When my daughter was eight years old, she spent the night at a friend’s house. She and her friend spent hours swimming in their community pool and Bethany came home with her face, arms and legs red and burning. I was irate that the girl’s mother allowed Bethany to be exposed to the sun for so long, especially without sunscreen. Arizona, where we lived at the time, had the second highest rate of skin cancer in the world. Bethany blistered and peeled for a week. That mother failed to provide her with basic protection and I was so angry that she was so careless with my daughter.
When I look back on that incident, I still feel awful for how much Bethany suffered that week. I eventually discovered far worse things touching my daughter than the sun’s rays and this time, I was the one who left her exposed.
When I was fifteen, my boyfriend told me we needed to talk. Sixteen year old boys don’t usually have conversation on their minds, so I took it seriously. We had been dating about six months or so and I couldn’t imagine what he would consider so important. My parents let me close my bedroom door so we could have some privacy.
We sat on my bed as he revealed that he had molested his female relative sometime before we met. When the abuse occurred, the girl told her mom so most of his family knew about it. My boyfriend thought it was behind him, but the girl was talking about it again and he was worried. The girl’s parents suspected he was molesting her again, but my boyfriend claimed she was just having nightmares. It caused a lot of division; some relatives tried to protect her, while others tried to protect him.
When I sensed that my boyfriend felt threatened and I heard that some of his own family members turned against him, I felt so sorry for him. I considered his confession an indication of his trust in me and thought of it as a test of my love. I wasn’t going to fail this test. If he needed my support, he would have it. He was charming, thoughtful, considerate, and generous and I wasn’t going to lose him over something that was in his past. In my mind, the gravity of the offense was irrelevant since it wasn’t happening again, either now or in the future. No one who really knew him would doubt that.
That incident strengthened my bond with my boyfriend. That kind of intimacy was what I craved and I was eager to escape my lonely-making family. When he seemed interested in marrying me, I was relieved. I finally belonged. We married soon after I turned seventeen when I got pregnant with my son. Our daughter was born the year after our son arrived.
When my daughter, Bethany, was about one year old, I discovered blood in her diaper. I didn’t want to think about why my baby would be bleeding, but I guessed the source. My husband tearfully admitted that he had molested her but promised it would never happen again. He seemed very remorseful and I thought that since I caught him, he wouldn’t feel safe repeating the abuse. He seemed afraid of losing his family so I thought that fear would stop him.
A few months or maybe a year passed and I had a sick feeling that I knew what was happening. I came home to find out that Bethany’s dad had molested her again. He’d bought her a little yellow outfit because he felt bad.
Something, But Not Enough
This time, I was angry. He thought he could make up for what he did by buying her something. I knew he wasn’t going to be able to stop without help, so I needed to do something.
I’d never read about sexual abuse and I’d only known one person who talked about her sexual abuse before this other than my husband. I didn’t know where to turn so we met with our pastor. He talked as though this was something that could be handled very easily. He said a prayer and told me to just focus on our marriage.
I accepted the pastor’s confident assurances that no further harm would come to Bethany. He gave me the assignment to focus on my marriage and to learn to trust my husband so I could save my daughter from his advances. According to him, any suspicion on my part would divide us and put Bethany in harm’s way. It was all up to me.
I tried to do everything I thought would help my relationship with my husband. I never said no to sex and I listened to everything he said.
The Truth Exposed
After twenty-one years of marriage, I was emotionally exhausted. In spite of my best efforts, my husband still wasn’t happy with me and I was done doing everything his way.
Shortly after the divorce, when Bethany was nineteen, she told me she wanted to talk. I already knew by her tone that she was going to tell me her dad molested her. All those years, I didn’t know if she would remember those things since she was so young. If she did remember, I wondered if she would be mad at me for staying with her father after the first time I discovered the abuse. I felt so guilty that I hadn’t stopped it from happening the second time.
I never expected to hear what Bethany told me. Her dad sexually abused her until she was eleven or twelve years old and then again when she was sixteen. She kept silent for fear of splitting up the family.
It hadn’t stopped. She wasn’t safe. I didn’t protect her. I was shocked.
I called my ex-husband. When I told him what Bethany told me, his defiant response was “Yeah, so?” My daughter confronted him after I did and he showed the same lack of remorse. He only offered the excuse that he was abused by his parents.
We discussed the possibility of reporting him to the police. Bethany was still adjusting to the divorce, so she decided to wait until she was certain she was making the right decision.
Confronted With My Denial
Over four years passed and Bethany called me around midnight. Something was weighing on her and she needed to talk. She was ready to report her dad. Since it was going to be a matter of public record, she wanted to tell me exactly what he did to her so I’d be emotionally prepared to hear her testimony.
The things Bethany revealed made me sick. When she disclosed her abuse to me after the divorce, my impression was that her dad had done his best to resist, but occasionally gave in to temptation. In reality, he abused her daily. On many occasions, he planned in advance to be alone with her.
I also imagined that all he did was fondle her. That’s bad enough, but how did I think a little fondling would leave blood in her diaper? I had minimized the abuse in my mind to protect myself from the truth—and the guilt that came with it.
First, I was nauseated by what her father did to her, then by what I had done—or rather, neglected to do. Denial, mixed with naiveté about abuse issues, kept me from delving deeper into the molestation of his female relative before I even married the man. I was in denial when he told me it had stopped. Both times. But even after Bethany told me about the years of abuse when she was nineteen, denial kept me from anything but surface acceptance.
I was disgusted with myself. Being a great mom was so important to me, but I was a failure. I made Bethany vulnerable by marrying a man I knew had abused another little girl. Then I had allowed him to stay after he abused Bethany. Yes, I had been fooled by my husband, but I had also fooled myself.
Bethany was facing one of the most difficult times in her life, so no matter how I felt about myself, I couldn’t focus on that. I had failed her in her childhood and I was desperate to do better.
Yet my feelings about myself were in the way of doing what was best for Bethany. To be available to her, I had to stop punishing myself through my sabotaging thoughts. “Who was I to help her when I wasn’t there for her as a child?” My guilt would never let me be a healthy support.
I couldn’t let anything I did in an effort to “help” be a way to “make up” for what I’d done. No matter what good things I did for Bethany now or in the future, I could never change the past. Forgiving myself was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but removing my offense toward myself freed me to support Bethany instead of digging myself out of my guilt-pit.
Facing My Past So I Could Be Present
I faced the hard feelings I had about myself, but I still hadn’t faced what led to the choices I’d made in the first place. As long as I put my issues aside so I could “put my daughter first”, I still acted out of my brokenness. Leaving Bethany in danger was the result of my unresolved pain from childhood sexual abuse and neglect. As long as I was still thinking and feeling like an abused little girl, I didn’t have any power to help my child.
My first abuse memory is when I was about one and a half years old. My uncle got me alone and starting touching me in a sexual way. Terrified and confused, I squirmed and kicked. He mercilessly grabbed my legs, held me down and threatened me. My pain didn’t matter; he would have his way and I was terrified.
I had many abusers after that—the primary one was my father—but the lesson I learned from my first abuse was that I had to comply OR ELSE! Resistance was dangerous and useless. After that, whenever I felt threatened, I froze. As I got older, I still carried the belief that I was at everyone’s mercy. I still felt like a powerless child.
When I discovered that Bethany had been abused, I vegetated on the couch for two days. Finding blood in her diaper was finding blood in my diaper. I was transported to my own abuse with the same feelings and response: I froze as though my only choice was to lie still and stay quiet.
I didn’t feel capable of making my own decisions or of taking care of myself. I looked like an adult, but I was a fraud. Part of my attraction to my husband was that he was a take-charge kind of guy. I didn’t have to make any decisions with him.
When we turned to our pastor and he took command, I was comforted not to have to decide the best course. My assignment to work on our marriage gave me a sense of control. It was the same illusion of control that I clung to in childhood. In my mind, the abuse was my fault. My dad wasn’t bad; I was. If I tried really hard to be good, I could stop him from hurting me. That belief kept me from being swallowed by hopelessness, rage and terror.
I disconnected from my body and emotions during my abuse. My numbness prevented me from grasping the physical or emotional injury that was thrust upon me. Feelings weren’t allowed in our home and there was no safe person to confide in. I grew into adulthood as an empty body.
Even motherhood didn’t awaken my feelings. I was cut off from Bethany’s pain, too. When she hurt herself, I’d order myself to scoop her up and soothe her. Comforting care didn’t come naturally. When I discovered her abuse, I was disconnected from it. I didn’t feel its gravity and I interpreted that to mean that it wasn’t very serious.
Believing those lies helped me survive my childhood, but they endangered my child. The truth freed me:
- I was powerless when I was a child. Compliance was a smart response then, but I’m not a child anymore. I’m empowered to use my voice and actions to protect my life and anyone else who may be in danger.
- I never had any control as a child and there wasn’t anything I could do to prevent my dad from hurting me. I didn’t do anything to bring it on myself and the abuse wasn’t my fault. Placating and appeasing abusers doesn’t stop them. I’m empowered as an adult to really affect change through direct actions instead of passive ones.
- Shutting down my feelings during the trauma was the only way to help myself. There wasn’t any protection or refuge then, but there is now. It’s safe to feel. I listen to my feelings, express them and respond to them. Now, I feel compassion for myself and can empathize with others.
Continuing to work on my issues as they surfaced allowed me to provide healthy support through Bethany’s court ordeal with her dad, through her healing journey and beyond. I’m modeling healthy behavior to her and treating her with the respect and love that she always deserved.
My healing work resolved things within my heart, but it didn’t resolve anything in Bethany’s heart and it didn’t entitle me to a new relationship with her. She still needed to address her own pain, recognize my part in it and choose how that would affect our relationship.
Bethany diligently worked through her own healing and is doing very well. The effects of my past could have permanently wounded my daughter and damaged our relationship, but as we worked through our issues, we’ve become much closer than most mothers and daughters I know.
I went from being a child molester’s daughter to a child molester’s wife to a thriving survivor and supportive mother. As horrible as my past was, I’m creating a better future.
Bethany’s dad is now serving a fifteen year prison sentence.
I’m Christina Enevoldsen and I’m the cofounder of Overcoming Sexual Abuse and the author of The Rescued Soul: The Writing Journey for the Healing of Incest and Family Betrayal. I’m a Strategic Interventionist and Certified Professional Life Coach with a specialty Life Story Certification. As a survivor of incest, sex trafficking and a 21-year long abusive marriage (now remarried to an emotionally healthy, loving and supportive man), I bring personal experience, empathy, and insight as well as professional training to help childhood sexual abuse survivors thrive.