The repercussions of telling your story can be painful, lonely and enraging.
Prince Harry just published his book Spare in an effort to correct the record and, according to Katie Kindelan, “change what he described as a ‘codependency’ between U.K. tabloids and the royal family.” In Spare, Harry outlines the trauma he experienced as a child after Princess Diana’s death, as well as the whitewashing and abuse he and his wife, Meghan Markle, suffered at the hands of both the press and his royal family.
Harry’s decision to go public about his experiences with the media and his own family was most likely agonizing, and the fallout from confronting his demons in a public way has led to a very public falling out between him and the royal family. As a survivor of sexual violence, I recognize Harry’s plight and also the incredibly painful journey of losing relatives because of truth-telling in an effort to be whole again.
I am among the 18.3 percent of women in this country who have been raped or sexually assaulted. My trajectory has followed a similar path to that of most survivors: silence and secrecy; loss of self; a process of healing and self-discovery that often includes telling family and relatives; and experiencing rejection by those same relatives.
Although so many women have experienced rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes, it’s difficult for us to talk about it—not only because of the shame and stigma associated with what was done to us, but also because there is an invisible but powerful structure in our society, a culture of silence and protection, that prioritizes the people who did it. And sexual abuse, or any family abuse for that matter, is a uniquely destructive kind of harm. Our society views sexual assault, rape and molestation as though it’s something to conceal deep inside a family structure, as though we should bury it in the walls of our homes and suffocate it with silence. That structure privileges the molester over the molested, feeding us and those we love a narrative that contradicts what happened to us.
As a survivor of sexual violence, I recognize Harry’s plight and also the incredibly painful journey of losing relatives because of truth-telling in an effort to be whole again.
Fortunately, I received the support of my immediate family, but when my extended family learned that my grandfather had molested me, they stopped talking or interacting with me and any of the family members who believed me. This practice of whitewashing sexual assault occurs in companies, universities and governments as well. We have seen it happen with Clarence Thomas, Bill Clinton, Woody Allen, Kobe Bryant, Matt Lauer, Brett Kavanaugh, Al Franken, Matthew Weiner, Kevin Spacey, Larry Wasser and many other public figures. It’s part of a much larger insistence on denying and downplaying anything unpleasant: slavery, the Civil War, segregation. Whitewashing prevents offenders of violence from facing meaningful consequences for their actions and from being held accountable. It prevents survivors from healing and moving forward. And it prevents local and national policy change on a wider scale.
I am a survivor of childhood molestation, rape and a violent attack. By the time I was ready to face my demons, I was in my 40s, and it wasn’t until my mid-50s that I began to feel pain around the violence I had experienced. Something finally broke inside me, and all the sorrows of the past flooded in, debilitating me for a while. This paralysis and pain weren’t only caused by the violence I had encountered, but by society’s reaction when I talked about what I’d endured.
After I came out about my grandfather, some relatives imagined that a more recent trauma from my 40s had triggered a false memory of my childhood. Others viewed me as an unreliable narrator of my own life, saying they wouldn’t believe anything I told them anymore. Some were angry I had spoken publicly about my experiences. Although their initial reactions varied, the end result was the same: They no longer spoke to me at all.
Most of the time I’m not surprised by my relatives’ response, although sometimes I do experience anger toward them. It’s hard to criticize them for denying something I barely believed—and I’m the one it happened to. It has taken me years to arrive at this place of honest self-reflection, but when I finally looked around at all the structures in place to protect sexual molesters, rapists and perpetrators of violence, I understood why I had whitewashed my own past for so long, and why some of the people I love most don’t believe me.
Our society views sexual assault, rape and molestation as though it’s something to conceal deep inside a family structure, as though we should bury it in the walls of our homes and suffocate it with silence.
Cognitive psychologist Susan Clancy describes the complex web survivors have to wade through before they themselves give credence to their own stories. If the victim is close to the perpetrator (i.e. they trust, care about or love him) they may internalize the acts of abuse, blame themselves, or even search for other explanations and build alternate realities that better fit the image they and their families have of the perpetrator.
Once the victim understands what really happened—sometimes years later, as in my case—they ultimately feel the betrayal of the man they had loved and trusted. According to Clancy, “Betrayal affects not only victims’ feelings of security and trust in others but also their self-worth. They feel that since they must not have been loved, perhaps they were not worth loving.”
Feelings of unworthiness feed into the cycle and make it even more difficult for survivors to talk about the violence they experienced. Many victims bury the truth deep inside so they don’t have to confront the contradictions of a patriarchal model that privileges the man who commits the crime, rather than the person who experiences it.
When a survivor does come to understand her truth, and decides to share it, she risks another type of trauma: that of not being believed. For me, the second-greatest trauma was this: being rejected by relatives and acquaintances who flat-out told me I was lying.
“Denial of sexual abuse can wreak havoc on a survivor’s mental health,” said psychotherapist Amber Robinson. “First, they endured such a traumatic experience, then work up the courage to talk about what happened and ask for help, then they’re not believed. It instills feelings of low self-worth and can often lead to continued feelings of inadequacy throughout life.”
The long-term effects of molestation or sexual violence can be devastating. More often than not, it changes you to the core. After the molestation, guilt and shame lived inside me. I lost my ability to tell people what I wanted and needed. I spent most days trying to please people so they might see some value in me, and so I might see some value in myself. I became a different child, and that child grew into a different adult than I might have been had I not been abused.
Ultimately, it was because I wanted to model something different for my daughter that I began to explore the repercussions of violence in my own life. I started to treat myself better. I cooked my favorite meals, just for me. I spoke kindly to the younger person inside me who had experienced trauma, telling her we were worthy.
It was through the painful process of looking inside and coming to terms with what violence had taken from me that I was finally able to discover the lovable, caring, beautiful person who had resided inside me all along. This process came at a cost, however: I lost so many people who had loved the other me—the one who had wanted to please and protect them. Fortunately, I also found people who supported me, and I realized I had built another family that accepted me without conditions.
When I finally looked around at all the structures in place to protect sexual molesters, rapists and perpetrators of violence, I understood why I had whitewashed my own past for so long, and why some of the people I love most don’t believe me.
For survivors of child sex abuse, the truth is often a life-raft. In my case, speaking the truth validated me, gave me agency in my own life, told me I was real. Yet our society continues to downplay and erase our stories so our own relatives—those who are supposed to love us most—reject us, preferring the narrative our society has constructed about male figures, even those who have hurt us, especially if these men are central and powerful figures within the family.
In a way, it’s not our relatives’ fault they believe these myths. They’ve been subjected to the same narrative we have, one that privileges men and abusers. It’s just as difficult for them to overcome this storyline as it has been for those of us who have spent years hiding our truth. Yet, the narratives we adopt and share—though sometimes they can be comfortable and comforting—only harm our families further, for family secrets are inevitably corrosive and somewhere, deep within, we all know they’re there.
To my fellow survivors whose lives have been forever altered by what was done to you—and how the people you love reacted to it—the repercussions of telling your story can be painful, lonely and enraging. You may recognize details of your experience as you watch the very public fall-out of truth-telling within the Royal Family.
Wherever you are on your journey toward healing, I am proud of you. My advice is to find those rare and precious people in your lives who will love the real you, the you who knows and tells the real story of your family. Give yourself permission to tell that story, and to feel the pain of how it reshaped your life then and now. If home wasn’t safe for you, and if it still isn’t, give yourself permission not to visit this year, or any year for that matter. Spend your time with people who don’t try to change how you react to violence, and who don’t deepen the violence by ignoring it.
U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.