Saturday, February 15, 2014

a break from my previously scheduled break

TRIGGER ALERT: If you are sensitive to issues of childhood sexual abuse, please avoid this post. 

I'm still on a blogging break. I just needed to post this one. Also, I'm not using full names because I was reminded recently that google searches can bring attention to things you didn't plan for widespread consumption (I'll tell you that story another time, as it is much more cheerful than this one).

If you've been around awhile, you may remember that I wrote a post a couple of years ago about what it was like to be a survivor of sexual abuse while all of that mess at UPenn was happening, and how difficult it was to have it thrown in your face all the time. Guess what? Thank you, Mr. Famous Film Director (hereafter referred to as FFD), it's happening again.

I can't comment on their situation at all, because I don't know either of them and I have no idea what happened. Dylan is doing what she has to do, and I'm not going to judge or blame her for that. Although I've seen and enjoyed a couple of the FFD's films, I'm not a huge fan of his, and it means nothing to me to either go or not go to his films.

But there are a few parallels to my own history and so I've been re-thinking some of my own decisions. Is it necessary to go public to heal? My abuser was also a public person, although on a miniscule stage compared to the FFD. It's a difficult call to make. If you say nothing, then (obviously) no one knows. There is a feeling that the perp is getting away with it. Or that you are letting your fear of confrontation impede your healing. But on the other hand, if you're a private person, making a public statement and causing a public scandal is its own kind of trauma. I'm a very private person, so I decided long ago that I would rather suffer in silence than try to make a big public statement about my abuse. 

I mean suffer literally. As Dylan has stated, it is enormously difficult to maintain your trust in your own perceptions, your own experience, when that experience is being denied again and again by the people around you, people who have no idea what happened, but who respect and admire the perpetrator.

Let me back up a little bit. There were certain aspects of my abuse that I was aware of throughout my childhood and up into my twenties. When I was about thirty, I had one of those "repressed memory" situations where I "remembered" some further, more explicit abuse. I've never been able to determine in my own mind how much of that other, more specific abuse actually occurred-- I was very young at the time, maybe about four or five, and the memories are hazy at best. 

Believe me, you don't have to educate me about repressed memories--either the reasons why we should believe them, or why they are complete bunk, depending on who you talk to. I've done lots of reading on this topic, and I've heard both sides, and all I have to go on is my own experience. And my own experience is inconclusive, I have to say. Twenty years later, I'm still not sure exactly what happened.

So for the record, when I speak of my abuse, I'm talking about the things I definitely remember, the things I knew about before the "repressed memories" appeared. But it wasn't until the repressed memories resurfaced (or my brain made them up, depending on which side you're on), that I took those other events--the ones I definitely remember-- seriously.

Because they "weren't that bad." I wasn't raped, I wasn't sodomized. I was just shamed and embarrassed and miserable--all in a specifically sexual context-- and I wasn't about to say one single word to anybody. I wasn't even old enough to believe I was at fault, I just knew I was in an ugly, uncomfortable situation and I had to deal with it alone.

Now that I type that out, it occurs to me to wonder, why did I think I had to deal with it alone? Did he threaten me? Did I try to talk to someone and they didn't believe me? Was I sure before I even tried to say anything that no one would believe me? I honestly don't know the answer to that. I just know that it never occurred to me to say anything to anyone until I was in my thirties.

Once I did finally tell someone about it, I was obsessed with my recovery for two or three years. I needed to be. That's how you work through it. There was a long time when I thought that the fact that I had been sexually abused as a child was the most important thing about me, the defining thing that made me who I am. But eventually as I worked with a therapist, attended a support group, and read and read and wrote and wrote, I began to heal.

At some point when I was in my late 30s, I realized one day that I hadn't thought about my abuse in weeks. It made me so happy. It still comes up --here I am, you know, typing this-- and every once in awhile it gives me a few really bad hours or even days. But it doesn't consume me anymore, and it sure as hell doesn't define who I am. 

Besides my support group and my therapist, I did tell some people about it, but other than my immediate family, I never told anyone who knows my abuser. For one thing, I was fairly sure that I was his only victim. I was dealing with this as an adult, so I could rationally think through the fact that most abusers have a pattern, and the pattern of behavior he exhibited with me was something that almost certainly couldn't have happened with anyone else--and that's all I'm going to say about that. If I'd been worried that he was still abusing someone else, maybe I would have made some sort of public statement.

For another thing, there were plenty of people who had positive interactions with my abuser who never saw this side of him. It didn't make sense to me to destroy their experience of him when I was capable of dealing with it myself. And also--it would be dishonest to deny it--I was afraid of the consequences. 

None of us can say what happened between Dylan and the FFD. I'm inclined to believe her because her story dovetails so well with my own, but people have lied about abuse before. Part of me wants to support her in whatever she needs to do to heal, but part of me also wants to ask her, what is the point in trying to get millions of people to make a judgement about something that they are completely incapable of making a judgement about? If she needed to say her piece and if saying it succeeded in giving her strength and peace of mind, then it was entirely worth it. The victim's right to heal takes precedence over whatever other needs might be going on here, and if it did help her along the road to recovery, that in itself is enough reason for her to do it.  

But I'm not sure I buy parts of the conversation about what it takes to heal from abuse, and I certainly don't buy "if you don't say anything, it means he got away with it." I know my therapist pushed me (gently) to go public. You can't heal unless you open up about what happened. If you don't publicly state your experience, you're lying by omission. You're still in denial about what happened. Of course it was never that blunt--a good therapist would never be that directive, and both of these therapists were great. But they made it clear, subtly, what they felt was the path to healing. But here is something else: someone who abuses a child is dealing with demons the rest of us can't even imagine--I know that because I could feel them. He didn't get away with anything.

For what it's worth, I did eventually confront my abuser, and he absolutely, categorically denied that anything untoward had ever happened between us. The confrontation was an enormously difficult thing to do, and it was entirely unsatisfying. My word against his word, my hazy memories against his firm denial. If I had it to do over again knowing how it would have turned out, I'm not sure I would do it again. I guess the one benefit is that now I know what he would say--before I confronted him, I had no idea how he would respond. A part of me secretly hoped that he would break down, confess all, and feel terrible about it. But that didn't happen. 

I think there is a script among some therapists. You need to do x, y and z to heal. You must confront your abuser, you must publicly speak your truth. But you know, that puts a lot of burden on the victim, especially if the victim is a private, introverted person. It makes you vulnerable to hate and backlash from people who have no idea what's going on, and it sets you up to be ridiculed and accused-in-return by your abuser. It also requires a big public exposure, which is in itself a form of punishment for an introverted person.

For me what has been more important is to learn to trust my own experience, my own knowledge of what happened to me. I'm leaving justice and karma to someone else (it will possibly sound too hokey to say capital-S Someone Else, but I'll do it anyway.) And that has been damn difficult, and it's something I still work on--not just in this particular context, but in other contexts as well. It also made a huge difference when he died several years ago. I've made major strides in being free of the whole thing since his death, even if he was frail and elderly at the end. I am often glad he's gone, and maybe that's my own little form of revenge.

So no conclusions, this is just what I've been thinking about.


  1. One of the hardest things about being a survivor of sexual abuse is having your version of reality challenged (either overtly or covertly). The feeling of vertigo I experience from that denial of reality has made me occasionally, 40+ years after the abuse, wonder if it really happened. I know it did; I can recall details that confirm my experience of the reality of the abuse.
    I can understand a desire (especially with a person who is very prominent) to find a way to impose my version of reality back on the perpetrator through public action.
    I just don't think it is realistic. And ultimately, survivors need to find ways to validate their OWN realities, even though it takes extra effort. I think that may be part of the healing/restoration process...although this is a new thought for me prompted by Aunt Bean's Blog. Thanks AB

  2. I'm getting an education from you and other Betties on this topic, which is profoundly enlightening. I hate like hell that it happened to you or to anyone. And my take away is that you survive and deal with it in various ways and there isn't really a "right" way to do that. So if your way is different than others, as long as it works for you, then go for it.

  3. What Karen said. Also, in my experience dealing with some fairly public people with some fairly narcissistic entitlement tendencies, their reality can actually confuse you…their projections can make you doubt yourself. So if it is necessary to announce your truth in order to hold on to what you know to be true, I say go for it. If it's necessary to hold it inside to know it to be true, go for it that way instead. There's no right way to heal.