I feel abandoned by my mother, because I know she doesn’t want to believe my dad could be capable of sexually abusing me. She sends emails that start with what I see as a courtesy disclaimer, “It’s not that I don’t believe you, but…” and then tells me all the reasons why she thinks I could be mistaken. It tears my heart out, but I try to be understanding. She has been going through a lot since I broke the silence and told her about the memories I’ve begun to recover, and admittedly she’s in the most difficult position of all.
The little child part of me wants nothing more than for my mother to believe that what I’m telling her is true and choose me over my perpetrator. It doesn’t look likely though, so I tell myself that’s just a childish dream that she could ever choose one family member over another, that she’s built a life with this person, that it’s selfish of me to put expectations on her. But it’s like a knife to the heart. I actually find it hard to value my own life if she doesn’t believe me, and thinking about it too much is the one thing that can send me back into that dark suicidal place I was a few months back. In that place I feel half dead, have rotted, half decomposed, and yet I haven’t taken my life. I am still walking around trying to find a way out that doesn’t depend on her or what she does. Just to feel alive again.
I know on an intellectual level that I can choose whatever experience of this that I want. But that little girl is convinced, “If my own mother won’t believe me, won’t choose me, who would?” She takes it to mean she is worthless, that others’ words to the contrary are meaningless gestures of etiquette, rather than heartfelt truths. The whole world becomes cold and fake to her. This is no way to live.
Accepting that my mother has the right to deal with this situation however she wants has been the most difficult emotional challenge I’ve ever had. The truth is her words and actions have no meaning except the meaning I choose to give to them, so the impact on my self worth comes from my beliefs rather than from her. The clincher is that I know this intellectually, but it still feels like abandonment. It still feels like I have been ousted from the tribe, left to fend for myself, like death is after me, already eating through my flesh.
My only choice is to wholeheartedly accept that only I can give my life whatever meaning I choose, and that yes, expectations and wishes for my mother to do this or that are in fact, just childish dreams, based on the false belief that my self worth comes from her. In truth it never has, and it never will. How much longer am I willing to spend trying to barter for these childish dreams? That I don’t know, but I hope it’s not long. There’s a big beautiful world out there waiting for me.
~ “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.” – Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery
I sometimes wish that I could remember all of the abuse from my childhood, just so that there would be no more surprise landmines to step on every time a new memory surfaces. I know that memories come back when a person is ready to deal with them, but some days it’s just really hard not knowing everything. I still can’t seem to remember anything around third grade when I must have been seven or eight years old, I don’t even remember the name of my third grade teacher or what my classroom looked like. I know my brain must’ve shut off in some capacity in order to protect me, but protect me from what I don’t exactly know.
I’ve discovered that my feelings, the same feelings I was blaming myself for or numbing myself from for so many years, are of paramount importance. I’ve only just begun to respect and trust these feelings, and I’ve also learned that feelings are the essence of a memory, far more so than any narrative of a recollection. I’ve come to trust and respect my feelings through ceremonial shamanic use of ayahuasca in Peru, and also through dreams, particularly because the inspiration I’ve had from dreams have been instrumental in helping me to heal from a more recent rape that occurred in 2007. I’ve been allowing myself to feel more lately. I try to remember how it felt to be seven years old again ask the feeling to show me where it goes next. I’m having more information come to me in dreams when I do this. Specifically, I had a dream of my father voyeuristically staring at my naked body, where I am blind and struggling to open my eyes as l try to cover myself and get away from him.
I’ve also been appreciating triggers in a whole new way because they always point the way to something important. I now know the reason they “trigger” any response at all is because of prior experiences. I’ve been observing myself and I find I am often on guard with older men. It’s something about the way some of them covertly sexualize me that makes me suspicious of their motives. If they do or say anything to me that is flirtatious or suggestive, if they try to touch me or my clothing, I immediately dissociate. I get extremely angry, but feel paralyzed to respond in the moment. I then avoid them and carry myself with an attitude of anger in the hopes of repelling them. Unfortunately, this sometimes brings me the attention of men who have a sadistic glint in their eye, and that makes me even angrier. I’ve had other women ask me what the big deal is. “That’s just how men are,” they tell me. All I know is that for me, it is very, very triggering.
If a much older man makes overtly sexualizing comments about my body I feel like I want to crawl out of my skin. I am repulsed and disgusted by it. They don’t even have to say anything but if they are obviously leering at me, it stokes the fires of rage in my heart, and they’re probably left wondering why I’m acting so cold and bitchy towards them. That’s one conflict I keep running into. Older men sexualize me, either with stares or comments, and I feel powerless to respond. I react by dissociating, ignoring, hoping they will just go away. And I end up feeling vulnerable and angry. Even at 30 years old I have a terrifying and irrational fear of saying something to these men.
In the past I’ve had well meaning people try to warn me about my angry attitude, women who say that it might not look that bad at 29, but at 35 or 40 it’s going to look grotesque. I only thought to myself, “good, it’s working.” The whole point is to drive away men who might hurt me. I now fully trust that there’s a reason why I feel compelled to act this way, why I feel safer when I do it. I trust that my triggers reflect to me a deeply ingrained emotional reaction to some original situation where I was hurt or threatened, a situation I cannot recall to memory yet. On the flip side, I trust that reacting to present circumstances through the lens of the past can lead to revictimization. It’s those men with the sadistic glint in their eye, that see me more easily since my anger freely promotes the fact that I feel threatened, which could lead to me being a target. Even knowing this, it’s hard to change, it’s hard to feel vulnerable, but I’m going to overcome this, and in the meantime, I am going to trust that my feelings, dreams, and triggers have meaning.
~“Trust your instinct to the end, though you can render no reason.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
In an effort to understand how I could immediately “forget” being raped, only to recover the memories four years later, I started reading a book by Amanda Ripley called The Unthinkable which discusses people’s seemingly irrational responses when threatened by impending danger. What’s interesting is that people are not as rational as we assume they are. Even when the twin towers were hit with planes, people in the floors below (those who survived) hesitated for an average of six minutes before heading for an exit stairwell. One person reported waiting forty-nine minutes before deciding they needed to leave! The first chapter of this book deals with one survivor’s recollection – or lack thereof – of her experience on 9/11. The first impact rocked the building and she says she remembers the sound when it hit eleven floors above her. Her recollection of the events takes her through the stages of disbelief, frantic deliberation, and finally action, but throughout there is a thick fog of denial, along every step of the way.
She reported that when the first plane hit, instead of running for the door, she wanted nothing more than to stay. The theory is that people want so badly to believe that everything is going to be ok, that they simply stay put. Apparently this is especially common in structure fires – we assume everything is going to be okay because it always has been before. This “normalcy bias” occurs because the brain works by identifying patters, and we understand the present and anticipate the future according to past experience. It’s also mentioned that if everything turns out to be okay then we save ourselves the social embarrassment of overreacting as well.
It’s a herd mentality, and after delaying awhile, another painfully long stage of deliberation sets in where people feel the need to check in with each other and see how others are feeling about the situation. Lucky for this woman, a person in her office quickly began to scream at everyone to leave immediately. She still delayed a bit longer, looking for items to take with her. She was circling in her cubicle and said “it was like I was in a trance.” She chose to bring a mystery novel she had been reading.
Once decending down the stairwell, disbelief and deliberation continued to rack her brain. She said she never felt she was in a hurry. She said “it’s weird because the sound, the way the building shook, should have kept me going fast. But is was almost as if I put the sound away in my mind.” Apparently everyone in the stairwell was very, very calm and moving in an orderly fashion. “Crowds generally become very quiet and docile in a true disaster,” Ripley, the book’s author states.
During her descent she began to make up stories to explain the events, first that a pilot must have had a heart attack or stroke, then after being told that a second plane had hit, that two stupid pilots must have been racing. She could not wrap her head around the magnitude of the situation. Her brain was searching its database for a reasonable explanation. Even when a man told that the hits had been intentional during their descent, she simply ignored this new information and put it out of her mind as if he had never said it. More denial.
When the second plane hit, she says she did not even hear the sound. Her senses were switched on and off at certain key points as happens with many people in traumatizing situations. She recalls someone screaming to get away from the windows and running for the center of the building. She was then overcome by intense anger at herself for being in this situation again (she had been in one of the twin towers during a potentially fatal incident in 1993 as well) and she had a moment of clarity and panic saying to herself, “I’m on the forty-fourth floor of a building. Where am I going? I’m still way up high. I can’t go anywhere!”
Then just as quickly everyone stopped running and continued back down the stairwell again in an orderly fashion like mute robots as if nothing had happened. When asked to describe the sound of the second collision she says “ As far as I’m concerned, I’m telling you, it was as if it didn’t happen. It’s not even that I forgot it. It’s just that it was as if it never happened. Never.” Classic dissociation normally used to describe the experiences of children suffering from physical or sexual abuse. Dissociation, the book states, is an “extreme form of denial,” and as the 9/11 survivor put it, “I could not afford to dwell on it. My job was to just take it one step at a time.”
She further explained, “When you’re in trauma, the mind says, this is a very local problem. This is your little world and everything outside is fine. It can’t afford to say that everything outside is horrible. The sound that I heard on the seventy-third floor should have told me, this is bad. The feeling of the building shaking should have told me, this is bad. The explosion when I was on the fourty-fourth floor: bad. The smell of debris is the lower stairways: bad. Yet in every single moment, I made it my little world here. And nothing else exists.”
When she finally made it to the main floor to exit the building, there were dead bodies all around, this is how her brain processed it: “I’m slowing down because I’m starting to realize that I’m not just looking at debris. My mind says ‘It’s the wrong color.’ That was the first thing. Then I start saying, ‘ It’s the wrong shape.’ Over and over in my mind: ‘It’s the wrong shape.’ It was like I was trying to keep the information out. My eyes were not allowing me to understand. It couldn’t afford it. So I was like, ‘No it can’t be.” Then when I finally realized what it meant to see the wrong color, the wrong shape, that’s when I realized, I’m seeing bodies. That’s when I froze.”
Freezing is apparently also a common response during disasters, but luckily for this women a stranger linked arms with her and said “We’re getting out of here.” She remembers the woman’s dark skin tone, her red sleeve, but then simply stopped seeing altogether. “There was no smoke there. I didn’t see anything at all.” She was not even frightened by this temporary blindness since she was no numb at that point. She was now relying on hearing, but although these two women talked and talked as they walked away, she can’t remember a word she said except when they finally got outside she heard her say, “Look, we made it.” She remembers replying, “Yeah, we’re outside.” But she could still not see anything, and she never even saw the woman in red’s face.
This story really hit home for me. It is a testament to the lengths our brains will go to to protect us from sensory input when a trauma is occurring. Only that which helps us get out alive appears to be consciously processed. It seemed very strange to me at first that something so awful happen to me and that I could completely block it out of my conscious memory. In terms of survival, it doesn’t seem strange at all. It was my own mind protecting me and giving me a chance to overcome my circumstances.
~ “There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.” – Laurell K. Hamilton, Mistral’s Kiss
I often use the metaphor that my life used to be like a building that was beautiful on the outside, but dark and decrepit and languishing on the inside. Nothing gets spared when you experience sexual abuse as a child or experience being raped. It makes a complete mess of everything and you don’t even know it until you know it.
I was afraid to live because I thought I was a bad person. I was a bad person because of all the things I’d do to cope with feeling bad. I was even bad for wanting love, because bad girls don’t deserve love. People only want them for sex. And women who are good for sex are whores. And whores are bad too. But I was only good at being bad.
I wasn’t brave. I was busy running away from the problems and pain but one day all my demons caught up to me, and it was going to be them or me. I was so sick and tired of being unhappy in this beautiful but languishing building that I finally wanted to see what was hidden inside, so I lit a match to see the horrors for myself. And there they were hiding in the shadows, all of my demons. Everything in my life finally began to make sense, and I could see I wasn’t bad after all, it was the demons, and the demons had to go.
But how does one kill a demon? I tried to chase them out many times before but it was ayahuasca that taught me the only way to kill a demon is with fire. They must be charred into ash and returned to source, and this is how I accidently burned the whole building to the ground.
I watched piece by piece as my life burned up, every piece of what I thought of as “me,” drenched in flame and reduced to ash, crumbled and disappeared, and I saw that the demons I tried to set fire to were just shadows cast by my own structure. I saw that the only thing to fear was myself, and the fire’s transformative alchemy spared me no dust-covered illusions from my attic. It left me naked and nameless and powerful.
Every relationship I had changed, because I had changed, and there was nothing I could do as I watched the old relationships burn, for they were just reflections of me. I was laid off from a job where I was unhappy, I left my showroom perfect apartment, and I began to operate on an unapologetic level where I could just exist and not have to answer to anyone but myself. When I was all that was left, there was no more fear; there was nothing to lose anymore, and that is what set me free. That is what showed me who I am really am and what I’m really made of.
~ “Expose yourself to your deepest fear; after that, fear has no power, and the fear of freedom shrinks and vanishes. You are free.” – Jim Morrison
This has been a difficult post for me to write. I intended to have it written a couple days ago, but I find myself in repeated resistance. Every time I write a few lines, I invariably find a distraction. This is a subject of immense interest to me in my quest to understand why I was sexually abused by my father, but for the same reason I find it a bit hard to stomach. I hope this is helpful for others on the same quest or for those who are simply trying to understand the question of “Why?”
This post is meant to clarify the reasons why men sexually abuse children. It is a continuation of Part I which discusses drug-assisted rape. The title, “Why Men Rape,” is appropriate when discussing child sexual abuse because rape was part of my experience of being sexually abused as a child, and also because I find it hard to call the involvement of a child in adult sexual activity anything but nonconsensual. The short answer to “why” is… because offenders made the choice to offend, albeit with a compelling feeling to do so. I wish to explore the common pattern for how men come to make that choice.
My main source of information has been a book by Douglas W. Pryor, titled Unspeakable Acts: Why Men Sexually Abuse Children. Pryor conducted a pioneering study of thirty convicted sex offenders, and gathered data on the thoughts, experiences, and behaviours of these men. It is the first in-depth, qualitative, and narrative-based study of its kind.
As was already established in my post on rape culture, the characteristics of the average child molester are virtually indistinguishable from those of the average man. The way they walk, the way they talk, they way they seduce, the way they objectify and sexualize others. However, one factor appears to influence which men choose to sexually abuse children – and that is experiencing sexual abuse in their own childhood but not understanding it as such.
This can mean having fond memories of being sexually abused, and framing that abuse as affectionate and/or erotic rather than traumatic. Offenders who did experience the sexual abuse of their childhood as “unsettling and confusing,” were typically blamed by parents or other nonoffending adults and made to feel responsible for the abuse, or they were simply ignored and given the impression that it wasn’t that big a deal. In any case, the perpetrator was not understood to be an abuser per se, and the victim was given no feedback to suggest that there was anything wrong with what the perpetrator was doing to them, and that is was their fault it was happening.
The larger cultural context of silence and secrecy around taboo subjects like incest and sexual abuse also do nothing to curb the young victim’s blurred sense of acceptable boundaries, sexual respect, and personal physical space with others.
So with their own abuse framed as not having been abuse, these men went forth into the world, and often when they were around children who were the same age as they were when they were abused, they experienced some unexpected sexual feelings arising in them. This was generally precipitated by a cluster of negative life experiences, which occurred in mostly random combinations, although there were only six general themes that those interviewed experienced: feeling trapped, sexual problems and boredom, loss of male authority, engulfment in masturbation and porn, major emotional shocks, and feelings of sexual inadequacy.
The men chose to cope with these challenges by feeling unhappy and disconnecting emotionally, and yet they still strongly desired an outer change in their circumstances. It is my observation that these men feel powerless in their lives and have no sense of being able to change their circumstances, or failing that, to change their own state of being in order to experience their circumstances differently. Many appeared to feel as if they had no choice in the matter of offending and felt that their urges were simply “uncontrollable,” and thus found ways to justify their actions so that they could live with themselves.
The moment of shifting in adulthood from being a nonoffender to an offender was clearly demarcated in the memory of nearly all thirty of the convicted sex offenders. They could pinpoint the specific moment and circumstances in which they made their “shift.” The fact that this is remembered so clearly indeed shows that the men were aware that they were making a choice which would take them across a moral boundary, but they could not deny the strong sexual feelings that arose in them, often for a specific child victim.
And this is the critical point of no return: the transition into offending is completed precisely because these men are able to reframe their sexual feelings for a child as acceptable in order to justify their actions, no doubt a remnant from their warped understanding of their own sexual abuse history. As Pryor notes, “without this interpretive bridge, the crimes reported by the men here would not have occurred.”
After making the shift and choosing to offend, multiple methods of approaching and engaging their victim were tested and locked into if compliance resulted. During their career as an offender, the men often felt guilty about their behaviour, but numbed it with busyness, alcohol, TV, etc., and some even projected their guilt onto the victim, lecturing them about their immorality. In every case they found a way to justify their behaviour, often putting the responsibility on the victim to stop the abuse.
It’s like their whole childhood repeating itself! And situations that bring up their pain will persist until these men heal from the abuse inflicted on them in their own childhood. I view their poignant moment of crossing the moral boundary into being an offender as their psyche trying to show them they have a wound to heal. The issues they have from their own childhood abuse are still with them and are literally reflected perfectly in their own reactions to life’s circumstances. Some men even chose child victims who had specific features that reminded them of their own abusers, such as hair colour. It’s really all just a convoluted effort to heal something.
These men put responsibility on the victim to stop the abuse since they were made to feel responsible for their own abuse. Their feelings of powerlessness, perhaps from not being able to control the abuse in their childhoods, led them to feel unable to change their circumstances, to feel like a passive victim of circumstances. This is really important to get. We all have the power to change our state of being if we don’t like the circumstances we’re in, and thus change the way we feel about the circumstances. Sometimes we can simply just change the circumstances, but not always. Still we’re all ultimately capable and powerful. The only thing standing in the way is negative beliefs. These child molesters had no life experiences to illustrate that they had this power, nothing to show them that they could choose to change their belief that they are a passive victim.
Silence and secrecy are what keeps this twisted little circus rolling, and branding offenders as monsters doesn’t help. The depths of my own anger surrounding this issue make it difficult to say what I’m about to say, but it is indeed the true that these men deserve some compassion from society. It is not to excuse, but simply to understand. In fact, it is in the best interest of child victims that we feel some compassion since the ugly stigmatization with which child molesters are branded can leave an offender feeling even more trapped and unable to reach out for help, which only exacerbates the issue and leads to more offences. This Louis C.K. stand up bit has been called a tasteless joke, but he is indeed on to something with his idea that we take it down a notch when it comes to “kid having sex people” because at least then “you get the kid back.”
~ “Every situation properly perceived, becomes an opportunity to heal.” – A Course In Miracles
I’ve been wanting to start this blog for months, ever since returning from a two-week Ayahuasca retreat in Peru in March of this year, but it’s fair to say I’ve spent the last six months recovering from the inner demons I faced there and the aftermath involved. The healing I experienced was so fast and beyond the scope of my expectations that my whole world burned to the ground upon my return home. My life was the same and yet I was a different person. Upon returning home, in the same week I both confronted my father about sexually abusing me as a child, and then was laid off from a job I was struggling to find peace with. Then one by one, I told the three other members of my immediate family about the sexual abuse memories I recovered in Peru. Some believed me, some didn’t. They were still living in a world that no longer existed for me, and the siren song of denial has been trying to call me back to it, back to the cozy lie where I belong to a family that unconditionally loves me. That is a hard thing to let go of, and is the reason I have kept these abuse memories shelved in the darkest recesses of my mind – until now.
What also caused me to hold back from writing about my experience was the worry of what others would think of my unconventional approach to healing symptoms of so-called post-traumatic stress disorder (brought on by a more recent rape experience) by visiting a shaman in the Amazon to drink a potent visionary substance seven times. I’ve had different responses to this, some telling me it’s irresponsible to not see a therapist, some expressing envy of my deep healing experience, some even expressing concern that I was taking “drugs” to overcome a problem, the irony of which I hope is not lost on you. All I can say is that NOTHING I have ever done in my life to try to overcome a problem (and I’ve had several, from addictions, to eating disorders, to depression, anxiety, and more) had the strong impact and gentle support that ayahuasca gave me. I’ve tried individual therapy, group therapy, self-help books and seminars, SSRIs, self-medicating with pot, cleanses, supplements, juice fasting, and a raw vegan diet. All of these things helped me in some way (except the SSRIs which just made me want to hurt myself, and which I stopped taking immediately after finding out that this is a common experience in young people who take SSRIs) but NONE can even compare to ayahuasca.
This blog is named in honour of my deepest lesson learned while confronting my demons with ayahuasca: The body’s intelligence is perfect and divine. I learned how it has been speaking to me in code in order to help me confront my past, my fears, myself, and overcome that which ails me. It’s always been speaking to me but I have not known how to listen. I cried when I learned that my sudden “allergy” to whiskey was my body trying to tell me I had been drugged and raped the last time I drank it. The reaction of red, bleeding knuckles (literally from not being able to fight back) ceased to happen after I finally listened to what my body was trying to say. Strange? I would have thought so before.
~ “Nature does nothing without purpose.” – Aristotle