Ask Allison: 'A relative of mine accused another of abuse'
Our resident therapist answers your queries about sex and relationships
Q I have a dilemma that I cannot talk to anybody about. A close relative of mine accused another close relative of abuse in childhood.
They would both have been children at the time, the age gap wasn't big. Nothing was ever reported to the Garda or the authorities - they were just made and let hang there - and the accusations were strongly denied. There has been so much hurt and pain and there is, quite understandably, a rift in the family. The issue is that the next generation are now coming of an age where they are noticing that there are sections of the family that do not talk to each other.
I myself am in contact with everyone and I am a father of three myself and I want to prepare for how to handle things when I am asked why A doesn't talk to B. How do I answer that question without coming down on one side or another? I have my own opinion on the truth of the matter. But my main concern is the well-being and happiness of the younger members of the family, particularly my own.
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Allison replies: This is a major dilemma and I hear your intention, which is to protect your children, and you are right. How I answer this is exceptionally difficult as I do not know what happened and yet the divide in your family is having a major impact on all involved. Your dilemma is summed up in the first line, you feel silenced and that is the long-term spectre of abuse, as shame leads to silence. Silence is psychologically and emotionally corrosive.
Child abuse is not just an issue for the person, alleged abuser or family involved, it is a societal issue. The pernicious shame of abuse silences so many that it can perpetuate the cycle of abuse, as it is not reported and the abuser continues to abuse. This is not the fault or responsibility of the person who is the victim of abuse, and yet it is another burden many victims carry. The reasons behind not reporting are complex with one of the primary issues being when the family doesn't believe them. Non-reporting must not be seen as a sign that something did not happen. Other reasons why people don't report are shame, confusion, not wanting to upset other family members, to minimising, 'it wasn't that bad'.
People will question if they were 'really abused' as their memories can be vague or missing parts of the experience, leaving them doubting themselves. This mismatch of memories is often the result of dissociation during a traumatic experience. Dissociating occurs when a person disconnects from feelings of fear and or pain that is intolerable. People have described it as seeing it happen to them, as if they are watching themselves from the ceiling. Add to this, being disbelieved by the people they thought they could trust, such as family, and the complexity deepens.
A double victimisation can arise from this with many experiencing PTSD, anxiety, depression, suicidality, and issues from hypersexualised behaviour to full avoidance throughout their adulthood. It is very unusual for children to make up stories about sexual abuse.
You have described the fallout within the family whereby sides have been taken, which is such a distressing and traumatic situation. You have 'your own opinion on the truth of the matter' but the only two people who know the truth are polarised into two sides of an allegation. To take a side is a precarious thing to do and without those facts I'd advise caution. An honest 'they don't get on' may have to suffice as a response to any question from your children, which is a burden for you to carry, but without facts it isn't your story to tell.
Openly discussing consent without taking your relatives' experience into this is my advice.
If we want people to be able to come forward we must advocate for them having a voice and that they will be fairly heard. What we need is an unequivocally clear understanding of what consent is and isn't. Helping your children understand very clearly what consent is, at any age, in an age-appropriate way is how you can help. But discuss separate to any questions about your relatives, otherwise you are de facto telling the story of the allegations.
Many adults don't realise until they have their own children that they did experience sexual abuse, when they know that they would never let that happen to their child.
However, we also need to be mindful of normal sexual exploration that children engage in. These are the conversations that you can have with your children/adolescents. How we speak about sexuality and where the lines are, is where it needs to be at.
Only the two people involved know what happened. Intergenerational trauma is passed down by the family narrative especially when there are clear dividing lines. For something as serious as this dilemma be very careful with your opinion. You may be right, but what if you are wrong? I don't think that needs to be passed on as the facts aren't known.
Teach your children, arm your children, protect them, and educate them on what consent is. By being open with your children, it's like giving a vaccination against abuse.
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