Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My parents divorced when I was very young, and afterward my father began sexually abusing me, which went on for years. I never told anyone in my family, and once I moved away from home I cut all contact with my father. I’m in my late 20s now, and my life is significantly better without him in it.

The problem is that my not talking to my father has started to raise questions. Recently my mother brought up the fact that I haven’t spoken to him in years and said something to the effect of “What could he possibly have done?” On the one hand, I’ve been through enough counseling to feel that I don’t owe anyone an explanation for not wanting a toxic person in my life, and bringing it up now, 10-plus years after the fact, wouldn’t change what happened. I’m also not emotionally prepared for the level of uproar it would cause if I started talking about it (my family are fabulous gossips).

On the other hand, I wonder if I should come forward. Many members of my mother’s family still have a friendly (if not especially close) relationship with my father, and I’d be lying if I said that didn’t hurt me a little. My father has a new wife and new kids, and there’s certainly a vindictive part of me that wants to damage that under the guise of “They deserve to know.” I don’t have any reason to think my mother’s family wouldn’t believe me. And I know for a fact that there was at least one conversation between my mother, my father, and his mother about some concerns they had when I was in my early teens.

Should I let sleeping dogs lie, or is this secret something I need to share?

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

I’m so sorry that this happened to you, and I’m glad to hear that you’ve been able to talk about the abuse with a trusted therapist. I also sympathize with your current dilemma: Not telling anyone about a parent’s sexual abuse often makes the person feel even more alone in an already isolating experience, and tends to perpetuate the shame and confusion from the abuse even long after it has ended. At the same time, it can be difficult to decide whom to tell and why, because of some of the consequences you’ve anticipated in your letter. But whatever one chooses, because victims have such a lack of control during abuse, it’s important that they control the telling. In other words, this decision is about your comfort, a consideration that wasn’t given to you as a child. So let’s look at what would be helpful for you at this point in your life.

First, you’re right that you don’t owe anyone an explanation, but I don’t think that your choice is binary: say nothing or disclose everything. If you don’t offer any information to your family members about why you don’t speak to your father, they’ll probably fill in the blanks, often with inaccurate assumptions—that you’re angry about the divorce or that your father left and started another family; that you’re ungrateful; that you’re acting like a teenager in your 20s and will grow out of this in a few years. Whatever it is, you’re likely to be mischaracterized and misunderstood, blamed for something that isn’t your fault.

One option, if you’re not comfortable telling your family members about the abuse, is to give an explanation, revealing as much or as little as you’d like. You might say something like, “I know you want to know why I don’t talk to Dad. Please know that I’ve thought long and hard about this decision, but for reasons that are personal and that I’d rather not talk about—and that Dad is fully aware of—this is what I have to do. I hope you’ll respect my decision and trust that, even though I’d rather not share the details, it wasn’t a decision I made lightly.”

Remember that whatever you choose to say now doesn’t prevent you from sharing more information later. I say this because it’s clear from your letter that there’s also a part of you that wants your family members to know what happened. Yes, you want them to know what the man they remain friendly with did to you, and you want his new family to know as well, because it wouldn’t be fair for him to get away with his actions while you have been suffering their consequences. But I think you also want to come out of hiding and finally be seen after feeling so harrowingly unseen for all these years. It takes a lot of emotional energy to keep a painful secret, and when it comes to sexual abuse, the secret, like a toxic bond between the abuser and the abused, can keep you feeling imprisoned by the perpetrator’s power. In that way, the secret still controls you. But if the secret’s out, that bond is finally broken.

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.

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