April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. When my editor, Denise, proposed it as a topic for a post, I leapt at it. How timely, I thought, given the child abuse scandal that is currently embarrassing the Catholic Church and challenging the faith of many. Child abuse should be of concern to us every month, of course, but now more than ever seems a very good time to talk about it.
I just didn't expect that it would be so hard for me to talk about.
I've begun this post a dozen times if I've begun it once, and I've backspaced and deleted through every single one of the words that I wrote in each of those false-start drafts. Every time I started this post, I began with facts and statistics, figuring that I could just work my way through those, pause at the Church scandal for a spell, and then end up at some resources. But every time I began typing out those facts and statistics, I got stuck on this: I was abused. Sexually. By a babysitter, a boy who couldn't have been much beyond adolescence himself, a boy who I now understand must have been abused himself. It's something that I never, ever, ever talk about, never mind write about. It's something that I never told my parents, not until much, much later, and then only when my dad told me about how badly he had been abused as a child. Which is another thing that I never talk about, that I don't know how to write about, that I would be afraid to write about, for reasons that maybe aren't so relevant to a post on 'Child Abuse Prevention month.'
I wrote, yesterday, about the child abuse scandal in the Church. I swallowed my own discomfort, and focused on how horrible it was that the Church has concealed this abuse and protected the men who perpetrated it. I focused on some boys I'd know in Catholic school who were abused. I made it not about me - my own abuse did not occur, after all, within the Church - but about those boys, and about faith generally. Which is maybe a kind of dishonesty, I don't know. My own experience - and my experience, at a remove, of hearing my father's story - colors how I react to abuse. I was not open about that. And I ask myself, now, whether that matters. I have long felt compelled to hide own experience of abuse. My father felt compelled to hide his - even as he struggled to rescue his younger brother from the same fate, he felt compelled to hide his truth. And there are other stories, too, stories that I am not at liberty to tell, stories that were hidden, stories that have stayed hidden.
Does the hiding hurt the cause of fighting child abuse? It must. But coming out of hiding is so hard, and staying hidden feels so safe. Would I have told my parents about the abuse earlier, if I'd known more, or even if I'd known about the possibility of such an experience, in general? Were they looking out for it, or were they doing everything in their power to forget that such a thing could ever occur? My father told me later that he looked for abuse, as it might affect his own children, in what in hindsight seemed to be all the wrong places - in authority figures, in other family members. He said that it never, ever occurred to him to talk to us about it, not until much later.
As a parent myself now, I wonder what I am supposed to do. Do I keep my own stories hidden from my children? If not, when do I unhide them? How do I unhide them? How can I unhide them with my children, if I can't even do it with myself?
There are people, brave people, out there who are talking about it. Violence Unsilenced is a powerfully comforting, safe space in which men and women tell their stories, and the very presence of it holds a healing power that might not have been possible in the age before the Internet. My own Basement - a site where anyone can post, anonymously, their darkest (or not so dark) secrets - has seen more than its fair share of stories of abuse. Places where we can share our stories are important - critical - but what about how we talk about it with our families?
According to a recent study, when we do talk about abuse with our children, we do it wrong: we talk about strangers, about funny men lingering around playgrounds. My daughter's school had a 'predator drill' just after the Christmas holidays, and her class - junior kindergarten - was told that they were practicing for what they would do if there was a 'silly person' outside. A silly person who might hurt someone, who they needed to be protected from. But 'silly person' suggests an 'Other', someone who seems strange simply by dint of being unknown. I knew my abuser. My dad knew his. That drill might have been an opportunity for me to talk to my daughter about abuse. But I was preoccupied, at the time, with calming her fears, with reassuring her, with protecting. As my dad had done with me.
Talking about it is the first step, I know. But it's a powerfully difficult one for anyone who has experienced abuse, or who loves someone who has been abused. So we need to help each other take those steps. For our childrens' sake.
More information on child abuse prevention (please add your own links in the comment, if you have them):
- ChildHelp (you can make a pledge here to honor children who have died from abuse)
- Red Cross (they have a child abuse prevention kit, and guidelines for keeping young people safe)
- International Society For Prevention Of Child Abuse and Neglect
- There's also an excellent collection of links to resources at SafeKids BC (somewhat Canada-centric, but nonetheless useful).
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