The Question Every Survivor Deserves to Be Asked

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If you are a survivor or abuse – or any kind of trauma, I have something to tell you. Are you ready? Here goes. The only authority on what YOU need…is you. Boom. This might seem like an obvious statement to some. But if you’re a survivor, you may find these words to be a breath of much needed fresh air – or even a radical concept.

It’s easy to lose touch with the obvious when you’re living with the after-effects of trauma. Our world can feel upside-down. We survivors know what it’s like to feel blamed for what happened to us. Anything from being told we brought it on ourselves to naive questions like “why did you choose to be there?” or “didn’t you fight back?”

On the phone with my mother one day, I gave her an earful of complaints about the recent behavior of the brother who had sexually abused me when we were kids. This was a recurring theme of our conversations – and they never seemed to go anywhere constructive. After some back and forth that left us both frustrated, my mother sighed and asked in an obviously exasperated voice, “What is it you want, Miranda?”

The words came tumbling out with no hesitation: “I want him to take responsibility for what he did to me.”

There was a pause. And then my mother (who’s a therapist, by the way) told me, “I don’t know what you mean by responsibility.”  

I was floored. How could she not know? I had explained in every way I possibly could, over countless conversations, letters, and emails, what I needed from my brother in order to feel respected and heard instead of maligned and rejected for speaking up. I happen to have pretty good communication skills, which made my mother’s inability to comprehend my needs extra exasperating. It was a depressing moment as I realized it was probably pointless to keep trying.

Over time, my mother and other family members had repeatedly made my brother’s case to me. “He’s a good person,” our mother insisted. It always made me wince to get confirmation that her enormously high opinion of her only living son was not dampened by the deep hurt his behavior caused me. Over the years since I revealed the abuse, she had relayed his assertions that he was getting help, that he was deeply regretful about what he’d done, and of course he cared about the pain he had caused me, and how I was doing now. Nevermind that his actions toward me conveyed quite the opposite.

Then one day, my therapist’s words pulled me back into the right-side-up world with a few words. I had just finished tearfully describing my mother’s defense of my brother in which she argued that he was adequately addressing his part in my abuse. My therapist, Susan sat up in straighter in her upholstered chair and opened her eyes wide. “Aren’t YOU the only person who can decide that?” she asked, sounding incredulous.

Readers, I was honestly stunned. Her point was so logical, so obvious. Why had I never thought of it that way? I was getting a reminder of how I’d been affected by all that exposure to my family’s upside-down thinking. It took Susan to set me straight.

I was so used to people telling me to be more forgiving and less vocal about my feelings, that I was too angry or focused on the past. But ever since that day, I recall Susan’s words whenever I need a reality check about my family members’ attitudes versus the truth about what I know I deserve.

I deserve to be the authority on what I need, period. You do too. Don’t forget it.



  1. REPLY
    Abigail says

    First of all thank you for writing this blog it has really helped me try to come to terms with a very difficult situation. I am a mom of 4 and we have a issue in our family between 2 siblings, very similar to what happened between you and your brother. There was one part of this page that really resonated with me and it has come up time and time again in our family and we ourselves don’t quite understand what it means.
    “I want him to take responsibility for what he did to me.”
    What responsibility could your brother have taken? Can you help shed any more light on this subject? We really don’t want to become estranged. Thank you in advance. Abigail

    • REPLY
      miranda.pacchiana says

      Thank you for the question, Abigail. The answer is a big one and I am working on a blog post about it as we speak. The basics involve giving the victim agency over the situation. The main ingredients are as follows: ask and be willing to hear how the abuse affected the victim, then acknowledge the response with genuine sensitivity. Ask what the victim needs from the offender, now and over time? Ask what boundaries the victim needs to feel safe, then honor those – even if it means taking shifts at family functions b/c the victim cannot bear to be in the offender’s presence. Seek treatment for the impulses that compelled the offender to abuse. Agree not to be alone with minors in the extended family due to their history as an offender. Be willing to adapt as all these answers may evolve and change over time. Keep in mind that not all apologies to acknowledgments are sincere. The family needs to respect the victim’s perception and boundaries. This list may sound unrealistic to some but that’s because family systems often favor abusers and subtly defer power to them, especially if the abuser is male and the victim is female.

  2. REPLY
    Dee says

    Miranda your response to that question is perfect. I too am a victim by an uncle. I’ve been told I just want a pity party by my mother, I need to have a conversation with our family pedophile by my mother’s younger sister, and finally told I had destroyed our family by my mom’s youngest sister who is married to the creep. My mother has tried to manipulate us to talk repeatedly, which only triggered me into anxiety attacks and nightmares. This year everyone is invited to my mother’s grand annual celebration but me. That cut me to the core. So now, for my sanity, I am now estranged from her as well. Sadly I feel more peace and relief that I could have imagined. I love my family, but I can’t do the denial dance anymore.

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