On Abuse & Seeing What We Don’t Want To See

Here are two things I never expected to be told in the same breath: “You’re so skinny! This will look cute on you,” and “I’m pretty sure you’re lying about that time your dad molested you.”

Nine months ago, I confronted my father about sexually abusing me as a child. Since then, my communication with my family has been limited, and it caught me off-guard when, just two weeks ago, my aunt invited me to meet her for lunch. I impulsively agreed, and initially, we started on the right note. After a few minutes of polite pleasantries, she handed me a gift bag. Inside, I found a hand-me-down Ann Taylor blazer with the tags still on (“I love the pattern, but it just doesn’t fit me”) and a copy of Meredith Maran’s My Lie: A True Story of False Memory (“I learned so much from this book. It’s amazing how unreliable our memories are, don’t you think?”). Never before had I felt so flattered and insulted all at once.

The insinuation that my memories of abuse are not to be trusted did not come as a surprise. After all, it was exactly one year ago that I began to talk about my memories to my therapist, friends, and family; before last summer, the only people I had ever told were my childhood best friend and my husband. One of the key reasons why I was silent for so many years is that I was afraid that I wouldn’t be believed. As it turns out, the reason why my family claims not to believe me is precisely because I was silent for so many years. If it had really happened, they tell me, surely I would have spoken up sooner.

Of course, we know that this isn’t how trauma works. Survivors of sexual violence frequently don’t come forward with their accusations, and their reluctance to do so isn’t necessarily because they have any doubt as to what happened to them. Often, survivors don’t come forward because they know that their experiences don’t match the narrative of what abuse – or survival – “looks” like.

My family can’t reconcile what my father did to me, because I was good at hiding the truth. We were close. We bonded over art. I laughed at his jokes. We traveled together. He walked me down the aisle at my wedding. I kept my discomfort on lockdown. The signs – recoiling at his touch, sickness in my stomach when he complimented me on my appearance, mistrusting every man who expressed even the slightest sexual interest in me – were visible to everyone who knew what to look for and invisible to everyone who preferred not to see, but they weren’t immediately obvious to anyone, myself included.

A few days after I saw my aunt, I stumbled upon Princest Diaries, an awareness campaign by artist Saint Hoax. Saint Hoax created three images using Disney princesses – Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora, The Little Mermaid’s Ariel, and Aladdin’s Jasmine – and their fathers to raise awareness about the prevalence of incest. At the bottom, each image reads, “46% of minors who are raped are victims of family members. It’s never too late to report your attack.” The message is clear, simple, and powerful.

I sent the link to my husband immediately. “This is intense,” I wrote. “I saw that last week,” he replied. “I was purposefully not telling you about it.” I understood his reluctance, because Princest Diaries is nothing if not triggering. My first response was visceral disgust. The act depicted in the images is one of the acts that my father perpetrated upon me as a child, so my mind couldn’t help but instantaneously flash back to that awful moment upon seeing them. My second response was confusion. I grew up watching the referenced films; “The Little Mermaid” was the very first film I saw in a movie theater. I criticize the Disney princess genre as much as the next feminist, but I have affection for the films and their heroines. I wasn’t prepared to see them as victims.

Shock wore off and denial set in. They aren’t incest survivors, I told myself. Their fathers wouldn’t do that to them. And they don’t seem to be afraid of men at all – look how easily they fall in love with their princes! They weren’t abused. Maybe their relationships with the Kings (or Sultan, in Jasmine’s case) were a little abnormally close, but closeness isn’t abuse. That’s just what happens when you’re the only (or favorite, in Ariel’s case) child.

In other words: I minimized the Disney princesses in the exact same way that my aunt minimized me.

Of course, the stakes are quite different. Aurora, Ariel and Jasmine are cartoon characters. They don’t suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. They haven’t had to deal with flashbacks, nightmares, vaginismus or sexual insecurities. They haven’t spent thousands of dollars on inpatient treatment and outpatient therapists and an endless parade of SSRIs. They don’t have to worry about their families abandoning them for telling the truth.

But think of how much harder it is to accept the truth when it’s actually true. If we find ourselves doubting fictional characters, of course we’ll doubt actual humans that much more. When you that something terrible happened to someone who you’ve known and loved for a long time, it is so easy to put on blinders. Who wouldn’t have that impulse? And that, of course, is all the more reason to fight it.

I don’t know when I’ll see my aunt again. I don’t particularly appreciate being told that I’m a liar, so it seems that I need to go back to restricting our communication as I have for the past nine months. What I do know is that, whenever we do see each other again, I won’t let her off the hook. I will thank her for her good intentions, tell her gently that denying the truth isn’t enough to undo the past, and ask her to finally open her eyes.

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[Image of father and daughter via Shutterstock]