[image: Petra Lea https://lelu-designs.mysupadupa.com/collections/k-collection%5D
Generally when we talk about ‘forgiving’ in Child Sexual Abuse, we mean ‘forgiving our abusers’ for their criminal actions. However a conversation on Twitter this week got me started thinking about forgiveness at large, in general… forgiveness around the whole situation which occasioned the abuse.
This is a fraught area. On one hand there are always family members etc who say they had no idea the abuse was happening. On the other hand are those who say they ‘suspected’. And let’s say we have a third hand; on this third hand I’d place the thought that the family members did not look and did not see.
I have already entered a contentious place, I know. Because what do I know about peoples’ lives while children are being abused close by? Nothing, I’ll admit. Because I was one of those children being abused.
It wasn’t my job to understand or know what the adults around me were going through that prevented them from protecting me. I suspect that in my case the household was so dysfunctional that the adults were completely shut off from each other.
So what about school? Dance teachers? Friends’ parents? There is a lot of work being done now around ‘signs’ of sexual abuse to look out for in children. And they are not necessarily what you think (see also the work of The Flying Child Project). So there is I guess a degree to which some adults — adults at a distance — might be forgiven for not noticing abuse: they didn’t know what to look for.
I return though to the family adults. In my case, there was only one other. My father, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, drove wedges and divided the family from other family members, so there was only my stepmother in the house, ever. So there was no one else to take notice of his behaviour. No one to ‘call out’ the family dynamics, which were undoubtably skewed.
Can you remain angry with or unforgiving of those who by all appearances ‘didn’t know better’? Is ignorance a defence? Maybe. Is fear for your livelihood a defence? Maybe. Is fear for your other children a defence? Maybe.
But now I’m feeling on a dark path. Is there no one who should have been responsible? Is there no one who is duty-bound to take care of us, no matter what? Don’t surrounding adults, as expressed on Twitter this week, at some point become complicit if they do nothing?
After years of thinking and feeling all this through, I have arrived at my own conclusions. Those that are right for me. And they are: I cannot forgive my father for his abuse of me; and I cannot forgive my stepmother for not looking after me.
These two conclusions look the same, but they are arrived at differently.
- if my father had accepted responsibility for the abuse, and been held accountable for his abuse of me, I believe I STILL would not forgive him. The damage done to my life is irreparable, and ultimately HE made the decision to inflict it. Nothing can change this.
- however, if my stepmother had ever expressed remorse, had broken ranks, had asked to be forgiven, had apologised, or had spoken with me about her (unknowing or not) complicity in my father’s abuse of me — I believe I could have forgiven her over time. I recognise that she is a victim too, of something. As it stands however, none of this happened.
Forgiveness is a difficult term. It implies ‘all good’. But to some (including me) it also implies ‘resolution’, ‘forgetting’, ‘integration’. My anger and sorrow at losing parts of my childhood mean that I cannot resolve this, and nor do I want to ‘integrate’ the abuse into my life. On the contrary, I want it far away. But I can’t and won’t forget. Because it’s with me every day.
In the best world, forgiveness also implies ‘understanding’. And I suppose this is where I can imagine ‘meeting’ adults who became complicit in child sexual abuse. Showing understanding of each other’s situation may encourage education, and begin to create situations where CSA cannot happen. I am not sure, and I feel like I need some possibly unattainable ‘proof’ of this — but I do believe in education breaking silences of all sorts. And breaking silence breaks CSA. In theory, it’s a simple equation.
This excerpt from my memoir LEARNING TO SURVIVE looks at my stepmother’s role, and how I try (and fail) to understand.
There is just so much I do not, and never, understand. So many questions I do not ask, so much unsaid. Unacknowledged.
My father implies that [my stepmother] will be angry. He says best to keep all of this between us. So I do. I am, as ever, so very afraid of anger, of disapproval.
Everything needs to keep being alright. I must never show unhappiness. Never stop talking, but never talk back. Never stop doing well in school.
It is not difficult for my father to control what I say or do. My time there is conditional, after all. And I am a quick learner; soon I am convinced that making any fuss at all will lead to terrible trouble. Then where will I go? What will I do? I am capable – my grandparents tell me – so I can do this. I can bear it. And I do.
Over the years in Blacksburg I feel I watch [my stepmother] become unhappy, and see that unhappiness turn inward, turn to silence. I know very quickly that she doesn’t really like me, doesn’t like me being there. That she probably doesn’t love me. Later, when I become good at telling stories, I can make her laugh – a lot. And I enjoy that. She also believes in education, thinks I’m a good writer, and, along with wonderful English teachers, is formative in my learning to write with strength and economy. I think she is fond of me. But I don’t ever remember feeling love from her. I don’t remember any physical affection.
[My stepmother] is, incredibly it seems now, a trained social worker. And later goes to university part time to study for, and receive, her MBA, which is no mean feat. And yet: my best guess is that she is as cowed by my father and his control as I am, as eventually [my sister] and [brother] are to an extent. She lives, I think, around him. My father can fly into rages if his keys are in the wrong place. If dinner isn’t ready on time. If no one knows the answer to a particular maths question. He can be silent and rude. He does not tolerate silliness. He does not like any of our friends, as far as I can gather. After a first flurry, there are almost no dinner parties, and as far as I know they never go anywhere together. No holidays, no nights out. He doesn’t seem to like anybody. He’s awkward, and when he feels left out, of anything, he is angry.
Saying all that: for several years he comes to my room nearly every night and she never does so, not once. During this time she never says good night to me. For several years he stays in my room for a considerable time. From when I am eleven years old. Eleven!
What is she doing? What is she thinking?
I wonder if I have a sense of what she may be feeling. And that is: excluded. The more attention he pays me, perhaps the less he pays her. The more he values me, perhaps the less he values her. This equation should not even exist – we are not equal, [my stepmother] and I, we are not factors x and y working across the = of my father – but for her, this seems the case. Years later when we are all (briefly) in therapy, after [my stepmother] ‘knows’, we are on our way back from the therapist’s office, and I am in the back seat, trying not to cry. I am 17. I am upset. And [she] swings around to me, calling over her shoulder: ‘How do you think I feel? I’m the one married to the man!’.
I think, perhaps from early on, long before the abuse starts, I function in the family as ‘other’, as ‘different’. And so, perhaps, it is not such a leap then to turn me into ‘the other woman’, even though, of course, I am a child.
I can work my way through all of this, all of the explanations and mitigations, here now, as a grown up. But still, as I write, my heart pounds, and I feel that inner shivering which only comes with emotion as it forces its way to the surface: [my stepmother] has the chance to stop it, over and over. Night after night. Day after day. For years. She has so many opportunities to look after me. And I am so willing to be looked after; I need looking after.
But she doesn’t. And I don’t know how to forgive her anymore.