Our children were four years old, two years old, and one year old when my husband and I discovered they had been sexually abused by their grandfather; we now joined that tragic number of sexual abuse statistics.
We had been concerned about our oldest. After her first birthday she had manifest extreme behavioral changes. She had nightmares. She repeatedly called herself a bad girl. She had an unhealthy compulsion with cleanliness and cried excessively. When she was old enough to talk, we asked her what was wrong. “Nothing,” she would reply. “I just need to cry.” Our little girl was miserable, and we had no idea why.
By the time she was three, two brothers had joined our family, and they began suffering abuse. (The motive of sexual offenders is often power; therefore, gender is sometimes not a factor in whom they choose to molest.) These little guys showed similar behavioral struggles to those of their sister. I didn’t know how to interpret their behavioral communication.
One day I was reading a list from LDS Social Services describing symptoms of sexual abuse victims. The Holy Ghost bore witness to me as I read that my children were victims and needed help.
A few nights later, about midnight, our daughter awoke. She was alert and I felt I should ask her explicitly about being abused. The house was quiet, we wouldn’t be interrupted, and I knew it was the time to talk.
I had two major concerns. First, I realized that to help her I needed all of the story, so I would need to be specific; yet I did not want to put words in her mouth. I knew that sometimes a questioner can, without meaning to, impress the tender mind of a child with “memories” of events that never happened; I didn’t want to do that. Second, I didn’t want to build unnecessary or unnatural curiosity by asking unrelated questions. With these concerns, I briefly prayed for guidance. Then we started to talk.
As this little four-year-old unfolded her real nightmare, my natural reaction was shock. But I knew that if I looked shocked, my daughter might think, This is so bad that even my mom doesn’t know about this kind of stuff. I also knew that if I showed anger, she might think, Oh no. Now I’ve even made my mom mad. I never should have told.
Later, I discovered that facial expression is a major key in showing support to victims. I know that Heavenly Father prompted me in my facial expressions as well as my questions. Questions were clear in my mind; I knew what to ask and how to ask. Later, our daughter was questioned by an expert, and he asked her some of the same questions.
Instinctively, I knew that the first thing I needed to do as I listened to my child was believe. An expert has said, “Children don’t lie to get themselves into trouble. They lie to get themselves out of trouble.” I felt she wouldn’t lie about sexual abuse, with all the secrets, threats, and intense emotions involved.
After listening and believing, our next step was to act. For us, acting meant seeking medical help for physical damage and professional counseling for emotional damage. We needed professional counseling not only for our children but for me also. I needed to know how to deal with their nightmares, regressive behavior, sexual play-acting, low self-esteem, anger, confusion, and fears.
Taking action also meant visiting with proper Church authorities and cooperating with law enforcement officers. And finally for us, action meant moving away from the perpetrator.
There is a battle in the sexual abuse war that no one warned us about: that is the alienation it can cause. Perpetrators of abuse live a life miserable with deceit, lying to themselves and to those around them. I didn’t realize that not everyone would believe my children. Some believed the perpetrator, enabling him to continue abusing. Even some of those who did believe our children were repulsed by such an ugly situation and withdrew from us. I had no idea that our personal integrity would be put to such a test. The alienation from others is as real a part of sexual abuse as the nightmares or regressive behavior, and it lasts just as long or longer.
Years have passed since my midnight talk with our daughter. I wish I could say that we’re all better. But sexual abuse is like many tragedies: pain eases and may even leave, but some scars take longer to heal. Our goal now is to make these scars triumphant battle wounds and to have faith in Christ so that these “weak things” can become strong. (Ether 12:27.) But to do this, we have to have the faith to fight the battle.
I know the heartache is great, the loneliness intense, and the anguish real. But I also testify that the miracles and healing are just as great, intense, and real. The Lord will help us as we fight the war against sexual abuse.