Before we get started, if you haven’t listened to this episode of “Terrible, Thanks for Asking”, do so now here.
Episode 20 features Amee, an incredible survivor and inspiration. She My mother did not sexually abuse my brother and I. Her preferred method of torture was physical and emotional. But, any survivor can identify with the loneliness, fear, and struggle to cope and compartmentalize that Amee describes. And I intensely admire her strength and bravery, because telling your story to the whole nation is scary–especially if, as a child, many adults blamed or defamed you for trying to speak out, as happened to Amee. The following is a positive response to her story. She makes several important points I find it necessary to extrapolate on, for the benefit of survivors and those who find themselves in a position lend support to a survivor in their family.
- “It fucking sucks to be a woman”
I believe it is Nora McInerny who makes this point at some point in the episode. I would like to add to this and say, it fucking sucks to be an abused child. Children are defenseless. Their parents are supposed to protect them. So, when the parent turns out to be the fucking horrific monster a child becomes victim to (or, for little Red above, grandma is actually a wolf trying to eat her–it’s a metaphor, get it?), that’s terrifying. And when the adults who are supposed to report this stuff (doctors, teachers, clergy, etc.) don’t, and when other adults who are supposed to protect kids (policemen, social services, judges, etc.), also fail at their job, there is literally no recourse for a child.
What are they supposed to do? Walk out at age 4, saying, “I’ve had enough!”, get their own apartment, and pay for their own therapist?
Of course not. Instead, the child gets to continue suffering abuse, self-doubt, anxiety, and fear, until they turn 18 and can maybe, hopefully, get the hell out of their home. Or worse. Think about what would have happened to poor Red if the hunter had never shown up. Which leads us to…
2. The family who protects and sides with the criminal
Amee talks about how when she tried to tell others about her father abusing her, many not only turned a deaf ear and blind eye, but in fact told her she was lying. Her own stepmother told her she knew the abuse didn’t happen because “she had been abused, and hers was worse.” The court told her she was lying, and had to continue to have visitation with her father. Only Amee’s mother supported her, throughout her whole life.
I had a similar experience. When I tried to talk to my dad about my mother, he repeatedly told me I was exaggerating details, I was remembering things wrong, that certain events didn’t happen, that if anything did happen I needed to forgive my mother (which to him meant shutting up and pretending nothing ever happened). He would switch back and forth from saying he had no idea what had happened, to saying nothing ever did happen. Which is ridiculous, considering we had a home visit from CPS. And I remember running to get him, crying and saying my mom “had gone crazy” (he was hiding in the garage). And I remember lots of moments. But somehow, he doesn’t. He is still with my mother. They go on cruises together around the world.
One of my mother’s sister’s refused to come to my wedding. The other one told me she thought we BOTH were wrong. She said I should find it in my heart to forgive my mom (again, to her, meaning I should have a relationship with her like nothing happened). My uncle said the same thing.
Here’s the thing: just because other people can’t admit to themselves that they were shitty adults when I was a little kid, because they didn’t step in even though they knew something was up, doesn’t mean they can blame me for their guilt. Amee says, “To protect themselves, they can’t admit what they knew.” You see, it’s terribly inconvenient for the abused child who kept the family secret to suddenly grow up and put her foot down. It means everyone has to face their demons–or they can shun her, tell her to be quiet, tell her she made it up. Because then they don’t have to feel bad.
If you are reading this blog because your daughter/son/niece/nephew/grandchild came to you and said, “So-and-so abused me when I was little, I need your support,” and you decided to find some resources to help you decide what to do, please, please remember what happened was NOT that child’s fault. If you didn’t know, or you knew and didn’t help, yeah, that sucks, and you might feel guilty for a while. But you can change both of your futures. Choose love. Choose supporting the victim. Two wrongs will not make things right in your family.
3. Telling your story in your body
At the end of the episode, Amee talks about how she has never told her story “in her own body” before. She became so practiced at compartmentalizing and dissociating, she says she always told the story like it happened to another person. This is very common for children experiencing abuse. Again, what are they going to do, walk out the door with their blankie and teddy clutched in hand to find a new life? No, they have to continue to live the nightmare that is their life, there are no other options for children. So, all of we survivors are extremely skilled at not feeling the pain. While successful for helping one to survive to adulthood, this skill also numbs a person to ALL feelings. It’s important to feel pain, so you can fully feel joy, as well as empathy towards others.
So, maybe not today, or even next week, but someday soon, experiment with telling your story and feeling it in your body. It’s ok to admit what happened to you, because it shouldn’t be your secret. It wasn’t your fault. Telling it that way will hurt. You will cry, your chest will tighten, you might shake and sweat. But you will survive that. And it won’t hurt as much the next time (sorry, but you need to feel more than one time to process your grief). Each time you feel and tell your story, you will have cleared out emotional space, and that leaves you room to fill up with a little more happiness, a little more peace.