By nature, I am an extremely patient, tolerant person. There really isn’t a great deal that irks me enough to justify my participation in even the slightest whisper of a confrontation. I’d rather, in fact, create non-existent excuses, most of the time, than risk anger. That being said, I received an email the other day, from a complete stranger who had read a few of my articles. The email asked me a question, one I’ve been asked before, that sincerely bothered me. The first time I was asked this particular question, it came from a family member who didn’t have the courtesy to ask me but instead bandied it about rhetorically to other family members who would listen. At that point in that time, it hurt me deeply, but created no anger. When I received the question from a stranger, however, it didn’t create the same mind-numbing pain: instead, it sent a shard of ice, followed by white hot frustration, boiling through my system. Whether it be that I’ve just been generally overwhelmed by the emotional and psychological needs of teenagers and children who have been hurt, or whether it be a belated response to when the question was posed towards me directly, I decided it was an e-mail I had to respond to. There is a song that says, “you’ll know just the moment when I’ve had enough.”
Well, I’ve had enough.
Still, what good would it be to respond with mere words to someone who is obviously in deep denial? Not much. And so, a note took shape in my head, and this is it: my response to the un-educated, guilt implying, deeply painful question, “Why didn’t you tell before now?”
On a quiet cul-de-sac in the middle of Green Hills, Tennessee, a young six year old little boy is forced to provide oral sex on his uncle every week. He has occasional problems bed-wetting and is too ashamed of this to even consider friendships with other children. He is normally withdrawn, normally passive, but has an explosive temper when provoked by other children. His uncle says, “Boys will be boys” and his parents secretly wonder if he might have ADHD. No one thinks to ask the boy himself if anything is wrong and so he continues about his day and every week, when he has time with his uncle, he gets fondled and has to endure things so that he will be a “better man” one day. Why doesn’t he speak up now? His uncle tells him that if he says anything, a mean witch will come and eat him.
Earlier this year, I picked up a man and his two children who were walking along Bell Road. I felt sorry for the children who had obviously been walking a long ways. I had not spoken to the girl for more than ten minutes before I knew that she was going through something terrible. Perhaps on dark nights, she laid in her bed, on her stomach, while her father silently rapes her from behind, all the while telling her that if only she were a good girl, things like this wouldn’t happen. The mother of these two young children (the girl had a brother) had died, or so the father said, and there wasn’t a female around to notice the way the girl shook when spoken too. She was too young, said the father, for school. In the end, I called the police and asked for an investigation into the girl’s home. I don’t know what happened, but if nothing was found, then that child will doubtlessly endure more abuse until she is old enough to leave her father. And for what will she leave him? Quite possibly for a man who will beat her instead. Why doesn’t she tell? How can she, when her father deliberately keeps her isolated and when to talk at all is to risk getting “in trouble”? Besides, what would she say—does she know what “abuse” is?
Around the block, a fifteen-year-old girl is invited by her handsome soccer coach to the local Diary Queen. Afterward, he suggests they go practice at the field, he has some pointers he wants to give her, and she’ll be home before dinner. Within the next hour, she will be brutally raped and there will be bruises forming along her arms where he grabbed and restrained her from when she tried to run. Why doesn’t she tell–she’s old enough to know what “abuse” is, right? Along the ride back to her house, he tells her that if she only she could wear things more suited to girls her age, then men wouldn’t think that she was asking for it. She knew, didn’t she, when she left the house in that tank top that she was inviting physical attention? She wanted to be seen, didn’t she? She won’t tell anyone either but within a month will begin to wonder what a razor blade would feel like against her skin, and she will make an unconscious decision never to be pretty again. All because she knows she was the guilty one.
Somewhere in America, right now, a seven year old African American little girl with black hair and almond shaped, dark eyes lies on her twin sized bed. Her hands clutch the sheet, her insides feel like jelly and her head is pounding. Tears streak from the corners of her eyes as she bears the weight of her father who is currently tearing her sensitive flesh. Later, he’ll jerk the sheet from beneath her; it will go in the wash so that the child’s mother who will be home from work later won’t see the blood stains. She has a mother, who may be sympathetic. Why doesn’t she tell? He tells the little girl what a special child she is, and how beautiful, and how much he adores her. He tells her that she’s his “chosen one” and that he knows he can depend on her to keep a secret, because if she doesn’t, her mommy will get mad at her. So she goes to school every morning, and endures class, knowing that there is something different about her, though she can’t place what it is. All she knows is that she can’t get clean, no matter how many baths she takes, and she is terrified of her father, despite his loving words. I ask again: why does she not tell?
How many smart, educated, successful, even wealthy adults understand that shame feels like guilt? When you feel guilty for something, especially something so personal and so private, something you know would affect and change the lives of everyone you love dearly, how often do you wish it to be broadcast to the world? I know that 1 in 3 little girls and 1 in 6 little boys will be sexually abused during childhood. I know that. But these children do not. These children have no concept of “abuse”—all they know is that it hurts but they cannot fathom that the abuser would deliberately do something to them that is painful without just cause. The worst part of sexual abuse is not the act: it is the resulting shame, it is the resulting heartbreak, the heaviness of responsibility and of a sadness that is ever present settling on the shoulders of a child who should be learning to ride a bicycle or who should be excited about going to the prom but who instead fears what may be expected of her at such an occasion and so chooses to remain home alone instead.
Right this minute, on January 11, 2010, some beautiful child is being beaten into submission. Some beautiful child is being violated, is having her innocence stolen and she will not ever be able to regain it. At the first moment of an inappropriate touch, her childhood is gone and she’s a mini adult trying to act like she thinks she is supposed to. Right this minute, some pedophile is accepting money and selling his ten year old daughter into prostitution — in AMERICA!
Sexual abuse is NOT an act. I wish I could engrave that on the minds and hearts of every adult in the world. It is not like a car accident. It is not like getting a broken bone. It is not even like experiencing the death of a loved one. Those are sad, sometimes tragic even, events that create pain but not transformation. Sexual abuse is transformation. It takes an innocent, trusting heart and shapes it into something it otherwise would not have been. Now, it can be dealt it, it can be lived with, it can be accepted, even, but it cannot fully be healed from. How could it be, when it shapes a major part of the individual? Upon the pads of your fingers are a set of unique fingerprints that no one else in the entire world has. Even if you an identical twin, your fingerprints identify you for yourself, not your twin. Sexual abuse is like a fingerprint: it marks that child as abused. It is not a label she wants, it is not a label she needs, it is not a label she is proud of—but it is part of who she is. It is a drenching rain of shame and guilt that is, simply, unfathomable. Long after the abuser is dead the child may awaken with night terrors, suffer pains in the area of intimacy for, possibly, the rest of her life, she will view life through a whole different spectrum than the non abused child will.
Why doesn’t she tell when it is happening?
Even the judicial system that promises protection from abuse is against the sexual abuse survivor. The character, the entire abuse accusation, is put on trial in lieu of the abuser’s “rights” to a fair trial. Children are often accused of being brain washed by an opposing parent. Teenagers are accused of “asking for it” simply because they were too much in shock to immediately subject themselves to a rape kit at a hospital less than an hour after having their “date” rape (I take serious issue with any term put before the word that makes it sound less harsh, less aggressive, less serious than it is. Just because one knows the abuser does not make it any less real. It should not be “date rape” or “domestic abuse”—it should be abuse). I once heard Oprah Winfrey say of her uncle, “Even if I had stood naked in front of him and danced on the table, I was the teenager, he was the adult. It would still have been his responsibility to tell me to put my clothes back on.” I heard her say that, and I cried. Children and, despite how we adults want to tell ourselves differently, teenagers, do not know this on a deep enough level to process it when the trauma occurs.
Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “Often and often afterwards, my beloved Aunt would ask me why I had never told anyone of the way I was being treated. Children tell little more than animals for what comes to them, they accept as eternally established.” When something is your way of life, how do you know that it is wrong? If you’re a teenager and you’re sexually assaulted, how do you know that you will be believed in this age of teenage sexual activity and “consensual sex”? How can you guarantee it? And if you can’t, then how are you supposed to risk your reputation, sometimes your family, and your heart right in the midst of a pain greater than any you have ever imagined? How are you supposed to feel safe enough to do that?
When war veterans come home different people don’t ask them to describe what they have seen: they just offer help. But when a teenager or a child dares to admit sexual abuse, they are instead welcomed by a barrage of intruding and painful questions and subject to disbelief, or, at best, interrogation, well-intentioned or not. Yet the ones who are accused, directly or indirectly, are far more innocent than the grown man who voluntarily enlists to fight a war. Children are the only creatures alive who love truly unconditionally, who blindly trust those in authority. The normal pattern of life is that heartbreak occurs in degrees. First, she is supposed to suffer through the heartbreak and disillusionment of a first love, then greater and greater pain she will encounter, as her capacity to protect herself increases. In child abuse, however, it’s brutal, there is no gradual introduction to pain. Instead, the full force of the adult’s worst imagined pain comes with a single thrust. In order to be able to tell, to trust another human being, with the abuse, the child would first have to have some understanding that what just happened was abuse. Children do not have that knowledge; the only way they know the process it then is to believe what they are told. How, then, is it reasonable to expect them to tell until they first grow and, with age, acquire the understanding that what happened to them, that trauma which created a “before _____” and “after _____” line in their lives, was actually abuse?
Tonight, before I close my eyes, I will wonder about the nameless little girl who is forced to lie still, while a grown man three times her size violates her. This has happened with such regularity that she now feels numbed, the only tears she cries now are silent ones. Five years from now, ten years from now, twenty years from now, she may decide its too heavy of a burden to carry. She may decide that suicide, however much it appeals to her thoughts sometimes, is too scary. Or maybe she will become a mother and the sight of her young innocent child will act as an electric shock to her heart. For whatever reason, she will decide to tell. Regardless of how old she is at that moment, when she divulges this memory, she is speaking as the seven year old child who knows the intimate smell of her abuser. “The test of a morality of a society is what it does for its children,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this. What does it say about us that we ask questions that imply the ones who were hurt the most are the ones whose words, or memories, we shouldn’t trust?
“Suffer the little children until Me,” said Jesus. Children are not our property. They are not our belongings. They are precious gifts and it is our responsibility to protect and shelter and believe them. I remember feeling too ashamed of what I had done, and all that had happened to me, that walking with my head held up was not an option. When I first met someone I deeply cared about, I felt unworthy because I thought I was twisted inside and that no matter how hard I might try, I’d never live up to what he “really wanted” or, worse, “really deserved.” Indeed, even after I met someone I was sure who made it abundantly clear that I could do anything and he was still going to be there, I suffered from these feelings of inadequacy. I remember a little boy I mentored who had been sexually abused by his father. He once rammed a golf cart into the side of a building. My sister and I found him crouched in the floorboard of the golf cart, holding a pocket knife and as I looked at him, I weeped for more reasons than he would ever know. He was six years old, and he was one of the lucky ones, though he didn’t feel like it, for his story had already been discovered and intervention started. Still, he will not become the man he could have and should have been. Instead, he will one with a burden and a memory too great for peace.
I hid my fears, I hid my loneliness, I hid my shame through the written word that I called fiction. The little boy I knew hid his through unpredictability and a violent temper. Some hide theirs through the blade of a knife upon their own skin. Some hide theirs behind the very thing which hurts them in promiscuity while believing that any pain they might feel is pain they deserve. Children do tell us. We just don’t want to see.
So, I ask you: why did the adult survivor of child abuse not tell sooner?