“Facing the Truth”

excerpted from
The Right to Innocence: Healing the Trauma
of Childhood Sexual Abuse
Beverly Engel, M.F.C.C.

The truth about your own sexual abuse has probably been obscured for years by layers of denial and deceit. Now you must begin to peel away those painful layers. Protecting yourself and others from the truth will only impede your progress. While in the past you avoided the pain by blocking out the sexual abuse altogether, you now must face the abuse bit by bit, layer by layer, until the truth is told.

The perpetual lies and deceptions have kept you confused, distorting your reality and causing you to blame and doubt yourself. Facing the truth will enable you to regain your sense of innocence and place the blame where it belongs. The truth may hurt, but it cannot harm you. Knowing the truth is vitally important to reversing the damage you have experienced.

You know the pain of living with lies. Now, in order to free yourself from the pain and scars of the abuse, it is important to recall forgotten memories, to stop denying and minimizing the abuse, and to stop defending your family and the abuser. Stop lying to others, and stop lying to yourself. You will face many truths in the recovery process: truths about what really happened, truths about your parents and the rest of your childhood family, truths about the abuser, and finally truths about yourself. Your family will not appreciate your inquiries about the abuse. They may even try to discourage you. But in choosing to continue to face the real truth about your sexual abuse, you are consciously choosing to become a survivor rather than remain a victim. The truth will not come all at once but will unfold layer by layer. Each time you face one truth about what really happened, another will reveal itself. Face each truth as it surfaces.

Start telling the truth

Start by telling yourself the truth about the sexual abuse you experienced. For a long time you have tried to fool yourself by whitewashing what happened-by telling yourself it wasn’t so bad. Admit to yourself that it was so bad; it was horrible enough to have affected your entire life. Call the trauma by its real name: sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape, incest, or molestation. You weren’t “having an affair,” or “having sex” with the abuser, and he was not “caressing you” or “making love to you.”

Encourage yourself to tell the truth by starting a “truth book.” Write down all the details of the abuse: when it happened, where it happened, who did it, exactly how it was done, how many times it was done, how it felt, how you feel about it now, and how it affects your life. Make a commitment to yourself to write down only the truth-not the way you wish things were, but the way things really were and the way you really feel about it. Getting your story down in black and white is a permanent testament to your pain, betrayal, and eventually to your survival and recovery. If trying to write the truth doesn’t work for you, use a tape recorder.

Eventually, you will tell the truth to your support group, your therapist, or to a trusted friend or family member. Break the silence that has been suffocating you. When the truth remains hidden, it smothers us. You have been living in a world of secrecy, isolated from everyone, even your closest family and friends. The only way to break through the silence, secrecy, and ensuing isolation is to start telling the truth.

Remembering the truth

Why Is It So Important to Remember?

When you were abused, those around you acted as if it weren’t happening. Since no one else acknowledged the abuse, you sometimes felt that it wasn’t real. Because of this you felt confused. You couldn’t trust your own experience and perceptions. Moreover, others’ denial led you to suppress your memories, thus further obscuring the issue.

You can end your own denial by remembering. Allowing yourself to remember is a way of confirming in your own mind that you didn’t just imagine it. Because the person who abused you did not acknowledge your pain, you may have also thought that perhaps it wasn’t as bad as you felt it was. In order to acknowledge to yourself that it really was that bad, you need to remember as much detail as possible. Because by denying what happened to you, you are doing to yourself exactly what others have done to you in the past: You are negating and denying yourself.

As a result of your attempts to block out fear and pain, you have blocked out the good along with the bad. Days, months, or years of your childhood may be erased from your memory. It is as if you did not exist during that time. But you did exist. You went to school, made friends, and played games. Remembering the painful times will help you recapture those forgotten moments and reclaim your childhood.

Ways to remember

You can examine all the memorabilia of your childhood photographs, report cards, artwork, school projects. These items will tell your story, even if you don’t remember. If you are in therapy or in a support group, bring in your memorabilia, especially your photos, so that others can see them. Other victims are the best people to get feedback from, since they can spot childhood sexual abuse faster than anyone else.

You may discover, for instance, a set of photos showing a change in you from an open-faced, smiling child to a sullen or expressionless, withdrawn one. Such a visible change is a clue that you probably suffered some significant psychological trauma. Determining as precisely as possible when the contrasting photos were taken will tell you the time frame in which the abuse began. Photos of homes in which you lived may further jog your memory. Another clue may be found in photographs of you standing or sitting apart from the rest of the family; such photographs frequently show the alienation you experienced in the family. Or, if the abuser was a member or close associate of the family, you may find him positioned close to you in a photograph. Often, snapshots unmask the incestuous relationship rather obviously. One client found the first clue to her long-buried incestuous relationship with her father revealed most blatantly. In a photograph of her father holding her on his knees, her legs are spread wide open and his hand is up her dress. Another survivor can be seen at fourteen in a family photo picturing her father standing next to her with his arm around her. At first glance there is nothing unusual, but closer examination reveals his arm around her shoulder and his hand right on her breast.

Other survivors have found more than clues. They have unearthed startling evidence, sometimes in the form of nude photographs of themselves that the perpetrator had taken. Far from being cute naked-baby-on-the-bearskin-rug photos, these document children posed in sexually provocative positions.

By recognizing these blatant indicators of abuse, which they may have seen before but not identified, most victims are appalled. Others, still in denial, actually have trouble identifying the sexuality that is obvious to others. This is another reason to share your photos with those you trust or with your therapy group. It may take feedback from others for you to clearly see what the photos are depicting.

Clues can be found as well in other childhood memorabilia. Report cards offer a rich source of data. A sudden drop in your grades, for instance, may reflect the devastating impact the abuse had on you and may pinpoint the onset of the abuse.

Additionally, report cards often contain valuable feedback from teachers. Survivors are amazed to read such messages sent home by teachers as: “Mary is not able to concentrate on her schoolwork. She daydreams a lot and pulls at her hair.” One teacher even inquired, “Linda’s schoolwork has dropped off so drastically this semester. Is she having trouble at home?” Of course, sometimes photos and report cards reveal little or nothing, since you may have become a high achiever to compensate for your pain or may have learned very early on to put on a happy face and hide your feelings from the world.

Artwork can also provide clues, since children often express their true feelings in their art. One client brought me several pictures she had painted as a child that clearly revealed that she was being sexually abused. One picture depicted a little girl with a large wound in her torso; another was of a “monster” with a huge penis; a third pictured her house, with her bedroom, dark and foreboding.

Dreams can also be very revealing, exposing memories you have been unwilling or unable to face during waking hours. Judy, for instance, who had known that her brother had sexually abused her, dreamt that her father also molested her. She awoke to a terrible pain in her vagina and a flood of memories. Indeed, she realized, the dream was true.

Keep a writing pad and a pen beside your bed. When you awaken, immediately write down whatever dreams or fragments of dreams you remember. They can be a valuable source of clues. Nightmares should also be recorded, even though they are frightening and debilitating. If you don’t remember all the details, write down how the dream made you feel. This can be important in understanding other dreams, recalling forgotten memories, and accepting more of your own feelings.