The recent horrors reported on the Penn State campus highlight the utter helplessness and terror of children who experience this violation, as well as the rock like denial that usually surrounds it.
Most people thankfully have no idea how prevalent both physical and sexual abuse are worldwide, and what children who are abused go through following their ordeals. The aftermath of these experiences “with the devil,” as one of the young women I have worked with describes them, is something that involves my life work.
One of the realities of childhood sexual and physical abuse of boys as well as girls, is that the wounds, unless addressed, make finding love and life fulfillment next to impossible. Life becomes an exercise in “coverup” – the determination not to show others the self hate resulting from your horror and its continual expression that dominates your entire life.
Pain becomes the center core of the life of one abused, and it is perpetuated in almost all relationships. Almost without exception one abused as a child becomes incapable of all enriching relationship commitments -- becoming an abuser or seeking out and then clinging to damaging relationships again and again – though each time the one inflicting the pain, and its expression, may seem to be very different.
Most of those abused as children who I have worked with have been young girls. I will share the story of Martha to try to show some of the hell and terror all abused children endure. They finally can finally heal when the cancer of their abuse is slowly and carefully removed, not unlike a slow and painful surgery, and hope and experience with respectful relationships then can be planted and take hold. In order for this to happen, the complex repetitive relationship between the past and the present must be understood.
I had been in practice for about three years when I met Martha. The year was 1975, a time when getting a divorce in our state could be next to impossible. Martha had endured by husband's brutality toward her, in ways physical and sexual, throughout her marriage of twelve years. She came from a deeply religious Catholic family and had two very young children. At each of their births, their father was no where to be found. “I know that I was repeating my mother’s life and her misery,” Martha told me in our early work together, “but I had no idea how to break away and leave a prison that was the only home I knew.”
Of course, all of our work was geared toward Martha doing just that --- leaving the prison that was familiar not only because of her own marriage, but because of her late mother’s. And then, breaking the cycle of abuse of pain and violent expression that had become so familiar to her.
Martha was far more fortunate than most women in her situation: Although she had no steady income, she had a small trust fund left to her by her maternal grandmother. Also, Martha held onto her sanity throughout her married life and teen years by writing continuously in a journal. And because she had a college degree she was able to find a job in a local private school teaching English.