As I and all other survivors of incest know, we have to speak out in order to start healing. Mackenzie Phillips broke the silence about her long-term incestuous relationship with her father in her book, High on Arrival; Katherine Harrison did it in hers, The Kiss. I wrote about incest with my father in my book, Truth Heals: What You Hide Can Hurt You. Some may only need to speak it aloud in the privacy of a therapist's office rather than on national TV, but countless others keep the secret of incest firmly barricaded in the closet, and continue to suffer the emotional and physical fallout.
My father started molesting me when I was two, raped me when I was nine, and continued to do so until my last year of elementary school. It took years and years of trying to repress the memories with drugs and alcohol and promiscuity, followed by years and years of 12-step programs and therapy and meditation and a loving husband to clear out the physical and emotional damage from the incest. Ultimately, I became an expert on abuse and have worked with thousands of abuse victims, helping them recover. Yet even I was triggered by watching the guests on Oprah's follow-up show about incest.
I remembered a time in my early thirties, when my father, then in his 70s, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He had always wanted to go see the Vatican and St Peter's, but my mother wasn't interested in travel. He said, "I've only got six months to live. I want to go to Rome now." My mother looked at him, then said to me: "You take him." She was basically saying: "Taking care of daddy is your job. It's always been your job."
Although the sexual contact had stopped when I was 13, as an adult, I was daddy's law partner, his companion, his closest friend. Daddy's girl. I adored him and did everything I could to please him. When Oprah said to Katherine Harrison: "But you weren't four years old [when the incest started], you were twenty!"--I understood that, inside, Katherine was still age four, although she was 20, and still desperate for attention from her father, desperate for his love . . . in any form. Any adult who has missed an important piece of their childhood (she had only seen her father twice while growing up, and had been abandoned by her mother at age five), can wind up filling the gap any way they can.
I did plenty of outrageous gap-filling in my teens and early twenties, but ever since I was 13, I had always drawn the line about being alone with daddy. I took a friend when I went on overnight ski trips with him. On business trips, I made sure someone else was with us. I certainly wasn't going to go to Rome with him alone. So we all went: one big happy family. Each night, though it had been so many years since the incest, I locked the door to my single room.
Mackenzie has done everyone a huge favor by acting as our societal point person for incest and speaking out very publicly. I applaud her courage. Silence is a major part of the problem of abuse. It takes a brave soul to break the code of silence: "This is our secret; DON'T TELL!" With an implied or direct threat of consequences--OR ELSE--if we do tell. It's the secret nature of incest that keeps its victims tied up in knots of guilt and shame, feeling "dirty" and fearing the way they will be judged by others should they dare to speak their truth. With good cause. After Mackenzie Phillips revealed her secret on the Oprah show initially, she was accused of being a liar, of peddling her "filthy garbage" solely for the money, and of speaking only when her father was dead so he couldn't defend himself against her lies.
When a victim refuses to be silenced, speaking up can heal much of the damage from the abuse. Until then, they often continue to deal with substance abuse, ill-health, promiscuity, depression, anxiety, and a host of other emotional and physical problems. Being able to speak your truth is an important part of the healing process from any trauma--and incest is a traumatic event, whether it's a one-time rape or an ongoing 30-year "relationship."
So bravo to all of you who have been willing to add your voice to our growing chorus of incest survivors who refuse to be victims any longer, who are brave enough to say "This is what happened to me, but it doesn't define who I am." You are well on your way to recovery--and to helping others do the same.
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