Incest Comes Out of the Dark

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Incest with a child is among the most horrible crimes an adult can commit. But it is also one of the easiest to hide. Children are pressured not to tell. No one wants to believe parents or other relatives ever sexually abuse their young charges. But this conspiracy of silence, which only helps perpetuate the tragedy, is beginning to crumble.

Comedian Roseanne Arnold captured the attention and sympathy of millions of Americans last week after she disclosed that she had been sexually abused by both her parents as a child. "It's the secret that's been killing me my whole life," Arnold, 38, says. "I feel like screaming; I feel like running; I struggle hard not to forget again." She follows several other prominent people, including talk-show host Oprah Winfrey and former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur, in telling stories of childhood abuse. And for every celebrity who has gone public, thousands of ordinary people have found the courage to confront their own pain, tell others about it and seek help.

Just 15 years ago, many psychiatrists believed incest was rare and perpetrated only by fathers or stepfathers on their daughters. Those myths have since been shattered. Researchers estimate that between 200,000 and 360,000 cases of child sexual abuse occur each year in the U.S. Perhaps 80% of these involve incest. Surveys in California and Massachusetts in the 1980s found that as many as 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 7 boys under the age of 18 had been sexually abused by a relative -- anyone from a father to a mother or an in-law.

Another myth holds that incest occurs only if there is anal, oral or vaginal penetration. "That's like saying only people who drink three liters of alcohol a day are alcoholics," says a Chicago psychiatrist who was a victim of incest. During the past decade, the definition of incest has been broadened to include fondling, rubbing one's genitals against a child, and excessive or suggestive washing of a youngster's pubic area, among other sexual behaviors.

Information about how incest thwarts normal development is being used to help people overcome its lifelong devastating effects. During the first two years of life, children must learn how to view themselves as being distinct from their surroundings and the people around them; they are not born with the knowledge. Incest plays havoc with this healthy process by violating a child before a sense of personal integrity can fully take hold. Survivors of incest fall victim to extremes. They grow up unable to trust others or, alternatively, tending to trust too easily. They shut down sexually or become wildly promiscuous.

Physically unable to resist, many children defend themselves in the only way they know how: by wishing the attacks away. About a quarter of the youngsters completely repress the painful memories, although they will still suffer the effects of abuse. Some, like Carolyn Loshbaugh, 45, of Denver, gain a hundred pounds by overeating in an unconscious attempt to make themselves less alluring to their abusers. "Of course, I've been using wrong techniques for keeping myself safe, thinking that being overweight will keep me safe," she says. Others, including Arnold, try all sorts of escape routes. Growing up, she cut herself, abused drugs and alcohol and hitchhiked five times across the U.S.

Eventually many incest survivors will recover at least some memories of their trauma. Generally the flashbacks begin only after the victims reach their 30s, when they are either strong enough or safe enough to tolerate the pain. The most common memory triggers include learning about someone else's abuse, seeing children attain the same age at which one's own abuse occurred and undergoing therapy or hearing about the abuser's death.

Even if they remember the incest, survivors usually try at first to minimize the damage by saying, "It only lasted two years," or "It's only my brother." Many times they will find a great deal of support in this denial from other members of their family, their spouses or their friends, who do not . want to talk about incest any more than the victims do. Men are particularly adept at trying to downplay the effects of abuse. "It was just supposed to be part of growing up," says Harold Watson, 38, an artist in New York City.

Hundreds of self-help groups have sprouted all over the country. Society's League Against Molestation provides counseling and nationwide referrals over the phone (1-609-858-7800). Most survivors find that they cannot navigate the recovery process without professional help. Often that means at least two years of psychotherapy.

Some survivors transform themselves from victims to activists. Until Patti and Kelvin Barton of Everett, Wash., lobbied their state legislature three years ago to enact a new law, it was almost impossible for anyone to bring civil charges of childhood sexual abuse after the victim turned 21. Because many incest survivors, like Patti, do not even realize their childhood experiences until they are well into adulthood, they had few legal options against their abusers. The Washington law now allows people three years to bring suit after the discovery of either the abuse or the injury it caused. A dozen other states have since followed Washington's example.

Crucial to recovery is the act of breaking the silence. "It's very important for the survivor to tell at least one other person," says Laura Davis, co-author of The Courage to Heal, the text used most often by incest survivors attempting to recover. "They don't have to tell the whole world if they don't want to." But by speaking out even a little, survivors hope they can break the cycle of shame and prevent the next generation from suffering.