My first reaction upon seeing the recent #MeToo campaign was to join the chorus because I am also a survivor of sexual abuse. Speaking out has been helpful to my recovery. By being outspoken I want to let other sexual abuse survivors know they are not alone and maybe even to encourage some of them to break their silence. After a few minutes reflection, though, I recognized that the current campaign was about and for women and so I remained silent. Sometimes, listening is more important than speaking.
However, now that some time has passed I have decided it is appropriate for me to say #MeToo if only to shed light on some of the reasons a woman might wait years to come forward about her abuse. My #MeToo focus here isn’t the specifics of my abuse but the fact that I waited 30 years before I told anyone what was done to me. After breaking that 30 year silence it then took me another 10 years to be able to tell the whole story. Sadly, the fact that it took me 40 years to be able to talk about my abuse is not uncommon. Many people take their story silently to the grave.
I was molested inside and outside of my family at a young age and there are two different dynamics — not unrelated — that prevented me from saying anything. Young children learn primarily by observation, mimicry and reinforcement. Such learning begins when we are pre-verbal infants and continues until whatever age we discover that we are individuals, apart from our families.
Both of my parents were abused as children and both of them were abusive to me and my siblings. This is how the legacy of abuse is perpetuated. I learned from the onset of my life that 1) violence was normal and 2) sexuality was dirty and, more importantly, secret. This latter factor explains why, later in life, I would experience bouts of paranoia. What is paranoia, after all, except the belief that there is a hidden and sinister reality that exists beneath the veneer of “normal” social interaction? Every child in my family grew up knowing that there were some things that just. were. not. talked. about.
When I was nine or ten I had the added misfortune of being the victim of a violent sexual assault by one of the older boys in our neighborhood. In this instance my silence was reinforced with a knife at my throat and the threat of death. But even without the explicit threat I didn’t have the faculty to be able to tell anyone what happened. Violence in and of itself wasn’t a remarkable occurrence. I didn’t see either of my parents as a protector. And anything of a sexual nature was just. not. talked. about.
The important thing about all this is that I never sat down and made a conscious decision not to tell anyone what was done to me, within or without my home. I just took it for granted that silence was the only option. In fact, it wasn’t really even an option — it was just the way of the world as I knew it. Living my life in silence wasn’t a choice. It was the only way I knew how to live.
I’m not saying that my experience is the same as most of the women who are now coming forward with stories of their harassment, abuse and rape at the hands of powerful adult men. But the dynamic of surviving is similar at whatever age the abuse occurs and however traumatic it is. The instinct for self-preservation is strong — stronger than most social contracts.
Think about it this way: what do you suppose is the most important thing a person can hope for while in the midst of an assault? That it be over. Then, when it is finally over — providing you’re still alive — what’s the next thing to hope for? That it never happened. Living with this kind of denial isn’t like living a lie. It’s just plain survival. We absolutely cannot fault any human being for being unable to over-ride that instinct until a time that is convenient for their abusers or anyone else.