From an outside perspective, I belonged to a middle-class family and lived a happy and fulfilled life. I excelled at school and partook in many extra-curricular activities, such as swimming, piano lessons and ballet. I was the textbook definition of a ‘good child’.
My first recollection of abuse was when I was perhaps five or six years old. My parents were arguing and when I tried to intervene, my mother lashed out and struck me across the face.
The stone of her engagement ring cut my face drawing blood. I vaguely remember being upset, however, what sticks with me is the next day. I was at school and met with questions as to what happened to my face. Instinctively I constructed a lie and told everyone that I had walked into the sharp edge of a door.
What amazes me, is that I was able to lie so quickly and convincingly at such a young age. I do not even remember my mother telling me to lie, I just know that felt as if I should.
As I grew older and my mother’s ability to control me diminished, her abuse developed.
There was one time where I truly feared for my life. I do not remember the cause for her distress, however, she became so enraged that she reached for a wooden statue of a seahorse that was in our hallway, and lifted her arm high up to strike me with it. At that moment, I saw her pupils shrink and her face was screwed up in extreme torment. I thought that if she hit me with that statue, I would probably die.
I froze in panic and said nothing. I think my passive reaction caused her to snap out of what I assume was a dissociative state. She changed her mind and she dropped the statue.
Another time, she had kicked my legs so I was sat on the floor and she was slamming my head into the wall. I kicked my legs out towards her and struck her in the chest, hoping to get her away from me. She cried out in pain and began crying, berating me for being abusive and hurting her. The problem with her was that she never thought logically and that situation then became one where I hurt her, regardless of the fact that she had just been assaulting me previously.
Many people have often questioned why myself or my father never spoke out and told anyone about the abuse that we faced. The answer is a complex one, yet it can be simplified to the fact that when you are subjected to abuse for the majority of your life, it can become normalised.
I understood what my mother did was wrong, however, I never believed that it was bad enough to speak out. The other reason is due to embarrassment. The trouble with abuse is the victim often feels ashamed, even though the shame should be entirely on the abuser.
I could not let my friends or teachers know what was happening, yet at the same time, I dreamed that they would somehow know and save me from the horrors that I faced.
When I recall the years of abuse that I faced, I think the emotional abuse affected me much greater than the physical. I did not like to be hit, however, I would’ve chosen that over the alternative, which was the punishment of humiliation.
She achieved this in various ways, such as locking me outside of the front of the house, forcing me to sit outside knowing the neighbours could see me. Another method would be to text my friends shameful and embarrassing messages from my phone, knowing that I would have to pretend it was me, as I could not explain that my mother would do such a thing.
Towards the end, as I neared adolescence, I became really upset with my situation. My mother and father had separated, due to her forcing him to leave, and her distress caused by the dissolution of marriage was taken out on me.
As her mental health spiralled, the emotional abuse and screaming became more frequent. I was nearing the age of taking exams as a sixteen-year-old girl, and I was tired of juggling my school work, with having to look after my mother who was out of control.
I would often have sleepless nights due to her making me sleep on the floor in a cold room as a punishment, or keeping me up by shouting at me for some trivial mistake that I had made. I then became desperate for my situation to change.
At this point, it was still never a viable option in my mind to tell an outsider and get help. Not because I was scared, or because I didn’t think that anyone would believe me. I just simply did not consider doing it. I then started hoping that someone else would save me from my situation. I often opened windows when my mother was in a fit of rage, hoping a neighbour or passerby would hear her and report it.
I shamefully remember hoping that she would do something really drastic- inflict so much damage to me that I would end up in the hospital or that someone would call the police to take her away. Like many others, I ask my younger self: ‘why did you not just simply tell someone?’
Then came the day that completely changed my life. I had recently been in contact with my father and had told him that I could not take the situation anymore and that he must do something. He had a wide range of evidence of her abuse, from text messages to videos. I was at school one day when I was asked to leave my classroom to speak to someone.
The police sat in a room and explained that my father had reported my mother for abuse and that she was in custody.
I was taken to a police safe house in the forest to complete a vulnerable witness video statement, as I was under the age of eighteen and the victim of traumatic crime.
I was asked to outline as much as I could of the abuse that I faced throughout the years. I listed multiple instances in a rather matter of fact way, to which the policeman was shocked. He told me how he was stunned that I could talk of such experiences so calmly and without getting upset.
He also told me how horrified he was, as a father of a young girl, that someone could face what I had. It was at this point, that I truly understood the reality of my experience, causing my resolute appearance to shatter. I broke down in tears, realising that for the first time in my life, somebody else knew what I had faced.
As an adult leading a happy and successful life, I can still see the remnants of my trauma. One of my biggest flaws is that I overthink how others perceive me. I spend hours worrying if I have said something wrong, or embarrassing, which I believe stems from punishments of humiliation, which were designed to render me as vulnerable.
Christians talk casually about God’s plan for their lives and the lives of others. This can be grating to the ears of abuse victims (especially those new to, or unfamiliar with, the faith).
As victims are inclined to see it, God’s plan for them included abuse. Whether He caused that abuse or merely allowed it to occur, He failed to protect them against it. And they have the scars to prove that.
The issue of innocent suffering is a profound one, and cannot be papered over with a handy Bible verse. For abuse victims, coming to terms with it may be a lifelong struggle.
Trusting themselves can be as great a challenge. Abuse has effectively “taught” victims not to rely on their own judgment, their own instincts. This is something they must unlearn.
It is not helpful for Christians to urge victims to trust in God, rather than themselves. Such trust will come with time. It cannot be rushed. There are deep wounds which must be healed first.
Christians should be sensitive in the language they use around abuse victims. To victims of incest, even the term “Father God” can sound disturbing. To those who were sexually abused or tortured by siblings, the term “brothers and sisters in Christ” may be equally threatening.
Christians should not pressure victims to drop their defenses, and should not hug or make other physical contact with victims without their permission. Victims may experience either as invasive, and shy away.
Christians should allow abuse victims to take the lead, insofar as relationships. Friendships should not be forced. These will develop as victims gradually come to see they will not be harmed.
Originally posted 3/29/15
This series will continue next week with Self-Sacrifice v. Codependence
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They divide people. They deter new relationships. And they freeze the development on individuals.
By Evan Imber-Black, published July 1, 1998 – last reviewed on June 9, 2016
There’s no question that family secrets are destructive. But it matters mightily when and how you reveal them. Resist the temptation to handle them at transition times such as weddings, graduations, and new beginnings.
As a family therapist, I’m a professional secret-keeper. I’m often ~the very first person with whom someone risks telling a longheld secret. Several decades of guiding people struggling with secrets have taught me that they have an awesome if paradoxical power to unite people–and to divide them.
From government conspiracies to couples having affairs, secrets permeate every level of society. Secrets have existed throughout time, but the nature of secrets has recently changed in our society. Today’s families face special dilemmas about secrecy, privacy, silence, and openness.
We live in a culture whose messages about secrecy are truly confounding. If cultural norms once made shameful secrets out of too many events in human life, we are now struggling with the reverse: the assumption that telling secrets–no matter how, when, or to whom–is morally superior to keeping them and that it is automatically healing. My own experience, however, has shown me that telling secrets in the wrong way or at the wrong time can be remarkably painful–and destructive.
The questions we need to concern ourselves with are: When should I keep a secret? How do I tell a secret without hurting anyone? How do I know the time is right? I’ve learned the answers as I’ve witnessed–sometimes with terror, more often with joy, and always with deep respect–families making the courageous journey from secrecy to openness.
Secrets are kept or opened for many complex motives, from self-serving abuses of power to altruistic protection of others. Understanding the best ways and situations in which to reveal a family secret can help you decide when and how to do so.
HOW SECRETS SABOTAGE
Although we encounter secrets in every area of life, they are perhaps most destructive when kept in the home. Families are support systems; our identity and ability to form close relationships with others depend upon the trust and communication we feel with loved ones. If family members keep secrets from each other–or from the outside world–the emotional fallout can last a lifetime.
There are four main ways that family secrets shape and scar us:
o they can divide family members, permanently estranging them;
o they can discourage individuals from sharing information with anyone outside the family, inhibiting formation of intimate relationships;
o they can freeze development at crucial points in life, preventing the growth of self and identity;
o they can lead to painful miscommunication within a family, causing unnecessary guilt and doubt.
o they can lead to painful miscommunication within a family, causing unnecessary guilt and doubt.
A person who seeks to undo the damage caused by family secrets must accept that revealing a secret is not a betrayal but a necessity Luckily, as you’ll see, it’s never too late to do so.
SHATTERING THE TRIANGLE
Not all secrets are destructive. Many are essential to establishing bonds between two people. When siblings keep secrets from their parents, for example, they attain a sense of independence and a feeling of closeness. But the creation of any secret between two people in a family actually forms a triangle: it always excludes–and therefore involves–another.
When family members suspect that important information is being withheld from them, they may pursue the content of the secret in ways that violate privacy. A mother reads her daughter’s diary. A husband rifles through his wife’s purse. Relationships corrode with suspicion. Conversely, family members may respond to a secret with silence and distance, which affect areas of life that have nothing to do with the secret.
Either way, the secret wedges a boulder between those who know it and those who don’t. To remove this obstacle, families must break the triangle formation.
Molly Bradley first called me during what should have been a joyous time. She had recently given birth. Her happiness, however, was bittersweet. Molly felt a deep need to surround herself with family but hadn’t spoken to her brother, Calvin, in six years. The reason, I discovered, reached back 30 years to a secret made by Molly’s mother.
When Molly, Calvin, and their youngest sister, Annie, were teenagers, their grandmother committed suicide. Molly and Annie were told she died from a heart attack. Only Calvin, the eldest, knew the truth. His mother made him promise not to tell. His sisters sensed a mystery, but if they asked about their grandmother, their mother switched topics.
Making secrets soon became the family’s modus vivendi. Their aunt committed suicide two years after their grandmother’s death. Calvin fathered a child out of wedlock. Each secret was kept from Molly and Annie, amplifying the family pattern of secrecy Calvin grew distant from his sisters, their relationship weakened by mistrust. Eventually, Molly guessed the truth of her grandmother’s death but, in her family’s style, told only Annie. Secrets between Calvin and his mother were matched by those between Molly and Annie, tightening family alliances.
From the outside, the family looked like two close pairs–Calvin and his mother, Molly and Annie. But the pairs were actually triangles; Calvin and his mother distanced themselves from the girls with their secret, forming one triangle, while Molly and Annie, keeping their own secrets from the rest of the family, formed another.
‘DON’T TELL ANYONE OUR BUSINESS’
Molly convinced her two siblings to enter therapy, but each felt that overcoming feelings of alienation was impossible. When I asked Annie if she’d ever considered confiding in Calvin as a child, she told me the thought had never occurred to her. If family members cannot even imagine a different way of interacting, then secrets have truly taken hold of their lives.
In order to bridge the distance between the Bradley children, I asked them to relive their memories of how it felt to keep–and be kept out of—secrets. Molly, Annie, and Calvin each acknowledged that their needs to connect with each other had gone painfully unmet. Calvin explained tearfully that being forced to keep information from his sisters left him unable to relate to them, causing him to withdraw into himself. Molly revealed that watching her infant son each day made her miss Calvin–and the relationship they’d never had more and more.
The siblings finally began to share long-held secrets, realizing that they were bound and supported by their desire for closeness. After the fourth session of therapy, they went to dinner together for the first time in years. “This was so different from any other family event,” Annie reported. “Things felt genuine for the first time.”
As a lifetime of confessions and hopes emerged into the open, the mangle of secrecy was replaced by one-toone relationships. When everyone in a family knows a secret, triangles cannot create barriers between members.
All families have some secrets from the outside world. Yours, no doubt, has shared jokes and stories told only within the family circle. You also have a zone of privacy that demarcates inside from outside, building your family’s sense of identity. But if a dangerous secret–one concerning an individual in immediate physical or emotional jeopardy–is held within your house, the boundaries between family and the rest of the world become rigid and impenetrable. Friends and relatives are not invited in, and family members’ forays out are limited. “Don’t tell anyone ourbusiness” becomes the family motto.
BREAKING FAMILY RULES
Some families create inviolable rules to keep information hidden, making it impossible for members to ask for assistance or to use needed resources in the outside world. Even problems that do not touch on the secret may go unresolved if resolution requires outside help.
When Sara Tompkins, 37, first came to see me, she spoke with great hesitation. “If my family knew I was speaking to you, they’d be very angry,” she confided. She told me about growing up in a family that completely revolved around her mothEr’s addiction to tranquilizers. “My father is a physician. To this day, he writes her prescriptions. No one was supposed to know. The worst part was, we were supposed to act like we didn’t know. Our family invented ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ long before the government ever thought of it.”
Even though Sara hadn’t lived with her family for 15 years, this was the first time she had ever broken the family rule against speaking about the secret. When Sara left home for college, she was surrounded with new and exciting faces, each seeking lifelong friends and stimulating late-night discussions. But Sara found herself unable to open up, ultimately finding few friends and fewer lovers. She found it difficult to reveal anything personal about herself to anyone, and even suspected others of withholding from her.
Secrets were how she had learned to process and handle incoming information. Sara finally sought therapy when she realized that she had never been able to sustain a romantic relationship past the second date.
When a family’s secret is an ongoing condition–such as drug addiction, physical abuse, an illness–then both family relationships and interactions with the outside world are profoundly affected. In families like Sara’s, members must organize their everyday lives around the needs of the secret while performing the breathtaking feat of pretending not to notice anything is out of the ordinary. Conversation is superficial, since what is truly important cannot be discussed. Members become paralyzed, unable to develop relationships with others or to deepen the relationships within the family.
Since individual well-being takes a backseat to group fidelity, being the family member who challenges internal secrets is difficult. Taking the risk of opening a long-held secret to friends and loved ones may seem like an act of betrayal. The anticipated catastrophe of exclusion from the family stops many people–often long after leaving home.
But breaking the rules of family secrecy is necessary to ensure the achievement of freedom and honesty crucial to making and sustaining authentic relation, ships. One of the best ways to ease into revealing long-hidden information is to tell an objective listener, like a therapist.
ROOM FOR REHEARSAL
Only rarely do my clients want their first and final telling to be with me. Making secrets with a professional helper is a double-edged sword. A client’s relationship with a therapist, minister, priest, or rabbi can be an excellent arena to dissolve shame, find acceptance and empathy, and seek new resources for support and strength.
At the same time, sharing secrets only with professionals may negatively affect marriage and other relationships. Important issues may be discussed more in therapy, for example, than at home. Instead of being a dress rehearsal for life, therapy becomes the show. Most often, I find that people want a receptive and erapathetic context in which to unpack a secret initially, room to explore the consequences of telling others, then the help to do it well.
Imagine if your sister made a secret with you on the eve of your wedding and told you that you must not tell your husband. Or you are dragged into a secret about your parents just when you are taking tentative steps into the outside world. If a secret is made at a key point in development, the natural unfolding of self and relationships may be frozen. The shifting of boundaries that ordinarily would occur is suspended, creating a developmental deep freeze.
Every family experiences developmental stages. These are most evident when someone enters the family by marriage or other committed relationship, birth, or adoption, and when someone exits the family by leaving home or through separation, divorce, or death. Such entrances and exits require that a family reinvent itself in order to accommodate new roles. The stages of development are not discrete events but rather processes that take place over time. When that process goes well, complex adjustments occur in every corner of the family. When a secret is made in the midst of this process, adjustment screeches to a halt.
Samuel Wheeler tried to leave home when he was 19, but his discovery of a central family secret pulled him back and short-circuited his young adulthood. When Sam came to see me, he was 34 and still struggling with the aftermath. Aimless, jobless, and depressed, Sam wondered why he had never really found his focus. As we explored his past, I realized that Sam’s life had frozen when his attempts to assert independence were squelched his first year of college.
Early in his first semester, Sam invited his mother to visit. “I was more than surprised when she arrived with a close friend of the family, Duncan,” said Sam. Each morning for three days, Mrs. Wheeler left Sam’s apartment at five A.M. and returned to have breakfast at eight o’clock. When Sam finally asked what was going on, his mother admitted that she and Duncan were having an affair. She also revealed that his younger sister had actually been fathered by Duncan.
“My mother had kept this secret for years,” Sam mused. “Why did she have: to put it in my face at that moment?” The ill-timed revelation kept Sam from proceeding with his new life and developing his own identity. While very bright, Sam did poorly his first year in college, dropped out, and went back home. He had subconsciously returned to play watchdog for the family’s relationships. His sister was only 15, and he was worried that she would discover the secret. He remained home until she left for college.
RESPECTING TRANSITION TIMES
Giving voice to the developmental deep freeze, Sam said, “Knowing these things about my mother’s life has kept me from changing my relationship with her and my dad in ways I would like. I wanted to get closer to my dad, but this secret is like a rock between us.”
Pulling Sam into a secret just as he and his family were moving apart also kept him from asserting independence. While there is no such thing as the perfect moment to open a secret, there are better occasions than a life-cycle ritual, such as a wedding or graduation. Because family relationships are already shifting, rituals may seem a perfect time to open a secret. The excitement of a major life change, however, will prevent resolution of the secret. Either the importance of the secret will be lost in the event, or the secret will diminish the importance of the ritual.
For family members to have the strength to handle a life-altering secret, it should be told during a normal time in everyday life. Otherwise, development linked to a life passage will stop in its tracks.
When secrets are as much a part of families as birthdays, it may seem impossible to extricate them from the daily routine. But I know it can be done. Each time I meet with a new client, I’m moved by the courage people bring to this endeavor, by the human desire to heal and to connect.
From the book The Secret Life of Families by Evan IrabetBlack, Ph.D. Copyright 1998 by Evan Imber-Black. Reprinted by permission of Bantam Books, New York, New York. All rights reserved.