Archive for Incest

Why Children Don’t Disclose Child Sexual Abuse

 

sadness

“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.

Children Who Remember Sexual Abuse

summer

Many children who have been sexually abused don’t remember the events that traumatized them. Their brains have the capacity to “forget” trauma. (Trauma describes events that are both inescapable and intolerable.) As a race, we humans survived famines, wars and other terrible events, thanks to the brain’s ability to “forget.” Without this adaptation, maybe we’d have died out as a species.

The brains of modern babies, like of the brains of the caveman’s babies, are shaped by the circumstances into which they’re born. A baby who is welcomed by love, soft sounds and warm, caring arms develops a brain that knows when to trust. This baby will likely be open to life’s relationships and adventures. On the other hand the brain of the infant experiencing neglect or a lack of safety and love, will be toughened to be suspicious of humans, won’t expect good things from life and will be subject to all our society’s common illnesses and psychiatric diagnoses (Refer to the ACE Studies) Above all, this brain will protect its owner from remembering what is intolerable and inescapable. It’s common for children to simply forget that the adults on whom they depended traumatized them.

In my own history, I didn’t remember being sexually abused by family members until I was in my late 40’s. That turns out to be a common age. It’s as if our pain and shame remain hidden until we’re mature enough to deal with it. Many of us who had delayed memories managed to live relatively normal lives, before being shaken by the surfacing of traumatic memories. We probably knew something was wrong, but we were spared from dealing with it until we were older. The worst was finally realizing the terrible toll child sexual abuse had taken on our lives.

As a child who believed she came from a perfect family, this is how I describe myself in my book, Confessions of a Trauma Therapist: A Memoir of Healing and Transformation.

“Looking at me during my childhood years you would have seem a spoiled rich kid always smiling and never causing any trouble. On the inside, life was different. Under the placid exterior I existed in a wet, grey fog, never quite sure of what was happening around me.” (p. 3.)

Sweet, fat and smiling: this is a common appearance of children who are being sexually abused, but can never clear their brains enough to know what is happening to them.

I’m grateful I was able to dissociate. As an adult I managed to get an education in spite of my daydreaming and spacing-out. I married, had my son, and immersed myself in yoga, social work and 30 years of fulfilling work as a trauma therapist. If I’d realized what was going on in my home, how would I have found the energy or the will to live my life?

Nancy Brown, author of Facing Life: A Memoir of Addiction never forgot. Her child’s brain didn’t dissociate the knowledge that the neighbor across the street held her and his little daughter, Ruthie, hostage as sexual rewards for his card-playing buddies. The pain was intolerable and she believed her situation was inescapable. She believed there was something about her that caused Ruthie’s father and later other men prey on her. Her perpetrator assured her silence by threatening Rusty, her beloved dog, and Peter her little brother, that they’d wish they’d never been born if she didn’t shut up and stop wriggling.

“Once I made a noise when it hurt and he said he’d skin Rusty alive if I didn’t stop (p. 16.)”

To dull the intolerable pain, she soon started stealing candy from little corner stores in her neighbourhood. She made sure never to be without her secret hordes of sweets. Even when she went to camp at age eight, she worried she wouldn’t be able to sneak enough candy to last two weeks. She filled the stomach of her stuffed toy with candy and chose a top bunk where she could eat her candy out of sight.

Once in high school, she discovered alcohol. It worked even better than sweets. She figured out how to get a steady supply of booze from the local bootlegger. Prescription pain killers helped dull her terrible pain. Eventually her life was one of isolation, bad hygiene and a routine of swallowing enough pills and alcohol in the morning to face the day.

She never told her worried parents. Why? This is the subject for my next post Why Children Don’t Tell.

References:

The ACE Studies, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adverse Childhood Experiences Study is one of the largest investigations ever to assess associations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being.

Disclosing Incest to Your Family

writing a letter

Before I published my memoir “Confessions of a Trauma Therapist,” I wrote a letter to everyone in my family disclosing sexual abuse at the hands of my father and grandfather.

The letter that follows was Patricia Singleton’s way of finally disclosing her own incest to her family members. I publish it in the expectation that it will prove helpful to many of you who read this post.

Dear Family Member – Notification About Incest Happening In Family

April 24, 1992
Dear Family Member: It is nice to feel that I have a family and roots again after so many years of feeling alone and empty.  For years, I cut myself off from any attachment to my “Caldwell” side of the family.  I now know that this was the only way I could deal with the pain of Dad’s betrayal of me as a child.  To survive and try to lead a nearly normal adult life I had to disconnect from my painful past and any reminders of it.  My family was a very strong reminder of that past.

For over three years I have been dealing with that painful past—working through my anger and grief—and learning to let go of it.  For what I am about to tell you, I don’t want your pity or your anger.  I don’t need you to react at all.  I am doing this for me and for no one else.  I do hope that I can have your support in my working through this.

I know that some of you may be disbelieving and some of you may be angry that I am just now revealing this and you want to know why after all these years of being quiet that I am now stirring up all this trouble.  I am not doing this to cause trouble or to seek revenge.  I am doing this as a further step in my recovery.  I am refusing to keep silent and to carry the burden of this secret anymore.  It has become too heavy.  Too much of my life has been harmed by it.  I still have a lot of anger to deal with over this and to deal with it, the reasons have to brought out into the open.  I don’t want another generation of children to suffer because of our silence and it will continue to happen unless we speak out and others have the awareness to deal with it.  Secrecy hurts too many people.

Most of you know that Daddy has a drinking problem.  For my own self, I choose to give it a name—alcoholism.  No one else has to agree with me.  I won’t argue over this point.  It is strictly my opinion.  Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

I thought about talking about this to some of you at the recent Family Reunion, but I decided to just enjoy the day instead.  I have worked hard this year and deserved to have that day to savor the pleasant memories and feelings of love that I felt from each of you.  This was an important day for me.

I don’t make any apology to anyone for the feelings that you have as you read this.  This is a family secret that must be exposed for what it is—dangerous and deadly to our children and their self-esteem.

Some of you wonder why [my sister], [my brother] and I aren’t close to the family anymore.  I can’t speak for [my brother].  I don’t know his reasons.  [My sister] is afraid of Daddy and refuses to be around him or to allow her children contact with him.  I don’t want him in my life or in my children’s lives.  I won’t let him continue to abuse me.

I won’t tell you [my brother’s] or [my sister’s] story.  I will only tell you mine.  I won’t go into details here.  That would take to long.  I’ve already written more than I thought I would.

Starting at least by the age of eleven years old, I was sexually abused by Daddy.  I don’t have memories of it starting earlier than that, but it may have.  Some of the work that I have done leads me to believe that I may have been as young as eight or nine years old.  You can’t imagine the emotional pain I have gone through because of this.  Do you know what it is like to hate the parent that you also love and have to depend upon for your very survival?  When I was seventeen years old, I reached the point of having the courage to say no to Daddy.  If the abuse had continued, I would have lost my sanity.  I knew that.  I never again let Daddy abuse me.  I think he was afraid I would tell if he continued to push me.  He left me alone physically, but the emotional abuse continued until I left home at the age of nineteen.  I knew that was my one and only chance to get out from under his control. Living with Dad was like having a dictator tell you everything you could do or not do.  I never learned to make decisions or to think for myself until I was a Junior in college.  I know that God was with me and keeping me sane.  He gave me the courage to do what I had to do.  He allowed me to find the people that I needed to guide me in the right direction at each crucial point in my life.  I have a husband who loves me and has tried to be understanding of all that I have gone through.  That hasn’t always been easy.  Dan has allowed me the space to find out who I am.  For me, the process has been both painful and joyful.

I like who I am today.  I am at a good place in my life.  I have told Mom about the abuse just this month.  She says she didn’t know or she would have stopped it.  She was as much under Dad’s control as I was.  I have made my peace with her.  I haven’t confronted Dad yet, because when I try to contact him person to person he disappears.  I have written a letter to him giving him back responsibility for his actions.  This step will close a chapter in my life.  This is a positive step for me.  It has been a long journey to reach this healthy point in my life.

I hope that each of you can still welcome me to future Family Reunions with the same enthusiasm as you did this year.  Family means a lot to me.  I love everyone of you.  Please help me to bring awareness to our next generation of children so the hurt and the abuse can be stopped at least for this family.  I love you all.

Patricia Caldwell SingletonI didn’t use my brother or my sister’s names here as I did in the original letters.  I have been searching for my copy of this letter for over a year and could not find it.  My sister a few weeks ago called me and asked me if I would like to have her copy of the letter.  She didn’t know that I had been looking for my copy.  Thanks, Sis for giving me your copy.  She also gave me her copy of the copy letter written to her and my brother telling them that they were getting their copy of the “Dear Family Member” letter two weeks before I mailed them out to everyone else.  I wrote the above letter on April 24, 1992 but my sister’s letter was written on June 10, 1992 so I apparently took a few months after writing the “Dear Family Member” letter before I mailed them out to my dad’s brothers and sisters.  I chose not to send a copy to my grandmother because she was elderly and in poor health.  I didn’t want to hurt her with the knowledge of her sons actions.  I told each of my aunts and uncles that it was their choice as to whether or not they shared the contents of my letter with their children, most of whom are my age and older.  I don’t know if they did or not.  No one ever said anything to me about it.  One of my nephews recently told me he had read his dad’s letter when he was a teenager.  My youngest niece recently read her mom’s copy before my sister gave the letter to me.I look forward to hearing from you letting me know what you think about my letter.
Patricia

You’re a Liar and a Very Sick Girl to Say Such Things About Your Nice Father

Recently I received a heartbreaking message from a woman who was once a child being sexually abused by her father. She told on him. At the treatment centre where she had been sent to receive therapy because she was acting out, the experts supported her “nice” father and treated her as a liar and a troublemaker.

This was back in the 70’s before the Women’s Movement forced the issue of child sexual abuse out of the nation’s closets.

I wonder ….. how many of today’s 50 year old men and women went through this terrible experience? How many tried to tell and were labeled by a professional world as mentally ill, disturbed or just plain malevolent This was a time in our history when the psychiatric literature proclaimed that child sexual abuse was so rare – one in a million families – that psychiatrists would be unlikely to meet it in the course of their careers.

Here is her email to me.

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, only shortly before, had assured my parents that I had imagined the precisely documented sexual horrors of my own childhood. The same Dr. Angus Hood who had assured them that these must be psychotic ravings against my ‘nice’ father. The same Dr. Angus Hood who refused to believe a word I said, who dismissed my physical pain, who did not respect my testimony, who filtered everything through his prejudiced assumption that a father like mine would not sexually abuse his daughter through formative years, ruining her life.

Well, Dr. Hood certainly contributed to ruining that life. He certainly did his bit to support the status quo. Along with my parents’ advisor, a woman by the name of Jaffe who told them sympathetically that their ‘crazy’ (must be crazy) daughter would occasionally act out – like slaves on southern plantations who just ‘went crazy’ every once in a while, then succumbed to suppression and settled down – but that this childish behaviour should be treated with zero tolerance by her 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 Dr. Hood and everyone at Hincks under his supervision who allowed it to continue with the official support of the psychiatric establishment in Toronto. And was it Dr. Hood who told the Clark Institute to refuse lie detector tests on the grounds that they don’t give correct results? Very likely, since my request to the Clark Institute had to go through Hincks. Maybe it’s true that lie detectors are no good, 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 could have supported me, and he didn’t. Good going, Dr. Angus Hood, enabling incest. Ms. Armstrong, it’s about time you knew the whole truth about this man.

Sincerely,

Shelagh Stephen

Do you have a similar story? Would you care to comment in the space below?

My Guest Blog Post on MentalHealthTalk.Info

I am delighted to share with you my guest blog post I wrote MentalHealthTalk.Info:

As a trauma therapist, I was busy helping others recover from childhood trauma when my own incest memories surfaced. That was when I was in my late 40’s and as so many of my clients, I protested, “Why now?!” For the first time in my life things were going really well. That’s the way it is with memories. They come when we’re ready for them. Read more