Incest survivor Laura Walker tells how incest runs in families and listening to details of sex abuse may endanger one's recovery from abuse.
Walker grew up in a suburban Catholic household in New Jersey. Having been a victim of childhood incest abuse, Laura kept quiet for a lifetime before parting lips to make sure she heals from the decades of suppressed wounds of childhood sex abuse. She has completed her book on the topic and will soon be publishing it. Laura says she would like her writing to serve as a voice for survivors who are unable to speak of their abuse. She is hoping to enlighten society about the true effects of child sexual abuse and encourage more people to speak out and get help. Laura currently lives in New Jersey with her husband and two sons. Following is my interview with this courageous lady about incest and recovery.
Ernest: Laura, I am thankful to you for joining me at Digital Journal to talk about this sensitive topic. First of all, tell me if incest or sex abuse within immediate family is still a sensitive topic and if it is, then why is it sensitive even in our times?
Laura: Incest is a very sensitive topic. It is very difficult to admit much less talk about it. It is embarrassing, and the feeling of shame is one that is difficult to get past. The victims are usually children, who feel helpless, and don’t know that they can speak out and ask for help. By the time they become adults, they have been keeping their secret for so long, and likely feel they are at least partly to blame. People often wonder why children don’t tell. They assume that if a child doesn’t say something bad is happening, that means everything is ok. As an adult survivor of incest, I can tell you first hand, that I did not tell anyone about my abuse at the time. It took me 30 years to disclose my abuse, and I had been in therapy for 4 years, working on my self, prior to having the ability to do so. There is a lot of fear involved in telling; abusers often manipulate the child with fear and threats. It may sound irrational, but these fears follow you into adulthood. And there is the personal shame involved. Let’s face it; it is not a pretty thing. But unfortunately, not talking about it is what allows it to continue to affect generation after generation of our children. When we keep these secrets, the abusers are able to walk around unscathed, and the victims live in fear that their truths will be known. The only way to begin a journey of healing is to talk about it.
Ernest: Very right! Please briefly tell about your sexual abuse by your brother and how you dealt with it?
Laura: I was around 4 or 5 years old when my sexual abuse began. At the time, he had made me believe that I couldn’t trust any of the other adults in my life. I complied, as I didn’t believe I had a choice. I was afraid to not do as I was told. Due to his manipulation, I didn’t trust anyone enough to reach out for help. I didn’t think there was anyone I could tell this to. I also truly believed that I would get in trouble if I told. My abuser made it clear to me that they wouldn’t understand, and that I would be blamed for my part.
As a child, with nobody else to trust, I believed him. I feared him, and I did what I was told. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I “told on him”. I first told my husband, and then I told my sister, who spoke to the rest of the family on my behalf. There was a variety of reactions. Mostly, everyone was upset in one way or another. Some people were even angry with me. They didn’t want to be dealing with this, and at first, blamed me for telling, rather then blaming my brother for having abused me. This was the way things were in my family—the person who told on people was the “troublemaker”. There was a silent code. We simply didn’t tell on each other. But now the truth was out. I was believed; though some people didn’t want to believe me. It is not an easy thing to digest, and it is not pleasant to talk about. But ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. It continues to feed the problem and gives it the power to continue to do harm.
Ernest: Do you think your case of abuse is unique somehow than most other such cases we read about in books and newspapers?
Laura: In many ways, my case of abuse is not unique. It is my ability, and my willingness to talk about it, which makes it unusual. There are so many people out there that have been affected by incest and child sexual abuse that are suffering, but unable to share their stories. However, there are some dynamics in my story that could be considered unique. My brother was a victim of clergy abuse, and from what I have been told, my uncle is one of the priests who abused him. This led to his drug and alcohol abuse, and he showed signs of mental illness, which progressed over the years. He had violent fits of rage and delusions, and as often as someone may have wanted to do something about him, we were afraid. My secretive sexual abuse was hiding behind the shadows of the much more obvious trauma that we dealt with on a regular basis.
Ernest: So what do you think was the reason, or were the main reasons, for your sexual abuse by your family member?
Laura: My brother was a victim of clergy abuse. He was molested by priests as a boy. The incidences occurred before I was born, and although my brother did disclose his abuse, I do not know much detail. I do not know why some victims of child molestation become abusers, and why some do not. But I am more than confident that if my brother had not been molested, he would not have molested me. My abuse is a direct result of him being a victim. His abuse caused his deep-rooted anger issues, which was also the main cause of violence and substance abuse. Had my brother not been abused, I do not expect that he would have been a perfect person. But he probably would not have terrorized and abused my family and me the way he did. He does however need to be held accountable for his actions. At one time, I tried to rationalize what he did to me, reminding myself that he too was a victim. What happened to him was tragic. But he had no right to abuse me. I did not abuse him; and I did not deserve to be his victim.
Ernest: Does it mean that sex abuse in families actually runs in chains?
Laura: I do believe that incest is something that is carried down from generation to generation. I cannot be sure how many generations before me were affected. But I do know that the generations after me have a much better chance of NOT being affected because we are talking about it. Not ignoring it, but facing it and dealing with it is the only way to prevent our children from being abused. Child abuse is a cycle. It won’t just go away; it needs to be stopped.
Ernest: What were the major emotional or psychological damages incurred by the sex abuse and what help was sharing your story in relieving those effects?
Laura: From the time I was a little girl, I lived in a state of fear. I was afraid to tell; afraid that someone would find out; afraid that my brother would “flip out”; afraid that nobody would love me if they knew, etc. I felt tainted and dirty, and I knew that I couldn’t erase it. I felt hopeless that I could ever be normal. I had no self-esteem, and just wanted to fit in, so I kept quiet and did the best I could to make sure my secret stayed a secret. This in itself was a huge burden. As I grew up, I had repressed anger. I did not know how to use anger in a healthy way, and mostly hid from it, both emotionally and physically. Having my first child triggered my depression. I was in a constant state of anxiety “protecting him”, though I was still in denial about what I was protecting him from. I was good at hiding that too, and only my husband and people close to me knew about it. I functioned through it, for my son. Eventually the flashbacks started, and I started showing signs of PTSD. As my memories began to unfold, the feelings from childhood came with them. The depression became worse, and I began therapy.
When I disclosed, it was very difficult at first. I had to deal not only with my emotions, but also with everyone’s reactions. I have a large family, so this can be overwhelming in itself. But simply not having the “secret” anymore was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. For so many years, I couldn’t tell anyone the whole story or the real reasons that I would or wouldn’t do something, or why I felt the way I felt. It explained a lot for many people. It was only the start of my healing, but it was enough to get me moving in the right direction. And eventually, as I went through the process, I learned that this small, weak person was actually very strong and brave to have survived my childhood. Telling my story and reaching out for help changed me from a victim, to a survivor.
Ernest: Do you think it’s always safe or healthy for victims of sex abuse to hear similar stories of others having gone through the same nightmare?
Laura: I do not think it is safe or healthy for victims of sexual abuse to hear or be exposed to detailed accounts of others’ abuse. This can cause flashbacks and trigger trauma. Many of them have PTSD, which can cause flashbacks that force you to live over and over again the traumatic event. This is not only dangerous but counter-productive in the healing process. When I was in my group therapy, the rule was that details were only discussed if it was important to the topic at hand. In 18 months of these groups, I don’t remember a time when it was ever necessary to discuss details of our abuse in order to benefit from an exercise. Sometimes an incident was addressed, but we never dwelled on it or went into deeper detail. It was the dynamic that surrounded the incident that would be addressed further. If you want to heal and be able to move forward, it is important to feel safe. Discussing details and risking flashbacks is definitely not a safe thing to do.
Ernest: Laura, what role forgiveness plays in healing from sex abuse?
Laura: Forgiveness is a difficult topic for many (if not most) survivors of sexual abuse. In some instances, the word “forgiveness” is like holding a lighted match over a can of gasoline. The thought of it can strike out a great deal of emotion. In my case, my abuser has not asked for forgiveness. When I confronted him, his response was, “I’m sorry; but you should feel lucky. You didn’t get it half as bad as I did.” Was that an apology? I don’t think so. He isn’t sorry. Personally, I have accepted what happened to me, and I am at peace with it, now that I have healed. I had been told by people who cared about me that it was important that I forgive him; not for him, but for me. I happen to disagree. I don’t feel the need to forgive him. And if I did, I don’t think I have the power to do so. He will need to turn to God and ask for forgiveness if he is looking for it.
There is a burden involved with “forgiveness” that weighs on the victim. Before I allowed myself to accept the fact that I did not forgive him, I struggled very much with guilt about it. I thought it made me a lesser person, and that I was not fully healed yet, etc. I felt obligated to “forgive”. When I did my soul searching about it, I was able to accept the fact that I didn’t forgive him. And I finally felt worthy enough to no longer need an apology from him. Accepting and being at peace with what happened, and knowing deep down in my soul that it wasn’t my fault, that was what I needed to make myself feel whole. That is what allowed me to move forward and no longer resent my childhood.
Ernest: That’s understandable! So what are some of the helpful resources the victims of sexual abuse, particularly that within family, can resort to?
Laura: Counseling, both individual and family, when appropriate, is the best way to begin the process of treatment and healing. If they aren’t already in counseling at the time of disclosure, they should start. A therapist who has experience in trauma counseling will have the best resources to treat an adult survivor of incest or child sexual abuse. If specialized group counseling is available in their area, I do highly recommend it. If they do not know whom to contact, a local crisis hotline should be able to give them the appropriate contact information.
Ernest: What is the goal of your prospective book that tells your story?
Laura: While going through my treatment and healing process, I came to realize how many people have been affected by incest and child sexual abuse. There are those of us who are the survivors, and then there are those people who know us. Our spouses, friends, co-workers, and even some family members, who may not have been involved, often do not truly understand the full dynamic of what a survivor has been through. I tell my story, which describes my abuses, but more importantly shares my feelings and emotions that I was experiencing at the time. My goal is to enlighten people and bring them the ability to understand what survivors have often been through. Also, it is for the survivor, who hopefully can be empowered through my openness and strength. It will hopefully encourage more of them to speak out, and stand up for themselves. Once hearing my story, I would like to see progress in the way society deals with the mentally ill, child abuse victims, and their abusers. If we open our eyes and our hearts, we can work toward the ultimate goal, which is stopping the cycle of child abuse.
Ernest: To wrap it up Laura, I’d like to ask for any advice you might have for families to prevent abuse, of sexual or other nature, from making inroads in their family life?
Laura: I think the best way to keep your children safe from predators is to be as present in their life as possible, and to talk to them and be open about potential dangers. We need to educate our kids, and make them street smart appropriate to their age. See if there is a Stranger Danger program in your area. This is good for both children and parents to attend. Unfortunately though, most predators are not strangers. They are relatives, or somehow involved in the child’s life. Predators will manipulate the child, and even the adults, into allowing them into their child’s life. They are skillful, master manipulators. If something doesn’t make sense, question it. If their child is acting different, question the situation. You can question the child, but if they deny that anything is wrong, go with your instinct. The parent knows his or her child better than anybody. If your child does say that something is wrong, believe them unless you have a reason not to; not the other way around. The amount of times children lie about being abused is extremely small compared to the ones who tell the truth. And parents should make sure their children know that they can talk to them, and come to them, even if what they have to say is scary. One of the things I have told my children is this, “If a grown-up tells you not to tell because you will get in trouble, then that grown-up is probably the one who is doing something wrong. If someone tells you not to tell—it is MOST important that you do tell us.” Try to make that Red Flag behavior clear. No responsible adult is going to tell a child to keep a secret, and they would never tell a child that it’s ok to break a rule that their parents have given them.
Ernest: Thank you Laura! I wish you good luck and success in future!
Laura: You’re welcome. And thank you Ernest, for addressing the important topic of incest and child sexual abuse.