Incest: the Deep, Dark Family Secret
Incest has been around forever. There were the god-like Pharaohs marrying their sisters. Cleopatra married her younger brother, and her parents had also been brother and sister. There was Lot, impregnating his two virgin daughters, and one of Solomon’s many wives was his sister. But we don’t hear a lot of stories about incest and family abuse because it’s usually a deep, dark, and dangerous secret. It certainly was in my household. I was only two years old when my father began molesting me. At nine, he raped me, and continued to do so until I was thirteen. My mother ignored what was happening as my father abused me. As a child, this seemed like an even larger betrayal than what my father was doing to me. Having been betrayed by both parents is a devastating experience for any child. I have written about my adolescent sexual abuse, its aftermath and living as an incest survivor in my book, Truth Heals: What You Hide Can Hurt You:
Speaking out about incest
There’s a reason I called my book Truth Heals. Acknowledging the truth of incest, and speaking it out loud — whether alone in a therapist’s office, in a book, or recently in the case of Mackenzie Phillips in interview after interview on national television — is one of the most terrifying and most liberating things incest survivors can do. It helps to heal not only the victim, but also lifts the burden of secrecy by breaking the wall of silence that incest and family abuse hide behind for the countless numbers of us who have lived through this devastating experience. As I said in a blog for the Huffington Post,
“Silence is a major part of the problem of abuse. It takes a brave soul to break the code of silence: “This is our secret; DON’T TELL!” With an implied or direct threat of consequences — OR ELSE — if we do tell. It’s the secret nature of incest that keeps its victims tied up in knots of guilt and shame, feeling ‘dirty’ and fearing the way they will be judged by others should they dare to speak their truth.”
Fortunately, today more people are daring to speak out. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest anti-sexual assault organization, there was a big surge in people coming forward with their stories of adolescent sexual abuse after Mackenzie Phillips revealed her incestual “relationship” with her father. Calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-HOPE) increased by 26% and traffic to the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline increased by 83%! As incest survivors know, we have to tell our story in order to start healing from abuse. Someone has to listen to us and believe us. The truth of our lives needs to be validated. In 1997, Kathryn Harrison got very brave and wrote a book called The Kiss, detailing her secret sexual “affair” with her father, which began when she was 20 years old. She was called a liar, and people insisted her book was fictional, designed solely to make money based on sensationalism. Her story made headlines, but for all the wrong reasons. In 2009, Mackenzie too had to face a lot of hostile reaction to her shocking revelations, but she also received a lot of support and validation. Even though I am an abuse expert and have helped thousands in their struggle to heal, when I watched Mackenzie Phillips and Kathryn Harrison and others tell their stories on Oprah, it really took me back. I remembered how in my early twenties, although the family sexual abuse had stopped when I was 13, I was still daddy’s girl—his closest companion and friend. I had become a lawyer, just like him, and was a law partner in his firm. I was still trying to please him in every way possible (except sexually). Of course, I was also doing everything I could to forget the lie I was living. In my teens and early twenties, repression and denial ruled my life. Although I was very careful never to be alone with daddy, I was burying “those” memories under a barrage of booze, Valium, and promiscuity. It took my full immersion in 12-step programs, drug and alcohol addiction help, and intense self-scrutiny and meditation to get to the roots of the physical and emotional damage I suffered from the incest. Incest is definitely a traumatic event. It doesn’t matter if it was a one-time rape or a long, drawn out “relationship” that continued well into adulthood. Incest survivors need to tell their story — in writing or out loud — to release the difficult and confusing emotions involved.
The “monster” abuser
Having sex with a child is a line that is constantly being crossed, no matter the race, religion, or socio-economic status of the abuser. My father was a well-respected attorney in our community. He was a Catholic who went to confession (which prompted the priest confessor to sexually abuse me as well). There was nothing in his outer life to suggest he was raping his only daughter. We don’t want to think that our nice neighbor, or that kind Sunday school teacher, or that intelligent judge is molesting his child. We prefer to think of abusers as monsters, like Joseph Fritzl of Austria, who had started to abuse his daughter Elizabeth when she was 11; then when she was 18, he drugged her and dragged her to a secret room in his basement where he kept her locked up for 24 years, raping her repeatedly and fathering seven children with her. The Fritzl case brought worldwide attention to the issue of incest early in 2008, but his brutality made people think it was an isolated case of an unusually depraved man. What kind of monster did this to his own daughter? What kind of monster would keep babies in a cellar and have them grow up in semi-darkness? (One child, grew so tall that he had to stoop whenever he stood up, and he still has trouble walking upright.) I would bet that Fritzl had been the victim of family abuse in his childhood, that he had grown up with an over-controlling parent who tortured him physically, sexually, and/or verbally. That the scars to his psyche were such that only by reliving his experience with his daughter could he unconsciously seek to hold up a mirror to his own pain. Many years after my adolescent sexual abuse had stopped, I learned that my father had been sexually abused as a child. The “monster” is almost always first of all a victim, then a perpetrator. Incest is generational… and it’s not about sex.
Incest is about power, not sex
The taboo about incest is universal. It’s been with us throughout time, in all countries and cultures. Yet for some, it’s just another rule to be broken, another boundary to cross. Mackenzie Phillips’s father, Papa John Phillips of the 60s band The Mamas and the Papas, saw himself as beyond boundaries. Egged on by a massive ego and a huge amount of drugs, he took what he wanted, whenever he wanted it. And he wanted to know that Mackenzie was his, forever under his thumb. Her first recollection of sexual intimacy with her father happened on the night before her wedding at age 19. But she had been groomed since childhood to do whatever he wanted. What kind of parent starts their kid on drugs at age 11, and later teaches them how to shoot up cocaine? But no matter what, you still don’t hate your parents. You want their love, you crave their attention. You need affection, in whatever form it takes, for some that manifests as family sexual abuse. As I said in a blog on Psychology Today
“It’s whatever daddy wants. You wouldn’t dream of upsetting him because you are so linked, so inseparable from each other. It’s not because you’re enjoying the intimacy and it’s consensual. It’s because you are completely disempowered and the parent is in the driver’s seat, and you’re trying to please a parent whose attention you crave.”
Incest totally disempowers you—there is no other word for it. Which explains why even adult women can still be trying to please their abuser. There was an “Essex Fritzl” in England (so called after the Austrian Fritzl), who began abusing his daughter when she was seven, and continued till she was 40. She wasn’t locked up, so how come the incest continued so far into her adulthood? Judge David Turner, QC, who sentenced the man to jail, said that he held a “persuasive and perverted power” over his daughter. She actually wept as she watched the proceedings. The judge said: “You dragged your daughter into a grotesque fantasy world of your wicked making. You held her in your psychological grip, limiting her freedom, her movements and other relationships, curtailing her autonomy, exploiting her vulnerability, conditioning compliance. This was a grotesque breach of trust. Her childhood was horribly betrayed.” Some have likened ongoing incestual relationships to the Stockholm Syndrome, where the victim begins to identify with the person who traumatized and molested them. In the case of incest and family abuse, the identification is intense. In Australia, a woman in her 40s got brave enough to go to police about her virtual imprisonment by her father for three decades, bearing four children to him. In an interview in theAustralian, a former neighbor of the incest survivor said: “When I said to her, ‘Do you want to go to the bingo?’, [she said] ‘Oh no, Dad won’t let me’. I thought, ‘Dad won’t let you?’ And you’re in your 30s? It didn’t make sense to me.” But it really does make sense. Psychological imprisonment is no less real than a locked basement.
Like Mackenzie Phillips spoke about on Oprah, I also thought my father’s death would free me. I was shocked when his passing turned my world upside down. It felt like I had been the one to die. I had already quit drinking and was meditating, which is why I made it through the ordeal without relapsing, but it shook me to the roots for a long time.
The emotional stew of incest
What most people don’t understand about incest is the deep confusion caused when a person you love, an authority figure in your life — whether it’s a parent or sibling or close relative — adolescent and family sexual abuse does something to you that is violent and painful, but you are grateful for the attention from them and the feeling of being somehow special. A particularly confusing aspect of incest, one that is almost never talked about, is the activation of the pleasure principle in incest victims. The human body responds to sexual stimulation, even if the sex is terrifying or physically dangerous. Young children are sensual/sexual beings and don’t understand that sex is a violation. They do, however, sense at a deep level that there is something wrong, something shameful, in what is happening to them. They’ve been sternly told by their abuser not to tell anyone, that it’s “our secret.” They take on the adult’s guilt and shame. When child abuse victims are older and possibly sexually active, they will be horrified by their body’s responsiveness and will feel “dirty.” They are understandably confused and wonder if their response means they enjoyed the experience, or that it was “consensual.” Mackenzie Phillips stopped using the word “consensual” and now calls what happened to her by its rightful name: family abuse.
Busting the myths about incest
It’s taken a long time to get to the truth about incest. The secretive, hidden nature of incest has fostered a number of damaging myths. Briefly, here are the top four incest myths:
- MYTH: Kids invent incest experiences.
TRUTH: In fact, children don’t invent experiences they’ve not had and most are afraid to talk about it when it is happening to them.
- MYTH: Children “come on” to adults.
TRUTH: In reality, incest is initiated by the abuser, usually accompanied by bribes or coercion and force.
- MYTH: Most child sexual abuse is done by strangers.
TRUTH: In fact, the offender is usually someone they know and trust — a father, stepfather, the mom’s boyfriend, grandfather, brother, or uncle. Child abuse statistics show that 46% of childhood victims are raped by someone in their family. Boys are molested and experience adolescent sexual abuse too, but the great majority of incest is a male with the first or only daughter.
- MYTH: Children who are molested by a sibling are just exploring their sexuality.
TRUTH: Actually, if the sibling is older and stronger and more in control, it’s incest and it’s just as damaging as incest with a parent.
Today most therapists believe a patient who opens up about incest. In the past, the leading minds in psychology were not on the same page. Originally, Freud, who was sexually abused by his nurse as a child, was convinced that incest was the cause of so many of his female patients problems, but he recanted when he was ostracized for holding this position. Jung totally avoided the topic. Others, like Abraham, blamed the victim, saying the child desired it because of an “abnormal psycho-sexual constitution.” Even Kinsey wrote: “It is difficult to understand why a child, except for its cultural conditioning, should be disturbed at having its genitalia touched.” Wardell Pomeroy, who co-authored the Kinsey study, wrote that “incest between adults and younger children can… be a satisfying and enriching experience…” The new openness about the topic of family abuse may have been what allowed a 13-year-old in Pennsylvania to tell her mom when her father blatantly propositioned her on Facebook. He graphically detailed what he wanted to do, and told her, “not many other fathers and daughters are this brave, so not many of them are so lucky to experience all these pleasures.” Needless to say, when he showed up with cameras and a box of condoms, he was arrested.
What to do
When you are struggling to recover from sexual abuse, the important thing to remember is that you are not alone. You may have been isolated and ashamed while going through the experience of abuse, but know that there are millions of others, and there are scores of resources available. You may find incest survivor support groups or a group therapy setting helpful. There are online forums, message boards, chat rooms, and blogs that are devoted to discussing incest and to helping you recover from family sexual abuse. When you cannot sleep at 3 a.m., you can go online and talk with others who are feeling the same way, and you can also feel good about helping other people along in their journey. If you know someone who is a victim of family abuse, listen to them and believe their story. If you are a teacher, minister, counselor or other professional who is a “mandated reporter,” you can check RAINN’s mandatory reporting database to see if you have to make a report on adolescent sexual abuse
For those who need help, here are a few of the many available resources:
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