Even after men start talking about their sexual assault, most of them face one formidable obstacle: Telling their family of origin. I’m no different. For three years, I had been able to talk to most people about my childhood. I had gotten past the place of tearing up.
“How do I tell my siblings?” I asked myself many times. My parents were both dead, but I had five surviving siblings.
In my struggle to open up to them, I figured out something else. The closer the relationship between the child and the abuser, the more difficult it is for the child is to talk about what happened.
My first abuser had been a much-loved female relative. For me to speak up against her seemed impossible at first. I could imagine my siblings asking, “Why would I want to besmirch her reputation?”
That relative was dead, which did make it easier; however, for the last twenty years of her life, she became one of the outstanding members of her church. Members still spoke of her with great affection and so did my sisters.
Another factor is that, like many others who were assaulted, I felt protective toward the woman. That may not make sense to many, but it’s true—and I’ve heard similar statements from other men.
So how could I open up to my siblings? Many times I tried to figure out their responses if I did. What if they blamed me for upsetting the family by telling? Could I handle the guilt or the accusations? I didn’t know how they would react, of course, but as a man struggling for disclosure, I thought only of the most negative results.
What if my confession brought about rage toward the female abuser for betraying trust and deceiving? What if they were angry at me for not speaking up sooner?
I’d read that family members may have conflicting emotions. They may feel extreme anguish over what was done to the child, while still feeling love and concern for the family member who committed the assault.
As I struggled and talked to others, I realized that families have unspoken taboos about discussing certain topics, especially those dealing with sex. As a child, neither of my parents even used the word pregnant. They would say, “She’s that way again.”
Quite early, I grasped what that meant. And that’s how most of us know the safe and unsafe topics. Only in retrospect did I realize that I felt unsafe in talking about my sexual assault—because that was taboo.
Until I had some understanding of the dynamics of my own family, I faced increased trauma because of my inability to articulate my pain to them. That inability brought more shame and isolation.
Deep inside I sensed I had to tell my siblings and I didn’t know how or what they would say. Even though I hadn’t lived near any of them since I graduated from high school, they represented my past—and something of a shared past. And I hear similar stories from many men, and it has nothing to do with whether they’re in regular contact. It has to do with breaking the silence of molestation in the family. Sometimes there was only one child who suffered sexual assault. Often there are others.
About two years after I began to face my childhood, I finally told my two younger brothers, whom I suspected had also been molested by the same female relative. Neither denied it and neither wanted to talk about it. Their negative reaction was so strong, it made me even more reluctant to talk to my three older sisters.
When I analyzed the situation, it seemed silly to be afraid. “Either they accept my experiences or they don’t,” I told myself. I tried to reason my emotions into conforming. It didn’t work.
I’ve since heard many men share their trauma of telling their families of origin. And some men never do. But I knew I would never be fully healed from my molestation unless I shattered the silenced.
One day the pressure became so intense, I spoke to one sister on the phone and said, “I have to tell you something.” Without giving her a chance to decline, I told her the facts.
“I didn’t know that,” she said, “but I’m not surprised.” She went on to tell me that the female relative had been sexually assaulted by her father for nearly four years—from the time of his first wife’s death until he remarried. The relief was immense.
I visited my hometown a month later and told my other two sisters. One of them said, “We didn’t know about things like that when we were kids.” And to my surprise, both were supportive.
For a time afterward, I chided myself on being so fearful, but then I realized I had done more than tell break the family silence, I had taken a major step in my own recovery.
Of all the conversations I have had about my sexual assault, nothing was as painful as talking to the family. But no single event has been so liberating. Because I could (finally) tell my siblings, I can tell anyone. I have broken all the barriers to secrecy. Now I continue to move forward in my own healing journey.
As counselors, your greatest service in this area is to encourage and prepare survivors to talk to their families. As they open up about their painful memories and are able to talk freely to you about their pain, one question I urge you to ask is this, “Have your told your family of origin?”
You can ease their anxieties and their pain by helping them prepare a strategy. Stress the relief the counselee will feel because the secrecy has been torn away, even if it causes a rupture in family dynamics.
Here are a few of the obvious questions the survivor needs to face:
- How do I know when it’s safe to tell?
- When and where do I talk to them?
- What do I want them to know?
- What do I want to achieve in telling my story?
- What will I do if they don’t believe me or won’t listen?
If it’s true, as some statistics indicate, that 85 percent of children never tell, you may become a powerful catalyst for them. You may (with God’s help) be the true liberator of their souls.
Veteran author Cecil (Cec) Murphey hurt for a long time because of childhood sexual assault. Now he helps others in pain through his candid interviews, seminars, blog for male survivors (www.menshatteringthesilence.blogspot.com), and his books, When a Man You Love Was Abused and Not Quite Healed. He is the author or co-author of 135 books, including many international best sellers. He served as a pastor in Metro Atlanta for 14 years. For more information, visit www.cecilmurphey.com.