"The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse" sheds light on the painful—yet hopeful—recovery process.
The emotional aspects have been devastating. The substances that kept me numbed still call and it is still nearly impossible for me to eat in front of anyone. The simple act of a deli counterperson at the grocery store offering me the extra slice of cheese taken from the scale evokes panic attacks. My abusers have continued their lives without any repercussions while I suffered immensely. I am beginning to cast away my anger, as it will only hold me back. At times, I feel damaged, but with the continuation of my life and my example, I have not let them win. I look forward to the day it is emotionally possible to leave this island and return to Philadelphia to pick up where I left off at 18. Until then, I do the best that I can with each day and challenge. It is the best that I can do.
Alice* (not her real name)
Relationship to survivor: Daughter
Nothing is lonelier than taking a taxi home from the hospital—especially if it’s a psychiatric hospital. It was early December, during the blizzard of 2009, and Philadelphia was already blanketed with the first of three feet of snow. The cab driver picked me up at the Belmont Center on City Line Avenue, eyeing me suspiciously. “You work here, right?”
“Yep, I’m a surgeon,” I replied, hoping he’d not noticed my hospital-grade paper booties.
I was about 40 years old that day. In a span of four months, I’d gone from earning a six-figure income in the pharmaceutical industry and living in a stylish Society Hill apartment to being unemployed and emotionally dependent on a man who had “borrowed” $40,000 from me and promptly vanished, just as the SEC was closing in on him.
I look like the typical over-educated white woman living in Philadelphia. I live in a cute house with a pretty garden. I have friends, I wear good clothes and I have a decent job and nice teeth. But under the veneer is a woman with a sketchy history. Two suicide attempts, anorexia, bulimia, four psychiatric hospitalizations, a divorce, a stalled career, years and thousands of dollars seeing a therapist, less-than stellar grades, broken friendships and an addiction to unavailable or abusive men that spans 20 years. I have been on 30 different psychiatric medications and have conducted desperate visits to shamans, psychics, acupuncturists, herbalists, psychiatrists and healers of all flavors. I’ve spent more than $12,000 on a doctor who uses a magnetic device to electrically jump-start my brain out of depression. My friends and family are baffled and angry, and I am hopeless. Why do I keep screwing up my life, I ask myself, when I have so much to be grateful for?
My theory is that I am a second-hand victim of sexual abuse.
Our family made regular trips from the suburbs into the city to see my extended family. My parents maintain that it was “car sickness” that made me throw up at each visit, but I never got sick in the car any other time. Looking back, it must have been a by-product of the anxiety these excursions caused.
You see, my mother could not bear to be around her family.
They’d all be there. My aunt, who’d reinvented herself from a poor Northeast Philly kid to a Main Line socialite. There’d be my two uncles and my grandmom. And the bottles. Everywhere, empty beer bottles crowded the table and most of the floor. The cigarette smoke hung in the air and yellowed the insides of the windows. It was hard to take a breath. At the center of the alcohol, cigarettes and bawdy talk was one of my uncles. He was a stocky man, maybe 5-foot-7, with a blustery manner and flushed face. In my memory, his wife and kids aren’t even present, but they must have been. In my memory, his porkish figure eclipses all else.
This uncle, he stole my childhood.
This uncle raped my mother. Not once, not twice, but over and over again for several years, well into her teens—a period of time stretching between the end of World War II to the Korean War. Not only did he violate her while she pretended to sleep, as she compulsively recited the Hail Mary to distract herself until he was done, but he and a chum would regularly take her to an isolated baseball field dugout and molest her. The horrified neighborhood mothers of other little girls would come to my mother’s childhood home, screaming at the front door. It seems my uncle did not limit his predatory ways to family. And somehow my grandmother was able to ignore this.
The result of the constant and savage incest and trauma my mother endured was an adult woman with a laundry list of psychiatric problems. Close to 80 now, she suffered more than any kid or adult deserves to. Anorexia while pregnant with me; agoraphobia so severe she couldn’t leave the house when my sister was a toddler; locking us kids out of the house so she could privately scrub her arms with bleach until they bled. Suicide attempts, hospitalization, depressions, flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, trust issues, bonding problems with her kids and explosive anger. Her fear of dirt so great that after a day of playing outside, the three of us kids were routinely forced to strip down to nudity each night in the foyer of our split-level home and be carried to the tub for a group scrub. Her self-consciousness about sexuality was so deep that she’d put tape over her breasts underneath her clothes to hide her nipples from view. Her despair was so frustrating that my father often resorted to either hitting us with his belt or retreating to the basement to “pay bills.” She tried to be a good mother to us, but it’s hard to be a mom when your own childhood was the most dangerous place on earth.
Nobody stopped my mother’s abuse. Not one adult, sibling, parent or teacher stood up for her when it had to have been obvious that in that tiny Bustleton Avenue house, something was terribly wrong. The abuse only stopped when she, as a teenager, stopped it herself. Home alone one day, her brother turned up back from a stint in the Army. Wanting to pick up where he’d left off, he grabbed her. But she’d grown up a bit while he was at war, and she had a kitchen knife when he went after her. She stabbed him so badly he ended up not only in the hospital, but in a psychiatric unit for months. Now, my uncle is in a nursing home, his brain pulp.
Unfortunately, I’m the other result of the constant and savage incest my mother endured—another adult woman with a laundry list of psychiatric problems.
These days, I spend a lot of time in church basements, with other addicts, and we talk about “working the program” and “a higher power,” nervously twitching in folding chairs and eyeing each other, wondering what monster lies beneath the 12-Step jargon. I feel like a ghost of myself. Someone who fits in nowhere. Maybe at some point I will feel a commonality with these folks. I hope so, since these meetings are my last-ditch effort at becoming a somewhat normal person, at having a calm and loving relationship with a man, at not wanting to die the moment I open my eyes every morning.
My mother, who has long since retired, does not talk about her childhood; she seems to have healed somewhat with age. But me, my healing is just getting started.
Jackie Block Goldstein, MSW, LSW
Occupation: Associate director and child forensic interview specialist at Philadelphia Children’s Alliance
People ask me what I do all the time, and when I say that I’m a forensic interviewer, they are generally either morbidly curious (“Like on Law & Order: SVU?”) or totally turned off (“Cool, I like pizza”). Occasionally, I get people who actually ask what it means, and I try to come up with a digestible way to explain that I talk to children who have disclosed sexual abuse or assault after it has been reported to the police department or the Department of Human Services. I take their investigative statements in a neutral, non-traumatizing way that is not suggestive and meets the needs of investigators, so that kids don’t have to be interviewed multiple times by people who may not know how to talk to them in a developmentally appropriate manner. I know, it’s a mouthful. After all of that, I used to expect that people would remark about the intricacies of doing an investigative interview with a child or the complexity of navigating the competing needs of law enforcement and child welfare. But now I’m pretty much resigned to the routine response of, “Talking to kids about sexual abuse? That must be so depressing.”
Most of the time, I just shrug, partially because it’s too complicated to go into (and I’m not sure people really want an in-depth response) and partially because I don’t think that I’ve ever really allowed myself to reflect on the impact that 10 years of forensic interviews with thousands of sexually abused children has had on me. Maybe I’ve done that in part as a coping mechanism—hearing about abuse every day has to take its toll—and maybe it’s also because I don’t like the exposure, the vulnerability that comes with talking about my own experiences. How hypocritical is that? Sitting down with a 6-year-old who I have known for exactly 10 minutes, I fully expect him to share the most personal and traumatic experience of his life in extreme detail, but I’m not even willing to discuss the impact that hearing those stories has had on my life. So in an effort to practice what I preach, here goes.
I think everyone is a pedophile. Most people meet someone and their initial impression has to do with what the person looks like, how firm her handshake is or what kind of a car he drives. But not me. I know this because while out with my mother, who struck up a conversation with the man standing next to us waiting for his latte, she remarked, “He seemed nice.” My response was, “He seemed like a child molester!” When my mother pointed out that my reaction was probably a bit extreme, I completely dismissed it and noted that if 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before they turn 18, probability is on my side. And this was not an isolated incident. In reflecting on it, it appears that my instinct is always to regard someone with suspicion versus giving them the benefit of the doubt—to assume the worst in everyone until proven otherwise. Before you contact me with a list of great therapists in the area, rest assured, my psychiatrist is aware of the problem. While talking about ways to relieve stress, she mentioned getting a babysitter to watch the kids and going out on a Saturday night. “Get a babysitter?” I asked, incredulous. “How could I possibly relax and go out knowing that someone was in my house sexually abusing my children?” She pointed out that in all likelihood, the 16-year-old girl down the street was not going to sexually abuse my kids, but it was no use. I haven’t gone out on a Saturday night since.
I assume that all later-in-life issues are the direct result of a history of child sexual abuse. At the start of every Biggest Loser: Weight Loss Edition, I make an internal bet with myself about how far into the show the disclosure of abuse will be revealed. The same is true for Hoarders, Intervention, Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, and 16 and Pregnant. OK, yes, I watch too much TV, and low-quality TV at that (don’t take it personally, Dr. Drew)—but that’s not the point. Last week on Today, they led into the commercial break with the teaser that Justin Bieber’s mom was going to come on next to talk about her book and all of the obstacles that she faced as a child. I literally said out loud to myself, “sex abuse,” and three minutes later, while the rest of the nation was probably shocked, my suspicions were confirmed as quickly as they had developed. I’m looking for it all the time, and I do believe that for kids who experience abuse and never get any help or support because they don’t have the opportunity to disclose in a safe place, that is often the final outcome. It’s a huge reason why I do what I do every day. That critical moment, where a child weighs the enormous risk of speaking out, is what tips the scale in the direction of health, happiness, safety and success instead of despair, fear, self-harm and failure. In that moment, I have the enormous responsibility of helping that child to see that people do care, that it can be safe to tell, that help is available, and that a positive life trajectory is within their reach. And what greater motivation could there be to go to work every day?
I wake up every morning at 4 a.m. with my heart racing. Scanning my room quickly and listening for the sound of footsteps, I wait a minute to make sure everything is as it should be before going back to bed. It’s gotten better over time; when I first interviewed Maya*, I woke up every hour on the hour with the same routine. Maya was a young girl who was sexually assaulted and abducted from her bedroom one night at 4 a.m. With no signs of forced entry and no offender identified, the entire investigative team, myself included, was desperate to figure out who did this. We all suspected a family member, and in some ways, I think that deep down, there was a part of me that wanted it to be true. If it was her stepfather or her older brother and not a total stranger, I could rationalize that something like that could never happen to me or my loved ones, and then the world would make sense again. But if it was truly a family member, how would Maya ever recover after such a betrayal of trust? As I sat in my office before the interview, I agonized over how I could possibly make this child feel safe enough to tell me what happened. How would I get through the interview at all without completely breaking down? How could I force myself to focus on the mechanics of the interview without allowing myself to truly take in the absolute horror that this child must have felt waking up in the middle of the night with a man standing over her bed before covering her head with a bag, taking her from her house and assaulting her repeatedly in an abandoned lot? I’m not sure how it happened, but somehow we both got through it, and no, I didn’t cry. If you’re curious, I have never cried during an interview (people ask me all the time)—but I have after the fact. I stayed busy for the rest of the work day and was fine—it wasn’t until later that night when I checked the front door of my house to find that my husband had left the keys in the lock that I completely lost it. Crying on the floor of my kitchen, I didn’t know how I would go back to my office. While contemplating the logistics behind quitting my job in favor of opening up a bakery in Vermont (which would have been a complete failure, by the way, since I can’t bake), I realized that as much as I was struggling to process what had happened, none of this was about me—it was about Maya. She was the one who would have to somehow figure out a way to move on—to go back to sleeping, eating, going to school, putting one foot in front of the other, and do all of this when it seemed like every shred of trust that she had in the world had been taken from her. And that put everything into perspective.
So with that, I’m grateful. Doing what I do has made me grateful every day that my kids are safe and my family is healthy and that I have the amazing opportunity to gain strength through osmosis from the incredible kids and families that come to Philadelphia Children’s Alliance. At such tender ages, these children experience horrific, horrific abuse and somehow manage to move on with their lives to do incredible things. Occasionally, I have the privilege of seeing the kids that I have interviewed years later, and in the back of my mind, I expect them to look so broken. Seeing their smiling faces, their growth, the wonderful people that they are becoming reminds me that they are not victims—they are survivors.
To the many children who have shared their stories with me over the years, and to the parents who trusted me with their most valuable possessions—who allowed their children to walk back with me into that room to talk about the things that keep them up at night—and to the countless victims out there who have not yet found their voices: I write this for you. I am eternally grateful for the lessons that you have taught me and for the grace that you show every day by overcoming adversity and fighting relentlessly to get back on the path to the beautiful life that every one of you deserves. You inspire me more than I could ever put into words. I am truly thankful.
The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse ($3.99, ebook) is available now at Amazon and forthcoming in November 2012 at iBooks and other online booksellers.
We are still accepting essays from survivors, their loved ones, and advocates. To submit your story of healing from sexual abuse for possible future publication, email email@example.com
Join Philadelphia Weekly for a reading from The Survivors Project at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 19, at the Free Library of Philadelphia.
"The Survivors Project" is a compendium of more than 50 personal essays about the challenges associated with healing from sexual abuse.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Nina Hoffmann, Senior Editor, Philadelphia Weekly firstname.lastname@example.org or 215.599.7678 Philadelphia Weekly Collects Personal Stories From Sexual-Abuse Survivors for Upcoming Book Philadelphia, PA (September 6, 2012) —Philadelphia Weekly is partnering with sexual-abuse survivors, their loved ones and counselors for an upcoming publishing project that will raise awareness about the effects of abuse and the challenges associated with healing. Sexual abuse comes in many forms, and can happen in the situations you'd least expect. And too often, survivors are paralyzed by a culture that silences, shames and blames them. Philadelphia Weekly is dedicated to combat this phenomenon through first-person storytelling, bringing to light the one thing that’s missing from the national conversation: the reality of what it’s like to heal from the devastating effects of abuse. PW has invited those whose lives have been impacted by sexual abuse to share their own stories, in their own words. And not just survivors themselves, but also their spouses, family members, friends and advocates—because healing from abuse does not occur in a vacuum. It requires the support of loved ones. Since announcing the project in June, Philadelphia Weekly has collected dozens of first-person essays from survivors, their loved ones and both local and non-local therapists. In some...
We need to hear from you—the survivor, the loved one, the advocate. We need you to tell your story, in your own words. To do so would help bring to light the one thing that’s missing from the national conversation: the reality of what it’s like to heal from the devastating effects of sexual abuse.
At 28, I’m learning to accept that my stepfather abused me—sexually, physically and emotionally. I may never remember everything that happened to me. But I know I did nothing to deserve it.