Recently I heard from a trauma survivor whose story I included in my 2010 memoir, Confessions of a Trauma Therapist. Shelagh Stephen was fourteen years old when she told helping professionals about ongoing sexual abuse at the hands of her father. This was a time when the textbook for psychiatry students assured them they’d be unlikely to encounter child sexual abuse. It was considered extremely rare: nothing that would happen in our communities.
Shelagh tells how she was further traumatized by being trapped in a mental health system where she could not get help. Worse, she endured further harm under the care of those whose job it was to help her. The psychiatrist, the social worker and others charged with treating troubled children, regarded her with scorn and blamed her for making up nasty tales about her respectable father.
In light of today’s statistics, it’s clear that Shelagh was not alone in being shunned and reviled for disclosing her terrible secret. How many children risked going for help, only to be told they were lying? The numbers must be staggering. Punishment for telling no doubt added to the silencing of other children who were being abused by adults in charge of their safety.
You can read the letter Shelagh sent to me. Do you know of similar stories? What was your experience? Clearly, Shelagh is not alone.
Dear Ms. Armstrong,
In your book Confessions of a Trauma Therapist you write about Dr. Angus Hood, supervisor at the Hincks Treatment Centre in Toronto. On pp. 89 you relate that “…fourteen-year-old Shirley Turcotte…was a suicidal teenager who revealed to…(her therapist Harvey) the sexual horrors of her childhood. Fortunately both Harvey and his supervisor, Dr. Angus Hood, were open to believing the unthinkable. Before long Harvey was treating a handful of youngsters who had been sexually abused in their homes.”
This was the same Dr. Angus Hood who was in charge of the Hincks Treatment Centre when my therapist, Dr. Jon Plapp, assured my parents that I had imagined the precisely documented sexual horrors of my own childhood. Dr. Plapp refused to believe a word I said, dismissed my physical pain, did not respect my testimony, and filtered everything through his prejudiced assumption that a father like mine would not sexually abuse his daughter through formative years, ruining her life. Or perhaps he had truly malicious intent. After all, I had informed him in no uncertain terms of the multiple felonies my father committed against me, yet that evidence was not in his files.
My parents’ advisor, a social worker named D. Jaffey, told my parents sympathetically that I would occasionally act out. This sounds like a description of slaves on southern plantations who just ‘went crazy’ every once in a while, then succumbed to suppression and settled down. It was assumed that that this childish behaviour should be treated with zero tolerance by my mature, self controlled and responsible parents.
My name was Shelagh Watson and I was admitted to Hincks when I was 15, in 1970. I am now 57 and guess what? I still say what I said then, that I was habitually and systematically abused by my father for years. What a life I had. A life that was made worse by the abject failure of every person who knew about my father’s crimes and allowed them to continue. Dr. Hood was told that I wanted lie detector tests. Dr. Plapp went out of his way to persuade Dr. C.K. McKnight of the Clarke Institute that in my case they shouldn’t be given, and consequently Dr. McKnight informed my parents that they didn’t yield correct results. But the 60 million dollar question (guessed it yet?) is: Why, then, did the Clarke Institute have them?
I was a gutsy young person. I called a policeman in the middle of all this. But he didn’t believe me when he found out that I was in treatment. And why was I in treatment? Maybe – radical thought – just PTSD from being abused. No, make that TSD, since it was still going on. Dr. Hood, Dr. Plapp and Dr. McKnight were in a position to support me, and they didn’t.
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This photo was taken this June at the CanWrite Conference in Orillia. With my new passion for creative writing, I joined writers from all across Canada at this annual event where I had the opportunity to introduce and to sell my memoir, Confessions of a Trauma Therapist: A Memoir of Healing and Transformation.
Whenever one of my books goes out into the world, I have the huge satisfaction of knowing that someone else’s life may begin to make sense, that further steps toward healing will unfold and that the invisible wounds of childhood trauma will be transformed into new strength and compassion, both for the self and for others.
These days, I’m struggling to learn the new skills of writing fiction. During the five days of the conference, there were workshops and presentations by successful authors, as well as the opportunity to pitch my novel to an agent. The agent didn’t jump at the opportunity to represent this struggling new writer: but she did give me some invaluable critiques on my work. Thanks to her, I’m rewriting the whole thing – again!
And so, I continue to learn and to refine this unwieldy pile of plot and characters into a workable piece of fiction. Writing a novel is the most complex and demanding project I’ve ever taken on. One day, I hope you get to read it.
There are many reasons for not telling you were sexually abused as a child. Some of them make rational sense. Some don’t.
Recently I had a very moving message from a woman who is a therapist and whose own life is burdened by memories of child sexual abuse. She belongs to a professional community where many of the members secretly believe people who have been sexually abused cannot be healthy and whole. These members don’t admit to viewing victims as lesser humans, but it shows in their attitudes. Naturally, she feared disclosing her own story … even to herself. How, she asked herself, could she be a therapist if she herself was experiencing flashbacks between sessions?
Reading my book, Confessions of a Trauma Therapist: A Memoir of Healing and Transformation set her free from her fear of being discredited as a mental health professional because of her background. If I could tell my story without being silenced by shame, then maybe it was all right for her to respect her own experience.
In reading my book, she found the courage to tell her story … at least to herself. She says, “I had worried that in my telling, I would lose my career. And in my telling I would lose my family. And in my telling, I would go crazy or not be believed.”
She is now free to tell herself and to embrace her child part that suffered the abuse. Whether she tells others is a different matter. When she feels ready to disclose, when she’s comfortable with her own story, she’ll need to choose people who are likely to respond in a positive way.
Perhaps she’ll also come to a place where she considers those who were sexually abused as especially strong and resourceful. After all, they survived the abuse.
A year and a half ago, I retired, then sat back to wonder what the future held for me. For the last three decades of my life I had been totally committed to my private psychotherapy practice, the Centre for Focusing I founded and directed until the year 2000, writing articles to help people understand childhood trauma and developing this website and my Facebook Page for survivors. Publishing my own story of childhood sexual abuse (Confessions of a Trauma Therapist: A Memoir of Healing and Transformation) and then making sure the book got into the hands of those who needed it, kept me busy and fulfilled.
At the end of 2011 when I closed my office, I immediately immersed myself in my passion for yoga, signing up for classes at a nearby studio. Then in October of that year, my little granddaughter came along to fill my heart and much of my time. I took up gardening, started cooking more than just the basics and gorged my literary appetite on Canadian fiction.
Out of this freedom to indulge in whatever called to me, I began writing creatively – something I’d enjoyed doing before life steered me in the direction of social work and helping those who had been traumatized. I found myself writing a novel!
And that’s what I mostly do these days – create a work of fiction. I’m in the Humber College Creative Writing course and regularly send my mentor my latest work. I’m honing my skills as a storyteller and I’m excited about the characters that somehow come to life as I write my novel.
I’ll keep on communicating with you through this website and, of course, I’ll let you know how my novel’s progressing.
Back in June I told my story on the Oprah Winfrey Network. The producer told me it would go public in August. I’ve waited and waited. As I write this we’re half way through August and there’s still no publication date.
Finally I emailed OWN. My friends and neighbours were wondering when the heck we could see the filming. OWN replied that my story has probably been moved to January. Read more
Category: Book Updates
, Child Sexual Abuse
, Traumatic Memories
Tags: child sexual abuse
, confessions of a trauma therapist
, Oprah Winfrey
, Oprah Winfrey Network
, television series
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