A painful clarity emerged for me recently, and it’s been too hard to write about it. The strange thing is that some part of me has known this truth for a long time, but I’ve been fighting against it. I get so angry about all the denial in my family, but I realise now that I’ve been a part of that too.
For those who don’t know the back story; as a child I was sexually abused by my 16 year old brother. The abuse started when I was 10. Thankfully, it didn’t go on for a long time before my parents discovered what had been happening. My mum actually witnessed it, so there was never any denying that it happened.
However, there was a lot of ignoring and denying the consequences. Social services and the police were involved but did pretty much nothing. My brother carried on living in our house for 5 more years. I had to see him, talk to him, be frightened of him, every day for all those years, while pretending that nothing was wrong. Bigger than my fear of him was my fear of our family being torn apart.
Reflecting on it now, that shouldn’t have ever been my concern. I clearly picked that up from what my parents said and did (or didn’t do). My safety and wellbeing should have been their priority. But instead, they chose to make their own needs more important. They needed us all to be together. They needed to carry on as normal, so they could avoid facing up to the reality that their son had violated and traumatised their daughter. It was all kept secret from my younger sister, who only found out when I opened up to her about it a few years ago.
In the decades after the abuse, I worked incredibly hard to maintain a relationship with my brother – because that’s what my parents wanted from me. I should never have been expected to do that. He deserved none of it, and was not grateful or remorseful. He was always a selfish sh*t.
When I finally chose to cut him out of my life, I explained to my family the full extent of the abuse and its impact. I wanted them to understand why.
More than that, I wanted them to take my side for once. I thought that if they could just see how horrific it was, they would hate him too. I tried everything to make them understand; including severe self-harm and multiple overdoses. Talking to them didn’t work, so I resorted to showing them.
But their denial was and is too strong. And because of that, I have felt abandoned, rejected, invalidated, angry and deeply sad. But I have managed to keep pushing all that disappointment and rage aside. Because simultaneously they are loving and kind towards me. I’ve kept telling myself, ‘they’re just doing what they can manage’, or ‘they’re doing what they think is best’.
I am now calling bullsh*t on that.
I read something on the ‘Broken yet Cherished’ blog recently that just suddenly brought this truth into view for me. It’s a quote from Judith Herman on ‘bystanders’.
“It is morally impossible to remain neutral for those that bear witness to conflict between the victim and the perpetrator. The bystander is forced to take sides. It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear and speak no evil.
The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden or pain. The victim demands action, engagement and remembering.”
(From ‘Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence’)
Reading this, I felt for the first time like my anger towards my family for ‘remaining neutral’ was justified. Because there is no such thing. There is no impartiality. They chose him. They chose to protect him and keep his secrets and allow him to stay within the family. They chose not to take my side – therefore they took his. And they did that because it was and is easier for them. It is as simple as that.
Although it’s simple – and most likely glaringly obvious to anyone who isn’t me, it is agonisingly painful. It’s like all of a sudden I have lost what I thought my family was, as well as what I hoped they would be one day.
I am devastated. The grief feels huge and unbearable. I keep breaking down in tears. Or flying into a rage at trivial things. I know this clarity is important, and in time it will be useful, but right now it is so painful I feel like I can’t survive it.
All of this isn’t helped by the fact that my sister is due to have her first baby in a few weeks. This means it’s hard for me to keep out of contact with her and my parents. And I have no idea how I am going to feel when the little one arrives. I want to be excited, I want to share in their happiness, but at the same time I don’t want to ever see or hear from them again.
There is so much conflict whirling around inside my head at the moment. I can’t focus on anything. I just want to numb myself or cut myself to distract from what I’m feeling. I am so tired of it all.
I really wish I could escape from myself.
Photo: Sharat Ganapati, Creative Commons.