«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 ...»
Paul has stayed in touch with their mother but sees her less and less often. Her behavior has become increasingly bizarre. Even her grandsons are wary of her. Helen laughs. "You know what Paul did on his tenth anniversary?" she asks. "He took down the photographs of Mom from the bedroom walls. That's when I knew he was making real progress."
Helen says that when she divorced her first husband and moved to Mendocino with their daughter, Christine, she finally went into therapy. "I found a wonderful therapist," Page 39 of 56 she says. "He was smart, kind, and helpful. Even though sexual abuse wasn't his specialty, he believed me, and he was able to listen to what I told him. We developed a partnership that gave me a lot of power."
A year after starting therapy, Helen severed ties with her family, except for Paul. "I had to decide what was going to keep me sane and let me grow," she says. "I could have spent years working on how to deal with Mom and Dad, but I decided that I wanted to get on with me, with my life. Not just in a selfish way. I wanted to make a life for myself and Christine. I wanted the past to be the past. Some relationships are worth working to preserve. Some aren't."
After two years with her therapist, Helen joined an incest survivors' group and attended its meetings regularly for more than two years. "Every now and then," she tells me, "I still go back either to group or to my old therapist for tune-ups."
"Six years ago I met a nice man, John, and pretty soon we talked about getting married.
I went back to therapy then--it was the second time I'd gone back— because I wanted to be clear about what I was doing, and why. I wanted to tell John what had happened to me, and I wanted help doing it."
There are no photographs of Helen's parents to be seen in her house. "I have them in scrapbooks," she tells me, "for Christine. I don't know if I'd keep them for myself."
Instead, I see Helen's photographs of Christine and some of her second husband, John—"I got it right this time," she tells me, "I married someone wonderful"—and of her friends. On the wall outside her office I see a photograph of Helen winning an award for her pictures, and another of her taken on a mountain climbing expedition. Her head is thrown back and she is laughing.
"I have my life now," Helen tells me. "My child is a wonderful, healthy, sunny young woman. I have a truly happy marriage. I have my work. I still have issues—who doesn't?
I don't know what I would have been like without the incest, but now I'm pleased with myself and my life. I consider myself a survivor. I consider that I have recovered."
Can anyone really recover Can anyone really recover from incest? This question is asked at workshops, in therapy, by victims and offenders. This is a question I asked myself. Can I heal?
The answer is yes. With a lot of work and a lot of help. Most victims who don't get help find themselves afloat, aimless and desperate, tethered only to the secrets, the shame, and the self-hatred of the past. I have seen them lined up on Manhattan streets after midnight, 12 years old, naked from the waist down, selling themselves to carloads of men. They are our child whores. They are the fodder of organized prostitution and pornography. They account for a huge percentage of the runaway, the vagrant, the criminal, and the despairing who live on our streets and clutter our subways and bus terminals when they are not filling our mental hospitals.
"Ten years ago I longed for a suspected brain tumor or cancer to relieve me of the
"Every survivor deserves to heal," says Laura Davis, coauthor of The Courage to Heal and author of Allies in Healing. From the time she was 3 until she was 10, Davis was molested by her grandfather. He began by fondling her, then progressed to rape. She learned to leave her body by concentrating on the ceiling light. It seemed clean and pure to her. She split off from herself. She forgot what her grandfather did to her. All she knew was that he loved her. When he died 12 years ago, she wrote a eulogy. Several years after he was buried, she remembered.
"I read everything I could find on the subject of incest," she says. "Seven years ago I found a grand total of three books. Those books helped me to know that I wasn't alone, but the message I got from them was that my life was ruined. I was now a grim statistic of child sexual abuse. No one was talking about healing yet. I wanted to find out if I could heal and how to go about it. Then I decided to write a book about it."
As recently as a decade ago, healing from incest was problematic at best. The psychiatric community, still in thrall to the teachings of Freud, either disbelieved that incest occurred or minimized its importance. Therapists often tried to convince patients that their abuse was a fantasy. If there was an irrefutable history of incest, many refused to accept the patient.
Over the last ten years, however, therapists who were influenced by the feminist movement began to listen to their clients, believed them, and pioneered new and effective treatments. Other therapists followed. Now survivors can use talk therapy, group therapy, art therapy, and body and movement therapy—the last two of which help release memories locked in the body. (Last summer I hurt my back. The instant the physical therapist touched my ribs I had vivid flashbacks to a specific beating that I had long forgotten. This was not like feeling an old bruise. This was having the entire event recur.) Now there are dozens of books on incest and its consequences, self-help workshops, and 12-step programs to use in conjunction with other therapies. There are even wilderness trips to help survivors experience their bodies as strong and trustworthy and to re-pattern reactions to fear. There are also role models to look to: survivors who have transcended their victimization, traversed their rage, and emerged into the complex happiness of health.
The earlier a survivor goes for help, the better the prognosis. Victims of incest who receive appropriate treatment make spectacular recoveries. But effective treatment is often long-term, and many survivors lead lives too chaotic to accommodate it. Longterm therapy can also be expensive—so much so that only the solvent and/or insured can afford it, and many survivors don't have health insurance because they are unemployed and indigent. Free clinics, which may be able to offer only short-term treatment, have waiting lists that are months long. Most areas don't even have a clinic to wait for In The Obsidian Mirror: An Adult Healing from Incest, Louise M. Wisechild writes: "As a Page 41 of 56 child, I learned that strength was the denial of feeling. Now I see that feeling is the key to self-honesty. Within feeling is found the passion for change."
Recovery procedure—which for many may include gaining that ability to feel—requires an almost heartbreaking commitment to truths nobody wants to hear, to things nobody wants to say, to memories nobody wants to have. Victims of incest have lost their innocence, their memories, their parents, their families, their trust, the opportunity to grow up and develop in the ways and in the time allowed to children who were not abused. They are consumed with self-hate and doubt: "Why did it happen to me?
What's wrong with me? What's wrong with my family? What's wrong with God? Why didn't I stop it? Why didn't God stop it? What kind of life can I have now? Am I doomed?
Am I crazy? Delusional? Vindictive? Psychotic? Evil?" The initial results of an ongoing study being conducted by Cheryl Lanktree, Ph.D., a psychologist with Stuart House, to evaluate how children respond to long-term treatment reveal that after three months, anxiety and depression ease, and that after six months, the symptoms of post-traumatic stress decrease—the children are no longer phobic in situations or places and are free of nightmares and flashbacks. However, says Lanktree, it takes much longer for the children's concerns and preoccupation with sex, and sexual acting out, to diminish. How long depends on the child, the abuse, the therapy. Under stress, child and adult victims may reexperience trauma symptoms and may need to go back to therapy for additional help.
Recovery for adults may take longer and be more complex than for children, but it, too, has predictable stages. Confronted by memories and their implications, the victim can swing wildly between denial that the abuse ever happened and acceptance of the fact that it did. With acceptance comes grief. Then rage. And, finally, self-forgiveness followed by resolution.
The hazard is that one can get mired in rage—rage at society, rage at the family structure that has institutionalized the victimization of children, rage at reruns of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best, at family members (who are in turn enraged at the survivor for talking). There may be rage about the fact that laws seem to support the offender over the victim, that the statute of limitations may have run out, that the person who did it can't be tried or can be tried only in civil court. There may be rage when an offender is either acquitted or given a frivolous sentence. And there may be self-rage for having been a victim. For having lived such a problematic life. For having felt pleasure. For not having told. For not having told in such a way as to be believed. For having told at all.
Anger feels so good, so powerful, that it can be mistaken for health. Victims, who have often long denied their feelings, need to have their anger and to move through it into healing. From anger springs the energy that propels survivors out of their victimization and into life. But the anger needs to be focused on the offender in an appropriate way.
Fury at everyone who is of the offender's age, gender, or profession is too amorphous to be helpful. It is all-consuming, all-encompassing. You can drown in it. Anger isn't the last stop, it isn't the goal.
To recover from incest, victims must place responsibility for the act where it belongs— Page 42 of 56 100 percent on the offender. If they fail to lay the blame there, they will remain forever in emotional paralysis, wracked by guilt andpain and unable to grow. Each victim must develop a renewed perception of self as someone who has the right to not be mistreated. Victims need to feel safe. And to start to seek contact with others. "Victims of incest feel that they don't deserve to participate in normal activities," says Eliana Gil, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in Maryland who has had 20 years of experience treating incest victims and offenders—male and female, adult and child.
Mike Lew, the Massachusetts therapist who works with male incest survivors, defines recovery as "the freedom to make choices that are not based on the abuse."
There may be some few people who can heal on their own, without help. For some few, a friend may be able to give enough aid and support. For most of us, though, a therapist—the right therapist—makes all the difference. " `Uh-huh therapy' won't work," says psychotherapist Arlene Drake of Encino, California, who specializes in treating incest and child-sexual-abuse survivors both in private and group therapy. "Survivors need therapists who are active, interactive, and risk-taking themselves."
The therapist must be open, must be able to hear what the survivor needs to say and able to believe it. As Eliana Gil says, "Therapy must be where the victim can speak the unspoken. Therapy is two-way: The victim volunteers information and the therapist indicates willingness to talk about it."
Not all therapists can do that. Some find sex and violence extremely difficult to talk about. Some are overly invested in what they learned in graduate school and are unwilling to chance that what they were taught isn't all they need to know. Some, for reasons ranging from silly ("It can't be true, those things just don't happen") to legitimate (concern for the credibility of certain studies, for impartiality of certain researchers, for their own col-leagues' conclusions), are not able to be fully present for their clients on this issue. It usually falls to the client to decide whether a particular therapist can handle the material.
Eliana Gil points out that some therapists turn a deaf ear when they hear about incest.
"A certain percentage of them believe that this is total exaggeration or that the impact is exaggerated," she says. One general-practice therapist I spoke to expressed just such reservations. "Incest is in vogue now," she said. "And while of course I believe my clients, how can they be sure of things that happened decades ago? Suddenly my clients are coming in claiming incest, post-traumatic stress, and multiple personalities.
Please!" There are also therapists who sexually exploit incest survivors. Mary W.
Armsworth, the trauma specialist at the University of Houston, found that at least 23 percent of all female survivors have been sexually abused by their therapist. Other estimates, she says, run as high as 30 percent.
Anyone who encounters skepticism in a therapist, or adherence to what was taught and believed 20 or 30 or 50 years ago, or flirtatious behavior (even if the client flirted first) should look for a different therapist. Anyone who is in classical, "blank-mirror" analysis with a therapist who listens but doesn't speak (or who makes or takes phone calls Page 43 of 56 during sessions or who falls asleep) should also look for another therapist.
Mike Lew pointed out to me that incest survivors have lived lives governed by secrecy and the lies they've been told by their abuser. They are told that what happened didn't happen. They are told that terrible things were good things. They are told that they are to blame for their abuse. In therapy they need to be able to reality-check. They need human contact, warmth, and engaged conversation.
Eliana Gil adds that survivors need help dealing with memories: "You can't say goodbye to a memory until you've said hello."
Most therapists insist that therapeutic abreaction—reexperiencing a trauma with the help of the therapist so that the feelings can be reprocessed in a less frightening way— is necessary to recovery. As Alice Miller says: "As long as feelings can be talked about, they cannot really be felt. And as long as feelings are not felt, the self-damaging blockages remain." Therapist Karin C. Meiselman, however, disagrees. "Therapists' insistence on abreaction scares some people into staying away from therapy," she says.