Abused by her paternal grandfather as a child, Kate Brennan-Harding (40) wants to challenge the common perception that those who are sexually abused as children are irredeemably damaged, and to offer hope to fellow survivors
I have wanted to find a way to tell my story for years. I often think about writing a book but every time I begin, I end up in a dark and scary cul-de-sac.
I feel my story needs to be told through conversation, because a part of my story was surviving childhood sexual abuse, and telling my story in full, in print, somehow feels too raw.
I took the advice of a dear friend in New York who suggested that merely recording it would make all the difference. So, when lockdown happened in March this year I set about creating a podcast to tell my story.
I joined forces with Orla Vaughan, who is a wonderful friend and a producer from Kilfenora in Co Clare. Her outlook in life is inspiring and her personality balances my more excitable side really well. I couldn’t do this without her.
We met six years ago on a radio course and together we have created the ‘We Stand’ podcast, and we are halfway through recording series one.
We are making this podcast because too often the ‘voice’ of the abused is buried in court reports and statistics. The voice is so diluted that nobody usually gets to hear the power and courage and strength that abused people have. Sometimes abused people don’t even know they are strong.
‘We Stand’ is a podcast about childhood sexual abuse through the exploration of my story. Both Orla and I wanted to create something that was safe to listen to, something that manages to make you feel like you have joined your best friends for a chat, a space that you get the support you need.
Orla and I talk through my experience, and part of the process is to bring in the voices of those who surround those who have experienced abuse.
In episode two, my mum joins us and we spent a powerful 40 minutes talking about the moment that I disclosed to her. She tells how it has been to be the mother of a daughter who has been abused. She speaks about how she can’t help but blame herself. It is cathartic and generous of heart.
It is a continuing process for me to dismantle the many ways my brain learned to help me survive. The process at times is hard, but in reality it is thrilling to discover that I am actually not broken, nor has my life been destroyed or, for that matter, neither was my childhood.
I realise that everybody’s story is different. But there is one similarity that binds us all: the shared reality that society at large splits us survivors into a different category.
Now I know this isn’t done on purpose, and the comments people make are to try to express outrage and horror at the idea that horrible things have happened to children. I get this. I get the need to show victims that you are with them.
But by using words like ‘destroyed’, ‘ruined’ or ‘life over’, we feed back to the survivor a dead-end story of who they are — and the trouble is, so many survivors already believe this about themselves.
That is why I feel so incredibly passionate about firstly, placing shame back at the hands of the abuser and secondly, changing how we all speak and respond to stories of abuse.
Like this one.
I was around five when I first remember it happening, but I couldn’t tell you when it happened first. My paternal grandfather began cornering me in the converted attic in his house. He would molest me, suffocate me and tell me I was his favourite.
I didn’t understand what he was doing, but I felt an intense fear and therefore learned how to withdraw my mind from reality. I learned how daydreaming could make the world feel safe.
Every time we would visit my grandparents for the weekend, my grandfather would laugh and joke, make coffee and sexually abuse me. I was abused repeatedly, even once while at Mass.
That is how invincible my grandfather thought he was. That was how invisible the very idea was to everybody else. People are blind to it because it is the unthinkable.
When I was 10 years old, I began to fully comprehend what my grandfather was doing and I felt trapped. I had started to tell my school friend about it. (For the podcast we have gotten back in touch and she has written a letter to me about her experience being my confidante. You can hear that in episode 3.)
I thought everything would change once I told. That I would be seen as dirty. This fear kept me silenced for another year. Until after my parents separated and a looming Christmas visit to my grandparents made me choose to speak.
I told my mum on Christmas Night in 1991. I say I told... more like a few words tumbled out of my mouth, words that weren’t connected in a sentence, words that gathered on the kitchen counter like a word puzzle. But still in that moment I began to stop the abuse.
As a teenager and all through my life I noticed how this conversation caused discomfort to those who heard it, and of course I understand why.
What I also noticed was this sense of wonder from people at how I could be so OK. How I wasn’t in a heap somewhere living a destroyed life. Well-meaning people would be shocked at my relatively ‘normal’ attitude.
I was told by people that I had a great resilience. While yes, I am resilient, I equally have spent a shocking amount of time running away from responsibility and sabotaging my life.
A number of years ago I began to understand that I was living my life as if I was a broken person. I thought something was fundamentally wrong with me.
Every newspaper report, every social media platform commentary would compound this idea. Something horrible had happened to me and therefore I was not supposed to lead a happy and fulfilled life.
I realised the language we use to talk about sexual abuse and survivors of sexual abuse needed to change.
I want to share my story as a means to help change the narrative about what it means to have been abused. What does that look like? What does being a survivor mean?
How can society implement small changes to make a difference in the life of someone who comes forward and says, “me too”.
So often, whether it be newspaper headlines or the comments on digital news platforms, when we see a case of childhood abuse, we will find comments that say things like “she has a life sentence now” or “his life is over”.
That is the very conversation which wraps its way around our bodies and into our psyche. Like an invisible agreement understood simply because it has not been challenged.
When I was young, I had to keep a part of myself locked away. It must never be discovered. It was my little secret. This secret was buried within and burdened me with a view that if I shared it, people would know I was broken.
There was no hope for me. I was bad and wrong. I was carrying the shame of what was happening to me. Imagine, a small child thinking these thoughts from such a young age?
What does being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse look like? It looks like me, it looks like you, it looks like your sister or your brother. It looks like your mother, it looks like your best friend.
The chances are you will know multiple people who have been abused, they just haven’t said it.
Be honest, what do you think of when you read about a childhood sexual abuse case, be it historical or current? Do you agree with comments like, “the poor woman, her childhood was ruined”, or “that poor man, his life is destroyed”?
I’ve no doubt these are well-meaning and are coming from a place of empathy with the survivor. But they are part of a narrative around abuse that keeps the victim silenced. Because who in their right mind, after surviving sexual abuse would want to disclose to a world that will deem them as irredeemably damaged?
If you are reading this and your stomach has tightened, or you have forgotten to breathe, you are not alone. I truly understand. I don’t think there is any right way to recover. This is what works for me.
There are so many people who won’t ever speak about it and there is nothing wrong with that either. Abuse is so complex and often involves families, often involves choosing between losing those you are attached to, those you love.
Being the one who carries a burden of silence is heavy duty, but if you wish, you don’t have to do it alone.
I know how lonely the path can be and how terrifying it is to feel at a loss about what to do, to compare yourself to others and find yourself missing something. I still have days where I need to climb into bed and pull the duvet up over me.
But every single time I speak out, or someone listens to the podcast, both Orla and myself receive private messages from people who hear themselves. That empowers me to keep standing.
My life was not ruined, nor was I destroyed. I’m a partner, a best friend, a daughter, a sister, a disco-dancing divil who runs amok at festivals. I am a woman, a lesbian, an activist. I don’t like being woken too early and I don’t know when to put myself to bed.
I am a multi-faceted human who has experienced a lot of trauma in my life, but this is not the sum of my parts. That abuse had a hold over me for far too long. Now it is something that happened to me.
I want survivors to stand into their own light and be proud to be a survivor. Because you can be proud of the amazing person you are.
I believe that in order to break the cycle of abuse and empower victims of sex abuse to speak and therefore find healing, we need to change how we view survivors. Because if we can change our mind-set, more people will be able to stand and say out loud “I was abused”.
In doing so, they give themselves a new possibility. They break free from the burden of silence. They change their story.
We Stand is available wherever you get your podcasts. If you have been affected by the issues raised in this piece see Cari.ie or call the CARI Helpline (Lo Call 1890 924 567).
If you would like to contribute to the podcast visit https://ie.gofundme.com/f/we-stand-podcast