This is part three in a series. You can read the other articles by clicking on the links at end of this article…
There are two situations where I don’t recommend speaking out. The first is to satisfy a need for vengeance. The other is when real uncertainty exists about the truth of the abuse memories.
Personal denial about the abuse will come and go during the remembering and healing process, and this is normal. Even people with continuous memories of child sexual abuse have blocked some events out of their mind, and question some of their never-forgotten memories of abuse.
However, certainty is essential when making accusations about child sexual abuse. If the memories are in question, it would be unwise to accuse anyone or make accusations to a third party like an authority figure, law enforcement, the general public, or an attorney.
If a person carries through with an accusation of child sexual molestation, and later discovers there was no abuse or the wrong person was accused, then this would be a horrific situation to have to fix. The person would have to recant their memories and face the hard road of repairing the damage they did. This would be a painful process for everyone involved.
Once a person is certain they were sexually assaulted as a child, and sure they know who the perpetrator is, there is no need for anyone else to confirm the abuse, because there may never be any outside validation.
Pictures, journals, videos, or a taped confession from the abuser are not needed when a person knows the truth within themselves. The abuse survivor only needs to trust their personal experiences.
When confronting the past, the most important factor is our own validation because the confirmation, criminal evidence, or apology that is hoped for will most likely never come.
The memory of the person who was once victimized, but who has chosen to deal with it, is probably better than everyone else in the family because people who are willing to face the past are more likely to remember it clearly. However, I do not recommend that the survivor give partial accounts of any memories which are still unclear. Dissociative amnesia can cause new memories years after the original recollection first returns. Occasionally, the initial memories are distorted by screen memories. For this reason, I would not disclose any details that have been guessed or assumed.
Only disclose what is certain. Ages, and exact places, can be distorted sometimes in our memory, but some studies have found that traumatic memories can be more accurate than normal memory.
Although insignificant, any small detail that is not quite right, could provide the accused or disbelieving family members with an open door to completely deny all of the memories.The biological family will do anything to cling to their version of the past, and their account is most likely going to be the apple pie story.
If innocence is proclaimed by the abuser, then the accuser can take time away from the suspected perpetrator while seeking the truth. At the same time, it’s important to retain balance and personal strength during the encounter. If the abuser realizes his or her victim is questioning themselves, the abuser will do everything in their power to convince everyone there was no abuse. The perpetrator might even try to discredit their victim so that no one will ever believe him or her. This can cause the survivor to suffer emotionally and can cause them to wrongly decide that they were not abused at all. Family and authority figures have a powerful impact on our perceptions.
Nevertheless, any proof of incorrect minor elements like the time abuse took place, or the exact age of the victim should not lead to discouragement, because even holocaust survivors have been mistaken about parts of their memory of being in the concentration camps.
There is historical truth, personal truth, and when it comes to child sexual abuse and dysfunctional families…a resistance of truth. People who survive by functioning in silence and avoidance will vehemently cling to a more comfortable rendition of events, which is, that nothing happened.
“When I dare to be powerful – to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” ~Audrey Lorde
Traumatic memory repression is frequently found in middle to upper class families, therefore an inheritance may be what affects non-disclosure, or in some cases, a retraction of memories. Abuse survivors regularly become overwhelmed with debt because of therapy bills or illness. Over-spending is a common problem for people who have been a victim in childhood. This is due to low self-worth, an attempt to buy happiness, a need to feel forbidden pleasure, and other subconsciously driven impulses. Sometimes, the abuser or the other family members, are still be helping a survivor financially.
For some people, being true to themselves far outweighs financial security. Peace of the soul can be much more liberating when realizing money can sometimes just be truly insignificant. On the other hand, money can relieve stress, pay for therapy, or help pay mounting debt. One has to decide for themselves if they want to risk an inheritance, or the loss of financial help from family members.
For me personally, I feel that if I had betrayed my inner child for financial gain, then I would not have fully healed. The little girl inside of me who was once so brutally wounded would have said, This is not okay with me. You’re doing just what that mother did; you are keeping secrets! The child within me would have blasted me with the old familiar pains, twinges, cramps, and depression. She would know that I betrayed her for money, for false security, and for material objects. She would not have understood such adult rationalizations.
However, each human being has to make their own decisions. A person could be in serious debt or unable to work because of their physical and emotional problems. Even though speaking the truth with compassion and love can mean that parents are more likely to honor what is right, there are no guarantees.
Some survivors are still living with their abuser or the people who protected him or her. Others have agoraphobia or such extreme anxiety that they can barely leave their home, much less speak to anyone about the memories. People in this situation need to nurture themselves. Eventually, with patience, prayer, looking for solutions, and with perseverance, their circumstances will change one day.
Survivors must gain a certain degree of strength before thinking about doing any kind of speaking up to those who inflicted the pain, because the abuser and his collaborators are capable of inflicting further injury with denial and anger.
If a person decides to not speak up, they shouldn’t be hard on themselves. Making the choice to confront the perpetrator and the biological family is not only personal, but extremely painful. I have great compassion for those who cannot yet speak their truth. This decision is the most agonizing part of healing. Simultaneously, it can be the most liberating.
“People avoid change until the pain of remaining the same is greater than the pain of changing.” ~Unknown
Preparing for the moment when the secret will be exposed can be mentally and emotionally exhausting. It took me every day of an entire year to weigh out the positive and negative aspects of telling my mother. It may even be harder to approach the mother who did nothing than to speak with the perpetrator. No matter what role the mother played, the child inside the survivor usually retains a deep bond with the mother.
The initial contact with the abuser or biological family members doesn’t need to be cruel. There is an account of a woman who attended her grandfather’s funeral in order to reveal to everyone at the gravesite that he had sexually abused her. This is aggressive self-centered behavior. This shows no regard for the people who were attending the ceremony. This survivor infringed on people’s right to grieve. Funerals are not for disclosing acts of childhood molestation.
In another incident, a group of women went to a man’s place of employment to stand by a friend who was accusing the man of abusing her when she was a child. Twenty women surrounded the man. Public humiliation serves no purpose. It is unhealthy and inappropriate to deliberately and vindictively tell everyone in the family tree, old friends, or co-workers about the perpetrator’s history of abusing a child. Publicly shaming a person for self-satisfaction will not bring freedom to the accuser.
Speaking about these issues at a memorable ceremony, or place of employment, will most likely invoke feelings of anger and resentment towards the survivor, when friends or family members attending the function might otherwise have been supportive. Their anger at the accuser could quickly drive them to become part of the backlash. If discretion is used, these people could be allies. It is understandable if a survivor cannot muster up any compassion for the perpetrator, but they ought to have consideration for innocent bystanders. If the abuse is revealed in an ugly way, the experience will most likely turn against the survivor.
On the other hand, if the secret is revealed publicly in order to protect a child who may be in danger, then it should be done, but not in a self-aggrandizing manner.
When we attack others with our truth then it becomes a disturbance and goes against what the truth is meant to serve. If revealing the secret is done with compassion for everyone involved, then there is a much better chance the survivor will find healing in the experience. When we speak the truth with love, the discussion could eventually be transformed into something positive.
Regardless of the manner in which the abuse is exposed, people who speak out need to know that after divulging the secret, the desired response that is hoped for probably won’t come. The abuser rarely says the words their victims survivor want to hear. The reality is that, those words will most likely not come in the future either.
The result of disclosure may be a mixture of different things. Therefore, people who reveal their secret will experience a variety of emotions. More often than not, it is a release as well as a painful experience.
Truth is not revealed in order to evoke a positive reaction from those who did the harm. The truth is something we do to relieve ourselves of a heavy burden and to unveil the crimes perpetrated against a child.
Once a survivor is strong, and no longer desires approval or an apology, then approaching the abuser (or the mother who did not protect the child) can be one of the most powerful steps a person can take. Rarely are people sorry they disclosed their memories. No matter what the outcome, most of the survivors I interviewed would speak their truth again.
There are some people who have the opinion that a person needs to have healed most, if not all, of the open wounds before exposing their secret. Marilyn Van Derbur’s experience, as well as my own, contradicts this opinion. Marilyn approached her father long before she healed her life, and I told my mother about my memories many years ago, when I was still suffering from physical and psychological problems.
Once a person is ready to disclose their secret, the next step is to decide which avenue of communication to take. There is often a long geographical distance involved, so a letter or phone call may be the only practical way. Some people might choose to take the trip to face their perpetrator or biological family members in person. I found that writing a letter worked best for me. An e-mail would be very impersonal for such an important correspondence.
Writing the letter over a period of weeks is wise. This way it can be re-read and edited carefully. Lashing out in the letter by expressing anger and then removing that portion can release rage on paper but won’t attack the other person. A letter can also be a way to avoid a heated argument and will allow communication without being interrupted. The letter should be written with as much empathy as possible, but being truthful and strong is just as important. Here are a few suggestions that can help things go more smoothly:
- You might make more progress by letting your abuser or family members know that you will not be trying to convince them of anything.
- Help them to understand that you are not being destructive for speaking the truth, but only pointing out what already existed.
- Expressing any love you may still feel for your abusers doesn’t invalidate your pain or take away your strength, it actually adds to your personal power.
- Remind them that loving and honoring parents means speaking truthfully to them.
- If you are working on forgiveness and want to include this in your disclosure, just be sure the perpetrator understands that forgiveness is not synonymous with pretending that nothing ever happened.
- It might save you aggravation and pain later on if you don’t offer details or nail down specifics that might change if further memories surface. I recommend avoiding irrelevant points.
- You can tell them that that you won’t push your truth on them, but you will also not accept your truth being stepped on.
It will also help the situation to let them know that you just want to end the superficial relationship. If your abuser, or family members, know you just want to be honest and to break the code of silence, then their reaction could be more positive.
The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, Updated Third Edition, HarperCollins, 1994, page 150