I was enormously gratified last year to watch as the #MeToo movement erupted with a sudden and powerful force, to see sexual harassment and assault survivors courageously tell their truths as the world finally paid proper attention. I cheered the brave women and men who came forward, risking more of the judgment, doubt, and scorn they had likely already experienced. I felt hugely gratified to witness perpetrators of abuse finally being called out and made to answer for their crimes. Most of all, I cried tears of joy to know that – at last – our society is shining a ray of light on the dark, hidden, shame-filled world of sexual victimization, for illumination is the only sure path to the prevention of sexual abuse, as well as justice for victims and accountability for perpetrators.
Twenty years ago when I first disclosed to my family that I had been sexually abused by my brother as a child, I never would have guessed it would mark the beginning of a long, confusing struggle that would leave me feeling misunderstood, dismissed and even punished for choosing to address my abuse and its effects. The response from my family did not start out this way. Initially, my mother said the words I needed to hear: she believed me, she was pained for both her children, and she was sorry. My brother acknowledged the truth and even apologized. But as I continued to heal and explore the abuse further, my family members began to push back in ways that hurt me deeply and only became worse as the years went on.
I dread that moment when someone unexpectedly asks, “…and how is your mother?” I never have an easy answer at the ready. “Oh, umm she’s fine, thank you,” I usually say, with a quick change of the subject. If the asker is extended family and the subject will surely come up again, I might say “We aren’t in touch very much.” And if my intuition tells me that the person will not judge, I tell the truth: “We are estranged.”
There is no easy way to explain you don’t speak to your parent. Or parents. Or your entire family. The inquiry comes up casually and often enough. It’s a normal question after all, under most circumstances. But we are not most families.
If you are a survivor of abuse, an injustice was perpetrated on you. You did not deserve it, you did not contribute to it, and someone should have protected you. Not only are you justified in addressing your abuse, but it’s also the right thing to do for yourself – and the world. But…for many, your family members tell you, in words and actions, the opposite of these truths. People in your family don’t believe you, blame you, still fail to protect you, and/or want you to be quiet about the traumatic past that you’re working so hard to overcome. This dilemma is the reason I have begun to write my story: I have been living with hurtful family responses for over two decades.
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.
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I will always have deep and lasting scars. But underneath, my wounds are healing. After decades of hard work in psychotherapy, a solid support system, and the unconditional love of my husband and children, I feel whole. I am okay. Better than that, I have created a life that fulfills and sustains me and brings many joys. There is more to my story though, and this part does not have a happy ending. It’s about my family of origin. For two decades, I tried to maintain relationships with family members while still remaining loyal to myself and honoring the truth about the abuse. Sadly, I have found this to be an impossible goal. Throughout this long struggle, I have felt ignored, shamed, blamed, ostracized and – ultimately, utterly betrayed.