It has taken me several days to figure out the value of writing this essay when I have already written so much about the subject of childhood sexual abuse, already published one book about my encounters with a sexual predator, and am in the final stages of completing the second book in the series entitled The Recapitulation Diaries. I let my dreaming self become part of the decision. In the middle of the night I woke up and finally knew I had to write this blog because something that Barry Lopez and Terry Gross decided and stated at the beginning of an interview on Fresh Air would not leave me.
Here is what Terry Gross says at the beginning of the interview: “We agree, you and I, that there is no need to drag you, in this interview, through a traumatic retelling of the details of what happened to you…“
Barry Lopez is an American writer who published an essay in the January edition of Harper’s magazine about the sexual abuse he suffered as a child. In that article he is forthcoming about what happened to him, giving descriptive details, and I commend him for his honesty and bravery in sharing his story. Between that publication and the Fresh Air interview, both of which are worthy reading and listening to on the subject of childhood sexual abuse—I link to both of them at the end of this article—something seems to have happened to Mr. Lopez.
Considering the position he’s in, invited to speak publicly and then to not tell the details, leaves a bad taste in my mouth, as if there’s still something wrong with speaking frankly and openly about sexual abuse, something bad about it, a distasteful stigma attached to being sexually abused, even after all that’s recently been exposed. It’s just something not talked about in polite society. Those were my first thoughts upon hearing Terry Gross make the above statement, but as I listened to what she was really saying, “no need to drag you…through a traumatic retelling of the details,” I understood that Mr. Lopez has not healed from the wounds of his childhood sexual abuse, for if he had the retelling of the details would no longer haunt him. And as the interview proceeds it becomes clear that this is so, in spite of the deep work he has done.
I read the article, ‘Sliver of Sky,’ in Harper’s first, and to his credit Mr. Lopez does a magnificent job of telling his story, replete with details, but even there something bothered me. It was only in listening to Mr. Lopez speak with Terry Gross that I finally understood what it was, for the radio interview more clearly reveals the difficulties Mr. Lopez still faces. I felt the same thing after reading Marilyn Van Derbur’s book, Miss America By Day, who wrote so bravely of being sexually abused by her father and in which she states that she could only go so far in healing. People are not finding the means to heal from the deep wounds of childhood sexual abuse.
Mr. Lopez is compassionate, articulate, and completely honest about the many aspects of living with PTSD, though he states near the end of the Fresh Air interview that he has a sense of “falling backward into places he has not been for years, terrified.” He states that “It never leaves you.” I beg to differ, and so I must write this essay today, in hopes of sharing, once again, insights that I’ve learned during my own process of healing, really healing from the sixteen years of childhood sexual abuse that I suffered and that dogged me long into adulthood.
Mr. Lopez seems to question, as he confronts the aftermath of the article in Harper’s, whether or not it was right for him to have gone public. He has been receiving letters and calls for aid, it seems, and although he is clearly a good spokesman for the truth of sexual abuse, he states that he holds no credentials. He questions, it seems, whether or not he was really ready to face the whirlwind he finds himself in now, as a public figure speaking on such a sensitive subject. He also questions what comes next, for facing sexual abuse and what to do about it is a common dilemma that we all must face. I say, keep talking, Mr. Lopez; keep facing the abusers, keep writing and speaking the details so others, those not sexually abused especially, really understand what it means to be a child in a compromised position, unable to find a way out.
I feel deep compassion for Barry Lopez. I am also grateful to him for keeping the dialogue fresh, for daring to carry a torch he never sought. It’s important. It’s helpful to so many, to those in the process but also to those who have not yet confronted their own issues of sexual abuse. At the same time, I must protest some of his conclusions, though I realize they are made in the context of where he is in his own healing process and so I apologize if I seem judgmental, I do not mean to be, but I cannot accept that “It never leaves you.” In making that statement, a door of possibility slams shut. I say, don’t close any doors, leave them all open, look into them and find the means of healing, because with the right process there is healing from even the deepest of trauma, and at the risk of sounding pompous, I must also say that I have experienced it. I am healed. There is a way to heal.
At one time I too was terrified, in constant heightened alert, traumatically impacted for far longer than the actual years of abuse. It was only through the work I did, by taking a journey of recapitulation that I was able to fully heal. The word recapitulation comes from a shamanic practice used by the Shamans of Ancient Mexico, but through the work I did with Chuck Ketchel, my husband, we discovered its value as a healing treatment for PTSD. And we have, for the past ten years, been slowly introducing it to others.
That process of recapitulation involved reliving the years of abuse in detail—investigating them from many different perspectives, speaking of them over and over again in a supportive environment, facing the disintegration of their hold on me by allowing myself to totally change how I viewed the world and my place in it—and in so doing I was able to emerge from the process of recapitulation fully healed. By healing, I mean that I am no longer attached to the trauma that once dragged me into terror. I no longer have deeply entrenched feelings of low self-worth. I no longer walk in fear. I no longer hide out. The past no longer has a hold over me. I can go back to any memory, in full detail, and have no emotional reaction. I can write about it, talk about it, without any dissociation, trauma, or shame—it’s simply a fact of my past.
I chose to write about the recapitulation journey I took. I knew it was important, that it offered something to others. In the introduction of my first book, The Man in the Woods, I state the reasons for writing the details of what happened to me. It was important at the time for me to be explicit, and it still is, for I know that people do not really understand what happens when a child is sexually abused. It’s too hard to imagine that anyone would or could rape and sodomize a child, even an infant, but guess what, it happens. It happens far more often than any of us like to imagine. If one in three girls and one in seven boys are being sexually abused, the statistics that Mr. Lopez cites in his Harper’s article, that’s an awful lot of sexual abuse going on that no one is catching.
The sexual abuse discussion has to be brought out of the darkness and into the light. People need to know that it’s possible to heal. To his credit, in the Harper’s article, Mr. Lopez describes his lengthy therapeutic process, realizing that he could only confront what happened to him when he was ready, and this must be taken into consideration. We will know when we are ready when something just won’t let us rest until we attend to it. In my own case, it was my dying spirit that finally alerted me to the truth that if I didn’t attend to it, I might really die.
In our blogs, in my books, and in the psychotherapy work Chuck does addressing PTSD and sexual abuse, we seek to offer some new methods of healing from even the most traumatic of events. And so I write this blog today, in hopes of changing some minds about that idea that one cannot heal, that just because you have been sexually abused you will remain terrified for the rest of your life. It just isn’t so.
Seek help. Don’t be afraid to speak or write to someone you feel safe with. Keep the dialogue going. In the right circles it will be perfectly acceptable to do so. As circles go, they have a tendency to widen, and so if we keep writing, talking, sharing, and helping each other to face our fears we may pretty soon erase the stigmas that keep us from our deeper truths and get down to addressing the real issues of our society and why we have gone so deviant. There is something wrong at the core of humanity, and it does not lie in the sexually abused, but in humanity’s aberrant relationship to the sexual instinct. And if we can’t talk about it in real descriptive terms, how are we ever going to heal? But that’s another blog.
To her credit, Terry Gross is sensitive to the fact that a discussion of details could trigger a traumatic reaction and nobody should have something like that imposed on them. However, the idea that a trauma is forever lurking creates a framework where the legacy of the abuser continues, for a lifetime, to hold a victim in check. And if this is accepted as the best one can do then full healing has not happened. Full healing means the ability to stare the full intimate details of traumatic experience in the face without discomfort and to be able to discuss those details without discomfort too.
Thanks to Barry Lopez and Terry Gross for getting a new dialogue going. Wishing you all good healing options and love to carry you forward,
Here are the links: Fresh Air and Sliver of Sky. I notice that the Harper’s article is only available to subscribers in its fullness. I’ll see if I can find a link to the full article elsewhere, or if you happen to see the magazine buy it. It’s worth the read.