Intense inquiry dynamics
September 17, 2022 10:06 AM   Subscribe

Should I ask a childhood acquaintance whether he witnessed sexual abuse in my family?

I had an alcoholic and dissociated father and a my mother had narcissistic behaviors and her affect toward us kids had a romantic and sexualized flavor. I don't remember sex, I do remember her asking us to touch her naked back and run our finger through her hair in ways that felt uncomfortable. She definitely telegraphed loneliness that could only be relieved by us kids. My 5-years-older brother and I also had what in retrospect I see as a weirdly sexualized energy. I thought of myself as being in love with him as I reached my pre-teen age, but have a harder time pinning down specifics from early childhood. I do have memories of being naked under blankets with him and his friend who I will call Mike. Mike was around a lot, and I also remember that even when we were kids, Mike and my brother would talk about my mom's weird behaviors - such as lying around in a dress with no underwear, when Mike was over. I have no memories of specific sexual acts between any family members, but have for my entire life felt that there was something wrong about it all. As an adult, I understand these dynamics were harmful to me whether or not they included behaviors that would be labeled sexual abuse, but I still always wonder if I did experience some more specific sexual abuse from a parent or my brother at a young age.

My brother and I have a very distant and challenging relationship, but about 10 years ago he told me that my mother sexually abused him. I never inquired details due to other factors in our relationship. Recently I reached out and offered to hear more but he has declined to share more specifics so far.

On one hand, I understand that I will never gain an 'objective truth' about what happened. I know shit was weird and fucked up (along with the positive things that also existed), and that is sometimes enough for me to think about as I process stuff in therapy and in life. But on another hand, I have a deep desire to know 'what happened'. I talked to my childhood best friend about it, but she's about a year younger than me so has similarly murky memories. She did say that the dynamic between my brother and I seemed off at times including seeing us naked together in contexts that felt uncomfortable. She asked her older brother who said my brother was sexual toward him. But again, she doesn't have her own specific memories of all this.

My question is: Should I reach out to my brother's old friend Mike and ask? He is old enough to remember more than my and my friend. I remember he and my brother actually verbalizing discomfort about my mom at the time. I feel like he holds information that would be a relief for me to understand (even knowing that he was a kid so his memories will also be warped by time.). I don't know the details of his current relationship with my brother. They seem to be Facebook friends but I have never heard him come up as someone my brother maintains a relationship with. I have run into him a couple times as adults - last time maybe 10 years ago or so. We briefly caught up on our lives. Have some very slight overlap in shared interests. We live in same area.

I want to respect my brother's needs too. But we are also all middle aged adults with our own agency here, and as I say I can barely talk to my brother now. Is it ethical? Wise? Super fucking weird? for me to ask brother's friend if he's willing to sit down to coffee and share his sense of my family dynamics when I was a kid? I have this sense that it will be tremendously powerful for me to get some external feedback about my childhood, but I also sense this is a weird idea.

FWIW we're all people who grew up in California who maintain liberal/self-helpy/California/alternative values so these topics are generally on the table in our cultural milieu - but of course I don't know how this specific person will receive the question. Also, my aim is not at all to like, accuse Mike of harming me. Or even to accuse my brother. We were all kids. If Mike was involved in harmful behaviors toward me, I am not trying to 'catch' him, but to understand. But my inquiry would be directed toward understanding what my mother's behaviors were and secondarily understanding what the dynamics between my brother and I looked like from the outside. Whatever Mike may or may not have been involved in - I would imagine he would not likely volunteer. And I'm OK with that - that's not my main interest so would want to frame this to avoid putting him on the defensive.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (5 answers total)
Is it ethical? Wise? Super fucking weird? for me to ask brother's friend if he's willing to sit down to coffee and share his sense of my family dynamics when I was a kid?

I think with reasonably strong boundaries and expectations, this is a thing you could do. However, I'd really frame it in a specific way "Hey Mike I've been processing some of my weird upbringing with my therapist and there are some gaps in my memories about some of this. I'm wondering if you'd be up for talking about some of it with me over coffee some time?"

I would not mention anything about sexual abuse, I would not mention anything about whatever interactions you and kid-Mike had, I don't think you have to involve your brother in this. At the same time, I think the likelihood that your discussion and what it reveals are going to be "tremendously powerful" for you are low, and may make things more confusing. I might think in advance how you might feel if Mike turns out to be a creep, or if Mike doesn't remember or denies things that you remember happening, or if Mike doesn't want to talk at all, or if Mike's memories put you in a weird position regarding your own agency in your childhood negative experiences. Would that be better or worse than where you are now?

Not saying it's not a weird idea, but also saying, especially with your caveat that you're all "liberal/self-helpy/California/alternative values" people (I have some family in that part of the world/culture and I feel like I get what you are saying) that might not be that weird a thing to do. Also,if you are currently in therapy I'd ask your therapist about this idea.
posted by jessamyn at 10:29 AM on September 17 [11 favorites]

It sounds to me that you're hoping for an objective viewpoint where none is available.

Mike is not objective, since he was involved, and since he participated in a power dynamic and actions which were unequal and harmful to you.

I think the odds are that Mike will probably be able and willing to tell you your parent was abusive, and maybe that your brother was abusive, but he will be strongly unlikely to tell you that he, Mike, was abusive, since he will have re-framed those situations in his head to minimize his own culpability.

What you will get from him could run the gamut. On the negative side, it could include denial, repressed memories, half-truths, lying, self-defence, projection of guilt, accusations towards others, or even claims that YOU initiated or perpetuated your own abuse. On the positive side, it could include perspectives and facts that help you piece together what happened.

There's no reason for children with a 5 year age gap to ever be naked in bed together, for instance. That is not a normal playdate. If the boys were around age 8 or younger, it's a bit more innocent I guess, but still not appropriate. If they were older than about 10 they were into puberty territory and the odds of things getting weird increase with their age. No matter what, an adult should have been better supervising and prevented this.

And it's not ok for an adult to expose their genitals to children, or use touch from children to relieve their loneliness, so it sounds like your mom was negligent at best (not supervising) as well as sexually inappropriate (nudity and touch).

Based on what you've shared, it's clear that there were boundaries crossed by your mom, your brother, and Mike. Mike might tell you everything was normal, but this internet stranger is here to call bullshit on that pre-emptively.

You own your own life story, so it's always ok to ask questions about, or talk about, things that involved you. I don't think you need to manage or protect how your brother would feel since you'd be asking Mike about something that happened to YOU. That story is YOURS as much as it's your brother's.

My only concern is that what you get from Mike might be harmful or untrue, and thus not helpful to you. But if you think you can look critically at whatever he says and not be gaslit by it, then by all means dig deeper.

I wish you peace and healing whatever you decide. Your childhood sounds abusive and you did not deserve it.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 10:55 AM on September 17 [7 favorites]

I don’t know what would happen if you asked Mike about his experience of your family, but I’d like to offer one possibility: kid-Mike might have noticed uncomfortable feelings around your mom, or things about your brother’s behavior/impulses that seemed off in some way, and gone “this doesn’t make sense and feels bad to think about too much.” In which case, adult-Mike might not remember specifics, and might even say things like, “I’m sure if anything overt happened, I’d remember it.” (To be clear: an adult woman setting up a minor to see her genitals is overt sexually inappropriate behavior, but the minor wouldn’t necessarily know that, especially decades ago.)

How do you feel about the possibility he doesn’t recall anything, and further that he considers this lack of memory evidence he never witnessed/experienced anything inappropriate in your home? Adults often have strong reactions of self-protection when their old psychological defenses are challenged. I’m not saying don’t talk to him—I don’t know what you should do—I just want you to think through the risk to your well-being and healing if he were to respond in an invalidating way.

Whatever you do, it sounds like you know deep down that the dynamics in your family were harmful to you, and your mother behaved in ways that were unsafe for you and other kids. Your knowing is as valid as any proof you could find.
posted by theotherdurassister at 1:05 PM on September 17 [1 favorite]

I don’t think there would be any harm in asking, for an in-person coffee if possible but perhaps just an emailed brain dump.

Like others I doubt he has a lot of the information you want in a form that will be useful, but it’s always good to get one more perspective.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:13 PM on September 17 [1 favorite]

Just another perspective: many people who witnessed abuse are just as reticent to discuss it as those who participated or were victimized. So I don’t think framing it as “just” wanting to talk about what he saw will necessarily have the effect of easing him off the defensive. I don’t think it’s weird of you to want this information, not at all, but I guess I’m more on the side of thinking this would be received as an imposition.
posted by kapers at 11:34 PM on September 17

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