My family is a mess.
January 3, 2007 9:40 AM   Subscribe

How-I-Spent-My-Xmas-Holiday-Filter: Please help me get my head straight in light of family sexual abuse revelations. This is a long one.

When I was visiting my family over the holidays my mother revealed to me that as a child she witnessed sexual abuse inflicted by her father on her older (teenage) sister. She has been in therapy for the past year and has in the last few months begun to take on the identity of a sexual abuse victim. (Prior to this she says she did not feel she could rightfully claim this title because the abuse was not inflicted directly on her.)

A few months ago she confronted my grandfather, who is 89 and for whom she had been the primary caretaker for the last 5+ years. He was initially repentant but then reversed his position, and now they are not speaking. To complicate things, the sister who was abused has brushed it under the rug, which my mother sees as a betrayal, and there is deep hurt and tension between them.

Needless to say my holidays sucked.

I'd like advice about how to deal with this new information.

I am in my early 30s. All my life my mother prodded me and encouraged me to spend time with my grandfather. We lived with him and my late grandmother on several occasions for months to years at a time, when I was a kid and when I was a teenager. I was always told that they saw my brother and I like their own children and we were special to them.

Now I have to re-frame my entire childhood, it seems. Did she put us at risk? I don't know. I know that she is angry at her sister for moving out at 18 and knowingly leaving her in the home with an abuser... but I spent a lot of time there growing up -- I am a bit stunned by her hypocrisy.

She's not a person I can talk to about this. She is very (very) angry and very much embracing the mantle of "victim". (I assume this is part of the process of acceptance.) She told me that she doesn't understand how much this information affects me. She thinks since I had the usual teenage reticence toward my grandparents it means I don't really care that one of the most important figures in my upbringing is/was a pedophile.

Do I need therapy? Is there something I should read? How can I ever speak to my grandfather again, knowing what I know? Is there any point to trying to hash it out with him, since he's in denial and probably doesn't have much time left anyway? Any insight will be appreciated.

posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

Don't be angry at your mom for "embracing the role of victim." Therapeutically, she needs to be angry and confrontational, and express things she seems to have pent up for a long time. Sounds like it was a long time coming.
Does your aunt deny that she was abused? Does your grandfather deny that he abused her? Establishing the facts seems to be the first step here. I don't think that you should broach this on your own. Perhaps you can ask your mother to set up a family session with you your brother and your aunt? Once you've established what happened you decide how to procede.
posted by Sara Anne at 9:56 AM on January 3, 2007

Hmmm. Your mother has (due to family guilt) spent the last five years of her life taking care of someone who she despises? Who she detests? And you're trying to figure out why she's angry.

"Being a primary caregiver" to an ancient family member is the number one way women (it's always women) drive themselves insane. Being a primary caregiver for someone you detest sounds like a good description of Hell.

Frankly, I would doubt that your mother's anger really has much to do with the witnessed abuse of her sister. Rather, it's because she has to care for, every single day, someone she detests (the reason for the detest doesn't matter). She's dwelling on it. Stewing in it.

Why have you let it go on for five years? You're an adult. Step up. Hire a caregiver for your grandfather and get your mother out of that miserable situation, dragging her if necessary. That's the most supportive thing you can do - get her out of there.

She'll recover on her own, once removed from the source of her misery.

(By the way: in case it isn't obvious - personal accounts are untrustworthy. It is likely that if you grilled your mother, your aunt, and your grandfather about what happened 50+ years ago, you still wouldn't know the truth. You'll never know the truth of what happened. Get used to ambiguity, and don't be too quick to judge any of the three of them based on the statements of one of them.)
posted by jellicle at 10:13 AM on January 3, 2007

She waits until her father is 89 years old to confront him about abusing her sister. I find that more than odd. And the abused sister swept it under the rug. The abused sister is the one that is (was) the victim. Not your mother.
I have not a clue because I am not a therapist. And I am not sure your mother is getting good counseling. Be that as it may. At her age and the father's age she sure has set you up for a lifetime of questions and a change of your childhood memories. What a legacy your mother is giving you. I feel so sorry for you to be so burdened. Only time, patience, love and understanding will help you.
posted by JayRwv at 10:15 AM on January 3, 2007

On preview I agree with jellicle who made a great response. And so right. Thanks jellicle.
posted by JayRwv at 10:18 AM on January 3, 2007

Of course she put you at risk, and it's okay to be angry about that and also about her denial of your feelings. It's something your mom will have to accept and come to terms with in therapy. Yes, I think you should first see a therapist for a short time in order to help clarify your own thoughts. And then, if at all possible, attend a session or two with your mother & her therapist so you can 'safely' discuss your thoughts.

Or you could be like 90% of families in this same situation and ignore all of it.
posted by LadyBonita at 10:30 AM on January 3, 2007

I think it makes sense to be confused by your mom's behavior in this situation. I'm sure your mom is also deeply confused, but that doesn't mean that you don't get to experience whatever emotions you're having right now. If possible, try to cut yourself some slack.

I don't think what I'm about to say is the most popular approach to this, but: don't take on any trauma you're not organically experiencing. If you felt okay about grandfather before this, you don't have to join your mom in whatever she's feeling. Taking on someone else's trauma helps no one.

I think it would be very helpful to see a mental health person. Speaking to a non-judgmental third party can be a good way to work out your own confusion and boundaries, in my experience. You may not want to see your mom's therapist, though. Different therapists have wildly differing beliefs on how emotional trauma should be dealt with. Your mom may be seeing someone who thinks that, as you say, declaring yourself a victim is empowering and helpful. That may be true for your mom. And it may be the exact opposite of what's useful for you.

Also, unless I'm radically misreading the post, the anon has not "let it [his or her mother being the father's primary caregiver] go on for five years."

He or she just found out about it, and in any case, I'm not sure why anyone would think that it's now his or her responsibility to handle this. It's not. The anon's mom is also an adult, and if she wants specific help, she can ask for it. Any blame here should, in my opinion, not be assigned to the person who just had a bomb dropped on them and is scrambling for clarity.

Best of luck and good wishes, anon. That sounds like a rough patch to go through.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 10:36 AM on January 3, 2007

JauRwv - witnessing sexual abuse, especially as a child, is also abusive, which makes anon's mother a victim of sexual abuse, not just her sister. Just think about yourself as a child and how it'd affect you to watch and hear Daddy come into your room at night and sexually molest your sister/brother - plus all the other 101 possible ways Daddy may have acted sexually inapporpriate towards your sibling 24/7, plus the fear of the real possibility that you would be his next target (or the guilt at your relief that sis/bro is the target and not yourself).
posted by LadyBonita at 10:40 AM on January 3, 2007

Last summer, I found out that someone I casually knew was a (now convicted) pedophile. It took me many weeks to "re-frame" my past history with him, and the whole process was mentally exhausting.

I had trouble dealing with the fact that the pedophile I knew was a very nice guy who was always kind and helpful to me. For awhile, I felt like I had to go back through my memories of every time he had done something nice for me, and metaphorically stamp MONSTER across his face. Because I thought that if I didn't, if I left the good memories unedited by my newfound knowledge, then it somehow made me complicit in his atrocities.

And was impossible to retroactively kill every single nice feeling I'd ever had about him. Deep down, I still knew that I had liked him, and that I felt betrayed by what he had done. It was hard to reconcile myself to that, but talking through my feelings with many different people helped me clarify some of the contradictory thoughts.

Which is a long way of telling you that you should find a therapist to talk with about all of this. And that I don't think there's any "right" or "wrong" way to feel about your grandfather; it's okay to hate him for what he did, and it's okay to still love him for good things he did for you as a child. A therapist can help you stop focusing on what you ought to be feeling, and concentrate on what you're actually feeling.
posted by junkbox at 10:49 AM on January 3, 2007

DON'T FORCE YOUR AUNT TO TALK ABOUT IT. Seriously, don't mess with a victim's coping mechanisms. And please tell your mom the same. To try and force your aunt to "deal" with this shit for your mom's sake could be to victimize your aunt a second time -- if the abuse actually happened, which isn't at all clear.

When I was about 18, my mom made a similar revelation about situations I was put in as a child, although the other family members and caregiver complications your family is facing were not a part of the picture.

I was really angry, deeply sad, mad at my mom, and I felt traumatized-after-the-fact by events that I wasn't even really affected by at the time that they happened. It was weird, and it was hard for me to deal with. I think it affected my ability to form new trusting friendships relationships for a period of years.

I found it therapeutic to write about what I had learned on anonymous web sites and message boards -- shouting out my news into the void for all the world to know, without actually attaching it to myself and my person. I was alarmed to find that other people were posting similar secrets at the same time.

It still makes me uncomfortable to think about the details, but I guess I've come to a grudging acceptance of the past. In the end, I had to acknowledge that no actual facts had changed as a result of my mother's revelations -- only my knowledge and understanding of those facts. I love my mom, and I also decided that in order to be at peace with her and with myself I have to accept the decisions she made and not agonize over the past.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:54 AM on January 3, 2007

A lot of good advice above. It's also worth keeping in mind that your mother is probably feeling incredibly guilty because she believes that she put you, her daughter, at risk by asking you to spend time with a pedophile when you were a child. Some of her accusations that you don't care and claims not to understand you are probably a result of her guilt and shame about not protecting you from someone who had the potential to hurt you. As she works through her feelings and realizes that none of this, including her inability to admit what happened in time to make sure you were never at risk, was her fault, I think that your relationship with her will get back to somewhat normal.

If you're confused or hurt or upset or need advice, there's no reason not to see a therapist for a couple of sessions. If nothing else, the therapist may be able to give you some insight into the type of emotional work your mother is doing, which will help you be supportive and understanding of her. But I also think that having a neutral person to bounce your own feelings off of might make you feel better.

I'm so sorry that this has happened to your family, and I wish you all the best.
posted by decathecting at 11:01 AM on January 3, 2007

Sara Anne writes "Don't be angry at your mom for 'embracing the role of victim.' Therapeutically, she needs to be angry and confrontational, and express things she seems to have pent up for a long time. Sounds like it was a long time coming."

This is wrong. At the very least, the information that we have does not allow for this interpretation.

Abuse is horrible and can take a real toll on families. How people deal with the revelations of abuse are their own business. There's no reason, for instance, to reevaluate your own relationship with your grandfather simply because your mother's has changed. You're free to decide that you have no dog in that fight; your Aunt is as well, and her decision should be respected. If you're pissed at your mother for leaving you with your grandfather, go ahead and be pissed at her, see a therapist if you want, talk about it if you want. Or don't. It's entirely up to you.

Abuse is best dealt with in whatever way feels comfortable to you. People are very resilient, and their coping strategies tend to be quite good for traumatic events. If you're really troubled, but all means, seek treatment. If not, don't. It's a pernicious myth that the only way to deal with trauma is to talk about it, and studies tracking rates of PTSD, for instance, in 9/11 first responders have actually found higher rates in those who were encouraged to talk about their reactions to what they saw.

I am a psychotherapist, but not your psychotherapist. Please call 911 or visit an ER if you feel that this is an emergency.
posted by OmieWise at 11:34 AM on January 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

Your grandfather did (?) a terrible thing.

He did not do anything terrible to you.

I can't help but think your mother is mis-remembering some of this. If she really, truly witnessed sexual abuse, then even in financial dire straits, why would she put her child in the same house as the perpetrator? And then totally loose her shit over it not then but all these years later?

Something does not pass the smell test w.r.t. your mother's behavior. I assume no malice... it just seems her current account is not compatible with past behavior (living with him) and current conditions (your aunt being "fine" with it).

But, that aside, OmieWise above is perfect. If you feel bothered or disturbed, talk to someone. Or don't. Whatever you feel.

And for heaven's sake, don't let your mom or someone else give you the "You've got to see a therapist... you've been TRAUMATIZED!" line. You'll know if you've been traumatized.

My armchair analysis, which should only be used for amusement, is that your mother has other issues and she is latching on to this event as a sort of watershed for what came after. Reading between the lines, I assume your early years were a struggle since you were forced to live with them from time to time. Your mother is profoundly angry, and is basically blaming your aunt for not being more upset. Your mother is expecting grand pronouncements from your grandfather, your aunt, and even you.

That is, of course, just my opinion.
posted by Ynoxas at 8:19 PM on January 3, 2007

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