The Second Wound -- Blaming the Victim in Childhood Sexual Abuse

Children are the innocent victims of sexual abuse. Because of their lack of experience, they are often caught in webs of destruction with disastrous consequences.
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Children are the innocent victims of sexual abuse. Because of their lack of experience, they are often caught in webs of destruction with disastrous consequences. The violations they endure are the first wound, but how their significant people respond can be a second wound that is too often more devastating than the first.

In forty years of treating many children victims of child sexual abuse, I have witnessed the disastrous results of those second wounds too many times. The following story is a composite of multiple cases. The message is the same.

The First Wound

Melissa had just turned 14. She was a freshman in high school for three months. She came from a very strict, conservative home where she was taught to be a "good girl" and never to embarrass her parents by any untoward act. Prior to her trauma, she was eager, intelligent, naive and kind, and open to the world. She'd never been to a party, ingested a recreational drug or tasted alcohol. The popular group of girls who invited her to a party assured her that she didn't need her parent's knowledge or permission and it would be fun. They didn't warn her about date drugs, horny boys or setting clear boundaries.

She doesn't remember what happened after she was sitting on the couch listening to the boasts of a cocky senior boy. He assured her that the beer he brought her would not give her much of a buzz.

Her friends found her later passed out in the bathroom, her jeans and underwear around her angles. There was vomit in her hair and blood between her legs. She was bruised from an obvious attempt to fight back. Her friends were concerned and frightened. They asked one of the older girls to help get her to a safe place, make the reassuring calls to keep her parents mollified and get her to a clinic the next day for a morning after pill. In a daze, Melissa did what they told her to do.

The girls took her home the next day and reassured her mother that she had gotten a bout of the flu and they had let her sleep in. Her mother helped her to bed and did not notice anything unusual.

Over the next two weeks, Melissa's once-excellent grades plummeted. She stopped eating and could not sleep. She told her parents she was depressed, unable to focus and wanted to drop out of school for a while. Legitimately concerned, they asked the school counselor for help. She referred them to me.

When the family came in, I asked to see Melissa alone first. Her parents seemed uncomfortable with my decision but I assured them that it was the best way to start. I invited her into my office and invited her to sit down. Her face was pale and there were dark circles under her eyes. I waited for a few moments and then asked her, "Melissa, were you raped?"

She hid her face and began to sob, nodding assent. The story poured out in between bursts of quiet sobs. She was clearly humiliated and self-blaming. She wanted to tell her parents, but feared their reaction. She did not want to find or prosecute the boy for fear the story would get out at her school and she could never return. I told her we were required to privately report it to Child Protective Services, but we would need her parent's help. She would also need trauma counseling to heal and they would need to be part of that. Did she trust the situation enough to allow me to bring them in? She nodded, but the terror on her face told me that her fears would prove legitimate.

I called her parents in from the waiting room. They seemed worried and concerned. I made a silent prayer that they would be there for her, though my instincts told me that might not be the case.

I began the interaction by telling them something terrible had happen to her daughter, that it wasn't her fault and that she needed their support. I saw her mother stiffen and her father look away. Sadly, there was no turning back. I asked Melissa if she would like to tell them or preferred for me to do so. She asked me for my help.

Very carefully, I presented what had happened, the anguish their daughter had been through and her need for their compassion.

The Second Wound

Melissa's father began pacing the room, smacking his fist against hid palm. He was clearly caught between rage and confusion, not knowing what to do. Neither of her parents moved to comfort her.

The dam broke. Turning to her daughter with contempt and disgust on her face, Melissa's mother began a torrent of brutal attacks: "You slut. You lied to us. You went to a party without permission and set yourself up for this. Don't tell me you didn't want this to happen. Have you just pretended to be some kind of good girl we were supposed to fall for until you could do what you wanted to? I'm totally disgusted with you. You're not the daughter I thought you were. You don't deserve us as parents and you need to be punished for this. We're calling the school and we don't give a damn whether you're embarrassed or not. Everyone should know who you really are. We'll find this boy and get him expelled. If you're the laughing stock of school, maybe you'll think a little more clearly before you do something so stupid again."

Melissa's father stood impotent and silent, unwilling to buck his strident and self-righteous wife.
Melissa looked at me with pain and disbelief, as if I had let her down. She began to beat her face with her hands and to talk of suicide. The mother was adamant and unmoved. "You're going to go to Hell anyway. It doesn't matter how you get there. You're not worth saving."

I tried helplessly to intervene. Reaching for Melissa's hand to show support, I begged the mother to reconsider her response, and how much Melissa desperately needed her love and support. She would require trauma counseling with her family involved. It might take months to heal the wounds to help her return to her previous self.

Her mother wouldn't hear of it. She grabbed Melissa by the shoulder and told her to get up, "We're getting out of here. Obviously this so-called professional is on your side and supportive of what you did. You're going home with us and we'll decide what to do with you."

They left with her mother pulling Melissa by her hair. I will never forget her heart-broken expression of defeat. Her father looked back at me, shrugged his shoulders, grave and helpless.

I called Social Services and reported the event, including my fear for her personal safety. She was over 14. They would investigate as soon as they could get a case worker on the job.

Three days later, Melissa swallowed a bottle of Tylenol and was taken to the emergency room of a local hospital. After the doctors stabilized her, they sent her to a trauma hospital for observation. Her parents got her out as soon as they could and refused further treatment. Two weeks later, she tried again to take her own life. This time, she was successful.

What would have happened had her parents instead taken her in their arms and reminded her that she was the same wonderful child who, unprepared, was just in the wrong place at the wrong time? How more likely would she had recovered if they had told her she was still the same beautiful child they loved unconditionally and they would do everything they could to help her? How much better could she have gotten through the anguish of the violation if the people she depended upon would have made her recovery more important than their own righteousness? How might she, healed and resolute in her recovery, have lived to help others?

We'll never know.

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