Collateral Damage

Victims of childhood sexual abuse come in all religions, all nationalities, all ages, and all backgrounds.  Childhood sexual abuse has no color or religious prejudice, targets no special income group, and plays favorite with neither male nor female.  The lingering tragedy remains with its victims for life, no matter how many years of counseling, no matter what type of recovery program.  With proper help the trauma is reduced, manageable, goes into that attic in our mind, the one we’d rather never open.  But there is always an unexpected trigger lurking, a chance comment, a familiar face, a resurrected glimpse of the past.  We can learn to cope.  We can learn to live again.  We can even learn to be happy.  The hyper-vigilance we lived with for years can become manageable.  This is the good news for the victims of this epidemic trauma.  What of the forgotten victims, the collateral damage?  What is their good news?

I am speaking of the enormous number of family members who lived with the actual victim, the mothers whose guilt grinds them into a never ending wall of grief, the fathers who agonize over what they could have done differently, the siblings who were both grateful and ashamed for not having been targeted themselves.  The spouses who feel such intense helplessness are the ones who carry the most anguish. Sometimes these souls are in more pain than the actual victim; it is less apparent.  It manifests itself in subtle ways.  After all, their answer to a therapist’s or doctor’s question, “Have you ever been sexually molested?” is “No”.

In my particular case when my father entered my bedroom to rape me when I was 13, I had two sisters sleeping in the same room.  One sister was a year younger than me and slept on the top bunk.  She told me years later that she witnessed it and then the next day retracted her statement saying her husband told her that I’d made it up.  Since my father is the one who told me, not once but twice when I was in my mid-thirties what he’d done, I found my brother-in-law’s assessment absurd.  My father’s comment at the time was, “A lot of fathers and daughters have this kind of relationship.  It wasn’t so bad; they do it in the Appalachian District all the time”.

No one more than I, wish I had made it up.  I remembered the first time it happened.  I wanted to be a nun and slept with a rosary in my hand.  Someone was lying on top of me and doing something so horrible, so painful that all I could do was scream over and over for help.  My mother was a heavy sleeper and by the time she entered my room my father had retreated to the hall, looking in, clutching his robe closed as I begged my mother to help me.  She told me I’d had a nightmare and no amount of sobbing and begging would change her mind.  The next few years I developed amnesia, remembering only bits and pieces of what had happened.

My other sister was three years old and slept in a crib near our bunkbed.  Jeanne was unable to talk clearly until she was ten and wet the bed till that same age.  A car accident took her life, with the other driver the guilty party, at the age of 25.  For some unknown reason she knew her life was about to end and was not only unafraid but looked at it as “the last great adventure”.  The sister on the top bunk has become a bundle of neuroses, someone fearful to try anything, someone who sleeps as much as possible to avoid having to do battle with anything life presents, someone who underwent a double mastectomy for breast cancer.  She often thinks I am my father and becomes hysterical and fearful of me.  It has destroyed any chance of the two of us having a relationship.

I had two older brothers.  When I shared with them what my father had done, I was grateful that both not only believed me but also were strongly supportive of my recovery program.  My alcoholic brother’s response made me wonder if he’d have been better off not knowing.  He went into a rage, cursing and damming our father, and then proceeded to get drunk to deal with it.  Within a short period after this, while having surgery for a hernia, his much damaged body began failing and he was put on a life support system.  A call from the hospital told me it was only a matter of hours before he would die.  He didn’t die, at least not from that. He died of lung cancer a few years ago.

My other brother, despite being an intelligent, sensitive, and well-read man, is judgmental in the extreme and as he has grown older turns more and more to the religion of his childhood, Roman Catholicism.  Unfortunately, he has chosen a path not only of harsh judgments of others but his constant need for control has restricted some of the joy he might otherwise have in his life.  Two marriages ended in divorce and his time is devoted to good works, religious ceremonies, and reading books, primarily on the Catholic faith.  He is convinced that God has put him in this life to, as he puts it, “set people straight”.  He does a lot of that and as a result has no friends left.  He says, almost with confusion, that they all run when they see him coming.  The only thing that has held him together, kept him from being suicidal, is his obsessive hold on his religion. A year ago I had to sever ties with him as I was tired of many decades of his bullying, in particular my refusal to believe that only Catholics went to heaven.

And what of the man who set all of this in motion, my father?  Or did he?  It was not surprising to discover a few years ago a saying about my father’s father, “No woman is safe with that man.”  This trauma is, after all, a multi-generational illness.  Does this excuse my father?  His role model was a womanizer, a man with no boundaries and no integrity in the matter of sex.  No it doesn’t.  I too had a poor role model.  I became many things, promiscuous, insecure, suicidal, emotionally fragile and most important, a woman filled with shame.  Because of that shame, I made many bad decisions.  I too became a poor role model.  But one thing I never became was abusive.  Every perpetrator is responsible for what he has done regardless of any abuse that happened to him as a child.  They also are forgotten victims, often someone else’s collateral damage but they are nonetheless child molesters.

The forgotten victims, collateral damage, unable to identify the source of their sorrow, cannot so easily resolve their childhood trauma.  In the case of my mother, her denial was established at birth.  She was the product of a generation who believed in the patriarchal system.  Her motto about my father was, “Even when he is wrong he is right.”  She lived and even died by that belief.  When she found a lump in her breast after many years of marriage to my father, he convinced her that all doctors were quacks thereby denying her the medical care that might have saved her life.

If my brothers had been able to talk about the despairing and tormented household they grew up in their lives might have turned out different.  If my sister who slept on the top bunk had spoken openly about what she witnessed and how she felt about it, she might not have lived an empty and fearful life, one where the result of her despair was breast cancer.  After all, destructive emotion is one of the primary causes of disease. All forgotten victims must tell their story. Can you imagine the burden this childhood sexual abuse puts on the family members who escaped?  They know something is wrong, terribly wrong.  Even if they are aware of the abuse that another family member suffered, they are confused as to how and why this impacts them.  They have a thousand questions.  What did I do wrong?  Why did it not happen to me?  What could I have done to have prevented it? What can I do to help the victim?  Why do I feel so guilty?  We must help them as well as the actual victims.

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