This is the first in a 3-chapter series that joins the ranks of people breaking long-held silences, but with a focus on what has silenced so many generations of victims/survivors of childhood sexual abuse, in their own families
The nature of this type of abuse, the trauma it causes, and the life-long effects that echo through the generations make it peculiarly difficult for victims to tell their stories, even to themselves.
These three chapters take us on one woman’s journey through progressively deeper and more personal layers of cover-up and blocks that hid her story from her until her mid-life. Surprised to find that she still needs to grapple with these silencing influences as a 60+ year old, in the end this author opts for anonymity, using the pseudonym, ‘Gaye’.
Here is a call for the world to understand the many levels of silencing mechanisms that are inherent in families and their networks, and in our broader ‘systems’. Our world is structured in ways that deny or hide unpalatable truths but at last, the ‘lived experience’ of victim/survivors is being respected, believed, and sought. The shards of personal story, trauma-informed insights, and resultant wisdom offered here will help us all appreciate the often circuitous, delayed, oblique and stop-start routes survivors need to take in telling their stories.
Surges of speaking-out about sexual assault and childhood abuse have touched us all in these past few tumultuous years. Let us not be fooled into thinking that telling our stories is easy or something we are simply doing in ‘copycat’ fashion. It takes strength and courage to tell very personal and private stories through Royal Commissions, inquiries, reviews, the #Me Too movement, the #Let Her Speak campaign and other forms of media. We’ve had powerful and controversial examples from an Australian of the Year and others revealing assaults, abuse and mishandling in politics, schools, hospitals, churches and other institutions that, once upon a time, commanded our respect.
Once in a while we hear how difficult it is to arrive at the point of being able to speak out about abuse and we glimpse some of the immense barriers that people have surmounted. Are we taking the time to really understand the mountains that must be climbed before the story can be told? As one young survivor put it, ‘The truth is longer than a lie’.1
Are you ready to listen patiently?
One all too common and, disturbingly, fertile ground for child sexual abuse is ‘behind-closed-doors’ in families and family networks. Yet the dynamics behind the perpetuation of this type of perpetration have been the least understood or discussed. In fact, it is sometimes referred to as the “Last Social Taboo”.2
Very often there are entrenched and trans-generational patterns that keep us silent and our abuse hidden. The traumatic effects of childhood sexual abuse don’t just stay in childhood. They often are with us into adulthood, and sadly, in spite of our best intentions otherwise, they can taint our relationships in the families we create.
Before we go any further let’s acknowledge that we are not talking about a small number of people. Sexual abuse of minors is far more common than we may care to admit. The recent, ground-breaking Australian Child Maltreatment Study conducted in 2021 and reported in 2023 found that 28.5% of Australians had experienced sexual abuse as a child – more than 1 in 3 girls and almost 1 in 5 boys.3 Based on 2012 figures, the National Centre for Action on Childhood Sexual Assault (NCACSA) reports that one million Australian women and 0.4 million men were sexually abused before the age of 15.8
Childhood sexual abuse occurs across all classes and environments and often in families and their networks that appear to be positive, stable and loving. In other words, it is not poverty, class, ‘stranger danger’ or overt signs of deviance that are consistent causal factors or indicators.
Are we ready to explore what causes these warping behaviours and cultures and where they draw their power from?
Please, please don’t refer to ‘my silence’ or my ‘speaking out’
as if these are life’s simple choices. I have been silenced, not silent.
My relationship with the truth was forbidden and
warped by powerful systems of pretence, secrecy, and re-framing,
passed down through generations of our public institutions
and our most private institution, that of the family
As we come to understand the systems of silencing and cover-up, we will glimpse not only the factors that contribute to the alarming incidence of sexual abuse but also the crucial steps in prevention and healing. When we all start to focus NOT on what is ‘wrong with us’ but ‘what happened to us’, as a trauma-informed paradigm requires, then each and every one of us can be part of the process of clearing our societies of this scourge.
Before you can be open to any part of my story, you need to understand my silence.
What, specifically, are these systems of pretence and silencing? There are layers upon layers. First and foremost is the difficulty in finding people who are ready and able to genuinely listen … and hear. And then in this chapter I will take you, as gently as possible, to some of the ways the world around us silences us. In future instalments I will dare to broach the blocks from our foundational relationships and then go deeper into the hijacking that comes from scars left by travesties in our inner, personal, private spaces.
Yes it’s complex, multi-faceted and ‘in your face’,
Are you patient enough to stay with this?
First and Foremost – Does Anyone Really Want to Hear?
A fundamental block to speaking out is the difficulty in finding receptive, respectful, gentle, patient, and compassionate listeners at the times we need them.
Those of us who have tried speaking out know the walls of disbelief, nebulous doubts, sharp reactions, disgust, fear and ignorance in the world’s responses. There are times people react strongly against us. Perhaps they are carrying their own similar but hidden pain. Or maybe what we say challenges their viewpoint or place in the world. Other times there’s a simple turning away, or a veil that comes down and we know we may never be treated the same again in these quarters. Sometimes people jump into helping, rescuing or theorising mode. Even with the best intentions, this stops them really listening and weakens our tentative grip on the power of our own truth and our own unfolding healing process.
Social/cultural contexts: The Perpetuation of the Abuse and the Silencing
Each time we speak up, we must find the inner resolve to break through blinkered perspectives and thwarting power imbalances in the world around us. There are social and cultural contexts and entrenched transgenerational patterns that perpetuate both the abuse and the silencing.
Recently, we have been hearing more about the social and political structures and environments that deny, hide or perpetuate abuse and family violence and thus further traumatise and silence women, children, marginalised groups and victims in general. There are laws, policies, labels, diagnoses and whole institutions and service-systems that are blind or even hostile to our realities and needs. Many of these power imbalances are being highlighted by courageous speaking out, in waves of challenges to patriarchal/gender/colonial blindness, deafness and biases. One example is the attention being given to the ways the criminal justice system is skewed against children and women who are revealing very private and disturbing information.
I want to focus here on just three attributes of our culture that play particular roles in both allowing and concealing childhood sexual abuse in family contexts – tendencies towards victim-blaming, prioritising forgiveness as a healing strategy and remnant notions of ownership/control of women and children. All of these give us glimpses of the subtle social and cultural forces that, on the one hand, silence victims/survivors and, on the other hand, create negative and stifling reactions to, and avoidance of, our realities.
Blaming the Victim
The recent moment that an Australian authority figure publicly asked us to consider if a perpetrator who killed his partner and 3 children was ‘pushed too far’, was a moment many victims/survivors might have sunk back into a bottomless pit of self-blame and self-muting. If we can contemplate the possibility that leaving or calling-out an abusive person might cause such extreme violence, then is it any wonder that victims of incest and domestic violence stay quiet?
‘Victim blaming’, may no longer be the first response for many of us, but it is still alive and well.
I know I am not alone in understanding that many perpetrators of violence and abuse, behind closed doors, were or are vulnerable people. I hope I am not alone in knowing that exposing these vulnerabilities, can enhance them. Many of us have known from a very young age that any hint of exposing individual or family vulnerabilities to the outside world increases the risk of inside damage, backlashes and other reactions. No wonder victim blaming has been so prevalent. Being a victim and calling out the abuse can be followed by more abuse.
But let’s stop ourselves right there and emphatically remind ourselves that one might follow the other, but one does not cause the other. Telling our story or taking action, might be followed by an escalation or a reaction but the cause does not sit with the teller of the story or the person leaving the relationship.
Our task is to ditch the self-blaming as well as the victim blaming because one reinforces the other. Then we can get on with the real and positive work of surviving and healing.
In terms of survivors speaking out about childhood sexual abuse the fact that things of a sexual nature are meant to be private is pertinent. To put it bluntly, speaking of depraved sexual acts that were imposed on us can lead us to be labelled as the problem or even the corrupt one peddling depravity – victim-blaming at its most stifling.
What’s more, a prevailing thought-form that ‘surely such abuse can’t happen to innocent children’, can cast a question around the innocence of children who experience it. Thus, we grow up not talking about it. Or we find such indirect ways to deal with it that when we do speak of it, people don’t understand, accept or believe what we are referring to.
The Forgiveness Block: The Dam and Damn of Forgiveness
A very common response many people experience when speaking out about abuse is being told that we need to find a way to forgive the abuser. This is often heard in religious/spiritual circles, but also in professional situations and in daily family life.
It may well be true that we will only regain, or gain, our sense of wholeness and personal power when we are able to broach forgiveness. We cannot live a full life if we harbour shiploads of anger and fear and terror. However, and the whole world needs to hear this loud and clear – being told to forgive can create very real setbacks in our healing process.
Being told to forgive can reinforce the processes of silencing, denial and minimisation we have been subjected to, and have internalised. This is especially the case for those of us who grew up in a family where our suffering was covered up. Phrases of forgiveness such as “You need to understand, it’s not their fault, they had a terrible time as a child, in the war, etc” can be very powerful. The moment we start telling our story we are very vulnerable to such control and thwarting. Talk of forgiveness is likely to do nothing more than reinforce our silence, confusion, guilt and shame. So we dam the flow which is a damn shame.
Trauma recovery needs to be driven by our own innate force for balance and wholeness (healing). Otherwise, there is a very real risk of re-traumatisation at every turn, no matter how well-intentioned the intervention, advice or help is.
In short, being told to forgive can be re-traumatising.
For 16 years now I have been processing the hitherto unseen childhood trauma that surfaced in my mid-life. It has been challenging at so many levels, but I feel truly liberated. If you ask me if I can forgive ‘him’ (an authority figure, two generations above me in my extended family) I may still slip into a fog of shame, guilt, confusion or wooden silence.
Sometimes I simply feel angry when I am asked to forgive:
… Are people trying to speed up my healing process so that they can quickly tell themselves I am OK, so they have ‘closure’?
… Is it because I come from the wrong side of the power imbalance of our world … I am a woman, I was a child, so it is up to me to do the repair work, mend the relationships?
… Are you asking me to forgive him because he wasn’t, and still isn’t, responsible for his own actions?
At other times I can use the concept of forgiveness to see how far I have come in my transformation. When I ask myself if I can forgive him, it might bring up still more raw emotions that are asking to be processed and I can instantly forget forgiveness and get on with nurturing myself and working things through.
At this point in my healing journey, I can say with equal voracity:
1. I acknowledge this man had perverted obsessions and addictions that led him to be abusive behind closed doors. He caused me and others, so much damage that our lives have been plagued by physical, mental, emotional, social and relationship problems.
2. I can also say I sometimes feel genuine compassion for what this person went through in his life. I can see he tried at times to lessen, or make-up for, the effects of the pain and trauma he carried and caused. I can also remember, whole-heartedly, some wonderful things he did with and for me.
When I can let these two things sit together in my consciousness, I am in touch with my deeper power. The fact that I can publicly and genuinely declare them is a supreme act of forgiveness, in my book.
Yet I cannot say I unreservedly forgive him. If you tell me to do so, watch out for my reaction. I may go within and shut down or I may express my anger at the potential thwarting of my healing process.
Ownership of woman and child
I was born in the 1950’s and have seen considerable shifts in the way women are perceived and treated. Many impediments to our basic rights, independence, career-choice, and so on have lessened considerably. We can be tempted to say that perceptions of women and children as lesser or deficient human beings are outmoded in contemporary Australian society. In reality, though, there are biased or inadequate policies, social structures, attitudes and patterns of behaviour that still reinforce relationship dynamics that include a sense of superiority, ownership and/or ‘right’ to control another person (based on gender, race, age, family relationship, colonial history etc).
Family life, behind-closed-doors, is sacred and private. In many ways, of course, it needs to be. But it can be a breeding ground for some individuals to feel able to exploit, violate or abuse others simply because they have a legitimised relationship (for example spouse, parent, grand-parent, sibling, bread-winner).
There is no doubt in my mind that the man who abused me a number of times, felt he had a ‘right’ to access me as a toddler because:
1. he was my grandfather,
2. my immediate family was living in the house he owned, and
3. he had abused my mother when she was a child.
Trans-generational Patterns and Blind spots
The environment in which abuse occurs, and more precisely the environments that allow it to occur, have great silencing power. We might be inclined to think it is one-off, isolated acts of silencing that stop us, but the mechanisms run a lot deeper than this. In families and, as the Royal Commission has shown us, other institutions, there are fortified, trans-generational systems that maintain secrecy, avoidance and pretence. Many of us are forbidden, or otherwise denied, direct relationships with the truth. There are tolls for breaking the silence. Multiple impediments inhibit our ability to tell ourselves, or others, the story. Let’s explore these a bit more.
Trans-generational systems of silencing
The feminists of the 1970s argued that in reality, it is not incest that is taboo. What is taboo is talking about it.
Has much changed since then?
… In some ways, YES. For some time, we have had mandatory reporting and criminal charges for child sexual assault and related education, re-training and policy shifts in some of our social and legal systems. There are arguments both for and against criminalising incest, but these changes have helped break down the cones and codes of silence in some areas.
… In other ways, NO – many of us who experienced abuse in family contexts and know its continuing prevalence have been asking:
“Where is the equivalent of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse for those of us who experienced abuse in our family environments?”
An ABC ‘Background Briefing’ piece, ‘The last Social Taboo: How an unspeakable crime against children remains largely hidden’  echoes this and calls incest the ‘number one challenge for society’2. The landmark Australian Child Maltreatment Study has brought us ‘deeply sobering’ and nationally representative data on the prevalence of child sexual abuse – of the 28.5% of Australians who have experienced it, 78% experienced it more than once, 42% more than 6 times and 11% more than 50 times.3 There is hope, now, that the new National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse (NCACSA) will fulfill its promise to have a broader ambit than the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses and include a focus on abuse occurring in families. It is encouraging to hear this Centre’s intention is to ‘… disrupt the dynamics that have failed to stop child sexual abuse and prevented victims and survivors from being believed, validated and supported …’ 8.
Blind spots –‘Traumatic amnesia’
The neurological effects of trauma can create blinkers and blind spots that echo through generations – types of amnesia that affect individuals, groups, whole families, organisations and entire social structures/institutions.6,7
At the moment of abuse our bodily systems go into survival mode. If running away or fighting back aren’t options, as is often the case for a child, our systems freeze or shut down. We may go blank or otherwise check-out of the situation, mentally and emotionally. If the trauma is severe, repeated or hidden and not responded to by carers, some of our systems may continue, well into adulthood, to be characterised by freezes and shut-downs or, the opposite, unfathomable outbursts. The memory of the actual incidents may be blocked and there can be blind spots around things related to the abuse and where/how it occurred.
The next chapter further explores these types of memory blocks, for now the focus is on the transgenerational blind spots they can create. Adults who are hijacked by their still traumatised physiology can be oblivious to others, even their own children, being in situations where they, too, are likely to be abused. Thus, transgenerational trauma occurs – systems of blocks, silencing, pretence and cover-up that can lead families to perpetuate the trauma, generation after generation.
There is significant evidence that my grandfather’s father
was abusive, in warped and warping ways.
My grandfather’s behind-closed-doors violence and his sexual abuse
of at least one of his children was known in the closest family circle.
Yet no-one in this otherwise loving circle
seemed to give it a second thought when my parents moved
us in with my grandfather when I was less than two years old.
And no one (except the family dog) saw or responded to
the signs that something was happening to me during the next two to three years.
The Nature of the Abuse: Pervasive, Private and Abhorrent
Sensitivity to the Web of Mass Travesty
Even if the world around us and our internal framework told us that what happened to us was wrong and it wasn’t our fault, even if we had a supply of loving, accepting, believing listeners, we still might not speak out. People who have been abused as children often have a lifetime of trying to forecast and avoid whatever it is that leads to the abuse and to the abuser or their enablers ‘losing the plot’. We can be highly sensitive to, and perceptive of, the emotional state of others around us (though, at times, the opposite can be true).
We can have a deep sense that our stories are enmeshed in the sadness, terror, shame, confusion and blinkeredness that exist in so many others. So both as children and as adults, many of us find ourselves deciding that our story is too big, too sad and too damaging to draw attention to. It is as if we are part of an insidious sticky spider web and we have been trained not to disturb it.
Making the Private Public
In much of our world all that is sexual is relegated to the realms of the unspoken, private, or ‘adults only’. There are strong thought-forms and a whole host of public policies that see and prescribe family life and sexual relationships as operating in sacrosanct private space, not to be intruded upon. As well as this, in many ways, children are seen, or meant to be seen, as asexual beings. All this may be constructive in an ideal world, but herein lie significant barriers to seeing, believing and acting upon evidence of child sexual abuse.
As mentioned before, speaking out about childhood sexual abuse contravenes a code of privacy. Breaking the silence can be met by perceptions that public revelations about sexual behaviours are in and of themselves deviant, problematic, questionable. Often even more so if you are, or were, a child.
Avoiding the Abhorrent
The abhorrent nature of even the thought that a child can be sexually abused can lead the world to turn away and avoid thinking of it. Those of us who, as children or as adults, have tried to talk about the abuse we experienced know very well that people are extremely uncomfortable hearing about it. People go to great lengths to change the subject, dismiss, negate or re-frame it into something less repulsive. [The 2021 Australian Childhood Foundation research, “Still Unseen & Ignored”, confirmed previous studies showing that the ‘community actively avoids the problem of child abuse’ and found that more people than ever turn away from the reality of child abuse.5]
The sad thing is, for we victims who are carrying the pain and leaden weight within us, these reactions and this ‘turning away’, whilst understandable, instantly reinforce our own inner blocks, our shame, guilt, self-loathing and, thus, our silence.
I once sat in an ongoing professional development group and was stunned by the group’s response when the leader dropped in a very general reference to childhood sexual abuse. The leader knew, privately, that I had been processing the surfacing memories of my childhood trauma and that I was beginning to find ways to speak out about it. She knew I felt comfortable in this group and was giving me an opening, if I wanted to take it.
There was the usual shuffling, looking elsewhere from group members. But I was stunned into silence when the woman next to me, who I had found to be a friendly, compassionate person, physically recoiled. With her face contorted in repulsion, she declared “Well, that’s just doesn’t bear thinking about, that’s not something we need to talk about here!”
I knew this person wasn’t reacting to me, but the horror and hostility she expressed somehow seemed to belong to me and thus I was instantly silenced.
Even as a balanced, well-resourced adult, who of us would feel safe revealing even a little of our experience if it means ‘owning up to’ being involved in something so repulsive?
This is one reason why right now, as I think about giving you this article, I stop myself. How will I be perceived by my colleagues and professions, by my friends and family? Can I really put these snippets of my very private story out in the public sphere? Some of you may recoil or doubt me, label me, question me. I think I have come far enough in my healing to withstand this.
I feel a sense of stifling inertia right now. Giving you this piece is an invitation to listen deeply and learn but some of you may feel the urge to jump in and diagnose me or try to heal me. In spite of your noble intentions, this will feel like a violation to me. I have needed to blur the boundary between private and public to give this to you. Will this be taken as an open invitation to delve into my psyche, my life, my family dynamics, my pain or my healing process?
OK, it seems I have not yet completely broken the bonds that have silenced me. Yet the act of being silenced will never sit easily in me again … there’s an internal imperative for me to break through enough of the barriers, in order to give this piece of writing to you, but, for now, in the safety of anonymity.
About the author:
‘Gaye’ (she/her) has worked for over forty years in different roles with families, children, teenagers and older people. She has a university honours 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 Technology
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)