Too many still ignorant about sexual abuse

published in the CT Post, Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time 2/3/11

When one of my kids became involved with a theater production run under the auspices of a local Catholic Church, I offered to volunteer with backstage help. In order to do so, I had to attend a mandatory 3-hour workshop on child sexual abuse awareness called "Protecting God's Children."

I was pleased that the church was taking such stringent measures, but didn't think the course had much to teach me. As a victim of child sexual abuse myself and further, having just researched and completed a young adult novel about Internet predators, "Want to go Private," I'm quite knowledgeable about the warning signs, the grooming process, and the need for constant vigilance. In fact, due to my own experiences, I'm probably hyper-vigilant. There were times, particularly when my children were the ages at which I had been abused, that I had to seek therapy because my anxiety about being able to protect them from harm was so acute.

Yet I ended up learning things I wish I hadn't. I learned that there are still people who believe that a larger percentage of kids lie than the statistics quoted and who are more concerned about potentially destroying the life and reputation of an adult than protecting a child.

I wanted to stand up and scream, "What is the matter with you people?" I wanted to grab the microphone from the moderator and, instead of the actors and actresses that portrayed victims of sexual abuse in the church's video, have them hear about the impact of child sexual abuse from someone real, live, in their community, who has lived with the consequences: depression, bulimia and attempted suicide, but has finally through therapy, hard work, and determination, come through the other side.

But instead, I sat there mute. Because no matter how many years have passed (it's been decades), no matter how many years of therapy I've had (many), no matter how well I think I'm doing (pretty awesome, thanks) in certain situations I can be thrown right back into that feeling of paralyzing helplessness, of feeling like I'm a confused, scared child in the darkness, a child without a voice.

When I got home, I was devastated. I stayed up, distraught and sobbing, until 1 a.m. I was angry that people didn't understand how doubting a child's word makes them feel like they're being abused all over again. I was angry that despite all the hard work I've done for years to put this thing behind me, despite my thinking that I've dealt with it, all it took was watching a few videos and hearing a few people say insensitive things to bring me right back to the Me I Was Before. Such is the nature of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

But mostly, I was angry with myself, because I'm not that small, helpless, voiceless child in the darkness anymore. I'm a strong, successful, woman who worked damned hard to learn to use her words.

That's why, despite this being a deeply personal and difficult issue, I chose to write this column.

Recently, my book "Life, After" was named a Sydney Taylor Honor Book for Teens along with an incredibly important book called "Hush." The author writes under the pseudonym Eishes Chayil, or "A Woman of Valor," which indeed she is.

The main character in "Hush" is Gittel, who grows up in an unnamed Chassidic Jewish community (the author specifically intends it to be non-specific, because as she says, "all are guilty") and witnesses the sexual abuse of her best friend by a family member. For the sake of both families' reputations (critical to making a good marriage) she is told that nothing happened and she should be silent. Then best friend, Devory, kills herself.

As she matures, Gittel struggles with the consequences of silence, both her own and the communal silence, where the reputations of adults are prized over the sanctity of a child. While based on an Orthodox Jewish community, it has powerful lessons for everyone, of every faith and every community -- and sadly, there are too many people who still need to learn them.

Copyright Sarah Darer Littman 2013