Everyone knows there are things you do not say when people tell you they were sexually molested as children — things like:
Well, what were you wearing?
That explains a lot.
But there are others, too.
Twice in my life I brought up to my father that I’d been sexually molested as a child. The first time I told him I was in my twenties. I didn’t tell him the secret when I was a child; my big secret would have made the sky come falling down on this Chicken Little. I’d been wanting to talk to him about it for a while. I didn’t want to go into lots of details, to blame anyone, or complain. I just wanted my daddy to hug me. Maybe say he loved me, something like that. I don’t remember what led up to my telling him – I think the subject being repeated sexually molested came up because of a story that has been in the news at the time. I screwed up my courage and tried making my confession as causal and non-dramatic as I could. I remember we were in my studio apartment on Amsterdam Avenue. I remember what I was wearing. (He’d asked me to change earlier that day.) What I don’t remember is what he said. I do remember that the subject was changed quickly. I am positive there was no hug.
- If your son or daughter tells you about having been sexually molested, make your response something they’ll be able to remember.
Several decades go by. I mention it to my father a second time. I was on the phone with my dad. I was telling him about a medical problem and he made a suggestion. I told him I couldn’t do what he suggested because of my lingering problems (physical and mental) having to do with ‘down there’. The conversation went something like this:
“What are you talking about?” he asked, annoyed.
“You know…that thing I told you.”
“I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about.”
“…You know, because of, you know, the sexual abuse thing.”
I know what he said next. I can point to the exact spot where I was standing. My father said:
“Are you still harping on that?”
I used to think when people said, “It was like being kicked in the stomach” that it was a sort of dramatic figure of speech. But it is like that. I almost slid to the floor. Luckily, I’ve never actually been kicked or punched in my stomach. Still I’m 100% sure an actual fist or foot could not have hurt worse.
My dad died about 2 months after that phone call. I loved my father very much, and I was very sad. I still miss my father, and always will. But I confess when he died my grief was not as overwhelming as it might have been; I had already grieved the loss of a daddy that afternoon on the phone.
- If your adult daughter refers to consequences of having been sexually abused, don’t act irritated or complain.
I only brought up the sexual molestation to my mother only once. For years I’d always assumed my mother knew about it. She’d been in the house when it was going on, and there’d been a kind of unspoken knowing that she knew. It’s a kind of child’s understanding that needs no conversation to confirm it. Not the way you intellectually know something in your brain, but the more intractable way you know something in your bones. A kind of knowing that comes from silences, not words. It’s a language of subtle glances and postures maybe only daughters and dogs can read. That kind of heart knowing somehow just feels truer than the other kind. Anyway, I never said a word. After all, I wasn’t sure exactly what there was to say. I didn’t know what had been happening. There were no words for it. I was a little girl long before terms like ‘sexually molested’ and ‘child abuse’ had become part of the cultural lexicon. All I knew was that it was scary, it hurt really bad, and that I was the only one to whom this had ever happened.
Then, when I was about 14 or 15, I saw the TV movie Sybil. There was a scene that implied utensils had been inserted inside little Sybil’s private parts. It seemed to me that something akin to what had happened to me had happened at least once before. (Luckily, I had only one personality. Not the greatest personality, to be sure, but at least less than two – possibly less than one.)
By the time I was in my 30s the idea that all kinds of children got ‘messed with’ was starting to bubble to society’s surface. Alone, I worked on healing my wounds. I took a self-defense class, not so much to defend myself but to exorcise some of my insidious feelings of fragility. Talking about the Krav Maga course with my mom, I talked about my stubborn irrational vulnerabilities and again, tried to causally reference what had happened to me and my genitals as a child. I’m not sure what I expected. I do know what I wanted: I wanted my mom to take me in her arms. I wanted us to cry together. I wanted us to hold hands when we walked down the street.
There was no hug. I don’t remember my mother’s exact words, but I remember she was mad. The gist was that I/me wasn’t the only one these kinds of things happened to, in fact she had been abused by her childhood dentist (apparently he’d been a family friend). It was very easy to irritate my mother, and here I’d gone and done it again. All my mother seemed to hear was that I was ‘complaining’. All I heard was that I was ‘harping’.
- If your daughter or son tells you they were sexually molested as children, don’t get angry and defensive. Don’t make it about you.
My mom and dad are gone now. I loved my parents very much. Maybe I needed them even more. I know I really needed that hug I never got.