What Happened When I Told the Truth?
When I was in graduate school to become a school psychologist, I was advised to have some counseling sessions at the university. If I was to develop empathy for others who needed the assistance of a mental health professional, I should know what it felt like to sit in the chair across the desk. I had been married for three years and was having no luck conceiving a baby, thus, thought I would discuss my frustration and sadness with the therapist.
After our initial ten minutes, the counselor speculated, “You don’t seem like the type who lets a man get you pregnant.”
A flash of indignation rose and I tearfully disclosed that a friend’s stepfather had rammed his finger into my vagina twice in the swimming pool one afternoon when I was six, that my brother (four years older than I) had molested me between the ages of seven and ten, culminating in sodomy before I learned to stay the hell away from him. I disclosed that when I was twelve I’d had a crush on one of my brother’s classmates and we soon sneaked away just long enough for him to steal my virginity in the backseat of his brother’s car.
The rage and sadness I felt made me sweat, cry, and curse. The counselor was right; I probably wasn’t the type to allow a man to impregnate me. My feelings of vulnerability and being damaged, my hypervigilance kept my eyes scanning for an ‘out,’ kept every muscle tensed.
That first of at least eight therapists was a great listener and her face was free of judgment and disgust. She applauded the six-year-old who stayed away from her friend’s house until the stepdad had left for his second-shift job. She didn’t shame the little sister who was duped with bribes of candy, soda, shooting a b-b gun, or driving her dad’s Studebaker. When I shouldered the blame for the clandestine meetings when I was in seventh grade, said I should have known better, she pulled a picture of herself out of an album and said a girl that age isn’t at fault when a sixteen-year-old commits statutory rape. She believed every word, reflected my anguish, and called me courageous, a survivor.
I was twenty-five, trembling, and feeling as if my foundation had crumbled. I had carried a couple of those secrets for nearly twenty years, presenting to the world a high-achieving, every-hair-in-place, confident persona. That sudden exposure, feeling adrift made me question whether silence hadn’t been the wiser choice.
But she encouraged me to come back the next week, that things would get easier, that I didn’t need to be constantly on the lookout for danger, that I could be strong without rigid defenses. I kept my appointments for months. I became pregnant and learned a great deal about child sexual assault.
Although reluctant to upset her, I told my sister, two years older than I, about the incest. Since our brother had often hit us both with his fists and shot us in the back of the legs with his b-b gun, I wondered if he had also exploited her. She was sympathetic and supportive of me but said that he had not molested her. One of our uncles had exploited her on one occasion in our home, so she could identify with my rage and fear about the safety of our own children.
When I first told my husband about the incest, our firstborn was two years old. I’d been to a Saturday morning lecture by a nationally renowned psychologist who spoke about the family home being a shelter from the perils of the world. I’d put our son down for a nap and we’d gone to bed for some afternoon delight. My husband touched me in a way that reminded me of something my brother had done, and I disintegrated to tears, pouring out the story. My husband covered my torso with the sheet and held me close. He comforted me and didn’t ask questions but expressed contempt for the harm my brother had done.
In my opinion, the most critical factor when telling the truth about childhood sexual abuse is that the person you tell is a ‘safe’ individual for you. My brother was our mother’s favorite, her only son, and if I had told her, she may not have believed me, or may even have defended him. Although I felt like I was my dad’s favorite, he was a hunter and had a volatile temper. I was afraid to tell him even about the neighbor man’s abrupt, abusive act. When my parents learned about my exploits with the sixteen-year-old, they were livid with me, said I had ‘asked for it’ and called me a ‘whore.’ They grounded me for six months, saying that if I didn’t ‘walk the chalk,’ they’d send me to reform school.
I encourage anyone who is contemplating disclosing childhood sexual assault to research support groups, counselors, and services in your area. Think about talking with a close friend, a relative, or a coworker whom you trust to get their opinion about the format that might be the ‘best fit’ for you.
Even though the prospect of talking openly about sexual assault can be daunting, carrying the secret takes a toll on your mental, emotional, and spiritual health. There is help, healing, and an empowered life beyond the silence, and you deserve that fullness of life. God bless you on your journey to recovery!