I’ve been working on an article about caring for the bad dad, the man who molested my sister and tore my family apart, and what it has been to sift through the wake of my father’s life in photos, scrapbooks, and letters. After he suffered a stroke early in 2013, he couldn’t care for himself and I did something I thought I’d never do — I brought him home to live with me.
I’ve been slow with my writing, but this morning a friend posted an article to Facebook by Lisa Bloom, titled “Six Reasons Why Dylan Farrow is Highly Credible,” about Farrow’s account of her abuse by Woody Allen. Bloom wrote:
“Child molestation is inherently irrational, compulsive behavior. Little girls are commonly molested when family lurks in the next room. Little boys are victimized in homes, hotels, out-of-doors, anywhere and everywhere. The digital sexual assault Dylan alleged can happen in seconds and leave no trace.”
I stared but couldn’t click on the post. Heavy, burning waves hissed up from my gut where they hadn’t been just moments before. I thought I might throw up and then I recognized the feeling as terror. For a fleeting moment I contemplated shoving the feelings aside and ignoring them. This time felt different and I rushed to my computer, adjusted the screen so I couldn’t be distracted by the words, and pounded out my thoughts about telling secrets, supporting humans, and defending actions.
I’ve spent years, waiting for the just-right moment to speak publicly. As a survivor of incest, I’ve wanted a new way of processing the aftermath and a new conversation rather than the old worn-out I’m so sorry for you, you poor dear. I’ve rationalized that I was protecting my sister. I’ve told myself it wasn’t my story to tell which was a lie. I became an expert at dissociating when I was 11 or 12 because there was no other way to survive sharing a room and a bed with my sister. At some point, my father called me into the hallway. We faced one another and I said no. I trembled, and repeated, no. My mother’s voice called from the bedroom asking what was going on. I didn’t answer, instead I rushed back to my completely unsafe bed and shook until I fell asleep.
Lisa Bloom is right. Child molestation isn’t rational. My father wasn’t rational in those years. What is also not rational is that anyone needs to justify a disclosure of child abuse. Sadly, in our haste to find retribution, and in our shaming, blaming, judging, and punishing, the victim and offender are both vilified and neither adequately reintegrated or healed.
We have it all wrong. Shunning the offenders is not working. Locking them up is not working. Settling in court for massive sums of money is not working. Ruining the life of the offenders in the name of justice is not working. Leaving victims to pick up the pieces of their life alone is not working. The sexual abuse of our boys and girls is still going on, generation after generation.
What I’m suggesting is that we have the what-should-we-do all wrong.
I wonder if we could agree, the first goal is to stop the molestation and abuse of children. I used to think it was as simple as finding evidence, separating kids from their parents or abuser, and locking them up. Case closed. But when I was a speech pathologist in a large trauma hospital where I worked with babies and young children who’d been hit or shaken by adults, enough to cause brain damage, I saw a different side of the story. In many situations, removing the child from the parents caused further trauma. That’s when I realized it’s not so simple.
Second, and I don’t expect agreement but I believe this is crucial, we need to stop pursuing vengeance. We must lay down the judgment and shame game.
For there to be any systemic, generational healing, we need to bring secrets out in the open. We need to stop banishing people, offenders or victims. We need to slow down enough to let the healing process take place. We need to support the healing process and let it be a normal part of life. There is clearly no evidence blaming, shaming, and shunning have anything to do with finding our way out of this crisis and the crisis our children are facing today.
Who am I to have the audacity to say we need change? I am a survivor, a sister, a daughter, an aunt, and the caregiver of my father. Yes, I am caring for the same father who molested my sister and tried to molest me. But, let’s be clear, the fact I’m caring for my father does not excuse his behavior. Nor is it my place to absolve him of responsibility for those he has hurt. What is true is that, together, he and I worked on our relationship and I no longer need his penance. Knowing he wakes up every single morning with the shame of destroying his family has taken away any taste I had for restitution.
Recently, I was sorting my father’s belongings and came upon a picture of him at two years of age, about the time he began bed-wetting. The family lived in eastern Oregon with no indoor plumbing. With no way to clean him up and no clean sheets to remake the bed, his young mother, in desperation, began to punish him. She brought a bucket to the side of the bed and screamed at him to piss into it.
I remembered that when my father was nearing 75, he insisted he tell me about his recent nightmare. He’d been dreaming of a time when he was seven or so, and he’d awakened to find the bed soiled with feces. He remembered the terror he felt when he awoke and he needed to make sure someone else heard the story.
When my brother and I cleaned out our father’s house to move him nearer to us so we could take care of him, we came across a small trunk pushed back on a shelf in dark recesses of the shed. We opened it and found a bear rug we had played on as kids.
I carried the bear rug to my father, thinking he would be glad. He became white-faced and speechless. Where did that come from? You had it in your shed, Dad. I thought that was long gone!!! No, it’s there, you saved it for some reason. Get rid of it, I don’t want to see it again! Tears streamed down his face as he told me about deer hunting with his father when he was nine. They came upon a black bear and her cub in a tree and his father shot the mother. She fell out of the tree and ran away. Then he turned to my father and insisted he shoot the cub. He yelled and belittled and ridiculed until my father pulled the trigger.
Listening to his story, finding the photographs, reading old letters, has confirmed everything I’ve found as I’ve progressed through my own healing. What if, instead of three or four decades to process an abuse, it only took one or two? What if, instead of the 70 years my father has needed, we could grow healthy processes to educate, support, and repair a person’s self-worth? How do we know we can’t? Have we tried?
Instead of hating (which I think of as genocide of the spirit) or locking people up, we could gather policy makers and mental health workers, legislators, and others who could insist insurance companies reimburse for family therapy as well as individual therapy. Mental health workers would create enough momentum that group work would become the new normal. Right now, the crowd inertia is to sit back in the arm chair and throw insults at the TV. Perhaps it is possible to steer that inertia toward action for the betterment of our communities.
I’ve held my tongue all these years, the same way most people who’ve survived a family marred by incest remains silent. Maybe, I was hanging on and hoping it would all smooth over, as if a bad dream. Or, that someday we could reconnect as a family. Most importantly, for the longest time, I thought it was someone else’s story. It isn’t. It happened to me. And, just as important, I’m now in my 50s. I’m tired of dragging this silence around with me like it happened yesterday. I’m so burdened, it burned it’s way out of me in no uncertain terms when I read the Facebook post.
Lisa Bloom is right, child molestation isn’t rational. People who feel worthy, valued, and whole don’t molest children.
We know where to begin to heal our families and our country. We know what to do. And yet, we’re not doing it. We’re giving in to fear and looking for a quick fix.
When we reject and shun the offender, often a person who’s been integral to a family or church or community, we are behaving like my grandmother who held the bucket and screamed for her son to piss in the pot or like my grandfather who belittled his son until he shot the bear. We are using a remedy that will never solve our problem and will only make it worse.
Kim Cottrell is a Feldenkrais® practitioner, educator, and former speech pathologist, living in Portland, Oregon. Kim blogs at ahealthystepmother.com and contributes regularly to Walk About Magazine. She has run from just as many traumas as she has faced but one day she was inspired to lay down her anger and rage and forgive her father.