The Silence of Sexual Abuse
In Part 1 of this series, I say that my stuttering started at age eleven, or thereabouts. I also mention that I believe my stuttering is tied to my sexual abuse. Before beginning this article, I want to make very clear that stuttering is usually NOT a sign of abuse. It’s fairly rare for stuttering or another speech handicap to be tied to abuse or psychological problems. Most often, stuttering simply means that the child’s brain is a bit different than most people’s or that he or she inherited a gene that makes stuttering more likely.
Please, do not assume that just because someone stutters, they have some kind of abuse history. 99% of the time, that is NOT the case. While the way I manifested my stuttering is the same as those who simply have a speech fluency disorder, the reason why I had a speech disorder is different from the majority. Indeed, my belief for why I stutter is a bit of speculation since the reasons for stuttering are poorly understood by science. While sexual abuse always silences victims, very few demonstrate it by stuttering.
Why did I start stuttering around the age of 11?
Because that is the year I truly lost my voice. Perhaps the easiest way to explain that is to review the twelve years of the abuse. The sexual abuse started for me at about age four. At first, it was just “weird play” that didn’t make any sense. I didn’t like it, but I didn’t particularly hate it. After all, a child of four has no understanding of sexuality. I don’t remember it being particularly physically painful either when it first started.
Granted, my memories until age sixteen are very fragmented. There are many times that I know abuse happened, but I have no idea what or exactly when. Some of the clear memories are like islands in a mist; I can remember the exact abuse clear as day, but the memory is disconnected from everything else: no context, no before or after, no timeframe to place it in. For other memories, everything is sharp, including before and after, like it happened yesterday. Fragmented memories are very common for sexual abuse victims. Most victims employ some type of dissociation technique to survive. The dissociation results in either totally suppressed memories, very fuzzy memories, or very fragmented memories. Whether the memories themselves are clear makes no difference in the effect the abuse had. It still devastates and destroys the soul.
About age seven, due to a significant abuse incident, the shame hit me. That was when the abuse changed from “weird play” to the devastating realization that it was wrong and shameful and, therefore, something I had to hide. By extension, I felt shameful. After that, I’d write notes to my big sister, saying how dirty and guilty I felt. My mom told me I’d tell her often: “I’m a bad girl.” I embarked on a campaign to live a perfect life. I tried to read my Bible every morning and evening. I tried to stop fantasizing. I’d feel incredibly guilty after every evangelistic sermon or revivals at church. Because child evangelism is not accepted in the conservative Mennonite culture, I was told to wait until I was “old enough.” Age seven is when the attack on my identity intensified, the year I started to live out of shame.
Then, around age ten, things changed again. I remember a very painful abuse incident when I was ten or so. This is the first time that I remember having terrible physical pain during the abuse. My abuser kept asking me if it felt good, and I said “yes” even though it hurt like fire. The reasons why an abuse victim lies like that to an abuser are myriad, too many to go into here. The biggest reason is the silencing process that occurs from sexual abuse.
After that incident, I really started avoiding my abuser, doing my best to not be alone with him and refusing the abuse if I could. He kept wondering why. I didn’t want to tell him, so I kept resisting. Finally, even though I was terrified, I wrote him a little note, telling him that the abuse doesn’t feel good; it hurts; I don’t like it.
A few months later at fall housecleaning, my mom found the note under one of the beds. She cornered me in my bedroom and asked me if my brother was touching me. I felt terrified, ashamed, exposed, and vulnerable. Finally, I managed to squeak out the truth. My mom was angry, gave me a lecture on how wrong/bad it was, told me to lock my bedroom door, and said that she would talk to my abuser.
As ashamed and terrified as I felt, I also felt relief. Mom knew about it. She would talk to my brother. Maybe the abuse would stop now. When the abuse did stop, I was even more relieved. I thought my abuser had believed me about how he was hurting me and that Mom had talked to him, so apparently Mom had stopped it. Apparently, using my voice to speak up about what was happening had worked.
Only it didn’t. The following summer, about nine months after the scene with Mom, the abuse started again. (No, I still don’t know why it stopped for a while). Startled, I asked my abuser, “Didn’t Mom talk to you?” When he replied, “No. Why would she?” I told him that Mom knew, that she had found the note. His utter surprise startled me. Mom had said she was going to talk to him! Why hadn’t she? I had been locking my door like she said. However, my abuser proved it wasn’t a barrier at all. He started unlocking it, using a hairpin or a tiny screwdriver, and came in anyway. I kept locking it for appearances’ sake in case Mom ever tried my door at night, but it certainly didn’t keep him out.
Using my voice hadn’t worked. Not only had it not worked, Mom had failed me. She’d never talked to him. I knew then that, if Mom hadn’t talked to my abuser, then in my mom’s eyes, I was responsible to make sure the abuse didn’t happen. It was all on my shoulders. When the abuse started again, I didn’t tell Mom. I had failed. I was dirty and shameful, bad, terrible, responsible to stop it, a failure because I couldn’t. She hadn’t talked to my brother; apparently, it was all my fault. Shame heaped upon shame.
Since at the time my father seemed never to be home and wasn’t involved in my life, going to him wasn’t an option either. I had largely experienced him as a disciplinarian who nearly lost his temper when I simply took gum out of Mom’s purse or put too much sugar on my Cheerios. To go to him with something this incredibly shaming, when I already thought I was a failure for not stopping the abuse and making it stay stopped, wasn’t even a possibility.
My voice didn’t matter. What I wanted didn’t matter. What hurt me didn’t matter. My boundaries didn’t matter. My body wasn’t mine. My soul wasn’t mine. Nothing was mine. No one cared. Nothing worked. I was a failure. I was shameful. I was terrified. I was alone. A few months later, I started stuttering after nearly eleven years of normal, fluent speech. I had lost my voice. For eighteen long years, I would live in that silence.
Why does sexual abuse silence its victims?
Because some victims are threatened with physical death or relational isolation if they tell.
Some victims are literally threatened with physical death if they ever tell anyone. An abuser might shoot the legs off a victim’s pet and tell her, “If you ever tell, I will do this to you too.” Some aren’t threatened with physical death, but with soul death: “If you tell, no one will believe you. They will think you are dirty and awful. They won’t like you anymore.” To a victim barely surviving mentally and emotionally, the threat of losing what little relationships she may have is terrifying.
Abusers will also often say, “If you ever tell, I will know. Even if I’m a thousand miles away, I will know. You can’t tell without me finding out.” Some victims live for decades with the terror of what their abusers will do to them if they tell, unaware that, as adults, they have options to keep them safe. Silence is the only way victims know how to survive.
Because sexual abuse destroys boundaries
Sexual abuse violates and destroys boundaries. We are created in the image of God. As such, our bodies are meant to be respected, protected, held sacred, and cared for. The need for boundaries is innate to us as humans. Boundaries enable us to live healthy lives and engage in healthy relationships. Boundaries make sense of the world. Boundaries help a child discover her identity, her value, and her place in the world. Sexual intimacy is meant to be a voluntary surrender of a person’s boundaries to someone she trusts and who loves her deeply. Speaking up means setting boundaries for yourself, but abusers don’t give their victims that option. The abuser cavalierly destroys boundaries again and again. Using her voice to set boundaries is pointless.
Because sexual abuse destroys identity.
One of the most damaging effects of sexual abuse is the never-ending shame the victim feels. While any abuse causes shame, sexual abuse causes especially corrosive shame. To speak up is to reveal her shame. To ask for help is to expose her vulnerability and terror. To use her voice is to risk everything, or so it feels. She has no sense of who she is, no identity other than shame, no choices, no hope for a better life, no other reality than the darkness. There’s a reason why sexual abuse is sometimes called “soul murder.”
Because a victim’s “No” doesn’t matter.
Victims are powerless. They can scream “No” as loudly as they want, but it doesn’t matter. They might fight as hard as they can, but they can’t make their abusers stop. They can’t hide, though they might try. They can’t run away physically. They have nowhere to go, often no one to trust. They are helpless to change their nightmare.
Eventually, they lose hope and stop fighting, stop trying to change their nightmare. They stop saying “No” and may start to participate in the abuse because of the approval they get from their abusers when they do. They learn that speaking up doesn’t work and may even result in more abuse, so they stay silent, locking all their words deep inside. They realize they have no choice at all about what is happening to them. They find ways to survive mentally. They learn to be helpless. They are trapped. Most of all, they are silent.
Our voices are powerful. Words are powerful. God, who spoke light into existence, created us in His image, and part of that image is the voices He gave us. When abusers silence victims, they twist that image and plunge their victims into darkness and silence, a darkness and silence that eats away at their souls. There’s a reason that Jesus is “The Word.” With our voices, we voice our decisions, state our choices, set boundaries, declare truth, overcome the devil, develop and strengthen relationships, and worship God. Without voices and without the power of choice, we live in a learned helplessness and perhaps are victimized again and again.
But, that is not the end of the story. Sexual abuse might be soul murder, but we also know a God who specializes in resurrections. He brings beauty from ashes and causes the dumb to sing. He’s in the miracle-working business, and victims don’t need to stay in the silence. My next post in this series will explore the path to finding my voice after so many years of silence.