Of course, often in families—and it sounds like this might be the case in yours, given the conversation you mention—the secret isn’t a secret at all. Instead, a family culture exists in which keeping the secret protects not just the abuser, but the entire family system. Bringing the abuse to light threatens the status quo, and even if the family is split up, as yours is, keeping the secret could still preserve that equilibrium.
For instance, your mother or grandmother may not have wanted to believe any abuse was occurring, because as long as they told themselves that everything was fine, they wouldn’t have to report your father, which might have led to his conviction, a lack of child support, enormous embarrassment or shame in the community, or other consequences the family didn’t want to face. But in order to rationalize keeping the secret—in essence, sacrificing the victim—they pretend that the secret doesn’t exist.
I mention this because if you do tell your mother, it will help to first get clear about what you want her to know and why—and to be prepared if she’s unable or unwilling to give it you. For instance, do you have questions that you want answered, such as what your mother knew or suspected? Would you like her to express remorse in some way for not having done anything to protect you when she had concerns about what was going on? If she denies the conversation you mention, how do you want to respond? Would you like her to now stand by you and support you as you tell other family members (if that’s what you decide to do)? Do you wish that once you have this conversation, she and the rest of your family will also cut ties with your father and inform his new family of his abuse? How will you feel if they don’t?
These questions are important for you to answer because sometimes people hope that by telling the people who should have protected them, these people will take their heads out of the sand and provide some form of healing. Sometimes that happens, but in case it doesn’t, it helps to go into the conversation with a different orientation: that the telling is being done just for you—for the psychic relief in letting the secret out, and of not colluding in the family’s fiction but instead shedding the helplessness and taking action, of which this telling might just be a first step.
If you come around to that orientation, the question of whether and whom you should tell should seem easier to sort out. Maybe you’ll inform your family about the abuse, either gradually or all at once. Maybe you’ll consult an attorney and see what your options are (after all, there’s a chance that any children in his house are suffering as you did). Maybe a weight will be lifted by telling a trusted friend or romantic partner about your experience—somebody who doesn’t have stakes attached to believing you—and getting the supportive response you deserve. At this point in your life, you get to decide what you want to do with your experience, and as you continue to heal, that’s going to be far more important than how anyone in your family reacts to it.
Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.