A Multi-Generational Problem

I lost my best friend, Peggy to cancer in December of 2009. Although it’s a wound that will never heal I feel her near me and speak to her often. As Jack Lemon said, “Death is the end of a life, not a relationship.” We were friends for almost 60 years, since we were children growing up, in a small town in Nebraska. When my family followed her family to California, we were overjoyed to be near each other. From that point on we were best friends, not a label either one of us spoke of lightly. Her husband gave me away when I got married; she was my Maid of Honor; I was Maid of Honor at her wedding. She was godmother to my first child; I was godmother to her last child. Through the years, standing tall we faced all of our traumas together. My husband was an alcoholic. Her husband was a womanizer. Our children became best friends and were in each other’ weddings.

At one point in our friendship, we decided to attend a Codependents Anonymous meeting. Our lives had become so troubled we knew we needed help. We walked out of the meeting with different perspectives. Peggy said, “I think being codependent is noble.” My comment was, “How did they find me?” She went on to get a divorce and remained single. I went on to get a divorce and married another alcoholic, another divorce, many years of abusers and finally the last one that got me in to recovery. Peggy developed breast cancer and fought valiantly to successfully rid herself of it. When I was in recovery, she asked me, “Do you think your father really raped you when you were thirteen?” My response was, “Of course not, he was Catholic.” My father had told me twice that he’d had an incestuous relationship with me. Despite shadowed memories and nightmares I had a hard time Recognizing (first step in the REPAIR program) that what he had told me was true.

By that time I was familiar with the profile of an incest victim. I asked my Peggy if she had ever been sexually abused. “No…..well, when my grandfather lived with us when I was 13 he used to chase me around the house, pull up my blouse and play with my boobs. But when I complained to my mother she said, “He’s just a dirty old man. Don’t pay attention to him.” I told her that was child sexual abuse. She said it wasn’t. I begged her to get in to recovery. She said she didn’t need it.

In the ensuing years her brother died of stomach cancer, one of her sisters had breast cancer, another sister died of colon cancer. I knew that Peggy’s mother had died of cancer and that she had several sisters all either died of cancer or survived cancer. I knew that the father of these women was the dirty old man. My guess was that he had sexually abused all of his daughters and then started on the grandchildren. I felt ill. I saw this pyramid with one perpetrator (along with his wife who also died of cancer) at the top, six daughters in the next row and six grandchildren in the bottom row.

By now, I was familiar with The Ace Study (www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/). I knew that Adverse Childhood Experiences too often resulted in early death. Here is their pyramid.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study Pyramid

I again begged Peggy to get in to recovery. She continued to refuse. Then one day she shared with a man she was dating, who she loved very much, what her grandfather had done to her. She called me on the phone. “Bill told me that what my grandfather did was child sexual abuse. He’s right. I can’t believe I didn’t realize it before.” I was incredibly grateful that she too had already gone through the first step of the REPAIR program, Recognize. I gave her a copy of the book and told her to get started with the program.

It was too late. She wrote in the Caring Bridge website journal: “On October 1st, I was diagnosed with cancer. At the time, the doctor thought it was ovarian, because of the rapid growth and no symptoms until later stages. I was scheduled for surgery on October 13th. At that time it was discovered that this was uterine cancer and had spread into the lymph nodes, making it stage 4. I am now sufficiently recovered from the surgery to face chemotherapy. This will happen sometime next week. That is the good news. The bad news is that in most cases the chemo is not effective for my type of uterine cancer (serous papillary).”

She died in December of the same year. Large numbers of a multi-generational family all lost to a dangerous disease because of one “dirty old man.” How many “dirty old men” do you know?


  1. So wonderful that you are writing about this story and the process of recognizing, repairing, etc. I found it interesting and am adding some tidbits here to my own experience of uncovering the multigenerational effects of sexual and other types of abuse.

    I recognize that the research on ACES is quite illuminating. I am also aware of the pitfall of linking correlated findings of ACES with various outcomes like longevity, and then pointing to a single man as the “cause” of these early deaths from diseases like cancer. For example, what were the causes and conditions which produced a man who was more likely to abuse his children? What are the other reciprocal conditions which produce families which do or do not talk about these sorts of events? What are the preexisting reciprocal dynamics which interact with ACES, and perpetuate ACES-like factors after the ACE has occurred? I believe that the variables are numerous and highly interdependent, and fixing on single cause can limit our ability to understand and prevent the vast complexity of pathogenetic factors in cases like these in the future. That is not to detract the fact that from research perspective it is quite easy to argue the influence of a variable like ACES on longevity or ability to cope with any disease. But there are many variables.

    I am so sorry for your loss and my sympathy in working out how to grapple with the hunch that more than one generation in this family is affected by this. I hope you keep writing about it.


  2. I received a lot of comments on most of my blogs. But I make sure the comments don’t show on the website. I’m trying to protect people’s privacy as I had some complaints about that early on. Margie

  3. I am a trauma therapist and what she is saying happens so often. The news must get out that there is hope. It wasn’t your fault. There are safe ways to begin. EMDR has proven to be one of the most effective in my practice. Women can safely and gently come to know what happened and then to let it go. God bless all of you. You deserve happiness and can find it.

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