Today we complete our series with guest blogger Humphrey*. This week, he speaks about the dynamics that allow for abuse to occur and then go unhealed for years.
“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”
“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” This quote is taken from the film Spotlight, and the village refers to the Catholic community of Boston, USA, which colluded in protecting priests from facing the legal consequences of sexually abusing children.
The quote is an adaptation of an African proverb, which crops up in various forms in different languages, the common theme being that a child does not grow up in isolation in one family, there is a wider community that contributes to the child’s upbringing. In my case, I grew up in the suburbs of London, and that community included schools, friends, and unfortunately the abusive family next door.
The quote from the film made me think a bit more about something my therapist tried to explain to me a while back. He wanted me to see the abuse I suffered as something that happened in a context. I think his point was that if my family had been a little less dysfunctional, the abuse could never have happened, or would have been stopped immediately.
A less dysfunctional family would have been able to have a quiet chat with the six year-old me, and would have reassured him that he did nothing wrong and was not to blame, but that he would no longer be spending any more time with the teenage girl who lived next door. That chat would have prevented him from developing a negative self-image driven by guilt and shame, and a point of view of complete isolation from every other human on the planet.
But my family did not talk about such things. They were English and reserved and embarrassed about sex. I did tell my sister the first time I played doctors and nurses with the girl, before the games became more sexual. Her response? “That’s disgusting.” No more was said about it for several decades.
It took me years of therapy before I could talk to my father or sister about it. Their response now?
“We didn’t know.”
Unfortunately my mother died before I was ready to talk to her about the abuse, and I will never know if she knew. My father swears that she didn’t know.
I used to spend hours at a time engrossed in my toys and Meccano, and would not respond when spoken to. It got so bad that my parents would call me “autistic” or “catatonic”. I dissociated to the point where they just could not get a word out of me, for hours at a time. This went on for years. But they “didn’t know” there was anything wrong. A less dysfunctional family would have realized that I was traumatized, and maybe taken me to a child psychologist.
My father was deeply involved in an affair with a woman at work, he tried to leave us for her when I was eight, but guilt got the better of him, and he stayed. After that my mother and sister resented my father and all men in general, and my parents bickered and argued constantly for the next twenty years. And of course none of it was ever talked about. We’re English, don’t you know. It was not an environment in which you could talk about emotions, family dynamics, and you certainly couldn’t talk about some weird sexual experience that was making you feel like a total freak.
My parents refused to cut my hair, preferring me to have long hair. As a result, many people did not know if I was a boy or a girl. It got to the point where I myself did not know if I was a boy or a girl. Along with a female-dominated household, abuse by a female, and general scorn for all things male, this contributed to confusion about identity, gender and sexuality, which still persists to this day.
I went to a Catholic school from the ages of six to eleven. Sex was a sin. Sinners went to hell, end of story. I quickly learned to keep my abuse secret. Not that I knew it was abuse at the time, I just knew I was doing something bad, something disgusting, something sinful for which I would go to hell.
There were nuns at the school, some of them were sadistic and vicious and would break rulers over your knuckles in front of the whole class. From the ages of eleven to fourteen, I went to a state school were I was bullied mercilessly. I retreated deep into my dissociative shell and have few memories of this period. My parents have since told me that it was impossible to talk to me for hours after I got home from school during this period. Eventually I told them about the bullying and they moved me to another school. Things improved for a while until I stepped into the world of drink, drugs, sex and music.
I left home at eighteen and moved into a squat in South London. On my nineteenth birthday, I was chased and beaten by gangsters with baseball bats and knives. I ended up in hospital with stitches in my head. My friend had knife wounds all over his back and many more stitches than me. His mother never forgave me for being a bad influence on her son. At this stage of my life I had no conscious memory of the sexual abuse, I had completely buried it.
I can see now that it wasn’t just the actions of a teenage girl that caused me to be sexually abused and traumatized. She couldn’t have done it if the family, school and community had been functioning properly. And the effects of the trauma would not have been nearly so bad if I had been in a more supportive environment in the twelve years that followed. It’s not just one person that abuses a child, it’s the whole fucking village.
Humphrey* is a sound designer and audio producer, who has played in bands, been a DJ, music producer, and award-wining [winning] filmmaker. He waited twenty years after leaving school before going to university and getting a Masters Degree. He grew up in England and now lives in Australia. He is also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. His blog is No I’m Not OK, where he writes about his deeply personal battles with anxiety, depression and anger.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy
Thank you, Rachel, for allowing And He Restoreth My Soul Project the privilege to post “When Your Abuser is A Woman”