I am a therapist who works with victims of childhood sexual abuse. Most of those I treat are in their 40’, 50’s or older. Recently a woman in her 40’s came to see me suffering from symptoms of anxiety and depression. As part of her intake I asked if she was ever abused. It is a standard open-ended question that I ask everyone I see. She denied it but with some hesitation.
At a subsequent session she admitted that she was abused when she was about 11 years old by a family member. She never told anyone about what happened until she told me some specific details of what occurred. She was about 11 years old readying for sleep when her abuser came into her room. He had a pocketknife and threatened her with it. He pushed her onto her bed and molested her. In the course of the abuse he cut her arm with his knife. The cut was not deep, and she never showed it to anyone. Within a few days of the incident she came down with a fever. Her mother took her to the family pediatrician who treated the fever but as she recalled, also asked about the cut on her arm. She told me that she never answered the doctor. I wondered if the pediatrician might have any record and while she did not want to make any effort to report or confront her abuser, she did sign a release for me to speak with the doctor who was still in practice.
I contacted the pediatrician. He recalled the woman and her family. He told me that he maintained a file of cases that had disturbed him, cases where he might have missed something or where he was uncomfortable with a patient’s progress or simply cases that he felt were not resolved, – her name was in his file. He had the date that she was “brought in with a fever” and made a note that she had “a relatively superficial cut on her arm that looked as if it came from a knife.” It was healing and that she would not tell him how she got it. He went on to say that it had bothered him mostly because he was not sure what to do beyond telling the parent that he noticed the “scratch” and that he would like to see her again in a few days.
Victims of sexual abuse may not recall the specific day of their attack. They may not remember broad details. But they always recall specifics. They can tell you the color of the wallpaper, where a lamp stood or the scent of the aftershave their attacker wore.
Victims of sexual abuse often do not reveal what occurred until many years after the attack. Most often this is because of fear of more harm befalling them or their relatives. When they do come forward it is because they are experiencing a trigger event, having a child that is about the same age when they were abused, fear of how they may be performing sexually with a partner or any number of other normal occurrences.
A few years ago, I wrote about a man who was a teacher during the school year and a camp counselor over the summer. He had a habit of waking boys up and taking them “skinny dipping.” During the school year he would take his victims to an isolated classroom to allegedly tutor them but would instead abuse them. I knew about him because I was treating two of his victims. Both were men in their 50’s. The abuser had long since died. After the article appeared I received close to a hundred phone calls, E mails and texts from others who were victimized by the same man. None of them ever reported him. They never told their friends, parents, principal or camp director.
When a young person tells me that they were abused I always report it to the proper authorities even if they are resistant. It is my obligation as a clinician to do so. But, you cannot force an adult to report their abuse. You cannot tell them that they cannot remain anonymous if they choose to do so. They have lived with the pain for many years and with the proper help will find a way to work through it. In some cases that includes reporting what happened to them.
I do not know Dr. Christine Blasey Ford or Judge Brett Kavanaugh. What I do know is that when someone comes forward detailing a case of sexual abuse they deserve the respect and sensitivity to allow a proper assessment of the situation. This cannot be done by asking leading, politically motivated questions. Congress can have no standing in determining the veracity of Dr. Ford’s recall. Someone trained in evaluating abuse should be overseeing any investigation. Rachel Mitchell, the attorney experienced in sexual abuse cases hired by the Republicans to interrogate Dr. Ford said as much herself. Unfortunately, despite all the progress made over the last 30 years, there are forces worldwide that still want to intimidate victims to remain silent. Progress can only occur when moderate voices are willing to proceed in non-partisan ways.