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.
I took this photo three days ago. This is the house where everything started, and everything ended.
I was six years old when I came to live with my father, my step mother, and my two half siblings. Even at six, I wanted a family life, and deep down I was hopeful. My mother had been unpredictable, frequently immobile, and I had only seen my father once in my life before moving in with them. And yet: I was hopeful.
When I was 11, my father started grooming me in this house. Soon after, he began sexually abusing me. In this house. The abuse increased in frequency and severity until I was 15, although I don’t remember how it stopped. I locked the door? He stopped because I was too old? I don’t know.
But the abuse stopped, and within a year things fell apart to the point that I left this house at 17, back to my unpredictable and neglectful mother.
The hardest decision I ever made in my life was leaving my siblings. All in this house. I left them here, and I felt like pieces of me had been torn out. No one ever knew any of this.
This looks like a pretty normal house, right? It looks like a lot of houses in a lot of neighbourhoods.
Make no assumptions folks. Do not rely on appearances. Listen to something deeper. I’m sorry to say that everyone who reads this will have lived on a street or in an apartment block – possibly next door – to a family where child sexual abuse is happening. We need to do better. Starting now.
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.
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:
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.