The man who cries out against evil men but does not pray for them
will never know the grace of God.—Saint Silouan the Athonite
In 1874, nine-year-old Mary Ellen Wilson was living in Hell’s Kitchen, the underbelly of New City, where she was beat- en, neglected, and frequently chained to her bed. A religious mis- sionary, Etta Wheeler, learned about Mary Ellen and attempted to rescue her. Police refused to investigate, and Child Charities were consulted, but they felt they lacked authority to interfere. No Child Protective Services existed, and there was no juvenile court.
Etta sought the advice of Henry Bergh, the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Bergh asked his lawyer, Elbridge Gerry, to find a legal way to rescue the child. The lawyer used a law protecting animals to remove her from the guardians: they had Mary Ellen declared an “animal.”
Following the successful rescue of Mary Ellen Wilson, Henry Bergh and Elbridge Gerry created a private charitable so- ciety devoted to child protection. The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children became the world’s first orga- nization devoted exclusively to child protection.
But change in the welfare of children was slow, and one hundred years later, in 1974, the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry stated: “Incest is extremely rare, and does not occur in more than 1 in 1.1 million people.” The editors went on to say that an incestuous relationship actually provided the victim a type of resilience in its aftermath: “Such incestuous activity di- minishes the subject’s chance of psychosis and allows for a better adjustment to the external world.”2
In 1992, children could be anxious or depressed, but trauma was not believed to be a contributor to a child’s function. “People didn’t think babies could experience pain, and so doc- tors used to operate on them without anesthetic, and experts didn’t think children could suffer from grief or depression,” Dr. Nick Midgley said, in his book Reading Anna Freud.3 Children’s ability to suffer was a concept which developed slowly in the medical profession.
Extinguishing negative behaviors was the primary goal of therapy, not understanding life stories that created and sus- tained these behaviors. Often, the trauma history was dismissed or rarely incorporated into team meetings or evaluations, de- spite the fact that abuse in child welfare agencies was high.
My hope is that this book, these stories, these lives will put an end to the myth that child abuse is rare. Your reading of this book will help enhance understanding that if abuse is left unrecognized and untreated, it will continue to weave into the fabric of our culture and every individual, suffering will not end, and healing will be out of reach for both the abused and their abuser.