Friday, September 29, 2006

Dismaying Story #61: The Adult Survivor's Guilt

Dear Andrew,

I recently ran into an old friend from my hometown that I had not seen in years. In course of catching up, he asked me if I had heard of "Bob's" arrest. He went on to tell me he had been convicted on child molestation. I went home and researched it only to find out that Bob had been abusing his step daughter from the ages of 9-14, and was caught when she turned up pregnant. Turns out the mother knew the whole time and was also convicted.

My problem comes in that when I was about 10, he also molested me. I was a child from an abusive family and had been previously assaulted, so it really didn't seem like a big deal at the time. As soon as I hit 18 I moved away from that town, wound up in drug rehab and started a long trail of healing. I found a therapist, and eventually I began to understand that all the bad things that had happened were not my fault. My main abuse was in the home with physical and verbal abuse so the "other" stuff didn't seem so big a deal, I almost never thought about it. I moved on and became a happy and productive member of society.

Then when I read this, I felt such a deep sadness because I wondered if I should have come forward once I realized what had happened was wrong. By the time I could have done that I was 23 years old. He was not the only person outside the family to abuse me, and I learned how pedophiles will be drawn to children who are already victims. Still, I can remember thinking these men only did that to me and would never have done it to someone else.

The news about Bob's arrest brought that way of thinking to a painful halt. Do I go back and report the other abusers to the authorities now? If I had reported Bob, would it have spared his step daughter?

I just am not sure how to deal with the guilt. I feel so responsible. I know I am not really responsible for others actions, but my inaction may have allowed this man to hurt many other children.

Bob is off to prison, but there was an elderly neighbor who sheltered me from my abusive father and eventually began to abuse me sexually. He is maybe 75 years old now, retired and still married to the same woman. My accusation would be unlikely to end in a conviction and would drag my family through a lot.

Signed, Unsure What to Do

Dear Unsure,

I am sorry to hear of all the pain you have endured through the years as a result of your abuse. You say you have come to terms with much of what has happened to you, yet this letter shows that you still must deal with serious issues. This is common for adult survivors of child abuse.

The type of abuse you describe leaves life-long emotional scars. People in your situation often struggle to develop self-esteem, as it can be difficult to see yourself as valuable after someone treats you like an object for their own gratification. Then there is the guilt ("Why did I let this happen?"), frustration ("Why did this have to happen to me?") and emotional pain. Therein lies the essential selfishness of the abuser, who is willing to inflict such damage.

You are trying to balance your own current needs against the potential that you might be able to help other victims or prevent future abuse. By making an accusation now you would put yourself in an explicit, stressful conflict with the accused. You would have to admit publicly some painful occurrences in your past. You may worry that you would be opening yourself to potential disbelief or criticism, as in "Why didn't she ever say anything before?" You also mentioned the potential impact of this on those around you.

On the other side of the coin you have your guilt about what happened to Bob's step-daughter. Your feelings are understandable but you are not responsible for Bob's actions. It's not like you thought to yourself, "There is a good chance Bob may be abusing others but I won't say anything." Instead, it didn't occur to you that others might be at risk. You were not selfish or negligent, you simply are not an expert in the behavior of abusive people so you didn't foresee the danger. Bob no longer has access to his step-daughter, so your guilt does nothing to help her or yourself. One of my recommendations is that you should talk to your therapist to help rid yourself of this guilt.

This leaves you with the issue of what to do about your other former abuser. By now you realize abusers thrive in an environment of secrecy and silence. One of the most common pieces of advice given to children is that if you are being abused or feel at risk, then you should tell someone. In this case you wonder if anyone might actually be at risk, whether a 75 year old man could still be a threat to anyone. Of course he can. Does he have grandchildren? Might he baby-sit them?

Have you considered the possibility that telling people about this abuse could actually help you? One of the steps in shedding the victim mentality is often to stand up and say what happened. This is one way to show yourself that you are not going to simply accept it. This can help you take back the dignity and control that was taken from you. Since you have had years to work through your emotional issues, you may or may not feel this would be beneficial for you. This is another potential topic for discussion with your therapist.

To help make your decision, I recommend you contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline. Serving the United States, its territories, and Canada, the Hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with professional counselors. The target group includes you -- adult survivors of child abuse seeking advice and assistance. Other jurisdictions around the world offer similar services.

This hotline will give you access to professionals who are intimately familiar with the issues you describe in your letter. They can provide definitive answers to your implied questions, such as whether a 75 year old previous abuser can still be a risk to children and how you can deal with your own family members. Dealing with professionals who specialize in this area should give you the best chance of addressing your worries about other potential victims while also looking out for your own needs.

All the best,


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  2. What a wonderful answer Andrew. I will relate a small part of my story. My cousin, as part of her healing decided to prosecute her father. At least two decades had passed since the abuse. A very wonderful county attorney called me and asked me if I knew any facts. I had been working on healing for years from being abused by the same abuser. No one in the family, although they knew about him, stopped his abuse. I called my sister and she broke down and for the first time admitted to another person she had also been a victim. We all decided to stand up for one another, for all the other victims who could not yet prosecute, and all future children that might come across this man's path by prosecuting. It wasn't easy emotionally for many reasons, too many to write here. The story even made the Phil Donahue show, which aired in the small town where I now live. I still face an occasional stare. But I so firmly and resolutely know we did the right thing. The Judge, although the perpetrator was found guilty, did nothing but prohibit him from being alone around children. (Did that work - I don't know - I DO know "they don't stop.") However, we did gain enough publicity that hopefully "the word was out" and parents could make informed choices to hopefully keep their children safe. We felt empowered and strong. We realized the raw fear that we dealt with not only as children but as adults was gone. We feel no guilt, only sadness, that we did not take action earlier. However, we are gentle with ourselves and understand the dynamics that kept us from admitting even to ourselves what had happened to us. We gained understanding of the dynamic of family secrecy that contributed to the amount of time that it took to stop the abuse and to heal enough to report the abuse. Best wishes to you in your healing process.

  3. She should not feel guilty for what she is not responsible for.
    Or for what happened to others because of her silence because she didn’t know what he was doing.
    When you’re young you don’t know what is right or wrong until you find out and realize what was happening was wrong.

    It must be hard to trust people after someone who should be protecting you betrays' that trust.
    Jail is to good for Bob and all the others like him and a 75 year old pervert is still a pervert.
    No one can tell her what to do, her peace of mind is important to.
    Maybe she could talk to a close family member to see what they think and test the ground a bit and go from there.

    Sad part is they let the Bobs out again.
    They should brand their foreheads as far as I‘m concerned to warn people there is a predator around if they release them.

    I hope she finds a way past this.

  4. What a powerful post. I'm sure this story strikes a chord with almost every reader - it seems almost everyone either knows someone well who has been abused, or has been abused themselves.

    I like your advice, Andrew. You're right that 'Unsure' needs to consider that the (now`elderly) pedophile who abused her may still be at risk of abusing again. Yet at the same time, she is the one who has to live with the upheaval that reporting this man may well cause. No-one can tell this lady what she should do - it will be a very personal decision for her to work through.

    Good luck, Unsure. I wish you all the best for the future, whatever you decide.

  5. I don't know about America.Back home in India there seems to be no purpose served by taking such abusers to court.I'd rather suggest that teenagers or even those in their late pre - teens be prepared for such behaviour and warned about the consequence.This may actually go a long way in preventing such molestors from daring to do what they do.

  6. Yes, report the man for the very reasons Andrew stated. This man is still probably in contact with young children that need you to protect them. They can't protect themselves, and their parents can't protect them if they don't know there is a problem. If he did it as a younger man and got away with it, I'd say he's likely to continue because he still thinks he can get away with it.

    I understand your hesitance, knowing what you would be putting yourself and others through. But, think instead about the children you could be saving from going through the very same torment you have been through. If it were your own children in contact with this man wouldn't you want to know about him? Wouldn't it make you mad as a hornet to find out someone knew about him and never reported it until after your child had been molested? Criminals like this only get caught when some brave soul stands up for what is right and tells the authorities, in spite of the discomfort it puts on themselves.

  7. I don't think it's ever good to bury truth. The consequences of truth are always great, but that's because truth is a great thing. It's the only place where light is found.