Thursday, May 29, 2008

Open Secrets

**I'm putting this at the top again as the reactions from Mommy to Ander and Wife to Box and my best friends really make me realize how much I want people's input/reasoning on this. I think silence can be outright dangerous in certain situations. And, as ABW's post reminds me (to paraphrase Audre Lord), silence will not protect us.**

A few days ago, I noticed this story on Shakesville about another father who held his daughter captive and repeatedly raped her over a period of 11 years. That in itself is incomprehensible; there seems not to be an adjective to describe the horrible fact that she was abandoned by her other family members:

[Eleuterio] Soria's trial revealed that he began abusing his daughter in 1992, when she was 12 years old. The following year she became pregnant by her father, prompting her mother to leave their home in La Matanza, a working class Buenos Aires district.

The family's five other siblings eventually left as well, abandoning the daughter to Soria.

Some commenters there expressed outrage about the family's (in)actions. But I couldn't help thinking that, while I hope this actual physical abandonment is the exception, it's quite common that people abandon the survivors of sexual abuse--not by leaving, but with their silence.

There’s this feeling that I have that I can’t shake. It is this sense of guilt that I abandoned two of my younger cousins to a life of pain and humiliation. Their father, my father’s brother, molested me. Eventually, I told. But my cousins still lived with him. I have always felt that, once I reached adulthood, I should’ve done more to save them. It was and is an open secret in my family and this community that this man is a pedophile. Yet, despite my own pain, I followed the lead of the adults in my family, and stayed silent.

Why do we do that? In part, because we don’t value the lives of our girls and women. And unbelievably, we worry more about the "damage" that would be done to rapists—their lives and reputations. We can excuse abusers who are in other ways “good people.” We don’t want to ruin their lives because of “a mistake.” And remember the judge who banned terms like "rape" and "sexual assault" because the usage of them might be prejudicial to the defendant?

What I also see is the unwillingness to become involved in “other people’s business,” especially in cases of intrafamily sexual abuse. At one time, I would have argued that people don’t like to think or talk about incest, but that’s not quite right, because we do talk about it. In hushed whispers and behind closed doors. Last night, my best friend, Mrs. O, and I sat at my computer and fought back tears as we talked about our abuse, the abuse of our sisters and girlfriends, the abuse of women and girls in our community. And since we know, I know other people do, as well. All these "secrets" that are not secrets, "unspeakables" that are spoken about quite often.

Yet, we are often publicly silent. I think it is a cultural silence—the response of people who live in what some would call a “rape culture.” In such a culture, incest is an unpleasant thing but is accepted, in a sense, as something that invariably happens. The best we can do is hope to protect our children from it.

Just as our silence shields rapists from the consequences of their actions, it also eases the discomfort and pain of everyone except the victim. We have sympathy for family members who don't want to rend their families apart or who can't stand the idea of confrontation or who don't, often for good reason, trust the police, the courts, or other authorities. Talking about sexual abuse and assault is painful for people who know it has occured because they often feel they are caught in a dilemma. And so, we don't talk out loud about it, trying desperately to render it invisible. In a more general sense, Melissa writes a lot about how our media refuses to call rape what it is. Euphemisms are presumed to be much more palatable to our sensitive ears and eyes.

I think, after a while, as a survivor, your goal becomes protecting others’ feelings as well. It as if your own pain is relegated to some small, deep part of you as you try to shield everyone else. For example, I have made peace with the fact that my mother simply could not handle hearing about my abuse. Could not deal with it, refused to do so, in part, because of her own past traumas. And rather than demanding that my family address this open secret, I simply do not attend gatherings of the family on my dad’s side. It would be awkward, and wrongly or not, I identify myself as the cause of that awkwardness and choose not to cast a pall over their celebrations.

And I try to make invisible the abuse by silencing myself, as well. I can tell that my cousin, the older of the two (they are both grown now), wants to talk to me, ask me about "it." But I just can't.

I talked to Mrs. O again today about this subject, this post, and how I was struggling to write it. She was quiet for a minute and then she asked me did I remember when we read The Green Mile? When I nodded, she asked me did I remember John Coffey explaining how Wild Bill was able to kill two little girls--why didn't one of them scream or run away to tell? John Coffey's line was something like, "He killed them with their love." Neither sister would scream for fear of endangering her sister's life.

Mrs. O believes that is one reason some family members refuse to tell sometimes. They fear negative consequences for the survivor. Not just in a retaliatory sense, but in how the survivor will be perceived once the fact of sexual abuse is made public. In a culture obsessed with women's "purity" and "innocence," female survivors of abuse are often portrayed as somehow "damaged" or "soiled." And then there is the prurience. I told of my abuse when I was 13-years-old. Three of my eighth-grade classmates cornered me to ask if I "had just been touched" or if I'd had to "you know." I have no doubt they heard those questions from much older gossipers.

I think that prurience plays a role in the constant quest to blame the victim, to explain away the abuser's behavior. Many people have written about the need some people have to find something the victim was doing that demonstrates s/he "was asking for it" or "consented." In the context of this post, what stands out to me most right now is a post Cara did at The Curvature about an article about Natascha Kampusch, a girl held captive for eight years, headlined "Victim 'had sex with her captor willingly'." According to police, "She admitted that she had had sex with him and that she had done that voluntarily." One of my first thoughts, when I was able to think again, was about the language choice--we usually say people "tell" the truth; they "admit" guilt.

I don't pretend to have all the answers for why people remain silent. I can't even explain why I've remained silent. But it's something I'm trying to work through.


Anonymous said...

People are blinded sometimes. Re: the girl who "admitted to consenting sex", I don't doubt she *eventually* submitted to sex. What's the use in fighting? Aquiescence (sp) isn't new for serial victims of oppression - and it doesn't matter if it is abuse or bullying.
What is this requirement that one must physically fight off an attack -- especially in the case of serial abuse?
It's a sad defense tactic of the larger public who DON't want to deal with oppression and injustice.

Giftie Etcetera said...

I could have written this blog, except that I couldn't have written it as eloquently.

I was "not quite" a victim of sexual abuse. I have an uncle, who is not that much older than me (maybe 11 or 12 years?) who tried to touch me once and who masterbated in front of me a couple of times. But you remember me from high school, right? I'm a bit of a high-tempered spitfire. So, between my screaming at him, telling him off, and threatening to call the cops (with the phone in hand), he ran away everytime.

I've told my husband. I've told me friends. But I haven't told my family.

I always think it would be easier to tell if I HAD been abused. Stupid, right? If he had succeeded, I would tell my family. But what do I say? Almost 20 years ago, nothing happened?

I've been a witness in a child molestation case (for one of our LSMSA classmates). At 17, I was very willing to tell the police what happened to her. I told them I was happy to testify on the stand, if that would get the abuser in trouble.

I represent both abused kids and kids who commit sexual abuse themselves. My juvenile sex clients are almost almost victims of sexual abuse, and, in the case of those who perpretrate, a combination of serial abusers (meaning when they get out of jail, they will likely reoffend) and one-time, childish abusers (meaning that they did to someone younger something that they should have reserved for someone their own age, but only because they are awkward and hormonal and saw things happen to them that way...and they will probably never reoffend). So sexual abuse is part of my chosen career. I speak publically about it all the time.

Yet, I don't speak to my family about my uncle. I don't tell them how relieved I was when his youngest child died, at age 2, because I figured, in my 11 year old mind, that God was saving my cousin from his dad. I don't tell them how relieved I was to get a call, one Mardi Gras while I was visiting a friend in New Orleans, to hear that his wife, who once walked in but blamed me for my uncle's state of undress, had died suddenly of a heart attack.

And I don't speak out when my 2 year old son is there. I am polite and civil. And my 2 year old is not around him because - get the irony in this - my uncle smokes. Yep, I jump on the anti-smoking wagon to protect my son. Instead of doing what I should do to protect my son.

Because I'm wimpy and scared, and "not quite" a victim. Except, it's clear from my silence that I am a victim.

Anonymous said...


This post was on my mind for much of the night last night after reading it yesterday afternoon. Computer's broke at home so couldn't comment or write a post prompted by yours at my place either. At any rate, thank you for this post, so much. It expresses so much of the reality I have felt around sexual abuse as well, whether during childhood or as an adult. That thing about feeling like you are protecting other people from having to think about it, hear about it, etc., because of knowing it would hurt their hearts also, what happened to you.

I mean there is also the pressure to not-talk about it, but mostly when people discuss the not-talking-about-it, it's the shame factor, the nobody-wants-to-hear-it aspect. I haven't seen a lot of other people talk about the part where a person silences herself because of, I would say related but not the exact same thing as the external pressure.

Anyway, more later about your post, at my own blog, and am so glad you are writing.

Hagar's Daughter said...

I am a social worker with child protective services (for 14 years)and professionals still describe sexual violence, molestation, etc of children as "sexual intercourse." This diminshes the cruelty and violence of sexual assault/rape. It also implies that children in some consented or share the responsibility.

A very close relative was raped recently and someone in the family tried to blame the young lady's mother for allowing the young lady to dress a certain way. I was stunned at first, then as I explained what rape is and is not the person seemed to understand the error of his thinking. We must stop blaming the victim.

Also, I think silence is killing us in the black community. The silence of not saying anything at all and the silence that is associated with whispering our disapproval of horrific behavior.

Quiche said...

I have a story that relates to yours in some ways. I was abused by a close friend of the family. Eventually some people found out but this person still works with kids in a high powered position. Very high and looking to be higher. I know why I have been silent. He has(d) money and power and I did not. No one would believe me and it would expose me to a lot of public scrutiny. So in the end, I am (was) silent because of the terror it would cause me and my family. This means I choose to protect myself rather than other kids in his path. It makes me sad that the choice came down to that. It also makes me feel selfish. But I also have survived and become a full, healthy person. In some ways I haven't done enough. In other ways I feel like I have done what I can. Does that make sense?

Quiche said...

And as I think about this more...the pressure to not be silent should not fall on squarely on the survivor of abuse. We are the ones dealing with all the shit that comes with it. The burden really lands on those who know it to have happened and have chosen to say nothing despite that fact that they *were not* the ones in the horrible situation. Those who are not the ones dealing with the guilt and self-doubt... So if a pastor knows and said nothing, an outside family member, a friend of the perpetrator, they should be the one who throws a fit. They are also responsible for breaking the silence.

changeseeker said...

My father was still trying to get into my bed when I was nearly thirty years old. As far as I can tell, he may have sexually abused all five of his children and most of his grandchildren, as well. Yet, when I told my mother after he killed himself at the age of 76 that I wish she had protected us because it did great damage, she told my brothers and sisters that I made her fear for her life and they didn't speak to me for seven years.

For many years, for me, there was sort of a psychic split in my awareness. On one level, I "knew" what had happened, but I didn't give it credance. Somehow my emotional and psychological survival depended on my having blunted feelings about all of it, even after I discovered that my father had "played with" my three-year-old son.

My father was sick. My mother was sick. And they made everyone around them sick. I don't believe there are straightforward, rational explanations for the results of trauma from sexual or other abuse. Trying to draft such explanations may be a matter of trying to make sense of a senseless situation. I suspect that many more women in the U.S. than we would ever guess were sexualized as children and the same may be true elsewhere.

elle said...

I'm bad about following up on comments--i usually read them via e-mail on my phone. But I wanted to let you all know that I am touched and so honored that you shared in this space. I go back and forth over what I should share and shouldn't, but when I follow my instincts, I fine so much support, so much empathy and understanding.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...