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No, It Was Not Your Fault!

source: Margot Silk Forrest

With a little knowledge and a lot of kindness, survivors can learn to release themselves from taking the blame for the evil that was done to them.

One of the things that sympathetic friends find so hard to understand about survivors of childhood sexual abuse is why we feel responsible for the very abuse that was inflicted upon us. “You were a child!” they plead. “You were little. You couldn’t have stopped it!” Well, my adult mind knows that. But getting my feelings to agree is a different matter.

Of course, there are those unhelpful “friends” and family members who do want us to take responsibility. “You asked for it,” they say, looking at us with cold eyes. Or, “You let it happen.”

I have a friend named Willow who was raped by her stepbrother when she was six. She remembers vividly the moment she told her mother what had happened. Her mother was emptying the dishwasher. She kept her back to Willow as the child told her story. Then, still not turning to face her, she snapped, “It’s your fault. It’s your problem. You’ll just have to deal with it.”

This nearly inconceivable cruelty is not uncommon. And it is very difficult to rise above unless we have done the work of releasing ourselves from responsibility for the abuse. Yes, other people’s cold-hearted reactions to our suffering can hurt us, but they cannot re-victimize us unless their accusations find an echo in our own hearts.

Have you ever been accused of something you totally didn’t do? Never even thought of or wanted to do? I have, and my spontaneous reaction is to laugh! It’s so funny, so out-there-in-left-field!

But when someone unjustly accuses me of doings something that I have some guilty feelings about—maybe I thought about doing it—I’m upset and outraged. I respond with a violent denial—so violent, in fact, the person probably thinks I’m lying. The point is, if we can really cleanse our hearts of feeling responsible for the abuse we suffered, we can cope better with the ill-natured or ill-informed opinions we run into about the abuse. The only aspect of sexual abuse that survivors are responsible for is healing it.

What is it, then, that makes us—even as children—feel responsible for the sexual abuse? There is an entire constellation of causes for this, which I have culled from professional, spiritual, and personal sources. See which ones apply to you. Later, we’ll look at how to disarm these deadly weapons.

The first and simplest reason why survivors feel responsible for the abuse is that as children they were often told so by their perpetrators. “It’s all your fault!” was the message from my father, loud and clear. And I believed him. He was a grownup. He knew why the sun rose, how electricity worked, and when spring would come. He was my dad.

Professionals in the field of child sexual abuse estimate that only a tiny percent of all perpetrators accept responsibility for their acts. In fact, perpetrators have some very creative excuses for their crimes, most of which try to shift the blame to the child.

Therapist Timothy A. Smith lists several of these excuses in the pamphlet “You Don’t Have to Molest That Child,” distributed by the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse: “She liked the attention.” “She didn’t tell me to stop.” “She said no, but she really meant yes.” “She didn’t tell anyone, so she must have liked it.” “She led me on.” “Why else would she have called me to tuck her in?” So, a powerful adult told us (in words or by implication) that the abuse was our fault. Of course we believed it. But now we know better.

The second powerful reason why children feel responsible for their abuse is that the dysfunctional family system tailors them for the role. In a major study reported in the November 1983 issue of the journal Psychiatry, Denise J. Gelinas, Ph.D., reported that as children, incest victims typically suffered parentification.

“In parentification,” Gelinas writes, “the child comes to function as a parent; she gradually does the cooking and laundry…provides the child care, or in other ways takes care of the parents. Through gradual and usually unwitting induction by her parents, she begins not only to perform task functions, but to assume responsibility for these functions…. She gradually internalizes her role of responsibility and begins to develop her identity around the caretaking of others.

“A child will ‘allow’ herself to be parentified in large part because of her loyalty toward her family, especially her parents. Because of this filial loyalty, children attempt to assist, reassure, and protect their parents, often at astonishingly young ages.” So the stage is already set when the sexual abuse begins. The child is the responsible one in the family. It is her identity. “Responsibility is her middle name.”

Does this ring any bells for you? It does for me. Here’s an example of an event in my childhood for which I took immediate (and inappropriate) responsibility. This occurred when I was four. We had moved to a new neighborhood and I was out in the tool shed introducing myself to the neighbor’s dog, a Dalmatian. I had put my arms around his neck and was nuzzling his sweet spotty face when he suddenly snarled, turned on me, and tore up the side of my face. I ran screaming out of the shed. My mother dashed from the house and as she mopped up my blood with a dishtowel, I gasped between sobs, “It was my fault, Mommy. I hugged him too hard!”

Right. I had fourteen stitches in my face from eyebrow to cheekbone and nearly lost my eye from that dog bite. And that was my fault?

One of the advantages of assuming responsibility is that it give us control (or so we think). What could be more soothing to a terrified little girl than to believe that she really has control of the situation? From “I make Daddy do this” to “I can make Daddy stop doing this” is just a short step.

It’s a myth, of course. Our own sad experience tells us that we couldn’t make Daddy (or whoever our perpetrator was) stop. But that’s the Monday morning quarterback talking. To the child—and therefore to the inner child sobbing at the core of every survivor—even the illusion of control provides some relief.

“The child faced with continuing helpless victimization must learn to somehow achieve a sense of power and control,” explains psychiatrist Roland Summit in his landmark report “The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome” (Child Abuse & Neglect, Vol. 7).

“The child cannot safely conceptualize that a parent might be ruthless and self-serving; such a conclusion is tantamount to abandonment and annihilation. The only acceptable alternative for the child is to believe that she has provoked the painful encounters and to hope that by learning to be good she can earn love and acceptance.”

There is yet another cause for a child assuming responsibility for her abuse, one that reaches to the root of the human experience. In her book, Too Scared to Cry, psychiatrist Lenore Terr writes, “An overwhelmed child immediately feels during a traumatic event that he has no options. His response to this feeling is an awareness of utter helplessness.” It is this feeling of total helplessness following an “overwhelmingly intense emotional blow” that makes an experience traumatic, Terr explains.

She goes on to point out that the devastating effect of the trauma is heightened by the child’s loss of autonomy or control over self. “One special human quality,” she writes, “is the ability to control the environment, to use long-range planning and impulse control to master situations. Children develop this ability—a little at a time, of course—beginning in late infancy. But what happens when a child who has achieved some autonomy is suddenly robbed of it?

A child in such circumstances is totally helpless, and he knows that he is. He has temporarily lost a very human attribute and an early accomplishment, the ability to exert autonomy.” In a way, Terr says, he is “temporarily rendered sub-human.”

This loss of autonomy is so intolerable to the child—and she is so powerless to change her circumstances—she has only one option. She can turn the tables by assuming responsibility for the event. Voila! Autonomy has been reclaimed by a very deft turn of the mind. “I make this happen,” the terrified little girl decides. She reassures herself by once again becoming mistress of her body, her environment. At a tremendous cost, of course.

There are still a few more cards in this deck. When they are very young, it is natural for children to feel they are the center of the universe. This is a normal part of child development. They have no sense of anything in the universe—including sun, moon, and stars—as being unconnected to them. So whatever happens—rain, the death of a pet, a burnt meal, molestation—is caused by them. Or so the child believes.

For some, religion plays a part in this unhealthy scenario. Some children are taught that when something bad happens, it is the will of God, punishment for their bad thoughts and actions.

The last ingredient in the unpalatable stew of responsibility is something I came across in therapy recently. I thought I had really accepted the fact that I was not responsible for my abuse. But that was in my mind. As I worked with my therapist and reached back into the feelings of the child that I was—feelings that are still vividly alive deep within me—I realized that I didn’t want to let go of the last thread of responsibility.

I was still holding on. I felt tremendous terror and grief and confusion. What was going on? As the inner story unraveled, what came up was this “reasoning” from my inner child: Since Daddy isn’t responsible for the abuse (that’s what he says), and Mommy isn’t (because she doesn’t know about it), then I am. Because if I am not responsible for the abuse, then no one is. And that means that the world doesn’t make sense, that our universe is a place of random terror, helplessness, and torture. No! My child-self could not tolerate that! That was the road to insanity. If assuming responsibility was the price for sanity, I would gladly pay it.

When I looked at my adult life, I saw I had a long-standing habit of taking responsibility for things I hadn’t done, simply because no one else would own up to them. I could handle being blamed. I just couldn’t handle the thought that no one was to blame. I have sat in many a business meeting and said, “Okay. Let’s just say I am responsible for that screw-up. Now, how do we fix it?” Human nature abhors a vacuum—responsibility must be assigned.

So, as children (and later as adults) we are caught in a veritable web of assumed responsibility. Our abusers tell us that we are to blame. Our family dynamic tells us that we, not our parents, are responsible for what happens in the family. Our overwhelming traumatic experiences leave us only one option: assume responsibility and thereby regain our control, our autonomy, our humanity.

As I look deeply at the causes and conditions that led to my feeling so totally responsible for the sexual abuse that poisoned my childhood, compassion enters my heart for the little girl that I was. She must be bent double from all the responsibility she took on. So I will lift from her back the weight of her father’s blaming words, her family’s neediness, her desperate ploy to assert autonomy, and her fear of insanity. Once free of those burdens, she’ll be able to be a kid again.

Copyright © Margot Silk Forrest
Reprinted With Permission


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