seen, and heard: I am here. We are here.