Over the years, I have often felt like analyzing what could have been done to protect me from sexual abuse was a pretty silly waste of my time. My thinking has always been that it happened and it couldn’t be changed, so there was really no reason to rehash it trying to figure out what this person or that person should have done.
Yet today, as I think over the Stewards of Children training from Darkness to Light, I realize how vital it is for me to identify things that adults could have done to protect me. If I am ever to speak to others about how to protect their children, I need to first understand how the adults in my life missed the clues. It is crucial that I be able to identify signs in my own life so that maybe somewhere along the way other parents might be able to see these warning flags and take action.
I think one of the biggest things that my parents could have done was talk to me openly about sexuality and sexual abuse. The one and only conversation that I ever had with a parent about this topic was when my step-mother came to me one afternoon. She was holding in her hand a copy of the World Book Encyclopedia. I loved those books. For years and years I had poured over them soaking up knowledge and learning all about the world around me. As she sat down, she began to tell me that one of my cousins had become pregnant. She told me that the father was a boy my cousin had been seeing. There were a few additional details that I remember her mentioning, details which now make me think there was much more to the story. After she explained this situation to me, she asked if I understood what all this meant. I think I said I wasn’t sure. She began to tell me about women’s bodies and how married people who love each other have babies together. I remember her showing me some anatomy pictures from the encyclopedia as she spoke. She asked if I had any questions. I didn’t. That was it. That was all there was to the one conversation I ever had with a parental figure about sex.
I was taught not to talk to strangers, but I was never taught that people shouldn’t touch me in certain places. I was also never taught about my body and boundaries. This lack of knowledge left me very confused after my grandfather molested me. The only words I had to express what had just happened to me were, “He held me, and he wouldn’t let me go.” An extremely astute adult might have read between the lines, but most, as my grandmother did, would have missed the importance of my statement and read it as harmless play between a grandfather and his grandchild.
I was never given the understanding that I had power and choice over what happened to my body. I was never told that adults (or anyone else) should listen when you say, “Stop.” or, “No.” My grandmother’s words to me were, “If you don’t like it, then don’t go over there.” This told me that, 1) It was my fault. 2) Others had the right to do bad things to me if I “asked for it.”
No one ever told me that I had the right to tell older people, “No.” As a matter of fact, I was taught to obey them without question. No matter what an older person (including my teen cousin who molested me) told me to do, I was instructed to always do what they asked. They were older, and therefore wiser, so I should always listen and never talk back.
After I was abused, several things occurred in my life, the first of which was that my grades began to suffer. I was a child who did very well in school. Yet suddenly, I was daydreaming in class, failing to complete assignments, and not turning in homework. My father assumed I was just being lazy. He told me I should try harder, he punished me for not doing my best. At no time did anyone ever stop to ask me what was wrong. No one ever said, “I can see you are having trouble with your classes, is there anything I can do to help?”
I think that brings up another thing that caused me to not speak out – the fact that I was always told that children should be seen and not heard. My feelings, my opinions, and my thoughts…I was taught that these things did not matter to adults. I was told that I should just suck it up and get on with it when I was hurt. I was informed that my wants wouldn’t hurt me, and that I had nothing to cry about. I was made invisible, and so in my mind, I made the things I endured invisible too. I hid them from myself so that I could be the child that I was told to be and conform to the idea that I wasn’t supposed to feel.
As I became a teen, there were other signs that adults missed. The most obvious were the anger, screaming, and yelling. Because my brother had been an angry teen and I had gone through a rough time with my father and brother, my mom thought I was just getting it all out. I wish that had been the case. There really wasn’t a lot she could do other than just be there, but it was one sign that something else was definitely going on in my mind.
Another clue was my constant isolation. When I was not at school, I rarely appeared from my room. The only time I ever spent outside my room was at dinner time or when no one else was home. I was extremely private. I did not want anyone in my personal space. I wouldn’t talk, and while most parents feel this is a regular part of the teen experience, it’s not. There are lots of teens out there who have healthy discussions with their parents. Maybe not every day, but at least on a fairly regular basis.
Something else that no one seemed to fit together with the other puzzle pieces? An extreme hatred of family. People around me assumed that it had to do with my father. However, this hatred extended to other family members, such as my grandmother. I refused to go to family dinners, including Thanksgiving and Christmas. Because there was a blanket refusal to attend any dinners, people thought I was just being a teen. However, the truth of the matter was, I was avoiding abusers and those who enabled my abusers on both sides of the family.
My teachers noticed things too. Once I wrote a poem about suicide. My teacher asked if the poem was about me. I told her no. While I was not suicidal at the time, the poem came from a very, very dark place inside. Another teacher noted depression in one of my poems, and when I received the assignment back, he had written at the top, “Don’t give up hope. Things will get better.” It was in these moments that adults had a great opportunity break down barriers with me. To my knowledge, neither of these adults expressed their concerns to my parents or to a professional. I had already started having flashbacks on a daily basis by this time, and it is quite possible that speaking with my mother or a professional about my situation could have raised additional flags and forever changed the course of my path.
When I finally broke my silence, I learned one more vital thing that all adults around me missed. When it was found that another child in our family was abused by my grandfather, they did not talk to me. No one ever told me about what happened, and no one ever asked, “Did he ever do anything that made you uncomfortable?”
Does this mean that if every adult had done what I have suggested that I would have spoken out sooner or been tormented less? I have no idea. I do know that if just one of these things had occurred, it would have changed the way that I saw the world. It might have made me feel safer or feel like I had some control….