Dear overwhelmed-by-all-the-grimy-information drama observers,
In Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes, a boy in the crowd says what everyone else knows but won’t admit—the emperor is as naked as a jaybird. Others quickly follow suit and take up the cry.
It would seem that we’re witnessing a sea change of sorts in which the activities of sexual boundary-crossers are being exposed and collectively condemned. These predators are usually men, though there is the occasional story about some female teacher crossing sexual lines with one of her male students, for instance.
In so many of these cases, their activities had long been observable by anyone with eyes to see. But like the tale, many observers became not attention-callers but passive bystanders, disregarding their observations and thus enabling the pretense. It would seem that day has passed though given the nature of human nature, perhaps not.
Over the last 30+ years, I’ve worked with countless survivors of sexual intrusions. Some of these violations occurred in childhood, some in adulthood. A defilement of this sort doesn’t just affect one’s body parts, it affects the self—something far more significant.
I’d like to make some observations about those on the receiving end of abuse but first, a caveat. I’m aware that there is such a thing as a false abuse report. What the abusee claims happened never occurred. The story’s been fabricated for some nefarious motivation up here in the present or the history’s been revised in such a way that the teller now believes the revision. I’ve heard countless legitimate abuse stories and a hand-full that aren’t. In fact, I could lose some fingers and still count the false ones on one hand. So, I’m not saying it can’t happen; I’m just saying that it’s rare.
Below are three common conclusions drawn by those who’ve endured the personhood-violating experience of sexual defilement. I’ll be using feminine pronouns because the prevalence rate for female abuse is so much higher.
“It must be my fault.”
This is not an original theory—you’ve probably heard some version of this many times. When a child is abused, she naturally asks herself on some level, “Why is this bad thing happening to me?” One way to answer the question is to conclude it’s the grown-up’s fault. That’s accurate, but the implication of taking that stance becomes, “I’m a good little person in a world controlled by a bad big person.” That’s terrifying.
To reduce the terror, she’ll opt to answer the question the other way—to conclude that it’s her fault. While a distortion of reality, it actually feels safer because she now inhabits a world controlled by a good big person with her being the bad one. What’s out there is good; the bad is in here, the thinking goes. The sense of control goes up and the scary feelings go down.
But from that point forward, she grows into an adult with a self-esteem constructed around a central negative core and becomes prone to thought distortions like:
- If something goes wrong in a relationship, it must be me.
- If people actually knew me, they’d reject me.
- I don’t have what it takes to succeed at life.
- No good person would ever want me so I may as well settle for a bad person.
- Etc., etc., etc.
The assumption-of-fault stance thus provides a short-term sense of control but leads to a long-term decimation of the self.
“I’d rather not think about it.”
We all have ways of building mental compartments—emotional hazmat containers, if you will, that seal in the toxins to keep the rest of our lives uncontaminated. A person victimized by sexual violations experiences toxic emotions that she seeks to avoid at all costs.
“If I think about it, I’ll feel it. So, I just need to figure out how to put it out of my mind and never think about it again.”
She takes the stance of Scarlett O’Hara: “I’ll think about that tomorrow.” But when tomorrow comes, she defers to tomorrow once again.
But most people can only kick the can down the road for so long. Sooner or later, the container starts to leak and the previously avoided emotions seep into the current experience. Sometimes, an up-close relationship like marriage is the catalyst. Or maybe it’s becoming a parent, where she’s now required to supply to a child what wasn’t supplied to her. Or maybe hearing someone talk about their own experience of sexual violation pops the lid and the emotions can’t be sealed off any longer. They come flowing out now even though they originated back then.
Just this week, one pundit revealed his ignorance by saying that if you see someone crying about a 40 year old abuse experience, you can be assured that it’s just a performance. Evidently, he’s never experienced the thing about which he so arrogantly pontificates.
“I better not reveal it.”
People who’ve never endured abuse will sometimes wonder, “Well, why didn’t she tell somebody?” Sounds easy enough, right? There are many reasons why a given individual may have chosen not to reveal an abuse situation but I’ll mention three.
First, there’s the reason mentioned above. “If I tell someone, it will be out of the container and then I’ll have to feel it. But I don’t want to feel it so I’ll just keep it to myself.”
Second, if she reveals it, she may not be believed. And being disbelieved, in some ways, can feel worse than the abuse itself.
Sometimes, that abuser has gone on to become an upstanding citizen or a widely-respected person of notoriety. Nothing hurts worse than the sound of someone saying, “I’ve known so-and-so for X number of years and he would never do anything like that.” The not-so-subtle implication: the victim lied.
But the victim has observed first-hand what others haven’t. That is, the abuser is a two-faced poser. He’s a snake oil salesman. His public presentation is nothing like his private reality. And it’s beyond painful for the victim to see gullible followers buy the snake oil. One client put it this way:
My abuser was widely known and respected in the little Southern town in which I grew up. People would constantly tell me how lucky I was to be related to such a wonderful man. It never occurred to me to tell anyone because, if I did, they’d believe him and not me.
Third, some victims choose not to reveal because they understand the probable nuclear fallout. Once this information comes to light, the abuse drama will likely occupy center-stage in the victim’s life for quite a while. Some people have come to terms with that reality and are ready to make the choice, come what may. Others, for a variety of reasons, may choose not to reveal and that’s OK, too. Revealing may or may not lead to healing. It’s a judgment call determination that each individual has to make and there’s validity for making either choice.
I realize this week’s letter has been somewhat gloomy and devoid of jocularity. You might’ve had as much fun reading this letter as Andy Taylor had on this blind date.