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SEXUAL ABUSE RUNS IN FAMILIES

4 September, 2012

While in graduate school, I recall reading a journal article entitled The Transmission of Superego Lacunae in Families. Translation of psychoanalytic psychobabble: How families induce a Swiss cheese conscience in children. While the overall thrust of the article was broad, including such things as theft and murder, it applied in spades to families where sexual abuse takes place. The sexual abuse of children does indeed run in families.

One of the healing challenges of survivors is to root out the others in the family, network and work to end the generational cycle of abuse.  The single most effective stress management tactic/technique is to take action against the stressor.  There is a collective boundary problem in these families and the culture of silence isn’t just pushed by the perpetrator — it’s generally supported by the entire family. The technical reasons why are a bit complicated to recount but include what Freud called the “repetition compulsion”.  People with persistent psychological issues of any sort, whether sexual abuse or something else, unconsciously set up situations that parallel that problem in real life, hoping that a solution or cure will result. That’s actually one of the foundations of why good psychotherapy works. Unfortunately, it rarely works in real life. Rather, it results in endless, repetitive behavior which, in turn, ends up in endless, repetitive debacles. It’s rather like those bridge and chess articles in newspapers. The problem is set up and laid out for participants to ponder and come up with a solution. A therapist, who might be referred to as an “innocuous other” has the job of doing just that.

One major problem is that survivors are threatened by catastrophic emotions associated with the sexual abuse events. The mothers of survivors are usually survivors themselves, and facing the reality that one of their children has been abused  would threaten to set off that volcano.  As a result, moms tend to deny, suppress and avoid the abuse going on in their own families — a key factor in generational abuse.  See as well the post entitled DISSOCIATION IN MOMS. Even when the abuse is not denied it not uncommonly leads to blaming the victim, telling the victim she can’t tell anyone for fear of losing the perpetrator and his support – or even beating the victim.  Those situations add a great deal to the PTSD that ensues as well as hate for the mother.  (It was noted by this author that survivors could often sort of “kiss off” the perpetrator as just being a sick man while having major issues with their mothers for failing to protect them.  This was true even when mothers had not behaved in that manner.  The mothers were focused on as having been the last, best hope of the victim and as having failed in that regard.)

Although I’ve changed a few facts in the interest of confidentiality, the story to follow sums up the dynamics in families where incest/sexual abuse occurs:

A 12-year old boy walked into a mental health clinic for adults and asked to see a therapist who he happened to know was working with an adult, female family member who was dealing with her history of sexual abuse.  The therapist agreed to see him for consultation only and he told of blowing the whistle on an uncle that had abused him. He had come because, he said, his biological father was quite literally enraged about the abuse, or so he thought, and he feared violence could erupt in the family. The incident had been reported and law enforcement was already in the process of investigation.

Boiling the story down a bit, that therapist and I (who were co-therapists in a survivors’ group) arranged a series of four family sessions which included up to four generations of family members.

What unfolded was an eye-opener, even for counselors seasoned in working with the problem of sexual abuse. What came to light were multiple permutations of sexual abuse and adult incestual relationships.  Just about every possible combination of child abuse incidents was revealed:  Father/daughter, uncles/nieces-nephews, grandfather/grandchild, cousins on minor cousins, aunt/nephew and on into seeming infinity.  In addition, there were multiple permutations of adult boundary violations with in-law dalliances and crisscrossing of those who were just dating.  We began to try to list the permutations on a blackboard in the group room and, as I recall, stopped trying after around 16 different combinations had been listed. The kicker was that there was no danger of violence whatsoever.

The general family consensus (which, at one point, included 4 generations of family members) was that, victims excluded, those who had been abused as children should shut the hell up about the whole thing, deal with it, and leave the family alone.  That included the father of the above mentioned boy who had been molested, who ended up being among the most vocal of the cover-up advocates in spite of the boy’s fears.

There was a small bright spot a year or so down the road when the molester of the young boy was caught red handed by a woman he was dating during the act of molesting one of her female children.  To her credit, she filed a complaint with law enforcement.  He was arrested, convicted and sent to prison.

There is no such thing as a single victim in a family, and no such thing as a single perpetrator.  If there is one of either there are more of both.  The pattern becomes generational and spreads both vertically and laterally in time.  As mentioned above, some of the most healing work survivors can do is seeking and reaching out to other survivors in the family and forming a sort of sub-family dedicated to ending the cycle of abuse.  The ways in which families deal with sexual abuse, and their reactions to disclosure, are no small factor in the PTSD that ensues in survivors.  Calling the victim a liar or blaming her for the events is common.

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One Comment
  1. John Bernadyn permalink

    Source: United Advocacy Group, Inc.

    When Clergy Are Asked To Leave Quietly, There Is No Justice

    (CHICAGO) – Br. John Woulfe, an ex-Marianist brother, has been accused by numerous ex-students at Chaminade College Preparatory School in St. Louis, MO of sexually molesting them. Of course, he wasn’t the only member of this religious community accused of such acts. There were many more. Many, many more.
    In 2002, Michael Powel filed a lawsuit against Chaminade College Preparatory School for a lifetime of suffering and damages (2002. Powel v Chaminade College Preparatory, Inc, Marianist Province of the United States, Archbishop Justin Rigali, William Christensen [aka Fr. William Christensen, S.M.] and John Woulfe [aka Br. John Woulfe, S.M.]). Powel would ultimately win the lawsuit for millions of dollars several years later.
    Br. John Woulfe, after being accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with students in the 1970s left the Society of Mary (aka “Marianists”). Instead of notifying the local police department for prosecution Fr. Robert Osbourne, the school principal, allowed Woulfe to leave ‘quietly’. Unfortunately, this did not stop Woulfe’s desire to prey on the weak and vulnerable.
    Eventually Woulfe would end up in the small town of Onarga, Illinois. In this area, Woulfe would once again continue his predatory sexual behavior on children until he was caught. “John Woulfe was a monster,” recalls Illinois-based author John Bernadyn in his newly released memoir Betrayed By The State: A Ward of the State Speaks Out in which he discusses the experiences he faced with this ex-clergyman. “He was demeaning, pushy, and manipulative.”
    After suspicion took hold of this town, Woulfe moved to the small town of Watseka, Illinois. He landed a position as a guidance counselor in the Kankakee School District – an occupation he knew all too well while serving at Chaminade. In 2002, Woulfe was arrested for predatory sexual behavior with a student. Defiantly, he refused to appear at court hearings.
    Woulfe would eventually find himself in a nursing home after suffering a stroke and ultimately dying in 2005 from the after-effects. “The real tragedy in this case is that all the people he victimized would never get to tell him directly how they felt or if they ever forgave him. I, too, felt robbed of this chance to say I forgave him but would never forget,” said Bernadyn.
    All allegations of sexual abuse are now required to be reported to local justice authorities. “This is a little too late,” whispers Bernadyn.

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