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Sexual Abuse, the Aftermath

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Please meet my friend, Rachel. A passionate, caring, professionally successful and exceptionally bright woman in her mid-forties, she contacted me about a reference I made to pornography in a blog. She was also reading my book, Silver Platter Girl, about the deep symbolic connection between my sexually abusive upbringing and the high risk cancer that first threatened and finally healed my life.

Rachel was sexually and emotionally abused in unimaginable ways by her father throughout her childhood. She was close to her brother, her only sibling, as they struggled to survive the devastating trauma of being raised by such a disturbed man. Her brother had recently been arrested on child pornography charges and Rachel was confused, hurt and angry that her brother would be capable of exploiting children in the way she herself had been exploited.

We began a correspondence about our experiences and how they had shaped our adult lives. On some things we disagreed. In my writing and speaking, I state that while each abuse story is unique in its detail, there is more commonality in our collective response to what happened to us. Focusing on healing and recovery helps us take back our lives, our selves.

Rachel responded:

I hear your comments on not wanting too much detail on the abuse itself, but I feel strongly that those details are in fact what people need to hear. No, they don't want to hear them, but is it the victim's job to protect the public from what actually happened to them? I know that when people turn away from my story, it makes me feel that they think I'm as dirty and bad as I thought I was when I was a little kid. To only talk about the after-effects feels very distancing to me. A sort of clean intellectualization of the issue. When people hear 'sexual abuse of children', they often don't really want to think too deeply about what that actually entails. For many, many children, sexual abuse includes physical pain, often a great deal of physical pain, pain that is directed at their genitals, which ironically are the source of life. It is soul-killing. These children own nothing, not even their own bodies. I believe people need to understand all of this in order to understand why sexual abuse is so pervasively damaging.

On a recent trip to New York to appear on a panel to discuss the Roman Polanski case, I eagerly anticipated the opportunity to spend an evening with my new friend, Rachel. She threw her arms around me and hugged me tight, apologizing that the restaurant she chose wasn't as quiet as she hoped. Despite our e-mail relationship, there was an awkwardness between us in our first meeting. She had an advantage having read my book, knowing every piece of my story. I knew so much less about her, only what she had chosen to divulge. While each knowing that the other was also a sexual abuse survivor allowed us a certain freedom in our discussion, it also created a defensiveness, even a competitiveness, as we each processed information about the other through the prism of our own individual experience.

These challenges were intensified by the most basic difference between us. Rachel's sexual abuse was severe and pervasive while mine was more inherent in the culture of my family and far less physical. Consequently Rachel has faced crippling challenges including severe depression, difficulty in sustaining meaningful relationships, addiction to cocaine, and physical illness in the form of fibromyalgia. So while I had thrived in my recovery from both cancer and abuse, Rachel acknowledged she still had an enormous amount of work to do, always feeling the emotional crisis just below the surface of her fragile psyche.

I am so f_ing tired of surviving. I've been in therapy fairly steadily since I was 22, at one point going four times a week. I've been hospitalized. I've come a long way, but I have a long way to go. And I've been getting the feeling that the reason I'm not falling totally apart is simply that I've learned to deaden myself sufficiently to cope, or at least give the appearance of coping. I don't mean to whine. But I am tired of healing. I've been healing all my life.

On the cab ride back to my hotel, I was overwhelmed by the reality of Rachel's life, wondering how my book or any of my work in the field could possibly make even a dent in a silent issue of this magnitude. There are hundreds of thousands of women like Rachel out there with such a myriad of complex problems that even listing those I know about can be a depressing task.

Rachel wrote me the next morning to say our evening was awkward for her and that I was more guarded and serious than she had expected. She wrote of our differences and how they made us clash, fearing our young friendship had already "fizzled out". Rachel offered to "let me go", thanking me for my insight, love and support. And so yet one more facet of childhood sexual abuse wraps its tentacles around us. Was it simply too painful to think of our own story in relationship to the other's? I don't know yet.

I will ask Rachel if it is ok to publish this blog and if you are reading it, she agreed. Because Rachel is brave and purposeful, earnest and loving. What she has endured took her most basic right to happiness, self-esteem, trust and peace. Her father told her when she was an adolescent that he had consulted a professional about the way he was "touching" her. The professional had stated that those things sometimes happen between fathers and daughters but it may not be good for the child so he should probably stop. He told young Rachel that he planned to follow that advice. One week later, the abuse started again.

Rachel hasn't seen her father in 30 years, since a high school guidance counselor took her in to protect her from him. He is still a rabbi.

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