Friday, July 10, 2015

'The Appalling Silence of the Good': Abused Children are Everyone's Responsibilty

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
I'm going to tell your four short stories from my own life.

1. When I was about three and my brother was about eleven, our father left us in an extremely abusive home, where I was repeatedly so brutally raped that I was rendered physically disabled. Years later, my father claimed that he hadn't known what was happening to his children. I took him at his word. However, he later told me that, shortly after he had left us, a friend wrote to him and said, "Your son is broken. Something is terribly wrong."

My father did nothing. Well, actually, he did do something: he moved to the other end of the continent. After that, we saw him for a few days every few years.

2. When I was about 14, I asked my father if it had ever occurred to him to stay near his children after he had left our home. "Well, if you'd wanted me to stay," he replied, "you should have said something." I was three.

3. When I was five, I went to the doctor with some form of sexually transmitted disease that required medication. The doctor gave Smother my medications. He did not report the incident. He did not talk to me about what was happening in my home. He did nothing to help me. He did, however, tell me to keep "cleaner down there," something I then dutifully reported to the person who was, at the time, my primary sexual abuser.

Smother told me to tell everyone that I had a bladder infection because, "they wouldn't understand." I went to a birthday party at which I told the birthday girl's mother, who had to give me one of my pills, "It's not really a bladder infection, you know. I'm just supposed to tell people that because they wouldn't understand." I was naturally averse to lying, so telling her that I was supposed to lie was the best I could do. When the party ended, I hid in an empty closet in her house, hoping to never go home again. In my five year old way, I was running away. This woman did nothing. Well, not nothing. She helped Smother drag me out of the closet and laughed with her about how silly little children are.

4. When I was an adult and began telling people who had known me as a child what had happened to me, many of them said that they'd known something was wrong at the time. They all did nothing, exactly nothing at all to help me.

"History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people."

- Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am telling you now that all those people who did nothing -- my father, that doctor, that birthday girl's mother, all the people who knew something was wrong -- are to blame for what happened to me. And they are to blame for the sometimes fatal abuse endured by any child whose distress they ignored or wilfully didn't see. They are not good people.

Passivity and silence are not inaction; they are the act of allowing evil to continue. Silence, passivity, and selfishness are the implicit permission abusers need. They are, indeed, forms of evil unto themselves.

Skirt: Mod Cloth; Shirt: Merona; Sandals: Wonders; Scarf, sunglasses, bangle, ring, earrings, and brooch (worn as pendant): vintage
When it comes to child abuse, there is more silence than speaking out, more turning a blind eye than rescue, more indifference than outrage. A child in a situation like mine is a child utterly trapped, with nowhere to turn. There are hundreds of thousands, millions, of children, in just that situation. Of course, the abusers are to blame, but so are those who do nothing to stop it, and, indeed, do everything they can to keep from admitting that it is happening at all. This too is child abuse.

This issue is increasingly upsetting to me as I hear story after story of victims who could have been saved if only someone had believed them or seen their distress and done something. But the issue has come home to me in a very personal way in the last few weeks. You can tell by my outfit. If you know me, you know I'm upset about something when I'm wearing festive attire.

When I feel defeated, I often wear my most festive clothes and jewelry, both in an effort to cheer myself up and as an act of defiance against whatever or whomever has upset me. Look at how my earrings appear not just to capture the sun, but to carry their own light within them. It's hard not to be cheered up by such beauty. And I've needed cheering.

You see, my father is refusing to come to my wedding. Why? Because, he says, I don't respect him! I guess he's right. I don't. Would you respect someone who abandoned his children in an abusive home? But, in his mind, my lack of respect for him is, and always has been, the fault of my own narrow-mindedness. He has done nothing wrong.

As hurt and angry as I am -- and I am both -- I don't want to turn this post into a revengeful or vindictive one.

Instead, I am using this incident to write about the culpability of those who know something is wrong in a child's life and do nothing about it. My father was one of those people but he was by no means the only one. And there are still many like him today.

My father, in about 1963.

Look at the above photo. What do you see? A great vintage shot of a beatnik on the beach? An interesting poet?

I see a man so intent on looking artfully into the middle distance that he is oblivious to the imminent danger to the baby -- whom I'm assuming is his own son -- who is purposefully crawling into the surf. That's my father in a nutshell.

He is the king of the self-important, middle distance stare, but not so good with caring for others or even seeing them at all.

I have lived in fear of being like my father in this way because I know that, in many many ways, I am indeed just like him.

My father, me, my cousin, my aunt, and my uncle, my father's brother, who is furious with me for supposedly lying about the abuse I endured, though he says he knew something was wrong when I was a child. I will address the issue of disbelief in another post.

For one thing, we look exactly alike. I got my hair from him. He's the one in the foreground with the red Jewfro. I'm the tiny little girl with the red Jewfro. Related much?
That's my father, at about 17, on the left. That's me, at about 19, on the right.

We also have the same small, muscular frames, same eyes, same eyebrows, same chin, same nose, same everything.

But, deeper than that, we also have many of the same interests and personality traits. We're both deeply but unconventionally spiritual. We're both cultural outsiders, bohemians, if you will. We're both introverted loners. We're both highly organized. We're both college teachers. We both have lifelong passions for writing and the arts in general.

He does see these similarities. He does see this connection. But there is also a lot that he misses. For instance, in what little contact we've had over the years, he's repeatedly urged me to write, almost as if it's a moral imperative for anyone with the skill to do so. But, when I began this blog, he would not even read it because he saw it as nothing but a vanity project and a "cult of personality." It was not his personal preferred venue for writing (despite the fact that his genre is also the personal essay) so it was not writing at all.

Nor do we share the same definition of art. He does not see the value of beauty for its own sake, and the therapeutic uplift it can give to those who have suffered.

He certainly doesn't see style as a form of art or self-expression. He sees it as nothing but vanity, materialism, and a manifestation of everything he abhors about mainstream society. Therefore, to him, without even reading my blog, he was certain that it was trite, trivial, and far far beneath him.

Still, there are all those things that we do have in common. I've always and against my will felt connected to him deep within my self. He and I are blood of each other's blood, spirit of each other's spirit. I even told him that in my letter asking him to come to my wedding.

Because of this connection, his indifference to me has always been heart-breaking. So has the fact that, in his mind, it has always been my fault.  

To him, I am just a pouting, belligerent, mainstream (the worst of all insults) sell-out. He could never understand that, before any real relationship between us could develop, I needed him to feel genuine remorse for having abandoned his children in hell. He needed to see his own culpability in what happened to us, and how he could have, should have, stopped it, and chose to do nothing. This will never happen. Never.

There are many parents like him. You know the type: nothing is ever their fault. He's this way with his many girlfriends too, all of whom dump him after a few months, through no fault of his own.

In fact, it was his constant search for and ill treatment of his girlfriends that led to our latest falling out two years ago. 

I had just found out that my chronic pain disability was caused by the child abuse and that it is, therefore, permanent. My whole world fell apart. How could I live with pain for the rest of my life? Would I be able to work? What would I do for money? How would I ever make peace with the fact that I was permanently disabled because of the depraved, selfish urges of a bunch of sadistic paedophiles?

I talked to my father about this on the phone. He made an attempt at sympathy (but still no regret for having abandoned me to such abuse). But he was far more interested in talking about how sad he was that his latest girlfriend had dumped him.

Not surprisingly, I eventually lost my patience and asked him if he could think of anything he had done to cause the breakup. No, he said, he couldn't. She, like all the other women he's dated, was just "afraid of commitment."

About a week later, we talked again. I spoke again about how my world was crashing down around me. He listened in impatient silence, and then he launched: in our last conversation, he said, I had attacked him while he was down, and that's just not what supportive friends do. Wow. Just... wow.

When I said something about how I'd listened to his breakup stories enough to have a sense of the frustrations and disappointments that lead his girlfriends to break up with him, his voice rose and he asked, "Do you hear yourself?! Do you hear your unbelievable arrogance in thinking that you can possibly know what others feel?"

"Most people," I said, "call that empathy."

I simply could not deal with him at this crisis point in my life. I sent him an olive branch or two, but they were rebuffed.

Perhaps I'm a fool, but I did want him at my wedding: blood of my blood, and spirit of my spirit, and all that, don't you know? Given all the abuse in my family, he was the only family member I invited. But I now have enough self-worth that I did set some parameters: I told him that my wedding and the time leading up to it were not the right time for "working things out," as I knew that would just lead to more drama and recriminations against me.

He said, on those terms, he would not attend the wedding.

So. I'm done with him. No more.

If I'd had more pride in myself and what I deserve, I would have excised this man from my life long ago, but what did I know of love and being treated well? Nothing, that's what. Who had ever taught me about that? Not my parents, that's for sure!

As a step-mother, the more I understand the innocence and vulnerability of children, and my responsibility to them -- not just my own children, but all children -- the more I understand what my father did to me all those years ago. I understand the cruelty and selfishness not just in his initial abandonment, but in his continued absence and wilful blindness in the face of all that evidence that his children were in terrible danger.

You just don't do that, not just to your own children, but to any children! I understand that now.

It wasn't until I met Beau that I knew what it was to be loved and treated well, with respect and a deep concern for my well-being. Only then could I start to see the wrongs committed against me, not just by my father, but by all those who had known something was wrong and done nothing.

Such people are common. Some of these people, unlike my father, are wonderful, devoted, loving parents. But that's not enough.


"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

- Martin Luther King, Jr.

To be a good person, you must also be a good citizen. This means looking beyond your own family and friends and knowing that the well-being of all people, especially all children, is your responsibility as well. It means opening your eyes, educating yourself, and speaking up, no matter how inconvenient, no matter how unpopular it may make you.

Imagine how different my life would have been if my father, or the doctor, or the birthday girl's mother, or any of those people who knew that something was wrong had actually done something.

I wouldn't be disabled. I wouldn't have PTSD. I would be able to work, and run, and dance. I wouldn't wake each and every night from nightmares and physical pain. Just imagine what I might have accomplished!

Such relief and joy those people could have brought to me! But they didn't. Why didn't they? They didn't want to be bothered? They thought it was none of their business? They felt it wasn't their responsibility? What possible excuse could anyone have for not intervening if they even think there's even a possibility that a child might be in danger?

Fun fact: it's the law to do so. It's the law to report even a suspicion of child abuse. But few do.

Lately, when I think on all this, when I think on the roaring danger of silence, I am enraged. Of course I am angry with those who abused me, but, as I learn my own self-worth and what it means to be a good person, I am also increasingly angry with those who do nothing, who claim they know nothing when merely opening their eyes and caring would show them where they could make a change in a child's life.

Is a child not worthy of rescue?

Is a child's life not worth the bother?

Was I not worth the bother?

I'm starting to know that I was. Every child is. And we all need to remember this, every minute of every day.



  1. I feel for you, I know a thing or two about difficult relationships with parents... I have not experienced abuse like you have, but I did have an emotionally distant, selfish father who abandoned me (we're talking anout recurring emotional abandonment here, as we did not lose contact after my parents' divorce.), showing me time after time that I always came last in his list of priotities. But my point is this: there comes a time when enough is enough and you have to let go, stop trying to fix something that can't be fixed (because he will never change and will never admit to any wrongdoing from his part yet will keep on draining you emotionally). I finally let go and stopped hoping that he'd try to see my side about six months before he died. And when he was in the hospital, I didn't visit. I just didn't care anymore, I had no interest in reconciliation. Have I regretted that after he died? Never! I only regretted I didn't let go years earlier. All the emotional energy I wasted on him over the years, that's what I regret. So, my advice to you is this: stop wasting any more time or energy trying to fix your relationship with your father, he will not change, and there is nothing you can do about it. Just be happy. You've survived horrible things, are doing something meaningful (by your definition, which is the only one that counts) and you're getting married. Your father doesn't need to have a place in your life, he has nothing to give you.

    1. I completely agree with you, Tiina. I consider his refusal to come to the wedding to be the final nail in the coffin of our relationship. That's why I said in the post that I'm "done." In that sense, his refusal was a relief. I don't have to try anymore.

      The bigger issue, though, about people needing to take responsibility for the welfare of children... his refusal did stir up that issue in a more general sense, which is why I wrote about it. I'm not done with trying to make people see that they need to do something about child abuse. I'll never be done with that, because that's about more than just me.

  2. Great post! Could you give some suggestions on what to look for and where to report child abuse in another post? Those without much experience may hesitate to get involved for these reasons.
    Love this scarf and the skirt. Magic with the flowers!
    Hugs Jazzy Jack.

    1. I thought about that, Jazzy. I'd love it if people reading this post can leave comments giving their own suggestions too. But, yes, I'll give it some thought and write a post about how to recognize the signs, and also how to try to prevent child abuse. One example I can give now is that we don't just educate our kids about how to protect themselves, but also about what to do if they find out a friend is being abused, or even if they are present when abuse occurs.

  3. Wow, I had to wait a few days to read this since you posted it because I knew it would hit close to home, and I was right. My father has repeatedly accused me of not respecting him enough, and for being selfish for wanting an apology for his behavior, and every attempt I have made to get back in touch with him at a safe distance has met with his usual needy, whiny, selfish aggressive passive aggressiveness, controlling, and manipulative bullshit. Starts out with what he considers to be "loving and supportive" and then devolves into obsessive behavior, trying to use me to get to my mother, trying to use my brother to get to me, telling me to respect him more, but to also think of him as a "friend" because he is "past being a father". Ick. Yikes. Fuck off. Again. I can't have a relationship with him until he apologizes for his dismissive, abusive, neglectful and addiction-related actions that all caused me direct and lasting harm. And he will never apologize. Up until I read this post, I don't think I fully accepted that, even though I could say the words "I'm done, never again", I was still hoping he would become less of a monster and somehow feel remorse for his actions and realize that the wives and girlfriends and families who have left him behind have done so because he left us no other choice. I still thought a genuine apology was possible, but I can see reading your post that I need to face reality and close that door for good. I instantly improved my life by cutting him out of it. And I never need to go back. Thank you for clarifying that for me. Every post I read of yours is like this series of lightbulbs going off in my brain, and I can't thank you enough for writing as openly and honestly as you do because it has led me towards a path of recovery, I hope.

  4. Since I started to read your blog, though I have been facing down one memory after the next that your words can sometimes help jar loose, I am finally learning who I am and why. I'm sure there are a lot of survivors who read your blog and never comment because they aren't comfortable talking as bluntly as you do, but until everyone can talk openly about it, the problem of silence cannot be dealt with. I know it will massively change my family dynamic to explain what happened, and that many will react with accusation, as your relatives have, and in fact have acted that way in the past when I tried to get help as a kid. I am sure the more I remember, the more it will become clear to me how lazy and yes, even evil, the people were who did not help me, who told me that people don't sexually abuse fat kids (which I was, even despite swim team, gymnastic, and ballet), and that "little kids don't feel like that, you must have read it somewhere, stop that nonsense" and worse is that they ignored my very graphic nightmares and the things I wrote about that I eventually learned to hide from everyone. Ignoring the fact that a six year old who can "imagine" the things I did was not healthy. Okay, well, they didn't ignore it, they made it all my fault; they made sure that I knew that I was messed up and sick for writing what I did and for lying to get attention (when I tried to let people know who could have saved me), ensuring that I stopped reaching out by the time I had people in my life who might have listened, ensuring that I never dealt with any of it until NOW, this year, at 26. I'm afraid of those accusations from family, again, but I am so glad to see that there is life on the other side of "coming out" as a survivor. The more I remember, the better I can put the puzzle pieces of my childhood together and the more I can hopefully start to recover, the more I will probably know about what to look for in children and I will definitely be back to respond to that questions and to see what others respond to it. The story of hiding at a friend's house and being mocked was so familiar that I feel like not only did I try that several times, but my friends must have tried it too...

  5. Sadly, every girl my age in a three block radius, which amounted 13 girls in my grade (there were only about 200 people in each grade in my tiny little town growing up) and 3 the grade below us, every girl except for me and one other, were all victims of a neighbor who also coached the softball team that most of those girls were on. My childhood best friend and many of the other girls who were involved moved out of the state before the trial could start and the neighbor killed himself when his wife got him out on bail, but somehow that meant that his wife who held the camera and knew all about it still lives in the same house in the same neighborhood and nothing ever happened to her, which has always creeped me out badly. That fact that nothing could happen to her, but she helped directly to shatter so many childhoods including her own niece, I don't know how to make sense of that. It's that kind of attitude of blissful ignorance and a blind eye turned toward even the most obvious crimes, that is what allowed the neighbors to abuse over 25 girls over the course of six years before he was caught, and allows her to continue to live there and people treat her like a human being even though she's a monster and they all know it. So sick. But also so common.

    I agree with everything you packed into this post, and know that I will be back to read it again when I think I need to "salvage the relationship" with my father.

    Both of our dads are missing out, but their choice was made ages ago. Now we have room in our lives for good people, people who love us and won't cause us suffering or harm.
    As for people who do not speak out about child abuse, our society needs to change.
    Silence and shame are being defeated here on your blog, and the writing and work you're doing now is helping people, intervening to stop internalized stigma and ableism and open up paths to healing. It helped me. I know it's helped others to recognize their own individual scars and find hope. How much more "real" could your writing possibly be than that? <3

    1. Wow. I'm really deeply moved by how much my blog helps you and how honestly you have written here. This -- raising awareness, helping people heal, and encouraging people to speak out -- is what it's all about for me. It's why I'm doing this. My speaking out is helping you and others to speak out and so I'm not alone fighting this fight. Let's start a tsunami of truth-telling!

      And, of course, I am so sorry for all that you endured and continue to endure... and I'm really glad you're working so much on your healing at such a young age. It will never be easy (though there are times when it's easier) but it will be worth it.

  6. minus the sexual abuse this sound very familiar to me. i broke with my brutal father at 15 - this was kind of easy because his part was clear. but realizing how much my mother abused me mentally took a very long time. i just discovered only a few years ago that she loves only herself despite her saying and my wishing. i.e. the telephone call of me to her to get comfort because of a bad relationship (no wonder that) ends in her in tears because of her bad life and me comforting her....
    but i made the decision to stop this - it was unbelievable hard. in the end she is a poor soul. but i can´t change this. it is not my responsibility. but hers was to protect me when i was little - but she did´t.
    i wish you the power to drop your father finally - blood means nothing really - its just made up. look for soulmates who love you.
    bravo for the sparkling outfit!

  7. People use to say "don't share your dirty laundry". Many probably still do. Families were sacred and you didn't interfere in other people's families or other people's property like their wives and children. I do think things are changing. Survivors of abuse are speaking up and that encourages others to speak up. Your voice is important because you speak for a lot of others who don't yet have the courage to speak. But, also because it helps to educate people on abuse.

  8. It breaks my heart that you've endured so much pain from such an early age. As a mother of a 7 year old, I can not comprehend abandoning my child or knowing something is wrong and do nothing about it. It also breaks my heart to hear the poor relationship that you have with your dad (I can't blame you). But now that you realize how unhealthy it's been, I think you've made the right choice about not having him attend your wedding.


  9. I enjoy your blog tremendously. I am an abuse thriver and am finally traveling the road to recovery. I had repressed memories for decades, but like you said, now it all makes since in light of the abuse. I love your sprinklings of beauty in fashion and flowers. I keep a vigilant watch for beauty in my world too. It is refreshing to see you presenting the truth about a subject that has been in the dark for too too long. I only hope that with the forced outing of sex crimes in the media, there will soon follow the forced outing of pedophile rings among the powerful. Let the light shine! Beauty and Light will prevail !

  10. Hello, I know this post is super old. But I had to comment.
    My abuse was physical and emotional but not sexual. But I also ask myself some of this stuff all the time. People knew. pEOPLE KNEW. We lived in housing with thin walls. People saw it happen in public. And nobody did anything!
    And I know some of it is because I grew up a military brat--I was hardly the only kid getting hit with a belt; even now in a lot of conservative places in the USA it's not only normal to beat your kids but it's assumed that if you don't you're coddling them. But I just think: they had to have heard his anger through the walls. They had to have heard us getting hit and crying. How could they not do anything?? We weren't "bad" kids. (Not that we would have deserved it, even so.)
    The rare times I get triggered in that way where I just immediately disassociate are almost always when kids get yelled at/humiliated in public. I always freeze in terror--I've always had the "freeze" response to fear, which ironically was another thing to get yelled at and hit for, when I finally became so scared I couldn't answer my dad's questions.
    So I talk about it other places instead--on social media, for instance; I've mentioned multiple times that I don't want to be friends with people who think it's okay to hit children for any reason at all, and when it's appropriate I share some of my own story.
    Because it has to stop.

    1. Sorry I only just saw this. Like you, there is no way I will be friends with anyone who thinks it's okay to hit kids. Nor will I be friends with anyone who turns a blind eye when anyone else is being abused. And, of course, I never turn a blind eye either. Like you, I talk about the issue. It's important.