By Octavia S. Atwell
I am one of three women out of the 10 you’ll run into today who was sexually molested as a child. It was someone I knew, as is usually the case. It was someone who was supposed to be my provider and protector in a position of authority over me. It was someone who was supposed to teach me right from wrong, about respecting elders, and authority figures. It was someone who was supposed to have my best interests at heart as a vulnerable dependent: My father.
The internet didn’t exist in my childhood world of the 1960s and 1970s, so I didn’t have ready information or places to go for help. Molestation within families wasn’t talked about. The website “Parents for Megan’s Law” contains pertinent statistics that would have helped me then. (https://www.parentsformeganslaw.org/public/statistics_childSexualAbuse.html.)
Apparently, one in three girls and one in six boys is sexually abused before the age of 18. If this site had existed when I was a teenager, I would have seen that my situation was fitting right in with the average. Some additional statistics from the website include:
-The average age for first abuse is 9.9 years for boys and 9.6 years for girls.
-Abuse typically occurs within a long-term, on-going relationship between the offender and victim, escalates over time and lasts an average of four years.
-Many child sexual abuse victims never disclose their abuse to anyone. Less than 12% of child sexual abuse is reported to the police.
-Children are most vulnerable between ages 7-13.
What does sexual abuse of children have to do with misogyny? From my experience, it is one element helping lead men to decide to abuse females of all ages – a hatred or mistrust of women (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/misogyny). Misogyny seems to be laced with patriarchy and a feeling of being better than women and therefore entitled to do what the entitled one wants with them. Misogyny and sexual abuse are not partisan issues; these conditions affect everyone, of all persuasions.
Even so, misogyny became a 2016 campaign issue when a 2005 Access Hollywood tape was discovered of candidate Donald J. Trump making comments about his belittling treatment and sexual assaults of women (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/08/us/donald-trump-tape-transcript.html?_r=0). For me, this obvious misogyny was a deal-breaker. It opened an old wound that had been sufficiently held together with scar tissue. So many men and women said it didn’t matter to them; it was just “locker room talk.” In other words, it was normal and expected. This was a painful reminder that the childhood nightmare that I lived through still exists in the country that is my larger family.
A U.S. president is a parental figure for all of us. It was disheartening that men jumped quickly to defend his behavior and minimize it. Women, too, thought nothing of it, and continued to support Mr. Trump’s candidacy. Even Mr. Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, issued a one sentence statement to a magazine, which told us, basically, to move on and forget her father’s tendencies in this area, a way of saying, “That’s just Dad.”
“My father’s comments were clearly inappropriate and offensive,” read her statement to Fast Company, “and I’m glad that he acknowledged this fact with an immediate apology to my family and the American people.” https://www.fastcompany.com/3064736/election-2016/ivanka-breaks-her-silence-on-the-trump-tape
A half-hearted apology from Mr. Trump and all is forgiven and forgotten. My theory is that so many have weighed the costs and benefits of living in a misogynistic system and have decided that they are fine with the trade-offs. We all get more benefit from ignoring this, these accepters think. Ivanka and other men and women can live with it, but I can’t live with it. I paid my dues in this system and rejected it and fought against it in my juvenile way. I try now to live my life outside the system, although it isn’t always possible. Now that my new president is a symbol of the system, I am stuck in it for now as an American citizen with continuous painful reminders. Each time I hear an ardent Trump supporter make an ungracious comment about winning the election, it stabs at my old wounds. My old defense mechanisms also awaken.
I was a shy, unassuming 11-year-old, little Tavi. My father, also a victim of sexual abuse from his step-father, and who also witnessed his step-father abuse his sisters and mother, was the typical male abuse victim who was “paying forward” the abuse. I suppose I should be grateful that it wasn’t worse, that it was only fondling, inappropriate touching, sexual comments, lewd jokes, the “up-and-down” looks, and the anger and retaliation from him when I started rejecting this treatment as I realized it was wrong.
I was sheltered and had no training in the late 1960s and 1970s about what was happening. I didn’t have the words to tell anyone about it. I tried to tell my mother that “Dad was bothering me,” but she either didn’t get it, or chose not to get it. I realized as an intuitive introverted child that I was on my own with this one. I’d need to get myself out of it. I realized that if I made a huge and noisy case out of it that there was a good chance I would be rejected as the “problem” and that the whole family system would crash, taking me as a dependent with it. My mother, little brother, and I would all have our lifeline family unit destroyed. There was a brief threat of making an appointment for me to see a psychologist when I was about 14 to find out what was wrong with me. I didn’t want to be a blamed victim, so I tried to deal with it myself through my pre-teen and teen-aged years.
I practiced avoidance and fighting back the only way I could. I tried never to be alone with my father. I angrily said “stop it.” I grew to loathe him. In the car when I wasn’t paying attention, he might look appreciatively at my legs sitting there wearing shorts, and then reach over and touch my thigh. I had to be constantly on guard.
He would sneak up behind me and kiss the bald spot on my head, or touch the side of my breast. I would jump and recoil in disgust. I sensed that he had some sort of entitlement complex that I didn’t understand then, but what I recognize now as a blend of misogyny and patriarchy. His behavior said to me: “You’re my female. My daughter. I own you. I can do what I want with you.” I saw it as something about him being a man and me a female and the weaker gender. He got angry when I recoiled and avoided his touch and scowled at him. His anger turned to rage frequently.
I became a master of the poker face and of controlling my emotions and becoming numb. I remember snippets of traumatic events that I preferred to block out. I remember him pulling my hair and throwing me to the carpet. I remember red handprints on my arms or legs from being smacked. I remember him jerking my suitcase out of my hand upon my return from freshman year at college and throwing it down the stairs.
I got to be very “jumpy” when anyone touched me and avoided even normal touching from anyone. I lost trust in any typical human contact, such as hugs or a pat on the back. I also was alert for what seemed like any father figure being too “touchy” with any other children. I would try to subtly intervene. I thought I was alone in what was happening to me. I couldn’t wait to get away to college after high school graduation. I never wanted to return home. I wanted to put it behind me, but the effects were there.
While at college, I sought out a book on child sexual abuse. It was a paperback. I can’t find the book now. It must be packed away in a box in the basement. I believe it was called “Suffering in Silence,” but I’m not sure. I did a quick search on line for books published in the 1970s and 1980s, but I didn’t find it. The book was instrumental in opening my eyes to the fact that I was not the only one who had gone through the misery of growing up with a sexually abusive father.
I did find another more recent book with the title “Suffering in Silence: The Legacy of Unresolved Sexual Abuse, published on January 11, 2005 and written by Ghislain Devroede (Author), Anne Ancelin Schutzenberger (Author), with a foreword written by Anne Teachworth. A synopsis for the book describes what got passed down to me (https://www.amazon.com/Suffering-Silence-Legacy-Unresolved-sexual/dp/188996851X/ref=sr_1_16?ie=UTF8&qid=1484654364&sr=8-16&keywords=suffering+in+silence):
Unwittingly and unwillingly, our parents and grandparents and ancestors often leave us the legacy of their unfinished mourning, their “undigested” traumas, and the hidden shame of their secret family history. Sexual abuse and other traumas experienced in the family’s past create insurmountable or unresolved emotional wounds that leave their mark on future generations. If these emotions are not expressed consciously, they get repressed. The pain then persists unexpressed in the unconscious and is handed down to the children in the next generation.”
Fortunately, I confronted what happened to me and sought a professional to talk it through while in my late 20s. I found an undated essay on January 17th, 2017 by Registered Clinical Counselor and author Sabrina Trobak, which fairly accurately describes my situation as a child.
“The father has maladaptive ways of coping with stress and his boundaries are blurred,” wrote Trobak on the website Theravive.com. The website was started in 2006 as a platform for “a network of independent counselors and clinics throughout North America who provide compassionate and competent therapy to people everywhere,” reads the website’s “about us” caption. “We have proudly connected more than a half million people to caring and experienced therapists.” (http://www.theravive.com/research/Families-of-Sexual-Abuse:-The-Roles-Each-Member-Plays)
I was able to forgive my father, but I will never forget, and I will never again remain silent should I find myself in a similar “no-win” situation under the power of an abuser. Knowing the past words and deeds of our new President, who takes office in three days, this is why I have written this entry. I appreciate that Frances Davis and the Echoinghigher.com team enabled me to publish my thoughts.
Civil rights activist and leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., received the Nobel Peace prize in 1964, and just four years later was assassinated. http://www.history.com/topics/black-history//martin-luther-king-jr
Nearly 50 years later, we honor his memory and accomplishments on a federal holiday set aside on which to reflect. We have much work still to be done to fully realize Dr. King’s dream.