«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 ...»
The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women and Sexual Exploitation:
Rape, Child Sexual Abuse and Workplace Harassment, questioned 930 San Francisco women and found that 38 percent had been sexually abused by the time they had reached the age of 18. She further found that of those women who were victims, 89 percent were abused by relatives or family acquaintances. Using Russell's figures as my guide (they are widely cited by other authorities in the field and have been duplicated in other studies) the estimate of the incidence of incest that I came up with is one in three; which is to say that incest happens to about one person in three before the age of 18.
Incestuous acts range from voyeurism and exhibitionism to masturbation, to rape and sodomy, to bestiality, to ritualized torture in cults. Incest may or may not include penetration, may or may not be violent. It may happen only once or continue for decades. It usually exists in secret, but not always.
Kim Shaffir was four and a half years old when her divorced mother remarried. Her stepfather, John Hairsine, showed Kim pornographic photographs and read aloud to her from pornographic novels. He took Polaroids of himself and Kim's mother having sex and showed Kim the pictures. He arranged for her to watch him and her mother having intercourse; he told her when they would be doing it and left the door open. Hairsine kept Kim quiet with the threat that if she told anyone, her mother would send her away.
From exhibitionism and voyeurism, Hairsine moved on to fondling. He made Kim perform oral sex on him. Then he forced her to have anal sex. As he had photographed himself with her mother, he now photographed himself with Kim.
When Kim was 13 her mother discovered the blurred backings of the Polaroid pictures of her husband and Kim. She broke the camera as a symbolic statement. "We're going to put it all behind us," she announced. But she was wrong.
Hairsine made peepholes throughout their Maryland house so he could spy on Kim. He drilled through the bathroom door. Kim repeatedly stuffed the hole with soap and toilet paper, which he would remove and she would replace. For three years she tried to avoid showering when her mother was out of the house.
Page 6 of 56 Every morning, under the guise of waking her for school, Hairsine entered her room and masturbated in her presence. Kim, now 30 and living in Washington, D.C., says, "That's how I'd wake up, to him coming into a dish towel as he stood by my bed."
One reason for the imprecise nature of the incest statistics is that when children try to tell, they aren't believed. Another is that many victims don't recognize certain behaviors as abusive. My parents would never have let anyone abuse me—if they had known.
They didn't know because I didn't know to tell them.
Small children understand very little about sex. Even kids who use "dirty" words often don't understand what those words mean. And as little as they know about normal sex, they know less about deviant sex. They simply trust that whatever happens to them at the hands of those who take care of them is supposed to happen. Children know that adults have absolute power over them, and even in the face of the most awful abuse, they will obey.
The victim who does tell is almost always asked: Why didn't you tell sooner? The
Many abusers make good on their threats, but most don't need to. "Small creatures deal with overwhelming threat by freezing, pretending to be asleep, and playing possum," says Dr. Roland Summit, the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center psychiatrist who, in a paper titled "The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome," sets forth a widely accepted explanation of how children behave when molested.
The classic paradigm for an incestuous union is between an older male (father or stepfather or grandfather or uncle) and a younger female. The male is pictured as seduced by a conniving and sexually precocious child who wants sex, power, and presents. Or he is seen as a snaggle-toothed tree dweller with an IQ below freezing who rapes his daughter because she is female, his, and nearer to hand than a cow. Yet Massachusetts therapist Mike Lew, author of Victims No Longer: Men Recovering from Incest and Other Sexual Child Abuse, told me that as many as 50 percent of victims may be boys. As therapist Karin C. Meiselman, Ph.D., writes in Resolving the Trauma of Incest, "The fact that many males are abused as children and adolescents is only beginning to receive adequate professional attention."
Difficult as it is for girls to talk about their abuse, it is even harder for boys. Boys are taught that they must be strong and self-reliant. For a boy to report that he was abused, he must admit weakness and victimization. If he was molested by a male, he will fear that this has made him homosexual.
Then, too, many boys simply don't know they have been abused. Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author most recently of You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, suggests that girls and boys are raised in different cultures. The world expects one set of behaviors and attitudes from girls and another, quite different set from boys.
We teach girls to avoid sex, to wait, and to protect themselves. We teach them that men are not allowed to do certain things to them. But we teach boys that any sex—any heterosexual sex—is good, the earlier the better. We tell them they "scored," they "got lucky." But consider the impact when a boy "gets lucky" with his mother.
Michael and Lisa "My first really clear memory," says Michael Smith, 30, "is of my mother performing oral sex on me. I was seven. My parents would make me watch them have sex before or after my mother had oral sex with me."
Ralph Smith, the family patriarch, is now 65 years old. His wife, Betty, is 58. They are gray-haired, churchgoing, God-fearing people whose eight children range in age from 20 to 40. The Smiths say they tried to give their kids a good childhood.
Page 8 of 56 "What happened to me was bad," says Michael, "but it was nothing compared to what happened to Lisa." Lisa is Michael's sister. Her earliest memory is of being five and her father fondling her and performing oral sex on her. She told her mother. "I was in the bathtub when I told her," Lisa says. "She slapped me around. She said, `You're dirty.
Don't ever say that again.' " Lisa's parents had sex in front of her, and when she turned 12 her father had intercourse with her—a pattern he continued until she turned 23 and left home. "I didn't like it,“ she says. "But he said it was right. He said it even said in the Bible that it was okay to have sex with your children and sex with your parents. He quoted Job. I begged my mother not to leave me alone with him anymore. She said, `I know you love him.' I asked her to help me, but she wouldn't."
Lisa's sister Michelle slept in a room next to Lisa's. She would hear her father go into Lisa's bedroom at night. "I would hear Lisa crying and screaming and telling him no," Michelle recalls.
Ralph and Betty Smith made Michael and Lisa perform oral sex on each other while they watched and gave instructions. "They said they were teaching us about sex," Michael says. "They were teaching us how to be good mates when we grew up, how to keep a mate satisfied. I would know how to please a woman. I could stay married."
Ralph and Betty kept the children silent by beating them and threatening to kill them and their brothers and sisters. Ralph Smith regularly held a gun to Lisa's head while he had intercourse with her.
Lisa believed that she and Michael were the only ones being molested. She believed that her being abused was protecting her younger siblings. "Until Michelle came and told me she was also being molested," Lisa says, "I thought I had protected them. My whole goal was to protect them. When I found out they had all been abused... " Her voice trails off. "We were afraid of our parents and the outside world. The very few people we tried to tell didn't believe us or only believed a little, not enough to do anything."
"I even told a priest once," Michael says. "He gave me a bunch of leaflets and told me to go home and work it out with my family."
Guilt Abused children assume that they are responsible for the abuse, believing they brought it on themselves. One man said to his 13-year-old victim, "I'm sorry this had to happen to you, but you're just too beautiful." Some victims feel guilty because they accepted presents or felt pleasure. Victims who experience orgasms while being molested suffer excruciating guilt and conflict.
While there have been articles by pedophiles arguing that incest is good and natural and that its prohibition violates the rights of children, psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman, M.D., writes in her pioneering book, Father-Daughter Incest, that the actual sexual encounter, whether brutal or tender, painful or pleasurable, "is always, inevitably, destructive to the child." And Maryland psychotherapist Christine A. Courtois, Ph.D., Page 9 of 56 author of Healing the Incest Wound: Adult Survivors in Therapy, is firm in her belief that incest "poses a serious mental-health risk for a substantial number of victims."
Mariann Mariann's father began taking her into his shower when she was five. He washed her and taught her to wash him. He took her into his bed for snuggling, which turned into fondling. He taught her to masturbate him and made her perform oral sex on him. When she was ten he forced her to have vaginal and anal intercourse.
Mariann's father told her he was teaching her about sex. He said he was teaching her to control her sexual feelings so she wouldn't get swept away. He told her that if she was ever with a boy and got sexually aroused, she was to come to him and he would "help" her.
When Mariann's mother caught her husband fondling their daughter, she called Mariann a whore and accused her of trying to seduce her father. Yet when Mariann's father got a job in another state that required him to move early one spring, her mother stayed behind until summer but insisted that Mariann go with him.
As Mariann grew older her father experienced periods of impotence. When he could no longer manage penetration, he masturbated between his daughter's breasts, ejaculated onto her chest, and rubbed his semen over her.
"There was no escaping it, no safety," Mariann remembers. "I started to feel crazy. I wanted to be crazy. I remember thinking, I want to take LSD and go crazy so they'll lock me up and I can stay there for the rest of my life." At 17, Mariann cut her wrists. The wounds were superficial, but she bled into her sheets all night and came down to breakfast with Band-Aids lined up along her arms. No one asked what had happened.
In spite of her objections and efforts to avoid her father, he continued to have sex with her, until he died when she was in her 20s. She has been hospitalized several times for severe depression and suicidal impulses. "I was invisible," she says. "That's all I was—a vagina. Nothing else existed."
Tony If incest can lead to suicide, it can also lead to homicide. Witness Tony Baekeland.
Tony's mother, Barbara, seduced him when he was in his early teens. She openly boasted of their affair, and Tony talked of it as well. When he became violent in his late teens and early 20s, neither of his parents got him psychiatric help. At 26, Tony stabbed his mother to death in their apartment. He was incarcerated at a facility for the criminally insane. His grandmother rallied friends and family to have him released. It took six years. Once freed, Tony stabbed his grandmother eight times at her apartment in New York. She survived. He was imprisoned on Rikers Island, where he suffocated himself with a plastic bag.
Physical effects In young children who are victims of incest, the vast array of physical and psychological symptoms suffered include injuries to the mouth, urethra, vagina, and anus; bed-wetting and soiling; fear of everyone of the perpetrator's gender; nightmares and/or sleep loss;
Page 10 of 56 compulsive masturbation, precocious sexual knowledge, and sexual acting out; running away, suicide attempts, and sexually transmitted diseases. Judge Jeffry H. Gallet of the New York State Family Court, sitting in Manhattan, perhaps best known as the judge who heard the Lisa Steinberg case, told me he had once seen a baby with pelvic inflammatory disease so severe that as an adult she will never be able to conceive. And as is well known to health workers and court officials, not all AIDS babies contract the virus before they are born.
Nina It is not at all unusual for victims to grow up with sexual problems. Some can't touch or be touched. Others become wildly promiscuous. Or act out in other sexual ways. That was the case with my friend Nina, who told me that she had been her "father's mistress."
Nina then went on to defend her father. "I hate it," she said, "when people say, `Any man who'd do that is sick.' He wasn't sick.
Except for the incest my dad was totally reliable and helpful and loving. He was the only loving parent I had. He was my role model when I was growing up. He taught me about morals and gave me all the important lessons of my life. If I have to give up my love for my father, what will I have left? I hate what he did, but I love him."
In what she now understands was an unconscious need to reenact in adulthood her secret, duplicitous life with her father, Nina became a bigamist. She married two men, maintained two households, and simultaneously raised three children—two of them in one house and a stepchild in the other.
Lasting Sexual Problems Some victims become prostitutes. Others believe that incest forced them into lifelong sexual behaviors that they would not have chosen for themselves, including homosexuality. Victims experience not only guilt, shame, fear, and a broad range of psychosocial disorders. They are unable to trust. They have severe problems maintaining intimate relationships, including those with their children.
Journalist Betsy Peterson, in Dancing with Daddy: A Childhood Lost and a Life Regained, describes how incest with her father affected her relationship with her sons.
"To know how much I love them is to know what I didn't give them, what they missed and what I missed," she writes. "I use my hands to stuff the sobs back in, to eat the terrible grief... because I spent their childhood as I spent my own, trying to protect myself."