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«Return to LEAR'S FEBRUARY 1992 By Heidi Vanderbilt A Chilling Report Do you want to know what incest is? What it really is? No ...»

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By Heidi Vanderbilt

A Chilling Report

Do you want to know what incest is?

What it really is?

No euphemisms, evasions, excuses, or


Are you sure? Then read this.

Every word of it is true.

The horror is unimaginable.

But in the end, at least you will know.

The celebrity tell-all about incest has made this the right moment for

LEAR'S to release a body of work on the subject begun ten years ago, assembled and beautifully written by Heidi Vanderbilt.

In 1981, Susan Brownmiller wrote Against Our Will: Men, Women, & Rape, a book that changed the laws on rape and the fate of rape victims.

We believe that this substantive report will have a similar impact, bringing legal recourse to incest victims and profoundly contributing to the well-being of incest survivors.

A Complimentary Reprint from LEAR'S Magazine, February 1992 Copyright ©1992 LEAR Publishing, Inc.

All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

Department 1, 655 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10021-8043 Fax number 212-888-0086 To receive a complimentary reprint or reprints of this report to share with police, schools, hospitals, social services, and other community organizations, write: LEAR'S, Department 1, 655 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10021.

Page 1 of 56 Once I broke a bone in my foot. It healed, but sometimes it aches. When I broke that bone, I thought about it all the time. Now I almost never do. Only if I go back to the place where I got hurt. Or if I put a certain kind of stress on the bone. Or, sometimes, on gray days. There were times when I thought about my abuse every day, all day. And dreamed about it at night. But I rarely think about it anymore. For the purposes of this article I'll speak about it for a while. Then I'll go on to something else.

Healing from incest is possible: Victims become survivors. Those of us who were kidnapped in our childhood and carried into darkness have the opportunity to transcend and transform that experience, to know love in its most sinister forms as well as in its finest, and to have the power of that knowledge. But while it is possible to survive and even to triumph over incest, it is a destructive and infectious crime for which we all pay emotionally, financially, and spiritually. It affects more of us than cancer, more of us than heart disease, more of us than AIDS.

We must look at incest for what it really is, not what we fear it might be or wish it were.

Incest is a crime committed by adults against children, by the strong against the weak.

Incest is not a crime determined by gender. To really understand incest and to help end it, we must allow ourselves to see that women as well as men abuse. That women probably abuse as often as men and for the same reasons—because as children they were sexually abused themselves. We must acknowledge women as the sexual equals of men—down to the darkest impulse and act. Men must learn to recognize their own victimization—equal, in this instance, to women's. We must learn that the consequences of child sexual abuse damage everyone, male and female, adult and child.

We need to do more than survive incest. We need to stop it.

Heidi Vanderbilt is an award-winning writer who lives in New England.


Rikki and Nick Rikki and Nick's parents were members of a satanic cult. The children were sexually abused and tortured. When the parents left the cult, they got their children into therapy. Rikki is three. Nick is four. Both have full-blown multiple personality disorders.

Lauren Lauren was five when she told her mother that a family friend who often took care of her had "fooled" with her. Her mother was relieved when the doctors found no physical evidence of sexual abuse. She wondered if her daughter's story was true. Then Lauren told her mother that the friend had taken photos of her. The photos were found; they revealed that Lauren had been raped and sodomized over a period of more than a year.

Sharon Sharon's mother masturbated her to sleep from the time she was born. As Sharon grew older, her mother would sometimes stare at her for long periods. "I love you too much," she would, repeat, over and over. Now 44, Sharon says, "I still don't know where my mother ends and I begin.

Page 2 of 56 "I take responsibility for what happened," she says. "I bought into it. I know my mother shouldn't have done it, but I'm responsible, too."

"How could you be responsible for something that began when you were only a baby?" a friend asks. "I just am," she insists. Sharon has been in Freudian analysis for 15 years.

Becky From the age of five, Becky was ritually abused by her mother and others in a cult. At the age of eight, Becky was designated to drug other children in the cult; she was to give them a soft drink laced with sedatives. When she refused she was made to sit naked on a hill of fire ants. The only comfort she knew in her life was when her mother applied lotion to her bites.

Becky developed multiple personalities. She became a nanny and went on to abuse a succession of children in her care who were all too young to report what had happened.

Eventually she went to a psychiatrist and got treatment.

Viola Viola, 27, was raped by her father when she was 4.

Her father was caught in the act and fled the country. Viola can't remember the assault. She believes that she must remember it in order to heal. She is bulimic and suicidal.

Laura Sandy insisted that Laura, her daughter, move her bowels every day after dinner. She forbade her to flush. If Sandy wasn't satisfied with what she saw—she almost never was—she bent Laura over the toilet and inserted her finger into the child's rectum.

"She'd move it around, in and out," Laura says, 23 years later. "I know now that she was fingerfucking me, but it wasn't until I was in therapy for eating disorders that I realized what it meant."

Laura is 5 feet 5 inches tall. Her weight swings between 90 and 170 pounds.

Maureen When Anne-Marie's 17-year-old daughter, Maureen, left home, she told an aunt that her father had molested her and her brothers and sisters. While the case was being investigated, Maureen's father killed her mother. Out on bail pending trial, he moved back in with his younger children.

When a child-welfare worker came to question him, he said, "Get out of my face or I'll do to you what I did to my wife."

Jenny Jenny, who had been sexually abused as a child, refused to believe it when a neighbor filed a complaint charging that her ten-year-old had been molested by Jenny's husband, Norman. Then her own child, five-year-old Emma, told Jenny that her father had abused her and her baby brothers while Jenny was at work. Norman went to prison.

Jenny poured gasoline over herself and her children and struck a match. The mother and both sons were enveloped in flames, but Emma was able to escape. Jenny, two-year-old Adam, and three-year-old Gerry burned to death.

Alison Alison was eight when she was raped by her stepfather, Buddy, a drug user. HIV positive, Buddy had infected his wife, who later gave birth to an HIV-positive son and, the following year, a second daughter, who is HIV negative. In 1987, Alison's mother, who was carrying twins at the time, died of AIDS in her seventh month of pregnancy. Convicted of Alison's rape, Buddy is currently serving time. From prison he is seeking visitation rights to his son and daughter, who Page 3 of 56 are now in foster care.

I am five. The July sun shines on my shoulders. I am wearing a dress I have never seen before, one I don't remember putting on. The door opens and a little girl runs to me, her face delighted. I have never seen her before. I am completely terrified and try to hide behind my astonished and irritated mother.

"But she's your best friend!" my mother says, and tells me that I played at the girl's house just yesterday. I don't remember. When my mother tells me her name, I've never heard it before.

Other children arrive. I remember some of them, but from long ago. They're older now.

They've grown. Some have lost their teeth.

I pretend that everything is all right.

At night I lie awake as I have for years, listening. I hear footsteps coming down the hall.

I hold my breath. I watch the edge of the door to my bedroom. I watch for the hand that will push it open. If it is my mother's hand or my father's, I am all right. For now. If it is the hand of the woman who lives with us and sticks things into me, I move out of my body. I disappear into a painting on the wall, into my alarm clock with its rocking Gene Autry figure, into imaginary landscapes. Usually I come back when the woman leaves.

But not always.

I am eight. I have spoken French from the time I was three. I attended a French kindergarten, and now the Lycee Francais. I have just spent the summer in France. My French is fluent when we leave Nice. Four days later, after my return to the woman who hurts me, I can no longer understand or speak a single word of French. Sitting at my gouged wooden desk, my classmates sniggering around me, I feel terrified and ashamed, certain that what-ever is wrong is my fault.

She told me she would cut out my tongue. She told me I would forget. I remember how tall she was, how she wore her hair pulled back with wisps breaking loose at the temples. I knew then that I would never forget.

I am 40. There are things I have always remembered, things I have forgotten, things that exist in shadows only, that slip away when I try to think about them. I can'tremember all that she did that sent me "away." Nor do I know what I was doing while I was "away." I only know that these episodes began with periods of abuse so frightening, painful, and humiliating that I left my body and parts of my mind.

I rarely talk about what happened to me. I have never discussed the details with my parents, my husband, or anyone else. When-ever I think of telling, she returns in my dreams.

I dream that I am a child and she chases me with a sharp knife, catches me, and gouges out my eyes. I dream that I have to protect little children at night, even though I am alone and a child myself. I tuck in the other children and get into my bed. Her arm Page 4 of 56 reaches for me and pulls me down. I dream that I run for help, enter a phone booth, hear a dial tone. When I reach up I see the phone has been torn from the wall. I dream of animals skinned alive while I scream.

Sometimes when I sleep I stop breathing and can't make myself start until I wake gasping, my fingers blue.

What is Incest?

Incest can happen to anyone: to rich and to poor; to whites, blacks, Asians, Native Americans, Jews, Christians, and Buddhists. It happens to girls and to boys, to the gifted and to the disabled. It happens to children whose parents neglect them, and those—like me—whose parents love and care for them.

What exactly is incest? The definition that I use in this article is: any sexual abuse of a child by a relative or other person in a position of trust and authority over the child. It is the violation of the child where he or she lives—literally and metaphorically. A child molested by a stranger can run home for help and comfort. A victim of incest cannot.

Versions of this definition are widely used outside the courtroom by therapists and researchers. In court, incest definitions vary from state to state. In many states, the law requires that for incest to have taken place, vaginal penetration must be proved. So if a father rapes his child anally or orally he may be guilty of child sexual abuse but may not, legally, be guilty of incest.

I believe that if incest is to be understood and fought effectively, it is imperative that the definition commonly held among therapists and researchers (the definition I have given here) be generally accepted by the courts and public. I am not alone in this belief. As therapist E. Sue Bloom, for one, writes in Secret Survivors: Uncovering Incest and Its Aftereffects in Women: "If we are to understand incest, we must look not at the blood bond, but at the emotional bond between the victim and the perpetrator.... The important criterion is whether there is a real relationship in the experience of the child."

"The crucial psychosocial dynamic is the familial relationship between the incest participants," adds Suzanne M. Sgroi, M.D., director of the Saint Joseph College's Institute for Child Sexual Abuse Intervention in West Hartford, Connecticut, writing in the Hand-book of Clinical Intervention in Child Sexual Abuse. "The presence or absence of a blood relationship between incest participants is of far less significance than the kinship roles they occupy."

Incest happens between father and daughter, father and son, mother and daughter, mother and son. It also happens between stepparents and stepchildren, between grandparents and grandchildren, between aunts and uncles and their nieces and nephews. It can also happen by proxy, when live-in help abuses or a parent's lover is the abuser; though there is no blood or legal relationship, the child is betrayed and violated within the context of family.

No one knows how many incest victims there are. No definitive random studies on incest involving a cross section of respondents have been undertaken. No accurate Page 5 of 56 collection systems for gathering information exist. The statistics change depending on a number of variables: the population surveyed, the bias of the researcher, the sensitivity of the questions, and the definition of incest used. This is an area "where each question becomes a dispute and every answer an insult," writes Roland Summit, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, California, in his introduction to Sexual Abuse of Young Children. "The expert in child sexual abuse today may be an ignoramus tomorrow."

As recently as the early '70s, experts in the psychiatric community stated that there were only 1 to 5 cases of incest per one million people. When I began work on this article, I thought that maybe one person in a hundred was an incest victim. How wrong I was. Sometimes called "rape by extortion," incest is about betrayal of trust, and it accounts for most child sexual abuse by far. To be specific: In 1977, Diana E. H.

Russell, Ph.D., professor emeritus at Mills College in Oakland, California, and author of

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