My conscious requires me to back up, go around and return to the topic of child sexual molestation once again. “Is this a broken record?” my husband queries from the safe sofa he is seated on, examining stocks, their ups and downs and the whims of an increasingly fickle financial markets. There are days I wish I had gone into business and could worry about the world’s economy. “How do you do it Dr. Burns? How did you not go nuts?”
I’m here to tell you that I did, go nuts. Not once but almost every time I heard a story. At first I didn’t believe they could be true. Children with aggression and anger, stories about rape. Children with dissociation; eight or more personalities, one who cleaned the house and another who advanced her expertise in sexual favors.
When I finished my child fellowship in 1992, I was asked to be a founding member of the Child Abuse and Neglect Committee. Isn’t that a blight on our profession? How could it have possibly taken an esteemed academy that many lifetimes to recognize abuse in childhood? There were committees on trauma, war trauma, not inside the walls of your house in your family kind of trauma. I asked an expert on our committee if he believed in dissociation or were my patients schizophrenic? He lit into me with a diatribe that I thought would never end. The short version of this is that yes, dissociation is a real phenomenon and that if I incorrectly diagnosed patients with psychotic thought disorders then I would be sentencing them to a life of inappropriate treatment. Inpatient hospitalizations, Haldol and Thorazine, medicines that would never work. He convinced me that when children are chronically traumatized by friends or family members that they not only feel terrified but trapped. They learn to walk away from the horrors of their life in the imagination of their minds since they can’t run with their feet. This enables them to become more and more adept at “inventing another person within their person system” and that becomes a common defense.
I returned to the child welfare agency with new knowledge about my children. Understanding for the first time, that when Johnny threw a chair across the classroom and did not remember, that he was telling the truth. Not being a manipulative liar as his teacher reported. Ah ha, these were moments when the stories started making more and more sense and the truth revealed itself by leaps and bounds.
Remember the twelve year old boy who came into my office looking 21 years, with a mental age of eight? He went from having a sexual relationship with almost everyone in his family to being sexually molested by a child care worker. It was reported by a resident but the incident report was shredded by the Quality Assurance Committee, since it was not confirmed by a staff person. Six months later, the “couple” was discovered in the cottage having sex and this time an investigation ensued. The staff person was reassigned to another residence and underwent “closer supervision.” Charges were filed, but not founded and no registry offense was recorded. This time I went crazier than usual. Really stark raving mad almost when he left our agency and died a few years later in a crack house, beaten to death by his boyfriend.
In closing, since I promised not to perseverate forever on this theme, let me say again that it was not my work with children or perpetrators that caused my anguish, not even my association with incompetent co-workers. Rather it was my distrust in my Higher Power, an omnipotent Creator, that increased my suffering beyond tolerance. It was my rage and disbelief in the evil nature of humankind, that broke my sanity and left me bitter. I wrestled daily with God calling out names, fighting against Her wisdom. As Jacob dislocated his hip wrestling with the angel, I dislocated my mind wrestling with my God. But it was never the abuse or the stories about the abuse, or my relationships with the children and their perpetrators that tormented me. It was my righteous indignation and refusal to accept the sinful nature of humanity that created my suffering. My refusal to acknowledge the love and grace of God in every action even the profane, that broke my spirit.
“Who has eaten of the tree of knowledge?” She asks each one. And our only answer is, “I have.” What we do with our knowledge creates our own story. That I have witnessed those I love and care for suffer from sexual abuse and live daily the shattered traumatic stories of their lives is my destiny. That I have witnessed healing and resurrection in these same ones is my privilege. Acceptance has come slowly, transforming into understanding only gradually. In order to heal, I had to forgive myself, forgive the perpetrators, forgive the children for telling me and not others but most of all, I had to forgive God. And then, I had to tell. Tell the story, with words and art, tell a story that few hear and fewer believe.
So if I sound angry or self-righteous about the prevalence of sexual perpetrators, forgive me. I am not. No more angry than when I say that the prevalence of asthma is 9.5% or alcoholism 12%. I do reserve a bit of umbrage for church administrators and staff, particularly the Catholics, school administrators and teachers who look aghast when I tell them that if they have 25 students in their class then four or five have or will have a sexual relationship with an adult, therapists who never ask or take sexual histories, counselors in addiction work who don’t consider, caretakers of the unemployed and homeless who never wonder.
Who is the guardian for the safety of our children? Where is the outrage over this epidemic? Can we see the passion for sexual abuse that abounds over breast cancer or cardiac disease? What opinion do those lining up to protest abortions on Saturday morning have about the fact that for every child born in the world one in four will have sex with an adult prior to reaching adulthood? How can we create the answers if we don’t acknowledge the question? Our lives reflect statistics that astound and stupefy us into ignorance. Believing them is the only solution that can keep us safe.