Believe me: The bloody knuckle fight to survive sexual abuse

Trigger Warning. Sure as shit, we’re all triggered now.*

I’ve been trying to write about Dylan Farrow’s Open Letter for two days. Every time I sit down to write something, the words take flight like one of those giant bird migrations that temporarily blot out the sun. It feels like I’m not breathing at all. I am beyond triggered. So I walk away. I take a social media break and then there’s one of the dozens and dozens of stories about it. Shit. I want to just open my front door and start running. And just not stop running. Even as I type this, I keep looking away from the screen and just typing the words from the sense-memory of the keyboard under my fingers.

I believe Dylan Farrow. I support her survivorship. And I want so badly to turn away from it. Because, yes, even survivors sometimes feel like we can’t hear it. Sometimes it cuts too deep. Do you really think that reading Dylan’s story — which I cannot actually do in one sitting — is any more convenient for me than it is for you? Do you think that being a survivor imbues me with special teflon powers to resist the sick?

As much solidarity as I feel with Dylan, as much as I admire her bravery — and I do — it isn’t easy. It feels like that Kryptonite necklace that Lex Luther puts on Superman’s neck in the 1979 film. I feel like I’m drowning in a pool and rather than help, the only other person around has shut off the lights as he walks away. It’s just a necklace, one might say, how hard can it be to take it off? I’ve been trying for more than 30 years. I’ll let you know when it starts getting easy.

There’s a very real cost to the kind of truth-telling Dylan Farrow is engaged in right now. And, as Mikki Kendall says, it’s a high cost:

By now, most of the internet has voiced their opinion on Dylan Farrow & Woody Allen. There are hashtags, articles, counter articles, & an obscene number of abusers & enablers showing the world not to trust them. Some of those people are feminists, renowned journalists, or just plain old enough to know better. This isn’t a step by step dissection of them, their motives, or their impact. I could do that. Again. But to be honest, I’m so tired of pointing out that the emperor has no clothes that I could just scream. I’m a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I’ve written that out a lot of the years. And I’m fortunate in that my primary abuser is dead. Unfortunately, he was a family friend & to this day some of my relatives speak of him with a certain amount of fondness. I…mostly don’t speak to them. It’s easier that way than it is to wade into the waters of not being believed, or worse yet being blamed for what I did or didn’t do as a child. Now, as the debates rage on and on, all I can think of is how Dylan must feel to have people who weren’t in that house, in that attic, debating whether or not she knows what happened to her. There were only two people present, and only one of them benefits from lying. But she doesn’t fit the popular narratives about victims of sexual abuse any more than Allen falls into the stereotypes so often depicted on cop shows and afterschool specials.

Like Kendall and Farrow (and a great many sexual abuse survivors), my perpetrator was a family member. Even now, sitting in my comfortable middle-class, suburban home that I’ve built with a loving, supportive partner in which we raise the world’s awesomest kid, the name of my abuser sticks in my throat. Even today I protect him by not saying his name to you here and now. My reasons are complicated by the same things that complicate things for so many survivors. I envy and fear those who can shout their abuser’s names out loud, as Dylan does. I applaud her. And I am shamed by her. I am not as brave. For a long time I kept the secret to protect others, but they have long since out-grown the need for my protection. I choose not to say my abusers name because I don’t want to handle the recriminations, the potential time in court (a place that already failed me before), and worst of all the indignation by family members who would choose him over me.

There are people in my family who continue — to this very day — to defend him and call me a liar. There are those who continue to look at me with confusion and plead for an “answer” from me that “makes sense” to them. All I have is the truth but nobody said the truth was easy. And my abuser was a very charming, popular guy. People love him. I have this indelible memory of a family friend who would always tell me how much she loved his “sexy voice.” His Rolling Stones poster hung over our “special place” so that I have spent a lifetime quelling an involuntary rage when I hear or see the band on anything (including having to forgive every Martin Scorsese score), and a sense-memory encyclopedic knowledge of their back catalog. And those are the bearable things. Those are the things almost light enough to cast off. Almost.

People keep wondering why it took Dylan “so long” to tell her story. Because you would have believed her as a child? Because we’re not all ready to talk about these things — or even to think about these things — until our bodies grow into the trauma we experienced. People don’t believe children and even as children, we know that. And because it is like asking someone to break the moon in half to force them to speak their truth before they are ready, before they have the power to say those words:

If you had asked me three or four years ago: Andrea, have you ever been sexually abused? I would have said absolutely not. Because it took me more than 20 years to admit to myself that what happened to me as a child was real, that it was abuse, and that it was not my fault.

Why 20 years? Why so long?

My abuser made me afraid of my own capacity to experience memories. My abuser made me afraid of what the inside of my own mind looked like. I built—like, really, purposefully built—delicate, intricate, elaborate mind-paths, each of which navigated away from and around one thing: my abuse. I did it consciously at first, and then as I became older, my brain seemed to do it for me, automatically. …

Maybe I could have lived my whole life like that. Maybe I would have, if I hadn’t discovered feminism, if I hadn’t discovered anonymous message boards, if I hadn’t married someone I trust with my whole heart. But feminism, and the Internet, and being in an incredible relationship conspired together in this wonderful way and empowered me to say a combination of words I never thought I could say: I was abused as a child, and it was real, and it was not my fault.

Those are the hardest things to say, because I am saying them to the most scared, most ashamed, most terrified little 5-year-old version of myself, and she is so scared and ashamed that she can’t hear it, refuses to hear it, because hearing it means it is real. My 5-year-old self is going to live 20 years before she lets herself back into her mind and her memories. Now, all I can do is tell her, over and over again: Yes, he hurt you. It was real. It wasn’t your fault. It is a strange cycle; it is all over, and yet it is ongoing.

Even as I sit here and write this post, I rage that I can be living a good, healthy, happy life with good, healthy, happy people in it and still have the tiniest part of myself suspended back there, trapped in the past with him. I’ve been to therapists, read books, found fellowship with fellow survivors … but there is no way to completely annihilate those memories or this feeling in my stomach. I am marked by it on a foundational level. My experience of sexual abuse, from ages five through 14, are intertwined with the blueprint of who I am as a person. I can no more separate it from my being than I can pull my arm out. Being molested effected my ability to trust people, respect authority, forgive transgressions, and control my anger. It shaped my relationship to my own body, sex, and lust. It’s why I flirt inappropriately sometimes but if someone inappropriately flirts with me I want to run away. Being molested nearly made it impossible for me to trust that anyone in the world could love me — platonically or romantically — once they really got to know me. And the fact that I have managed to deconstruct this much of the web of lies I was fed as truth is a miracle. I didn’t just wake up one day and know those things about myself. It’s taken me a lifetime to unlock what is trapped inside and to release the haunting demons.

That kind of gut-wrenching work should be rewarded. It is the most courageous thing I have ever done to choose hope instead of anger and love instead of fear. But those words aren’t magic. It’s a fucking bloody knuckle fight — with yourself, with the ghosts, with the perpetrator, and with a world hostile to your very existence. People want to think it was some kind of twisted game that you remember wrong. I have permanent nerve damage in my shoulder that aches every single day. Why? Because he hit me that hard. With what? His fists? A hammer? His favorite wooden bat? I don’t remember. I blacked out. Sexual abuse is physical. Did you think that just because it is sexual that makes it pretty? The scars are not just figurative. And it certainly wasn’t some figment of my imagination. What happened to me was real. I deserve to be believed.

We all deserve to be believed. We deserve the dignity and respect that is so often given easily to perpetrators and denied to survivors.

Am I making you uncomfortable? How’s never for you? Is never too soon to finally talk about this and maybe, just maybe, get some justice?

No. The world is impatient with survivors of sexual abuse, ready to discredit us and remove our presumption of innocence in order to preserve the status quo and eliminate the inconvenient. Our stories are described as shrill, suspect, incongruous, and cast as “palpable bitchery.”

From The Nation:

Today, as an adult, I know that when we make excuses for particular, powerful men who hurt women, we make the world more comfortable for all abusers. And that this cultural cognitive dissonance around sexual assault and abuse is building a safety net for perpetrators that we should all be ashamed of.

We know one in five girl children are sexually assaulted. Yet when victims speak out, we ask them why they waited so long to talk. We question why don’t they remember the details better. We suspect that they misunderstood what happened.

We know that abusers are manipulative, often charismatic, and that they hide their crimes well. We know that they target women and children who society will be less likely to believe—low-income women, children of color, the disabled, women who can be discredited as “crazy.” Yet when the caretakers of children who have been abused come forward, we call them “vengeful,” as Allen’s lawyer called Mia Farrow. We accuse them of trying to “alienate” their children from the abusing parent. Or, as one of Allen’s friends did in a shameful article for The Daily Beast—we simply insinuate that the protective parent is just a slut, so how can you believe anything she says anyway?

Well, what did you do? What did you do to provoke it?

Don’t shake your head at me. I’m not the one who asked the question, raised the eyebrow, shrugged a shoulder. I’m not the one who thinks a legacy is worth more than the truth. It’s not bad enough that we survivors ask ourselves those questions and have to un-learn the lie that we somehow deserved it?

Are you angry, yet? Good!

I don’t want to talk about this anymore. So why do I do it? I do it for my younger self who had no one there to hear her, to advocate for her, to fight for her. I do it for the countless kids out there right now who are just trying to remember to breathe. Because somebody should give a shit. Because somebody should believe.

*Survivors: Remember self-care at times like this when there are stories about sexual abuse everywhere you look. And allies: We need you.

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13 thoughts on “Believe me: The bloody knuckle fight to survive sexual abuse

  1. I know this was hard to write. I’ve never watched a W.A. movie and I definitely am not planning to start now. It’s crushing to read her letter and to think of so many, including you, whose hurt is compounded by doubters, dissenters, and dipshits.

  2. Good for you for speaking out. It took me 40 years to get to a therapist to deal with my childhood abuse by a family “friend.” Most people have their heads in the sand or in the clouds when it comes to this issue. Truth is a hard thing and they just can’t bring themselves to see it, so they either don’t look at it or deny it even exists. It takes a lot of strength to do what you and I have done to heal. We are fortunate to have supportive partners, to be sure. I wish you peace on this challenging journey. Be well, Dorothy

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