This is part two in a series..to read the other articles, see the links below.
“The pain of confronting your family
is equal to the strength you gain from doing it”
Each person will experience different results from revealing their childhood abuse to biological family members, or to the perpetrator. Some survivors find that exposing the secret turns out better than they expected. For others, it can be more heartbreaking than they could ever have imagined.
It is common to feel a huge sense of relief as well as nervous energy immediately after sending the letter, or after the personal confrontation, which releases the secret.
But when a former victim breaks the family code of silence, it is nothing like disclosing to a friend or spouse. When the secret is told to family members who don’t care about anything except keeping the abuse hidden, the survivor must be prepared to find out that the family’s reaction may not include any kind of love.
A positive response or validation should not be expected from anyone whose life will be altered in a meaningful way by having the knowledge of the abuse out in the open. Family members (usually siblings) can strike out because of a need to retain their relationship with the abuser or the mother. Their ties could be financial or emotional, but more often it is because of a ‘fantasy bond’ with the parent. This kind of mental link is common within families of incest and the bond will be vehemently defended by the siblings.
Sometimes this bond derives from a female sibling’s love for the father or step-father because she was also sexually abused by him, and is repressing the fact that she too was a victim of incest.
Sometimes the bond is because brothers and sisters may not be ready to risk losing the relationship (such as it is) they have with the parents. It’s hard for siblings to see how fragmented the relationship is when they are still immersed in the dysfunctional dynamics of the family.
“It feels as if we are hanging out ‘dirty linen,’ as if we are betraying them!”~ A survivor
It is often much easier for siblings to place blame, resentment, and anger on the survivor who finds their voice, than to place these things where they belong—on the offending parent/s.
Even though a family is dysfunctional and the members of that family might not even like one another, and don’t communicate regularly, they are comfortable with this kind of relationship. The system of avoidance works for them. Silence was how they operated at the time in which the crimes took place, and the family probably thought the sexual abuse would never be brought up.
Oftentimes, a non-offending parent will defend the perpetrator if it was a sibling. The parent might try and justify the abuse by saying it was ‘no big deal…just kids fooling around.’ Or they will feel guilt for not protecting the child at the time of the abuse, and instead of an apology and being honest, the parent will deny the victim’s experience. Other times, the parent will admit their was abuse, but still protect the perpetrator because they realize they were off track in their parenting and feel it was not the perpetrator’s fault at all.
Parents often defend the perpetrator in a disclosure situation when the offender is their own parent (the victim’s grandparent), or they might even deny allegations made about a close family friend, or about an uncle or cousin.
Victims of priests often have family members who behave just like those in incest cases. The family protects the perpetrator priest instead of defending the child or adult survivor. Family members, especially mothers, often hold priests in such high regard that they disbelieve or discipline the child, or punish the adult survivor for daring to speak about their victimization by a priest. One courageous survivor said that whenever he attends church he can literally feel the resentful stares from the other parishioners because he exposed a sexual predator priest. True Catholics should be more concerned with truth and the safety of children than the reputation of a priest.
Survivors cannot expect a healthy and loving response from unhealthy family members.
In The Backlash: Obstacles to Being Believed, the authors point out that when non-abusing family members deny what has happened, it is not necessarily that they are making a conscious effort to lie. Often, their reality is tainted with “selective memory.”
They may have purposely chosen to remember only good things.
There may be some family members who listen and are somewhat supportive, but will soon expect the survivor to never speak about it again. This can be as damaging as being entirely cut off from the family. It may even be more detrimental to the survivor because at least they know what they are dealing with when family members lash out and break ties with them. A person can move on from those who don’t acknowledge their existence, but when a family member continues a relationship with the survivor –only under the condition of silence about the abuse—the survivor is forced to remain superficial, and being superficial is what the survivor is trying to fight against.
Any agreement with a family member to have no mention of the abuse means the survivor can never be completely open and honest, and subsequently, an uncomfortable feeling will always linger within the relationship. The general sense of falseness can be smothering. This happened to me, and it was as if someone had placed a big piece of duct tape across my mouth and then told, “go ahead, you can talk.”
Family members who prefer silence don’t have a right to expect survivors to lie to themselves, or to continue suffering in order to shield others from the truth. At the same time, other people have a right to have any emotion they might experience as a result of the disclosure. Family members need to work things out in their own time, and in their own personal way. Yet a survivor does not have to become a part of any hate, or to be affected by the anger or denial of others. A survivor can true on their own two feet, but not step on the beliefs and feelings of others.
Anger is destructive energy, but it can be turned into positive energy. If the family reacts in a cruel or disheartening way to the abuse being revealed, the survivor’s anger about this can be transformed and channeled into action to help other prior victims. A survivor could do volunteer work for children, do public speaking, or write letters and articles that can help others.
“We were brought up as if it was normal, like brushing your teeth, going to church, and being molested.”
Most perpetrators do not just abuse one child, and occasionally more than one sibling will remember previously repressed childhood abuse. In some families, one or two adult children will remember sexual violations but other siblings will continue to repress what took place. In other families, one sibling will speak up and then another sibling, who had always remembered being abused but never told anyone, will finally share their story. Occasionally, after the silence is broken, another member of the family will also recall previously repressed memories.
It is common for all of the siblings, or at least all the female children, to be victimized. The boys in incestuous families will often receive physical abuse, while the female children experience sexual assaults. In some families, the male children will also be sexually abused. The boys in the family might also molest their sisters. If the father, or step-father, is also abusing the boys, this can cause the male children to become perpetrators.
Maybe even more important to bring up is that female siblings who are being molested will sometimes sexually abuse a younger child, and it may be a female child. Male or female sibling incest might happen out of sexual conditioning, a need for emotional satisfaction, or through force by the adult perpetrator. Many perpetrators make children engage in sex acts with one another.
If an older sibling denies a younger sibling’s memories, it might be because they were also molested, but it could be because the older sibling was forced to participate in the sexual acts with the younger child or even abused them on their own. Guilt is an effective reason to block bad memories, or to knowingly deny the truth of another sibling’s recollections.
Another common motivation for denial is when the older brother or sister quickly moved out of the house as soon as they became mature enough, but left without disclosing the crimes to anyone. If younger siblings were abused, the older sibling may develop a sense of culpability when they discover the other children were molested after they moved away.
This scenario can create resentment in the younger child who was left defenseless. The younger sibling can carry deep anger about being left unprotected by someone who had the ability to save them, but who instead just quietly moved out of the house. The younger victim might feel that an older female sibling is just like the mother who did not protect them, and might consciously (or, more likely, subconsciously) harbor resentment for many years.
The younger sibling has a right to feel angry about being left unprotected but these emotions should be worked out in therapy. Ultimately, the younger victim should resolve their pain by understanding that other children in the family were victims too. The older sibling might have been under the influence of death threats or an unnatural loyalty to the abuser. The younger sibling may never know what other members of the family endured. The older sibling may have been more severely assaulted or psychologically tortured. The mental conditioning which surrounds child sexual abuse is mind control so we cannot blame other victims for being psychologically corrupted.
For some siblings, they move out of the home, having already repressed what they endured at the hands of the perpetrator. They literally have no conscious knowledge of any abuse.
Sibling denial and repression is magnified if an older sister had a child with the abuser that was secretly aborted, given up for adoption, or miscarried. This happens more often than we know. This is not rare by any means. There are even cases where a child, who was the product of father/daughter incest, is raised by the victim’s mother -misrepresented as her own child- in order to retain the secrecy about the incest.
These scenarios mean the older sister carries a heavy burden and unbearable pain. It is possible that the only way she could numb the pain was to remain silent and get out of the house. A sibling’s subconscious guilt might be blocking their ability to remember anything. Or they could have repressed their memories by the time they moved out. Marilyn Van Derbur had already repressed all of her memories of incest by the time she moved out of her family home.
There are differing reasons why one child eventually remembers abuse and another does not. A soul’s desperation to heal can bring the memories back. Illness, substance abuse, and severe emotional disturbances can drive a person to seek psychological help because they may kill themselves or self-destruct if they don’t. Hitting rock bottom can force a person to want to crawl out of their pit of denial.
“I made my bed and I sleep like a baby. With no regrets”
Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to reveal memories to the biological family, or to the abuser, is a personal choice. No one can judge a person for wanting to speak up, or for a desire to remain silent. We each have our own timing in life, but we need to make these heavy decisions with no regrets. It took me an entire year to meditate on whether or not to disclose my father’s sexual abuse abuse to my mother.
Professional hockey player Sheldon Kennedy, who was sexually abused by his coach for years, received 250,000 letters when he first went public. Most of them were from other survivors. Sheldon’s public revelations allowed other previous victims to be heard, validated, and some found the strength to use their own voice.
Abuse victims have been mentally and emotionally conditioned to keep the secret, but when we retain the secret, we contribute to what one male survivor called “the culture of silence.” This survivor not only admitted that his step-father had sexually assaulted him, but that he in turn molested his sisters. This man was courageous enough to publicly confess his personally agonizing secret, and by doing so, he helped untold numbers of other victims. He may even have helped just one person to stop sexually abusing a child.
Speaking out was the best action I could have taken. I can never go back to pretending the incest didn’t happen (just for the sake of being accepted by my family), and I have not looked back from that decision.
Too much child sexual abuse remains concealed because of the fear and guilt instilled in the victim. When survivors speak their truth, they might endure consequences, but if they don’t speak it, they will carry the inner pain forever. My experience is that the tribulation of bringing the incest out in the open was much more favorable than silently taking the childhood trauma to my grave.
Survivors of Incest Anonymous
The Associated Press, March 29 2003
The Oprah Winfrey Show, Family Secrets, November 2003