This post is by an anonymous friend of the Harpies. We felt her story was important and her message worthwhile, so we agreed to run this guest post.
Over Thanksgiving, I caught up with one of my childhood friends. She was clearly distressed and needed to talk, and it was not an easy conversation. You see, a few years ago, my friend revealed to her family that her brother had sexually abused her and she was cutting off all contact with him. They didn’t handle it particularly well, but she had a good therapist who helped her deal with the fallout.
Now, though, my friend is about to get engaged. Her boyfriend is from a super Ozzie-and-Harriet family, and they–and he–think it’s odd that my friend has no contact with her brother, especially around the holidays. She hasn’t told her boyfriend the reason. It’s becoming a real issue–the boyfriend can’t understand why my friend has cut herself off from family events and she thinks he wonders whether she’s the type of person he wants to have a family with. My advice was simple: TELL HIM.
“Look,” I told her, “You don’t have to give him the gory details. Just say “my brother molested me when I was young and that’s why I don’t like to see him.’ He’ll understand, and if his family keeps asking questions, he can simply say ‘I know why she doesn’t see her brother, and I support her decision.”
I have another friend who just e-mailed me about something similar–her stepbrother molested her and she dreads the holidays because she always has to see him. This year she simply told her family she wasn’t coming home, but didn’t tell them why; they still don’t know about the abuse. She’s sure that if she told them it would ruin her close relationship with her stepmom–who is the abuser’s mother–and completely freak out everyone else. Instead, she’s spending the holidays by herself. She feels lonely and lost, and her family is angry with her because they feel rejected.
This is what I call “double-down victimization.” The abuse itself is bad enough. But unlike being abused by someone outside your family–a teacher, a stranger, a priest–being molested by a family member intensifies the trauma by forcing the victim to keep silent out of fear they’ll hurt other family members if they reveal the abuse. All the guilt lies with the abuser, but the victim carries it for them, and that prolongs the abuse long after the actual physical part is over. This is why most of us keep quiet, and why holidays spent with family can be torture.
I was molested by a member of my extended family when I was in my early teens. I said nothing for years. I wasn’t forced to see him too often–he lived across the country and was not always invited to family gatherings–but after a few benign holiday encounters with him when I was in college, I snapped. I wound up in my dorm room in the throes of a full-fledged panic attack, shaking, crying, and retching–totally swamped by all the shame and anger I’d been suppressing.
The next day, I called my abuser and cussed him out. He was shocked that I was finally confronting him, but in some ways seemed relieved. He repeatedly apologized–“I was really fucked up as a kid”–and begged me not to reveal what had happened.
But I knew that to stay silent meant that I would carry around that shame for the rest of my life. I’d never be able to explain to my family why I didn’t want to be around him, and they might think of me as a selfish bitch who didn’t want to be a good team player. It wasn’t my fault and I was not going to protect him by keeping his behavior secret.
I called my mother and told her everything. To my great relief, my family believed me immediately–probably because my abuser had always been troubled, and they knew it. When I came home for the summer, they got me to a good therapist, who diagnosed my panic attacks and shakiness as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is very common among people who have been sexually abused.
The first thing my therapist said to me and my parents was “She should not have any contact with him for at least a year.” She laid it out just like that–no contact, period. It was really, really freeing. Thanksgiving was coming up, which had triggered some panic attacks, and having the shrink render her verdict like that helped me so much. The abuser was disinvited.
Now, my abuser was contrite, and I was able to forgive him. I was lucky because I had a shrink who also worked with perpetrators, and so she was able to give me some insight into why they behave the way they do.
But that didn’t mean I was cool with being around him. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean you have to forget what happened and be all “oh, no harm, no foul, pass the mashed potatoes.” Because really, fuck his feelings. He abused me. Forcing me to socialize politely with him after what he did would have been another form of abuse.
Here are the two things I repeat to myself–and my friends who’ve had similar experiences.
1) IT WAS NOT MY FAULT. Sexual abuse never is, for any of us, but accepting that is not easy. My abuser is guilty, but I am not, and I refuse to feel guilty because of what he did. It’s not your fault you were abused; it’s not your fault if you didn’t scream and run away, it’s not your fault if you didn’t fight back, its not your fault even if you liked the attention or derived some physical pleasure from it. You didn’t ask to be abused, and it’s not your fault–it’s your abuser’s fault. Repeat as necessary.
2) I NEVER HAVE TO BE AROUND ANYONE UNLESS I WANT TO. As an adult I can choose where I go and who I see. That means I can choose NOT to see my abuser ever again. Sometimes this means giving up going to certain family events, or having to figure out how to minimize contact during the ones I choose to attend. It’s still my choice, and I won’t be guilt-tripped or made to feel bad about it.
Fortunately my parents were totally sympathetic to my situation, but had my therapist not insisted on cutting off contact, I don’t think they necessarily would have imposed that restriction themselves. It’s hard to disinvite people from family gatherings, especially since their absence will provoke questions to which there are no easy answers. The temptation for victims is to go and feel like shit the whole time, because giving in can be easier than having to reinforce boundaries and assert yourself and drag up all the memories of abuse that come along with doing that.
We shouldn’t have to deal with that. We have to take care of ourselves, and do it without apology. Personally, I think the truth sets you free. It’s very hard to recover from abuse without revealing it to your family, especially if you have to absent yourself from family gatherings. But I know some victims simply feel they can’t, and I don’t judge them–everyone has to handle things as best they can in their particular situation. There are still some family members who do not know my story; I deliberately refrained from telling the ones I knew would not be kind or caring in their response. Fortunately they’re in the minority.
Ultimately, I did not try to file criminal charges against my abuser. I know that the decision not to prosecute rape or abuse can be controversial, but that choice was right for me. Firstly, multiple jurisdictions and different statutes of limitation would have made it a logistical nightmare, as the abuse had taken place in more than one state over several years. Secondly, I had reason to believe that my abuser was not a serial abuser, and that what had happened was due partly to the unique dynamics of our family. He also took responsibility for what had happened, and faced the wrath of my parents and other family members, which in some ways was worse punishment than winding up in the judicial system.
For those of you who were abused by family members and trying to decide whether to tell or not to tell, I can only speak from personal experience and say that it was rough emotionally, but telling the truth was like draining an infection. I immediately started healing once everything was out in the open. It took me a couple years to get completely stabilized, but the sense of shrugging off that burden of responsibility was instantly gratifying, and set me on the road to recovery. When you say “Fuck it, see what I’ve been dealing with for all these years? Now YOU deal with it!”, it makes you feel so much better.
Yes, it made me feel awful to see how horrified and miserable the truth made my family. But the horribleness wasn’t my fault. It was my abuser’s fault. Telling my family let me shift the sense of shame to where it belonged–on him. Ultimately the truth strengthened my bond with my family; it gave my parents and other relatives the chance to show me how much they loved and supported me. I know that doesn’t happen for everyone–it didn’t for my friend who was abused by her brother, for example–but at the very least, she stopped compounding her suffering by being forced to socialize with him, and she put the guilt and shame back on the person who deserved it.
So if this is something you’re facing, please, please, don’t feel like you have to carry around someone else’s guilt. You can’t change what happened, but you don’t have to carry their shame for them, and you can cut them out of your life in order to preserve your own mental health. Remember: your abuser doesn’t deserve to be protected. You do.