Hello everyone. Captain Awkward here. This post involves some deeply harrowing no-good shit, so we’re putting everything behind a cut.
Also of note: This post, you’ll notice the byline above, is a guest contribution of Marie (of The House is full of EVIL BEES fame), now promoted to Private First Class in the Awkward Army. She lays down some pretty fucking awesome encouragement and support for today’s letter writer.
CA Over and Out. Take it away, PFCMarie.
Okay, I’m going to start by saying a few things that you probably already know, but always bear repeating. Unfortunately, these are sort of amorphous emotional things, and not practical, solid tips for solving your problem, but they are still super true and super important, so here you go:
1. What happened to you was unfair, you didn’t cause it, and you didn’t deserve it, and it SUCKS.
2. GOOD JOB getting your shit together. I mean, A+ forever! Coping with past abuse in a way that allows you to live the life you want is an extra enormous pile of work that nobody should have to take on, but you did take it on, and you rocked it, so GOOD JOB.
3. You are under no obligation to tell anybody about this abuse, ever. EVER. It doesn’t matter who wants to know, or whether or not you (or they) feel like they have extra super special reasons why they should get to know. They’re not the ones who have to experience the telling of it, and they’re not the ones who have to experience people’s awkward questions, huge mistakes, emotional reactions, and bug-eyed staring once the thing is known. So, only you get to decide who knows, and there is no “right” or “wrong” when it comes to those decisions, only what’s right or wrong for you.
4. You are not responsible for stopping your abuser from abusing again. Not only are you not responsible, you are not capable of doing this. You may be able to do some things to make it harder for him to abuse in the future, but you cannot stop him. He is the only one who can do that. Victims are not responsible for their abuser’s behavior, whether in the past or the future. Whether or not they feel an obligation to try to create obstacles for an abuser is up to them, and whether or not it’s possible to create those obstacles is up to a world of factors that are purposefully, explicitly outside of a victim’s control.
Now that that’s out of the way! I am seeing a few separate problems in your letter. I’m going to break them into small chunks here and address them separately, because it’s very rare that we can solve a pile of problems with one solution, but it’s very common that we (me? I’m talking about me, okay) spend loads of time looking for the magic hammer that hits all the nails at once. Especially when our problems have a deadline, and especially when that deadline is a stressful event like a wedding. So, let’s separate.
Problem #1: You do not want your abuser at your wedding.
Problem #2: Your mom is pushing you to invite your abuser to your wedding.
Problem #3: You suspect your mom knows about your abuse, and is pushing you to disclose it to her.
Problem #4: You do not want your family to be gabbing about your past abuse (especially at your wedding)
Problem #5: You do not want (or are not sure you want) your fiance to know about the past abuse.
Problem #6: You are wondering if you should disclose your abuse in the hopes that it will protect your abuser’s children, or other potential future victims.
Problem #7: Should you want therapy, you don’t really know how to get there.
Here is the good news! Problem #1 and #2? Pretty easy to solve! Problem 1 is my favorite, because you already have it covered. Dude is not invited!
But now we have problem #2. This is where your many small, distinct problems start to merge into Optimus Problem, because your mom is doing Problem #2 because of Problem #3 which leads to Problem #4 and maybe #5 and #6 and you have lost your magical hammer. Let’s resist Optimus Problem, if we can (we might not be able to! That is also okay, things happen that way sometimes).
Here is why Problem #2 is more easily solved than all the other problems. Replace “your abuser” with “any given guest your mom might push at you”, and you have the same problem that everybody who has ever gotten married has encountered. You are having a party. It is an emotionally significant, potentially very intimate party, and it is all about you. It is also very expensive. You’d think everybody could understand these things but NUTS TO THAT your grandma wants to invite the pastor who baptized you and your sister wants to invite the guy she met last night and you should probably invite the organist’s son because WHY??? Because everybody feels entitled to your wedding, that’s why.
Do you know who was at my wedding? About 10 people I had never met, whose names I did not know, who were friends of my in-laws (one was their lawyer???), because it was important to my in-laws that they be there, because of reasons. My in-laws pretty much threw their own separate party (cool), during my party (not cool?), using my money (NOT COOL GUYS).
I am hoping there might be some advice for you in the comments, because figuring out ways to keep people off your guest list without an awkwardbomb going off is so unbelievably common that there is likely a world of creative solutions out there. Here’s mine: If I get married again, I am separating out the ceremony part from the party part. Like, they might not even happen on the same day. They might happen MONTHS apart. The ceremony will be small, it will look exactly how I want it, and the only people who will even know when and where it is happening will be the people I have invited. Afterwards, maybe we’ll all go to brunch or something. But then everybody has to go away so I can spend the day with my new husband. If anybody asks about my wedding, I can say, “Small private ceremony,” or “Courthouse wedding,” and flutter away.
The reception will be a party. It will be the only thing for which invitations are made and sent. At this event, my father-in-law’s lawyer can come, if it’s really that goddamn important, Dad. Because I am already married, the part that had emotional significance to me is over. Now, it’s just a party. This isn’t foolproof. It will have its problems. But it will allow me to separate out my intimate, emotional, vulnerable, important event from the event where people are most likely to act like entitled jerks and demand a piece of me. Maybe that’s a possibility for you, maybe not. Commenters! What have you done?
The main point is, treat the guest list problem as a guest list problem, and cut the sex abuse stuff out of it for now. Your mom is trying to push this sex abuse subtext — she’s trying to avoid the real issue by cloaking it in a different issue, pretending she’s talking about apples when she’s really talking about oranges. Address the apples, ignore the oranges, unless and until your mom ovaries up and actually uses her words. If she decides to only initiate the guest list talk, treat it like the banal, stereotypical pre-wedding argument every mother and daughter has — “ha ha, look at us, mom, can you believe we’re actually having the which-cousin-to-include guest list argument? It’s like I’m living in a Miss Manners column right now!” She is trying to trap you in the serious conversation net, which only exists if you believe in it — pretend instead that it is a boring wedding argument net.
The Captain has previously provided advice for training people out of intrusive questions or off-limit topics of conversation. Highly useful here! It looks like you’ve already mastered the first part of this training, which is the artful changing of the subject. Hasn’t worked! Okay, now it’s time to escalate. Develop some phrase you can broken record. The words can change a bit here and there, but say basically the same thing. When your mom brings it up: “Mom, I’ve already told you, I don’t want to invite him. It’s not up for debate. Now I have a lot on my mind with the wedding, and I can’t keep having this same conversation. I have things to do, I’ll call you tomorrow.” And every time it comes up again, “Mom, I told you, I’m not going to have this conversation over and over. Now can we talk about something else?” And if she can’t, “Okay, I told you I’m not going to talk about this again. I’ll call you later.”
In my experience, the next step is for your mom to invoke THE REST OF THE FAMILY. ”But Grandma/Grandpa/Aunt/Uncle/some other nosy little shit keeps asking me WHY, and what should I tell them?” The answer is either:
“Tell them what I just told you/whatever you want.”
“Why are they asking you? If they want to know, they can ask me.”
I guarantee you, whenever somebody insinuates that there is a legion of people who just DON’T UNDERSTAND and NEED TO KNOW, call their bluff and those people will never materialize to interrogate you. The UNSEEN PEOPLE WHO DISAGREE AND ARE COMING FOR YOUR REASONS is a tactic people use to try and get you to say more than you want to say, or this indicates that the person you are talking to has much floppier boundaries than you do and lets these other family members walk all over them. I only bring this up because, with your family not knowing about the abuse, and with you not wanting them to know, if your mom says “People are ASKING”, that’s going to potentially come with a lot more panic for you. Still, just ignore it. Nobody’s asking, unless they actually use their words and ask you.
So, will all this work? Maybe not. That would suck. If it really does not work, you might have to start phasing your mom slowly out until the wedding. Call less, see her less, revert to email only whenever possible, or, better yet, text — hard to create a big guilt trip over text. Your mom gets to decide whether or not forcing this issue is more important to her than your wedding day. If she chooses the former, that tells you a lot about how safe you will ever be in disclosing to her, and the kind of situations she might put you in with your cousin in the future.
Okay, so, hopefully that will all stonewall Problem #2 until after your wedding. But after your wedding, problems 3-6 are still there. These problems do not have good, right solutions, because they involve abuse, and nothing is good or right about abuse. So you are going to have to find solutions that are tolerable, acceptable, worthwhile, and help more than they hurt, but they are not going to be perfect, because abuse can’t be made right. So I can give you some thoughts and perspectives, but ultimately, the solution is going to have to be yours.
Let’s start with Problem #3, which is pissing me off the most. You suspect your mom knows, and is trying to play some weird pushy game where she makes you say it. I think your gut is good on this (and jesus, your mom, I mean, come on).
Have you ever seen a tree that’s started to grow around a pole or a fence? That’s what families with abusers in them are like. Something unnatural got jammed up in the growth process, and twisted it, and the longer the growing around the thing goes on, the more likely it will be that the tree might not be able to sustain its weight if the pole is removed. Your family may “know” or “not know,” but whichever it is, abuse does not exist without leaving some marks behind, without forcing people to grow around the strangeness. Your family has learned to accept some pretty implausible explanations, and they have learned to suppress their natural alarm system. They have learned — basically — how to be lied to. This is the way they know how to live. They have learned some extremely unworkable, unhelpful, alienating, hurtful, shitty ways of dealing with being lied to. What they have not learned is that 1) problems can be solved, 2) boundaries can be set, and 3) emotions can be discussed openly and honestly. You learned those things, because you went out and worked hard on them. But they haven’t.
So, your mom is taking all those skills she learned in a family that ignores sexual abuse, and applying them full-tilt. If your mom wanted to hear the truth, she would have asked you about this in a way that made it possible for you to tell her the truth. But she has consistently set up disclosure to have huge emotional stakes that you have to shoulder. Either you are six and taken by surprise and ashamed and not sure how to talk about this, and she phrases the question as something you were maybe doing wrong, too, (your MOM, I swear to god), and her tone and body language is telling you the answer she wants, and she never bothers to follow-up even though it’s pretty plausible that a kid would lie in that situation, or you are an adult and she is confronting you in a way that threatens to turn your wedding into an emotional nightmare. She is setting up “keep your abuser in your life” as an easy option, and “tell your mother who loves you what happened to you” as the most difficult option ever, which is sort of the opposite of how this thing should go, so you can see just how hard she’s worked to twist all up around the pole.
To me, the way your mom is doing this says a lot about whether or not she’s good to talk to about the sex abuse. Because she is choosing to hit you with this at what’s supposed to be the happiest time in your life. That’s fucking mean. And that shows somebody who is not coping well with what she does know. So, you don’t want to tell your mom before your wedding? You don’t want your family to know before your wedding? Sounds legit to me, go with that.
But after the wedding? I have some other thoughts. Let me repeat what I said above: YOU DO NOT HAVE TO DISCLOSE THIS TO ANYBODY. That is entirely your choice. But I am going to pitch the case of you disclosing to your fiance and possibly, someday, some members of your family.
The Captain and her company have talked about The Gift of Fear a lot on this site. With good reason! It’s a great book (except the DV chapter, which is victim-blaming crap, don’t read it). During one part of the book, deBecker talks about confronting blackmail. He comes down on the side of calling the blackmailer’s bluff. Somebody who tries to blackmail you once is going to blackmail you again, because it works. The first time, that might seem reasonable. You trade X for nobody finding out your secret, it wasn’t great, but okay, now it’s done. Except now the blackmailer has come back, and they want Y. And then Z. And then they reboot the alphabet, and it keeps going, until what you’ve given away to keep your secret is worse than the fallout of having your secret revealed, but now you get both.
What your mom is doing to you is a kind of emotional blackmail. Your fear of the gossipy family mill at your wedding is also a kind of emotional blackmail (even though some of your family may not actually know what’s going on). Either you capitulate to this demand that you have your abuser in your life, during one of the most important events of your life, or you risk a confrontation and the secret getting out. You risk everybody staring at you. You risk all the things you don’t want to deal with. But the thing is, it’s not going to stop with your wedding. If your mom is willing to push this on you during your wedding, she’s sure as shit going to be willing to push it on you every Thanksgiving. Every family BBQ. When/if you have a baby. This is a situation that’s going to keep coming up, and you are going to have to go through this grist mill every time, figuring out how to deal with it. I am willing to bet that eventually, the gossip mill of your family and whatever way your mom decides to act about this is going to be less bad than the fear of everybody finding out, and the accommodations, compromises, negotiations, and manipulation you’re going to have to endure for every family gathering in the meantime.
I’m also going to advocate for disclosing this abuse because, well, there are too many ways it could possibly come out anyway. You never telling doesn’t assure that people won’t know, it just assures that if they do find out, it will be in some way you didn’t choose. Some family members may already know what happened and, like you, they have kept it to themselves — until one day they don’t. Or, like you fear, your abuser could be abusing other children, and they come forward, and what happened to you comes out in the process. Or your abuser tells somebody. Or your mom breaks down and tells somebody. And maybe that would not be so bad, in the end! Except for one thing: your fiance doesn’t know. And if he finds out second-hand, it is gonna SUCK. I would be a nervous wreck if I had that hanging over my head, and it would make the emotional blackmail all the more salient. I mean, right now, you’re trying to avoid everything exploding because WEDDING, which is totally reasonable. But as long as your fiance doesn’t know, you’ll be avoiding explosions because MY MARRIAGE, which is also going to be totally reasonable, except it’s going to last a lot longer than riding out a wedding.
So, this is where your fiance comes in. Your reasons for not telling him makes sense. They are not bad. This is your choice. But here are some scenarios: you tell your fiance after you’re married, and he feels like you didn’t trust him. You tell him after, and he feels like you purposefully withheld this until you were married (even if he knows this is a silly feeling). You wait longer and longer to tell him, or it comes out someday — in the meantime, he has been to X number of family gatherings, where he shook your abuser’s hand, drank a beer with him, or played with his children. That is going to feel fucked-up. Even if he gets your side. Even if he loves you and sees where you are coming from, he will also see that you didn’t trust him, you hid important things from him, and hiding those important things caused him to associate with this horrible being and believe that he was all right, and that will feel awful.
But also, your fiance can be your ally here. If you tell him, but decide you don’t want to tell your family yet or ever, he can collude with you in coming up with reasons why you can’t invite your cousin to this or that event. If you go somewhere and your abuser is there, he can rescue you from idle conversation, or hugs. If you end up at a wedding crying in the bathroom because your abuser is there and today, for some reason, it really gets to you, he can bundle you up in the car, make appropriate excuses, and bring you home. He can claim a headache when you don’t want to go to the family BBQ where your abuser will be. He can be a good male role model to your abuser’s daughters. He can help you. Or, he can be one more person you have to manage this secret around. And, with how many more times contact with your abuser (or negotiating no contact with your abuser) will come up in your shared lives together, it’ll start to look less like you were withholding something you weren’t ready to disclose (reasonable), and more like you were actively managing circumstances to keep him in the dark (sort of indistinguishable from being lied to over and over?).
Now, to address you not wanting your family to talk about it. The way you put this — that you don’t want them looking at you at your wedding and telling some story about how nice it is that you overcame sexual abuse — sounds to me (I could be wrong!) like you don’t want people saying or thinking untrue, maybe unlikable, things about you. Which, no duh, nobody wants that, and, more no duh, right now some little voice in your jerkbrain is sneering about how much you care about what people think of you and that’s bad somehow. But it’s different when you’ve become a victim. If you, say, were a really femme-y person, and you loved the make-up and the high heels and the pretty dresses, you would run the risk of having people look at you and make unsavory assumptions: bimbo, dumb, slutty, etc. But if you love being femme enough, you can deal with that. And, when you don’t want to deal with that, you take the femme costume off. You are in no danger of having make-up suddenly seep out of your pores, or having your hips spontaneously generate a mini-skirt and heels. You have an identity you like, and if you can’t control what other people think of that identity, well, you can turn it on or off whenever you don’t feel like dealing with those nasty assumptions people make.
You don’t get to do that when you’re a victim. And they don’t tell you that — it’s all PTSD and “she leaves the lights on when she sleeps!1!!! soooooooo saaaaaaaaaad” and “sex problems, here, have some.” You don’t get to hear about how sick you’ll get of having people call you strong. Or having your friend turn to you during a movie with a rape scene in it, and saying worriedly, “Oh my god I didn’t think ARE YOU OKAY ARE YOU SURE I mean IF YOU NEED TO CRY!” You don’t get to be an impartial observer anymore. If child abuse bothers you, if rape bothers you, if domestic abuse bothers you, it’s all, “Well, sure, with your past…” If you’re happy, it’s wonderful that you’re happy in spite of the abuse. If you’re sad, of course you’re sad, because of the abuse. The only way to turn that identity off is to never tell. But it might seep out of your pores. It might show up suddenly one day. It might spill out, and then everybody will know, and you cannot control those assumptions (if you’re strong? SO STRONG! If you’re weak? SUCH A WRECK — there is no good middle ground) so you have to hide it, because if they knew, they’d treat you differently, they’d start telling stories about your life that aren’t true, reaching conclusions and putting narratives on you that are hurtful and limiting.
Everybody has to deal with this in whatever way is best for them. For me, it was best to disclose almost always, to tons of people, because I couldn’t stand the emotional blackmail I was setting myself up for — if they knew, they would hate you, so you had better keep quiet and act like nothing ever happened. What has helped me in disclosing is discovering that people have no idea what they’re doing when they hear about abuse. Which means I get to tell them what they should be doing. If I just disclose and say, “I was abused,” they are going to say the first thing that comes to their mind, which is usually going to be something stupid or horrible about abuse. If I say, “I was abused, I am telling you because of X, and what I need from you is Y,” then we have already moved on from the abuse into talking about X and Y. If I talk about abuse in a very sad voice, they will treat me like a very sad person. If I talk about abuse the same way I’d talk about a bum knee, people who want to treat me like a delicate abused flower first have to overcome their immense social conditioning to take cues from their environment, which I am pumping full of “this is a normal thing I have told you” cues. I learned all this from disclosing A LOT, but believe me, the first few times were nerve-wracking. Now, it really is like telling people I have a bum knee, except people don’t feel like they get to hug you unsolicited if you have a bum knee.
That’s not necessarily relevant to you right now — right now, you don’t want to tell. But I do really believe that this is going to come out one day, whether or not it’s you who brings it out. And you are going to have to face the pity-eyes. And it is going to be gross. So I think it helps to start thinking now about a back-up plan for how you’re going to deal with everybody looking at you like a victim. You don’t have control of this abuse stuff once it strikes a family, and a lot of your worst-case scenarios may happen, because you’re dealing with a bunch of people in denial, and people in denial do shitty, stupid things — your mom might keep pushing, your wedding might go off the rails in a way you hate, you might have to tell your fiance when you didn’t want to. But you know what? You are going to survive those things. One of the upsides to abuse (really!) is this: Somebody has already done just about the worst fucking thing ever to me. What the hell do you think you have on that? Awkward social gathering? Emotionally manipulative hissy fit? Motherfucker, I’ve been raped, this is not even a drop in my bucket of fuck you.
Now, as for Problem #6. 99% of what you said here is head-screwed-on smart. But I may as well tell you now, I believe any sentence that has “moral obligation” in it is trying to fuck with you. Not that I don’t believe in moral obligations. I have some! But they are obligations I have made, for myself, per my own code of conduct. As far as I can tell. The thing is, it’s hard to know sometimes whether your “moral obligation” is a value you personally hold, or actually just a socially sanctioned whipping stick that’s crept into your head.
I bristle whenever I hear the moral obligation line, because it seems to me to be the nicer, more benign end of the victim-blaming stick. Nobody’s telling you the abuse was your fault, okay, that’s progress, but if the abuse ever happens again, somehow that’s on you? You couldn’t control or stop the abuser, okay, but give it, like, ten years and you can stop him now? As if being abused is a great power that also confers great responsibility? The person who has the most responsibility is, obviously, the abuser. After him comes everybody who ever had some inkling of what he was doing — this ranges from anybody who ever heard him make a rape joke and said nothing to people who straight-up knew. They have a moral obligation to stop him. After that we radiate outwards, to a society that does not take abuse seriously. After that, only after all those people have failed in their moral obligations, do we come to you.
Of course, that all sounds nice and pretty as a philosophical bent, but the awful truth is, a victim has the best knowledge of what was done, so hopefully, their disclosure will have the most impact. So you can feel that moral obligation pretty heavy, I know. I don’t think you should do this. I don’t think you have to do this. I don’t think you’re bad if you don’t do this. But you yourself are the best judge of how safe you are. What kind of consequences do you envision if you disclose? Can you handle them? Will they be worth the relief you feel at speaking out? What if nothing happens? What if everybody ignores this, and he goes on raising his girls like nothing happened? Will that still feel worth it? For me, it would, but I am me and you are you, and you get to decide this yourself. I would like this to be a world where you can speak up about this; I think it’s the right thing, but you’re not in a right world.
Okay, Problem #7. I’m going to go back to “I think you should tell your fiance,” if only because it’s going to be a little harder to end up going to therapy if you haven’t told him why. But, before you get there, you could maybe consider calling a rape crisis line? I know, I know, this happened years ago, aren’t those lines for people who got raped, like, yesterday. Nope! They are for everybody who ever experienced sexual abuse. They are gonna get it. And they are not gonna tell anybody. So you can practice saying, to another human being, what happened to you. You can practice maybe crying about it, if that happens. You can practice hearing sympathy from other people, because that’s hard sometimes. And you can even talk to them about all this — about how frustrating it is to have your mother pulling this shit before your wedding, about how you don’t want to tell your fiance, about how you feel morally obligated to out this guy. They may not have any solutions, but if you’ve really been going this alone this whole time, girl, you need to bounce some ideas off another human being. You need to hear from somebody else how normal all your feelings are. You need to know your problems exist somewhere other than your head and heart. And if after you’ve said this out loud a few times, you feel like you want to talk about it some more, therapy is great! I have gone to therapy off and on — sometimes I really need it, sometimes I really don’t. Maybe you really don’t right now. That’s cool — but make a Plan B for when you do need it, so you don’t get there and then start thinking, “Oh my god, I can’t do this.” Because that is another awful truth: when we need therapy the most is when we are the least equipped to go out and get it.
Honey, you are pretty cool. Seriously, you have got most of this down, and the stuff you haven’t got down is because it is all fucked-up. But I am here to tell you that you will also be cool if people know what happened to you. You will also be cool if you need to get all upset about it again. You will also be cool if you point out to the tree that it grew around a pole. You will be cool if you are strong and you will be cool if you are weak. You will be cool no matter how all this goes down. You are going to get married, all this will pass, and you will go on rockin’ it the way you have been.