There is a survivor I know. Just a little, but enough to understand that she is sensitive, courageous and outspoken about what she has been through – and what she is still going through. Her candor is rare and powerful, and so is she. I’ll call this person Audrey – a name that means “noble strength.” Audrey was sexually abused as a child. Like so many of us, her innocence was stolen and her sense of self was shaken by the twisted actions of a person she should have been able to trust.
I knew Audrey was hurting and I reached out to her privately. She explained to me that she had discovered a disturbing fact about her family. There were extended family members who were friendly with her abuser because, Audrey had assumed, they didn’t know this history. But she had just learned that they were fully aware this man had abused her as a child. As they explained to Audrey, they had chosen “to forgive him” for what he had done to her. She was wounded and outraged.
She asked me why. “Why are people like this?”
“Because they are weak,” I told her. It felt like the right answer at that moment, and I meant it. But I woke up that night and thought about how much more I could have said in answer to Audrey’s question. I thought about why people excuse or “forgive” sexual abusers, why they often shut victims down, and why they frequently side with sexual abuse perpetrators instead of their victims. In my own life, I have watched family members go from acknowledgment of my abuser’s crimes to avoidance of the subject and finally an obvious allegiance and preference for him over me. These types of family reactions are backward, they create a secondary injustice, and the hurt continues because, unlike the actual abuse, it has no end. Audrey’s question was a good one.
Here are some of the answers I came up with:
They avoid the truth about the abuse because it’s uncomfortable.
They need to believe a different version of reality: a neater, nicer story.
They were culpable in some way.
They were abused themselves.
They are also abusers.
They choose to align themselves with power.
They get something from the abuser that they don’t want to lose.
They are afraid of the perpetrator.
It’s easier to blame the victim than address the truth.
They don’t get it.
They are not as strong as we are.
There are many answers, I suppose, but every one is simply inadequate. Victims deserve protection, empathy, and love. Their voices should be heard and respected. Survivors’ needs and perspective should be honored over their abusers’. Today and always.
Audrey’s question still haunts me, and I think that’s appropriate. The tragic aftermath of sexual abuse should haunt all of us until we speak up or do something to support survivors – instead of enabling abusers and ignoring their crimes.
Audrey knows that she deserves better. She gets it. But sometimes getting it just hurts too much, especially when certain people in our lives never will.