When Sigmund Freud wrote of his belief that grotesque numbers of children are sexually abused, he was ostracized and essentially exiled from the medical community, which was enraged by the denial needs of male guilt and complicity. That century-old evil of denial is alive and well today, still condemning kids like Nancy to lives of crippling despair. The terrible irony is that the worst damage of sexual abuse occurs from the silence, the not telling that over time grows the initial horror of assault into an agony deserved, an invisible and inviolate proof of total worthlessness. The lucky and few children who seek and get immediate help have far fewer scars.
So when we are tempted to tell survivors to “get over it” or to dismiss the horrifying tales of molested grandchildren, let’s do two things: First, let’s walk in their shoes a while, and slip on their gowns of shame---those dark, monstrous suits of iron that slowly grind down the wearers until they can barely walk. Then, let’s resolve to be people to whom children can tell the unimaginable. Let’s be adults who are caring enough to hear their cries, loving enough to embrace their pain, and courageous enough to confront terrible things in our world.
Then, and only then, can these wounded children heal and fly again, like Nancy, and perhaps some of them will never have to know the terrible pain of wings shattered by silence.
The most common form of sexual abuse of children is so rampant in our world that its commonness seems to have diluted our grasp of its horrific, long-term damage to the souls of the victims. Most of us have no idea how terribly often this nightmare occurs for kids, and many of us choose to disbelieve the research that points to “loving” family members as the most frequent perpetrators. We just can’t stomach the picture of fathers doing this to daughters, so we pretend the numbers away. Even when we are forced to see it, much as we do with injured soldiers, we are moved and supportive when the wounds are fresh, but once the victims are “rescued,” we start to grow weary, intolerant, and even disbelieving of their unending pain. Victims are often told to “get over it,” as if the wounded enjoy their torment. In these ways, our own needs for emotional defense and denial can actually prolong the assault of the abusers, often for decades, and sometimes for life.
I was once at a large, posh dinner where the subject of sexual abuse of females came up. The speaker, a female, scoffed at the statistics which suggest that at least ten to thirty percent of American girls can expect to be sexually abused, with the majority of these attacks coming from family members. She was dismissive of “…these hysterical women who make such a big deal out of small things like being groped or fondled by some kook.” Her solution was to tell girls to “…do what I do with creeps. I just lay them out. They never mess twice with me.” When I noted that the majority of victims are young children who are not assaulted once by strangers, but repeatedly by trusted adult family members and family friends, she was indignant with denial. “That’s a load of feminist crap, portraying women as always being victims, a sick myth whipped up by men-haters for their own political gain. Do you really think that happens in the real world more than once in a blue moon?”
I glanced at the 40-year-old woman to my right. I knew that as a child she had been abused by her father. For a moment, it looked like she was going to speak, but then she dropped her eyes into the silence of pain and shame. As she had done for decades, she sat and silently suffered the cut of ignorance yet one more time.
For several years, my 18-year-old client Nancy was not upset by those kinds of comments, but she should have been. Her brain had protected her with a neurological shield of denial, an armor that her mind had cast around memories of sexual abuse so that no one, including Nancy, could get at them. Her defenses stood well for years, until a day that a sword of truth cut through them, to wound her, and to set her free.
* * * * * * * * *
“I don’t know exactly what I’m doing here [in my office]. If you want to know what I think, I think that the doctors have no idea what’s going on with me, and they dumped me off on you. This whole idea is ridiculous. I’m having seizures for God’s sake, I’m not having, you know, issues. And what exactly is a psychic…psycho…gen-etic seizure anyway? Does that mean they think I’m pretending to have seizures? What the hell is that about? I, like, enjoy losing my driver’s license? Oh. Okay. Sure. I want to ruin my life.”
Nancy was a ball of angry energy. I guessed, rightly, that she was an athlete. Short, unattended hair topped her stocky, muscular body, which, like the rest of her, showed no signs of attention. Her legs boasted the scars of hundreds of soccer battles, and her knee showed the red stitching of a recent surgical repair. This was no girly-girl. She hopped all over the couch as she ranted about her diagnosis, stabbing at the file of medical reports she had tossed on the table as she made her points. “I don’t get, like, depressed---I get not there. I zonk out where I can’t move or hear or speak for like 10 minutes. Then I can hear what’s going on but I still can’t speak or move for a while. Then I can move my eyes, but that’s it for, like, another 10 minutes. Then, I get this killer headache and I’m nauseous---and they’re saying this is all imaginary? They’re the ones with the issues. My brain is the problem. I’ve got epilepsy or something but they can’t find it. Nothing personal, but I need a brain doctor, not a shrink.” Her voice was very sure, but her eyes flickered with just a glimmer of doubt. It made me wonder whether a part of her knew something that another part of her did not.
“Nancy,” I opened softly, “Psychogenic seizures are not imaginary…” With a roll of her eyes, she interrupted to clarify her earlier mispronunciation, which she booted again--- perhaps purposefully? “Generic, genetic, whatever.” “Right,” I agreed, “whatever we call them, Nancy, the important thing is that they are not imaginary. They are terribly real malfunctions of your brain, as real and as scary as epileptic seizures. Your ‘brain doctors’ aren’t saying that these are not real, just that they can’t treat them as they would epilepsy. That’s why they sent you here. I do that work.”
Nancy picked at her knee scar, but seemed calmer, perhaps satisfied to hear that someone thought that her seizures were as real as her torn ligament. “So then, why do I need a shrink?” “Because, I answered, “your brain apparently has a kind of circuit breaker that it flips causing seizures that shut you down to keep you from doing something. Something like remembering a bad thing, or thinking a bad thought, or feeling a bad feeling. That’s the stuff that shrinks deal with. We have to try to figure out what’s tripping your circuit breaker.” For a second her calmness vanished, and her eyes shot to the window, as if looking for an escape route. As I noted that behavior, I had no idea that I’d write that same note a hundred times.
For two months, therapy with Nancy dragged on with little gain and lots of loss. She was having seizures and shutting down now more than ever, sometimes 3 or 4 times a day. She insisted that nothing traumatic had ever happened to her, and she angrily clung to her belief that the medical doctors were missing the “real” explanation for her seizures, a belief supported by her soccer-coach father who was dismissive of psychotherapy. But she kept coming back.
In retaking her history for perhaps the fourth time, she casually changed one small detail that provided the break we needed: Her first seizure had not occurred after a soccer match as she had been saying, but the day before during a school assembly. The topic was sexual abuse of children. A speaker had been describing her experience of being molested by her father when Nancy had her first seizure. When she saw me suddenly look up, she cut me off. “Don’t waste your time. Nothing like that ever happened to me. My dad is, like, the sweetest, nicest father. It’s ridiculous to think for one minute that he’d…AAARRRGGGHHH!” she yelled. “You guys (doctors) are ALL NUTS. You’re not listening to me. I can FEEL that something is wrong in my brain. Just like in my knee. WHY WON’T YOU TRUST ME?” “I do trust you, Nancy…” I answered, “Can you trust me?” She turned her head and, without moving, escaped through the window once again.
The following week, she didn’t show up for her appointment. A week after that, I got a call from a hospital attending physician. Nancy had a seizure while (illegally) driving, and suffered relatively minor injuries when her car ran up an embankment. “She asked that I call you instead of calling you herself,” the doc said, “but she wouldn’t tell me anything to tell you. Does this make any sense to you?” “I don’t know, maybe,” I answered. “Please just tell her that I’ll look for her at our usual time.”
Nancy was right on time for that next session, sporting two new sets of stitches over a bruised face. “Some kids do purple hair,” she quipped, “I do face.” Without waiting for a laugh, she pressed on immediately as if she had something to say either now or never. But she could not look at me, so she talked to the table. “It wasn’t my father,” she said flatly. “It was my uncle---his brother. I was…” and then she had a seizure. Her head suddenly drooped awkwardly, and her body froze its endless fidgeting. Her eyes were open, but staring unblinkingly, her mouth agape. For ten minutes she moved absolutely nothing. Suddenly her eyes blinked furiously, catching up for lost time. She looked at me. I could see her calling to me through her eyes, but she couldn’t make a sound. “It’s all right,” I soothed, “You’ll be fine. Just relax.” As I spoke, I realized how dumb those words must have sounded to her. She had been through this a hundred times and knew what to expect. And “Just relax?” I hoped that she hadn’t heard that. Her eyes told me that she had. They were yelling at me.
Like a failed computer restarting, she slowly reclaimed her physical self, part by part. Finally, she hung her splitting head in her hands, tried not to vomit, and mumbled, “Just relax?” But she was too exhausted to be angry or even to make fun of me.
“When I told you before that I wasn’t, you know [abused], I wasn’t lying to you,” she said softly, wincing as if each word was stabbing her brain, “These memories started to come back real slow to me when I started coming here, like bits and pieces at different times, of what he would do when he babysat me.” She frowned at her own words. “‘Babysat me? Wow, that’s a strange way to describe what he did. Anyway, I didn’t tell you because, I don’t know…I guess I just didn’t---or don’t want to think this really happened. Or that this might actually be causing these things [the seizures]. When I was lying in the hospital bed, the doctors were, once again, telling me that they could find nothing wrong in my brain, and that’s when it kind of all came back to me, like in one piece .” Here she looked up at me. “So, now we know, then, I’m cured, right? Now what?”
The “what” would become 6 months of agonizing work. In a “three steps forward, two steps back” mode, Nancy courageously fought to recall, and then speak the memories of her abuse and all of the associated feelings of guilt and shame. But the seizures stalked her every effort, shutting her down which each new memory or re-experiencing of old pain, fear, and horror. Her bright eyes, once alert and full of life, seemed to go dark. This maddeningly slow pace led her to occasionally quit therapy and instead try alternative treatments and psychiatric medications, but nothing seemed to help very much. The harder we pushed at her memories, the more her brain would produce new symptoms, new torments to keep the old ones locked away. Often she’d awaken at night, screaming and drenched in sweat, running from monsters barely hidden behind veils of secrecy in her mind, to find her terrified parents standing helplessly by her bed.
“No,” she would say firmly when I asked her about confronting her abuser. “I’m never confronting him, or telling them [her family]. It will do no good, and just tear the family apart. Everyone would just side with him. He’s, like, everybody’s favorite person. He would turn everyone against me, maybe even my parents. No one would ever believe me, and they’d think I was a sicko for saying that. I couldn’t stand the way everyone would look at me.”
A few weeks later, she proved how wrong I was when I suggested that some people would probably believe her. “You are so wrong,” she said. “I did tell once. I remember now. I told my grand-mom [her father and uncle’s mother]. I guess it was about three months after, you know, it started to happen.” She still could not use the specific words referencing the abuses without almost always having a seizure. Nancy looked straight at me, but spoke in a strange, detached voice as if mimicking words she could hear in her head. “Mom-mom said that was a horrible, horrible thing to say about my uncle, that he loves me. He would never do anything like that. She told me to never, ever repeat that to anyone or they’d all think that I was a horrible girl, and that I know about the dirty things I imagine. She took me to church the next day and made me go to confession to tell the priest. I went in, but I didn’t tell him. I figured that if Mom-mom wasn’t on my side, no one would be. We were, like, really close, you know---up to then. After that, she---she never looked at me the same. He stopped doing it after I told her, so I guess she did say something to him, but from then on she always had this---look, like I smelled bad or something. Since then it seems like lots of people have that look…” She paused, dropped her eyes, and shrugged, “…even you, sometimes.”
“Nancy,” I said, “I don’t think that you smell bad. I think that your uncle smelled bad, and you think that it kind of rubbed off on you, and now you think that you have a smell that you can’t wash off, you know?” She nodded. We had no idea how ironic that metaphor would prove to be.
Two more months of frustrating therapy followed. Nancy was building her nerve to attend a family gathering where she would probably be forced to see her uncle, which she had managed to avoid for years. The morning after that event, she called for an immediate appointment. She sat down and cut straight to the chase. “He…he walked right up to me like nothing ever happened,” she said incredulously. “How could he do that? How could anyone ever do that? I just froze. I actually couldn’t move. Then he… he…” I was sure Nancy was going to have a seizure, but this time she didn’t. For the first time in talking about her attacker, she was not frightened or ashamed. She was mad. “He hugged me. He HUGGED me. And when he did, I remembered…I remembered his…smell. It was like I went back in time, and he was on me again. I ran out of the room.” As she sat and stared out the window, I waited for tears that never came. She was done with running away. “I have to do something.” Her words had escaped her before she could reel them in, but she decided that she didn’t care. She held her head up, scared but resolute. “I’ll let you know next week what I decide to do. I don’t want you to tell me to do anything. Okay?”
Nancy cancelled her next appointment without an explanation. I was sure that she had backed out of confronting her uncle, and felt too embarrassed to see me after that. But I had forgotten how tough she really was. One of the amazing things about kids who get abused is the tremendous hidden strength they build, a secret steely tenacity that they themselves don’t see, something they must construct to keep from going insane. Once they learn to tap into that resolve, there is little they cannot do in life. Nancy had found her resolve and she showed up for her next session. She was not quitting this time.
“I wrote a letter,” she said, “and sent it to him today. Here’s a copy for you. I’d like you to read it.” “I’d rather hear you read it,” I said, “if you don’t mind.” She twisted up her face in mock protest of being told what to do, but then smiled when she realized that this was her moment, and that reading the letter would be a sign of that. She picked up the folded letter and slowly opened the best gift she would ever receive, one that she had given to herself. As she read, she softly cradled a small smiley-faced toy in her suddenly strong arms, reading to it as if talking to the sad little girl she used to be, letting the small Nancy know how the big Nancy had finally stood up for her.
“This letter has no ‘Dear Uncle’ part. I tried to write that five different ways and none worked. How can I call you ‘Dear Uncle’? I have not forgotten what you did to me. It was wrong, and you made my life a living hell for a long, long time. You did two things that were very bad. The first was raping me.” Without pausing, she widened her eyes and nodded here, silently acknowledging that now she was able to use the abuse words with hardly any sign of a seizure. I could almost hear the rusty chains that had imprisoned her brain for so long finally falling away.
“For any man to do that to any little girl or anyone is unforgivable. Why would you want to do that to a 12-year-old girl? You made me feel so dirty and ashamed that I thought I could never be as good as other girls. I thought they all knew about me.” She stopped reciting her letter and shared a different thought. “So that’s why I play soccer like a madwoman.” She shook her head and laughed, and then continued reading.
“It would be bad enough if you were a stranger to me. But you were not. And that’s the second bad thing, which is worse than the first.” In all of the frustrating, painful, and sometimes agonizing time we had spent together, I never once saw Nancy cry. Now, for the first time, her eyes slowly rimmed with tears.
“You were my uncle, my father’s brother. I trusted you, and looked up to you. When I was small I always felt safe around my uncles, like they were there to protect me. I used to love to fall asleep at Mom-mom’s while the uncles and Dad would sit on the lawn and talk. I could hear you from my window. I used to pretend that I was a princess and you were my guards and so nothing bad could ever, ever happen to me. Then you hurt me. You took all of that away. Now I don’t feel safe anywhere, with anyone. If my own uncle, my father’s brother, can rape me, then who can I trust? I even stopped hugging Dad back then, because I felt too dirty to hug him. This is some of what you took away from me, things that I can never get back.
“I should go to the police and report you, but I am not going to, at least for now. I want to keep this between you and me. I don’t want my parents to get hurt more by what you did. But if I ever think that you might do this to anyone else, I will tell everyone. Don’t ever try to hug me again. And stay away from me anytime you see me.
“I signed it ‘Nancy’. Then I added a P.S. It says, ‘I think you owe me an apology.’ That’s pretty dumb, isn’t it? Asking an uncle who rapes me for an apology? Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t I be, like, suing him or trying to ruin his life or something?” “Does it sound ridiculous to you?” I asked. She was already shaking her head before I finished. “No, it sounds like something I’ve wanted for a long, long time. I don’t think I’d feel better putting him in jail. I just want him to say that what he did was wrong, and that it really did happen. And guess what? I don’t care if that sounds ridiculous to anyone else. It sounds right to me.”
After a few moments I asked how she felt. “Like I can’t breathe,” she said. “Not scared like before, just, I don’t know…just real alert, or something, like I’m waiting for something to happen, but I don’t know what. I’m not sorry I sent the letter, though. It feels like it’s the first thing I’ve done right in a long time, like I finally stood up for me. But…what will he do?” I could only shrug. And hope.
The following week Nancy walked in, sat down, and for the first time in almost a year, she smiled a huge, easy smile. She looked like an entirely different young woman. She was beaming. Very quietly and slowly she said, “You have no idea how wonderful I feel.” Then she very carefully said…nothing. She looked like a kid sitting alone very early on a Christmas morning, savoring the tree and presents from the stairs, not wanting to lose that precious moment by moving any closer. Finally, she took a breath and exhaled deeply, as if she had just survived a terrible battle. “It’s over. It’s…all…over. And it’s okay. I’m okay.” She paused and smiled broadly again, playfully making her eyes bulge as if daring me to make her talk---a very funny, very mean joke referencing her months of staring in stony silence out of my office window. But this time her old, dead eyes were new and gleaming, fairly bursting with some wonderful news. I picked up the smiley-face toy and threw it at her. “No more Mr. Nice Guy,” I said. “Give!” For a moment, she cradled “Smiley” as she had so many times before, but then put him down as she spoke. It made me think that the small Nancy had finally begun to heal.
“The day he got the letter, he showed up at my door when no one else was home. I didn’t let him come into the house, but it wasn’t because I was scared of him like before,” she said. “It was more like, you know, he sort of smells bad, like he’s this horrible memory that I don’t want around anymore. I didn’t want him to be in my space.” She sat forward and stared through me as if watching some incredible scene replay. “But I wasn’t scared of him. It’s like he suddenly shrank down from being a scary giant to being this pathetic, old man. He had my letter in his hand. He couldn’t look me in the eyes at all, but I could have looked at his. He just said, ‘I got your letter. I’m sorry.’ We just stood there quiet for a few minutes, and then he said ‘I’m sorry’ again, and then he left.”
Nancy sat and closed her eyes, breathing deeply and slowly as if she had never breathed clean air before in her life. “You know, I didn’t say a word when he apologized. There are no words. It felt…it feels…free. Like I could just…fly if I wanted to.” We sat silent for a long time. Then she got up and said, “Well, time’s up. I have to get to work. I’ll see you next week.” Somehow I knew that she was not coming back. As I followed her to the door, she stopped, sighed, and spoke without turning to me. Very softly she said, “Thank you.” “You’re welcome,” I answered, “but, you do know that you made this happen, right?” “Yes,” she nodded, “I know…I know.”
And then she flew away.
Official Website and Parent-Teen Resource
Doctor Mike Bradley
In our parental conflicts with our teens it gets so easy to become full of only what they are not. Those deficits seem often to swell so huge that they block our ability to see our kids for their good sides. My third book
HEART AND SOUL OF THE NEXT GENERATION
Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Teens
tries to balance that dilemma by telling twenty true stories of kids I worked with who are great examples of the wonderful things that likely reside unseen inside your teenager. Every few months I’ll add a different chapter to try to help us all keep positively focused. In the interim, I wouldn’t object if you want to read ahead by purchasing it here on this site. Ironically, this has always been my favorite book even though it sold about 13 copies, 11 of which were bought by my brother. When my son was 13 he read it and pronounced it as “cheesy.” Coming from a 13-year-old, I took that as a compliment. Please try this short story and tell me what you think.