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Solidarity with Fellow Survivors of Silencing

TW: CSA, child-shaming

Today (Sunday, July 7, 2024), the article finally came out in the Toronto Star that had been disrupting my sleep the last couple of weeks.

Headline:  “In the home of Alice Munro, a dark secret lurked.  Now, her children want the world to know”

Subheader:  Alice Munro’s husband sexually assaulted her youngest daughter. For nearly five decades, a conspiracy of silence haunted the family, and at times, tore them apart.”

The full article is available at https://www.thestar.com/news/in-the-home-of-alice-munro-a-dark-secret-lurked-now-her-children-want-the/article_69a63202-34cd-11ef-83f4-9b4275c26d84.html

EDIT - I missed the first-person piece Andrea provided to the Star as well – it's at https://www.thestar.com/opinion/contributors/my-stepfather-sexually-abused-me-when-i-was-a-child-my-mother-alice-munro-chose/article_8415ba7c-3ae0-11ef-83f5-2369a808ea37.html 

For those who don't have a subscription, Andrea spoke about her story a while ago in her blog post at https://thegatehouse.org/andrea-to-heal-is-truth-peace/

I hope she and her siblings are finding this truth-telling to be as healing as they wished – it's still a long road ahead, but speaking the truth is a huge first step, and I wish them much love and solidarity.

I'd been tipped off to the article a couple of weeks ago by a mutual friend, who knew Andrea's story would resonate – though I'm not sure he realized quite how much.  The finally speaking her truth, believing it would be the moment that changed everything, but changed nothing of substance.  The mother who cried and made it all about her, while alternately “not knowing” and placing more responsibility on the child than the abuser.  The family rallying to protect the abuser, and enlisting the victim's silence to do so.  The decades of wear and tear on a victim's ability to function, create safe relationships, trust yourself.  The having to endure gushing praise of your abusers and their apologists – often from people who already know (or ought to know, if they were paying any attention whatsoever) what was done to you.

So yeah… bit of a basket case recently.  But I can only imagine what Andrea and her siblings are going through right now.  (Though, will admit to be more than a little jealous that they reached out to her and she now has their full support.)

The patterns in Andrea's story are patterns that arise in pretty much every survivor's story (unless they have the remarkable fortune of having one of those rare, immediately-supportive families – those do exist, just not as often as would be ideal).  And, as I learned in my last decade-or-so of trauma therapy:

The betrayal and silencing coming from other family members – ESPECIALLY the mother – causes a whole hell of a lot more long-term psychological damage than the original sexual abuse.

 

I know that sounds weird to say.  We ALL know that childhood sexual abuse is bad and psychologically damaging.

But that's exactly the point.  We all know it's bad.  So it's relatively easy to say “that person did a bad thing, they were wrong” and pretty neatly figure out good touch and bad touch and move on (WITH proper therapy, of course – there are lots of layers of blame & shame to still work through, hence my use of the word “relatively”).

But when you finally get the nerve to tell your caregivers – especially the one who, as my own mother reminded me ever-so-frequently “is the only one who will love you this much” – that you are suffering through this abuse, and they do nothing to help you, that gives a child (and an adult survivor) one or both of the following messages:

1 - I don't believe you

2 - I do believe you, but your suffering isn't important enough to me to do something about it.

That first message is to blame for my (hopefully waning) inability to say “hey, that hurt” or “cut it out” until I am able to first write an iron-clad 40-page dissertation proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that I am, indeed, hurting and do not deserve to be.

That second message is to blame for… pretty much everything else.  Lack of worth, lack of lovability, lack of protectability… all those decades upon decades of not even waiting for someone else to indicate I was unworthy, unloveable, and not worth protecting, but pre-determining that to be the case, because… if I was worthy of all that, then surely the “only one who will love you this much” would have tried to do so?  And, holy mother of dog tap-dancing on a tea biscuit, all the time and energy I've put into this world, attempting to prove my worthiness and lovability and protectability?!?!?  No wonder I'm burnt out and my body is currently rebelling against me.

But, my fellow survivors, with these somewhat-predictable patterns can come the realization that

  1. We are not alone – i.e., we are not the freaks of nature we believed ourselves to be, we just didn't have the right support team in our corner at the time (through no fault of our own)
  2. We are believable (that person we told first was just incapable of processing the information – it was them, not you)
  3. Our suffering IS important enough for us to do something about it, even if the others in our lives were unwilling to or incapable of doing something about it at the time
  4. We are so freaking loveable it would make your head spin – but don't go looking for love from someone you have to “earn” it from: there are (believe it or not) people who will love you just because you're YOU, no tap-dancing required
  5. EVERY CHILD is worthy of protection – some people are just incapable of protecting their children, and that's on them, not you

And now is the time to let go of those two messages our mothers / caregivers gave us, embrace those five realizations, and re-mother ourselves in all the ways our childhood parents were incapable of.

The Toronto Star article and what I continue with below will each be difficult reads, but will hopefully help with realization #1.  Make sure you're in a good place before proceeding, and give yourself breaks whenever you need.  Hug a pet, hug a tree, go for a walk, stare at the water, call a friend.  Whatever works for you to stay grounded.  Self care ain't bubble baths and shopping, it's looking after your own physical and emotional needs.

First a glimpse into some of the messaging I had to overcome – it will be followed by more hopeful stuff, I promise!  But odds are, if you're a fellow survivor, these snippets will feel very familiar.  Self care, self care, rah rah rah - skip to under the solid line if you don't feel supported enough at the moment to be reminded of the painful stuff.  I'm sharing it more to say “look, I get it, this is the pattern we've all been subjected to, you're not alone, the hope I have to offer isn't Stuart Smalley-esque, it's the real deal”.  (Oh look, a whole paragraph justifying me telling my own story before I even get started… LOL)

Ahem…

When I finally got brave enough to tell my mother about my father's sexual abuse (he was still in our home at the time, I was 10 or 11) – that big moment that I knew would change everything as I knew it – the first words out of her mouth were “oh Alyssa, I can't handle this right now”.

It's probably the most truthful thing she's ever said to me.  But it was not what I expected, and most certainly not what I needed.

A few days later, she sent Dad into my room alone so we could “work out our differences”, and closed the door, so that my little sister wouldn't hear anything and get upset. (!)

I will not detail the “discussion” that was had behind those closed doors (for what felt like half a day, although I was slipping in and out of dissociation so much, it was difficult to judge – I do remember daylight when we started, and my sister already being in bed herself when my door finally opened).  But the handwriting in my diary changed dramatically and permanently the next day, and my genius brain began to create alternate universes for me to inhabit as I awaited rescue from my real parents (in a clear demonstration of “you only know what you know”, the alternate families my brain came up with – the Royal Family, the Jacksons, etc. – all later were reported to have sexual predators amongst them as well).

Hope is a mighty survival skill.  When the moment I had both hoped and feared would change everything changed nothing at all, my brain came up with a new hope, ridiculous though it might have been, in order to keep me from giving in to the temptation to just end it all (by then, I'd already spent years flattening by back against the subway platform, in case I didn't change my mind it time).

A few days later, as those who saw “Music For the Changing Voice” will remember, my mother reported back to me that my grandparents (my father's parents) said I was making it all up to get attention, just being a “Theda Bara”.  (Those who saw the show will also remember that “Theda Bara” was the term my family used to indicate I was crying about nothing, just to get attention.  As an adult, I finally discovered that Theda Bara was a silent screen sex symbol, known for her 'femme fatale' roles as vile seductresses that no man could resist, for whom the term ‘vamp’ was coined.  This gives a very clear indication of just how safe and protected I or any other child in this family could ever have been.)

So the family all knew (edit: the adults directly charged with my care all knew), but they either didn't believe me or didn't care.  I guess I had to wait for my real family in a galaxy far, far away?  Sigh… I can at least credit my (earthly) family with my early love of sci-fi and fantasy, and passion for creative writing.  Or at least my genius brain's brilliance of protecting myself from their failure to protect me from my father's predations or the psychological fallout.

(This desperate survival mechanism was, of course, used against me later, as evidence that I was crazy and my memory couldn't be trusted.  I eventually found such humour in realizing the etymology of the Greek name my parents gave me – “a” = not, “lyssa” = madness – they literally named me “not the crazy one”!)

I wasn't believed.  (I doubt that now, seeing how much effort went in to destroying my credibility and trust in my own senses, but that was the message received at the time)

I wasn't worth protecting.  (But my father, my mother, and the family's reputation all were)

In my early twenties, as my first husband (perhaps not even husband yet?) and I sat on my mother's back deck, somehow dad's abuse came up.  I truly don't remember what exactly the topic was, but I do remember crying to my mother “I never thought you believed me!”  And her saying “Of course I believed you!”, and she and I collapsing into tears and hugging it out.

It took me a few years to ask myself the question: if she believed me, then why didn't she protect me from his abuse?  If she believed me, why was it still a couple of years of him living in the house and tucking me in at night?  If she believed me then why, after she did kick him out (because he wouldn't stop drinking, not because of the abuse), did she send my sister and I for sleepovers and weeks away alone with him?

I didn't actually ask myself those questions.  My therapist at the time did.  Later that night, I had a grand mal seizure, because my body was already SO WELL TRAINED to keep me from asking these questions.  Pandora's box was opened, though, and I could no longer lie to myself that my father was the only dangerous parent in my world.

Over the next several years, Mom's story and behaviour vacillated so wildly between “I don't believe you” and “You weren't worth protecting” that it was difficult to remember my name, and that I was not the crazy one.  In order to keep myself at least relatively sane, I had to go “no contact” shortly before my 30th birthday.  That lasted several years, but she eventually stopped attacking, and I figured I was relatively safe with her again, as long as we avoided certain topics.  (Dun dun dun…)

The last several times I saw my mother in person, though (not for ages – I had to reinstate “no contact” in 2012, and have since been shown no reason to believe I am safe to change my mind about that), she was again wearing her engagement ring from Dad.  And she'd somehow convinced all her new friends that she was a widow (I suppose it's easy to do when you move to a new province).  I was too dumbfounded and shocked into old protective patterns that I was unable to open my mouth to let anyone know that by the time Dad died, she'd already not only divorced him, but her psychologist she'd left him for.  (And spent many years kicking myself for my silence, before understanding that it was just my nervous system trying to protect me again.)

It did give me a lot of insight into my mother's capacity for truthfulness, though, as well as how hard-wired I'd been trained to keep truth silenced (as well as the hoops my sister – who continues to live next door and whose friends are now my mother's friends – must have been enlisted to jump through, in order to keep up the “strong widow” charade).

I did gather up the strength, in private, to tell my mother how much it hurt me that she would be wearing the ring of my abuser.  Her response was “but I loved your father”.

So… over the years, it became clear that I had been believed.  I just wasn't worth protecting.  At least not to the woman who “loves you more than anyone else ever will.”

Lesson learned.  Message absorbed.

Message hammered home when I decided to leave the aforementioned first husband – after he threatened to kill me (well, not immediately after, it took over half a year of me trying to be a better wife so he wouldn't HAVE to threaten me, and finally getting him to couple's therapy where I could see the therapist's eyebrows raise as he excitedly defended his threat).  Once again, I thought I had enough “evidence” to make the choice to leave – the “this moment will change everything” justification.  But instead of the longed-for swooping in of “nobody threatens my baby like that”, my mother blamed our “differences” on my being a “flaky artiste”, and wrote us epistle after epistle about all the things I needed to change in myself in order to save my marriage to a man who thought murder threats were an appropriate way to speak to your wife.

(Two more ex-husbands later, and I can tell you that the “I don't believe you” and “you aren't worth protecting” messages aren't just given out from family members in regards to childhood sexual abuse.  There are those, for instance, who know full well what I endured in all three of those marriages, yet will still inexplicably speak in glowing terms about the men who abused me, threatened to kill me, almost did kill me, and whose social worker called to help me put a safety plan in place that I still employ to this day.  Whether theirs is message #1 or message #2, these are not family or friends I trust with my safety or well-being any longer, because they have clearly shown me they are either unable or unwilling to care for it.)

Those are just some of the funhouse-mirror things that I grew up (and spent much of my adulthood) believing were normal.

I mean, the pedophile was obviously the bad parent.  So if the good one, the one who “loves me more than anyone else ever could” does not see me as worthy of kindness or protection, then that's obviously because I'm unworthy of such things, right?

Which explains the three choices of husbands and the number of years it took for me to realize I didn't deserve the way they treated me… not to mention the number of “friends” I allowed to walk all over me, the crappy jobs (including volunteer) I kept at for way too long, my Cinderella-ing myself out of making a meal until my checklist is complete (as my one neighbourfriend said once, even Cinderella finally got to go to the damned ball), my spasms of guilt at just sitting on my patio and reading a book for pleasure, my spasms of guilt at even having a patio…

“You aren't worthy of my care” is a lesson that my poor little psyche has absorbed down to its core, and which I subject myself to every damned day.  Though I'm getting better at ignoring that lie, it's still a constant battle.  Re-mothering myself, teaching myself that my health and well-being matter, that I need to put my own oxygen mask on first, that I am deserving of all the love I can give myself.

My daily checklist now includes “hugs”, “spend 10 minutes doing nothing”, etc., so that I can counter lesson #1 (it's on a checklist, it must be true!), in order to counter lesson #2 (I am just as worthy of care as anyone else on the planet, yes, really, I mean it).


Well, that was a depressing little snippet into my sense of self-worth, now, wasn't it?

Okay, lemme skip the rest and cut to the hopeful part:  THE FAMILY WAS WRONG.

You are not worthless, unlovable, or unprotectable.  You do not have to earn worthiness, lovability or protection.  You just have to find people capable of offering such things.

A simple sentence to type, but not always simple to accomplish, especially if you come from a dysfunctional family rife with inter-generational trauma.  Sometimes you'll have to reach REALLY FAR outside your circle, to find people who aren't influenced by your family's dysfunction.  (If your parents are beloved Sunday School teachers, your church people are probably not the right choice.  If your grandfather arranged half of your high school orchestra's medleys, your school people are probably not the right choice.  If all the neighbourhood kids come to your place for pool parties, your neighbourhood people are probably not the right choice.  Try starting with a trained trauma professional, such as the Cedar Centre, Trauma Centre, or The Gatehouse, to name but a few – or see https://www.katieproject.ca/resources for more.)

These people won't need a 40-page dissertation to care about your safety and well-being.  You won't have to tap-dance your ass off to earn their caring.  They will care about you because they are capable of doing so.

If they don't care for you,
it's not because you aren't care-worthy, 
it's because they're incapable of doing so.

An emotionally healthy human being will not hear “ouch, I'm hurt” and require anything more than that to offer up compassion.  An emotionally healthy human being will not require a 40-page dissertation to justify showing you kindness.  An emotionally healthy human being will not require you to have bent heaven and earth for them before offering up an ounce of caring.

Take the person who alerted me to Andrea's story hitting the paper.  I haven't seen him in person in over five years, we keep in touch a bit on social media, but not a talk-on-a-regular-basis kind of friend.  I don't think I've ever done or sacrificed anything for him, other than maybe buying him a coffee or a beer at some point when we were working together.  He's just a guy who knows my story, remembered it when his close friend's story was about to go public, and wanted to give me a “heads up” so I wasn't blindsided, because he's a decent person who cares about my well-being.

THESE PEOPLE ARE EVERYWHERE.  They may not be everywhere in your immediate circle at the moment, but they're out there.

And one thing I've discovered in the last ten years – as soon as you start to see yourself as worthy of basic human decency, you start to attract others who do too.  (No, this is NOT to blame you for the uncaring people you're currently surrounded with, please believe me, they are not your fault.)

“HOW THE HELL DO I GET TO THAT POINT?!?!?”, you may very well ask.

Here's what worked for me:

Think of how old you were when you first started getting message 1 or 2.  Were you four?  Six?  Eleven?

Think of a kid that age – maybe a kid you know, maybe a fictional character, maybe just some hypothetical kid you  made up on the spot.

Picture that kid coming to you afraid or in pain and not knowing where to turn for help.

Would you require a 40-page dissertation filled with irrefutable evidence before you acknowledged they were afraid or in pain?  Would you ask them what they had already done or sacrificed for others before deeming them worthy of empathy?  Would you require them to have lived an impeccable existence, handling obstacles in their way brilliantly with all the tools and hard-earned wisdom of an adult before offering comfort?

HELL NO

You'd give that kid a hug and try to figure out a way to help.

You were that kid.  A stuck part of you still is that kid.

Give that kid a damned hug.  Remind that kid that neither they nor any other kid ever deserves to be afraid or in pain.  Tell that kid that, even though you may not be sure exactly what to do at the moment, you're going to try and figure out how to protect them from any more fear or pain.  Show that kid you love them.  And not in the Stuart Smalley-esque way.  (Positive affirmations can actually be more damaging than nothing at all if you don't believe you're worthy of them, but that's a whole other essay.)

Just saying the word isn't gonna cut it.  Love is a verb, there are dragons to slay, it won't be over in five minutes, followed by a parade of sparkles and cupcakes.

But that kid is – YOU ARE – totally worth loving and protecting.

And you're gonna need to remind yourself of that every day.  You need to love and protect that kid / you every day.  After a while, when shitty people engage in shitty behaviour, you'll gradually be able to recognize that it's just shitty people engaging in shitty behaviour, it has nothing to do with you or what you deserve.  Then, instead of pouring energy (and/or a 40-page dissertation) into convincing them to treat you decently, you can draw the line against being treated poorly.

Other people in your childhood may have totally sucked at protecting you, but you do not need to continue their legacy.

Even on the days when you're struggling to believe you're worthy, you can still go through the motions of showing that kid / you that you are willing to protect them and keep them safe.

Love is a verb.  If you continue to practise loving yourself in this way by keeping yourself safe, the feeling of love for yourself will start to shine through, I promise.  You are worthy.  You are lovable.  You are worth protecting.

The people who were supposed to love you, who professed to love you, were incapable of turning that word into a verb.  It sucks that you have to do their job now, after so many years, but it's time to verb that noun, baybee.

You are so worthy of fierce love.

The adults in your life when you were a kid were incapable of fierce love.  But you know, deep down, what you wanted from them.  What you needed from them.  What you deserved from them.  It's time to lavish yourself with all you wanted, needed and deserved back then.

In the Star article, Andrea finally started to realize that she didn't deserve her abuse when she tried to protect her own children, and saw the patterns repeat themselves as the ‘adults’ swooped in to prevent that from happening.  For me, that realization began when I realized I didn't want to have children, because I didn't want to give my family another chance at destroying any more fragile psyches (and at that point, I still didn't trust my ability to protect them – see husbands one, two and three…).

When we see other children being treated – or the potential of them being treated – in the same abusive ways we were (both overtly and covertly), it becomes quite clear to us that no child deserves what we went through.  Which eventually leads us to the understanding that WE never deserved what we had to go through as children (or the inevitable echoes repeating before true healing is able to get a foothold).

Again, it's not going to take five minutes, and there aren't going to be sparkles and cupcakes.  There will be a lot of tears.  A lot of anger.  Rage, even.  Grief.  Soooo much grief.  Stuff resurfacing that we thought we'd stomped down long ago.  Maybe too many cupcakes and single malt.  Maybe not enough cupcakes.  Maybe not enough vegetables.

Love is a verb, and it's not always easy or pretty or tied up in a bow.  But it's GOOD.  It's HEALING.  And as long as you can remember that no kid is responsible for being abused, no kid is to blame for their pain or the ways their not-yet-fully-formed brain came up with to keep them alive through it all, no kid is responsible for adults who are incapable of adulting, you will make it through the storm.  And there will be rainbows.  And sparkles.  And just the right amount of cupcakes.  And garlic mashed potatoes, because… YUM.

Gather your support system for the journey.  You will likely need a trauma-informed professional to help you through the worst of it (see links above).  You will likely need a support group of people who have gone through similar things (https://pandys.org is a great place to connect with fellow survivors around the world, and safely talk with people outside your immediate circle).  Hopefully you're lucky enough to have some real-life friends who can remind you how loveable you are as well, and worthy of protecting – let them know you're taking the deep dive (they won't need to know the details until you're ready to share), and could use some reminders of your lovability on the crappy days.

Because you are lovable, you are worthy, 
you do deserve care and protection – and that's been the case all along.

Now go give yourself a hug, take ten minutes to do nothing at all, and then dream up some ways of showing yourself you're worthy of kindness and protection.

I love you.

 

P.S. – if you are a fellow survivor whose mother chose your abuser over you, her own child, there's an EXCELLENT book that really helped me see the patterns (and not take them personally), “The Ultimate Betrayal” by Audrey Ricker.  I did a book review at https://alyssawright.com/ramblings/blog/3262861/book-report-the-ultimate-betrayal--2 

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