The Cost -- and Rewards -- of Speaking Out About Abuse

Why do people feel the urge to attack victims, to hate them, and to wish them to die? What is this dark shadow that comes out?
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There's nothing so combustible as the subject of abuse, particularly an accusation of sexual abuse, to inflame the Internet. Add a celebrity to the abuse conversation and it really explodes. The wires have been humming with controversy about the article defending Woody Allen about the accusation of sexual abuse that surfaced on Twitter from his son and another one by his ex-wife, Mia Farrow. These tweets erupted just as Diane Keaton was accepting the Cecile B. DeMille award for Allen. An article published in The Daily Beast last week presents a long and complex analysis about the absence of evidence of sexual abuse, citing that Allen has never been charged with a criminal act, and that Mia Farrow and the whole family are a bunch of snarky liars with nothing better to do but trash Allen. While some points in the article may be valid--decide for yourself--it elicited comments and flames from both sides of the aisle--those who defend Woody Allen and those who take up the cry against blaming the victims, calling for the voices of the victims to be heard.

Dylan Farrow, in her open letter to the New York Times, has spoken about the sexual abuse she reports she suffered at the hands of her step-father, Woody Allen, when she was a child. Again, comments line up on both sides -- some praising her courage, others vilifying her for speaking at all, some calling her a liar. One post, that the owner of the thread wisely deleted almost immediately, called for Dylan Farrow to kill herself if she was so unhappy. Can you believe it? It was just one of thousands of comments that attack victims.

As a therapist, I have heard of few children who will falsely accuse someone of abuse, but it's rare. Infinitely more common are people who sit across from me as long as 50 years later, trying to spit out the truth of their childhood abuse one syllable at a time. Believe me, it's not easy. I work in a world where words are keys to freedom, where telling the truth can open the door to a new life. Hiding in silence is a prison, but most who stay silent are fully aware of the kind of attack that they will encounter when they speak. The posts and commentary on the net are a testament to that fear -- which is made real every time someone speaks out. Sometimes they wish they had never spoken, and others end up retracting their statements because the scrutiny and attacks they suffer feel like another abuse, thus "proving" to skeptics that they were lying from the start. Some do lie, but again, it's very few compared to those who never tell anyone because they will be attacked, shunned, and humiliated.

Why do people feel the urge to attack victims, to hate them, and to wish them to die? What is this dark shadow that comes out? How do we understand this but as a shadow in our society, of denial? Progress has been made, we like to think, since the 1980s, when people started to speak out more openly about the abuse they suffered and even to make accusations. For a while, there was a frenzy of this kind of thing, and the fact that some falsely accused -- unwittingly in many cases- - seemed to offer a stamp by which to label all accusers. Perhaps this stamp is used so readily because it is easier to believe that people fabricate their stories of abuse than it is to believe that such horrors occur so frequently. Perhaps it's harder still to believe such claims when the accusations are for someone whom we admire publicly or personally. The pendulum has sadly swung back again for it to be "impolite" to speak of such things. Good girls and boys do not dirty the minds of "good" people by speaking of dark secrets and abuses of our most vulnerable, often at the hands of those who are supposed to guard them against harm. And most of the time, abuse survivors don't files charges. It makes sense when they don't -- as it's very difficult to prove abuse. It's a victim's word against usually a powerful person, and you know who will be believed. So we, yes and this includes me, stay silent, sometimes for decades.

While the truth can set you free, to tell it you must take the risk of being imprisoned behind a new set of bars: Those of social censure, shunning and being labeled a liar. One whole chapter in my memoir Don't Call Me Mother addressed the costs of staying silent and the cost of speaking out. I learned the hard way that even when I left out some of the most vivid details and facts of abuse doesn't mean you are safe from family ejection. If you stand for truth, search for it, and write personal essays and memoirs, you are probably seen as dangerous to those who've perpetrated such acts. But we victims and survivors feel compelled to speak it anyway, to tell our truth and possibly to protect others. We have to live with ourselves.

Every memoirist I have coached over the last 16 years has struggled with how much truth to write, even in a first draft where no one else will see it. That is how powerful the pressure is to stay silent, and by doing so we protect the abusers and further empower them to abuse others without recrimination. This is especially true for abuse survivors. I have known people who were falsely accused, and indeed life is miserable for them until they could "prove" they were innocent, which some did over time. But if the numbers could be measured, and they can't, I believe there are far more who obey the societal rules of staying silent, not voicing the abuses they've suffered, and that they pay the price for their silence in their souls and in their lives. In this article in The New Inquiry, you can read a fair and balanced view of the ethics of this situation, not only for the famous, but for anyone trying to heal/recover from abuse.

I hold a place in my work as a therapist and as a memoir writer and coach that telling the truth, labeling, and naming are powerful tools, and we must use them with respect for that power. We must give ourselves permission to speak or write our truths, allowing the story to contain us and move us forward. A river runs deep within us, affecting our moods and behavior, but when we say or write what is true, we can heal.

Through the National Association of Memoir Writers (NAMW), on my blog and in my book The Power of Memoir, and in my coaching, I support memoir writers and those who struggle to tell the truths of their lives and who draw upon the healing power of writing. NAMW offers monthly teleseminars featuring speakers who have been writing their stories to express the dark -- and the light -- details of their lives, writers who wrestle with Truth, shame, and having a Voice. You can connect with our programs at the National Association of Memoir Writers website.

I hope that the brave and powerful words by Dylan has helped her, that speaking her truth knowing she would ignite storms of controversy is healing for her in the long run -- though she is being discredited once again by Allen's denial.

I hope that telling her story has a positive outcome for her--as today she is the poster child for courage in speaking out, at least for some. I hope that every abuse victim finds the support he or she needs to truly heal, to bring the wounds and darkness of the past into the light and live a full and joyful life.

I have learned of a movement to help give voice, witnessing, and healing to abuse survivors. Please check it out.

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