or, naivety

I’ve been on my own this week. As I often do at such (infrequent) times, I decided to challenge myself a little. So I watched both of the new documentaries about family dysfunction and sexual abuse: House of Maxwell and Jimmy Savile: a British Horror Story.

I think I do this on my own because I can react as I wish, in private. I can stop and start. I can drink wine. And I can take time to just think about it all. I don’t know if it’s unusual, but I don’t find these things triggering. Neither documentary is sensationalised — that’s what I hate, when things are sensationalised — so I always felt on secure footing.

It was all damning of course. Decades into dealing with my own childhood and the fall out from that, I am well acquainted with the enormous intricacies and confusions and horrors indeed which surround Child Sexual Abuse.

So I didn’t expect to hear anything new. Yet the producer of Jim’ll Fix It, Roger Ordish, said something which completely threw me: ‘How,’ he said, asking himself, asking the interviewer, musing, ‘could I have been so naive?’.

Naivety. I confess that I have never, ever, even THOUGHT about that word in relation to not ‘seeing’ abuse.

And I suddenly realised: I am so steeped in the dysfunction of my young life — that I don’t know any different. Living in awareness of dysfunction is my ‘normal’. I have absolutely NO idea what it would be like to live a life WITHOUT the knowledge and suspicion of sexual abuse, or abuse of any sort really.

I don’t know what it might be like NOT to suspect abuse in the first instance.

Naivety isn’t an excuse, but it IS a reason not to know about abuse. I now — suddenly — understand that sometimes abuse isn’t seen simply due to a (blessed) lack of knowledge. Simply because it doesn’t seem possible. Not within the realm of your experience.

The photograph at the top of this post, for instance: what does it make you think of? We read situations according to our experience, like it or not.

As activists and campaigners and makers and survivors — we need to understand that some people have been lucky. Really lucky. That the whole idea of abuse is alien, and that therefore they lack all awareness of its possibility. That they are not ‘looking away’ (seeing something and dismissing) so much as not even registering the possibility of abuse.

So ‘raising awareness’ can be literal. Not just making something ‘more important’ — but making it important AT ALL. And from there — and only from there — can come action. We can break the incidence of sexual abuse to others as gently as possible, but break it we must. None of us can afford to be naive, as painful as it is to face that. I’m as sorry as the next person that the world is like this, but as we have seen: horrible people take advantage of a naive world.

From my memoir Learning to Survive, about sensing what might threaten below the surface.

***

X is for X-ray Vision

What I am afraid of, deep down and unacknowledged, when moving to Virginia, I do not understand for a long time. I have already been through so much in my six years that this – a house, a family – might well have been for the best. Security. And I have no doubt that everyone involved – my grandparents, my mother, and, I’m guessing, my father – all believe this, despite the inevitable and distressing first shifts in a new place.

            So what do I know? What about my life so far is already sending me messages?

            I do not think I have any articulable way of knowing then. But I do know now. I now understand the messages that I sense under surfaces, behind smiles, in silences.

            There is a man here at Gladstone’s Library where I am working. And I don’t like him. Not one bit. He has a soft face, a spoiled face. He moves deliberately. He watches without wanting to appear that he watches. He repels me. I have seen him in conversation with others, and he seems perfectly nice. This doesn’t, however, change my mind. I know what he is.

what a child looks like

This is a photo of me the summer I was 12, in 1976. My father’s abuse of me had started the previous year, when I was 11. I have cut them out of the shot for privacy’s sake, but my half brother (six years younger) and my half sister (four years younger) are sitting on the railings either side of me.

I read Ruth Beecher’s article in History Workshop this week with great interest and recognition. It is absolutely true that the overriding cultural assumptions in my experience — during the 70’s and 80’s — were that girls who were abused were ‘flirting’, ‘playing with their sexuality’ — and ‘irresistible’. This starting point informs everything about how my early disclosures failed to get my father arrested. At the time, regardless of the law, child sexual abuse was still treated as a ‘problem in the family’. He was not considered a perpetrator, and I was not considered a victim.

It is true that from the beginning my father behaved as if the abuse happened because I was ‘so beautiful’. That he ‘couldn’t resist’. He went to great lengths to normalise this environment: men were uncontrollably attracted to girls — whether grown or not. All girls would become women, and were therefore sexual beings from the start. He was ‘safe’ because he was my father — but you never knew who else was out there. I was best off with him, because he had my best interests at heart; he could ‘teach’ me.

I ask you to look closely at this photo. I am a kid. I am a child. My father has been abusing me — touching every part of my body in a sexual way — for a year. He has shown his own sexual arousal to me in a variety of ways. He has tried and failed to make me satisfy him sexually. All before I am 13. All when I am in a training bra, wearing braces, thick lensed glasses, had not yet started my periods — and have no idea how to even begin to want to be attractive sexually, in any way. All I want to do is play, read, write, dance, and have friends.

I’m not a ‘young woman’ here. I am a child. Child Sexual Abuse is NEVER about ‘temptation’.

By the time this photo is taken, I am already struggling to feel ‘like a child’. My father’s abuse is another layer of mistreatment over my history of instability and neglect. I want nothing more than to be a child, to be ‘like everyone else’, to not be worried all the time. My father makes this impossible though, once and for all. This is what survivors mean when we say our ‘childhoods were stolen’. Because they were.

After this summer, we move to from the US to the UK for a year, to Oxford, where my father is on sabbatical. That year was one of the worst for the abuse. From Learning to Survive:

***

Pretence

Perhaps it is more difficult for him to ‘say goodnight’ for a lengthy time in Oxford – [my stepmother] is likely right next door I suppose. So some nights he comes in. Some nights he doesn’t. Some nights he leaves the door open, some nights he closes it.

            I begin to realise that he is going through such elaborate motions – closing and opening doors, sticking his head in, or coming in completely, mornings or nights – in order to deceive [my stepmother]. To misdirect her. To always have something to say. Excuses. Observations. I begin to realise that I am part of his deception. I begin to feel implicated. I begin to feel guilty. I begin to feel like I am part of his betrayal of her.

            My chest aches all the time. Whenever he is in my room, I am so frightened she will walk in. She will make me leave, hate me, if she ever finds out.

            Yet he continues. He acts like he can’t control himself, like I am a creature he cannot – cannot – resist. Like this is all my fault.

            There are more nightgowns in England. Eventually I am forced to wear them, albeit with underwear. His access is nevertheless direct, swift, and, I see now, opportunistic. I cannot talk to keep him away. He gets frustrated; he doesn’t have much time. He won’t listen. He wants one thing.

            In March of that year, I turn 13.

Pact

I make a deal with myself:

            I will be a stone, cold and silent.

            Like a puppet, so he has to move me.

            I will be blank, like I’m dead.

            Like he’s touching a dead person.

silence is silencing

[image: untitled, Mark Rothko, 1966]

As a result of being silenced during sexual abuse and beyond, I now have an almost pathological and immediate response – physical and psychological – to feeling silenced. I shut down. Very quickly.

This paralysis, accompanied by feeling very low emotionally, hopeless, I now see as directly related to the silencing I have experienced but also somewhat enacted (to save my own pain) as a result of being abused in childhood. This is a very recent realisation — within the last six months, and 40 years after the abuse ended.

I bring this up now because I realise that I also fall silent when I feel I have no reason — no room — to speak. Silence is silencing, indeed. It feeds on itself.

This week I have found myself feeling silent/being silenced in light of the war in Ukraine. There is just so much sorrow, so much desperation, so much depravity at work there. The trauma from this, for those there and well beyond, will echo for generations. What a waste of human life and love. What tragedy. It has been hard to see my own and others’ struggles with Child Sexual Abuse as deserving space in all this.

But I guess the reality is precisely the opposite: that this is in fact where we all meet, on the level of lost lives. Man’s inhumanity to man.

Silence begets silence. It grows deeper and more opaque with time. We are duty and morally bound to break silences, to prevent loss of life and living, whether spiritual or literal.

Instead of my own work this week, here’s a poem that runs on a loop in my head, and has done for many years. We all have a job to do here, folks.

Harlem

BY LANGSTON HUGHES

What happens to a dream deferred?

      Does it dry up

      like a raisin in the sun?

      Or fester like a sore—

      And then run?

      Does it stink like rotten meat?

      Or crust and sugar over—

      like a syrupy sweet?

      Maybe it just sags

      like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

forgiveness and complicity

[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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

***

[Stepmother]

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.

grief

[image: The UnStill Life, at Molinere Underwater Sculpture Park, Grenada]

Planning our son’s wedding, I am more aware than ever of the huge holes I have in my own family. Both my husband and my future daughter-in-law have large, cohesive families, with marriages and relationships which have lasted, lots of children, and no more than a ‘usual’ sprinkling of the inevitable dysfunction.

My blood family — what is left of it — are disparate, spread all over the US, in tiny pockets.

I mentioned in my last post the way that my father drove wedges between family members, both immediate and extended. This is a typical abuser tactic for maintaining the silence of the victim, and control over ‘information’ generally. An abuser needs to contain any possibility of the abuse being revealed — often not because he (in my case) necessarily believes it ‘wrong’ (though it obviously is), but because he believes the relationship is so ‘special’ that no one will ‘understand’.

The end result is a lot of missing relationships. When I think of ‘wedges’ I think of pieces of pie — and so when I imagine the ‘wedges’ my father drove between us all removed (which they are now in theory), I still see the spaces where the wedges sat. Those pieces of pie will be missing forever. And not just in my life, but in my whole family’s lives — my brother’s and sister’s, my step mother’s, my aunt’s and her children’s, my cousins’, and even my grandparents’, who knew about his abuse of me toward the ends of their lives. They too must have felt the terrible loss, and the lies: their son was a criminal, though never brought to justice. And everyone could see — everyone — how all of our lives had been misshapen and distorted, like trees forced to grow in high winds, over time.

When my father died in 2018, unexpectedly, the focus of the dysfunction died with him. We were all left with empty spaces, untethered ends, gaps now thrown into sharp relief. There was no memorial or funeral.

I know my brother and sister found grieving for my father complicated, and I cannot speak for them in any deep way. I can however speak for myself. The layered grief of past loss — what never was — with present loss — what isn’t now — with future loss — what will never be, for a time threw my own life into chaos, again. Loss upon loss upon loss, again and forever.

I only really acknowledged the wholesale destruction my father wrecked on all of our lives after he died. I only really felt the gaps, the collateral yet irreparable chasms that he and his actions created between us all, then.

It’s easier to feel a righteous and focused anger at someone who’s alive. It was for me, anyway. When my father died, my fierce and full anger at him did too. What took its place in some ways feels worse: bitterness, hopelessness, and a useless regret — not for my own actions (I truly know I did the best I could), but for the incredibly incompetent and deluded person he turned out to be. He could have done so much more to help his family find ways through, and he didn’t. He could have filled in some chasms, but he didn’t. Instead, he just left us all here, forever picking up his ‘charred’ pieces.

Part 4 of my memoir Learning to Survive is a collection of 16 poems written while my father was dying, and directly after his death. I’m pasting three here. They are untitled, so this […] denotes a new one. In my writing life, poetry has been what emerges when I can only see the world in fragments, and so it was this time too.

***

***

***

trauma memory

Three nights ago I was hounded by bouts of sleeplessness. This happens infrequently now, usually as a precursor to a migraine, and such has been the case alas. I usually listen to the radio when life is like this — podcasts, World Service, etc.

After much depressing news, I caught a podcast hosted by Steven Pinker, called Think with Pinker. This episode, ‘Sentence first, verdict after’, set out to look at cognitive concerns around juries and judges — specifically, language and memory.

Normally, I have a HUGE amount of time for Dr Pinker. He has done some fascinating work around language acquisition, computational intelligence, and has been a respected media intellectual for some years now. However, lying there unable to sleep….I just got madder and madder.

His main guest was Dr Elizabeth Loftus, a renowned cognitive psychologist, best known for her work in the area of memory and recovered memory. Her studies show pretty unequivocally that it is possible to ‘implant’ some kinds of memories in children especially (though they may be other conclusions to be drawn from them of course — perhaps just that adults can get children to believe lies?). While there are many questions about her work and how it may intersect with her own history (here is a fascinating and thorough New Yorker piece on her work and her personal history), there is no doubt that she is an influential expert in the area of ‘false memory’, called upon often by the defence in trials of the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Ghislaine Maxwell.

To be fair, I’m guessing that the podcast intended to control the conversation into only speaking about how necessary it is to be careful with language — to watch how questions and cross-questions are framed and asked when it comes to witnesses and victims. This makes sense: it’s good to be alert to influencing anyone on the stand.

But the programme was too dismissive for my liking. Too categorical. Loftus and Pinker laughed about how one of her studies convinced subjects that they’d been to Disneyland, when they hadn’t. One even reported having seen Bugs Bunny — impossible, because Bugs Bunny is not part of the Disney world.

Neither of them mentioned the very specific — and totally UNfunny situation of trials involving sexual abuse and sexual assault. Neither of them mentioned the fact that Dr Loftus is the queen of taking the stand for the defence in these cases — and testifying that memories can be implanted. And that therefore the victim’s recall of events and accusations may well be so unreliable as to be ‘untrue’.

Neither of them took any account of the questions surrounding Loftus’ work and traumatic experiences (see The New Yorker article above). Or mentioned that implanting traumatic memories has never been successful. And that is because it is impossible to recreate a sufficiently traumatic environment, context or individual situation. Trauma has its own rules.

We now know that not only are memories themselves different from each other (self evidently), but the creation and storage of these trauma memories are also different. There are many studies and articles available on the formation and characteristics (the neuroscience) of trauma memory; here is a snippet of a particularly well researched piece:

“Much of what is remembered of a traumatic or threatening event functions as if existing in separate islands of memory.

Information encoding and storage are impaired for aspects of the experiences that are not considered essential for survival or are of little emotional importance. This includes the sequence of events as well as peripheral details. This often results in a disorganized and incomplete narrative memory.

This is immensely important for how victims of trauma are interviewed. The primary emphasis of the sexual assault police interview should therefore be on the sensory, emotional memories that the victim has encoded and remembered rather than expecting the victim to give a narrative with a chronology.”

Trauma memory is different. It cannot be accessed like other types of memory, nor can memories be truly ‘planted’. The area of the brain into which the implanting would have to happen is too primal, and not open to suggestion.

The notion of memory — in all of its layers and mutability — is not solid at the best of times. But we must not confuse ‘normal’ memory with trauma memory. We have to establish respectful ways of questioning victims and witnesses who have been traumatised (or allegedly so) without risking re-traumatisation or further silencing. Sexual abuse and domestic abuse are SO common that we simply must find ways of doing this right. Discrediting memories, and/or eliding testimony into False Memory, fatally disadvantage actual victims and survivors — who are disproportionately penalised for having memories that behave differently, and which do so completely out of their control.

My memoir Learning to Survive reflects trauma memory at work in its structure, its gaps, and its fragmentation. I recognise and acknowledge these irregularities as the book progresses, but they are my reality, my memory, and ultimately they shape my life. This excerpt details what I can remember, and what I can’t, around an early traumatic sexual assault.

*

L is for Laundry Room

Close to the pool at one of the apartment blocks, there is a laundry room. I’ve been in it plenty of times. It’s a long thin room with washers and dryers along both sides: you open up the top, load in the clothes and close it, then line up the quarters in the sliding tray, push it in with a satisfying clunk. Many, many times I have helped my mother load up and push in the metal tray. You have to get it just right, but when it goes in, the water comes on immediately, a great rush into the drum of the machine.

            My friend Deidre and I are hanging around, as usual. It is summer. We wander past the laundry room, on our way somewhere else. There’s a man in there, and he steps out, calls after us, ‘Hey, can you help me?’

            We turn around. Deidre is wary, but I am not. Together we go back to him. He’s a big man, older, dressed in overalls like Granddaddy wears when he’s gardening or working on the pick-up truck. But he’s not as old as him, he’s more like an old father. He says, ‘Thanks. It’s just that I can’t get this to work, I don’t know how it works. Do you need quarters?’

            We are standing at the door, in shorts, barefoot and barelegged as usual, five years old. It’s darker in the room. We don’t say anything.

            ‘How many quarters do you need?’ he goes on. Finally I answer. ‘Two,’ I say.

            ‘Oh well,’ he says, ‘I’ve got two quarters. Could you show me how to work it?’

            Somehow I am moving into the room, and he lifts me up to put the quarters in. I push the slide in, and the wash starts. He puts me down. The moment of fear, the stepping forward, has passed, and I turn to leave.

            ‘Thank you,’ he says, then, as if it’s an afterthought, ‘oh hey, do you like Coke?’

            ‘Yes,’ I say.

            ‘Do you want one?’ he says.

            I do. He hasn’t given me anything for helping him, and I wonder if he’s going to give me a Coke for it. I nod.

            From now on, I don’t know what happens to Deidre, I only know what happens to me. I step forward again, and the man shuts the door. He says he’s going to put something over my eyes, then he’s going to give me a Coke. I am blindfolded. Fear begins to press at me, panic fluttering, but I don’t move. I don’t want him to see I am afraid. I tell myself that whatever is happening will be over, sometime it will be over.

            Something goes into my mouth. It doesn’t taste like coke. It tastes and feels terrible, but it is over quickly. I spit it out. I remember the sound of a zipper. I remember not looking at him when the blindfold comes off, and walking calmly out of the door, still not wanting to be afraid, the glass bottle of Coke in my hand.

            I sense that Deidre is with me, but I could be wrong. Perhaps she runs away, to find someone, to tell them, before the door is closed. Or perhaps she is blindfolded too.

            Some conversation comes up later, with older children or even with mothers, not my own. Someone asks me if I’ve seen anything, if anything has happened. ‘No,’ I say. I lie. I know I have something to hide. I’ve been greedy.

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.

we’re here, folks, in droves

It’s been a week. My head has been down, to the grindstone. I’ve watched the Maxwell trial spin by. Relief has been followed by distress, and the too-familiar feeling of loss of control: a juror was abused. He helped others to understand the elements of abuse. Along the way another juror realised they’d most likely suffered child sexual abuse as well. All is up in the air.

What does this tell us? For those of us in the Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) world, it reinforces a few hard facts, all of which we know, all too intimately:

  1. CSA is very common. In the UK, the NSPCC can be sure that 1 in 20 children is sexually abused. In the US, the CDC splits this figure by gender: 1 in 4 girls, 1 in 13 boys. These are the surveyed and reported stats.
  2. There is also the hard fact that a third of those abused NEVER disclose or report it. So we can be sure that the figure is higher than either the NSPCC or CDC can report in good faith.
  3. No one likes to think that the person next to them has been a victim of child abuse. See number 1. No choice, folks.
  4. No one likes to think that there’s a chance that the crimes being tried were experienced on some level by a member of the jury. See number 1. No choice, folks.
  5. Nor that anyone in any context knows or has contact with anyone who was sexually abused as a child. See number 1. You, and everyone, are bound to know numerous people who have been abused. No choice, folks.

Here is the thing. As late as 1974, Child Sexual Abuse was considered extremely rare. 1 in 1 million people. My lord. Society and culture could then (incorrectly) be supported by medics’ and lawyers’ claims that CSA is virtually unknown. From there, silences, denials, dismissiveness, deflections…all of that seemed fair enough. Nothing to do with Us. What happens to those children, and those people, is not Us. What happens is strange. Perverted. Deviant. Not Us.

Yes. I’m not going to argue anything other than CSA is awful. Wrong. Deviant.

But it IS Us. It is an everyday occurrence. It deserves to be part of the conversation, even in trials around…CSA. Because who would think of having no differently abled people on a jury in a trial about discrimination against disabled folks? Who would think about requiring there be no people of colour on a jury in a trial which involved a person of colour?

CSA — for this era, and regrettably — is part of the conversation. Part of our lives. Part of your life. We have a voice. We have logic and reason. We can make a judgement. We can hear things out, and weigh things up. But we won’t disregard our abuse.

Juries represent and reflect the Human Experience. Of course the process and the questionnaire all need examining. But let’s not jump to conclusions and state that people who have been abused cannot be part of a jury which must come to a decision about abuse. It’s not gonna happen. And it’s not right if it does.

We all long for CSA never to happen again. But we are nowhere near that yet. As the Maxwell trial, and so much else, amply prove.

[photo: me at age 15, taken by school friend David Larsen. My father was still abusing me.]

*

from my memoir Learning to Survive, about how very badly we can be betrayed by those who in theory are supposed to protect us, and by an unenforceable law:

Therapy

The spring of my junior year at Blacksburg High School is a particularly gruelling time.

            The nerves I see in my father’s eyes become something else, and he appears to take action. He tells me that [my stepmother] ‘knows about us’ and ‘about Suzanne’, giving the impression that he has had to tell her, for my own good. He locates a therapy practice about 15 miles away in Radford which he deems suitable. We are at first booked into a group session; then I start my own sessions, and [my stepmother] and my father start marriage counselling.

            This all seems to happen within a couple of weeks. [My stepmother] does not speak to me about what she knows. I do not remember her asking any questions, or expressing any concern. We go back and forth to therapy together, and do not discuss anything said within those walls. From journals of the time, I know that I am deeply, deeply confused and unhappy. About everything. I love Suzanne, but I also like boys. I hate men. I want my father out of my life. And I am utterly miserable.

            Things that emerge from therapy:

            Every Rorschach ink blot terrifies me. Every single one looks sexual. Looks creepy. Looks scary. Has monsters. I feel I am losing some battle if I admit how terrified they make me feel. I am 17. I lie about all of them, although there is only my therapist and me in the room.      

My father requests that I no longer call him ‘Daddy’. You need to grow up, he says, and I need to move on.

            Suzanne is a bad influence. I am no longer allowed to see her, at least for a little while.

            None of this can be mentioned to [my siblings].

Things that do not happen from therapy:

My father is not reported.

My father is not reported.

My father is not reported.

It takes me a long time to accept – years, and many therapists later – that in this, my first encounter with therapy, I am fundamentally betrayed: my father does not take responsibility for his actions, and, as it turns out, never does, as if that one chance missed lets him off scot-free. As a consequence I am not protected, and nor, for that matter, is [my sister], who is 13 at the time. As a consequence I am completely flattened. If [my stepmother] in theory ‘knows’ now, if the therapists ‘know’, why does everything not fall apart? Is the abuse, after all, okay?

            My own unproven and unsubstantiated theory is that my father probably locates this practice precisely because he feels he can influence its members. After all, he has been able to manage every aspect of the story so far. He prevents any explosion, or any impact on any other part of our lives. We carry on. I speak of the abuse – lightly – in therapy, almost paralysed with dread. But it is not discussed much. Of more importance it seems is my relationship with Suzanne: is it real, am I really gay? The therapist seems fixated upon how I become involved with Suzanne, and I do not recall a single direct conversation about the abuse. I wonder if, after all that, she ever really believes me.

            I know now that my father almost certainly mis-directed and orchestrated the whole thing, such that [my stepmother] and I never have an honest conversation, and most vitally, [my siblings] are told nothing. I know now too that the therapists at the practice actually break the law: in 1981 in Virginia, therapists are legally obliged to report sexual abuse to the Child Protective Services — which these don’t, because I am never interviewed, and anyway, nothing changes. I know now that this requirement to report to services is in place precisely because perpetrators are generally expert manipulators, and otherwise control the dynamics. Which is precisely what my father does.

not saying it

Sexual abuse exists in a place without words for most survivors, at first. I have never met a survivor who thinks — when they are three, or five, or eight, or eleven years old — ‘I am being sexually abused.’ Or ‘this is sexual abuse’.

There are no words in the young place where abuse happens. There is only profound confusion. Pain. Shock. The sense that something is wrong. That you are alone. That you are different. And — reinforced by your abuser — that this must be a secret. That’s the only word you know for it, secret.

Between us. Something special.

A child doesn’t know where to put the confusion. A child carries it around, trying to ignore it, putting it out of mind. A child goes out of their body whenever possible. Because there are no words. And without words for this, no way to talk.

There can be no disclosure without words. ‘Why didn’t you tell someone?’ is a refrain that survivors hear again and again, mostly from adults who failed to look after them. ‘If only you’d told me…’. But you can’t speak without words for what is happening. You don’t have the words; you only have the feelings. And the feelings are terrible: guilt, shame, disgust. Why even try to express anything so … dirty? Especially when you didn’t stop them/must have made them do it?

For me, eventually, words saved me: poetry, fiction, memoir. Words made a place that could not be ruined by him. They have always been my powerful place.

I have been lucky enough to live in that place my whole life. But it took me 40 years to put the abuse itself into words, and to accept that writing them doesn’t diminish me.

From my memoir Learning to Survive:

***

Words

I wish I had the words I have now, then.

            Because I did not have the right words. No way to say this. No hope of being believed. No language at all. No speech.

            Those years exist in the dark. The wind whistles through them. My father’s insistence that this is love suffocates me. I know he is not right, and has never been right, from the start. But my own words are like feathers. They cannot hold. They float away, while the rest sit at the bottom of the pool, the grey heavy silt, the sludge that cannot be dredged.

            This then is an act of translation, pulling through time, attempting to capture, working in the idiom of today, out of necessity. I find words, because I now must name this. I must say something. I must say what this is, in stark two dimensions. Because this happened. This happened to me, and is still happening, everywhere, to others. Without words said out loud, no one knows. No one hears. Or sees. Or dares speak again. And nor do we: without words, we carry all this in our bodies, in blind silence. Without words, shame and confusion stitch our mouths shut.

            So now I say this:

            I was abused. Sexually abused. Psychologically abused.

                        There is no other context.

            I am a victim.

                        There is no other context.

            He is a perpetrator.

                        There is no other context.

            And I am a survivor.

                        Of it all.

[photo credit: Cristian Palmer/Unsplash]

it only takes one

My first therapist Diana Kahn has been in my thoughts every day for many years. I loved her so much. The mother/protector I never had. The outraged one, the loving one, the fierce and driven one. The one who knew well before I did how my abuse would stretch outward and through my life forever.

She was the third person I disclosed to, aged 21, the second being my beloved creative writing professor and her friend, Diane Vreuls. Today I heard that Diana Kahn had died recently. The person who wrote to tell me this was Diane Vreuls. I feel as if the wind has been knocked out of me.

The ties with these two compassionate women stretch out over 35 years, and run deep. These women, between them, saved my life. Probably literally.

Diana Kahn prepared me for living, for life. She helped me be able to love, which I have gladly and wholly done for many years now. She led me toward my best self, the one that had been overshadowed by abuse, by shame, by fear. She kept me safe. My ability to be happy, to find joy, to believe in the future — all of this, I owe to her care, her insights, her encouragement, and her love. Rest in peace, you beautiful person.

It only takes one person to act, to know and understand. To help us heal. Here’s how I write about that time, in 1985, in my memoir, Learning to Survive:

***

it only takes one

Everything cascades into new places like dominos in my final year at Oberlin College [university], albeit in a slow and observable chain. After the summer, as if nothing has happened, I return to writing classes, this time to prose, with Diane Vreuls.  

            I begin to work on a story around a young woman called Roberta, and a young man called Alex. And the parallel narrative of her past, which involves something sinister. In the copy I have, I can see that I have made copious notes for Diane – ideas for development, acknowledgments of failings. I also state that there is a ‘father story’ here, though so far it’s not reflected in the text. The notes are chirpy, well organised. 

            But I can’t finish the story. I am due to go in and see Diane, but I can’t finish the story. I change tack: a different girl, older this time, in a relationship, a different man, the ‘father story’ further in the past. And I cannot finish this one either. I have no idea where it’s going, and don’t know what I want to say. But I know I want to say something.

            Diane calls me in for a tutorial on the initial four pages. I still have the copy she hands back to me then, and at the bottom, in small red writing, are the words ‘not enough for 2 weeks’ work’. It’s clearly a mess. She looks at my pages, all of them sketchy and faint. I can see I have disappointed her. She asks me to tell her about the story. I try to talk about the girl in it, and the love that must happen between her and Alex, somehow. About the other, different story I’ve started. Diane then asks me about the ‘father story’ line. She wonders what it is doing here, really, and how it connects to the floating interludes with some ‘she’ character, and some older ‘he’ character? There is too much, way too much, she says, unsaid.

            Of course, I have no words. I don’t even know how to talk about this. I have no idea what I’m doing. Then she turns her chair, directly facing me, and says, her voice a little shaky, ‘You are trying to write the same story over and over, do you see that? And it’s not happening.’ I must nod. Then she says, ‘Is there something you need to tell me?’.

            And I tell her. I am trembling all over. As much as I can tell anyone at that stage, I tell her. I tell her what my father did. I cannot yet cry about it, but she does. She asks about therapy, and I tell her about my last experience in that grand room. She is furious, and I later find out she makes an official complaint. But for now, and immediately, she phones her friend, a therapist called Diana Kahn – right there, while I’m in the office. She asks my permission to tell Diana a little bit, and I give it. I trust her completely; I give everything over. I tell her that I have no money at all to pay for anything. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Diane says not to worry. Not to worry any more about such things, because this is far, far more important.

I see the therapist Diana the next week, and twice a week at least for the following year, reducing to once a week for another year. She is fierce, and knowing, and protective. She releases me. She saves me. She begins the deep healing. And she pursues my father for every cent of her time, finally threatening him with a lawsuit. After which, he – surprise surprise – pays up.

I have never been able properly to express my gratitude to Diane Vreuls. For her compassion, her alertness, and for the friendship and love she shows me for years after. For the phone call she makes right there and then. But I hope that at times I’ve been able to embody her and make a difference. I promised myself I would, as soon as I started teaching 30 years ago. I promised myself that I would never turn away from a student in crisis, and I believe I never have. I know from experience that some changes in life can turn on a dime. Instead, I have numerous times picked up the phone, right there and then. I have made counselling appointments, I have walked students to the doctor’s office. I have had to tell students’ parents that I think their baby is in trouble. And I tell such students – often – of my own struggles. And of how my life is now. That there’s hope. Lots of it.