People who make tastleless jokes are often testing boundaries. For some, it’s to see how far they can go before others take offence. The people who make jokes about rape aren’t all rapists. The ones who make racist jokes don’t always mean to be racist. The idiot who jibes that a woman should make him a sandwich isn’t actually expecting a sandwich. Not everyone who jokes is joking. Some people are deadly serious. Some people are waiting to see whether they can get away with something worse.
The person who made a joke about child sex abuse today definitely wasn’t a paedophile. I know this for a fact. That person knew, however, that I was abused as a child. They knew because I told them, many times. The very last time I confronted them with this fact, the paedophile who abused me was standing there in the same room and admitted it was true.
I can count seven separate instances of sexual abuse when I was a child.
The first time, I was four. A relative I was staying with, while my mother arranged emigration to London, insisted on bathing me and his son every night. I told my mother when I returned home. Nothing was done.
The second time, I was eight. Several times a week for the next four years, I was raped as I lay in bed at night, frozen in fear. It never occurred to me to scream. I had no thoughts at all.
The third time was the son of my childminder, who pushed me under a bed and raped me. His father was in the room and knew what was happening. I couldn’t tell anyone because if I did I knew I’d have to explain the other things too.
The fourth time was a boy on my road when I was ten. He asked me to be his girlfriend and invited me to play at his house. He had pulled my trousers down when his mother walked into the room and told him to stop what he was doing. “That’s dirty” she said. I was too scared to tell my mother; the boy’s father carried a knife everywhere he went.
The fifth time I was playing with a group of kids in the underground garages below the flats where we lived. We were playing hide & seek: I was It. A boy grabbed me in the dark, shoved me against a wall, put his hands everywhere. Frozen again, I could only wait until he stopped and then I ran home. I was in the first year at secondary school, he was in third. He appeared beside me in the lunchtime queue and I lost my mind, screaming at him to get away from me.
Three days later I stood up and walked out in the middle of a Maths class. I went to the guidance counsellor’s office and told her everything. That night I was interviewed by the police and taken into care. I’m going to put up a short story along with this post that explains what happened after that.
The sixth time I was working with horses on my own in a paddock when a man appeared and dragged me into the shelter in the corner of the field and tried to kiss me, pushing me up against the wall and he pressed his body against me. I slipped free and ran away.
The seventh time lasted from my release from the children’s home until I was twenty-four years old, when I confronted the paedophile in front of my family for the last time and he ran away to America the same night.
I’ve been raped twice more as an adult. This is a post about child sexual abuse however; we needn’t get into those situations here.
I’m writing this because I have one valium tablet left from a back injury that I’ve been saving for the day I really need it. I know that I will need it because post-traumatic stress disorder never goes away. One day I will need more help that I can muster in myself and I need to be prepared for that. In the meantime, writing is better than valium. It’s the one constant that has never failed to calm me down when I can’t cope with reality any more. Upset writing has its own feel; the sentences are short and to the point, brutally bare, devoid of emotion, colour, life. They are cathartic and utterly useless to me once the words appear on screen.
People listen in a different way when you announce things in a loud voice. Like the old line about rape victims shouting “fire!” instead of “help!” It’s time for me to shout fire.
I’ve never published anything about the abuse I personally suffered because I do not want my experiences to define me as a writer. There’s so much disgusting ugliness in the world that I don’t want to add to. I have other plans for this skill, beautiful ideas that I believe can make a difference without making anyone sad. Abuse has impacted my life in myriad destructive ways that have left me feeling decimated, like a large portion of my flesh was sliced off and tossed upon wasteground in another country where I could never retrieve it. To write officially about these experiences would be to set off on a quixotic journey with no purpose; the flesh would be rotten and useless even if I found it. I do not want that nasty lump grafted back upon my body.
Yet here I am: why? Because I’m tired and angry and I am admitting defeat. I could never be glad that those horrific things happened but I have to admit that losing part of myself shaped me into the person that I am proud to be today. Despite not being able to go a week without nightmares, not being able to watch movies without a creeping feeling of unease as females are gratuitously sexualised, not being able to read the news without hearing new traumas suffered by innocent children that for all my efforts I have been unable to prevent, not being able to ignore alarm bells and warning signs that send my thoughts spiralling out of control, not being able to sit in an empty room, alone, silent, without flashbacks of that frozen feeling, the darkness that surrounded me in almost all the cases closing in across the gulf of time.
I’m defeated because every time I’ve tried to speak to the people in my life about the things I lived through, they’ve been dismissed, ignored or rejected, never to be brought up again even though I’m desperate to talk about these things so that other people understand how sexual abuse happens, what effect it has, how it can be stopped. Unfortunately, people don’t care what third parties think: unless you profess to personal experience in no unclear terms, there is absolutely no interest in what you’re trying to say. And I feel it’s important to say something, to speak out. I try to use my voice as a means to help others; I support abortion for rape survivors (and anyone else), I attend rallies for victims of injustice, make donations to charities, try to explain the reality whenever I encounter statements or situations alluding to abuse. I use social media to draw awareness to situations that have occurred or are ongoing in order to try, in my tiny way, to lend my efforts in stopping the extensive crush of this devastating sickness that is plaguing the world.
If I didn’t do this, I would be ignoring the truth about what happened to me. My life would be a lie. Every single period in my life when I have attempted to repudiate the truth, it’s almost ended up killing me. I cannot live with the lie.
So I do what I can to be open and truthful towards the people that I know, and to be audacious in my online presence by highlighting the prevalence of this endemic disease. I’ve tried to conduct myself in a manner that does not seek personal attention for my efforts, just heightened awareness, because I will never be a child again but there are a great many out there in the world at grave risk. The result of my actions almost always amounts to the same sum of nothing. Silence. Apathy. And it is this apathy, coupled with the petrification, the frozen fear, that allows rapists, molesters, child sexual abusers to continue to carry out their crimes against the most vulnerable people in society. In Ireland, we look with shock at the past when children were systematically abused and raped for decades and ask ourselves how it could happen. It happened because people were silent and inactive. The media at this very moment is full of stories that prove that child abuse is still happening.
I had a lovely day today. I spent time with my children, my partner, his parents. We went for lunch, drank beautiful Chilean Malbec, chatted about our plans for the summer, were presented with delicious chocolate torte as a grautity for lingering longer over a second lazy glass. It was all going swimmingly and then that person thought it would be funny to bring up child abuse. And my entire day crumbled to dust. I reacted with anger. Then I cried. I tried to go to bed. It didn’t work and I sounded off online instead. It made no difference, no one really cared. Then the real danger crept in. I crashed and the bad thoughts, the worst ones, crept in. I had to do something to distract myself: hurt myself, drug myself or reveal myself. This is post-traumatic stress disorder, where a tiny pebble causes an avalanche.
When someone jokes about child abuse, it doesn’t make them an abuser. It does however send a message that the subject is not serious. When people see those jokes and do not challenge them they are staying silent. Whether apathy or fear of seeming extreme, the result is the same: abusers seize that inactivity to justify their exploitation as harmless. Ireland is gripped in a cycle of silence. It’s taken me twenty-six years but I’ve found my voice and I’m prepared to scream as loud as I can, for as long as I can, until someone tells me it’s okay. I can stop now.