The taboo against incest is so great, victims often feel buried alive, mummified in shame. In Quincy, Mass., at age 67, “Elizabeth” is an incest survivor. She won’t divulge her real identity because her sisters still hide the truth of what happened to them.
The taboo against incest is so great, victims often feel buried alive, mummified in shame.
In Massachusetts, a report revised in 2009 by the Department of Children and Families gave the following statistics: 78 percent of sexually abused children are female, most numerous at the ages of 14-16 years. The number of male victims peaked at 5-6 years old and at age 14. Of all children sexually abused, 40 percent were white, 22 percent were Hispanic, and 9 percent were black. Fathers are the most significant perpetrators of sexual abuse.
National silence was shattered when actress Mackenzie Phillips revealed an incestuous relationship with her father, John Phillips, the now deceased singer of the Mammas and Pappas. He corrupted her childhood by introducing her to drugs as a young girl.
Many hailed her as a hero for speaking out. Some family members insisted they were lies. Others questioned the actress’ story based on her past as a drug abuser.
In Quincy, Mass., at age 67, “Elizabeth” is also an incest survivor. She won’t divulge her real identity because her sisters still hide the truth of what happened to them.
“Just because someone is ready doesn’t mean everyone is ready at the same time. They want to protect their own secrets,” she said.
The retired businesswoman applauds Phillips’ determination to heal.
“What she did was fantastic. She wrote about it, she got it out in the public. It was her way of saying, ‘Do what you want with it. I’m done with it. I don’t want it anymore,’” she said.
Her alcoholic father, the sole breadwinner, violated her and her three sisters during their teenage years. He threatened to leave the family if Elizabeth told anyone.
“I thought I was protecting my siblings. If I told my mom, she’d kick him out. Then we don’t have any food. Who’s going to work? Who’s going to bring the money home?”
At the age of 12, Elizabeth was frightened that no one would believe her and that a divorce might place her in her father’s custody. During those years she and her sisters never talked about it.
“When my mother went out, I could hear my father walk across the hall and I’d think he was coming to my room. I was relieved when he’d go to my sister,” she recalled with guilty sadness.
After suffering through six years of incest, Elizabeth finally resisted her father and left home for good. For years she buried her memories, but the effects lingered. She abandoned Catholicism and became an atheist. She avoided her family. Her many relationships with men were plagued with trust and intimacy issues.
“It affected everything, but at the time I didn’t know why. I felt guilty that I allowed it. I felt guilty about my sisters. I got severe headaches. It’s a deep stress that can wreak havoc on your health, something of that magnitude,” said Elizabeth, a cancer survivor.
Mackenzie Phillips was criticized when she used the word “consensual” to describe her involvement from the age of 19 to 29. Others saw it as rape or brainwashing.
Elizabeth said, “It’s never consensual. What it becomes is familiar. Don’t forget it started at a young age. He’s the parent and you obey.”
In her 40s, a traumatic date rape brought all the horror back. Later, menopause and all its hormonal changes churned up the long-buried turmoil, and Elizabeth desperately wanted resolution.
“I went to the library,” she said, where she read books written by psychologists and incest survivors.
“It brought me to the reality that I was not to blame, that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t the bad child who allowed her father to do what he wanted. It gave me the strength to come out of the closet to speak about it.”
But when she confronted her family, her efforts were met with anger and denial. Shortly afterward, her father died of a heart attack.
“In reality, he was drinking himself to oblivion,” she said. “He found an easy way out.”
She was blamed for his death and to this day, her sisters will not talk about their experiences. But Elizabeth insists that letting go of her secret shame was profoundly healing. The exhausting weight of self-blame was lifted. The responsibility for corruption, manipulation and the perversion of a child’s need for love sits squarely with the offender. Saying so out loud was liberating.
“I am happier, stronger, freer,” she said.
She feels sorry for those unable to voice their truth. Writing about the unspeakable can brief relief.
“If you can’t tell your friends or family, put it down on paper, but bring it out somehow. You have to release this from your own thoughts. You were not the one who was wrong, no matter how old you were,” she said.
If a survivor shares her story, Elizabeth advises one to set aside judgment or anger, however well intentioned.
“Just be a good listener. It’s like when somebody passes away, you can just say, ‘I’m sorry,” she suggested.
Losing one’s innocence, trust and sense of normalcy is like a death, but millions like Elizabeth are reclaiming their lives.
So confession is good for the soul?
“Yes, especially when you don’t own the sin,” she said.
E-mail Suzette Standring, the award-winning author of “The Art of Column Writing,” at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or visit www.readsuzette.com.