incest: myths + realities

By Mike Lew

"And those that create out of the holocaust of their own inheritance anything more than a convenient self-made tomb shall be known as Survivors."

- Keith Jarrett, The Survivor's Suite.

child abuse

The term has entered our vocabulary with an eerie everyday familiarity. It is an enemy that we can all rally against. Good people everywhere unite in their condemnation of the few evil, sick individuals who abuse children. We talk confidently about the need to protect our children from these weird, trench-coated strangers who lurk about schoolyards with molestation on their minds. We create programs that teach kids not to accept rides or candy from strangers. We assume that we know what child abuse is.

At the same time we create an image of the perfect family. Television shows and movies portray wise, caring fathers and loving, nurturing mothers imparting decent values to their children in an atmosphere of trust and openness. When problems arise, Dad has a fatherly talk with Sonny and gently guides him to the path of reason. Mom sits on the edge of Sis's bed and talks about her own childhood, dispensing motherly wisdom liberally laced with hugs. Or the family sits down together at the dining room table to solve the little problems of childhood through easy communication and folksy stories. We create a fantasy of family life and then we believe our own creation.

We assume that we know what family life is.

If you have decided to read this book, it is likely that your own What Is Abuse? experience was dramatically different from the ideal. If you were abused as a child, your memories of family life present another picture. Dad's "fatherly talk" with Sonny was anything but reasonable, and his guidance far from gentle. Mom's own childhood memories may have been of violence and sexual abuse. And mealtimes were occasions to be endured or avoided. You may remember absent, unavailable or nonprotective parents -- unable to help you because they couldn't help themselves -- as abused children or adult victims.

A family evening at home might have included screaming fights, bouts of drunkenness, episodes of physical violence, cowering children hiding in fear, nightmares, tears, confusion, stony silences, unreasonable blame, ridicule, repeated beatings, missed meals, helplessness, attempts to protect a parent or sibling ... or sexual abuse. Your memories may include not being believed and having no source of protection. You may have little or no detailed memory. of your childhood, positive or negative, and wonder why you can't recall those happy times -- those "golden childhood years."

Some of you pretended that it was otherwise, imagining that your family was happy, wise, healthy, and harmonious. In this way you attempted to protect yourself from the abuse, holding on to the fantasies as long and as tightly as you could manage until reality forced its way into the picture. You may still find yourself tempted to rewrite your family history to bring it more in line with the way you wish it had been.

As a society and as individuals, the images of family life that we've created are pleasant and comforting. It is no wonder that we cling to them so fiercely -- that we defend them against the intrusion of a harsher reality. Even when we are in the midst of an abusive situation, it is often easier to pretend that it is otherwise. In fact, your fantasy of an ideal family may have been the only refuge available to you as a child.

Realizing this makes it easier to understand a child's insistence -- in the face of blatant evidence of abuse -- that nothing is wrong. In my clinical practice I have heard many people tell heartrending stories of brutality and violence, only to have them react with surprise when I referred to their childhood as abusive. This begins to make sense only when we combine misinformation about the nature of child abuse with the mythology about perfect family life.

"The Family" is a sacred concept of American culture. Politicians are elected on the basis of their commitment to Family Values. Educators and clergy decry the "erosion of Family Life." No one is willing to risk violating the sanctity of The Family. Along with the value placed on the family, Americans cherish the concepts of Privacy and Independence.

"A man's home is his castle. " Within this castle, the King and Queen can rule absolutely. Few people are willing to make suggestions as to how children should be raised, let alone interfere in their treatment. It is seen as solely the parents' responsibility. This combination of cultural values leaves parents (who may themselves be products of abusive childhoods) isolated in dealing with the stresses of family life. It produces an environment wherein children (and often wives as well) are seen as property. "Ownership" of a child confers license to treat him/her as one wishes.

Our respect for independence and diversity provides leeway for a wide range of parental behavior. The importance that we ascribe to individual and family privacy allows some harmful and shocking forms of behavior to go unnoticed (and extremes of abuse to go unreported). It is only very recently that the need to protect children from abusive parents has begun to be recognized. But change is slow and tentative. Interference with the family by child protective agencies is viewed with suspicion. Experts debate the boundaries between education, discipline and abuse.

The reality is that abuse exists. It is real and it is common. It takes many forms, some blatant and others more subtle. The spectrum of child abuse ranges from neglect to physical violence. It includes torture, beatings, verbal and psychological maltreatment, child pornography, and sexual abuse (ranging from seductive behavior to rape). The abuse of children is seldom limited to one of these manifestations. Abuse appears in varying combinations, durations, and intensities. What all forms have in common is their devastating, long-term effects on the child.

2002 Mike Lew

Buy Victims No Longer: Men Recovering from Incest and Other Sexual Child Abuse

Aldo had this effect on people, he was bad news, a catalyst. To be around him was to feature in the daydreams of a blue-ribbon psychotic and no-one, but no-one, was ever the same again. Once the spiral arms of his paranoia had embraced you, you were suddenly possessed, you were his property. Certain minds are capable of exerting such witchcraft; certain fantasies can be a form of real abduction. These were realities that strengthened him.

What aperitif is more intoxicating than innocence?

His universe was one of unnecessary complexity, one in which all was refashioned to justify his every behavioural excess. It was insanity and it was unbridled. There was no pattern to it and there was no plan. And perhaps it was this very lack of logic that rendered this madness so persuasive: the dominion of passion! the dominion of will! His victims were always too busy trying to understand his actions to refute them with any eloquent conviction. Who argues with a storm? And to what end? They were seduced, swept off their feet by his audacity, irrevocably tainted. He had the black ability to pervert the purest thought.

Through his rage he made himself a god and a god who wanted sacrifice.

The Pure Weight of the Heart, by Antonella Gambotto

Pain in the present is experienced as hurt. Pain in the past is remembered as anger. Pain in the future is perceived as anxiety. Unexpressed anger, redirected against yourself and held within, is called guilt. The depletion of energy that occurs when anger is redirected inward creates depression ...

The emotions that frighten us are the complex ones, because they overwhelm the natural release mechanism. You cannot simply release guilt or depression. They are secondary formations that arose once you forgot how to release hurt ...

Music is metabolized in the same way as narcotics in that it creates the release of endogenous narcotics in the body. Exhilarating music creates natural anti-depressants in the body.

- from Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, by Deepak Chopra

feel better

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Illness: a new perspective
The biochemistry of hope
Find your own North Star

Sexual abuse questionnaire
Message board for sexual abuse survivors - NOW!
Forum for survivors of child sexual abuse and sexual assault - NOW!
Abuse Survivors message boards and email list - NOW!
Excellent resources for sexual abuse survivors
Climbing out of the Spiral
Barbados - a rape and sexual abuse site inspired by Tori Amos
Alice Miller's message boards on emotional suffering - NOW!
Free guided audio online relaxation exercises