Feminism | Posted by Liz P on 12/16/2010

Speaking Out Against Sexual Abuse

When I was twelve, I was the only person I knew of who knew people who had been affected by sexual abuse. When it had been disclosed to me, I didn’t know what to do with the information, and didn’t even write about it in my journal. Until high school, the only person I told was my best friend, and we talked about it only once. Twelve year olds tend to not know what to do with that kind of stuff. As I got older, the number of people that I knew who had been affected by sexual abuse, unfortunately, grew. In high school I learned that a friend of mine had been sexually abused and was having difficulties dealing with her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, her family, her abuser, and her teenage years. In my first year at college, at one meeting of the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, we discussed sexual abuse and were asked to raise our hands if we knew someone or had been affected personally by sexual abuse. There were about twenty people in the room, and each and every one of them raised their hands.

I wrote the following essay in 2007, during my senior year of high school. Although the message is strong and confident, in the three years since writing it, I still often  find it too difficult to talk about, even though the abuse is not a personal experience of mine. However, the recent experience of one of my best friends has reminded me of the importance of speaking out. One of the biggest problems of sexual abuse is the shame which so often coerces victims into silence. Victims can be any gender and belong to any race or social class. That also pertains to abusers. I encourage everyone and everything who has ever been affected by sexual abuse or knows someone who has to NOT REMAIN SILENT. Reach out, seek help, and fight.

My mother and I do not have a “Gilmore Girls” relationship. She asked me in seventh grade if “the talk” was necessary; I told her no, and she replied, “Good, because neither of us really wanted to have it.” However, I was twelve when the pieces of my mother’s fractured childhood began to fall into place in my mind. We sat in the dining room with a book and her past in between us.
The select stories I had been told of my mother’s side of the family painted her, her parents and siblings to be resourceful despite poverty, slightly strange, and certainly in a different living situation than the way I had been growing up. None of her siblings lived within frequent-visiting distance, but the effort probably wouldn’t have been made anyway. The “family time” I know means going to a movie and not talking for two hours. Most of what I know about my family are childhood stories, my mother’s sister ripping the head off my mother’s Barbie and chucking it out of the car on their cross-country road trip, her brother’s python getting loose in the house, or her father making everyone hate decorating the tree because of his persistence in the correct placement of the tinsel. My grandparents died before I was born, and my aunts and uncles are seen every few years depending on how convenient it is to travel to wherever they live.

It is not her exact words that I would remember, nor how the conversation came to be. It was how her words echoed through my body. The book, Promise Not to Tell, was given to me to show me an example, to explain how something like that can possibly happen. I finished it the same day, oddly fascinated and sickened; the same motivation that drew my best friend and me in eighth grade to obsessively watch Sleeping with the Enemy, The Babysitter’s Seduction, and other frequently played movies on the Lifetime Movie Network. Later, I learned that when Carolyn Lehman wrote Promise Not to Tell, it was the first literature aimed at children about sexual abuse. And that she wrote it because she had been sexually abused as a child.

My mother is one of four girls, in a family of six children, raised in a time where saying “butt” was the equivalent of a curse word, public disobedience was not tolerated, but private indiscretions were never mentioned; especially within families.

“What did you do?” I asked, rapt.
“I said no, and walked away,” she told me. “And that was the only time it ever happened to me.”
“Then what did you do? Did you tell your sisters?”
“No,” she said. “We never talked about it. Not until years and years later, after my parents had died.”
“Why didn’t you tell anyone?”
“I thought I was being bad, that it was my fault. Why else? This is the way children think, and the way girls think. I must have done something wrong. And I thought I was looking out for my sisters, but he was a sneaky bastard.”

Shattered were my vague, shadowy images of my grandfather building solar panels in the backyard to heat the pool, or teaching the dog to eat an ice cream cone by standing it up on the driveway.

My father tells me fairly often, “Your mother needs to stop volunteering for things and learn The Power of No.” The Power of No, I assume, is another Essential Life Skill he picked up from one of the numerous self-help books that he buys and of which he will never read more than the first two chapters and the inside flap. “She needs to learn that you can simply say No, and that’s the end of it.”

When I was twelve, I realized that my mother knows The Power of No, but that No is nowhere near the end of it. I had known for a few years of my mother and her siblings’ heroic effort that got their youngest sibling out of her first marriage. Now I know that abused children are likely to find themselves in abusive relationships as adults, which helped explain why she had first married an abusive man. Now I know the heroic effort could never have worked without her courage to finally use the Power of No.

“No one talked about things like that back then,” my mother told me.

The sisters finally talked to each other when they started going into therapy as adults. After more than two decades they realized they each hadn’t been the only one. Then the two brothers were brought into the loop. Their oldest brother refused to believe it, and wouldn’t speak to his sisters for a while.

“He seriously didn’t believe you?” Shocked does not begin to describe my reaction. I lived and embraced the Girl-Power nineties, and to me, undercutting a woman’s experience was foreign and unacceptable.

“He didn’t want to believe anything bad about Daddy.”

I find it disturbing that the same man my mother calls a “sneaky bastard” she calls “Daddy.” I was twelve and I realized that I will never begin to understand the contradiction that children of abusive families live. I was twelve and I know that there will never be anything to be gained from staying quiet.

If you or someone you know has been sexually abused, it is important that you seek help and talk to someone. Talking to a trusted friend can be very helpful, but I encourage you to seek help from a trusted adult like a family member or guidance counsellor. If you have been abused, it is not your fault. It never should have happened to you and the shame should belong to your abuser. If you want to see help but anonymously, here are some resources (all numbers are 24 hour hotlines):

RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) (http://www.rainn.org/)
Free national hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE
Information on how to help someone you know (http://www.rainn.org/get-help/help-a-loved-one)

The National Domestic Violence Hotline (http://www.thehotline.org/) :
Free national hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)

Childhelp (http://www.childhelp.org/):
Free national hotline: 1-800-4-A-CHILD

Liz P blogs about feminism, current events, pop culture, and teens at her blog Our Turn.

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  • Zoe @ at 1:12 pm, December 16th, 2010

    Very good blog post.

    I didn’t know anyone who had been sexually abused (at least no one who told me about it) until just last year. It’s amazing how it makes you realize that you have no clue how to talk to people about it.

  • A @ at 4:05 pm, December 17th, 2010

    excellent and moving. great job and thank you so much for sharing your story.

  • Carolyn @ at 12:10 pm, December 20th, 2010

    This was amazing, to read about how my 1985 book–Promise Not to Tell–was a part of this your family life and developing consciousness.

    When I wrote it, I knew I’d been sexually abused as a child. Telling the truth about children’s lives was my own, creative way to heal, I believed. And it was powerful, as were the connections I made with child and adult survivors through it.

    Turns out, though, it was only the beginning; telling really is only the beginning of healing.

    Liz P, you might like to know that my 2005 book on sexual abuse is a speak out by teen and adult survivors. STRONG AT THE HEART: How It Feels to Heal from Sexual Abuse (www.strongattheheart.com) contains interviews with and photographs of teens and adults, men and women, talking frankly about sexual abuse and its impact on their lives.

    It’s a very out book. The whole point is to put a face on our experiences and show the diversity of survivors and the ways we heal. And that we are not alone, even when it looks like it.

    Thanks for giving me this wonderful glimpse into your experience and the role that PNTT had in your life.

  • Strong At The Heart » promise not to tell on fbomb @ at 1:13 pm, December 30th, 2010

    [...] the young, feminist blog fbomb there’s an article that examines the developing awareness of a young woman whose mother was a survivor of sexual [...]

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