This weekend, like many Americans, I watched my TV and waited with bated breath and hoped. CNN was on "Verdict Watch" for the Jerry Sandusky trial, in which a former Penn State assistant coach was on trail for 48 counts of sexual abuse with minors. For me personally, this ruling meant a lot. As a survivor of sexual abuse as a child, I felt a connection to these victims. Often, hearing about new cases force victims to relive their own trauma, particularly when it gains nationwide media attention. It is almost impossible not to think of your own experiences.
Then, I heard that Jerry Sandusky's stepson, Matt, had put out a press release admitting that he too was a victim of his father's horrific acts. The fact that Matt made this announcement after the jury was sequestered only scared me more. I was terrified, thinking that a monster like Sandusky might go free. My mind raced through all the recent high-profile examples, such as Casey Anthony and O.J. Simpson. How could he leave this up to chance?
Some journalists questioned Matt's premature departure from the courtroom and why he never came back. Lawyers began positioning themselves to discredit Matt. I wanted to scream at them all.
I wondered if Matt's testimony would have cemented Sandusky's fate? What if his failure to testify meant that Jerry could walk the streets again? I ached for Matt, from every inch of my being, as he finally spoke his truth. Yet at the same time, I sympathized. He had only taken the first step along a long, painful journey.
There is no greater quote than the one by John 8:32 "Truth will set you free." I know how difficult it was for Matt to come forward and to face the resistance from his family and friends.
I feel the need to explain why so many abused children do not come forward. Often, they cannot admit it for until much later in life. Only after they have had therapy and worked through all the damage done to their emotional, physical and sexual psyche can they begin to talk about their experience.
The single most compelling issue a victim has to deal with is denial, which requires countless hours of work with a skilled therapist. Once that denial is uncovered, they have to deal with the emotional trauma, the realization that someone they love did this to them. Followed by the rage. Oh, yes, the rage. Those feelings of suppressed anger come out; and you can really scare yourself. For those who have never had this experience, it feels as if you were buried under truckloads of horse manure, unable to breathe. The only way to survive is by digging, breathing your way through it. It is the only way to survive. Your mental health depends on your understanding and acceptance of the truth.
Then comes the sharing and confrontation. Admitting to your loved ones what happened and, if you are lucky, getting to confront the ones that did the damage. Yet in over 85 percent of cases, your abuser and loved alike will deny your truth. You see, you are trying to hand that same truckload of horse shit; that same truckload that you painstakingly had to uncover. In order for them to understand and support you, they will have to dig through that horse manure as well. How many people would really jump at the chance to do this, particularly given the terrifying nature and amount of work required? You would be shocked at how many families choose to abandon an abused child rather than share their burden. The issues affect all of us.
When someone explains emotional trauma, despite all your empathy, you still have no real idea. Imagine being Matt Sandusky:
A seemingly wonderful family hand picks you, allowing you to escape the misery of foster care. For the first time ever, you can feel the safety of a real home. Wow. You are still vulnerable, having lost so much already, perhaps never even having much to begin with. Then, imagine the personification of that chance suddenly putting their hand on your private parts. You feel shock and shame and all the senses that your body is responding negatively. Your mind tumbles into an abyss of confusion. You feel rage towards a person for doing this to you. Yet you feel special because they are paying attention to you. Then, back to the shame because you know this is wrong. You feel that this is all your fault. What is it about me that made this happen? What did I do wrong? Or you get confused -- this is a person that says he loves me, so perhaps this is normal? Anyone of those feelings can throw you into a state of helplessness and depression. And so we deny.
I remember when I was working with a therapist and suddenly I had these memories, but not all at once. At first, I kept seeing a male in a blue striped shirt. Then I realized it was my brother.
Then later, within the safe confines of my therapist chair, the whole memory came flooding back; that my brother, in a blue striped shirt, had watched as my cousin sexually molested me.
I remember sitting in that chair, hyperventilating as these memories kept tumbling out and wondering how they had hidden themselves all those years. Yet, with a lot of guidance they were able to resurface, empowering me to handle the truth with a clarity that both astounded and shocked me. All those feelings came pouring out... after I vomited.
I think it was somewhere in the trial, when one of those brave young men testified, that it hit that button inside Matt. The "Oh my god, that happened to me!" button. Once he consciously admitted what happened to him, there was no turning back. Once those memories bubble up to the surface, you can't push them down anymore. You have to face them. For you, it truly becomes a decision of life or death. You either face the abuse or spend the rest of your life drowning the pain in alcohol, drugs, or anything that will push those memories down again.
Be prepared for your family to tell you that these events could not have happened. But you must ignore the guilt. Ignore the anger. Ignore the subtle (and not so subtle) ways that your loves ones try to discredit you. "Oh, you always had such a vivid imagination." "No. He could not have abused you in that room, it was never a bedroom." Our family members do not do this out of scorn; they do not want to cause further pain. Simply put, for them to accept your truth is unbearable.
So today, I am thinking of Matt Sandusky. I am relieved for him that his stepfather will remain behind bars the rest of his life. I am thankful that all those young men had the courage to get up on the stand and represent the voiceless ones out there. I am grateful that someone came forward to represent the untold numbers of other victims Jerry Sandusky preyed upon who are still too traumatized to come forward. I worry about the one young boy, whose story in the shower we have all heard. Where is he now? Has he conquered these demons? Has he sunk into a life of self-torture brought on by a sick man who we will never understand?
Marcia Clark talked about how in all her years she had never seen an abuser ever confess. Imagine the depth of pain and suffering that these pedophiles would have to go through to get the their own point of origin about abuse. Their perversion came from somewhere. Sexual abuse is a disease and a learned behavior. Until we accept that this disease is a significant part of our culture than we will never begin to eradicate it. With these boys speaking out, with Matt standing up, we are one step closer.