I read a recent essay titled, “Sliver of Sky: Confronting the trauma of sexual abuse” by Barry Lopez, a well-known author, published in the January 2013 issue of Harpers. It is well worth reading, but I must warn you, it is painful.
Mr. Lopez chronicles his childhood, as a young boy growing up in California. His parents divorced, his mother was befriended by a psychopath, masquerading as a physician in a hospital for substance abusers. The author describes the years of sexual abuse he endured by this authority figure. It is an extraordinarily honest and frank description of his lived experience. Reading this account is a descent into Mr. Lopez’s hell. As parents, it is reading about our worst nightmare. It is not for the faint of heart.
But why read about something like this? Why would we want to subject ourselves to such fear and suffering? Because he is such an exceptional writer, because he wants us to understand this life experience, and because it gives us a greater insight into what can go wrong, and what does go wrong in childhood.
“It is difficult, even for therapists, to explain how this type of sexual violence can be perpetuated between two human beings for years without the victim successfully objecting. Why, people wonder, does the evidence for a child’s resistance in these circumstances seem so meager? I believe it’s because the child is too innocent to plan effectively, and because, from the very start, the child faces a labyrinth of confused allegiances. I was bewildered by what was happening. How could I explain to my mother what I was doing?” writes Lopez.
As a psychologist, I hear many stories of childhood abuse. Each one is different, and yet each one is similar. The adult survivor wonders how the child victim could have allowed such a horror to occur. The adult wonders why they could not have alerted a parent or a relative. As an adult, it is so difficult to remember how our minds operate as children. We have lost that awareness of our child mind and can only look through the lens that is currently available to us. As a writer, Mr. Lopez is superbly equipped to help us understand.
Why is it so important for survivors to bear witness to this experience? Why do they want to confront their abuser? Why is it so important to have their experience validated? According to Mr. Lopez, it is to regain their human dignity. It is to reclaim their human spirit.
Barry Lopez finds himself through psychotherapy, where he can tell his story to another human being. He says, “Therapy’s success for me was not so much my coming to understand that I had learned as a child to tolerate acts of abuse. It was discovering a greater capacity within myself to empathize with another person’s nightmare. Most of the unresolved fear and anger I once held on to has now metamorphosed into compassion, an understanding of the predicaments nearly everyone encounters, at some level, at some time, in their lives.”
Mr. Lopez moves from being a victim, to finding his own capacity for compassion and love. This is the arc of more complete healing and it is very challenging for survivors to arrive at this destination along their way of recovery. It is far more common to remain stuck as victim and survivor.
During our parental life, when we are responsible for the care and feeding of our children, we walk through a valley of fear and hope. We don’t want our worries about their safety to cause us to hover and squelch their young spirits. But we don’t want our hope that all will be well to blind us so that we cannot see clearly what may be in front of us.
To learn more about Mr. Lopez’s story, log on to: http://www.npr.org/2013/01/10/168964002/in-sliver-of-sky-barry-lopez-confronts-childhood-sexual-abuse
Share your thoughts and reflections on this difficult subject.