Exposing Your Abuser Part 1

Key ideas:

[00:00] – Introduction

[00:49] – Clarification about using this information and if it’s safe for you

[01:25] – How I define incest and why that makes it so complicated to be “disloyal” to your abuser

[03:28] – How incest gives you a false definition of love and how that impacts your relationships now

[07:16] – Why and how dissociation and repressed memories contribute to keeping the secret

[08:58] – How I “woke up” to the truth of the abuse and that my dad wasn’t worthy of my protection or silence

[12:11] – Where I started sharing my story and exposing my abuse

[12:55] – The empowering response to speaking out but also the internal backlash

[13:55] – How the threats and bribes lead to feeling guilty or afraid of breaking the silence

[15:37] – The insidious reason we even don’t need overt warnings not to tell

[16:39] – The process I used to work through the fear of telling

[17:29] – The unexpected result of speaking out

[18:09]- How speaking out about abuse is often used as a substitute for listening to yourself

[19:07] – One of the major reasons I silenced myself and the truth I finally realized that allowed me to keep using my voice

[21:28] – Two common judgments from others and why they are desperate for us to keep the silence

[23:08] – Why getting angry about my abuse was vital to my healing

[24:27] – Why people’s warnings about staying bitter and resentful are unfounded

[25:23] – The threat and guilt of “destroying” a family member or the family

[26:26] – The shaming accusation that you’re stirring up drama to expose abuse and the truth about love and peace

[28:07] – My mother’s response to me speaking out


Quotes + Episode Excerpts:

“A lot of the guilt about telling the secret comes in through these threats and these bribes. Like even years later, you might still be taking on the responsibility for keeping your abuser out of jail or keeping the family together. Or if you got something for the abuse or with the abuse, you might think that your silence was paid for and it would be wrong to say something now or that you promise not to tell and it would be going against your word.”

“The fact that it happens when nobody else is around and that nobody else is talking about it communicates that this isn’t something to talk about. And you pick up the message that this would be bad to talk about. And part of that also comes in with the shame and the shame might come from overt messages like, ‘You like this, you want this, this feels good, doesn’t it?’ Or ‘You’re so pretty, you make me do this.’ Or ‘You’re so bad, you force me to do this.’ Or ‘You deserve this.'”

“When I heard that little girl’s voice inside of me saying, ‘You told,’ it was a mixture of panic and sadness and scolding, like, ‘You’ve ruined everything now.’ And a part of me felt like I was going to die now that I told. But I recognized that that was the perception of that little girl in me, and she still felt powerless and vulnerable, like she had all those years ago. But as my adult self, I wasn’t under my father’s power the way I had been. And so I comforted her with that, and I continued to tell.”


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Episode transcript:


Welcome to the Overcoming Sexual Abuse podcast where you get the tools and inspiration to help you overcome childhood sexual abuse. I’m your host, Christina Enevoldsen, certified coach, author and incest survivor, and I’m here to help you heal and live your very best life!

There are internal and external pressures to protect your abuser and keep the secret of sexual abuse and they sometimes come with very real social and legal consequences. I uncover the often hidden attitudes and beliefs that position us as protectors of the secrets and lies, and I share my process of speaking out. Then I share how to process those things so you’re free to decide if speaking out is best for you.

Before I start I want to say that I’m not suggesting that the goal of every abuse survivor should be to speak out about abuse, expose their abuser, or report their abuse, or any other particular action.

And I’m also not suggesting that it’s always safe. While most perpetrators who prey on children don’t pose any significant threat once you’re an adult, that isn’t always the case so keep that in mind.

What I am suggesting is that it’s good to explore the issues that might keep you silent out of guilt or fear or a false sense of loyalty.

There can be a variety of reasons we continue to protect our abusers depending on the relationship with the abuser and when it’s an incestuous or incestuous type relationship and that’s where it’s family, it’s a parent, a step-parent, a sibling, extended family, or really any other trusted relationship like a teacher, a coach, or a spiritual leader, that would all come under the same dynamics as incest. A relationship where there’s been this betrayal of trust where that relationship should have been safe. A relationship where there was good and bad and mixed together and that’s the key when the good and bad are mixed. Those tend to be the most complicated to sort out.

If your abuser wasn’t someone you experienced any good from you might might relate more to the fear of being judged by either family or by others.
And so we’re gonna talk about that.

People have asked me how I could have this normal relationship with my dad after he sexually abused me for so much of my childhood and then trafficked me to other men. And if you’re not a survivor of incest and sometimes even if you are, that’s a really hard thing to understand. That was something that I didn’t understand for a long time and I judged myself for it because I could see everything from the outside as though I were a stranger looking in at my life and evaluating who was right and wrong in the situation. Was I telling the truth? If he did abuse me, was I handling it so-called correctly? Was I playing the victim? Was I drudging up the past? Was I unforgiving? And because I was seeing things from the outside, it was hard to understand that if it really was true that my dad did those things, why did I still love him? Why did I still have a relationship with him. And so it took time to process that and stop judging myself for that.

I always felt closer to my dad than I did to my mom. I wanted to be close to my mom, but if I wanted a relationship with her, there were conditions. It was based on do, do, do. I had to run to keep up with the things that she was doing, what she was interested in and what she wanted me to do. And I don’t have many memories of my mom from when I was a kid. She seemed like someone who was just in the background. She kept the house really clean and she made really good food. And I don’t remember very many things other than that. There weren’t many activities that we did together. I don’t remember her talking to me or any physical affection. She was pleased with me if I was quiet and helpful around the house and like the things that she liked. But I always felt that she held me at a distance. And if I wanted to spend time with her, it was up to me to do something worthy of her time.

And my dad was the opposite. He really seemed to enjoy spending time with me. He was playful. He hugged and kissed me. He told me he loved me. He pursued a relationship with me. And that’s where it starts to get complicated because a child needs those things. It’s survival.

In the last episode, episode 14, I talked about the children in Romanian orphanages and they got just the bare minimum of physical needs met and no emotional needs, no physical contact, like no holding and no rocking, no soothing, no kind words, no “I love you”s. And they stopped crying. They didn’t even bother crying because nobody was coming. And it had a severe impact on their brain development, their physical development. So it impacted their health and it had other profound effects.
And when they discovered those kids, they did studies on the effects and they divided them. And they had some kids stay in institutional care and some were adopted into families. And the ones that were in families did so much better and a lot of the damage that was done was reversed or at least improved. And that’s a really horrific and sad story and it shows the vital role love plays in survival.

So children get love where they can get it because it’s not an option. And unfortunately, it’s often mixed with very unloving things. And then what message do you learn when your source of love is also your source of harm? You learn that they coexist, that to have love, you have to accept the other stuff too. And you might think that it’s just the price to pay for love, but you also might think that they’re not even separate. Like it’s just how it’s supposed to be that love is painful.

And what does that lead to in adulthood when you have this false definition of love? You repeat what you know. So if you believe that love and harm go together, then that’s what you’ll gravitate toward. I didn’t get much love from my mom, but I did from my dad, even though he also abused me. But there was no way to sort that out. There was no protection from it, or even the inclination to seek out protection from the abuse. At least not from a conscious standpoint, because I really didn’t know that anything was wrong. I didn’t know that there were other kids who didn’t experience that. I didn’t know that that’s not how life was supposed to be. So from this conscious place, I didn’t try to protect myself. But subconsciously, I did. And part of that was disassociating.

And so when you disassociate, you separate from your body and from your emotions, you go away in your mind. During the abuse, I could often see myself from the corner of my bedroom ceiling. And sometimes I also just imagined being somewhere else. So that disassociation not only protects you in that moment when the abuse is happening, it also offers some level of protection from your conscious memory. So much of what makes memories feel real are the emotions that go with them. So if you’re separate from the emotions of that experience, then it’s very difficult to accept it as real. And so that helps to keep you in denial. And in a sense, you can keep the secret even from yourself.

So that denial helps when you have to get up in the morning and eat breakfast with your perpetrator and everyone else seems happy and nothing seems wrong. And denial helps you when you have to go to school and learn about math and play kick ball with the other kids. So that ability to forget allows children to have some sort of childhood.

I used to separate the dad who did those things to me with my real dad who joked with me and did the magic tricks and everyone liked. I called the one who visited me at night my ghost dad and I actually thought that they were different people. My relationship with my dad seemed normal. We did normal father daughter things. My dad took me to Girl Scout camp and gave me singing lessons and taught me to drive. And the forgetting allowed me some very good experiences and I felt loved.

But because I had pushed those other things down so far, the remembering happened slowly over many years. And first it was the feeling of just having been sexually violated. And then it was a knowing that I had been. Like something was just at the tip of my tongue. And then it was a knowing that it was my dad. And then it was vivid flashbacks and nightmares. And then realizing that a lot of what I had always remembered was actually abuse too.

And throughout that process of remembering, my relationship with my dad just went on as usual. Even though it wasn’t something we talked about,
I assumed he was sorry for what he’d done. I thought that the person he is now would never do those things. And that was just this wild leap to think that because it was based on he’s a loving person. But he’d always had that side to him. As long as I’d known him, he was a warm and loving person at the same time he was sneaking into my bedroom and at the same time he was trading me to other men.

And though I assumed that my dad was sorry for sexually abusing me, my eyes were opened when he defended another abuser. In episodes 4 and 5, my daughter and I talk about her reporting her dad and both of us embarking on the healing journey, so I won’t repeat that story here. She first disclosed her abuse when she was 19, first to me and then to some other family members, including my parents, and they knew what her dad had done to her. And yet five years later, when Bethany reported her dad, my parents turned against her. My dad defended his ex-son-in-law, even helping him hire a lawyer and trying to pay Bethany not to testify.

And at the same time, he was saying that Bethany had no right to bring this up because she was no perfect angel and she was shacking up with the guy. And my dad and many other abusers have used that reasoning to imply that you’re wrong for protesting about abuse or complaining about it at all unless you’re perfect. Like, “You’re not perfect, so who are you to judge?” “You’re not perfect, so why should we believe you?” “You’re not perfect, so your hands are dirty too”.

And what kind of logic is that? The only people who have a right to be protected and to object to abuse are perfect people and everyone else is fair game?  And notice who is deciding who’s worthy of protection and who isn’t. What kind of moral standards are they using that abuse is okay but exposing abuse is terrible?

So, they cast out Bethany while loving and supporting her abuser.
And that opened my eyes to my dad. The way he defended the person who had violated his own granddaughter really made it clear to me that he’s still identified with an abuser and knowing that I didn’t think he deserved my protection anymore.

Before that, I had only shared my secret with a few friends here and there and it turned out several of them had been sexually abused and childhood themselves and I learned from them that talking about abuse is nothing to be ashamed about. I was accepted and believed and it felt like I belonged and that was as far as I’d ever planned to take it.

But with this new revelation about my dad, I started talking about what he did to me and naming him publicly. My purpose in doing that wasn’t necessarily to expose him. It was to speak out about the things that happened in secret. I wanted to make people aware so it could be prevented or stopped. The first step I took, my daughter Bethany and me, we did it together. We told our story to a small group of people. I don’t remember how many people were there. It was maybe 20 or 40 people and many of them knew my dad so I wasn’t sure what their reaction would be but I just wanted the opportunity to share the truth and it turned out they were overwhelmingly supportive.

The thing that stands out to be the most about that night was that several people approached us afterward and told us that it had happened to them too. One of them had never told anyone before that and it felt good that by sharing what happened to us created a space for others to share their past.

It was a really empowering experience but when I went home that night, I heard a little girl’s voice in my head saying, “You told” in this accusing tone and I recognized that little girl was a little girl inside of me. She was the one who was afraid and that don’t tell rule.

There are layers to that. Sometimes there are overt warnings not to tell. Maybe there’s threats like threats might be to harm you or something you love if you tell.  And it might be the abuser who delivers the consequences like it might be, “I’ll give away your dog if you tell” or “I’ll kill your dog” and sometimes worse. But often the abuser might claim that outside forces will cause harm. Like, “If you tell, then you’ll hurt mommy” or “then mommy will be mad at you.” “If you tell, then daddy will go to jail” or “If you tell, then mommy and daddy will break up” or “Mommy and daddy will break up and you’ll have to give away your dog,” (That poor dog.) “And you’ll have to live at an orphanage”.

And sometimes with or without threats, there are bribes. Maybe it’s this overt trade. Like, “If you promise not to tell anybody, I’ll buy you an ice cream.” But often there doesn’t even need to be a bribe or trade. If after you’re abused, you’re taken out for ice cream, you get the message that to have ice cream, the abuse goes with it and you don’t wanna give up the ice cream so you don’t tell.

A lot of the guilt about telling the secret comes in through these threats and these bribes. Like even years later, you might still be taking on the responsibility for keeping your abuser out of jail or keeping the family together. Or if you got something for the abuse or with the abuse,
you might think that your silence was paid for and it would be wrong to say something now or that you promise not to tell and it would be going against your word.

And sometimes there doesn’t have to be any threat or bribe at all. The child simply knows that this isn’t something to be talked about. The fact that it happens when nobody else is around and that nobody else is talking about it communicates that this isn’t something to talk about. And you pick up the message that this would be bad to talk about. And part of that also comes in with the shame and the shame might come from overt messages like, “You like this, you want this, this feels good, doesn’t it?” Or “You’re so pretty, you make me do this.” Or “You’re so bad, you force me to do this.” Or “You deserve this.”

And maybe you feel complicit. Like if it did feel good and that’s part of the abuser’s manipulation to put the shame onto you, convincing you that this is mutual. And if you tell that you feel like you’re telling on yourself.
And that’s so insidious because you’re protecting your abuser, but you’re protecting yourself.

And so when I heard that little girl’s voice inside of me saying, “You told,” it was a mixture of panic and sadness and scolding, like, “You’ve ruined everything now.” And a part of me felt like I was going to die now that I told.
But I recognized that that was the perception of that little girl in me, and she still felt powerless and vulnerable, like she had all those years ago. But as my adult self, I wasn’t under my father’s power the way I had been. And so I comforted her with that, and I continued to tell.

I published the story of my abuse history on my website, and I wanted it to be public. I wanted the whole world to see it, and I wasn’t afraid of my dad finding out, and I wanted my parents to read what I wrote.

And I started doing radio and podcast interviews. At that point, I was feeling really comfortable talking about it. But then sometimes after I’d do an interview, I was exhausted and I felt defeated. By hearing myself speak about it, I accepted it and understood my abuse in a different way. And that helped me to tap into these new levels of grief that I hadn’t touched before.

And that’s another reason for resistance to exposing the abuse or exposing your abuser, because it’s not just the abuser, it’s exposing all these buried emotions that go with it.

On the other hand, and this might seem contradictory, but exposing your abuser or being an advocate or standing up against this stuff can be a way of separating from your pain too. It feels really powerful to stand up against this, but it’s not a substitute for working through the pain. Some survivors go on a crusade and make it all about changing the world so they can feel better, but that’s so disempowering to have to change things outside yourself and to make external things okay for you to feel okay. The sustaining way to change the world is to change yourself, to be with your pain, to listen to yourself, to acknowledge your pain and comfort yourself in that because that’s what the world really needs, people who can be with the pain and process it and heal from it because you can’t heal the world if you’re not willing to start with yourself.

So most of the responses to talking about the abuse were positive and supportive. However, not all, someone said to my daughter after she exposed her dad, “Oh, I thought you forgave him.” And that issue comes up a lot, especially in religious contexts, and that happened to me too. People asked, “Have you forgiven him?”

And before I started healing while I was still grasping that this had actually happened to me, I wanted to forgive my dad. I thought that’s what I needed to do. And there are so many definitions of forgiveness. At that time for me, forgiveness was synonymous with pretend like it never happened. And in my former definition of forgiveness, my dad shouldn’t suffer any consequences. I was supposed to stop talking about it, and if I did talk about it, I couldn’t mention my dad. That would be uncovering him. And forgiveness also meant that I shouldn’t feel any negative emotions toward him and that our relationship should just go on as it had.

And I really used that as spiritual bypassing to avoid feeling the emotions so I could just maintain the status quo. And I called it forgiveness, but I hadn’t even validated my own pain or injury yet. I hadn’t faced that there was anything to forgive. I was in denial and I just swept it all away and pretended it never happened.

And then when I did start to face my past, I developed different ideas about forgiveness. But even then I used to fear that I’d be obligated to stop talking about my dad if he was sorry, as though that changed anything about what he’d done to me. And now I believe that no matter what happens after the abuse, I still have a right to tell my story, even if he was remorseful, even if he turned into an amazing and loving person who dedicated the rest of his life to helping people. And if he were truly remorseful, he would support me in doing what I believe is right, in a right response to abuse. He’d take responsibility for his actions and he’d accept that there are consequences for actions. And true remorse puts the focus on the well-being of the one that you harmed.

Another response to exposing my dad was the question, “How long are you going to hold this grudge?” And I used to have this reaction inside like,
“Oh no, I can’t hold a grudge.” And the same could be true of things like resentment or bitterness or anger. And by the way, just because someone says those things about you doesn’t mean they’re true. And even if they are, what’s wrong with feeling ill will towards your abuser? What’s wrong with complaining about them? What’s wrong with feeling indignant about the abuse? What’s wrong with expressing anger?

When one sexual abuse survivor’s case went to court, the prosecutor was preparing her for her testimony and he ripped her apart for saying that she was angry with her abuser. He warned her from saying that again. The jury just doesn’t sympathize with angry, empowered survivors who think that what was done to them was wrong.

The “forgive and forget” mentality runs deep. Our culture would rather forget that horrible things like sexual acts on children are common practice and those who remind them of that aren’t always welcome. It’s hard to accept that we live in a world where even though you did nothing wrong,
you can be brutally violated by a trusted friend, a family member, or a stranger. In blaming the victim is easier than letting go of that belief that nothing terrible undeserved or unavoidable will happen to you. They don’t want their illusions of safety shattered.

So we have these spectators acting as judge and jury of the so -called “proper way” to respond to abuse and talking about it is not okay unless it’s with your therapist behind closed doors and getting angry about it is not appropriate.

And there’s this jury of life, our society, and to be accepted and to have a sense of belonging we accept those standards. We internalize them. Just be a nice quiet little victim. And most of the time, not even questioning these rules that we’re supposed to live by.

These things that are judged like getting angry, these are the things that we need to do to heal. For most of my life, I was numb to the things that happened to me. But unfeeling isn’t the same as being healed. To heal, I had to finally become my own ally instead of my abusers. I had to acknowledge the depth of betrayal and offense that I’d experienced. I had to get in touch with my emotions and feel the pain and anger that I’d buried. And I had to turn with compassion toward myself and give myself the comfort that I needed. Accepting my emotions was a sign that I was finally considering and connecting with me. Some people warn survivors that if we don’t forgive, we’ll get stuck in this place of anger and bitterness. But all those feelings pass when they’re properly directed and expressed. I ran out of anger because I stopped judging myself for feeling it. I ran out of anger because I directed it where it belonged, toward my abusers. I ran out of anger because I gave myself permission to express it in healthy ways.
And when survivors feel permission to grieve our losses and to express all the feelings that are a part of that grief, it frees us to move through it. Getting stuck isn’t the result of the freedom to feel. It comes from the pressure to move on before we’re ready. Survivors are amazingly capable of moving through the healing steps when we’re validated and encouraged to listen to ourselves.

There was another survivor who was pressured to keep the secret because it would destroy her abusers’ elderly mother. “You can’t destroy grandma!”

And so I’ll say this about abuse families. Incest is more than just an abuser and a victim. It’s part of this entire dysfunctional system. And truth doesn’t destroy anyone. It doesn’t destroy families. Abuse and a secret and a lie, that’s what destroys people. That’s what destroys families. Exposing the abuse gives the entire family the opportunity to heal and learn these more healthy and functional ways to relate to each other.

You’ve probably noticed that when most families are confronted with the truth, they don’t choose to heal. They blame the victim so they can continue in their dysfunctional ways. And people don’t want to face their own demons so they demonize the truth teller.

And sometimes abuse is called drama. And that’s such a shaming statement that’s similar to you’re making a big deal about nothing and it’s condescending and dismissive and it reduces the abuse to drama. But the truth is when you’re acknowledging what’s happening, you’re not creating drama. You’re saying the drama is already there. You’re not disrupting love and peace. You’re saying it’s not here yet. And you’re exposing that as a way of possibly having love and peace. That’s the only way of it ever being there.

So real love doesn’t crush a person and insists that they move on from harm. Real love recognizes the ugliness and does something about it.
Love doesn’t squash in silence. It empowers. And love is messy. It’s involved. It’s not just about appearance on the surface. It’s willing to get into the nitty gritty. And love and peace can only exist when conflict is allowed to be out in the open, when truth can be discussed openly.

So what’s wrong with this type of upheaval to the status quo if the status quo is abuse? Is peace better? And who does that peace serve?
Silence is not peace. Those who insist on peace in the midst of this evil, perpetrate evil, not peace.

So speaking of the queen of keeping peace, I’d heard a few things here and there about my parents’ response to sharing stories and they didn’t like it. And then I got a response from my mother.

This is dated January 31st, 2011. Christina, I’m writing to inform you that your malicious slander of your father has not gone unnoticed. You’ve built an entire world out of your fantasy. In dreaming up your sexual abuse, you have maligned your father’s character and deeply hurt his heart and mine. Your lies shall surely catch up with you. I want you to know that if you have any plans of writing a book, we will sue you and anyone who has anything to do with it. Your defamation of your father’s character will stop. You will not enjoy one penny from any book published about this gross lie.
And I should let you know that we filed some of your inflammatory statements about your father and me, including your threat against me with the Mesa Police Department. And I will always be your mother,
whether you recognize me or not as such your mother. And she included her first and last name.

Thanks for joining me today. In the next episode, I’ll continue with how that letter intimidated me and then emboldened me. And then the subsequent lawsuit that followed and how you can better protect yourself from the social and legal consequences of exposing your abuser.

I’ll bring you more on healing, boundaries, self-care and family dysfunction. So be sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss any of it.

Exposing Your Abuser Part 1

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