It Takes A Village (To Abuse A Child)

It takes a village

CONTENT WARNING: Child Sexual Abuse, Incest, Incompetent Agencies, Child Neglect

In much the same way as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse a child, as well. It takes adults in positions of trust and authority to turn a blind eye. It takes people who have concerns not to voice those concerns. It takes family members who have a feeling something is wrong to do nothing about those concerns. It takes professionals who know based on information they are presented with, and privilege to have, to do nothing with this information. It takes people who know the child is not lying to intimidate, and (attempt to) silence that child. Even when that child becomes an adult (as is the case for many adult survivors of child sexual abuse).

For me, my family was the first site of abuse: I was sexually abused by my father, Christy Talbot, and my two elder brothers, Nigel Talbot and Cormac Talbot.  Sexual abuse was a part of my life in the home from the time I was three until I was 19.  I was sexually assaulted (up to, and including oral, anal, digital, and vaginal rape), by one or other – sometimes more than one – of these males up to five days/nights a week when they were living under the same roof as I.

With apologies to Tolstoy, each dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way, but a  hallmark of all dysfunctional families is that it is static. A static family dynamic means that in order to ‘protect’ and preserve the family norms, each member must resume the role assigned to them when the family is together.  To people who were not raised in toxic, dangerously dysfunctional, abusive families, this may seem bizarre, but collusion is very important to the family members who so collude because it means:

  • They don’t have to confront their own part in the abuse – for example, my mother does not have to deal with the fact that she took, and continues to take, the side of the abusers (my father and brothers) over the side of the abused (me)
  • No confrontation of their own possible abuse – I was not the only one in the family who was sexually abused, although my abuse was the most severe. If they refuse to admit that I was abused, then my abused siblings don’t have to deal with the fact that they were, too. Their ideas of who they are remains unchallenged because they are not confronting all of their own realities and histories
  • They don’t need to seek help for their own psychological disorders / mental health difficulties. By continuing to deny that they were were abused, that they abused, and / or that they facilitated abuse means my siblings and extended family members do not have to work on their own healing. This is hard, ugly, work and not everyone is able to – or wants to – commit to it. 
  • Their childish view of people as binary – ‘good’ or ‘bad’ remains unconfronted – casting people as either heroes or villains, rather than looking at their complexities, allows my family to cast themselves as ‘heroes’ and me as a ‘villain’. They think that, because there are so many of them, and only one of me, they must be right, and I must be wrong. But – remember Galileo?!
  • Appearances are kept up – for narcissists (like my mother), this is hugely important. When all that matters is what other people think, cruelty to your own children is an acceptable trade-off to keep up appearances. Their health and well-being can easily be sacrificed on the altar of public opinion, if the opinion will view you favourably.

Collusion within the family was aided by collusion on the part of clergy, medics, social workers, and the psychiatrist I was sent to in St Louise’s Unit in Our Lady’s Hospital in Crumlin. As you can see from this document there were a whole slew of people having meetings about me – but none of them (save Imelda Ryan) ever actually met me. Highlights from this ‘Case Conference Report’ make the following observations: 

  • This is a very disturbed Family who need (sic) help – That help was never provided.
  • They are all under enormous strain, and playing very dangerous games – This is not elaborated on, and there is no indication what the ‘dangerous games’ were, or why the vulnerable children (of which I was one) were removed. 
  • The Gardaí will have to be involved – to try to maintain a control over the family – the Gardaí were never involved until I went to them as an adult. 
  • Joint interview to be arranged – Rosemary being present to obtain an objective sense of the situation – Rosemary was, apparently my social worker. I never met her. 

 

Mind you,  according to her LinkedIn profile, Rosemary is still in practice. Maybe I should contact her and ask her if she’s actually learnt how to do her job in the intervening years.  

 

Imelda Ryan – who is so incompetent and ignorant with regard to the effects of child sexual abuse, and how it presents that she is a real danger to children – was appointed to TUSLA’s National Review Panel. (I’ll have more to say about her and it at a later stage.) 

 

Given that child sexual abuse is endemic in Irish society, those of us who value children and want what’s best for them need to step up and speak out. Every child is the responsibility of every adult. Children are not (just) our future. They are our present – they are their own future. We, as adults, need to treat them as the precious beings they are and be the village they need to support them, to nourish them, to ensure that they are provided with what they need to thrive and reach their potential. Ignoring their pain, colluding to keep them in sites of abuse is a far cry from being that village. 

 

Statistics

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The SAVI – Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland –  report was published in 2002. It details the attitudes, beliefs and experiences of people with regard to sexual abuse in Ireland, and it makes for grim reading. Three thousand randomly-selected adults were surveyed for the report. Given the random-selection of participants, and the fact that the response rate was over 71%, it is safe to say that the findings can be extrapolated into the general population. Overall, almost one-third of women, and a quarter of men reported some level of sexual abuse in childhood. Attempted or actual penetrative sex was experienced by 7.6 per cent of girls, and 4.2 per cent of boys. Equivalent rape or attempted rape figures in adulthood (adults were defined as those aged 17 and over) were 7.4 per cent for women and 1.5 per cent for men.

 

The SAVI Report is now 14 years old, and I really do think it’s time we had another. We would like to think that attitudes towards sexual assault have changed in the (almost) decade and a half since the SAVI Report was published. Changed for the better, I mean. And I, for one, would like to know what the numbers currently are in Ireland. I’d like to think that revelations about institutions have made people more confident in speaking up. I’d like to think that some people being open about their experiences has made it easier for more people to be open about their experiences. And, yeah, I include myself in that.

 

The most recent statistics the Rape Crisis Network Ireland has are from 2013. A quick look at those numbers tells us that 2,467 people made 22,460 appointments for counselling and support. The Rape Crisis Network answered the phone 32,026 times to people who needed to talk. Horrifyingly, 61% of survivors who reported being abused as teenagers were raped. Of all the people who reported being sexually assaulted, 91% knew the person who attacked them.

 

These numbers are deeply disturbing, suggesting that sexual violence is still a part of everyday life for too many women, children, and men in our society. We need a consistent, sustained campaign to teach our nation about a variety of connected issues and to combat the persistent rape culture that permits and promotes the persistent sexual abuse of vulnerable people.

 

 

Incest

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Incest appears to be the taboo within the taboo. Society prefers to think of rapists and sexual predators as extra-familial. We prefer to think that they are the men who wait, in dark alleys, for women to rape; we prefer to think of them as clergymen who cannot contain the impulses that an ‘unnatural’ life as a celibate dictates they must; we prefer to think of them as coaches and teachers and scout leaders who abuse and traumatise our children. We prefer to think of rapists as cruel, evil men who spike girls’ drinks on nights out in order to abuse and rape them.

We do not like to think of rapists and sexual predators as men who rape their own granddaughters, daughters and sisters. Sadly, however, the majority of sexual abuse is perpetrated by men who are blood relations to those they assault. This makes it harder for the victim to both process and reveal. If the people who are closest to you, the people who are meant to protect you, are the people who are hurting you in the most abominable ways, who are you supposed to trust? Who are you supposed to tell? How do you even find the words to describe what is happening to you?

Family is, to a large extent,  a social construct. It is also held, by many, to be the bedrock of society. As such, there are certain expectations of how a family is supposed to function – or appear to function – there are certain rules and mores that are associated with family. When these rules are transgressed,  as they clearly are in incest situations, the person who is abused is completely abandoned and alone; the ‘family’ which is supposed to be their safe haven and is attacking them. The society of which they are part, tells the abused person, through all manner of messages, that they are expected to behave in a certain way towards their family members including the member/s who is/are abusing them. This dreadful confusion compounds the awful situation the abused person finds herself in. Very often, the internal and external pressure to maintain the status quo and say nothing is overwhelming. As a result, only a small percentage of people actually disclose inter-familial abuse to anyone but their therapists.

People who are victims of incest often feel that they have no choice but to remain within the fold of the family and preserve appearances. They are often pressured to act ‘as though’ all is well within the unit. This, of course, does all manner of damage to the child and maintains the culture of abuse within the family. As a society with a duty to all the members of that society – and, I would argue, especially its children – we need to address this taboo within a taboo and confront incest as the most pervasive form of sexual assault.

 

Abuse

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I wasn’t planning on doing this April A to Z thing – but here I am, literally at the eleventh hour (it’s just 2300h here in Ireland), but I have a thing about synchronicity and when two of my friends on Twitter tweeted in quick succession about having taken up the mantle, I thought about it.

Then, I dismissed the notion. I’m busy. (Everyone’s busy – that’s no excuse and I know it).  A few hours later, however, I realised that April is Sexual Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month. I thought I might like to blog about that. Then, my friend Barbara Bos suggested the challenge on a page for writers that she manages. About two seconds after I posted a reply saying, basically ‘Great idea, I’ll think about it’, the two thoughts collided in my brain and I realised that this blog challenge is a great platform with which to raise awareness of sexual abuse. After all, it is a key theme in my book and much of my academic research.

So, here I am. Committing to twenty six posts this month, on this blog, on the subject of sexual abuse and working my way through the English alphabet as I do so. Wish me luck!

Sexual abuse can happen to anyone – male or female, young or old, able-bodied or otherwise. Likewise, sexual assault can be perpetrated by anyone; male or female (though in over 90% of cases, the perpetrator is male), young or old, able-bodied or otherwise, stranger, friend or family member. Any sexual act which takes place without consent is assault. It is never the fault of the victim and a person who is asleep, drunk, drugged or too terrified to speak cannot give consent, so any act perpetrated on their person is assault.

Rape, assault and abuse are in and of themselves acts of violence. Though the criminal may use other types of physical violence, it is not at all unusual for them to ‘just’ use threats and coercion. Indeed, when a person is the victim of repeated assaults from the same person, and has been groomed by them, additional violence is rarely needed to subdue the victim.

Abuse has a profound, long-term and detrimental effect on the victim.  It takes so much from the person who is abused: Those of us who survive are aware that something precious – something that can never be given back – has been taken from us.

If you have been a victim of rape, sexual assault or sexual abuse, or if you are supporting someone who has, please contact your nearest rape crisis centre. If you are feeling anxious, depressed or suicidal as a result of sexual trauma, please contact your nearest rape crisis centre or your nearest branch of the Samaritans.