“Why didn’t you tell somebody?” That’s the response victims of child sexual abuse often hear when they disclose their traumatic lives as children.
I’d like to offer some reasons children don’t tell:
1) Some children’s brains protect them from what’s inescapable and intolerable by forgetting (dissociating.) Since they don’t remember what happened last time they’re lured by candy or the promise of a cute puppy, again and again. Only later, when it’s safe to remember, do they piece together the underlying causes of their difficulties in life. Some people never remember. Instead their lives are shaped by emotions and fears they don’t understand. Personally, I remembered when I was in my late 40’s, a common age for surfacing lost memories.
2) Some children tell, but regret confiding in the adult they’ve trusted. In my book, Confessions of a Trauma Therapist: A Memoir of Healing and Transformation, I explain what happened when I told my mother the recreation director was sexually abusing his charges. Here’s what I said:
“When it came my turn for the honour of riding on Bert’s shoulders, I was confused and uncomfortable to realize his hand was inside my underpants rubbing my genitals….It was months later that I decided to tell my mother the truth about Bert. His assault still bothered me and I hoped that, in telling her, I would feel better. No sooner had I got the words out of my mouth that she turned on me.”
“You nasty little girl,” she almost screamed. “You must have liked it.”
“No,” I protested, “I didn’t like it.”
It was no use. I’d told her and now she looked on me as a bad girl (p. 172)
In all likelihood, I tried to tell her about something much worse – my father and grandfather. It makes sense that her response would have convinced me my intolerable situation was also inescapable. The only way to survive was to “forget.”
3) Nancy Brown, author of Facing Life, had decent, loving parents. Her strange behavior (stealing candy and later drunkenly acting out with people her policeman father knew as criminal types) reflected her shamed view of herself. This child who was being used sexually by the man across the street, blamed herself. There was something awful about her that bad men recognized. She couldn’t bear to tell her parents what she suffered regularly in the house across the street. Her perpetrator threatened to skin her dog and harm her little brother if she told.
“I was tired of hurting down there all the time. I wanted to run away but I couldn’t leave Peter and Rusty with no one to protect them. And Mom and Dad would miss me, even though I worried them.”
Children often keep the perpetrator’s secret out of fear.
4) There’s another reason children keep their perpetrator’s secret. These are children who believe they are involved in a love affair. In my years as a trauma therapist, I often worked with adolescents who thought they were special to the teacher who was abusing them. It was only when it came to light that their lover had a ring of young sexual partners that these young people felt betrayed and disclosed the abuse.
Are there more reasons children keep their terrible secrets? Please leave your comments if you can add to this discussion.