One of the pitfalls of childhood
is that one doesn’t have to understand something to feel it.
By the time the mind is able to comprehend what has happened,
the wounds of the heart are already too deep.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
I had a dream.
It was my sixth-grade year and I was in Ms. Abernathy’s music room. My four closest friends and I were lined-up next to her upright piano for an extra-special afterschool audition. When Ms. A played a few familiar chords, she’d nod at one of us to sing for an opportunity to try-out for the role of mother Mary. What 12-year-old girl wouldn’t hope to be Mary for the annual Christmas program!
Once Ms. A announced my friend Kate got the part, I turned to congratulate her. She stepped back, and in a cold, hard voice I didn’t recognize, she said, “We can’t be your friends anymore. We found out you were sexually abused.” The other girls linked arms, straightened taller, and then glared, sending me away.
The try-outs actually happened. The confrontation did not.
What makes this dream so telling is how children simply want to lead normal lives, hiding what sets them apart. The greatest fear is someone knowing, heaping more shame upon them.
In another dream I was walking through the front door of the school where I taught. I noticed the high school students were in the auditorium for a special assembly. Peeking through the double doors, I realized the speaker was a friend of mine from high school. I hadn’t seen her in years, and I was shocked to hear her sharing how she had been sexually abused as a child. I panicked, wanting her to know she shouldn’t do that. No one would understand. She’d be judged. She was only hurling fodder to the gossipers.
Morning brought remembrance, and I shared my dream with my husband.
I can still hear Bill’s response, “What if you shared your story and it helped someone?”
His words struck deep as he validated why I shouldn’t feel so ashamed about my childhood. With helping others in mind, my reasons to hold onto my secret weakened. For instance, I didn’t want to embarrass our children, but now all four were grown. I also never wanted my testimony to focus on me, and, far worse, for others to think I was seeking attention.
I assumed that was a common response because I was guilty of judging others and their stories of abuse. I remember when Oprah publicly shared she had been molested as a child. I didn’t doubt her. Yet, when Roseanne Barr admitted she had too, I guessed she was just wanting attention.
Why would anyone want that kind of attention?
And what about that some one my sharing might help?
April is Child Abuse Prevention Month
What has contributed to our collective blindness
concerning the abuse of children?
There are many important factors, the most important factor being denial …
acknowledgement of childhood abuse carries
the moral imperative to do something about it,
and it is easiest to deny the existence of any problem.
Our collective denial, reinforced by the abusive family’s culture of secrecy,
permits the youngest and most vulnerable to continue to suffer.
Dr. James A. Chu
Some Things We Now Can Say Out Loud
The more I’ve shared my story in an article or when speaking publicly or privately, the more I’ve learned about victims—friends, acquaintances, strangers, young and old— whose lives were forever changed when they were violated as a child. Many continue to exist with those broken pieces, painful shards. Even worse, some remain in a war zone from their ongoing internal warfare, having bargained away their lives, lives stolen long ago by violations too despicable to speak.
As that underlying feeling remained that I was flawed, I realize what helped me through my childhood: my paternal grandparents who showed me what families do. I was the daughter my grandmother never had. Her face filled with delight the minute she saw me. My older brother and I have talked about how these grandparents spent quantity and quality time with us, securing who we were and our significance. More mentors were teachers, others were volunteer mothers at school or Girl Scouts.
What we can’t discount as adults is how we stereotype perpetrators to one class of people—economic, educational, social. I grew up in a middle-class family with college educated parents. Before their divorce, they were involved in the community and ran with three social circles. Their too busy lives left us children with too many babysitters.
One woman I didn’t know said to me, “I never would have thought that could happen to you, a doctor’s wife.”
That struck me as odd, proving our misconceptions, how we could think anyone is immune. If only.
One beautiful woman shared with me about the time she told her parents their preacher had molested her. She was twelve. Her parents didn’t believe her. They told her she was lying, and she must have done something to lead him on. Now an adult, she confessed, “My parents not believing me hurt worse than the molestation.”
In Child Abuse and Neglect psychiatrist Roland Summit noted the results when adults don’t believe children:
Child victims of sexual abuse face secondary trauma in the crisis of discovery. Their attempts to reconcile their private experiences with the realities of the outer world are assaulted by the disbelief, blame and rejection they experience from adults. The normal coping behavior of the child contradicts the entrenched beliefs and expectations typically held by adults, stigmatizing the child. Such abandonment by the very adults most crucial to the child’s protection and recovery drives the child deeper into self-blame, self-hate, alienation and re-victimization (177).
Isn’t this what the abused gymnasts were up against for those who reported their doctor or coach was abusing them, only no one was willing to listen?
Now we have a child abuse hotline and child safety/advocacy centers where children find a safe place. Healing is possible. Yet it’s still a process that requires persistence and patience, all those character traits we don’t care to acquire when we want immediate relief.
While I was in my early 20s, I discovered the Lord as a perfect Father who began mending my wounds. I also needed to read everything I could get my hands on. Eventually I found a counselor who specialized in childhood trauma.
By my recognizing who I really am, I have chosen to take off my mask, the one concealing my shame, shame no longer mine. And yes, it took some arduous prying.
What encourages me now is knowing we can each be that one person who sees and hears a child or teenager once thought invisible.
How can you help? There are more ways than you realize, as much or as little as your time allows. With April being Child Abuse Prevention Month, many special events can be seen around the state. Some Only in Arkansas activities can be found here.
Child Advocacy Centers are nationwide. Arkansas has 15 regional centers. Check their websites for some of the many ways you can help in your region of Arkansas.
This CAC’s trusted website lists signs of abuse and answers many questions about what child advocacy centers are all about and how you can help, go here. The CAC state office is here. For those of you not in Arkansas, the national website is here.
Check out the ARBEST site (Arkansas Building Effective Services for Trauma at UAMS), here.
There are other tremendous agencies who are helping–check out the foster parents groups in your area and how you can help encourage a foster family with something as simple as taking them meal. Our town has Jacob’s Place for the Homeless, and they have an April 12 event. We also have White County Domestic Violence Prevention, Inc/Hope Cottage for mothers and children. Additional information is found on their websites.
AR Child Abuse Hotline
Call the AR Child Abuse hotline to report child abuse: 844-SAVE-A-CHILD
Music has the power to soothe painful wounds
On Dane Joneshill’s new album Everything That Rises Must Converge, he wrote and sings a song “If I Could” that speaks what all of us hope for a family member, friend, anyone who has been hurt by others’ selfish acts. Listen carefully and let it be our hearts’ prayer. (Either below or go to his site here.)
I close with a favorite passage that comes from Isaiah 54 when God tells Israel and me
Do not be afraid you will not suffer shame, do not fear disgrace, you will not be humiliated. You will forget the sins (against you in) your youth and remember it no more. . . . In righteousness you will be established: Tyranny will be far removed; it will not come near you. If anyone does attack you, it will not be my doing; whoever attacks you will surrender to you.
And verse sixteen describes the blacksmith who “forges a weapon fit for its work.”
It’s pretty amazing how God has weapons forged for our specific circumstances to protect us from our particular enemy (words of condemnation and shame for most of us). I can lay down the earthly ones I created.
His guarantee promises in verse seventeen that this is my heritage that “’no weapon formed against you will prevail and you will refute every tongue that accuses you. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and this is their vindication from me,’ declares the Lord.”
We get a new heritage, freed from what was in the past.
For those with preteens and teenagers, read about what swayed me back then.