Not Another Child Abuse Memoir!

Siobhan is currently working on a book proposal for a part-memoir, part self-help aimed at survivors of child sexual abuse. You can read the preface below, which explains the choice in title:

In 2015, James Rhodes, a survivor of sexual abuse, won the right to publish his autobiography which details the ordeal he went through as a child. His victory was hailed as a triumph for free speech, lifting a temporary injunction on some of the more graphic material secured by his ex-wife, out of concern that its publication would cause ‘serious harm’ to their son. Shortly after that, I came across a response article entitled ‘Another child abuse memoir: why can’t the past be private?’ In it, the writer laments the sheer volume of child abuse memoirs on the market today, criticising those who publish their stories and asking ‘who’s reading (these books)? Why?’

Whether it reflects an overarching societal mentality or the frustration of one journalist on a slow news day, this attitude is part of the problem which keeps survivors of child sexual abuse from speaking out (yes, in detail) about what happened to them. Do you know how difficult it is to share your trauma story when you feel unheard by society at large? I have experienced the wall of ‘we don’t want to talk about it’ firsthand on two distinct occasions (and on many others, in more subtle forms):

Whilst studying at University, I attempted to set up a support group on campus, co-facilitated by myself as a ‘public’ survivor and a professional counsellor, for students who, now living away from home for the first time, could feel safe enough to disclose any abuse they may have suffered. After initial interest from the student support services, I pitched the idea to the psychotherapy team, but the idea was rejected out of hand. They said that they didn’t want to ‘open a can of worms’ for students who had been abused because it could negatively affect their academic performance. I wish I was joking.

After graduating and moving to London, I again tried to set up a peer-led youth group for 16-24 year old survivors who often fall in the gap between ‘child’ (pre-teen) and ‘adult’ support services and are therefore left to shut up and deal with whatever has occurred during their childhoods… whilst also making some defining life choices regarding their education, careers and relationships. I rallied a board of dedicated trustees and reached out to every single youth organisation in the boroughs of Islington and Camden (there is a directory listed on the .gov websites for those boroughs), and more besides, to let them know about our project and see if they wanted to discuss signposting possibilities for the young adults they work with, or at least let them know that we existed.

But no one replied. It was baffling. Having come through a history of sexual abuse, and teamed up with an equally passionate and qualified youth therapist who is also a survivor herself, I was in a strong position to build a real network of young peers who could support and inspire each other. Imagine, I thought, if such an organisation had existed when I was struggling with my trauma! At best, I received assurance that our idea was being passed onto management to consider. I didn’t hear anything after that.

Survivors of child sexual abuse are, in the words of Melanie Sakoda, part of a ‘significant, but often silent, minority’. It takes tremendous courage to disclose our most personal, painful and convoluted of life experiences to even our closest friends – let alone the general public. But for every survivor who can speak up and share the truth of what happened to them, the taboo of shame starts to weaken. The wider public begins to realise the real scope of this issue, which is a sad and necessary revelation.

I’m writing this book with the aim of showing people that we are not defined solely by our past. I tell my own story of being molested by my father when I was a little girl, drawing out the lessons and learnings that have shaped my recovery experience. I still vividly remember how sure I was at the time that I could never, ever tell anyone. I was so afraid. Abusers often reinforce this fear with threats or even guilt – manipulating the confused child into assuming personal responsibility. This is easy to do when you are in a position of power and trust.

The audience for abuse memoirs are often survivors themselves – people who perhaps haven’t yet come to terms with their experiences and looking for an outlet, some relatability, some hope that recovery after abuse is possible. Some survivors are still fearful of the perceived consequences of finally telling someone, and read these memoirs to show them the way, to feel some semblance of relief from the trauma burden, however momentarily. That’s why.

Imagine a society in which children feel safe to come forward and disclose sexual abuse, without fearing that they will be blamed, abandoned or disbelieved. Such a climate would also be threatening to the would-be perpetrators, who might think twice before laying their hands on a child, knowing that the risk of detection would be high and real. We aren’t going to achieve this whilst the taboo is still strong, and so by contributing with our memoirs, we help to improve outcomes for all survivors. We speak out and compel the public to pay attention. We shine a light on an issue that we are sometimes encouraged (or pressured) to ‘keep private’ without further support.

If you’re uncomfortable with the content of memoirs which demonstrate the severity of child abuse, you need to try and stop the abuse, not the memoirs! So I’m sorry, Mr O’Neill, if the following account would make you feel a little bit uncomfortable, but I’m about to dig deep. I want to convey the gravity of the abuse experience, explain some of its impact and reach out to other survivors. This undertaking of mine is important and required. If you ‘feel wrong even quoting’ from the graphic material contained in our stories then consider for a moment how it must feel to experience those atrocities from the victim’s point of view… and from there, with any luck, rethink your perspective on the subject entirely. Thanks for the title inspiration, in any case.