Monday 5 December 2016

Dear Patricia: The secret of what my brother did to me still overshadows my life

Patricia Redlich

Published 28/11/2010 | 05:00

I AM a girl in my early 20s and don't know what to do. From the age of eight, until I was about 10, I was sexually abused by an older brother. This went on in our house and in many of the outbuildings on the farm. I suppose that since we were living in the same house, it wasn't hard for him to get me on my own. He did not have sex with me. He just did things to me and made me do things to him that make me feel sick even thinking about them.

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I am not sure why it stopped, but it was probably a mixture of me finally having the courage to confront him and threatening to tell on him -- or more likely the fact that one of our sisters caught him trying to kiss me, so he was afraid he would be caught doing something worse. There was no "sorry" for what he had done -- not that an apology would even begin to make up for what he did. Since then, there has not been a word uttered about it between us. I suppose he must think that I have forgotten about it, as he seems to have done himself. During my teenage years, I tried my best to push it to the back of my mind and got on with living the life of a shy teenager. Since I did not have anyone I could tell my secret to in strict confidence, I said nothing.

My brother is now in his late 20s and has a girlfriend, whom he says is the one. If she is, and he marries her and has children, what is to stop him from doing the same thing later down the line? If he does, and I have said nothing, am I to blame? What if he did the same to our younger sisters and it could have been prevented if I had said something? Was it just that he was a teenage boy, trying, for want of a better phrase, to figure out the workings of his body? Was it just because I was such a shy child that he picked me, because he supposed I wouldn't say anything? I do not think I can say anything now, especially to my parents, as it would break their hearts -- something I'm not prepared to do. Sometimes I just feel so ashamed about what happened, and why he chose me.

I have now been going out with a really nice boy for nearly six months. He cannot understand why I am so reluctant to let him near me. It is just that the thought of someone getting close makes me feel nervous and scared, and brings back all the memories. I have never had a boyfriend for this long before, so I suppose the issue never arose. I do not know if I should tell him the truth, or just keep avoiding the topic. I do not think going out with someone for a few months is long enough to tell them your deepest secrets, especially ones you have tried so hard to forget. I have told him it's not him, but something in the past, so he probably just thinks it was bad experiences with other boys.

If I did say something, then I certainly cannot tell him that it was my brother, because how can I be sure that he would not say anything to him? Then, what I have been hiding for over 10 years would explode in my face and my family would never be the same again. But I don't think it is something I can forget either.

For the past two years, I have been thinking about it regularly, and sometimes cry myself to sleep not knowing what I am supposed to do. At some stage though, I will have to face up to it, and it would be nice to have some insight.

Patricia replies:

YOU are a very wise girl not to talk to your boyfriend about what happened to you. And this has nothing to do with shame, because of course you have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. You were an innocent child who was abused. You played no part in it other than suffering the abuse.

To begin with, you badly need to deal with this yourself first. Telling your boyfriend now would simply burden him with your pain, and then you would have his distress to deal with as well as your own. And as you quite correctly say, he might do something you don't want, so you'd be forced to tell only half a tale, and he might guess anyway. Put simply, you'd lose control of the situation -- which would not help you at all. You need time and emotional space, so the story you've told your boyfriend is fine -- for now, anyway. Whether you ever tell him, or not, is up to you.

What you must do, however, is break the silence. You need to talk, and to someone who can handle the information without getting emotionally involved themselves. So again you are right, it can't be family -- not until you've found peace anyway. You need to talk to a professional counsellor.

Even the most horrific of horrors lose their power to hurt once light has been let in. Shared with the right person, they can be seen in perspective. So find someone, immediately. You've been alone with your distress for far too long.

The reason counselling helps is because we learn to see things differently. And the very first thing you need to truly accept is that the abuse was not your fault. If your brother chose you because you were quiet or shy, then that only highlights what a bully he was.

Sadly, abuse victims almost invariably feel they were somehow responsible. It's part of the damage that abuse does. You were a great little girl. Just as you are now a great young woman. None of it was even remotely your fault.

It's important to understand that you are not responsible for your brother's behaviour. And you never were. The fact that you didn't tell anyone is not your fault either. Clearly, as a small child, you didn't feel free to do so.

And no, I'm not blaming your parents. This is not a blame game. I'm simply saying that you were faced with a culture of silence and were too young to challenge it. You couldn't tell. Your brother knew that. Otherwise he would never have abused you. And when things changed because a sister caught him kissing you and there was now a witness -- someone alert and watchful -- he stopped.

Nor are you responsible for anything your brother did, or might do in the future. So no guilt please, either about possible abuse of younger sisters, or potential abuse of his children further down the line. That's his responsibility. Your responsibility to is heal yourself, by getting the help you so richly deserve.

Certainly, at some future date, you might decide to open a discussion with him, or within the family, or whatever. But that cannot be even contemplated until you are free of the past, and able to be close and relaxed with someone you love.

Sunday Independent

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