Transcending Sexual Abuse - May 2008
"Slow, But Steady"
I'm headed out this week for the Prevent Child Abuse America annual conference in Milwaukee. It's the first time I've been to an event sponsored by an organization that didn't even exist until 1972. It has taken 36 years for the organization to grow enough so that people don't just look puzzled when it's mentioned. Over those 36 years, we have learned so many things about the effects of child abuse and about helping people to recover from it.
Most people are unaware that the very first child abuse case ever prosecuted was in 1874 in New York. It was prosecuted under the auspices of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. It was called the Mary Ellen case. Until the 1900s in America, children were classified, legally, with domesticated animals. It wasn't until the 1970s that abusing children was seen as harmful. That is when laws began to be passed and public awareness aroused. It has only been in the last 20 years or so that there has been any effort toward helping people recover.
I prefer to think that scientific developments are easier to deal with than social developments and this is why social change is so much slower. When you need something mechanical fixed these days one of two things happens: it's easily fixed by your efforts or a skilled repair person or you throw it out and get a new one. Clearly, this can't be done with human beings.
When I began my teaching career in the early 1960s, there was talk of a condition called "learning disability." These were the days of "patterning" children by moving their muscles for long periods of time and of believing that if a child hadn't crawled, he or she would have trouble learning to read. The idea was that the kid wouldn't move his eyes correctly for reading if he hadn't crawled.
By the mid-seventies, we were beginning to notice conditions like dyslexia. Over the 21 years I taught special needs children (1983-2004), we moved through a number of labeling systems: I started out teaching "learning disabled/behavior disordered" kids. By 2004, I was teaching "severely emotionally disturbed" children. Same kids, same behaviors. I must have been asked to teach using 25 different teaching methods and systems, one more idiotic than the next. We ended up writing individually prescribed learning systems for each child.
Don't think for a second that it wasn't incredibly complicated. Plus, everybody's rights, due process, and limitations had to be considered and addressed. We had "casts of thousands" meetings to determine exactly what aspects of addition and subtraction one 8-year-old was going to learn. Honest: "Kid" will correctly complete one-digit addition and subtraction combinations using manipulables (blocks, counters, teddy bears, etc.) to 80% accuracy as measured by standardized testing. Methods used will be direct instruction, role play, number combination cards, manipulables....This is the Reader's Digest version of one objective.
Hang in there, friends. We are slowly making it. To help speed the process, we survivors must speak out. We must be vocal about demanding research, demanding political action, demanding to have our case considered and added to the history. We must defend children. We must expose abusers. We cannot stand for further abuse, nor can we put up with those who just don't want to talk about it.
When Michael Vick promotes dog fights, we become incensed, and rightly so. We insist that he be fined, locked up, lose his job, and anything else we can think of to punish him. This is as it should be. We do not condone in any way cruelty to animals.
This is, now, an historic attitude. Are we less important and are our children less important than animals? You are just as important as your dog.
Transcending Sexual Abuse - April 2008
"The Gift of Discernment"
Survivors of sexual abuse are really never "over" it. We are warped for life, each in his or her own unique way. Of course, it can be argued that every person is warped by something, whether it is chronic illness, chaotic upbringing, wealth, poverty, an absent parent, a terrible accident. As the poet said, "the child is father to the man" (or mother to the woman). He was a romantic poet: Wordsworth, that is, not Blood, Sweat, and Tears. Whatever influences our childhood determines what challenges we face or what blessings we enjoy. For every person, this is the case. Our job as adults is to figure out what has influenced us and to choose how that is going to impact our lives.
Were you allowed to learn music as a kid? I was, and it has enriched my life beyond measure to be able to sing and play the piano, to read music, to listen to music, and to feel the rhythms of life. My children, although they like music, are mainly skilled at playing the radio or operating the CD player. They were given opportunities to explore their musical gifts, but one has a degree in fine arts and paints, another one is a teacher, the third one is in food services at the management level. Is there something wrong with that? Certainly not. While music surely influenced their growing up, as adults they have chosen a different focus. We all do that. What will my grandchildren choose? Both of them play violin in the school orchestra. They really enjoy it, but will they become musicians? It's too soon to say.
When we recognize the damage that has been done to us because of sexual abuse, we feel an amazing array of emotions: anger, guilt, shame; we feel unclean, disgusting and disgusted, fury, rage, despair, and, sometimes, hope.Before we start feeling worthwhile, contributing, hopeful on a regular basis, valuable, in control of ourselves, adult, we have to do a lot of work in recovery therapy.It is worth the tears, the raging, the sense of unfairness to arrive at full adulthood where we make conscious choices about our attitudes and behaviors.
Some people liken it to Twelve-Step programs such as AA where the first step is admitting there is a problem. Once we know what the problem is, then we can move toward solving it. Is there a one-solution-fits-all outcome? No. Don't waste time and energy following that particular dream.
We were heavily influenced by our abuse. It formed a part of our personalities. For me, it is helpful to acknowledge that, to realize that most people do not have incest in their past (yes, a lot do, but in fact two-thirds of all women have no such experience and the percentage for men is higher). I must daily, just like an alcoholic, decide that I am not going to let myself be led into the negative emotions that just naturally seem to occur when I hear about abuse; emotions that occur when I read in the paper about some character who says, "The baby wouldn't stop crying, so I shook her;" when I see yet another example of a person treated like an object.
I have to overcome my mistrust of just about everyone I meet, but I have to know who is trustworthy and who is not. It is that problem of discernment that slows most survivors down.
How do I know whom I can trust? I start slowly in new relationships. I think about them. I scrutinize the other person's behavior. I have an email "friend." I met her through another email friend. Let's call my friend "Sue." There has been no opportunity to see Sue in action, but there have been a couple of telephone calls. I sent her my book as a way for her to get acquainted with me. I met Sue because a mutual friend died. She was much closer to our friend than I was and I hoped to help her through that loss.I learned soon that Sue did not enjoy the friendship and was actually bringing me down.
You, unlike "normals," can't just be friends with everybody who comes along. You have already learned not to believe everything someone tells you. You are a skeptic and will remain a skeptic. Use that skepticism to your advantage. Find ways to interact with others that allows you to see who they really are. How do they treat others? Who else is a friend to them? What do they seem to want from you? Do you have a friend who has proved to be trustworthy to you? Ask that person's opinion. An outside, objective opinion is a good thing to have. That's how Amy Dickinson and other "advice" columnists earn a living: by being impartial observers.
I think when the Christian scripture says "Judge not lest you be judged," that sentiment needs the usual grain of salt. Jesus asks you to use your brain. You don't get to decide who gets "saved" ultimately because that is God's call, not yours. You are allowed to think and to discern, from their treatment toward you, which people are good for you and which aren't.
Still feel guilty about passing that panhandler on the street? Give $5 to the homeless shelter. Still think you should be able to salvage somebody else's life? Pray for them. Do the good things you know will help, and remember that your discernment is the critical factor. Sure, give your sister $50 to pay a bill if you can afford it and if you know that your sister is a trustworthy person who has managed her problems pretty well most of the time. If this is the seventeenth time she's gotten down on her luck and wants you to bail her out, think again. She needs more help than you can give her.
Discernment: it's a gift you can develop.
Transcending Sexual Abuse - February 2008
"Linde Grace Mounts Her Soapbox for February"
I am a little down today because our local newspaper has yet another story to follow about a terribly abused child. We have about a half dozen of these cases in some state of investigation or resolution on any given day. Today's miserable saga concerns an 11-year-old mother (this is no typo, she was actually only 10 when she gave birth) who was impregnated by her mother's 40-year-old boyfriend. DNA proved the parentage.
We survivors know that this is not as rare a situation as the general public seems to think. Folks around here are saying, "How could this happen?" just the way they, no doubt, responded to you when you told them that your parent, uncle, family friend, teacher, or whoever assaulted you. It can't be--right? Well, University Hospital has the complete records which they are sharing with the courts. DNA did its thing.
The little girl mother can see the baby who is in foster care about twice a week and the baby's grandmother can't see the baby at all and can only see her daughter under court supervision. Pretty lenient, under the circumstances, if you ask me. The father is in jail on other charges. The paper, thank God, is not running pictures of the little girl or the baby or the grandmother. I think there would be a lynch mob out here if people could locate these poor excuses for parents. I am also sure that the grandmother has a sad story of her own. I am sure the man took an opportunity to amuse himself (probably repeatedly) and never gave a thought to possible consequences.
What are we going to do about these situations that continue to arise? What are you going to do when childhood sexual abuse surfaces in your community? I wrote an editorial which was published today in the Cincinnati Enquirer in response to another child abuse case which is currently being heard in Hamilton County Court. I also fired off a letter to the editor this morning before I even got to the Opinion Page, so I am not sure the letter will be published. I hope a lot of other people wrote letters, too, because until we demand more disclosure and stop blaming victims we are going to continue to see these abuses happening. Because we have been speaking out, insisting on prosecution for offenders, and launching prevention programs, we have achieved a bit of success. People are starting to think there might be a problem.
People still don't want to talk about childhood sexual abuse. They waffle on whether water boarding is torture and deny that Americans use that particular torture. They were shocked at the pictures from Abu Ghraib, yet allow Guantanamo to function for years and years. Some people are saying the Holocaust never happened. If things don't fit neatly into our Sunday School version of reality, we tend to ignore them. It is up to us survivors of sexual abuse to yell loud and clear, "Stop!"
Do not get sidetracked by other issues. Sexual abuse is wrong wherever it occurs. It is not something the victim did. It is not anyone's right to pursue his/her own violent streak or perverted pleasure seeking at the expense of another person, regardless of that person's age. People are not objects. We must keep telling the world. We must be clear in expressing what we know. Sexual abuse must stop.
We are just beginning to make some headway, so let's rededicate ourselves to building our own lives in healthy, healing, positive ways, and to speaking out to save others. Make sure your abuser is known as an abuser. If you are somehow dependent on the abuser, start now to change that. Go to a shelter or do whatever it takes to get yourself out of the situation. Keep asking until you get help. Find mandated reporters such as teachers, physicians, and social workers and let them help you. The domestic violence national hotline number is 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224. The national child abuse hotline is !-800-4-A-Child or 1-800-422-4453. Call your local police. Keep going until you get relief. If one person doesn't believe you, go to someone else. Don't give up!
You, your child, your neighbor--you are worth it. You do not deserve disrespect or violence. And, remember to pray for yourself and for others. We will need God' s help to stop child abuse.
Transcending Sexual Abuse - January 2008
"New Year - New Start"
This is something I received via email: ¡¡ãNothing is real until you experience it; otherwise, it¡¯s just hearsay.¡¡À Now, obviously, I don¡¯t know who said that first or where it really came from, but I am struck by a certain amount of truth in it.
I know from being a parent that some kids have to learn everything the hard way. I have a child who was told by her father once that she had to walk into the wall about five times before she noticed the door. A lot of things (not all of them pleasant) had to be experienced by these kids before it was real. Fortunately, we didn¡¯t experience too much tissue damage and nothing terribly serious happened, but we were lucky. As parents, we intervened only when truly catastrophic results might occur.
As a survivor of sexual abuse, you know that no loving parent intervened for you even though demonstrably catastrophic results have occurred. Sexual abuse is not hearsay for you. You know much more about it than you want to. Now that we are beginning a new year, let¡¯s make our experience count for something positive in the world.
One thing that will help you in the new year, is to let go of your anger and forgive the person who abused you. People tell you to do that all the time, but they don¡¯t always spell out the advantages to you in this.
First, once you let go of the anger, you have all that time and energy available to do something else that you¡¯d rather do. I have time to write, to play with my grandchildren, to be with friends, to sort my socks, drink hot chocolate, and do a lot of other things I like to do because I am not constantly thinking about how I was done wrong. I am not plotting revenge or trying to ruin someone¡¯s reputation because I have left that job up to my higher power.
I have a friend who, somewhat reluctantly at first, forgave her father for his abuse of her. Now she is enjoying a positive relationship with him. He has sincerely asked her forgiveness. This may not work quite as well for you as it has my friend. My dad is dead. I wouldn¡¯t begin to say I¡¯m sorry about that¡ªhardly anyone was sorry at the time. But I will say that as soon as I said, ¡¡ãI am not going to let anything my dad did keep me from enjoying my life. Let God deal with him,¡¡À I was a happier, more productive person. I liked myself and what I was doing. Setting the record straight and dealing with eternal issues is not my job. This is not to say that you should deal with everything internally!(needs something)
A second benefit of living in an attitude of forgiveness is that you can do good in the world with your life experience. You can speak up in defense of children, lobby your representatives from your hometown on up to Washington, D.C. to seek out and treat offenders, to educate and prevent abuse in your own family and neighborhood, and to make your voice heard.
Average people are beginning to faintly grasp the problem of sexual abuse. They need us to keep the issues before them. They don¡¯t understand that sexual abuse is so widespread or that it is so destructive, but it¡¯s starting to dawn on them. In today¡¯s paper, there is a story about a sex offender who was sentenced for his behavior. The parents of the two victims made victim impact statements that were powerful. They influenced the sentence that the judge pronounced.
We need to be there for the candlelight vigils, the pinwheel display of Prevent Child Abuse America in April, and in court as supportive observers. We need to use our experience to write letters to the editor to make people aware of what is happening. Sexual abuse happened to you, but you can use it to make your life and the lives of others meaningful. Whatever your sphere of influence, be it a classroom, an office, the pulpit, or just the coffee shop, utilize every opportunity to tell others that child and sexual abuse are not inevitable. It can be stopped.
This is an election year. The third way to utilize your experience for good is to examine the issues and carefully study the candidates. Ask them what they are going to do to end sexual abuse. Get their opinions on the problems facing us as survivors. Vote accordingly. Get on the band wagon to engineer reforms at all levels of government. We are a special interest group, too.
If you make New Year¡¯s Resolutions, this may be the year to resolve to use what you know to make your life and the lives of others happier by concentrating on solutions, rather than problems!