When the newest issue of New York Magazine arrived in my mailbox last week, it didn’t take long for me to flip to the back page and peruse the “Approval Matrix,” their weekly ranking of timely facts and intriguing news tidbits. I usually find it a fun read, but not this time. In the quadrant, which assigned this high-profile story the status of “despicable,” was a photograph of Woody Allen holding a young Dylan Farrow and the words: “The crosscurrents of accusations from the Farrow-Allen households.”
“They would never do that.”
These are dangerous words when spoken in response to concerns about potential sexual abusers. And yet, I regularly hear stories about people answering this way when confronted with someone who might pose a danger to children.
Growing up in Second Wound families, I think many survivors learn to take what they can get. They are taught not to ask for much. And they don’t dare complain for fear of being shamed and blamed. It’s safe to say they are not allowed to have strong voices within their families.
Perfectionism is a familiar affliction for survivors.
So many of us strive to achieve top grades and performance reviews, to dress just right for every occasion, and master the social skills that help us appear naturally confident. All the while, we’re scared to death of letting the mask slip to reveal our secret: the shame we carry as a byproduct of sexual abuse or assault.
At its root, perfectionism is often an unconscious attempt to cover up shame.
What if we lived in a world where victims of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment felt free to speak up? What if they were treated kindly, and almost always believed? What if perpetrators of these crimes were aggressively investigated and prosecuted on a consistent basis, their sentences reflecting the damage they inflict on survivors? What if we treated sexual violence survivors like victims of other crimes–especially those involving theft of money?
The answer is easy. We would live in a world with fewer sexual crimes. And for those who still chose to perpetrate sexual violence, they would be caught far more quickly and easily.
Because victims would feel free to name offenders.
The following is adapted from a bonus Truth & Consequences podcast episode recorded during the Covid-19 quarantine. I post it here because it addresses retraumatization and the resurfacing of past trauma and loss.
If you have a few extra minutes this week, I’d like to share a story and some thoughts with you in the hopes that you’ll find it useful. It’s a story about going to the grocery store. Something that used to be an annoyingly frequent chore, at least to me, but has now become a whole different experience for a lot of us…of course, that’s IF you’re actually still venturing out to buy food in person.
Because our world has changed.
It’s American Thanksgiving today. In the midst of the bustle of holiday prep, I have survivors on my mind. Those, like me, who are estranged from their family. Whatever the status of our family relationships, so many of us feel misunderstood by loved ones who minimize or deny the weight of our experiences. They just don’t get it. And maybe they never will.
There is no substitute for feeling heard, understood and cared for. These are the gifts of human connection, an integral component of where healing begins from the trauma of sexual abuse and assault. For survivors on the path to healing, it’s vital we connect with people who will sit with us in our pain and struggle, appreciate our value and share in celebrations of our progress and triumphs. These may be therapists or other professionals as well as partners and caring friends. As legitimately scary as it can be to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and risk trusting others, doing so (in our own time and with careful judgment) helps to repair our damaged hearts and fulfill our emotional needs.
There have been many points during my parenting journey when I wished I could fall back on what I’d learned from my own mom and dad, to recall how they’d handled similar situations and use their actions as my guide. But based on the way things went during my childhood, I didn’t have that luxury. In fact, for a lot of parenting moments, I was determined to handle things differently from the way my parents had.
You 100% deserve to be believed.
Though it’s nearly impossible to gather accurate statistics on false reporting of sexual abuse, we do know that it’s rare. If we look at sexual assault reports made to law enforcement, research tells us that false reports make up about only 2 to 6 percent of cases. It’s probably safe to assume the number is at least this low in sexual abuse cases.
Let’s be realistic. Survivors have very little reason to lie. As one survivor pointed out, “A small child couldn’t make that stuff up”. So then…why are so many survivors doubted, questioned, and outright disbelieved? Even when we ARE believed, why is our trauma so often minimized, brushed under the rug as if it doesn’t matter to anyone but us?
There are many reasons that explain the heartbreak of disbelief and minimization. I’ve done my best to explain them here.