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spirit-unbroken-cover-79-x-121I hear the question, “Why didn’t Abby tell someone?” and I’m struck by how profoundly disconnected we become as passing years take us away from our childhood. I don’t recall one conversation in my grade school classroom on the play ground, in Blue Birds, or riding bikes after school that included a discussion about how our parents treated us or each other. Do you? Did you play hopscotch in the dirt while your friend told you about her daddy drinking, wearing, and hitting? Did you ever stop swimming at the park so someone could share being scared of their parents? I know you didn’t.

To this you might say, but Abby could have gone to a neighbor, teacher, or family friend. And I would remind you she grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s. It would another 15-25 years before rape was considered a crime. Another 20-30 years would pass before anyone would step forward and even suggest childhood sexual abuse was criminal. Back in the 50’s The Kinsey Report was sitting on bookshelves across the nation and it encouraged more sexual activity between fathers and daughters, stating vaginal bleeding did not appear to have long-term effects. As for the psychological effects, Kinsey believed it was simply the result of prudish parents and teachers. In the 60’s a father’s sexual attention toward a daughter was considered affection.

Tell me, who should Abby have told?

If she did go to those adults in her life, who had the power to change anything? No one. There was no legal grounds and what happened within the home was not questioned. There might be gossip, but it was seen as no one’s business.

To the question, “Why didn’t Abby tell someone?” I would ask my question. When in your life have you been willing to betray your own family secrets to talk to someone and report what feels deeply shameful about members of your family? I have walked beside many survivors on their healing journey and this is one of the biggest hurdles. To stand up and say, my father, uncle, grandfather, brother, mother, aunt, grandmother, sister hurt me… make me feel slimed and small by their interaction with me… might kill me… is nearly impossible for the adult survivor. And you would ask why a child can’t do it?

Tell me, who should Abby have told when a child is taught so well to obey adults and understands so well that adults have absolute,ultimate power in their lives. Have you ever told your child or grandchild to kiss a family member goodnight and waited for them to respond? When I watch that, I know the groundwork is being laid for that child to feel driven to respond when any adult in the extended family circle approaches them. Why would a child tell about an occurrence that starts feeling icky or intimidating, but is part of family expectations?

So much of why a child can’t speak up about their sexual abuse is rooted in what they have learned about being part of a family. You are loyal,you obey, you respond, you get along, and you do your part to hold your family together no matter what. I see this and I don’t know the answer for saving a child from sexual abuse, but I know it’s not in telling them to “say no” or “go tell someone”. That places the burden on the small shoulders of the very person who is dis-empowered by age. Even more, you are asking the person who is emotionally battered, confused, and afraid to step forward and shatter the illusion of family truth. You ask too much.

I walk beside many survivors who can share with me but not their families. They are unable to destroy the connections and images held by those they love. But you would ask this of a child? As one survivor, who remembers his abuse, said to me, “I knew if I told anyone shit would really happen. You don’t anger the people you depend on.”

As a survivor of sexual abuse, I have looked at this question for the children in my life. How could I create the opportunity for them to break through the wall of silence that holds them prisoner to the abuse even while it gives them the false security of family and everything that is familiar. My answer is this. Believe them. Believe the tiniest truth they can share.

And don’t brush this aside by answering, “But of course, I would”. If I hear you doing that, I know you aren’t able to believe. Could you believe a child who simply doesn’t want to be around an uncle? Would you accept the possibility if your child wouldn’t ride their bike by the house of that nice neighbor who is always working in the vegetable garden and sharing the bounty? To believe, you have to recognize 1 of 3 girls is sexually abuse and 1 of 6 boys is molested. To believe you have to acknowledge those who entice or threaten these children are just like the people you know, have met, share time with, and could be part of your family. Can you believe that?