I know this blog is supposed to be about breast cancer and its emotional life, but take second look-see at the top of the page, at the fine print part that reads, “and life’s other trevails.” (I know, the spelling is subject to question)
There have been a lot of “life’s other trevails” of late on this little cowgirl’s otherwise happy trails, and this week was no exception. Somehow though, I can usually find a way to magically weave cancer into the trevails as I write, like for example, how similar rabies shots are to breast cancer. But this week I don’t know. As I kept trying to find inspiration about what to write this week, one thing kept pushing insistently to the forefront. It had my attention alright, in that hot, heated way I need for something to fuel the writing fire, but I just kept thinking, “Yeah I can write about it, but what in the world does that have to do with breast cancer?”
And then I remembered the first law of the writing universe; if you write it, it will come.
The trevails of late have been related to my day job, the place where I have spent the last 23 years knee-deep in dealing with sexual, physical and emotional abuse and neglect of children. Yep, for those of you who didn’t know, I am a bona fide court tendered expert in the evaluation and treatment of sexual abuse in children.
My mom was a child whisperer, and despite all the things she gave me from FAO Schwartz in her wonderful life, this intangible gift is the best. Children just are comfortable with me, they relax with me, and open up to me in this magical way that cannot be explained. Many times, I get a call from a social worker saying, “We know this kid will only talk to you Lauren, can you see her today?”, and of course I say, “Of course” and later that day, that child is safe. Many times I am warned, “This kid isn’t gonna talk to you without momma coming with him,” and after a short chat with the kid as I am perched on my knees, hand under my chin, the little one happily waves goodbye to mom in the waiting room while confidently following me to my office. It’s whispering is all.
Over the years I’ve had the secrets of thousands of children whispered into my ear; and I’ve seen and heard (hopefully) it all. I’ve seen tiny shoulders shake as they tell, and have seen kids get physically sick and need to lay across the arm of the couch as they tell. I’ve seen kids laugh as they tell things they aren’t old enough yet to know are not funny, and I’ve seen kids whose mouths are frozen, so much so that they need to write it all down without speaking. I’ve seen teenagers who I give silly putty to play with while they are there, so that they have something to focus on and not have to make eye contact with me as they tell, and I’ve had more kids than I care to count who act out sexually with my anatomical dolls.
I’ve seen kids who were ready to tell, who walk in and just spill it all out like vomit, and kids whose abuse was discovered by accident, and who still held tight to the secret despite what we already knew. I’ve seen kids recant and have told them I understood why, and have seen kids try so desperately to explain to me (as they attempt to compartmentalize the abuse,) how they just want it to stop, but want keep the relationship with the abuser. I’ve seen kids have the greatest difficulty telling what seems to be the most minor detail, yet blurt out sexual acts of the most graphic and horrific kind. I’ve had children sob and tell me it’s their fault, and kids who are frantic as they want to assure me that they didn’t like it or want to do it, but were forced to do it. And I say, “I know sweetie, it’s okay, I know.” I say, “The grown up is supposed to make good choices and they didn’t and that is not your fault.”
But what I remember most is that deep exhale that comes from them at the end, when they have told me the last detail of everything, especially the ugliest of the details they have been too embarrassed to tell anyone else. I will always remember the honor I felt to be trusted by them. And the deep heartfelt truth of the words I spoke when I tell them that I will do my best to keep them safe from now on.
It is an honor being picked as the one who will protect them.
It is an interesting life’s work. I have interviewed over ten thousand kids over the years, I have been called a witch hunter, and accused of asking leading questions. I have fought loud and wide with other professionals about the etiology of a femur fracture and vaginal tear in an infant, and have been yelled at on the steps of the courthouse by a perpetrator and his posse. I’ve published papers on icky stuff like the epidemiology of STD’s in kids, and am currently writing on the inability of a 16-year-old to consent and power differentials (don’t get me started.) I think my standing record was two full days of cross examination by a barracuda of a defense attorney so that a child did not have to testify…we still put the dude away.
But all that to say, I have been given the most precious of gifts hundreds of times over; the wide-eyed trust of a child handed to me with tiny, wet from tears hands. The trust that because I believe them, they believe that I will protect and keep them safe and make it not happen again.
I don’t take that charge lightly. I am a protector. I guard that gift with all I have.
So this week, the ugly situation at Penn State has of course gotten my attention. Honest, it came as no surprise to me that a person in a position of power would do that to a kid. I wasn’t surprised by the grooming of these boys or even about the acts that were committed. I see this stuff daily and living in the south, I have witnessed firsthand a good ole boy system that lets people get away with murder, or at least murder of a child’s spirit.
That stuff, while horrific, didn’t surprise me or shock me. What has surprised me is the complete surprise of people that this kind of thing, this caliber of abuse exists in the world. People are outraged and sick that this could happen, and honest, I feel outraged and sick that it took this kind of thing to make people understand that this happens in our world every single day. I feel frustrated and wish that people believed kids long ago, I wish people knew that a pat teaching a kid about good touch/bad touch doesn’t make them safe, and that teaching kids “silly tummy feelings” doesn’t really arm a kid with what to do when he is trapped in a shower with a naked man who they feel they cannot say no to. I wish, I wish I wish the world knew what I knew, long ago.
What has been hardest these last days is hearing the swath of broad and sweeping statements and assumptions made by the media about the victims. Predictions of these kid’s outcomes. That they will grow up to molest. That they will need therapy for life, that they were troubled kids who were targets. Media proclamations of how these victims will forever have PTSD and then too, sweeping always/never statements made about perpetrators; all were abused as kids, and that none can be rehabilitated ever.
I found myself pushing against this flood of comments at first, like trying to stem the tide; fingers in the damn trying to correct the myths, frantically trying to set people straight on factual info based on research. But then, the dam broke when I saw the indictment and details of the disclosures published, and this ferocious feeling came roaring out of me like a momma bear protecting her young.
As I watched CNN on Veterans Day, the Penn State story unfolded with more horrific details of that complicated and dirty web and then just like that, as the media does, the topic switched to this very moving story of Arlington Cemetery and the guards at the Tomb of the Unknowns. The story illustrated how the guards are there always; at night, and in bad weather and when no one else is there. They showed this video of a solitary soldier marching back and forth in the middle of the night, standing guard when no one else is there to protect this hallowed grave that holds a few, but which represents all.
I mean no disrespect, or to imply an inflated sense of self, but it simply felt familiar to me, this sense of protecting the intangible and standing guard. The times we in the field have stood guard over these wee abused ones when no one else was around, and it when it was not as popular to show up as it was this week. Standing guard when it is dark and hard, and dirty. This grave of a shower stall in Pennsylvania holds as we know thus far, the childhoods of 8, but really represents all.
As we stepped out of our hotel room on this last Friday morning, there was a USA Today on the ground, the headline blaring up at me, “VICTIM 1” and the detailed disclosure lifted from the grand jury indictment. I pointed to it and began to explain to my son the concept of re-victimization of the victim and the concept of secondary traumatization to victims and their families; the way we as a society do things to children who are sexually abused that harm them again and again like a ripple effect, making them a victim over and over again. The most elemental example I can give is a kid missing a class trip because they have to go to court, and the most large-scale example I can give is that a victim has their story published on the cover of USA Today from information gleaned from an indictment.
And somewhere in the middle of the range of secondary offenses lies the re-victimization launched when the media makes sweeping assumptions about the victim, broad pronouncements about how these children will act and be impacted, all of this from people who don’t get there is a small, or once small person behind that indictment who they never met. Statements from people with their own abuse history who assume that their story is the victim’s story, stealing the child’s ability to live their trauma and let their story unfold in their own way.
We also re-victimize a victim when we imply that somehow, their telling ruined your college life and football experience. We re-victimize when we make their story about us.
Indeed there are some truisms that we know about sexual abuse that help us bolster the truth, but even they aren’t steadfast and an always/never kind of thing. But most often, sexual abuse in the act of grooming tends to progress from less invasive to more invasive acts, like from say, back cracking to showering with a kid to fondling to anal sex. We know that offenders often offer gifts, like snowboards and tickets to bowl games. We know that often some of these gifts are intangibles, like the dream of being of being a football star and that often a child who has nothing in the world would do anything to see that dream come true.
We know that offenders know this about kids, and that is why they seek out these kinds of kids; the kind of kids who often don’t even have homes. We know too that people in a position of being in charge, and who hold authority are often the people it is hardest for a young soul to say no to; they are the very people little kids think that no one would ever believe did these kinds of things. Sometimes, all it takes is the grown up in charge perhaps of a hallowed sports program simply saying, “Yes you have to,” to get a kid to comply with doing awful things.
And we know, we know, people often turn their heads and minimize it to make it go away and maintain the status quo. We know how hard it is to convince a jury of these things, even with DNA taken from a 5 year old’s throat.
Truth is, there is no one way a kid reacts to abuse. There is no one pat and standard emotional future for that kid. There is no one way a child tells, or really even one clear subset of behaviors that are tell-tale that a kid has or has not been abused. There is no one reason a kid doesn’t say no, or why another one does.
There are no rules in abuse and trauma because children are human beings and are as unique as snowflakes. How they deal with trauma depends on how often it happened, how long it lasted, how invasive it was, the relationship of the perpetrator to them, how old they were when it happened, whether they were believed and protected when they told, whether there was pain or violence with the abuse, and whether they had other things to navigate as well like domestic violence or loss issues after being placed in foster care. And finally the wildcard in how kids fare in all of this is resilience, which comes in so many shapes and sizes and colors that we never know how much of it a kid has until it shows up and we stand back in awe, or conversely when we recognize that we need to swoop in and catch the little one as their bank is empty.
There are few rules about sexual abuse victims in what they want, or what therapy they need or how they will look or grow old or how they will act or what will help them feel honored. There are some patterns of response, but not all kids will follow a pattern. Trauma affects all of us differently. Not all kids need therapy right away because not all kids know what happened to them is wrong. Some will need it later, some will need long-term stuff, and some will only small doses at each developmental stage. Not all kids become sexually reactive and grow up to molest others; when I hear the media proclaim this myth all I can think is, “God, how awful for a kid or a parent of kid to hear that prophecy of their future. How victimizing.”
The only rule that stands is this; they don’t deserve to be re-victimized. They deserve to tell their story with dignity, and they deserve to live their own story as it unfolds. The only rule that is true for these little ones, is that grown ups and older kids are not allowed to touch your private parts, and they are not allowed to ask you to touch theirs, and if someone breaks that rule, you need to tell, and keep telling until it stops.
And we must stand guard over that for them, and we must silently and respectfully protect the gift of their telling. We must do so when it is dark, and there is no one else around to hear their cry…especially when we are the only ones who heard the cry.
I encourage you that once the sun has set on this fresh grave, to keep vigil, keep watch, and quietly let the victims lie safe and with dignity.
Because we grown ups are supposed to make good choices and when we don’t it is not their fault, but it hurts them again and again.
I am sorry; this has nothing to do with cancer, but everything to do with why I wanted to survive cancer.
“It is no small thing, when they who are so fresh from God, love us.”