Ultimate Betrayal






Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy

and Reclaiming Your Life


By Dr. Susan Forward







The Sexual Abusers



Incest is perhaps the cruelest, most baffling of human experi­ences. It is a betrayal of the most basic trust between child and parent. It is emotionally devastating. The young victims are totally dependent on their aggressors, so they have nowhere to run, no one to run to. Protectors become persecutors, and reality becomes a prison of dirty secrets. Incest betrays the very heart of childhood—its innocence.


In the last two chapters, we have looked into some of the darker realities of toxic families. We have met parents who have an extraordinary lack of empathy and compassion for their children. They batter their children with every weapon from degrading criticism to leather belts, and they still ratio­nalize their abuses as acts of discipline or education. But now we enter a realm of behavior so perverse that it defies rationalization. This is where I must leave behind strictly psychological theories: I believe that sexual violation of children is a genu­inely evil act.



What Is Incest? 


Incest is difficult to define because the legal and psychological definitions are worlds apart. The legal definition is extremely narrow, usually defining incest as sexual intercourse between blood relations. As a result, millions of people did not realize they were incest victims because they had not been penetrated. From a psychological point of view, incest covers a much wider range of behaviors and relationships. These include physical contact with a child’s mouth, breasts, genitals, anus, or any other body part, that is done for the purpose of sexually arousing the aggressor. That aggressor does not have to be a blood relative. He or she can be anyone whom the child perceives as a family member, such as a stepparent or an in-law.


There are other types of incestuous behaviors that are extremely damaging even though they may not involve any physical contact with the child’s body. For example, if an aggressor exposes himself or masturbates in front of the child, or even persuades the child to pose for sexually suggestive photographs, he is committing a form of incest.


We must add to our definition of incest that the behavior has to be kept secret. A father who affectionately hugs and kisses his child is doing nothing that needs to be kept secret. In fact, such touching is essential to a child’s emotional well­being. But if that father strokes the child’s genitals—or makes the child stroke his—that is an act that must be kept secret. That is an act of incest.


There are also a number of far more subtle behaviors that I call psychological incest. Victims of psychological incest may not have been actually touched or assaulted sexually, but they have experienced an invasion of their sense of privacy or safety. I’m talking about invasive acts like spying on a child who is dressing or bathing, or repeatedly making seductive or sexually explicit comments to a child. While none of these behaviors fits the literal definition of incest, the victims often feel violated and suffer many of the same psychological symp­toms as actual incest victims do.



The Incest Myths 



 When I first began my efforts to raise public awareness about the epidemic proportions of incest, I met with tremendous resistance. There is something particularly ugly and repellent about incest that keeps people from wanting even to acknowl­edge that it exists. In the last ten years, denial has begun to give way in the face of overwhelming evidence, and incest has become an acceptable—if still uncomfortable—topic for pub­lic discussion. But another obstacle still remains: the incest myths. They have long been articles of faith in our mass consciousness, beyond challenge. But they are not true, and they never were.



MYTH: Incest is a rare occurrence.


REALITY: All responsible studies and data, including those from the U.S. Department of Human Services, show that at least one out of every ten children is molested by a trusted family member before the age of 18. Only as recently as the early 1980s did we begin to realize just how epidemic incest is. Prior to that time, most people believed that incest occurred in no more than one out of a hundred thousand families.



MYTH: Incest happens only in poor or uneducated families or in isolated, backward communities.


REALITY: Incest is ruthlessly democratic. It cuts across all socioeconomic levels. Incest can occur as easily in your family as in the back hills of Appalachia.



MYTH: Incest aggressors are social and sexual deviants.


REALITY: The typical incest aggressor can be anybody. There is no common denominator or profile. They are often hardworking, respectable, churchgoing, seemingly average men and women. I’ve seen aggressors who were police officers, school teachers, captains of industry, society matrons, bricklay­ers, doctors, alcoholics, and clergymen. The traits they possess in common are psychological rather than social, cultural, racial, or economic.



MYTH: Incest is a reaction to sexual deprivation.


REALITY: Most aggressors have active sex lives within mar­riage, and often through extramarital affairs as well. They turn to children either for feelings of power and control or for the unconditional, non-threatening love that only children can pro­vide. Although these needs and drives become sexualized, sexual deprivation is rarely the trigger.



MYTH: Children – especially teenage girls – are seductive and at least partially responsible for being molested.


REALITY: Most children try out their sexual feelings and impulses in innocent and exploratory ways with people to whom they are bonded. Little girls flirt with their fathers and little boys with their mothers. Some teenagers are openly provocative. However, it is always 100 percent the adult’s responsibility to exercise appropriate control in these situa­tions and not to act out their own impulses.



MYTH: Most incest stories are not true. They are actually fantasies derived from the child’s own sexual yearnings.


REALITY: This myth was created by Sigmund Freud and has permeated psychiatric teaching and practice since the begin­ning of the century. In his psychoanalytic practice, Freud was getting so many reports of incest from the daughters of re­spected, middle-class Viennese families that he groundlessly decided they couldn’t all be true. To explain their frequency, he concluded that the events occurred primarily in his pa­tients’ imaginations. The legacy of Freud’s error is that thou­sands, perhaps millions, of incest victims have been, and in some cases continue to be, denied the validation and support they need, even when they are able to muster the courage to seek professional help.



MYTH: Children are molested more often by strangers than by someone they know.


REALITY: The majority of sexual crimes committed against children are perpetrated by trusted members of the family.



Such a Nice Family



As with physical abusers, most incest families look normal to the rest of the world. The parents may even be community or religious leaders, with reputations for high moral standards. It’s amazing how people can change behind closed doors.


Tracy, 38, is a slender, brown-haired, brown-eyed woman who owns a small bookshop in a suburb of Los Angeles. She came from one of these “normal families.”


    We looked like everybody else. My father was an insurance salesman and my mother was an execu­tive secretary. We went to church every Sunday, and we went on family vacations every summer. Real Nor­man Rockwell stuff … except, when I was about ten, my father started pushing his body up against mine. About a year later, I caught him watching me get dressed through a hole he had drilled in the wall of my bedroom. As I started developing, he would come up behind me and grab my breasts. Then, he’d offer me money to lie on the floor with my clothes off … so he could look at me. I felt really dirty, but I was afraid to say no. I didn’t want to embarrass him. Then one day he took my hand and put it on his penis. I was so scared…. When he started to fondle my genitals, I didn’t know what to do, so I just did what he wanted.


To the outside world, Tracy’s father was a typical middle-class family man, an image that added to Tracy’s confusion. Most incest families maintain this facade of normalcy for many years, sometimes forever.


Liz, an athletic-looking, blue-eyed blond videotape editor, provides a particularly dramatic example of the split between outward appearance and reality:


    Everything was so unreal. My stepfather was this popular minister with a real big congregation. The people who came to church on Sunday just loved him. I remember sitting in church and listening to him sermonize about mortal sin. I just wanted to scream out that this man is a hypocrite. I wanted to stand up and testify in front of the whole church that this wonderful man of God is screwing his thir­teen-year-old stepdaughter!


Liz, like Tracy, came from a seemingly model family. Her neighbors would have been astounded to discover what their minister was doing. But there was nothing unusual about the fact that he held a position of moral leadership, authority, and trust. A prestigious career or a graduate degree does nothing to curb incestuous impulses.



How Could This Ever Happen?



Controversial theories abound about the family climate and the role that other family members play. In my experience, however, one factor always holds true: incest simply doesn’t happen in open, loving, communicative families.


Instead, incest occurs in families where there is a great deal of emotional isolation, secrecy, neediness, stress, and lack of respect. In many ways incest can be viewed as part of a total family breakdown. But it is the aggressor and the aggressor alone who commits the sexual violence. Tracy described what it was like in her house:


    We never talked about how we felt. If something bothered me, I just pushed it down. I do remember my mom cuddling me when I was little. But I never saw any affection between my mother and father. We did things together as a family, but there was no real closeness. I think that was what my father was looking for. Sometimes he would ask me if he could kiss me and I would say I didn’t want to. Then he’d beg me and say he wouldn’t hurt me, he just wanted to be close to me.


It had not occurred to Tracy that if her father was lonely and frustrated, he had alternatives to molesting his daughter. Like many aggressors, Tracy’s father looked within the family, to his daughter, in an attempt to make up for whatever deprivation he experienced. This distorted use of a child to take care of an adult’s emotional needs can easily become sexualized if that adult cannot control his impulses.



The Many Faces of Coercion



There is a tremendous amount of psychological coercion in­herent in the parent-child relationship. Tracy’s father didn’t need to force his daughter into a sexual relationship.


     I would’ve done anything to make him happy. I was always terrified when he was doing that stuff to me, but at least he never got violent with me.


Victims like Tracy, who have not been physically coerced, often underestimate the damage they’ve suffered because they don’t realize that emotional violence is every bit as destructive as physical violence. Children are by nature loving and trusting, easy marks for a needy, irresponsible adult. A child’s emotional vulnerability is usually the only leverage some in­cest aggressors need.


Other aggressors reinforce their psychological advantage with threats of bodily harm, public humiliation, or abandon­ment. One of my clients was 7 when her father told her he would put her up for adoption if she didn’t give in to his sexual demands. To a little girl, the threat that she would never see her family or friends again was terrifying enough to persuade her to do anything.


Incest aggressors will also use threats to guarantee their victims’ silence. Among the most common:


• If you tell, I’ll kill you.


• If you tell, I’ll beat you up.


• If you tell, Mommy will get sick.


• If you tell, people will think you’re crazy.


• If you tell, nobody’s going to believe you.


• If you tell, Mommy will get mad at both of us.


• If you tell, I’ll hate you for as long as you live.


• If you tell, they’ll send me to jail and there won’t be anyone to support the family.


These sorts of threats constitute emotional blackmail, preying on the naive victim’s fears and vulnerabilities.


In addition to psychological coercion, many aggressors resort to physical violence to force their children to submit to incest. Incest victims are rarely favored children, even apart from the sexual abuse. A few may receive money or gifts or special treatment as part of the coercion, but the majority are abused emotionally and often physically.


Liz remembers what happened when she tried to resist her minister stepfather:


    When I was almost out of junior high, I got real brave and told him that I’d decided he had to stop coming into my room at night. He got furious and started choking me. And then he started screaming that God didn’t want me to make my own deci­sions. The Lord wanted him to decide for me. Like God really wanted him to have sex with me or something. By the time he got through choking me I could hardly breathe. I was so scared that I let him do it to me right then and there.




Why Children Don’t Tell



Ninety percent of all incest victims never tell anyone what has happened, or what is happening, to them. They remain silent not only because they are afraid of getting hurt themselves, but to a great extent because they are afraid of breaking up the family by getting a parent into trouble. Incest may be frighten­ing, but the thought of being responsible for the destruction of the family is even worse. Family loyalty is an incredibly power­ful force in most children’s lives, no matter how corrupt that family may be.


Connie, 36, a dynamic redhead who is a loan officer for a large bank, was the classic loyal child. Her fear of hurting her father and losing his love was more powerful than any desire to get help for herself:


    Looking back, I realize that he had me right where he wanted me. He told me that it would be the end of the family if I said anything to anybody about what we were doing, that my mother would send him away and I wouldn’t have a daddy anymore, that they’d send me away to a foster home, and that ev­eryone in the family would hate me.


In those rare instances where incest is discovered, the family unit very often is shattered. Whether by divorce, other legal proceedings, removal of the child from the home, or the intense stress of public disgrace, many families cannot survive the expo­sure of incest. Even though the breakup of the family may well be in the child’s best interests, the child invariably feels re­sponsible for that breakup. This adds greatly to his or her already overwhelming emotional burden.



The Credibility Gap



Sexually abused children realize early that their credibility is nothing compared to their aggressors’. It doesn’t matter if the parent is alcoholic, chronically unemployed, or prone to vio­lence; in our society, an adult is almost always more believable than a child. If the parent has attained a certain measure of success in life, the credibility gap becomes a chasm.


Dan, 45, an aerospace engineer, was sexually abused by his father from the time he was 5 until he went away to college:


    Even when I was little, I knew I could never tell anybody about what my father was doing to me. My mother was totally dominated by him, and I knew she’d never believe me in a million years. He was a big-deal businessman, he knew everybody worth knowing. Can you imagine me trying to get people to believe that this big honcho was making his six-­year-old son give him blow jobs almost every night in the bathroom. Who’d believe me? They’d all think I was trying to get my father into trouble or some­thing. I just couldn’t win.


Dan was caught in a terrible trap. Not only was he being molested, but it was by a parent of the same sex. This compounded both his shame and his conviction that no one would believe him.


Father-son incest is far more common than most people realize. Such fathers usually appear to be heterosexual, but they are probably driven by strong homosexual impulses. Rather than admit their true feelings, they attempt to repress their homosexuality by marrying and becoming parents. With no outlet for their true sexual preference, their repressed im­pulses continue to grow until, eventually, they outweigh their defenses.


Dan’s father’s assaults began forty years ago, when incest (as well as homosexuality), was shrouded in misconceptions and myths. Like most other incest victims, Dan sensed the hopelessness of trying to seek help because it seemed prepos­terous that a man of his father’s social status could commit such a crime. Parents, no matter how toxic, have a monopoly on power and credibility.



“I Feel So Dirty”



The shame of the incest victim is unique. Even very young victims know that incest must be kept secret. Whether or not they’re told to keep silent, they sense the forbiddenness and shame in the behavior of the aggressor. They know that they are being violated, even if they are too young to understand sexuality. They feel dirty.


Just as verbally and physically abused children internalize blame, so do incest victims. However, in incest, the blame is compounded by the shame. The belief that “it’s all my fault” is never more intense than with the incest victim. This belief fosters strong feelings of self-loathing and shame. In addition to having somehow to cope with the actual incest, the victim must now guard against being caught and exposed as a “dirty, disgusting” person.


Liz was terrified of being found out.


    I was only ten, but I felt like I was the worst slut there ever was. I really wanted to tell on my stepfa­ther, but I was afraid everyone, including my mom, would hate me for it. I knew that everybody would think I was bad. I couldn’t stand the thought that I would be the one coming off as evil, even though that’s how I felt. So I just pushed it all down inside.


It’s hard for outsiders to understand why a 10-year-old whose stepfather is forcing her to have intercourse with him would feel guilty. The answer, of course, lies in the child’s unwilling­ness to see the trusted parent as bad. Somebody has to take the blame for these shameful, humiliating, frightening acts, and since it can’t be the parent, it must be the child.


The feelings of being dirty, bad, and responsible create tremendous psychological isolation for incest victims. They feel totally alone, both within the family and in the outside world. They think no one will believe their horrible secret, yet that secret so overshadows their lives that it often prevents them from making friends. This isolation in turn can force them back to the aggressor, who is often their only source of attention, no matter how perverse.


If the victim experiences any pleasure from the incest, his or her shame is magnified. A few adults who were victims recall sexual arousal from the experience, regardless of the confusion or embarrassment they felt. It is even harder for these victims to later renounce their sense of responsibility. Tracy actually had orgasms. She explained:


    I knew it was wrong, but it did feel good. The guy was a real bastard to do it to me, but I’m as guilty as him because I liked it.



I’d heard the same story before, but it still tore at my heart. I told Tracy, as I’d told others before her:


There’s nothing wrong with liking the stimulation.

Your body is biologically programmed to like those feelings. But the fact that it felt good didn’t make what he was doing right and it didn’t make you wrong. You were still a victim. It was his responsibility, as an adult, to control himself, no matter what you felt.


There is one more guilt that is unique to many incest victims: taking father away from mother. Father-daughter victims often talk about having felt like “the other woman.” This, of course, made it even harder for them to seek help from the one person they might have had reason to expect it from—their mother. Instead, they felt they were betraying Mother, adding yet another layer of guilt to their inner world.




Insane Jealousy:

“You Belong to Me”



Incest fuses the victim to the aggressor in a crazy and intense way. In father-daughter incest in particular, the father often becomes obsessed with his daughter and insanely jealous of her boyfriends. He may beat her or verbally abuse her to drive home the message that she belongs to only one man: Daddy.


This obsession dramatically distorts the normal develop­mental stages of childhood and adolescence. Instead of being able to become progressively more independent from parental control, the incest victim is increasingly bonded to the aggressor.


In Tracy’s case, she knew that her father’s jealousy was crazy, but she didn’t see how cruel and degrading it was because she confused it with love. It is common for incest victims to mistake obsession for love. Not only does this drasti­cally alter their ability to understand that they are being victim­ized, but it can wreak havoc with their expectations of love later in life.


Most parents experience some anxiety when their children begin dating and start bonding to people outside the family. But the incestuous father experiences this normal stage of development as betrayal, rejection, disloyalty, and even aban­donment. Tracy’s father’s reaction was typical—rage, accusa­tions, and punishment:


    He would wait up when I was out on a date, and when I got home, he’d give me the third degree. He would question me endlessly about who I was going out with, what was I doing with him, where was I letting him touch me, and did I let him put his tongue in my mouth. If he so much as caught me kissing a boy goodnight, he’d come out of the house screaming “tramp,” and scare the guy off.


When Tracy’s father called her vile and insulting names, he was doing what many incestuous fathers do: removing the badness, the evil, and the blame from himself and projecting it onto her. But other aggressors bond their victims with tender­ness, making it even harder for the child to resolve the con­flicting emotions of guilt and love.



“You’re My Whole Life”



Doug, 46, a slight, tense man who worked as a machinist, came to me because of a wide range of sexual difficulties including recurrent impotence. He had been molested by his mother from the age of 7 to his late teens.


    She would fondle my genitals until I had an orgasm, but I always thought that because there was no intercourse it was no big deal. She made me do the same to her. She told me I was her whole life and that this was her special way of showing her love to me. But now, every time I try to get close to a woman, I feel like I’m cheating on my mother.


The enormous secret Doug shared with his mother bound him tightly to her. Her sick behavior may have confused him, but her message was clear: she was the only woman in his life. This message was in many ways as damaging as the incest itself. As a result, when he attempted to separate and have adult relationships with other women, his feelings of disloyalty and guilt took a terrible toll on his emotional well-being and sexuality.




Capping the Volcano



The only way many victims can survive their early incest traumas is to mount a psychological cover-up, pushing these memories so far beneath conscious awareness that they may not surface for many years, if ever.


Incest memories often come flooding back unexpectedly because of some particular life event. I’ve had clients report memories being triggered by such things as the birth of a child, marriage, death of a family member, seeing something about incest in the media, or even reliving the trauma in a dream.


It is also common for these memories to surface if the victim is in therapy working on other issues, though many victims still won’t mention the incest without prodding from the therapist.


Even when these memories emerge, many victims panic and try to push them back by refusing to believe them.


One of the most dramatic, emotional experiences I’ve ever had as a therapist was with Julie, 46, a Ph.D. in biochemis­try who was on the staff of a large research center in Los Angeles. Julie came to see me after hearing me discuss incest on one of my radio programs. She told me that she had been molested by her brother from the age of 8 until she was 15.


     I’ve been having these terrible fantasies about dying or going crazy and ending up in an institution. Lately, I’ve been spending most of my time in bed with the covers pulled up over my head. I never leave the house except to go to work, and I’m barely functioning there. Everyone’s really worried about me. I know it’s all connected to my brother, but I just can’t talk about it. I feel like I’m drowning in this.


Julie was very fragile, apparently on the verge of a serious breakdown. She would laugh hysterically one minute and break into convulsive sobs the next. She had almost no control over the emotions that were overwhelming her.


    My brother raped me the first time when I was eight. He was fourteen and really strong for his age. After that he forced himself on me at least three or four times a week. The pain was so unbearable that I sort of went away from myself. I realize now that he must have been pretty crazy, because he’d tie me up and torture me with knives, scissors, razor blades, screwdrivers, anything he could find. The only way I could survive was to pretend that this was happening to someone else.


I asked Julie where her parents were while these horrors were taking place.


     I never told my parents anything about what Tommy was doing to me because he threatened to kill me if I did, and I believed him. My dad was a lawyer who put in sixteen-hour days including weekends, and my mom was a pill junkie. Neither one of them ever pro­tected me. The few hours that Dad was home, he wanted peace and quiet, and he expected me to look after Mom. My whole childhood seems like one big blur of nothing but pain.


Julie had been badly damaged and was frightened of therapy, but she mustered the courage to enter one of my incest-victim groups. For the next several months, she worked hard on healing from her brother’s torturous sexual abuse. Her emo­tional health improved noticeably during those months, and she no longer felt as if she was walking a tightrope between hysteria and depression. Yet, despite her improvement, my instincts told me that something was missing. There was still something dark and hidden festering inside her.


One night she came to group looking distraught. She had had a sudden memory that frightened her:


    A couple of nights ago, I had this real clear mem­ory of my mother forcing me to perform oral sex on her. I really must be going crazy. I was proba­bly imagining all those things about my brother, too. This could just never have happened with my mother. Sure, she was doped up all the time, but she just couldn’t have done that to me. I’m really losing it, Susan. You’ve got to put me in the hospital.


I said, “Sweetie, if you imagined the experiences with your brother, then how come you’ve improved so much by working on them?” That made some sense to her. I continued, “You know, these things don’t generally come out of people’s imagi­nations. If you’re remembering this incident with your mother now, it’s because you’re stronger than you were—you’re more able to deal with it now.”


I told Julie that her unconscious had been very protective of her. Had she remembered this episode when she was as fragile as when I first met her, she might have had a total emotional collapse. But, through her work in group, her emo­tional world was becoming more stable. Her unconscious had allowed this repressed memory to surface because she was ready to cope with it.


Few people talk about mother-daughter incest, but I have treated at least a dozen victims of it. The motivation appears to be a grotesque distortion of the need for tenderness, physical contact, and affection. Mothers who are capable of violating normal maternal bonding in this way are usually extremely disturbed and often psychotic.


It was Julie’s struggle to repress her memories that brought her close to a breakdown. Yet, as painful and disturbing as those memories were, their release was the key to Julie’s progressive recovery.



A Double Life



Incest victims often become very skillful child actors. In their inner world, there is so much terror, confusion, sadness, lone­liness, and isolation that many develop a false self with which to relate to the outside world, to act as if things were fine and normal. Tracy talked about her “as if” self with considerable insight:


    I felt like I was two people inside one body. In front of my friends, I was very outgoing and friendly. But as soon as I was in our apartment, I became a total recluse. I’d have these crying jags that just wouldn’t stop. I hated socializing with my family because I had to pretend that everything was fine. You have no idea how hard it was to keep playing these two roles all the time. Sometimes I felt like I didn’t have an ounce of strength left.


Dan, too, deserved an Oscar. He described:


    I was feeling so guilty about what my father was doing to me at night. I really felt like an object; I hated myself. But I played the part of a happy me and nobody in the family caught on. Then, all of a sudden, I stopped dreaming. I even stopped crying.

    I’d pretend I was a happy kid. I was the class clown, and I was a good piano player. I loved to entertain … anything to get people to like me. But, inside I was aching. I was a secret drunk by the time I was thirteen.


By entertaining other people, Dan was able to feel some sense of acceptance and accomplishment. But, because the real self inside him was in such agony, he experienced very little genuine pleasure. This is the cost of living a lie.




The Silent Partner



The aggressor and the victim put on good performances to keep their secret inside the house. But what about the other parent?


When I first began working with adults who were sexually abused as children, I found that many father-daughter victims seemed angrier at their mothers than at their fathers. Many victims tortured themselves with the often unanswerable ques­tion of how much their mothers knew about the incest. Many were convinced that their mothers must have known some­thing, because in some instances the signs of abuse were quite blatant. Others were convinced that their mothers should have known, should have picked up the behavioral changes in their daughters, should have sensed something was wrong, and should have been more tuned in to what was going on in the family.


Tracy, who seemed very businesslike when she described how her insurance-salesman father graduated from watching her undress to fondling her genitals, cried several times as she talked about her mother:


     I always seem to be angry with my mother. I could love her and hate her at the same time. Here’s this woman who’d always see me depressed, crying hys­terically in my room, and she’d never say one god­damned word. Can you believe that any mother in her right mind wouldn’t find it unusual to see her own daughter in tears all the time? I couldn’t just tell her what was going on, but maybe if she’d asked … I don’t know. Maybe I couldn’t have told her anyway. God, I wish she could have found out about what he was doing to me.


Tracy expressed a wish that I have heard from thousands of incest victims—that somehow, someone, especially their mother, would discover the incest without the victim’s having to go through the pain of telling.


I agreed with Tracy that her mother was incredibly insen­sitive to her daughter’s unhappiness, but that didn’t necessarily mean that Tracy’s mother had any knowledge of what was going on.


There are three types of mothers in incest families: those who genuinely don’t know, those who may know, and those who do know.


Is it possible for a mother to live in an incest family and not know? Several theories contend that it is not, that every mother would somehow sense incest in her family. I disagree. I am convinced that some mothers truly don’t know.


The second type of mother is the classic silent partner. She wears blinders. The incest clues are there, but she chooses to ignore them in a misguided attempt to protect herself and her family.


The final type is the most reprehensible: the mother who is told of the molestation by her children but does nothing about it. When this happens, the victim is doubly betrayed.


When Liz was 13, she made one desperate attempt to tell her mother about her stepfather’s escalating sexual assaults:


    I really felt trapped. I thought if I told my mother she would at least talk to him. What a joke. She almost collapsed in tears and said … I’ll never for­get her words: “Why are you telling me this, what are you trying to do to me? I’ve lived with your stepfather for nine years. I know he couldn’t do this. He’s a minister. Everyone respects us. You must have been dreaming. Why are you trying to ruin my life? God will punish you.” I couldn’t believe it. It had taken so much out of me just to tell her, but she just turned on me. I ended up comforting her.


Liz began to cry. I hugged her for several minutes as she relived the pain and the grief of her mother’s all-too-typical response to the truth. Liz’s mother was a classic silent partner—passive, dependent, and infantile. She was intensely preoccu­pied with her own survival and with keeping the family intact. As a result, she needed to deny anything that might rock the family boat.


Many silent partners were abused children themselves. They suffer from extremely low self-esteem and may be reen­acting the struggles of their own childhoods. They usually become overwhelmed by any conflict that threatens the status quo because they don’t want to confront their own fears and dependency. As is often the case, Liz wound up taking care of her mother emotionally, even though it was Liz who most needed support.


A few mothers actually push their daughters into incest. Debra, a member of Liz’s incest group, told a particularly shocking story:


    People tell me I’m pretty—I know men are always looking—but I’ve spent most of my life thinking I look like the creature from Alien. I’ve always felt slimy, you know, disgusting. What my father did to me was bad enough, but what really hurt was my mother. She was the middleman. She set up the time and place, and sometimes she even held my head in her lap while he did it. I kept begging her not to make me do it, but she’d say, “Please, honey, do it for me. I’m not enough for him, and if you don’t give him what he wants, he’ll go find some other woman. Then we’ll be out on the street.”

    I try to understand why she did what she did, but I have two children of my own and it seems like the most inconceivable thing that any mother could ever do.


Many psychologists believe that silent partners transfer their wife/maternal role to their daughters. This was certainly true of Debra’s mother, though it is unusual for this transfer to be done so overtly.


But in my experience, most silent partners do not so much transfer their role as abdicate their personal power. They don’t usually push their daughters to replace them, but they allow themselves and their daughters to become domi­nated by the aggressor. Their fears and dependency needs prove more powerful than their maternal instincts, leaving their daughters unprotected.



The Legacy of Incest



Every adult who was molested as a child brings from his or her childhood pervasive feelings of being hopelessly inade­quate, worthless, and genuinely bad. No matter how different their lives may appear on the surface, all adult victims of incest share a legacy of tragic feelings, The Three D’s of incest: Dirty, Damaged, and Different. Connie’s life was severely distorted by The Three D’s.  As she described:


    I used to feel like I went to school with a sign on my forehead that said “incest victim.” I still think a lot of the time that people can look right inside me and see how disgusting I am. I’m just not like other people. I’m not normal.


Over the years, other victims have described themselves as feeling like “the Elephant Man,” “a creature from outer space,” “an escapee from the funny farm,” and “lower than the lowest scum on earth.”


Incest is a form of psychological cancer. It is not terminal, but treatment is necessary and sometimes painful. Connie let hers go untreated for more than twenty years. It took a terrible toll on her life, especially in the area of relationships.



“I Don’t Know What a Loving Relationship Feels Like”



Connie’s feelings of self-disgust led her through a series of degrading relationships with men. Because her first relation­ship with a man (her father) involved betrayal and exploita­tion, love and abuse were woven tightly together in her mind. As an adult, she was attracted to men who enabled her to reenact this familiar scenario. A healthy relationship, one in­volving caring and respect, would have felt unnatural, out of sync with her view of herself.


Most incest victims have an especially difficult time with adult love relationships. If by chance a victim should manage to find a loving relationship, the ghosts from the past usually contaminate it—often in the area of sexuality.



Robbed of Sexuality



Tracy’s incest trauma seriously affected her marriage to a kind and caring man. She told me:


    My relationship with David is falling apart. He’s a ter­rific guy, but how long can he put up with this?

    Sex is just terrible. It always has been. I don’t even want to go through the motions anymore. I hate his touching me. I wish sex had never been invented.


It’s quite common for a victim to feel revulsion at the thought of sex. This is a normal reaction to incest. Sex becomes an indelible reminder of the pain and betrayal. The tape starts playing in her head: “Sex is dirty, sex is bad…. I did terrible things when I was little … if I do those terrible things now, I’ll feel like a bad person again.”


Many victims talk about being unable to have sex without being haunted by flashbacks. They try to be intimate with someone they care about, but in their minds they are vividly reliving the original incest traumas. During sex, adults who were victims often see or hear their aggressors in the room with them. These flashbacks bring up all their negative feelings about themselves, and their sexuality fizzles like a doused fire.


Other incest victims, like Connie, use their sexuality in self-denigrating ways because they’ve grown to believe that sex is all they’re good for. Though they may have slept with hundreds of men in exchange for a little affection, many of these victims still feel repelled by sex.



“Why Do Good Feelings Make Me Feel Bad?”



A victim who, as an adult, has managed to become sexually responsive and orgasmic (and many do) may still feel guilty about her sexual feelings, making them difficult if not impossi­ble to enjoy. Guilt can make good feelings feel bad.


In contrast to Tracy, Liz was very responsive sexually, but the ghosts from the past were no less intrusive:


    I have lots of orgasms. I love to have sex every way possible. Where it gets really bad for me is afterwards. I get so depressed. When it’s over, I don’t want to be held or touched…. I just want the guy to get away from me. He doesn’t understand it. A couple of times when sex has been especially good for me, I had fantasies about killing myself afterwards.


Even though Liz experienced sexual pleasure, she still had intense feelings of self-loathing. As a result, she needed to atone for this pleasure by punishing herself, even to the extent of visualizing suicide. It was as if by having these self-abasing feelings and fantasies, she could somehow make up for her “sinful” and “shameful” sexual arousal.



“I Can’t Punish Myself Enough”



In the preceding chapter we saw victims of physical abuse turn their pain and rage against themselves—or in some cases against others. Incest victims tend to follow the same patterns, releasing their repressed rage and unresolved grief in a wide variety of ways.


Depression is an extremely common expression of sup­pressed incest conflicts. It may range from a general sense of sadness to nearly total immobilization.


A disproportionate number of incest victims, particularly women, allow themselves to become overweight as adults. The weight serves two important purposes for the victim: (1) she imagines it will keep men away from her, and (2) the body mass creates a false illusion of strength and power. Many victims become terrified when they first begin to lose weight because it makes them feel helpless and vulnerable once again.


Recurrent headaches are also common among incest victims. These headaches are not only a physical manifestation of repressed rage and anxiety but are also a form of self-punishment. Many incest victims lose themselves in a haze of alcohol and drug abuse. This provides a temporary deadening of their feelings of loss and emptiness. However, this delay in con­fronting the real problem only prolongs the victim’s suffering.


A great number of incest victims also seek punishment from the world at large. They sabotage relationships, seeking punishment from the ones they love. They sabotage them­selves at work, seeking punishment from colleagues or em­ployers. A few commit violent crimes, seeking punishment from society. Others become prostitutes, seeking punishment from pimps, from patrons—or even from God.



“This Time It’s Going to Be Better”



There is a baffling paradox in the fact that no matter how painful their lives have been, a great number of incest victims remain fused to their toxic parents. The pain came from those parents, but the victims still look to them to alleviate it. It is very hard for adult incest victims to give up the myth of the happy family.


One of the most powerful legacies of incest is this never-ending search for the magic key that will unlock the treasure chest of your parents’ love and approval. This search is like emotional quicksand, bogging the victim down in an impossi­ble dream, preventing her from getting on with her life.


Liz summed it up:


    I keep thinking that someday they will reach out and say, “We think you’re wonderful and we love you the way you are.” Even though I know that my step-father is a child molester, and even though my mother chose him and didn’t protect me … it’s like I need to have them forgive me.



The Healthiest Member of the Family



Many people are shocked when I say that the incest victims I’ve worked with are usually the healthiest members of their families. After all, the victim usually has the symptoms – self-blame, depression, destructive behaviors, sexual problems, sui­cide attempts, substance abuse—while the rest of the family often seems outwardly healthy.


But despite this, it is usually the victim who ultimately has the clearest vision of the truth. She was forced to sacrifice herself to cover up the craziness and the stress in the family system. All her life she was the bearer of the family secret. She lived with tremendous emotional pain in order to protect the myth of the good family. But because of all this pain and conflict, the victim is usually the first to seek help. Her parents, on the other hand, will almost always refuse to let go of their denials and defenses. They refuse to deal with reality.


With treatment, most victims are able to reclaim their dignity and their power. Recognizing a problem and seeking help is a sign not only of health but of courage.