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.

saying it

Telling people you’ve been sexually abused is almost always difficult — sometimes for you, sometimes for them. Sometimes for both.

In the last three days I’ve found myself disclosing to two people. In both cases there was a context of sorts; we were having ‘normal’ conversations about families, and, rather than brush over, or tell white lies, I told it like it is: my father sexually abused me for about four years, and my mother (not living with us) had several mental illnesses. My stepmother, for her own reasons no doubt, seemed unable to act. So my ‘Christmas plans’ have not included any of my parents for decades.

Why say it like it is? Isn’t it easier to brush over? Short answer: yes, it is. It is easier not to be damaged or complicated — but for most people, whatever has happened in their lives, that’s a lie. My damage and complexity just happen to spring from several places which make most people uncomfortable, or even reel back in some horror: this is too dreadful to be true they seem to say, the expression on their faces passing through pity, disgust, grief, and settling to neutral.

Again, why do this? Because, and it’s quite simple when I think about it: it is not up to me to apologise or ‘be over it’. It is not up to me to hide facts which were completely and utterly out of my control. It is not up to me to protect others’ sensibilities. We don’t protect each other from the bad news of cancer, or bereavement — we say it all, and hope the listener figures out how or if to respond.

In recent years when I finally could bring myself to disclose the sexual abuse, I would rush to — as in the next sentence — say ‘but I’m okay, I really am. I’ve had lots of therapy and I’m really well.’ Some of you reading this blog will recognise this from our long friendships. I did this to save my listener from pain, disgust, pity — and helplessness in the face of this horrible thing. The desire to protect the world from the dirty secret — to carry it, to carry the shame indeed, the unresolved triggers, the mess of it all — always took precedent.

But it’s good for ME to finally say it like it is. In public, without feeling sick or wanting to run away. To stand by my experiences. I was not able to say more than a vague ‘my father…. mumble mumble’ for decades, just hoping someone, even therapists, would understand without me having to actually SAY it. My silence — repeat after me folks — is one of the many silences which enable perpetrators to carry on abusing. It’s that simple. My pushing it away keeps abuse hidden. That simple.

However, what I do know is that not everyone can speak. For numerous reasons. Where we are in our journeys, who we have around us, how involved we want to be in taking a stand.

Which is why I am and so many others are now here, speaking out. Raising awareness, educating, and trying to redress the imbalance. Taking the power away from the abusers, where it has rested for centuries.

So. If you can’t say it — yet, or ever — let us say it for you. Let us share the burden. We will all get there in the end.

***

From my memoir, Learning to Survive. This is the first time I tried to tell someone what was happening. [NB: I have permission to use she/her pronouns; in time they moved into he/him, and into a much happier place. I have asked and have generously received permission to start here. Thank you, Joshua.]

Suzanne

When I am 16 years old, I fall in love with a close friend, and she with me. Although I do go on to have lesbian relationships (sort of) in university, out of love and respect for this person I need to say that in a few years this close friend will be a man. However, at the point in which we are in a relationship, he presents as female, a fact which for me, given what I have been through, I recognise even then as crucial.

            I speak to no one about my relationship with Suzanne, and have no memory of writing anything, at least in the early days, either. As far as my father is concerned, she is a friend, and we are able to spend many happy hours together, many months in each other’s company, before he seems to have an inkling of what is going on. If I could remember, I might place his knowing concurrent with my beginning to write about her in my journal, but of course – this is another empty room, another empty space where memory should be.

            Early on, Suzanne senses my intense fear around my father, about doing anything ‘wrong’ or attracting ‘suspicion’ – and she sees through it. One night on campus as we sit in a classroom working out trigonometry on the blackboard (her father also teaches at the university), she stops. What she says seems to come from nowhere, like she hardly knows she’s saying it: ‘It’s almost like he loves you like more than a daughter.’ She turns to me. ‘Does he? Does he love you like that?’

            I cannot bring myself to say yes or no. But somehow Suzanne knows from my face. Her anger and horror are instant – she makes thick white chalk lines over and over on the blackboard no no no no no. And more than once in the months that follow, I hear her car outside my house, driving around the block and up and down the hills, over and over, the horn blaring.

            We never speak about the abuse, and my father’s possessiveness, more than that. I start shaking too quickly, and it’s all so ugly, and all we want is to be together. I believe that she is saving me, and I think she believes this too, and to an extent, she is.

turning the corner?

I was sorry to miss the Shameless WoW Festival yesterday at Battersea Arts Centre (life too hectic right now). There looked to be some discussion there around #CSA (Child Sexual Abuse) as well as much-needed activism and lived experience around gender based violence. Insofar as CSA goes: might this be a corner turning?

I hope so. Bringing CSA to the public consciousness — really LOOKING at it — has been like turning around a huge ship in limited space: it will go, it will happen, but it will take lots and lots of small movements. A 1000 point turn, in other words, for British readers.

But the incremental and mighty ‘turns’ are there, now in abundance. Witness the part #CSA plays this year in #16Days (16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence); in particular, look at the work Viv Gordon and her colleagues are undertaking in Cutting Out — we ALL would benefit from doing this, mindful moments to place our concerns, anger, grief, hopes for the future into creative and ritualised action. The paper dolls go into the world to speak for us, hold us, and touch others, hand to hand.

Witness too the writers’ loud voices speaking directly to sexual abuse, sexual assault, and trauma: writers like alice hiller, Day Mattar, Chaucer Cameron, Tessa Foley, Clare Best — and myself. Witness how at last they are being heard: in Poetry and Trauma at Poetry in Aldeburgh, in shortlisting for national prizes, in national forums and readings.

Witness at last the enormous amount of grassroots work now being done by individuals and organisations raising awareness of CSA, developing policies for schools and medical professionals, and offering training for the same. I can’t help but imagine what life might have been like if someone had recognised and noticed my behaviour, or my father’s, during the abuse. If I had known that I was not the only girl going through this, that I was not on my own.

But I didn’t know that. Not for years and years. And any hint from anyone — teachers, friends, a therapist — that they knew something might be wrong, was unspoken. Nothing like this had words then, not words said in public or to each other. Looking back, I think some people in my life had suspicions. Yet they watched me have to leave my family home at 17 as a direct result of the abuse, and could say nothing. Silence damages everyone. In my memoir Learning to Survive, I write this about that time:

***

Us

[My friend] Valerie is perhaps the most upset. I remember she starts crying, right in the classroom. She wants to know why. And I have my answer, the one I use over and over ‘I just want to live with my mother before going away to college.’

            I do not realise that Valerie still cares about me. I do not realise, if I’m honest, that anyone except [my close friend] Alice really cares. Yet my going disturbs the surface, and numerous people – students, teachers – seek me out to wish me well, and ask questions. The Principal of the school asks me in to see if he can do anything to make me stay, and if everything is okay. To which I say No, and Yes.

            Of course it is [my English teacher] Mrs Amos I dread leaving the most. But again, to her credit, she doesn’t try to convince me otherwise. She wishes me all the best. She knows I will succeed in everything I do. She believes in me.

I encounter a curious mix of sorrow and knowingness when I announce I’m leaving. Looking back, I think that the sorrow mainly comes from those who cannot imagine how this has happened. Whereas the knowingness, the unspoken, rises through the eyes of those who may know something or suspect.

            From here, I see our joint powerlessness. I see how mistreatment, how abuse, is too often communicated in silence, implied. How it is up to the women to get away, how other women must urge them silently. How they are brave, deserting everything. Leaving everything – their children, their lives, their homes – behind. Forced to cut and run.

            Whereas really it’s my father who needed to leave. Really he should have been arrested. And I should have been able to stay put, and never lost [my half-siblings], the heartbreak of my life. And they in turn would never have had to carry their own complex and heart-breaking confusions – with no help from anyone — around for so many years.

***

So. Are we turning corners? I really, really hope so. So many are working so hard to ensure that safeguarding is now more nuanced, and that Child Sexual Abuse is part of the conversation. Up until now, too many abuse disclosures result in what happened to me: scapegoating, and the girl/woman/boy/man leaving/running/escaping. Isolation follows, and the attempt to remake a life. Please help us in working toward a time when this is not the only option.