Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Should She Tell That Her Father Molested Her?

At our current historico-cultural juncture people are being encouraged to expose sexual predators, to announce in public the terrible abuse they have suffered. Blurt it all out in the service of justice and let the chips fall where they will.

As everyone ought to know, this simple minded approach is short-sighted. It does not address the potential fallout, not just for the victim, but for everyone else involved. For that reason I am very impressed by t therapist Lori Gottlieb's analysis in The Atlantic.

A young woman writes to Gottlieb and explains that, after her parents’ divorce, she was sexually abused by her father for years. Now, in her late 20s, she has broken off all contact with him, but has not explained why she did so. Some family members suspect the reason, but she has never told them what happened.

Calling herself Anonymous, she explains:

I’ve been through enough counseling to feel that I don’t owe anyone an explanation for not wanting a toxic person in my life, and bringing it up now, 10-plus years after the fact, wouldn't change what happened. I’m also not emotionally prepared for the level of uproar it would cause if I started talking about it (my family are fabulous gossips).

Apparently, her counselor did a good job. She understands the different potential ramifications of telling what happened. She knows that the information would not be kept secret, but that everyone would talk about it… thus, allowing them to visualize her in a demeaning light.

But, Anonymous continues, many family members are still on good terms with her father… and this hurts her.

On the other hand, I wonder if I should come forward. Many of my mother's family still have a friendly (if not especially close) relationship with my father, and I'd be lying if I said that didn't hurt me a little. My father has a new wife and new kids, and there's certainly a vindictive part of me that wants to damage that under the guise of “they deserve to know.” I don't have any reason to think my mother's family wouldn't believe me. And I know for a fact that there was at least one conversation between my mother, my father, and his mother about some concerns they had when I was in my early teens.

Should I let sleeping dogs lie, or is this secret something I need to share?

Gottlieb responds by making a point that is often overlooked. The choice is not binary. Anonymous is not facing a choice between telling everything or telling nothing:

First, you’re right that you don’t owe anyone an explanation, but I don’t think that your choice is binary: say nothing or disclose everything.

Is it possible to split the difference, to tell and not to tell at the same time, to expose some, but not all of what happened, thus to find a middle ground between the two? Surely, that is the correct approach.

Gottlieb offers one way to do this, and I find it especially astute. After all, the wording is the thing. That is, it all depends on how you word it:

You might say something like, “I know you want to know why I don’t talk to Dad. Please know that I’ve thought long and hard about this decision, but for reasons that are personal and that I’d rather not talk about—and that Dad is fully aware of—this is what I have to do. I hope you’ll respect my decision and trust that, even though I’d rather not share the details, it wasn’t a decision I made lightly.”

On the one hand, Gottlieb continues, keeping the secret creates a bond between abuser and victim. It is theirs and only theirs. It makes the victim feel like she is still under the power of the abuser. We might question whether Gottlieb is right, because making the bond public might not reduce it, but the point is well worth considering:

But I think you also want to come out of hiding and finally be seen after feeling so harrowingly unseen for all these years. It takes a lot of emotional energy to keep a painful secret, and when it comes to sexual abuse, the secret, like a toxic bond between the abuser and abused, can keep you feeling imprisoned by the perpetrator’s power. In that way, the secret still controls you. But if the secret’s out, that bond is finally broken.

In truth, Anonymous does not want to be seen as a victim of sexual abuse. Because, people who have positive feelings toward her father will ask why she kept it secret for so long. They will intimate that she might have consented to it. If the information disrupts the family structure or shows them to have exceedingly poor judgment, they might do everything in their power to repress the information.

Of else, they might accuse her of lying, of making up a story to hurt her father and to take her mother’s side. After all, we already know of accusers-- in the case of Brett Kavanaugh-- who have recanted accusations. In the current climate, people have been exposed as liars.

Thankfully, Gottlieb does not go all moralistic. She retains a sane attitude and examines all aspects of the problem. She adds that some families keep the secret because exposing it will destroy the family, and will damage many other people in the process. On the other hand, keeping the secret might expose the man's young children to abuse.

Again, it is not a simple, black vs. white situation:

Of course, often in families—and it sounds like this might be the case in yours, given the conversation you mention—the secret isn’t a secret at all. Instead, a family culture exists in which keeping the secret protects not just the abuser, but the entire family system. Bringing the abuse to light threatens the status quo, and even if the family is split up, as yours is, keeping the secret could still preserve that equilibrium.

And then, Gottlieb continues, what does Anonymous expect to hear from her mother? Is she accusing her mother of dereliction, of a failure to protect her? What if her mother denies that it ever happened? And then, what does Anonymous expect that other family members will do? If they continue to frequent her father, how will she feel about that?

If she denies the conversation you mention, how do you want to respond? Would you like her to now stand by you and support you as you tell other family members (if that’s what you decide to do)? Do you wish that once you have this conversation, she and the rest of your family will also cut ties with your father and inform his new family of his abuse? How will you feel if they don’t?

In brief, Gottlieb does an excellent job of raising the important and complex issues that surround the question of whether or not she should tell. Impressive work….


Anonymous said...

One other consideration that is important is whether there is any chance the children in the father's new family unit are at risk. I'm guessing not because it seems that would be too obvious to miss although not enough information is provided to tell.

Anonymous said...

Ooops. Guess I didn't read closely enough as I missed the sentence where that is mentioned.