My first encounter with a victim of sexual abuse was Sue (not her actual name). I was immediately impressed with her. She always seemed eager to learn, cheerful and friendly—a delight to have around. Everything about her made me think she must have had a healthy 18-year factor. Yet this outgoing university freshman carried a dark secret.
As time passed, Sue could no longer maintain the happy demeanor she wanted others to see. She began to turn to excessive behaviors of exercise, dieting, and sleeping. Battling feelings of depression and despair, she tried desperately to gain control of her life while feeling helplessly out of control. The past slowly began to devour the present.
What could have caused such a sudden and extreme change? There was a story behind her story, and it wasn’t good. At the advice of a caring friend, she nervously called to request a meeting with me. In an act of tremendous courage, Sue allowed me to be the first person to hear the dark secret she had been carrying. During one dreadful visit to her grandparents’ home when Sue was only twelve years old, her grandfather entered her room and sexually molested her.
Suffering silently, Sue tried to hide and suppress this unimaginable betrayal of trust and violation of her life. She finally reached a breaking point and could no longer sustain the self that she wanted to be. The past devoured the present, and her life began to fall apart.
Just get over it?
Imagine what it does to a little girl’s sense of identity and security when her grandfather sexually violates her. How would Sue feel if someone told her to “just get over it” or “forgive him and move on”? How is she supposed to do this? Careless advice like this is both unrealistic and hurtful to the victims of deep betrayal and abuse. Naive counsel only makes victims feel more like a failure.
Without loving intervention from a caring friend and guidance from a counselor, Sue would continue her struggle with crippling and destructive emotions that would lead to a broken trail of damaged relationships.
Gaining freedom to move forward into a healthier future always requires confrontation of the perpetrator. If this cannot happen face to face or if it’s unwise to confront the abuser in person, a letter or a form of role-playing are both adequate means of confrontation.
Confronting a perpetrator gives a victim the opportunity to regain a sense of control. It provides an outlet for verbally articulating raw emotions and pain in a way that places responsibility on the perpetrator. Though we cannot go back and change what happened, we can change ourselves. Likewise, the only thing we can change about the past is how we allow it to affect us in our future.
Sue did write a letter to her grandfather. He was on his deathbed at the time (which was shockingly used by a relative to inflict a sense of guilt on her). Her grandfather did write back, and his letter…
(for the rest of her story and more insights related to sexual abuse, see chapter 6 of my book, “The 18-Year Factor: How our upringing affects our lives and relationships”)
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