2. Why is it so difficult for a victim to speak about what she has suffered?
A. It often takes a long time for the victim to realize that she has been abused.
Time doesn’t count for the unconscious; it’s as if it has stopped for the victim: it is often the appearance of symptoms such as depression or sexual problems which incite the victim to finally allow her suffering to resurface and to accept speaking about it. It’s the first step toward healing.
But to talk about this trauma, to become aware of this truth: « I was abused », can be a terrible shock. The counselor will need tact and tremendous compassion to allow the victim to rediscover at her own pace the extent of the drama that she has lived through. The counselor will understand the extreme repugnance that the victim feels by admitting that her body and soul have been ravaged. The victim wants so much never to have lived that, to forget, that she will occasionally take refuge in denial: « This couldn’t have happened to me. »
If you believe what she says, the victim will be encouraged to continue to talk (the victim absolutely needs to feel that she is believed). Also try and avoid certain destructive phrases like:
- He just made a mistake, as we all do.
- It only happened once, after all.
- It’s time to turn the page.
- It happened so long ago.
B. The victim feels guilty
Deep down, even without saying it openly, the person thinks:
- Wasn’t it a little bit my fault?
- Couldn’t I have avoided it?
- Would someone else in my situation have been able to resist, to fight back, to run away?
The psychologist can make progress by asking questions that the victim can’t express:
- Who held the power (parental, spiritual, moral, organizational, physical, psychological)?
- Who was the adult? The social benchmark? The reference?
- Who was the instigator, the organizer of this abuse?
- Who could end it?
The therapist can help the victim understand that her guilt is linked to the gap between the earlier life (and the reasons for which the victim couldn’t prevent being abused: her young age, her ignorance, her complete trust) and her current life, when the victim is older, less ignorant, less naïve and knows how to protect herself.
The victim believes she is guilty because she looks at past events with the eyes of the informed adult that she is today. At the time however, the victim didn’t possess the necessary protections to prevent the abuse.
The therapist can also help the victim to differentiate the weak point that the abuser exploited, for example a very legitimate need for tenderness or a blind trust, and the crime that he committed by exploiting this legitimate need for affection or trust, to satisfy his immoral desires.
Disconnecting these two elements is often a moment of truth and a relief for the victim who takes the second step toward healing when she no longer feels responsible.
But the road to complete healing is still long. Haste and impatience are therefore strong enemies of the therapist (and of the client) in this domain.
C. Talking could cost a lot
Each time the abused person plunges back into the horror of the past, she must pay a high price. By trying to « forget » the abuse, to turn the page, she must construct a certain delicate balance, for example with close relatives.
If the victim decides to let the truth be known, she risks upsetting this invented balance and to create tension with her close relations. The victim continues to find « good advisors » who will accuse them of lying and exaggerating, reproach the victim for bringing up the past and incite her to forget, even to « forgive » because they are concerned about their own peace and quiet and have a « what will everyone say » attitude; the worst danger is that the victim risks being perceived as responsible for the abuse.
Therefore, the psychologist should support the victim, encourage her and assure her material and psychological protection. The therapist will help the victim to evaluate the price of the battle to be waged to get out of the quagmire of sexual abuse and to realize that the desire to pull through will often be opposed by those who should help most: the family or people in charge of institutions.
It is to be noted that for fear of a scandal, when the abuser is part of an institution whatever it may be, the management of the institution often decides to « cover it up » and therefore to remain in denial of the abuse rather than publicly recognize the existence of a sexual deviant in the midst of the institution.
There is a consensus of disapproval for the person who has the courage bring up horrible things: the fact that she continues to be like the living dead isn’t important. The most important thing is for the person to remain quiet.
D. The victim is ashamed
Sartre said that shame is « a hemorrhage of the soul ». Sexual abuse marks the person with a branding iron, dirties them, pushes them to hide themselves from others. Shame is a mixture of fear of rejection and of anger toward the abuser, which doesn’t dare to express itself.
The appropriate feeling that the victim should feel is anger. Feeling this liberating feeling will help the victim cope with the shame. Time is sometimes necessary for the victim to be able to express her indignation faced with the injustice she has experienced. This expression of anger can express itself in a real way in front of the abuser or in a symbolic way if this isn’t possible for reasons of personal security. In any case, it is for the victim to decide.
This shame is linked to the view that the victim feels for herself; she sees herself as dirtied for life. It’s the victim’s view that must change. The victim will begin to heal by changing her viewpoint.
In feeling ashamed, the abused person has two solutions: hating herself or hating the abuser and anyone like him. In both cases, the result is the same: the victim self destructs because hate – of herself or of another person – is destructive.
Self-contempt can be in regard to her body, her sexuality, her need for love, her purity, her self-confidence.
This self-contempt has four functions: it diminishes her shame, smothers her aspirations of intimacy and tenderness (self-contempt blocks desire), gives her the illusion of controlling her suffering and prevents her from trying to heal herself.
When the self-contempt is very intense, it can lead to bulimia, self-mutilation and to suicide; in these three cases, the person punishes her own body because it exists and it has desires.
F. The true enemy
If you were to ask a person who has suffered sexual abuse what is her enemy, she will undoubtedly respond: « It is the guilt of the abuse. » This seems so obvious.
The victim has a choice: either she fights by cultivating her hate for her abuser, brooding over her vengeance against him; or she flees by trying to forget, by hardening herself to no longer suffer, by shutting herself down, by becoming insensitive so as to no longer feel emotion or desire.
But these two solutions are in vain because the enemy isn’t the abuser. Of course, he presents a problem, but the good news is that he isn’t the main problem. The real adversary is the person’s determination to continue to suffer in her spiritual and psychic death and to refuse to live again. Paradoxically, the enemy remains in the victim herself!
This third step toward healing is without doubt the most difficult to take. The person must understand that she has life and death before her and it’s her choice whether she remains dead or chooses to live again.
Once the counselor feels that the victim has made the decision to end this death wish and enter into a « life wish », the counselor will undoubtedly have the opportunity to speak with her about the three major kinds of damage that the abuse has caused in her life which must be repaired.