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.

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.