Safe World?

***CONTENT WARNING: GRAPHIC ACCOUNT OF CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE; RAPE; SPOUSAL ABUSE.***

 

I am in the Mansion House in Dublin, on the second day of the Safe World Summit, organised by Safe Ireland.  I’m not going to lie, there have been moments that have been difficult to bear witness to. There have been moments where I have inhaled sharply, but – for the most part – there have been moments that have inspired and motivated me.

 

After years of speaking out, years of listening to other survivors, and holding the space for them, I am still struck by the similarities between my experiences, and theirs. To be honest, I identify more as a victim/survivor/victor with regard to sexual abuse, than I do with domestic violence. I am aware that the domestic violence I suffered at the hands of my ex-husbands was enabled – in part – by the the abuse I suffered at the hands of my father, and my two elder brothers – Christy, Nigel, and Cormac Talbot.

 

I suppose it’s no surprise that the night before last, sleep was evasive. I suppose it’s no surprise that that entire day, I’d had flashback after flashback after flashback. The intrusive memories crowded into my brain. I spent the day – and most of the evening – with my mind and my body re-experiencing the abuse perpetrated on my body by Nigel an Cormac Talbot – my two elder brothers.

 

I felt, again, Nigel slobbering over my teenaged breasts. My body felt his breath, his grasping hands, his copious saliva running over my bare, exposed, goosepimpled flesh. Later, my body and mind would remind me of other occasions when my brothers sexually assaulted, and raped me. I felt these experiences as if they were happening again, in that moment – in those moments. I remind myself of stories where amputees detail having pain in the missing limb.

 

I re-experienced being eight or nine years old, and lying in bed, reading my book (I was always reading, as a child – I loved it more than anything else I did) and Nigel came in, pulled up my nightdress, and down my knickers. I was so used to my brothers entering my room – entering me – that I didn’t even put my book down. I disengaged so much, disassociated completely. I was reading my book, I was in my book. I was in my book more than I was in my body. I remember turning a page at one point, and glancing down to see him nipping his lower lip, a look of concentration on his face,  while using his fingers to spread my labia before thrusting his fingers inside me.

 

Clashing with this memory was another; of my other brother, Cormac Talbot. As one memory left my body, the other replaced it. This was a memory of Cormac, with his bony fingers inside me, nothing gentle about his touch, his ragged fingernails scraping my tender, internal, flesh. Repeatedly, hour after hour, my body and mind were re-traumatised by these memories and others: Memories of Cormac using a torn piece of a black rubbish sack as a crude type of condom, while he decided to rape me. Memories of Cormac, anally raping me as form of ‘contraception’. My sphincter muscles tightened, repeatedly, involuntarily, as my body remembered the pressure on my anus as his erect penis breached it. For a full waking day, these memories possessed me – and I use that word very particularly to evoke the image of being possessed by evil. Because I was.

 

For my entire childhood, I was so dis-empowered by my family, and the patriarchal culture in which that family operate(s) that I was trained to expect nothing else. I was told I deserved nothing better. Most recently, I was told I deserved nothing better by my ‘mother’ Phil (Johnson) Talbot.  I last spoke to her in November of 2016 and I recently referred to the record of that conversation to be sure that my memory of it was not flawed (reader, it was not).

 

During that conversation (which I will describe in greater detail in another post), she eventually said – her voice dripping with the cloying martyr tone she has perfected over 70 years –

‘Well, if it’s an apology ye’re lookin’ fer, I’m sorry – okay?’

I wasn’t going to get her off that easily.

‘What are you sorry for?’ I asked.

‘I’m sorry I wasn’t a perfect mother,’ her retort was spat in anger at my audacity to challenge her so calmly.

I made no response. She continued in the same tone.

‘And I’m sorry you didn’t have the childhood you think you deserved.’

Think about that for a second. Think about my ‘mother’ unable to contain her anger that I would dare think I was entitled not to be raped by her husband, and her precious sons during my childhood. More worryingly, however, was her refusal to tell their wives the truth. ‘It’s not my place,’ she repeated four or five times when I challenged her on aiding and abetting her rapist sons to abuse her grandchildren with impunity.

 

She disgusts me – they all do – but I recognise that they are part of the patriarchy. They are products of the patriarchy. They are complicit elements of the patriarchy. I also recognise, however, that I am the biggest the threat to them and, in a way, to the patriarchy itself. Because I am a fearless truth-teller. And I will not stop.

I will not be stopped.

Birth Trauma Awareness Week

Traumatised Woman Eyes - Edited

Content Warning: Sexual Assault / Sexual Abuse / Incest

This week is Birth Trauma Awareness week.

For many women, the birth itself is traumatic because of how they are treated during labour and birth. For women who have been sexually abused as children, however, labour and birth can compound the trauma they have suffered.

While she was growing up, Orla’s* father ‘played’ with her by playing ‘tickling’ with her. He would chase her, catch her, and then hold her down tickle her, kiss her, and – as she hit puberty –  touch her breasts, buttocks, and genitals.

Like many people who are abused over a period of time, Orla started to recognise the ‘cues’ from her father that an abusive incident was coming. She would try, desperately, to get away from him, but she was never successful. Orla felt helpless, but still, when he tickled her, she laughed. This would result in him calling her ‘a little flirt’ and saying things like ‘you’re just pretending you don’t want me to do it.’

Orla couldn’t get away from her dad because he was too strong. Her laughter would give away to tears, and then to crying, and eventually to screaming. Finally, he would stop.

When Orla grew up, she did not look back on her father’s actions as abusive, because it was labelled as ‘play’, and she remembers laughing at the time.

Years afterwards, however, when she was in labour with her first child, she was hooked up to a foetal monitor, had a canula inserted, and a blood pressure cuff. She had a panic attack on account of the restrictions on her movements. Her reaction seemed disproportionate until later, when Orla connected the events during childbirth with being restrained while her father abused her.

Like Orla, many women are surprised by the degree of their distress over routine aspects of maternity care. For abuse survivors, distressing or traumatic events can bring up the same feelings of helplessness and fear that they felt with the original abuse. It can be difficult to understand, however, why seemingly innocuous or helpful interventions can also bring up feelings of helplessness and fear. If the trauma of the original abuse was never correctly addressed, they are at risk for re-traumatisation, and may end up  suffering from chronic post traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD).

Much of this distress can be alleviated for pregnant women survivors of CSA if, before labour, they have an opportunity to explore some of the features (events, procedures, and care policies) of childbirth that might bear similarities to their abuse, and to plan strategies for avoiding, or coping with, them.

Women often dread the prospect of deeply exploring the origins of abuse-related symptoms. Once they do take that step, with the support of understanding health-care practitioners / birthworkers, they usually feel relieved and unburdened of guilt and responsibility. Our capacity for healing is enormous, through it requires hard work perseverance, and courage. Finding the time, and the energy, for that is hard at any stage – harder again when you’re pregnant. A birthworker who brings compassion, and understanding of the trauma of CSA will make the biggest of differences to her client.

 

*Not her real name

Public Property

P

 

One of the most awful ‘side-effects’ of sexual abuse, for me, was the re-victimisation I was subjected to as a teenager, as a young adult, and even as an older adult. When you have been abused by several members of your immediate family, and then abused again by strangers and others, you do end up feeling a bit like public property. I wrote about that feeling when I was about sixteen, and am re-producing the text here:

 

Public Property

I am public property
You can own me, if you like
Anyone can own me.
All you have to do is ask.
Or drop a few subtle hints.
Or pretend you really want to.
Doesn’t make much difference.
At least, not to me.
I don’t care.
I am public property.

I am public property.
Whatever I have is yours.
I have no secrets, no dreams,
No hopes, no ambitions.
They all belong to you.
You wrested them from me.
I could not fight to keep them.
I have no right to them, really.
They’re not actually mine.
I have nothing.
I am public property.

I am public property.
You’re allowed to play with me.
Use me at your own discretion.
Tear me up, wear me out.
Grind me down – you’re allowed.
I won’t protest.
I don’t protest.
I can’t protest.
I am not allowed.
I am public property.

Mothers, Motherhood, Mothering

M

Being a mother is hard. Not least because it is the most important job in the world, and the most important job to get right. It’s also the only job in the world that everyone else feels qualified to judge and comment on. Even if they are not, or never will be, mothers themselves.

 

Mothering is even more difficult when you add the additional burden and complexity of sexual abuse. If your child has been abused, how do you – as a mother – cope? Research tells us that mothers who are made aware that their children have been sexually abused often react in much the same way as people react to a bereavement (Myer, 1984; Hooper, 1992), or they react as though they have been raped or assaulted themselves (Hooper, 1992; Winograd Leonard, 2013). Of course, not every mother is as capable of putting her children first. In my own case, when I disclosed about the fact that my brothers were abusing me, my mother’s response was to make contact with the Rape Crisis Centre. They didn’t deal with people under the age of 16, so I was referred to another facility. My brothers’ propensity for raping was never addressed, however. To this day, it still hasn’t been addressed.

 

At the time, I was told they were sorry and it was impressed on me that I needed to forgive them. (I’ve written up a few of my thoughts on forgiveness here). I was told that they were ‘great lads’, who ‘never gave a moment’s trouble’ and that ‘boys will be boys’. All this did was tell me that the oral, digital, vaginal and anal rape they perpetrated on my body was, somehow, of no consequence, because they were ‘great lads’; and that raping me on a regular basis was not to be counted as them ‘giving any trouble’. The harm they did me was not something to get too upset about because ‘boys will be boys’,  and it is nearly to be expected that they will rape their little sisters.

 

Later, when I told my mother that my father was abusing me, she told me she didn’t believe me. Then she got me and him in a room and told me to repeat my accusations. I did. He said it was my own fault. She said it was my own fault. She was jealous of the fact that her husband was sexually attracted to her daughter. I remember feeling sick. I remember feeling that they were sick in a very, very twisted way. I remember feeling confused, dazed, gaslit (even though I didn’t know, at the time, that’s what it was) and thoroughly, utterly abandoned. I was, somehow, cast as a Jezebel for being sexually assaulted between the ages of two and 17 by three members of my immediate family.  She may not have known at the time that it was happening, but as soon as she did know, my mother took the side of her husband and her eldest two sons against me. Sadly, this kind of victim blaming by mothers is not unusual. Especially when the mother is – like mine – a narcissist. (If you have been the victim of a narcissistic mother, I highly recommend this book as a good place to start understanding that dynamic.)

 

Later, for a woman who was sexually abused as a child, becoming a mother is difficult. I spent the first year of my PhD studies reading about just how hard it is, and was comforted and outraged in equal measure to learn that I am not on my own in this. Not least because intimacy is such a difficult area to inhabit. How do you surrender to an act that has, all your life, been about the other person and their gratification? An act that has been about secrets and lies? An act that has been about power and shame? An act that has had nothing at all to do with love? How do you then try to convince yourself that that same act is something that you can be an active participant in? How do you then try to convince yourself that you are allowed to enjoy such an act? That enjoying such an act does not automatically make you a terrible person?

 

If you manage to resolve that issue within yourself – and if you have managed to escape physical damage to the extent where you are actually capable of conceiving and carrying a child, then maternity care can be fraught with difficulties. Health care providers are often (usually) unaware of the damage that child sexual abuse has on women who have survived it. They are not aware of how to care for such women. As a result, may women report being victimised again during pregnancy, labour and childbirth. These events can re-traumatise a woman who has already been so horribly traumatised.

 

And then, if you manage all that – if you manage to achieve a pregnancy and give birth, and have a healthy baby, what do you do after that? How hard or easy is it to breastfeed? For some women, this feels like an invasion of their bodies all over again. For others, it is hugely empowering because they feel like – finally – their body is doing what it was meant to do. They are choosing to use their breasts for the main (though not the only) purpose those breasts were designed.

 

Still, motherhood is fraught with extra challenges for the woman who has managed to survive sexual abuse and who is trying to raise her child/ren. We have a tendency towards over protection – but we’re aware of that, so we sometimes over-correct in order to be ‘fair’, in order not to be the over protective, overbearing mama – and that bring on anxiety attacks.

 

We worry about the state of our mental health, and the impact that might (will?) have on our child/ren. We worry that, somehow, we have transmitted – in our DNA or through our birth canals – the elements of being a victim on to our children. We worry that they, too, will be abused and we worry about how to warn them, how to teach them to look after themselves, how to know a perpetrator when they see one, how to escape from danger. We worry that these precious children of ours might be better off with someone else: That because of the damage done to us, that because we are so damaged, that our children would be better off with someone else. Someone whole, someone better. Because, when all is said and done, deep down somewhere, we secretly believe what our mothers told us, when they told us it was our own fault.

References:

Hooper, CA, (1992) ‘Mothers Surviving Sexual Abuse’ Routledge; New York

Myer, M. (1984) ‘A new look at mothers of incest victims’, Journal of Social Work and Human Sexuality, 3: 47-58

Winograd Leonard, E. (2013) ‘Expecting the unattainable: Caseworker use of the “Ideal” mother stereotype against the non-offending mother for failure ot protect from child sexual abuse cases’, NYU Annual Survey of American Law, 69(2), pp. 311–356.

Incest

I

 

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.