Forgetful Again, on Our Relational Relapses. The Ropes We Keep Survivors Suspended On

A few days ago, my phone rang and I didn’t answer it.

I recognized on my caller ID the name of the doctor’s office and his phoning receptionist.

I recognized her even more after hearing her recorded voicemail.

She asked me to ‘call back at my convenience and provide an updated address’.

These moments spring forth two opposing reactions in me: one of irritation, and one of self-doubt. The latter leads me to question if how I remember leaving things is correct or not.

In this case, abruptly ending an abusive relationship with a medical professional, that both left me with debt and disrupted care. The latter again being countered by this invitation to make contact and presumably then an appointment. And then another, and another.

This recent memory was on my mind as I watched segments of Leaving Neverland, and select commentaries in response to what was disclosed in the two-part series.

One excerpt resonated with me considerably, taken from an article authored by Nadia Wager on 10daily.com.

“Historically, as a society we have actually found it very difficult to believe allegations or to acknowledge possible signs that child sexual abuse is occurring. Several theoretical explanations have been offered for this including our need to believe in a just world where this kind of thing isn’t done by adults to children. Just world beliefs encourage us to conform to the rules and regulations of our communities, since we believe that this will be rewarded with a safe and orderly existence for us and our families. So, we find it difficult to comprehend that bad things happen to those who do not deserve it.

There are several common misconceptions about child sexual abuse which can make it hard to believe allegations when they are made. These include the belief that sexual abusers are monsters who are violent and frightening to children. We also tend to believe that parents would know if their child was being sexually abused or that children would tell someone immediately and that they would display fear towards the perpetrator. It’s also commonly — and often wrongly — thought that a child’s statements about experiences of abuse would remain consistent over time.”

In the background I hear child survivor Wade Robson say, “I want to be able to speak the truth as loud as I had to speak the lie for so long”.

One of the things that we are continually being asked to reckon with is how to react when cracks appear in our earlier perceptions, and connected, how to navigate our societal impulse to piece apart survivors’ credibility.

As Wager points out, we continue to have conversations about sexual violence and child sexual abuse that are informed by myths and intensified by the reactions of other influencers and third-party testimonies. What is magnified if also ignored, is how our cultural disbelief is unmoved by facts and survivor disclosures, especially when an accepted myth and an under embraced fact are at odds with each other. Children, and specifically child survivors, are held to a standard of credibility that is consistently being moved by adults, and even when they grow up, their vantage point is considered untrustworthy by itself. Their disclosure has to be vetted and accepted by other adults, and that process occurs publicly and mercilessly. And yet, child survivors retain all of the additional vulnerabilities of children; dependency, attachment, fewer cumulative experiences or autonomous forms of support or safety, a network of interconnected relationships that offer confusing messages about when to ask adults for help, and offer very clear messages about the risks of angering another adult or losing connection.

The themes addressed in Leaving Netherland speak to the murkiness of a violent experience that can’t be labeled as violent in the psyche of a young child while it is happening.

They speak to the loss of connection that is inherent in making a disclosure and disrupting an important relationship with a trusted adult.

They speak to the reality that many caregivers are no more equipped to identify child sexual abuse or respond well when a disclosure or discovery is made than their child was, creating a double consciousness that is hard to peel back or heal from.

They speak to the power of grooming that targets whole systems of beliefs and relationships, creating normalcy in the shape of complicated and interconnected blind spots and routines.

Turning down distress centers and making you feel gradually more comfortable, at least some of the time.

Conflating familiarity with comfortability, and fear of disconnection with consent and trust.

All week I’ve thought about my unaddressed voicemail.

Was I right to ignore it?

Should I expect to keep being contacted?

Do I need to again formally end my relationship?

Did I ever communicate that it ended?

Could my doctor really be unclear that our relationship ended intentionally?

Could my doctor really be unclear that our relationship ended badly?

Questions like this circle my consciousness, making me relive my negative experiences, question my perception of them, and ask unanswerable questions about what was intended by my doctor.

Questions that come back to a guard being pulled down, the hands of grooming seeking to pull me back in, and a set of community commentary that won’t consistently guide me in any one direction that feels safer. This piece is one I want to emphasize — our myth that communities are prepared to trust our stories of violence and help us learn to label them and speak them as something true that happened to us. Our reality is that we walk the double consciousness that survivors do, gripped by reflexes that rape culture has gifted us, making it feel normal to distrust disclosures of sexual violence, and bolstering us with the self-righteousness to conflate what we can’t believe with what isn’t or wasn’t true.

Bethonie Butler writes in the Washington Post,

Safechuck’s mother, Stephanie, says: “I didn’t protect my son. That will always, always haunt me.” Her son says he believes his parents thought they were doing “the right thing.” A iconic star expressed interest in their son — and said he would help him and “be there for him.”

“It’s all a big seduction,” Safechuck says just before the credits roll. “So, do I blame them? I’m still working on it.”

Writer. Thinker. Facilitator. Advocate. Invested in accountability for power based violence, creative initiatives, and meaningful, nuanced dialoguing.