[guest post] We Need To Talk About Incest Survival


[Content note: incest, sexual assault, self-harm, eating disorders]

Someone I know and respect asked me to publish this anonymous guest post. -M

Mia Fontaine wrote an article in The Atlantic recently about the incest problem in America. Although we talk about sex scandals, stranger danger, and the abuses of the Catholic Church, as a society, we don’t really address the adult on child abuse that takes place primarily inside children’s homes.

Given the prevalence of incest, and that the family is the basic unit upon which society rests, imagine what would happen if every kid currently being abused—and every adult who was abused but stayed silent—came out of the woodwork, insisted on justice, and saw that justice meted out.

I have felt compelled to write about what happened to me, but I am too terrified of the consequences to post under my own name. Still, perhaps my story might give someone else the courage to do more than post anonymously to the internet. Perhaps someone will read it and realize how important this issue is. Or perhaps I’ll just feel better having written it. All worthy goals.

I was 18 the last time it happened, it was Christmas break my Freshman year in college. I ran and hid in my room and wondered how I’d let it happen again, it hadn’t happened in so long, I was in college now, surely I should have been safe. I didn’t cry, I just shook. In the decade since that night, I’m not sure I’ve ever managed to unpack everything going on inside me at that moment. Fear, anger, confusion, hurt, desperation for love and approval.

I’m not sure when it started. Maybe I was 11 or 12? It started gradually. Inappropriate hugs, hands lingering where they weren’t supposed to be, hands being held where they didn’t want to be. It escalated over the years to being given alcohol, oral sex, and being told that “if your mother ever found out, she would kill me.”

It was never vaginal intercourse and so, until the recent change in definition, it didn’t seem like I could call it rape. And, even though he lived with me, he was a step-relation, so I wasn’t sure whether it could be properly defined as incest. And I loved him, he was family, so I didn’t want anything bad to happen to him. And it didn’t always feel bad, some of the things felt good. And when so much of life was filled with hate, criticism, and being ignored, it was really something for someone to show affection at all. At the time, I felt it was my fault and, without any labels that seemed right, couldn’t think of what it was that was being done wrong exactly, just that it made me nauseous to think about. With the massive age difference, I knew it was statutory something. I don’t know, I tried very hard not to think about it.

But then a strange thing happened. My body forced me to think about it. I stopped having my period. I knew, physiologically, that it was impossible for me to be pregnant, but I was terrified just the same. A home pregnancy test confirmed my understanding of anatomy.

After three months with no period, I made an appointment with a psychiatrist at school, but, when I refused to take antidepressants because I was terrified my parents would find out, they refused to see me. Then I decided I had to make an appointment with a gynecologist. My mother was annoyed by my urgency at needing to go. It took two months to get into see someone — a very religious, old Southern man with a private practice.

He didn’t believe me when I said I’d never had sex and forced me to take a pregnancy test–I explained that after six months amenorrheic I’d be showing if I was lying, but that didn’t help. They never asked me if I’d been sexually abused, but who knows what I would have said. They never asked what I thought had precipitated the loss of periods. I guess I wasn’t thin enough to be anorexic, so it didn’t matter, even though it was a clear sign of depression. The fifth or sixth time he asked me if I was really a virgin, I started to cry, I never felt so judged. Not that being a virgin was important to me, but being honest absolutely was.

He wrote me a prescription for some hormone that induced a period and for a year’s supply of birth control. Somehow, the massive cramping didn’t make me feel any better.

I had to go to a family event that fall where He was present. And He had started dating someone I knew, someone I respected and liked a lot. I didn’t know what to do. At the same time, my family was harshly criticizing me for being fat (size 12) and not caring about my appearances. Presumably they thought my unhappiness was from being “too fat to be loved” rather than some negative experience of mine.

I began self-harming–cutting and starving myself. I visited pro-ana websites “out of curiosity”. I would eat a Milky Way bar and nothing else. I would eat with other people so they wouldn’t know anything was out of place and go home and throw it up. I made a friend take all my knives and scissors. I fantasized about driving through stop signs and red lights through traffic and getting into horrible accidents. I drove through the city late at night trying to get lost.

I’m not sure what broke, but finally I went to see another school therapist and agreed to take antidepressants.

It was too late, I felt, to try to tell my parents, and my therapist agreed, but only because she thought my parents were horrible. She felt like I should just try to get them to treat me like an adult and stop complaining about my weight all the time. The incest and rape thing just wasn’t that important because it wasn’t going to happen again, but unless I stopped them, my parents would continue to be awful.

It got better. I stopped seeing the therapist six weeks later, and was much better than I had been. I still occasionally had nightmares, but managed OK. A year after this, I tried to talk to my mother about what had happened. I woke up in the night after a nightmare and was shaking, and my mother heard me walking around. She took me to an all night diner and we talked. I told her what had happened and she told me I had misinterpreted events. I insisted I had not. She didn’t remember the conversation the next day. Her therapist later told me that she wouldn’t survive being told, the guilt would kill her, so she must have blocked it. He told me I couldn’t ever tell her.

I am happy now, I love myself, I love others and others love me. I am doing what I want to do, I am an activist in causes I care about, and I am fighting fights I want to fight. And I can’t find it in myself to fight this fight out loud.

I feel like an enabler, writing this anonymously. Never having confronted him. Never having told the family. What good would it do now, to open all of that up? It wouldn’t help anyone, just open wounds. Just make people hate me or hate him…but probably me. Who wants to do that? To destroy a family? I like a lot of the people who would get hurt.

And so I stay silent. Along with thousands and thousands like me. Justice is not being stopped by a powerful organization like Penn State or the Catholic Church, but by the reality that the victims would be hated just as much as, if not more than, the perpetrators. We’ve broken down some of the barriers to reporting stranger assaults on children, but we haven’t solved the larger problem of helping those living with their abusers. Society isn’t built to fix this problem or help people like me, but it doesn’t always have to be like this. Go read that article in The Atlantic, share it, write about this issue, support RAINN, and be willing to hear the truth, even when it is unpleasant.

Comments

  1. ebrown54 says

    Thanks for sharing your journey. I am reminded of something that I once heard a theologian say that I thought worthy of remembering. He called it “recycled grace.” It is taking the experiences that you have endured and using them to help others who are going through similar experiences. Unfortunately, I’m sure there are many who need to know they are not alone.

  2. jackiepaper says

    Thank you for sharing. You’re very brave. There is (as a therapist once told me) no need to be vivisected. Keep your anonymity as long as you need it, or forever. It is a sign that you love yourself enough to protect yourself. There is nothing wrong with that.

  3. says

    I am an incest survivor. Your story is that of many survivors that I know. Fear of being blamed, fear of hurting others, fear of not being believed are reasons that many never tell. Thank you for speaking out. I use my blog Spiritual Journey Of A Lightworker to write about my own healing from incest.

  4. callithrix says

    I am also an incest survivor (obvious trigger warning).

    This:

    “It was never vaginal intercourse and so, until the recent change in definition, it didn’t seem like I could call it rape. …. And I loved him, he was family, so I didn’t want anything bad to happen to him. And it didn’t always feel bad, some of the things felt good. And when so much of life was filled with hate, criticism, and being ignored, it was really something for someone to show affection at all…”

    Is a perspective that so many abusee’s share and is the hardest part to talk about. It’s the part, at least for me, makes me feel the most shame during my low points.

    I told my parents when i was 13 (after 8 years of never knowing when in would happen again), and at first they didnt quite believe me. I told them to talk to my grandma (complicit) about her husband (abuser) because she had witnessed an occurrence. Talking to her convinced them, and they said they would talk to my dad’s dad (abuser) about it and they never did – no one ever even told my aunt who had children my age. After a while i asked dad if he ever talked to his dad about it, and he finally told me he wouldn’t talk to his dad about it unless i thought it was really necessary… because they were afraid the abuser would kill himself. At 13 i didnt think i could live with the guilt of that. That should never have been put on my shoulders. For years i got the impression that the rest of the family viewed me as a spoiled brat with no sense of family because i would never go to family events. Then, many years later when I didn’t attend my abuser’s funeral, I finally got an earful from an uncle. Something along the lines of, “this is the only thing you’ve done that’s ever made me question you, and you really hurt your aunt’s feelings.” Offering to give him a truth that would tear the family apart made him change his tone and back off because he didn’t want the burden of the truth. I’ve talked to my mom at great length about the choices her and dad made, and I have resolved to never expect to understand it. I cant summon the will to have a discussion with my dad about it because I don’t know what the point would be (we’re not so great at communicating anyway). I wonder if my cousins were abused because they were at the abuser’s house far more often than i was. i dont want to know because, as ugly as it sounds, I would be pissed either way.

    Thanks for writing this and offering a safe, and anonymous, forum to discuss it.

  5. Dark Jaguar says

    Comment submitted:It really bugged me recently when PZ made a post saying essentially that incest isn’t wrong between consenting people. Now, to provide context, PZ was addressing a common argument against homosexuality that says it is a slippery slope to “incest” and PZ was saying “big deal, that should probably be legal too” to take the wind out of their sales. I understand and agree with what he was attempting to do, but it shows that incest just isn’t something he’s put a lot of thought into. I don’t think PZ would have said such a thing, considering his positions on other issues, if he had been given a moment to consider what incest actually is in practice by hearing stories like these.

    I’m going to ignore the “ick” factor. Others don’t have to do so if they wish.

    PZ was imagining two consenting adults who happened to be related entering a purely consensual and equal relationship, because well that’s how healthy relationships work. The reality is that sort of thing is mostly fictional, outside of cousins or something. The truth of the matter is there is ALWAYS a power imbalance in immediate family incest, and that’s where it gets its start. This should be obvious in the cases of parent/child or even an aunt/uncle or grandparent (and yes, step parents count, they’re living with those individuals and that creates an emotional situation that trumps genetic consideration). However, it may not be as obvious in the case of something like siblings. It is still true there though. Whether it is because one sibling is the elder, or one sibling is the favored male (or just plain favorite, bad parenting comes in many forms), or is just plain physically, emotionally, or intellectually stronger, there is always a power imbalance there too. This continues into adulthood, where even though the siblings may recognize that they are adults now, on an emotional level the youngest is still treated as such, and the eldest may still be treated with deference. So even with siblings, no true consent could ever really emerge because of this power imbalance. No side would be able to know if it was enthusiastic consent, or someone just trying to appease someone they feel is either threatening or a superior in some way. Incest should remain illegal in a churchless state for the same reason assault should.

    One doesn’t need religion to justify it being a horrible thing to do to someone. Further, laws specifically about incest aid someone in prosecuting the case a bit better. If it was just a law about “rape” then it would be an entirely uphill battle. Think about how tough it is to convict someone on rape charges already. Now add in the fuzzy cases where modern progressive definitions of rape would certainly condemn it, but the laws would be completely powerless to do anything. Most incest would, to the law, “look like” consent but in reality would be horrible power abuse and a terrible experience for the victim, possibly one of the most damaging things a person could experience in fact. Prosecuting as “incest” protects the victims far better, because now you don’t need to worry about the ridiculously hard task of proving a lack of consent, you just need to prove that the sex took place. That can still be an uphill battle, more so than it ought to be, but it is a FAR easier job that has resulted in more convictions than you’d see if the standard was “proving a lack of consent”. Simply put, family members should not be attempting to have sex with each other not because it is “icky” or because of “mutant children”, but because it is an abuse of a power structure where consent cannot be established, and that is enough to say it should be illegal. If a handful of “legitimate” fully consenting incestuous couples are affected (assuming such couples could actually exist, I imagine they’d have to have grown up as strangers, which further reduces the odds of such a coupling), then I’d say it is a price worth paying.

    I myself have never experienced incest. I’ve read enough stories to understand these things though, and can imagine well enough the power imbalance and emotions that may run though one’s mind during that sort of thing. My own family has been a loving safe environment for me, in contrast to my life at school. I have never been able to stand rape, in any of it’s forms. I’ve basically just wrapped up rape as a subset of torture, and now reading stories about torture I just have expanded my hatred of that practice all the more. Maybe rape isn’t the worst possible torture, but it certainly is in the ranks, and that is enough. I won’t go into details, but some people close to me have been raped as the years go by, and there have been experiences, and it has informed my hatred, to put it lightly.

    Also, I fully understand the feeling of not wanting to “disrupt” one’s family with news of incidents long ago, although unlike this case, I’m speaking not of family members but of people who were “around” family members.