This is the second of a three-chapter series focusing on the layers of silencing mechanisms that have thwarted so many generations of victims/survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Here, our author, ‘Gaye’, takes us into deeper and even more personal layers, negotiating a way through the blocks that come from our foundations and early relationships. Obstacles that stop us telling others, and even ourselves, what has happened to us.
Very vocal trailblazers are encouraging us to speak out about abuse. Yet, still, many of us feel unable or reticent to tell our stories.
It takes many of us decades to speak out, some of us never do. This gives us a hint about the depth and pervasiveness of the barriers. There are still untouched areas of our world that cultivate or even demand our silence. Hundreds and thousands, maybe millions of us, are yet to find our voice, are yet to be heard.
This is especially so for those of us who experienced abuse as a child, in our own families or their networks. Our truths often come to the surface sporadically, in barely decipherable blobs. We may only be able to speak of our traumatic experiences in oblique or even obtuse ways.
We can begin to shake off our social and personal blinkers, right now, if, as well as listening to the stories of those who are speaking out, we take a clear-minded look at the immense obstacles these survivors are overcoming.
If we dare open these ‘cans of worms’, more people will come to understand what has happened to them and how they have been blocked and silenced, both as children and as adults. More of us will gradually find our voice.
Are you ready to listen patiently?
What Has Been Stopping Us Telling Our Stories?
The journey through childhood into adulthood has done little to equip even the most well-resourced of us with the range of skills, background understandings, courage, compassion, openness and resilience to overcome barriers to both telling and hearing first-hand accounts of child sexual abuse. This is perhaps even more the case, for those of us who experienced abuse in our childhood and families.
We look here at the barriers inherent in the fact that the abuse occurs in childhood – the once-in-a-lifetime developmental period that creates the foundations for the adult the child will become. It is a time when children are meant to be able to trust the attention, protection, respect, and nurturing from those who have the roles and responsibility to care for them. When these relationships, instead, bring the child to traumatic experiences that are then hidden and ignored, wobbly foundations are created. The effects of the trauma can persist well into adulthood and are often passed down through generations. And so it is with the silencing, whether through overt and direct measures (such as via threats to stay quiet, keep secrets) or the passive, implicit mechanisms such as re-framing and minimising the traumatic experience or ignoring and disbelieving children’s utterances.
Children Do Not Have Frameworks to Understand What is Happening to Them
Children do not have frameworks for making sense of the sexual experiences being imposed on them, so it is common for memories of the experience to be obliterated or clouded by confusion and overwhelm. Even if the abuse isn’t violent, a young child is not developmentally ready for the experience. They rarely have the words to explain it or relate it to their sense of self and worldview. Add this to the surreptitious ways in which the abuse is almost always conducted and the threats, shaming and blaming that are often used to keep us silent and we can see how overwhelmed a child can be. Many of us have little hope of finding ways to process and talk about our experience in our childhood. This confused silence and unnamed but pervading sense of shame and terror can easily become a foundation for our way of being, even as an adult.
I don’t remember drawing much, before I began primary school.
At home, colouring books seemed to be the only place for pencils.
School gave 5-year-old me the freedom to draw.
When the drawings I brought home included men with 3 ‘legs’,
the implied sense that I had done something wrong or embarrassing
quickly buried the red flag my sub-conscious may have been waving
and contributed to life-long shame about my drawing ability
(not to mention the experiences that led me to represent men this way).
Wobbly foundations for life
What can be particularly damaging is that imposed premature sexual experience creates warped foundations for all our future development and relationships. The abuse of children, especially in early childhood, is very often perpetrated by people the child is meant to trust. People who are meant to guide their precious emotional, mental, physical, social development and show them how to cultivate constructive relationships in and with the world around them.
The abuse messes with the very foundation and, in fact, every foundation that creates the person the child is to become. Sexual abuse does not just leave us with a potentially warped, confused or ambivalent relationship with sex. It can disturb any or all of our fundamentals. As adults, in the very basis of our psyche, things can be confused and tangled, linked together wrongly, especially if the abuser was meant to be a respected caregiver or authority.
We can grow up not knowing how to love love,
how to trust trust, how to laugh with laughter,
how to feel the risk and harm in risky, harmful behaviour
how to respect respect.
We need abundant patience and time in safe environments to be able to begin to tell ourselves the truth about what has undermined us and rendered us wobbly. (There’s more about the effects of these wobbly foundations in the next chapter).
Trauma Creates Memory Blocks
Any form of abuse in childhood can leave us with gaps and dysfunction in the foundations of the adult we are to become. The trauma creates physiological, neurological, emotional and psychological blocks and overwhelm that confound or hijack our ability to tell our story, even to ourselves. On top of this, sexual abuse has particularly warping effects. Because this is ‘private’ stuff the wounds often remain hidden and unhealed, leaving us peculiarly sensitive and reactive or hardened, stuck and distant.
There has been significant research into the long-lasting effects of trauma in the last few decades.4,6,7 When we are traumatised, as children are when being abused, our internal systems go into survival modes of flight, fight, freeze or fawn. Freezing and fawning, are common responses when children are overwhelmed by adults who are carers or authority figures. They are unable to fight or run away from this person they are meant to be able to respect and trust.
One of the ways this plays out is in our brain pathways. When we are threatened and in survival mode, our brain does not sort memories or lay them down in the usual ways. Memories of the trauma are not organised or stored in a context. They float free in our memory bank only to be called up by unexpected triggers. These ‘flash-backs’ or ‘intrusive memories’ often stay below the surface, not talked about, because they don’t fit with our daily life or with our stories about ourselves. A full memory of the abuse may be non-existent or blocked. It can be very difficult to create a picture for ourselves, to build our own narrative, let alone speak about it to others.
I refer to my memory flashes as my ‘trauma memories‘ or ‘floaties’. I recognise them well. They have been with me, unchanged, since my early childhood. Isolated flashes that, on their own, don’t make any sense. Each of them is like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that turns up in the wrong box, not matching other pieces or fitting into the scene. These singular aberrant pieces finally came together in my mid-life after a series of events, including the death of the extended family member who had abused me. I don’t have a full memory of the abusive incidents but there’s enough pieces of the puzzle to reveal the general scenarios.
During my mid-life process of coming to terms with these surfacing realisations, and the associated terror, there was one time my mother was able to listen to me and not avoid, deny or silence me. I asked for her help to understand one memory which had always contained specific detail about my bedroom, curtains, the weather, a particular car in the driveway and so on. There was, however, nothing to explain the abject fear this memory was connected to. To my surprise there was enough detail for my mother to suddenly and clearly pinpoint that it was a family gathering for one of my birthdays, either my 3rd or 4th. In the same precise moment, we both had the realisation – yes, that is how and when the abuse would have occurred. We both knew his modus operandi – after I had been put to bed, he had snuck into my bedroom while others were occupied with cleaning up and farewells.
I will be eternally grateful for this moment that broke through the deep-seated family blocks and helped me create a narrative around that memory. It unlocked a whole host of understandings about some of my own blind spots. Now I understood how and why birthdays can be triggers for me, shutting me down, making me ‘wooden’ (as one friend describes it).
The Relationship with the Abuser: Hidden Control, Darlings and Demons, Blaming and Shaming
Hidden and Absolute Control
Child abuse comes with a deep and inherent silencer – the child is dependent and vulnerable in the relationship with the person who abuses them.
This power imbalance provides us with a key to factors that cause and allow the abuse and also a clear reason for the veil of silence that has kept it hidden in our daily lives and relationships, in our networks and institutions and in our own minds and bodies.
Often Darlings not Demons or Deviants
Those who work with survivors and abusers say that perpetrators of sexual abuse come from all social classes, age groups and other demographics. No one can be instantly ruled in or out, in a child protection investigation. I wonder if mandatory reporting of child abuse and the increase and expansion of criminal prosecutions over the last 30 or so years are bringing us more understanding of the nature of abusers.
There is a danger in demonising perpetrators and labelling them paedophiles, monsters, etc. Not because this is necessarily inaccurate, but because, once we have a stereotypical picture in our minds of the sort of people who do these despicable things to children, we may well miss the abuse occurring right in front of us. A large percentage of people who commit incest and other forms of child sexual abuse are not obvious monsters or perverts. They’re often ordinary people, perhaps even well-respected in their relationships, their family and their world.
If we perpetuate only the monster/deviant images then those of us who experienced abuse from very ordinary people in our family networks will be hampered in developing an understanding that what we experienced was actually abuse. And we will continue to be subdued by responses such as “He never seemed to be mean”, “She’s such a loving mother”, “They are a lovely family, surely there couldn’t be abuse there”.
The family in which I grew up was loving and stable, whilst quite insular (‘they keep to themselves’ type of thing). When they did interact with the community the family was well respected.
One strong memory I have, with a clear view of my grandfather, is set outside. Like all my ‘trauma memories,’ I am looking at this scene from above, it has never changed and it used to pop into my consciousness seemingly randomly. It’s quite an innocuous scene (Don’t worry, there’s nothing gruesome here, only the hidden meaning is disturbing). Let’s see if I can show you.
At the back of the red-brick house looking over to the grassed area of the backyard, here she is, a little blue-eyed cutie, about 4 years old, her back to the wall of the house. She is squatting easily with beloved dogs nearby. A bulky German Shepherd, who has been her own family dog since before she was born. He, as always, is in a protective stance near her. The older, greying black dog called ‘Sailor’, her grandfather’s dog being cared for by the family, is languidly stretched out on the warm concrete.
Her grandfather is here, returned for a visit. It is his house, but he moved to the country a little while ago, leaving her and her parents in the house while they saved for a deposit for their own home. He is standing facing her and is bending slightly towards her, ready to tease her as usual. He has a small metal spade in his hand, the sort that would have once been part of a set next to a fireplace. He has found it on a roadside rubbish heap.
“Too bloody good to throw out, such a waste”. His usual agitated admonishments, hard-earned lessons from the great depression.
“Here, you have it to play with …”
He genuinely seems interested in connecting with her. There’s a certain amount of affection implied. She expects it, waits for it, with anticipation but also with something else she cannot let herself feel or be aware of.
As onlookers, with the wisdom of life experience, we might see that this ‘something else’ is more concentrated in this interchange than most. It is the reason this is a charged memory. This ‘something else’ is the reason this memory has remained unchanged over the years, floating in a different part of her memory bank without any context. The ‘something else’ is abject fear. Something she can only allow herself to experience once she is an adult, once her grandfather has died, and the obliterating weight of the intent behind his next words can be brought to the surface, shared and understood:
“… and this is for me to use on you …” he says, teasing but menacingly waving the metal spade in mid-air.
He takes a furtive glance around. She recognises the intense look in his eyes right now. It comes with a visceral warning, a breath-holding sense of danger. She knows in this moment that every little movement, gesture and sound she makes, or doesn’t make, is crucial. She must choose her expression, words, actions very carefully in order to minimise his intensity. She already knows she must be complicit with a secret, the sub-text of what he speaks.
“This is for me to use on you if I find out you haven’t been looking after my Sailor”.
For over 50 years this memory popped into my consciousness at odd times. I used to think it was harmless. My loving, but always teasing, grandfather giving me a metal spade to play with in the garden.
Then there was a day, in my midlife, that some of the pieces of the puzzle came together. I finally had a context for this memory. At last I could learn to stand in my own truth and start honouring my emotional reactions. I could begin to see why this memory had been so charged and stored in the way traumatic memories are stored. That is, without any context. I now had context and could see that my grandfather’s furtive and intense looks and my inner fear and knowing, pointed to the real meaning of ‘looking after my Sailor’.
‘Look after our secret … or I will hurt you with this spade’.
Hints About the Nature of the Abuser and the Silencing – Blaming, Shaming and Threats
What causes people to do it? This is one gaping hole in my hard-won understanding of what happened to me. I have decided that it is not up to me to answer this question. Perhaps that’s a task for perpetrators who are healing themselves. What I can shed light on is the blaming, shaming and threats – common features of abuse and very direct forms of silencing that give us hints about the nature of the abusers and the contexts that allow abuse to occur.
Many of us have heard the following phrases during or after the abuse. They speak for themselves as barriers to children speaking up at the time of the abuse, or, possibly, ever. These phrases may be uttered in private or tailored, seemingly innocuous versions can be used in day-to-day conversations, disguised reinforcers of the silencing:
Blaming – “You asked for that”, “If you hadn’t … (worn that dress, looked at me like that, touched me), it wouldn’t have happened”, “You didn’t stop me”, “You shouldn’t have let me do it last time”, “You like it/want it”.
Shaming – “You’re a dirty little …”, “You little flirt, you”, “Look at the mess you’ve got us into”, “No one will want to know what you’ve just done/let me do to you”, “Your mother/father wouldn’t be very happy with you”, “You shouldn’t touch yourself (let anyone else touch you) down there, it’s dirty”.
Threats – “This is our secret, if you tell anyone I’ll have to tell them what you did”, “No one would believe you”, “You know I could hurt you a lot more, don’t you?”, “Don’t you dare tell anyone”, “You don’t want your mother to be upset do you?”. “If I hear you’ve been whinging to anyone, I’ll give you something to cry about”.
It might not be easy to hear these things, in this context.
Perhaps it’s time for a break or a quiet moment right now.
Feel your feet contacting the surface beneath you,
connecting you with the support of the earth.
Bring your mind into this moment focus on something
natural or beautiful in your environment.
Maybe stretch your arms or legs and shake out any tension.
Trans-generational systems of silencing in families
Families can have powerful processes for denying and covering up abuse. Mechanisms of secrecy, isolation and pretence can be so ingrained through generations, that they are very ordinary parts of family life. The patterns and unspoken ‘rules’ may be in place well before a child is abused, or even born. They act as silencers before there is an opportunity for anyone to react to the abuse, to question it, name it or form thoughts about it.
These silencing systems are defined ways to get on with life, side-step confrontation or push down pain. They also ensure the maintenance of the status quo and thus the power of the abuser(s). The systems are perpetuated by abusers themselves, though they can be so embedded in extended families that others in the family, even victims themselves, also become reinforcers/enforcers/enablers of the great cover-up.
- Simple, direct or indirect guidance – “We don’t talk about those sort of things”
- Re-framing – “That sort of thing happens from time to time”, “They didn’t mean to hurt you”, “They were just playing, tickling you”, “They really love you”
- Blame-shifting – “You shouldn’t have let him do that”, “… you asked for that”, “If you had have done what you were told/hadn’t worn that dress …it wouldn’t have happened”
- Diminishing – “It was nothing”, “That was minor compared to what they did to me”, “It only happened once or twice”
- Covering-up – “Just think of the good things they do”, “We agreed we weren’t going to talk about this anymore”
- Secret-making – “This is our special secret”, “Other people don’t understand, so don’t ever talk about this”
- Outright denial – “Don’t lie, those things never happened to you”, “They would never do something like that”
- A strong ‘Us vs Them’ culture – “Other families don’t know how to bring children up properly, like we do”
- Isolation (from people/networks outside the family) – “We don’t see them anymore, they ask too many questions/they’re not like us”, ”We’re not the sort of people that have neighbours over for gossip and cuppas”, “He likes to have special time with just you”
- Avoiding/denying strong emotions – Extended families can have strong patterns of relating that avoid getting close to hidden, raw wounds. For instance, avoiding or controlling anyone who seems unsettled, overtly emotional, unhappy, needy, in crisis or who is getting close to forbidden territory.
- Extreme reactions – One of the most effective silencing mechanisms in the family I grew up in is the fact that whenever things come too close to the wounds people carry within, volcanic eruptions (frighteningly out of character for the person) quickly extinguish any hint of disclosure or questioning. Or conversely, some families might be characterised by constant extreme reactions, thus the trauma is hidden in plain sight.
It’s often not until we have interacted with the outside world for some time and have started to identify the trauma that lives within us that we begin to see that not all families have these types of controls embedded. It can be quite a revelation to find that we are not the problem, that there are other ways of relating and being and that what happened to us is the problem. It can then be a little easier to start to speak out.
Keep to the rigid tracks all will be OK.
Patterns of avoidance in the family can be most powerful silencers. Where there is trans-generational trauma, there are hidden but raw and untreated wounds. Like a physical wound that has been hidden, untended, not exposed light and fresh air, when something touches or comes close to our buried trauma there is pain, dysfunction, surprising sensitivity or awkwardness. Survival, approval and belonging may depend on avoiding the pain, confusion and overwhelm and anything that points to these.
One way to ensure this is to live life in narrow tracks or grooves so that our raw wounds are hidden from the world. Some families develop rigid routines for daily life and interacting with each other and the outside world. Prescribed topics of conversation, food routines (“It’s mince for tea, must be Tuesday”), very set tracks into the world (“I only ever shop there, and only ever on a Thursday”) are examples of the ways that unpredictability and risks of change or challenge can be avoided. Anything that is unknown or uncontrolled can take us too close to the raw wounds, to a dark abyss within us that we are barely conscious of. Neuroses, obsessions and addictions are coping mechanisms that can help us stay on these predictable tracks and thus give us the feeling we are avoiding the black abyss that is the unprocessed, raw and repressed trauma.
[The opposite type of ‘coping’ can also be true. Families can live in a constant blur of chaos, confused relationships and volcanic explosions that make it impossible to disentangle the hidden trauma from confused and overwhelming, dramatic processes of daily life – the trauma is thus avoided, ‘hidden in plain sight’.]
A big investment in pretence
Families with intergenerational trauma can put a lot of energy into looking good to the outside world and creating rigid boundaries between the ‘outside and inside’ of family life.
If we are still engaged with our families of origin, where the abuse occurred, there can be a huge toll for breaking the systems of silence and pretence, even decades after it occurred. There is a genuine risk of losing these extended networks if we strive to stand in our truth. Some family members may still be fully invested in the maintenance of the pretences and secrets, even if the perpetrator is no longer alive. So much so, that we know that speaking out presents serious risks to these family members’ stability in the world and to their relationship with us.
Those of us who are ready to speak out are often burdened with unimaginable guilt or conflict about what our ‘silence-breaking’ will do to the physical, social and mental health of family members.
My mother was badly injured in a fall a few years ago.
This occurred long after the perpetrator of
both her childhood abuse, and mine, had died and
after I had begun to stutter out parts of my story.
To this day, my mother believes her fall
was caused by ‘him’ pushing her (from the ‘other side of the grave’)
because she hadn’t been able to stop me speaking my truth about what he had done.
This is huge for me. Right now I have my feet firmly planted, grounding myself and I’m watching the flow of my breath. I am reminding myself that my mother’s path is different to mine. I am no longer blinded or blocked by the family pretences. I live in a different state, geographically and emotionally. I am a mature and functional woman in my sixties with a variety of work and life experiences, study and travels. I have rich networks around me, the vast majority of which have, and will, support me as I bring my story to light. I have an intense drive to offer these insights far and wide in an effort to nurture the way for others who are ready to break their silence.
Can I really put these snippets of my very private story out in the public sphere?
My grandfather died quite a few years ago. That’s what allowed my memories to come to the surface and enabled me to start my liberating journey of transformation.
I will not, and cannot, let his threats silence me anymore.
What terrifies me into a state of inertia is the shattering impact this will have on the rigid systems of pretence, silencing and cover-up in my extended family. My mother is in her 80s and has dedicated much of her life to loving and nurturing me (and my siblings), in special, ordinary and peculiar ways.
I can’t dispel the feeling that the moment I put my name to this piece, my mother will descend into an abyss of terror and madness – something she has assiduously avoided throughout her life, thanks to her tightly dug grooves around the rim of the abyss, while sweeping everything neatly under the carpet.
Who amongst us wants to knowingly see a sweet, hard-working, old lady challenged thus?
So no, I can’t do it. I cannot put this out as I intended, triumphantly in my name. It seems there are still more bonds that have silenced me that I need to work through. Yet the act of being silenced does not sit easily in me … so please accept this piece, once again, anonymously.
About the author:
‘Gaye’ has worked for over forty years in different roles with families, children, teenagers and older people. She has a university degree, is a trained human service professional and currently works with a range of people through alternative wellbeing and mental health networks. When the effects and memories of early childhood abuse surfaced in her late forties ‘Gaye’ thought she was ‘losing it’. She stumbled into a counsellor who understood trauma and she used familiar yoga practices to stabilise herself as she explored what was happening within. Sixteen years later, with renewed foundations and buoyed by the support of friends and parts of her family, ‘Gaye’ is gradually breaking through the layers that had kept her trauma hidden.
1 The Truth is Longer Than a Lie, 2006:5, Mudaly and Goddard
2 The last Social Taboo: How an unspeakable crime against children remains largely hidden’. ABC ‘Background Briefing’, November 13, 2021, Tracey Shelton
3 The Prevalence and Impact of Child Maltreatment in Australia: Findings from the Australian Child Maltreatment Study – Brief report, Haslam et al, 2023, Queensland University of
4 Childhood Trauma – the Long-term Impact, Kezelman in Humanising Mental HealthCare in Australia, 2019:43-55
5 Still Unseen and Ignored, 2021:3 & 24, Tucci and Mitchell, Australian Childhood Foundation (ACF)
6 Trauma and Recovery, 1997, Judith Herman
7 The Body Keeps the Score, 2014, Bessel van der Kolk
8 Draft Five-Year Strategy, 2022, National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse (NCACSA)