Introduction to You Can Help: A Guidebook for the Family and Friends of Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Assault
Millions of Americans experience sexual trauma. One in four females and one in six males are sexually abused before the age of eighteen.1,2At least ten percent of people who were sexually abused in childhood will have periods of complete amnesia for their abuse, followed by experiences of delayed recall.3 In addition, every 107 seconds, another American is sexually assaulted. each year, there are about 293,000 sexual assaults. Sixty-eight percent of those assaults will go unreported.4 Nearly one-third (31%) of all rape victims develop PTSD sometime during thei lifetime.5,6 And children are three times as likely to be victims of rape than adults.7
The statistics are staggering. And yet, because sexual abuse and assault top the list of taboos in our society, there is a pervasive secrecy that keeps millions of victims in the shadows. Survivors are discouraged not only from speaking about the crimes themselves, but from even speaking about the emotional and psychological ramifications. Unfortunately, this stigma further exacerbates the deep and persistent shame they already carry as a result of the wounds inflicted upon them. Somehow, we must all learn to wear our scars proudly. But if the tragic events of our lives are regarded as dirty secrets that must be kept at all costs, how is that possible?
All survivors need advocates. They need to tell their stories and they need loved ones to participate in the healing process. Recovery does not occur in a vacuum. However, for a myriad of complicated reasons, too often those in the best position to help — the family and friends of the victim — feel the least prepared to do so. Accordingly, their default position ends up being silence, not because of callousness but because of feelings of powerlessness. Any survivor will tell you, silence is the biggest obstacle to recovery.
The exception to this widespread secrecy is whenever a sexual abuse scandal grabs the media’s attention. Then, there is public recognition that sexual crimes are in fact a terrible scourge in our society and that the victims of these crimes deserve compassion. I know from experience that this collective acknowledgment can be somewhat reassuring, but soon the issue fades away as other scandals surface and in terms of one on one interactions, nothing has changed.
Surely, the question that begs asking on behalf of all these injured ones is: what can we do to help? For the vast majority of victims, the first response is to seek support from a licensed and knowledgeable therapist and/or receive crisis intervention. After all, the healing of trauma is far too complex a subject to be left solely in the hands of lay people. However, professional help is only part of the equation. And in terms of what friends and family can do to help, it seems reasonable that the very ones who have had their lives forever changed by sexual trauma — people like myself and the other survivors in this book — may have the best answers.
What many folks unfamiliar with emotional trauma do not understand is that an injury to the spirit can be as devastating as a physical injury to the body. Numerous survivors of sexual abuse and assault quite justifiably feel that their spirits have been confined to wheelchairs and, as a result, they are cut off from the possibilities of a healthy and full life. I have felt this way. However, like many victims of both emotional and physical injuries, I have discovered a resiliency in the human spirit that defies predictions.
You Can Help is divided into two parts. In Part One, I share my own story of recovery and provide numerous insights and information from professionals as well as useful statistics. While my personal history serves as a backdrop, the purpose of these ten chapters is to share the experiential and learned knowledge I have accrued on my own path to healing. Covering a wide range of issues, each chapter is designed to inform and assist the reader in the difficult task of helping a loved one recover from sexual trauma. However, this book would be incomplete without Part Two.
Because there are many types of sexual abuse and assault, Part Two serves to broaden the discussion and bring light to a wide variety of survivor experiences and the complexities surrounding those experiences. In researching this part of the book, I was frankly unprepared for the overwhelming response from victims of every sexual crime imaginable, and I wish I could tell each story. Especially important to me was the fact that these courageous people wanted to participate so that friends and family would be given tools for helping, many saying things like “My family are good people but they didn’t know what to do.” All the participants in Part Two share what was most helpful and hurtful in their recovery process and their stories, learned wisdom, and advice are invaluable. My own life has been immeasurably enriched by their contributions and I know yours will be as well.
Fans of mythology may be familiar with the legend of Parsifal that speaks directly to the central premise of this book. Part of the lore surrounding King Arthur and the Roundtable is a story of the Grail King who has been mortally wounded and his kingdom turned into a wasteland. The only way this evil spell can be broken is by a true act of kindness motivated by love. It is the knight Parsifal whose generous heart leads him to break the enchantment; yet his kind act is surprisingly no more than a simple question. When he sees the wounded king, he is moved with compassion and gently asks, “What ails thee, my lord?” Immediately, the king and kingdom are healed. The lesson is, of course, that by recognizing, acknowledging and affirming another’s suffering, healing can miraculously take place. Interestingly enough, like many of us, Parsifal had an earlier opportunity to demonstrate this kindness, but he felt it was not “knightly” to ask questions. And so only years later, when he followed his heart, was he able to save both the king and the kingdom.
Surely, many of us wish to be like Parsifal. We want to ease the suffering of another, and yet often we simply do not know how. My dear friend Anne is a case in point. Generally a model of supreme composure, Anne came to see me one afternoon stoically fighting back tears because her precious daughter had revealed that she had been raped as a child by a cousin. Now at age twenty-four, she was finally confronting this devastation. Anne felt powerless to help and she also blamed herself for not realizing something was wrong at the time. However, “between twenty-one and thirty-six percent of sexually abused children will display few or no symptoms.”8 At any rate, wanting to give full maternal support and knowing of my history, she arrived at my home armed with pen and paper in search of answers. I was grateful to be asked and proceeded to share with her my experiences as an incest survivor, citing those who have assisted me in the arduous task of overcoming my own trauma. It is Anne’s poignant visit that motivated the writing of this book. I believe Anne represents huge numbers of people who are extremely well intentioned but are just lacking in tools.
The fear, pain, and confusion you may feel over your loved one’s trauma can be so overwhelming that it beckons avoidance, and so I wish to thank you for picking up this book. It is an act of empathy on your part and indicates a generous willingness to help that person. The good news is that statistics have proven again and again that social support plays a truly significant role in recovery. So let us begin to explore ways in which we can open our hearts and be of use. It is unlikely that the results will be as dramatic as in the legend of Parsifal, but make no mistake about it, healing is possible and you can help.