Monday, October 25, 2010

The Fallout

Trigger warning: sexual abuse.

So, remember how my uncle the molester went to prison and my grandpa the molester died and I promised some posts about that shit and then I never posted anything? Yeah...

I just spent a few days with my bestest BFF helping with her wedding, and when we get together we talk a lot, and about everything, even in the midst of frantic last minute wedding preparations. So the topic came up, and it occurred to me that one of the most pervasive experiences you have growing up as a kid who was sexually abused is that you always wonder what each experience is like for "normal" kids.

Of course, I've thought about this before. When my grandpa died I felt really sad - more than I had expected since I basically have no relationship with him, and haven't for years. But that's what I felt sad about. Not sad that he had died so much as sad that he had made it so that I didn't want a relationship with him. Sad that I lost out on that experience. And this was exacerbated by the fact that my grandpa was actually a pretty good grandpa to the kids he didn't molest. He was funny and quirky and playful and helpful and attentive and just so deeply flawed and terribly damaged in this one way that made all the rest of it useless and out of reach for me. For most of my cousins, he was a great grandpa, and they had a really good relationship with him. It would be easy to dismiss the lost relationship if he had just been an all-around asshole, but of course, that's rarely the case. So it's much more complicated than we tend to think, and how we tend to portray abusive relationships in pop culture.

I didn't always just feel sad about it. Through the years I've felt kind of guilty at times when I would go home to visit and would have no interest in interacting with him. And then that guilt would trigger anger that he made it that way and that my family wasn't better at giving me an escape route from having to see him all the time. And this stuff is so complex and subtle that it takes years to sort out. I think over time I got really good at recognizing the emotions and thinking my way through them and finding my own escape routes, or being evasive and emotionally distant when there was no other escape route. And I got over the whole guilt and resulting anger thing. So now what's left is the sadness that the experience of having a healthy relationship with a grandpa through your teen years and young adulthood (my other grandpa was pretty awesome all the way around, but died when I was 12) just wasn't an experience that was available to me.

Thinking about my reaction to my grandpa's death got me thinking about this dynamic where the abused child is always aware of the difference between hir experience and the imaginary "normal" experience. I think this is especially acute during those years when you're exploring your sexuality and navigating intimate relationships with peers. These can be uncertain times in themselves, but it seems like the experience of abuse heightens the uncertainty and undermines the confidence you may have otherwise had. Of course, it's impossible to know, since you've never experienced this developmental phase any other way, and kids tend to have an exaggerated sense of this fictional "normal" person. So this is something I need to give a little more thought to, but I'd be interested in hearing if other people had this same experience. I think it's important to talk about this stuff because there's such a tendency to either act like abuse victims are thoroughly damaged, completely powerless creatures, or like everything is in the past and thank god we can move on now that you've worked through this thing and it doesn't effect you anymore.

More later...


  1. Anonymous10/26/2010

    I think maybe this falls under the category of disenfranchised grief. Not in the way that it's something that society doesn't approve of, but just that we don't recognize or legitimize the mundane little grieving experiences that occur from time to time when you realize that some experience is lost to you because of the abuse. Like it isn't acknowledged or expressed so it must not be valid.

    My sister was in an abusive relationship while her kids were very young, and at times she greives the loss of their baby and toddler years because she wasn't able to fully enjoy them as babies the way she could have without the abuse. I think maybe this is similar to what your talking about.

  2. To me the most damaging thing you mention here is the fact that most abusers in real life are not complete assholes - they have moments of warmth and humor and nurturing. Usually it's not portrayed this way in fiction, but you're right that it is this way in reality. There are few monsters and angels and lots of flawed damaged people in the world. It would be easier if you could just dismiss the abuser as an asshole and hate him with no ambivalence, but usually you can't.

  3. @ Anon
    I think this totally counts as disenfranchised grief. Not acknowledging something is functionally the same as not approving of it.

  4. I remember this moment when I was probably 13 or 14 and I realized that my parents' disfuction had basically made it impossible for me to have a relationship with them. By that age, as a child of a really dysfunctional family you've already developed all these coping skills and have learned to shrug it off. But I started spending a lot of time with a friend who had healthy engaged parents, and one night when I was eating dinner at their house it just sort of struck me. After that point it was kind of like I started consciously attaching myself to healthy adults in my life who would act nurturing toward me. Before that I had unthinkingly gravitated toward responsible adults who would bond with me, but after that it was more of a deliberate choice.

  5. dirtyhippie10/29/2010

    Thanks for saying the things that need to be said.