Come to terms with your past while moving powerfully into the future The Courage to Heal is an inspiring, comprehensive guide that offers hope and a map of the healing journey to every woman who was sexually abused as a child--and to those who care about her. Although the effects of child sexual abuse are long-term and severe, healing is possible. Weaving together personal experience with professional knowledge, the authors provide clear explanations, practical suggestions, and support throughout the healing process. Readers will feel recognized and encouraged by hundreds of moving first-person stories drawn from interviews and the authors' extensive work with survivors, both nationally and internationally. This completely revised and updated 20th anniversary edition continues to provide the compassionate wisdom the book has been famous for, as well as many new features: Contemporary research on trauma and the brain An overview of powerful new healing tools such as imagery, meditation, and body-centered practices Additional stories that reflect an even greater diversity of survivor experiences The reassuring accounts of survivors who have been healing for more than twenty years The most comprehensive, up-to-date resource guide in the field Insights from the authors' decades of experience Cherished by survivors, and recommended by therapists and institutions everywhere, The Courage to Heal has often been called the bible of healing from child sexual abuse. This new edition will continue to serve as the healing beacon it has always been.… (more)
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Judy Gold is forty-five years old. She is a musician and lives with her husband, Howard, in an upper-middle-class, predominantly Jewish suburb of New York. Howard is a businessman and works for his father-in-law in the garment industry. Judy and Howard have been married for twenty-five years and have four children, the eldest of whom is nineteen.
Of her childhood, Judy says: “My father’s sister died in an insane asylum and I was named for her. I was always told I was going to end up just like her—bad and crazy. We were upper middle class. My mother was addicted to prescription drugs. She was always hazy. Before she married my father, she had been a published author. It’s too bad because she could have had a successful life and it ended up being a real zero. She’s dead now.
“My father was a very violent man. He was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He was loving toward us whenever our family was portrayed to the outside world. He used to march us out every Sunday night to a fancy restaurant for dinner. It was like Make Way for Ducklings. But what went on before we got into the car was a horror show.
“The world loved him. He set up scholarships; he helped build the local temple. He’s given buildings to universities and hospitals. So no one would ever suspect what went on in that house.
“The only time I can remember him being loving was when he was in my bed. He would batter me at night and after he'd beat me up, he’d make me take his shoes off and kiss him good night. And then in the morning he’d climb in my bed and molest me. There was never any intercourse, but there was everything else.
“My first memories of being abused are tied in to my sister’s birth, when I was six. The beatings continued till I went away to college, but the incest stopped when I was about twelve, when my baby sister turned six. That’s always made me wonder if he moved on to her.
“Even though the actual abuse stopped when I reached puberty, the sexual innuendos never stopped. He’s just sleazy, horrible. You wouldn’t want to meet him. Yet, as I say, the whole world loves him.”
Come On, Ask Me
When I stopped smoking, I gained thirty pounds in four months. Somebody gave me the name of this therapist who did hypnosis for overeating. I really believe that there are no accidents. I think I ate myself up to those thirty pounds for the purpose of seeking therapy. It was right there on the surface, waiting to come out.
I was almost provocative in the kinds of things I said to my therapist, like “Oh, you should know my family.” In other words, “Ask me. Come on. I’ll tell you if you ask me.” What was going to be five sessions has now become over four years. A couple of months into the therapy, he asked me to tell him about my father. I said he used to beat me up. And he said, “What else did he do to you?” And I said, “Nothing.” And he said, again, “What else did he do to you?” And I said, “Oh, well, he crawled into my bed.” And he said, “What else?” And I kept insisting there was nothing. And then he just asked me point-blank, “Did he ever touch you?” That started the whole thing. I finally admitted, “Yes, he touched me.”
When we started using hypnosis, I got to the first memory. Then I started to remember incidents without the hypnosis. I got to the point where I could remember my father’s precise smell. It took me two years to clearly remember what had happened.
The one thing that brought it all into focus—and it was the hardest thing—was a memory that I had always wet my pants. I used to hide all these sticky underpants in my closet as a little girl. And now I know I didn’t pee in my pants at all. My father had ejaculated on me when I had them on, and I had saved all those underpants on the floor of my closet. My grandmother found piles of them in the closet and she showed them to my mother, who accused me of wetting my pants. I told her I hadn’t done it, but she wouldn’t believe me. She punished me for denying it, and he beat me for lying later the same night. As I pieced this together in therapy, I realized she had to have known the difference between urine and semen. It was the worst memory I had. But it made it all very real.
My mother’s death freed me up to remember all of this. I remember when my mother was dying, I talked about the beatings. I said, “Why didn’t you stop him? How could you allow him to do those things to us?” And her answer was “What could I do?”
I had always adored my mother because she was so talented. And I felt such pity for her. But when I realized that she had known what was going on, I hated her. I even went to her grave and stomped on it. I was screaming at her. They could have locked me up then if they had seen me.
After I got through all the anger, I realized that she really was helpless. I’m sure that she had been a victim herself. And she sacrificed me so that she could live.
Eva Smith is an African-American woman in her early thirties who lives in California. She is a therapist and an artist. She lives with her two teenage children. “I share this information with you as a gift of healing for other women. I am truly living my life now, after just surviving for so many years.”
When the doctor told my mother I was pregnant, she asked me who the father was, and I told her. She confronted my stepfather and he claimed that he knew nothing about it. Within a week we left him and went down South.
When I first realized I was pregnant, I attempted suicide. It was a hard time for me. I knew I needed therapy. I wish somebody else had realized it at the time!
My mother told me I didn’t have to keep the child, that I could put it up for adoption or that she would raise it as her own. I chose to keep that child because it was the first thing that was ever mine.
I created a cover story about who the father was. I said he was some boy I’d been going with. I had to deal with a lot of put-downs from people, you know, ‘cause I was fifteen and having this baby.
Because of all the things that happened to me, there was this question that used to haunt me, you know, “Why me?” Those were the years I call my trauma years. And I went out of the trauma years into being a battered wife.
I got married at seventeen. I was already pregnant with my daughter. My husband and I were the same age. I told my husband about my stepfather and that he was my son’s father. If only I knew then what I know now! I would have never told him. Because he got jealous. Every time we argued, he’d bring that up. I was different kinds of whores and sluts and this and that.
We were into it before we ever got married. We used to argue once a week when we were going together, but not real physical kind of stuff. But after we were married, he had the license. You know, they pronounce you man and wife, not man and woman. To my way of thinking it gives men a free ticket to do whatever they want. So the battering started and increased till I couldn’t take it anymore.
I left him after he’d taken a branch off a tree and beat me with it, but then I came back and went through what I call my three months of hell. I was making $1.79 an hour. I was paying all the bills; I paid the rent. I was buying all the food, all the clothes, even renting him a television. I got off work at 4:30. I was expected to catch the bus at 4:35, hit downtown at 5:00, change buses, and walk in the door at 5:20. If I walked in the door at 5:30, I got my ass kicked.
So in essence, he held my children hostage. He did lots of sadistic things to me during that time. I was on a large dose of Librium. My nerves were so bad, I was going through bouts of temporary blindness.
I was twenty then, and I tried to kill myself. I had gotten my prescription filled. I came home and I took about half the bottle. He found the bottle and he woke me up ‘cause I was going off to la-la land. And he got me up and went and got my son, who was about four then. He sprayed Raid in his hair, then he took a lighter and held it over his head and said, “If you don’t wake up, I’m gonna light his hair.” I mean I was going through it. We didn’t have a phone or anything. There’s that isolation thing.
I decided to kill him.
It was a question of survival. I knew we couldn’t live together without one of us killing the other. So I was going to kill him. We had this argument on a Monday and I had planned that Friday that when I got paid, I’d pay the rent, the water bill, buy a gun, go home, walk in the door, scream, and kill him. Even now, I can say with conviction I was going to kill him.
And this woman who was like my second mother said, “You don’t want that on your conscience the rest of your life.” So I turned him over to the military because he’d gone AWOL. They took him to jail. I took my children to safety and moved out of the house in four days. I started divorce proceedings immediately.
When I got rid of my husband, all that weird stuff went away. I didn't have to take Librium any more. The blindness went away. The shaking went away. All of that went away.
So by the time I was twenty-one, I had been married, divorced, and had two children. When I moved to California, I had seven suitcases, two kids, and one hundred dollars. And Lord, I’ve come a long way from there.
Anna Stevens was born in Taiwan. A diplomat’s daughter, she grew up in ports around the world. Her background is a cross between English and Irish. Anna’s family was well off and kept up appearances. Her mother was an alcoholic and a pill addict—there is extensive alcoholism on both sides of the family. Anna has one brother.
Anna says: “Everything in my house was designed to keep conflict from surfacing. No one ever admitted my mother was crazy, of course. No one ever raised their voice. Nothing was discussed. Everything was shrouded in denial and secrecy.”
Anna was physically abused by a nanny when she was three. Her mother sexually abused her repeatedly from the age of two until she was eleven. She masturbated Anna and used Anna’s body to masturbate with. After her mother reached orgasm, she’d put Anna in a scalding bath or beat her. Anna learned to leave her body when the incest happened: “I watched it all through a kind of yellow fog.
“I forgot what happened to me as I grew up, but I hated my mother with a poisonous hatred. I was completely nauseated by my mother’s smell. And as an adolescent, if she touched me, I’d throw up. The flip side of my physical revulsion was some kind of sexual feelings.”
Anna now lives in New York City and works as a carpenter. She writes poetry and is working on a novel. She is twenty-six and has been in recovery for alcoholism for the last year and a half.
After a month, I went to see a therapist. The third session, I went into that black hole and remembered being abused by my nanny. I saw someone pushing a hairbrush into my vagina. Then I became the three-year-old. It was terrifying.
I knew the memories were true because I was remembering in German, and that was what the woman spoke. I only spoke German until I was six. I was completely bilingual. Then I forgot it all. My therapist said, “What’s she saying to you?” And I said, “I don’t know. I can’t translate it.”
That was the beginning. My therapist asked me if I thought there might have been any incest. She said lots of people make up stories like this because it’s safer to say it’s somebody outside of the family; And I said, “No.” What I kept thinking was, “Not my father. Not with my father.” I had never heard anything about incest with your mother. A part of me knew it, but it seemed so outlandish. And I was very practiced at denial.
When I first starting having actual memories of incest with my mother, I had a hard time believing them. It was over a year before I believed that it was my mother who raped me. But increasingly, and mostly through my writing, so many involuntary things I’d always said and done just suddenly fit into place. It was like writing a story. You know things are right when they start falling into place. I knew this story was right. Everywhere I turned with it, something just went, “Yes. Uh-huh. Yes.”
There were so many things that I thought were lies, and I couldn’t understand why I kept telling them. I would think, “That’s a lie. Why do you say that?” Things like telling people, “I don’t know who I lost my virginity to.” I knew perfectly well the first boy I had fucked, but I kept saying this other thing. Everything I habitually said has a story inside of it. Part of me was always telling the truth. I realize now that some of the lies I told weren’t lies, they were just truths I didn’t know yet.
Sachiko O’Brien is a thirty-five-year-old mixed-race woman of Japanese, Irish, and English descent who lives with her partner and their six-month-old daughter. Sachiko’s mother has just moved in downstairs. Sachiko has a master’s degree in public health. Most of her work focuses on public health strategies to prevent violence.
When I was ten, we moved to Japan. My mother wanted her children to grow up there, and my father agreed. After we moved, my middle brother Tom started sexually abusing me when I was asleep. He would be touching my genitals. I’d wake up and he would leave the room. Then I’d be in shock and not know what to do. I’d say to myself, "I can’t believe what just happened." Then it wouldn't happen for a little while. Then it would happen again. Needless to say, I developed a lot of issues around falling asleep.
Early on, I told my mother what my brother was doing, and she asked him about it. He denied it, and she believed him. She came back and told me, “He said he didn’t do anything.” My mother doesn’t remember ever having those conversations.
At the time, I felt devastated. I felt hatred toward my brother because I thought he had more power with my mother than I did. A part of me gave up; I felt there was nothing I could do if she wasn’t going to believe me. I had to figure out how to defend myself or stop the situation on my own.
My solution was to stop going to sleep at night. Or I’d sleep in the closet. I’d rig up booby traps where something would fall down if someone opened the door. Bells would ring. Chimes would get set off. To this day, I keep bells on doors; they still feel like protection.
The trouble is none of it really worked. Inevitably, I would fall asleep. And the booby traps never stopped him. I’d wake up with my brother hanging over me with his hands under my blanket as I slept.
Soledad is a twenty-eight-year-old Chicana who was severely abused by her father throughout her childhood. For the past eleven years she has lived in Sonoma County, California. Today she is a high school counselor.
Soledad writes, “In this interview, I have spoken more of my biological parents (due to my feelings of betrayal and violation) than of my tias and tio, who were very much my parents, in the true sense of the word. Without them, I am convinced that my ultimate survival would not have been a reality, for I am certain that my life would have been beaten or suffocated out of me. To them I owe my life. And because of them, I will struggle to keep it.
“I once read that we can give two things to children—one is a sense of roots and the other is a sense of wings. I now know my roots, my history. Now I am ready to fly towards the sun.”
As was sometimes true for other women of color, it was particularly difficult for Soledad to entrust us—two white women—with her story. Because much of white America holds the stereotype that abuse happens only to “others,” many women of color are reluctant to disclose their abuse for fear that it will reinforce existing prejudices. Still others come from cultures that have a strong taboo against exposing “private” experiences. Pushing past these barriers to speak out is courageous.
My Father Was Like a Volcanic Eruption
I was raised in an extended family in Los Angeles, in a hard-core ghetto. I’m the oldest of three kids. My dad worked on and off in factories. My mom worked in sweatshops until she became disabled. We not only lived in poverty, we were poverty.
I was beaten at least every other day for years. I hated that my parents beat us, but everybody around us got whipped, so that was just the way it was. At least when my mother beat us, we still had a feeling she loved us. And it hurt less.
My father was like a volcanic eruption. You wouldn’t know when it was going to happen, but when it did, there was no stopping what was happening. He wore these steel-toed shoes for work, and he’d kick us everywhere, including the head. You could get arrested for kicking a dog like that.
When people smack you around the way my father did, it’s hard to decide which is worse—that or the sexual abuse.
My father not only molested me, he molested all my cousins and all the girls in the neighborhood. The ones that I know, there are at least twenty-four. There are others I’ve thought about. People really trusted him with their kids. He was a great social manipulator and he knew how kids thought. It’s amazing how one person can mess with so many kids.
From what I can tell, the sexual abuse with me started right when I was brought home from the hospital. I found out from another relative that for a long time he didn’t even sleep with my mother. He slept with me when I was a little baby.
In the beginning there was a lot of fondling. He could be what you would call “gentle,” but I would interpret that as being sneaky, because I knew that he could kill me, too. If you already know that this man can kill you so easily, you’re not going to say anything. And so I would just be frozen, with the feeling “Soon it will be over.” But it got worse and worse.
The peak of it all was at about eight. That’s when he first raped me. It was pretty regular after that, at least three times a week. It happened in a lot of different places. We lived in really small quarters. There was no privacy. So he’d tell me we had to go out for milk, or that we needed to go for a ride in the car. He really loved to take all the girls out for a ride. Most of this stuff happened in the car, a lot of it in the dark, so this left a blank for me because a lot of it I didn’t see.
A lot of the raping happened from behind. When he abused me, he would talk to me in Spanish, threatening to cut my throat or cut my tongue out. So now, telling you my story in English is easier. Telling you in English keeps more emotional distance. I probably would be sobbing by now if I was describing what he had done in Spanish.
When I was thirteen, the sexual abuse stopped. I had gotten more streetwise than ever, and he started to be fearful of me. He knew I was ready to die, that I would fight him to our graves if I had to.
Janel Robinson is nineteen years old. She lives with her mother, stepfather, and fourteen-year-old brother, works part-time selling newspaper ads, and is completing her AS degree at her local community college. Janel studies computer science and would someday like to have a career helping other survivors of sexual abuse.
My family handled the first molestation fairly well. My grandmother was shocked, but she helped with the prosecution. She said, “This is what we have to do. This is what’s right.” The whole family helped out. My grandfather was convicted and sent to jail.
When I was nine or ten, my cousin told me my other grandfather had been molesting her for years. At first, I didn't believe her. It was too shocking. I’d blocked out the earlier molest. But after she told me, I stopped and said, “Wait a minute! That happened to me before!”
My cousin went to my grandfather and said, “Tell her it’s true.”
He said, “Okay. We’re going to play a little game. Take off all your clothes.” I just stood there in shock.
My grandfathers knew each other and they talked about the molestation. I guess he figured since it had happened to me already, it was okay to do it again.
He molested us for the next year. I kept telling my cousin, “We need to say something.”
Finally we made a plan to tell our parents the same weekend. I went home and told and she went home and didn’t. Our grandfather was convicted and went to jail. And that whole side of the family resented me.
The hardest thing for me was that my parents wanted to stay on good terms with my grandfather and that side of the family. They pushed me to go over there for holidays and then I’d get shunned. It was awful.
My relatives hated me because I had put him in jail. One even implied I was the one who had initiated the molestation. He told me, “From now on, you’d better mind your parents and be a good little girl.”
Evie Malcolm is thirty-eight years old. She lives in Boston, works as a secretary, and lives with her partner of thirteen years, Faith. She has spent eight years recovering from agoraphobia, which resulted from her experiences being molested by strangers in New York City.
“When people hear my story they say, ‘Oh that happens to everyone who grows up in New York. What’s the big deal?’ It’s so common, they accept it. When I was in eighth grade, the teacher asked all the girls if it ever happened to them, and every single girl raised her hand. Were we given any advice on how to deal with it? Were we told we could yell or kick or even say ‘Stop’? No. It was totally expected and totally normalized. We learned that nothing could be done about it.
“But that doesn’t make it tolerable for a child. That doesn’t make it any less devastating. People say, ‘That’s just part of living in New York,’ as though it’s not bad if it happens to everyone. But the fact that it’s so widespread makes it worse, not better.”
The first time, I was ten years old. I had taken my little brother to a children’s matinee on a Saturday. A man sat down next to us, threw his coat on my lap, and started feeling me up. I said to my brother, “We’ve got to move.” My brother complained, but we got up and switched seats. As soon as we were settled, it happened again. I didn't know if it was someone else or the same man, but we got up again. The theater was crowded and I couldn’t find any empty seats. By that time, my brother was screaming. The usher told us we’d have to go back to our same seats or leave. So we left.
My brother screamed all the way home on the subway. I said, “I can’t explain it, but when we get home, Mom and Dad will explain it to you.” When we got home, I immediately told my parents. My mother turned away in disgust. My father started intellectualizing about the whole thing. They didn’t do anything. They didn't explain it to my brother. They didn’t say I was right to leave. They didn’t offer to take us back to the movies the next day. I saw they were powerless against that man. And I learned I could never look to them for help. Somewhere inside, I gave up.
Shortly after that, I passed the test to get into a public school for intellectually gifted girls. My new school started with seventh grade, so I was eleven when I began.
I lived in Brooklyn and my new school was in Manhattan. In order to get there, I had to ride three different subways. And that’s where the rest of the abuse happened. It started the second day of school, during rush hour. I got on the train. I sat across from an old man. He was staring at me. And then I realized that he was exposing himself and masturbating. I thought he was crazy and insane and I was afraid that he was going to kill me. In my mind, only a lunatic would do something like that.
For the next six years, that kind of incident and much more—the grabbing and being molested in a crowd, the being followed from car to car—kept happening to me. I was very tall for my age, five foot nine. Yet I was childlike in appearance—no makeup, plain and childish clothes. I made an easy target.
Something happened almost every day. It was inevitable. And then after it happens a few times, it doesn’t matter whether it happens or whether it doesn’t—you have to get back into the exact same situation, and you think about it happening all the time. I had to get on that train five days a week for six years.
Quite a few of the incidents are burned into my brain. I call it being raped standing up in a crowd. It was as much rape as if there’d been actual penetration. And sometimes they got awfully close. One man stood near me masturbating with a vacant look on his face. He was smiling and his penis was completely out of his pants. With his free hand he took my arm, linking it in his—like friends walking down the street together. Just then the train got stuck in the tunnel. I felt completely trapped. In my head I was screaming, “Oh God, get me out of here.” My whole self went up into my head. I felt completely disembodied.
Have you ever heard of deer who get on the road and get blinded by the headlights and they stop, and stand there, and the car hits them? What, is the deer wrong? That's what happened to me in the subway. I’d never seen these things before. I just thought, “Oh my God,” and froze. And it ran over me like a two-ton truck.
I doubt it was ever the same person. There are a million nasty men in the subways of New York. The majority were well dressed; they were coming from good neighborhoods, they were carrying briefcases. It was never a Black or Hispanic man or a man of any other race but white. It wasn’t poor old bums. It was all so-called normal men on their way to work, who casually took advantage of the opportunity. It was just like “Here’s this young flesh. Reach out and grab it.” You can molest a child so easily.
Diane Hugs is a thirty-two-year-old writer who has been struggling with memories of her childhood abuse for ten years. She’s had multiple sclerosis for twelve. MS is a degenerative condition of the central nervous system, with symptoms that vary greatly from person to person. In Diane’s case, she has been paraplegic for six years and legally blind for one year. Diane connects her disease with the severe abuse she experienced, starting in infancy.
In the past two and a half years, Diane has become aware that she has multiple personalities—more than thirty of them, ranging in age from three to thirty. As she eloquently expresses, women with multiple personalities can heal.
From the time I was a very young child, I had experiences that were so traumatic, they split my personality wide open. There was no way for my young mind to cope with the brutality and random acts of sadism that I experienced. Instead, I completely forgot the incidents and created a totally new personality. Within two years, I went in and out of three such changes: from being an introverted, shy pacifist, to being the leader of a girls’ gang that went after known rapists and child molesters, to becoming an academic scholar. Each of these personalities began without the old scars, without the old terror, without the anger. Each had her own coping mechanisms, approaching the world in a completely different way. I, as the core personality, was totally unaware of their existence. Every time I wiped the slate clean, a new and different personality would come out to take over so I might survive. There were many times as a child when I questioned whether I would survive. The ultimate threat was always “I will kill you if you tell, if you ... if you.”
Kyos Featherdancing is a thirty-four-year-old Native American woman, born and raised in a rural town in California’s San Joaquin Valley. She now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Kyos works odd jobs as a landscaper and as a chef, but primarily she is a healer.
Her father was of the Caddo tribe, her mother a mixture of Choctaw and German. Kyos grew up poor. Her family picked cotton. Later her father became a welder and a plumber, and eventually he went to work for the nuclear industry. Kyos says, “He sold his soul and stopped being an Indian.”
Kyos has two brothers and two sisters, all of whom were abused by her father.
The most sustaining influence in Kyos’s childhood was her grandmother. From her, Kyos learned the “old ways,” which have remained the source of her survival and healing.
I Thought It Was a Gentle and Very Loving Relationship
From the time I was a baby until I was nine, I loved my father more than anything in the entire world. No one could say anything bad about him to me. His favorite thing was to suck my cunt when I was a baby. When I was three years old, I first remember him actually putting his prick into my vagina. That was something that we had between each other. He made me believe that every father did that with their daughter. So I believed that. And I became that. And I loved it, too.
My parents didn’t let me go to other people’s houses very much. I know now my father didn’t want them knowing what he was doing. But when I was nine, I went to stay with a friend, and when it was time to go to bed, her father and mother tucked us in and gave us a kiss on the forehead and said, “Good night.” I thought that was real strange. I kept wondering if anything else was going to happen. And finally I nudged my friend and said, “Hey, does your father come in and give you nookie?”
And she was like, “What? What are you talking about?” She told her parents about it, and they said we couldn’t be friends anymore after that. That was the first time I realized not everybody had a father like that.
Randi Taylor is thirty years old. She is single, lives alone, and works as a restaurant manager in Seattle. Randi was raised in an upper-middle-class family. Her parents were English, Scottish, and German. Randi’s father was an accountant; her mother, a housewife. She has two sisters and two brothers.
Randi’s parents were very liberal. She called them by their first names. They were “cool.” They knew their children were smoking pot but never reprimanded them. They kept a keg of beer in the garage so the kids could invite their friends over to drink. There were no limits, no boundaries.
Randi was always Daddy’s girl. She idolized him. The molestation occurred when Randi was twelve to fourteen, just as she was going through puberty. It was always in the guise of playing games and laughing.
My father and I would do a lot of ruckus, fun things together. I’d pour a glass of water on his head, and he’d pour a glass of water on mine. We'd be tickling and wrestling and chasing each other around the house. A lot of times while he was tickling me, he’d reach his hand around and cup my breast. I’d always scream at him not to do that, but my screams would get mixed up with all the laughter and hilarity and screaming that was already going on. I’d tell him to stop, and he’d say, “Oh gee, did I slip? I didn’t mean to.” It was in the same tone as someone who just poured a glass of water on you and said, “Oops! I didn’t mean to do that.” He made a mockery of it.
Whenever we rode in the car, I’d sit in the middle of the front seat. When we went around a sharp turn, my father would elbow my boobs. He’d do it on purpose, always with an exaggerated gesture. My sisters and I had a name for it. We said my father was “boobing” me.
Then there was a routine we went through every morning. I’d get up to brush my teeth, and when I came back to my room, I’d have to search in my closet and under my bed, because my father would be hiding there, waiting for me to undress. I knew he wanted to see me naked, so I’d have to chase him out before I changed my clothes. I had to protect myself from this Peeping Tom who was my father, but it was made into a game. It was just part of the Taylor family morning routine.
At one point my father took up a sudden interest in photography, but the only thing he wanted to photograph were his daughters. He made me wear a thin T-shirt and he shined a light from behind my boobs. He wanted a picture of my boobs showing through a filmy T-shirt. That one never quite came out right, so he talked me into taking off my shirt. He promised he wouldn’t photograph my breasts—only my chest and shoulders above my breasts. But they were definitely erotic photos.
While he was doing the photos, his hands would get shaky. His breath would be louder than normal. He would be excited. It was very scary for me to see him that way. Here was this man I adored and something happened to him. He was out of control and I never knew how far he would go.
One time my mother was going to be away all day. I was home sick from school. And in the middle of the day, my father came home from work. I was very frightened. I said, “What are you doing here?” He was joking and smiling and happy. “Oh, I thought I’d come home to see you. I knew you were here by yourself not feeling good. I thought I’d spend a little time with you.”
He’d brought home some felt-tipped pens, and the game he had in mind was to decorate my breasts. He made me pull up my nightgown and he drew on my body. He made my two breasts into eyes, and then he drew a nose and mouth below it. His hands were shaking and his breath was really hot while he was doing that. And all the time, he was joking and teasing. It was horrible for me. Yet it was the one experience that allowed me to feel anger at him later on. All the rest of it, I said to myself, “Oh, he just slipped accidentally.” But this was clearly thought out ahead of time. It was the only time he ever did anything that no one else saw him do. The rest of it was all out in the open.
Soon after, when I was fourteen, he complained that I was never home anymore, that I was always off with my friends. I turned to him with anger and said, “Why do you think I never spend time at home anymore? It’s because I’m always afraid of what you’re going to do to me.” That stopped him cold, and he didn’t touch me again after that. But an atmosphere of sexual jokes and innuendos continued.
Michelle Thomas is thirty-one years old. She is a counselor and lives with her husband of four years, David, in Boulder, Colorado. Her sister Artemis is thirty-seven. She is a nurse and was recently divorced after a twelve-year marriage.
Michelle and Artemis grew up in Denver. They lived with their mother, their stepfather, and their younger sister, who is now twenty-five. Their stepfather worked for the military and earned a good income, but they lived in poverty because he gambled. Frequently there was no food in the house.
Both parents were violent alcoholics, and both sexually abused the girls. Their mother abused them mostly in the context of “preparing” them for Ben, their stepfather. She was totally unpredictable—kind one minute and sadistic the next. He was particularly brutal in his abuse, often torturing the girls.
MICHELLE: When we were children, we never talked about the abuse. It was almost as if we couldn’t stand to look at each other—you know, the victim-hating-the-other-victim syndrome.
ARTEMIS: You never knew what you were going to get from who, when. There was never a feeling of safety. When I was eleven, I had an abortion with my stepfather’s child and almost died. Michelle was five years old and she was told to take care of me.
MICHELLE: My stepfather had my mom committed to a number of mental facilities. The message was, if you said anything or you crossed him in any way, it would be very easy for him to institutionalize any of us. And so it was progressively impressed upon us to not go to the outside.
ARTEMIS: And even when we did tell, no one believed us. Michelle told the principal in fifth grade. And I used to draw pictures of what was happening to me and leave them places. I got in a lot of trouble for drawing dirty pictures. I told people I babysat for. They’d just go on with their conversation as if I’d never said anything. I remember my exact thought: “I must be telling a lie. Why am I telling a lie?”
Rifat Masoud is a twenty-eight-year-old Bangladeshi-American woman who lives in a large East Coast city. She was abused by her hoozoor, or religious tutor, as a child in Bangladesh. As an activist in a social justice organization, Rifat does community organizing around child sexual abuse. She also studies bodywork and is starting a wellness business that combines yoga and holistic health counseling.
As an immigrant and a Muslim, and as a woman straddling two cultures, Rifat found it particularly challenging to tell her story. As she explains, “In these times of rampant religious discrimination and violence against immigrants, telling my story is a tremendous struggle not only because I am speaking as a survivor but also because much of my abuse occurred within a Muslim household, while much of my coming out as a survivor occurred in the United States as an immigrant. I fear that some readers might find it easy to stereotype Muslims and immigrants and fail to see the universality of the social conditions that uphold child sexual abuse. As a survivor, I often feel split. I’m caught in the sticky situation of holding multiple identities, survivor being only one of them.”
It Happened in Front of Them
The sexual abuse occurred before we came to the States. In a culturally Muslim country, many kids are expected to learn the Koran from the moment they can read. Education was very important to my father, so from the time I was five, I was taught to read the Arabic alphabet. My father hired a series of tutors to teach us at home. My older brother and sister and I were tutored by an imam, or prayer leader, from the local mosque, who became our hoozoor (teacher).
Our study sessions took place on the weekend. The room had a large table and four chairs. I wore a skirt to lessons because when you read anything Koranic, you’re encouraged to wear a dress and cover your hair. I was seven years old at the time; my brother and sister were four or five years older. Because I was the youngest, I sat next to the imam. My brother and sister sat across the table. But some days they couldn’t make it to our lesson.
The first few times the imam molested me were on days my siblings couldn’t come. He touched my legs and then moved up my skirt, working his way up my leg until he was inside my underwear. Then he stuck his finger in my vagina. I froze and pretended nothing was happening. I just kept reading my lessons from the Arabic alphabet book.
After that, he molested me every time. It happened when we were alone; it happened when my brother and sister were sitting right across the table. I remember feeling powerless and terrified that they would find out.
The imam told me that what he was doing to me was a secret and that I shouldn’t tell anybody. He said, “Good girls don't talk about such things.” I had always been taught to obey my elders. I saw him as an absolute figure of authority, a man of God who was teaching us the Koran. At the time, I remember thinking, “I must be bad. That’s why this is happening to me.” I decided to be a good girl and never tell.
The abuse continued until we moved to the States.
Lorraine Williams is a twenty-two-year-old albino African-American woman. She is legally blind, and her disability makes her extremely sensitive to the sun. Lorraine is a sociology student at a large eastern university.
Lorraine was the second child of five in an upper-class home. Her family was a religious one. Several of her relatives are ministers and missionaries.
Lorraine was abused by a brother and a cousin, though her primary abuser was her maternal grandfather. The incest with him started when Lorraine was fourteen and lasted until she left home at eighteen.
On being abused as a teenager, Lorraine says, “Being fourteen or fifteen years old had nothing to do with it. I could have been three for all the power I had.” At fifteen, Lorraine became pregnant with her grandfather’s child, and a quiet abortion was arranged. Everyone denied he was the father.
In the course of confronting her grandfather and talking to other relatives, Lorraine learned that he also had sexually abused her mother, a sister, and a niece.
That night, after I’d gone to bed, my body jolted awake, feeling another next to it. Immediately I knew it was him. I tried to pretend I was asleep as his hands invaded me, probing. Inside I felt nauseous, sick, repulsed.
“Get up and come into my room,” he demanded. I ignored him, refused to move.
“Dammit, get up or I’ll do it here.”
I didn’t want my little brother go see anything, so I rose and did as he said. I followed him into his bedroom, separate from that of my grandmother, slid into the bed, and went back to sleep. I hoped that he would feel sorry for waking me and thus leave me alone.
I awoke once again to his hand pawing my body, trying intently to gain access. I fought him by clamping my legs shut and wearing flannel pajamas, my only defenses. I didn’t want to be there, didn’t want any of it to be happening. Silently, I began to cry. Anger, agony, and shame filtered through me, lingering. He continued in an attempt to force an entrance. I crying, he pushing, me feeling totally helpless.
“Open your legs,” he whispered angrily.
“No,” I said, knowing already that I was powerless.
“Well then, I’ll just take what I want.”
He pushed against me, pumping hard and harder again. My skin felt as if it were being bludgeoned, beaten. His body slapped against my own, making it feel like it was being stoned. Heavy breathing filled the room as he panted and exclaimed obscenities. His moans and words filled my ears, though I attempted to block them.
“I’m coming, baby. Please, please never leave me,” I heard.
My only thoughts were that it was almost over. The steamy, slick semen contaminated me. It burned the insides of my vagina, reaching, it felt, far into my uterus. My tears lay in a puddle on each side of my head.
I rose like a zombie as he rolled off of me, leaving the room quickly, quietly. I went straight to the bathroom adjacent to my room, sat on the toilet, and sobbed uncontrollably. I sat there, still like a mannequin, for an endless amount of time. Finally I turned on the water in the tub. I made it hot, steamy hot, as hot as I could bear. I needed to cleanse the infection from my system. I scrubbed and rubbed, making my white skin pink. Afterward, exhausted, I returned to bed. I changed the sheets, making the bed clean once more.
Sleep did not come. I lay there motionless, awake, afraid to return to slumber. I listened to my brother’s breathing, deciding it was easier being a boy. I watched as dawn crept into the deep blue sky. Watching until my eyes closed in some deep sleep.
Time came for me to get up and prepare for school. I dressed carefully, finding soft clothes to hug my body, for it still hurt. I saw my image in the mirror, very pale. I knew it was going to be a bad day. I went downstairs to breakfast, my brother and my grandfather already there. Grandfather had a smile on his face that read, “I got what I wanted from you. HA, HA, HA.”
We said not a word to each other until I started to leave, when, as I was exiting the door, he said to me, “Have a good day.”
Vicki Malloy, whose father molested her once, shared her story for the first edition of The Courage to Heal, to demonstrate that sexual abuse did not have to be severe or protracted to have a profound impact on a child’s life. At that time, Vicki was thirty years old and completely estranged from her father. Now Vicki is forty-five and her father is seventy-nine, and they have worked their way back into a caring, honest relationship.
My father and I were always very close. We had a strong bond. Growing up, we were like kindred spirits. We understood each other. But there was always something inappropriate about the way he was with me. He was too affectionate, too close. His kisses would last too long. I could never put my finger on it, but things just didn’t feel right.
When I was twelve, my father sexually molested me. I was asleep in bed. He came into my room and lay down next to me. He put his hand down my pajamas and started playing with my vagina. It woke me up. I turned away from him. I pretended I was turning over in my sleep. He must have gotten frightened that I would wake up, and he left. I remember watching his shadow outside the door. He never did it again.
I never told anyone about it, but I got much more distant from my father. I talked to him, but I shied away from any physical contact. I felt really icky if he hugged me. I went through my teens feeling very depressed. It was as if all my vitality had been sucked out of me.
I basically buried the incest until my early twenties when it resurfaced. It came up in different relationships, usually around sexuality. I’d start to have trouble, and often the relationship would end.
Sixteen years ago, I met my life partner, Gayle. A couple of years into our relationship, I really started struggling with intimacy and being close. I knew it traced back to what my father had done, and I resented it. I decided I was going to confront him about it, something I had never done before.
Cassondra Espinoza is a forty-six-year-old medical technician and mother of two, who she says she has a great life now. But the road she’s had to travel to get there has been long and arduous: “I’ve worked damn hard to get where I am today. From the abuse I had and where I came from, I should have been dead. I should have been a drug user or a prostitute. I should have been hateful and bitter. And I’m not. I’m a law-abiding citizen whose life is full of love, whose main goal in life is to do no harm.”
No one Will Believe You If You Tell
My parents were both functional alcoholics. They drank when our families got together; they drank on Fridays; they drank if they had a hard day. But they weren’t what my father’s father was—a drunk laying on the ground on a street corner. My father went to work, the bills got paid; my parents were always able to function, but they liked to go drinking and dancing on Friday and Saturday nights. They’d leave me in my brother’s care. And that’s when the sexual abuse began.
We had a rocking chair that was nasty green. My brother and I used to make forts out of it. When I was eleven, I made the fort, and my brother came in and raped me. I was in the fifth grade and had just started my period. I had just gotten one of those little bras you start out with. Everything happened at the same time.
From then on, whenever my brother made a fort, I knew what he wanted. Whenever he felt safe enough that he wasn’t going to get caught, my brother was on me. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, and he’d be on top of me.
Over time, my brother got more violent. He used Coke bottles on me. He used a gun. I remember cold metal against my head, inside my vagina, in my mouth. He’d say, “All I have to do is pull this trigger.”
All of this was with the mantra, “If you tell, I’ll find you and I’ll kill you.” He’d choke me and say, “If you tell, they’re not going to believe you.” I knew he was right.
Once, when I was twelve, my parents went to get groceries on a Saturday. I knew that as soon as my parents left, my brother was going to abuse me. He dragged me out into the hallway and raped me. My parents came back for something. We could hear the garage door opening. My brother got up and started putting on his clothes. He was yelling at me when my mom walked in, and then she started yelling at me, too: “What are you doing?” She saw what was happening and she blamed me. That was the moment when I gave up.
When I was thirteen, I miscarried my brother’s child. I stayed home from school that day because I had really bad cramps. I went to the bathroom and I passed a lot of clots. One of them had a fetus in it. It was tiny; it was pale white and I could see the great big eyeball and the fins for the hands. I buried it in the backyard. I wasn’t going to flush it down the toilet, since that’s what my mother had always threatened me with.
I remember pressing the earth down after and smelling the lilacs. That’s how I know it was late spring. Then I went back in bed and put my pajamas on. Everybody came home and I pretended everything was fine.
After the miscarriage, I tried to commit suicide. The pain of being abused, of living in a house with all that screaming was too strong. My dad had a razor that unscrewed. I took out the blade and tried to cut my wrists in the shower, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even kill myself; I had to live with the pain.
Pauline Szumska is a fifty-two-year-old nurse. She grew up in the Midwest, the eldest of five children born into a Catholic, working-class family. Pauline's father was an orphan, a World War II veteran, and a prisoner of war in Germany. Her mother was an only child raised in a large extended family of Polish-American immigrants. Pauline’s father physically and sexually abused her and all of her siblings from earliest childhood. The incest didn't end for Pauline until she moved out at eighteen.
Once Pauline left home, she focused her energy on building a life that was safe. During the next ten years, she maintained a limited, cordial relationship with her family. The abuse was never discussed or acknowledged. As she put it, “We never talked about anything that might cause a problem.”
Then in 1983, her brother shot himself in the head. His suicide attempt motivated Pauline to speak candidly about the abuse. Because she insisted on telling the truth about what had happened, neither her parents nor her siblings would speak to her for ten years. As Pauline recalls, “The silence was deafening.”
Although she didn’t choose it, at least not initially, Pauline benefited from this decade of estrangement. She needed time away to establish herself as a separate person and to focus on her healing. But as the years wore on, she began to long for her sister and tentatively reached out to her. Her contact with the rest of her family, including both her parents, grew from there.
Pauline is a good example of a survivor in the latter stages of healing whose reconciliation with family members—limited in some cases and more significant in others—has been an integral part of her process.
Sheila O’Connell is a forty-eight-year-old massage therapist from Boulder, Colorado. She enjoys a close relationship with her grown son. Sheila was raised in a large working-class Irish Catholic family and has been actively healing for more than twenty years from the abuse she suffered as a child.
It Was My Uncles
My father’s brother-in-law started molesting me when I was two-and-a-half. My first memory of it was at my brother’s christening. His abuse went on for five or six years. He usually did it at family parties.
My mother’s brother also molested me, and there were some occasions where they molested me together in the back room. Their abuse was very different. My father’s brother-in-law’s attitude was “I’m doing something nice for you,” but then he silenced me by saying, “If you tell, your parents won’t love you and they’ll send you away.” His abuse was really confusing. He acted loving, but he was harming me.
My other uncle was cold, sadistic, and violent. There was a sense of hatred that came through everything he did. It was clear that he wanted to harm me. He would get me aroused and then ridicule me. He blamed me in a creepy, dark way. It was a real mind-fuck. The cruelty that came with his abuse was conscious, and as a result, it was more devastating. It’s not that my other uncle was innocent or that what he did felt good or okay, but I don’t think he had any idea how much he was harming me. Clearly, this uncle did. And he enjoyed it.
My second uncle was a part-time police officer and he was involved in a cult. He would pick me up in his police car and take me to the police station, where they did rituals in the basement.
The men in the cult did sick and twisted things and then they’d mess with my mind, saying things like, “You really like that.” They used guns and rifles and crucifixes to enter me. They put plastic over my face or held me under water until I was at the edge of death, and then brought me back.
There were four or five rituals a year. I was in first grade when it started; the last memories I have are when I was nine or ten. As I got older, the rituals changed. Toward the end, they had more to do with indoctrinating us into their group. There was much more emphasis on, “You’re one of us.”
Each time, when the rituals were over, my uncle would clean me up and take me home. He’d scrub me with a brush and cold water, and when he did that, there would always be a sense of relief: “Okay, it’s over now.” I would start feeling my body again.
When I got home, I would sit in the closet for a while so I could get myself together. I can remember my body calming down. Then I would act like nothing happened. I tried not to think about it.
References to this work on external resources.
Wikipedia in English (1)
Come to terms with your past while moving powerfully into the future The Courage to Heal is an inspiring, comprehensive guide that offers hope and a map of the healing journey to every woman who was sexually abused as a child--and to those who care about her. Although the effects of child sexual abuse are long-term and severe, healing is possible. Weaving together personal experience with professional knowledge, the authors provide clear explanations, practical suggestions, and support throughout the healing process. Readers will feel recognized and encouraged by hundreds of moving first-person stories drawn from interviews and the authors' extensive work with survivors, both nationally and internationally. This completely revised and updated 20th anniversary edition continues to provide the compassionate wisdom the book has been famous for, as well as many new features: Contemporary research on trauma and the brain An overview of powerful new healing tools such as imagery, meditation, and body-centered practices Additional stories that reflect an even greater diversity of survivor experiences The reassuring accounts of survivors who have been healing for more than twenty years The most comprehensive, up-to-date resource guide in the field Insights from the authors' decades of experience Cherished by survivors, and recommended by therapists and institutions everywhere, The Courage to Heal has often been called the bible of healing from child sexual abuse. This new edition will continue to serve as the healing beacon it has always been.
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