This Is What Happened to Me
My book, Fortunate Daughter: A Memoir of Reconciliation came out this past spring. It is my story about the abuse, the healing and the reconciliation that I went through with my parents. There are many stories of abuse and healing. I know this and I am glad about it. However, I have not come across one that involves a reconciliation process like the one I experienced.
I started writing my book over 10 years ago, wanting to publish it, but not knowing if that would ever happen. I wanted to name the thing. For as we know, if we do not name it, it cannot be changed. I want to call out childhood sexual abuse because it is rampant and this has been true for some time despite efforts made to eliminate it. I also wanted to share a story that is rare. The trauma, sadly, is not rare. We know this. Neither is the healing. We know this too. What is unique about Fortunate Daughter is the reconciliation I had with my parents, the perpetrators of my family’s abuse. Without their willingness to participate in a confrontation/disclosure, without their genuine remorse, without the steps they took to make amends, I wouldn't have had the experience of reconciliation that I had. I wouldn’t be the person I am.
I gave a lot of thought to the reasons not to tell my story.
- Potential negative responses from family and friends
- Risk of loss of professional integrity - I have spent the majority of my adult life, my professional life, not speaking about my expertise as a trauma survivor. Thinking if I share this truth, it will somehow make me less credible, even though my experience as a survivor informs me as much if not more than anything else.
- Attachment to the us/them divide between helpers and helpees
- Possibility of being misunderstood
- A scrutiny that often leads people to doubt my story
- Tendency to box and simplify what I am trying to communicate
I also had to consider what to tell my parent’s grandchildren. My sisters and I each have two kids and they range in age from 15 to 25 years old. Growing up, they knew that the people who were their grandparents were not the same people who were their mother’s parents. We didn’t hide that, but they didn’t inquire about the details and for many years, it wouldn’t have made sense to share them. Our children were cared for, safe and loved by their family, the way children ought to be.
Many years ago, I asked my therapist how we would tell the children about what it was like growing up in a home impacted by childhood abuse, including the sexual abuse on the part of my father and the neglect caused by my mother’s inability to protect us from it. She responded saying something along the lines of ‘you’ll know’. For years, I had wondered what it would be like for the kids to find out that their loving grandparents were not always loving parents. What ways they might feel betrayed or upset by the knowledge. Sexual abuse is a “yucky" topic for anyone, but finding out that your personal legacy includes childhood sexual abuse would be unsettling. That was my thinking.
We spoke to our own kids respectively, laying out our understanding of what happened and what it meant to each one of us both then and now. All of them have responded well, asking good questions and being thoughtful, but differently depending on their own dispositions. In revealing to them a part of their past that they didn’t know about, that would be hard for anyone to take in, they have grappled with the information and that process continues still.
Their legacy includes healing and staying connected to one another too. This choice is premised in the idea that our family does not pretend that the abuse didn’t happen. For many survivors, that is their only option. My story is about my healing and a large piece of that healing is located in reconciliation. I could not have done it without my parent’s participation in that process.
How you interpret your life has profound effects on what kind of person you become. And how you help people interpret their life has profound effects on their recovery. Stories that people with trauma histories tell are fraught with an emphasis on injuries and betrayals and not choice, humor, empowerment and strength. There’s an old jazz saying: no him, no me. Part of my healing rests in the support and guidance I received from people who wanted to help me. Part of it rests in my parent’s readiness to engage in something none of us could predict the outcome. Part of it rests in the choices I made about how I wanted to live my life.
People who experience CSA contend with secrecy, stigma and shame. And if you come from a marginalized group, you’re more likely not to say anything for fear that you’ll further malign the group you belong to. We need to be more open to ideas of trauma survivors not rooted in misconceptions, hubris, promotion of othering and diagnostic overshadowing.
Healing - both mutual and worthwhile - made it possible for me to raise my own children the way that I did. That healing interrupted the cycle of abuse in my family. That is my family’s legacy too. That is why I wrote Fortunate Daughter. If we could raise one generation of children without sexual violence or the threat of sexual violence, who knows what might be possible?
Rosie McMahan, M.Ed./ACS