Reader question #87: How do I talk about a molesting grandparent?

It's Therapy Time

I’m putting this entire letter behind a cut tag. This has been your trigger warning.

Hello Captain Awkward,

Here’s something that I feel very awkward about, and I really don’t know how to handle it.

When I was young, from pre-teens to mid-teens, my (maternal) grandfather did things he shouldn’t have. It could have been worse; it was “only” inappropriate touching, but it has nevertheless affected me badly in many ways. My sister, who is only 18 months older, was abused in the same way. We never told anybody about it, because we didn’t want to face the inevitable grief it would bring to our mother and grandmother. Instead, once we realised he was doing it to both of us, we helped one another as best we could, trying to make sure none of us was ever alone with him, and mostly succeeding. Once we were adults it stopped, and she of course made sure her children were never alone with him. (I’m childless, so it’s not an issue for me, and there are no other girl children in the family.)

My grandfather died several years ago, and we made peace literally on his death bed. He let me know that he didn’t feel he deserved my love, and I let him know that I forgave him. My grandmother is still alive, but has Alzheimers; she’s on medication which slows it down but she’s no longer the woman she used to be.

Now to my question. I’m an outspoken person as regards my personal life, and I’m not afraid to point to my own experiences when discussing e.g. homophobia (I’m partnered with a woman, and refuse to hide it – not that I go into the actual physical details, but if my coworker will speak of his wife, then I’ll speak of my girlfriend in the same manner). But this big secret is weighing on me. I want to be able to participate in discussions about abuse and how it affects victims and families, and not have to hide who I am or what happened to me. My sister, on the other hand, doesn’t see any reason to make it known even to our mother. Her reasoning is that since grandfather is dead and can’t hurt anyone else, there’s no reason for us to hurt our mother by telling her. We both love our mother dearly, and we don’t blame her or anybody else for not seeing what we and our grandfather were at such pains to hide. At the same time, these are things I want to be able to talk to my mother about – the fact that these incidents still affect me, how I have  a hard time trusting people and how it’s still difficult for me to handle being touched unexpectedly, even by someone I love and trust. I talk openly to my mother about everything else in my life, and it’s very hard for me to hide this one thing. Still, I’ve promised my sister not to make anything public unless she’s also OK with it – and at this point, she isn’t.

I’m not sure which of us is correct – our feelings are equally valid, and I’m not sure which of us should give in to the other. Am I merely selfish for wanting to inflict this pain on my mother just to feel freer to talk, or are we both wrong in hiding something of this magnitude from her? Of course we’ve both wondered whether he ever did anything to her when she was young, but we presume that in that case she wouldn’t have let him near us, so probably not… To make it even more conflicting, our grandfather was in many ways an admirable man, though lacking in empathy. He wanted to do right, and was able to admit to mistakes when given a rational and convincing reason – yet he was often thoughtless and careless of the emotions of those around him.

Please help me figure out what is the right thing to do here.

Best regards,
Anxious daughter and granddaughter

Dear Anxious:

It’s therapy time.  Okay?  Yes.  A trained therapist can guide you (and your sister, and eventually your mom) through this territory in a way that I, Random Internet Stranger, cannot.

I do have some thoughts. They may come out as a list of related opinions rather than a coherent argument for anything.

You’re not selfish for wanting to have an honest relationship with your mom and to be truthful about what happened to you as a child.

One thing you might do while you’re in therapy (or to get ready for therapy) is write a letter to your mom that explains everything you want her to know.  Hold onto it.  Don’t send it yet.  Just get all the feelings out of yourself and onto the page.  At some point in the future (after some therapy) run the letter by your sister and maybe get her buy in to send it.  Or maybe the act of writing it down will help get you some distance from it and you won’t need to send it.  Or you’ll make some kind of third decision down the road.  But write down the story.  All of it.  Get it out of yourself.

You will cry a lot and need a lot of excellent self-care before, during, and after you write it down.

I think it’s possible and even probable that your grandfather also abused your mom in the same way he did you.  I think it’s also very possible that your mom already knows that *something* is wrong and that there is some darkness between you.

I think it’s absolutely possible to have complex feelings of love and admiration for your grandfather mixed up with the horrible memories of what happened. That’s why it’s such a sticky wicket – the person doing the stuff to you is someone you love and admire.  You don’t have to apologize for that.  I think you and your sister tried very hard to be fair and to “protect” everyone from what was happening to you.  I think this is very common.  And you were children:  It was your mom’s job and your grandmother’s job to protect YOU and your grandfather’s job to not be a $#@! child molester. So you don’t have to be fair.  It’s hard, when your very good instinct is to be fair and kind to everyone and take care of others.  Maybe therapy can help you get to a place where you no longer have to be fair.  Maybe you can let some of white-hot anger in and spend some quality time with it.

It doesn’t surprise me that your sister is having a different reaction than you.  People process abuse differently from one another.  We treat victims like shit (and second-guess everything they say and every decision they made), so it’s not surprising that people would do anything to avoid identifying as one.  It’s possible that what is getting her through the day is being able to say “But at least I can protect my mom” or “That’s all in the past, I’m over it.” Telling your mom isn’t just about your mom.  It’s about dredging all of that stuff up for your sister and making her relive it.

Listen, it’s NOT all in the past.  It’s NOT over.  It’s affecting you here and now.  Her argument that Grandfather is dead and can’t hurt anyone else isn’t really true:  He’s still hurting you.  But who are we to say that the way she’s handling for herself is wrong?  You can’t decide for her, but she also doesn’t get to decide for you.

You say “I want to be able to participate in discussions about abuse and how it affects victims and families, and not have to hide who I am or what happened to me.”  I think that is admirable, and potentially very healing for you.  I think you have the right to write your own story and tell your own truth about what happened to you and you don’t have to be fair or make everyone in your life come out like a hero.  Maybe you find a way to start writing and talking about it that doesn’t use your real, full name but is still public.  Maybe there is some middle ground where you say to your sister “I won’t talk about what happened to you, but I have to talk about what happened to me.” Maybe there is some time in the future that you say to your sister “I know I promised you that I wouldn’t tell Mom, but I shouldn’t have made that promise.  I need to tell her.”  Maybe you share the letter you wrote with your sister. Maybe it’s time to fiercely protect yourself and not worry about being fair because this is about your own survival.

You don’t have to decide that right now, and once more, I really beg you to bring a trained therapist into your life as you start digging into those memories and deciding what to do. There are a lot of right things to do here, but the first right thing to do is taking care of yourself and getting a safe space where you can talk completely freely about what happened.

In the meantime, some resources:

  • The End of the World As We Know It (A memoir of surviving childhood sexual abuse by Robert Goolrick, author of the excellent novel A Reliable Wife)

I hope you find both truth and peace around this.

17 thoughts on “Reader question #87: How do I talk about a molesting grandparent?

    1. Ugh, this is a good catch that demonstrates the futility of trying to control information about abuse within a family. Secrets help the abuser and cut the victims off from each other, leaving them in the frame of mind that if they speak up they are somehow ruining the family. It’s fucking insidious.

    2. We both thought that he was focused on girls. And he never tried to be alone with our (five years younger) brother the way he did with us – we both watched out for our brother too. Sorry for not making this clear in the original post.

      Of course, in those days we had no idea that pedophiles might not care about the gender of the child. It wasn’t something people discussed much with children in late 70’s-early 80’s…

    1. That is a sad truth for mental health or any health care, especially in the US (where I live, not sure about the LW). And what resources that do exist are stretched very, very thin right now during this rough economic time.

      However, there are many ways that a person can try to find a social worker, counselor, support group, sliding scale therapist, etc. before you give up, and I am 100% Not Comfortable with saying “Well, if you can’t find therapy, just follow the advice of a screenwriter in working through these wrenching family issues!” That has to be my first recommendation, I’m sure you understand why.

      We could maybe develop a separate post on how to access mental health resources, and I could maybe try to scare up a therapist who can talk about what to do if you can’t access therapy or talk about what people did before there was widespread access to and acceptance of therapy, but I’m hoping the Letter Writer can start there.

      What do you suggest, in cases where therapy is not available?

      1. If LW has a hard time gaining access to therapy, she might want to first try contacting an organization like RAINN:

        One of my friends who was in an abusive relationship also got a lot of free support from a self-help group for survivors of abuse. But I have to say, those kinds of groups can also be bastions of groupthink like, “you must tell everyone what happened” or “these three steps are what you have to do in order to get over it” so LW might want to proceed with caution, as her family situation is way too complex for pat answers to cover things.

      2. I don’t know where the LW lives, but for people who live in or around San Francisco, San Francisco Women Against Rape offers free, short-term (10 weeks), peer-to-peer counseling. It doesn’t meet the same needs as long-term therapy, but it’s a start.

  1. It’s true that it can be expensive to go to a psychologist, even for a few sessions.

    Regarding finding a therapist, here’s some solid information for the US: and Canada:

    One affordable option is to go to a university training clinic, manned by psychology doctoral students. The students are supervised closely by psychologists. This means that 2 people try to help you, and more brainpower and caring (potentially) goes into the therapy. To access these clinics, figure out what university is nearby. Then find the contact information for the “clinical psychology” or “counselling psychology” program. Call and ask if they have a “training clinic” that accepts clients. I’m overusing quotation marks because using the right terms can help!

    Maybe this belongs in another posting…we have gone a bit off track here, but I wanted to get this information out there if people need it! It’s a great time to call the training clincs, as the students need to get therapy clients by the fall. Fees are low to start with and there are sliding scales based on income.

    1. Thanks for these recs. I’ll email you about developing a separate piece on how to access mental health resources for sure!

  2. Wow. The letter could almost have been written by me. So many of the particulars match my situation. In my case, I know my grandfather molested at least three of us (the other two that I’m positive of were sisters, although not as close in age as the writer and her sister). One of my cousins did eventually talk to her parents who talked to our grandmother. My grandmother talked to each of her children whose children were affected (but it was never discussed by the family as a whole, so I don’t know if all the female cousins were affected or just us three).

    Long story short(er), I tried therapy. Let’s just say it didn’t work out so well.

    So, my advice for Anxious: Yes, try to find therapy. But be aware that it is absolutely okay to “fire” your therapist if they aren’t helpful. Try to find a support group, even if it’s not one geared to your specific situation.

    Know that, even though the situation may not be “standard,” you’re not alone. Find someone (friend, therapist, total stranger, whomever) who’s willing to let you rant and rave without judging. Blog about it. (I used and abused LJ’s private post function for awhile when I was re-processing some of my issues.)

    Don’t be afraid to re-process stuff you thought you should have already sorted. These things take time, and you most likely WILL have to process some of them over and over again even after you’ve supposedly “healed.” Don’t beat yourself up if things crop up after you thought you were “over” them.

    Same song, different verse: try not to be too upset over your sister’s ways of dealing. I had to work REALLY hard at that one. I had definite feelings of guilt at not having been the one to come forward, feelings of betrayal toward the cousin who did come forward, etc. I completely agree with the idea of writing a letter and letting your sister read it. Let her know that while you respect the ways she’s dealing, you have to find other/different ways that will work for you.

    Best of luck to you and to anyone else trying to deal. It’s not easy, it’s not fast. But there is love, laughter, and peace out there. We just have to find them, each in our own way.

    1. Thank you 1,000 times for this insight from someone who has been through a similar thing.

  3. I really admire Anxious her desire to talk about this. I have also been a victim family sexual abuse and have also been caught in the dilemma to tell or not to tell. (told my mother but not my father). I can only say more of us need to talk about it. More of us need to stop thinking it is somehow our fault that this happened, and more of us need to stop thinking it is our responsibility to limit the uncomfortableness of others when confronting our experiences. It is because we cant talk that it is do easy for this to keep happening, that more girls and boys don’t feel that they can ask for help before it fucks up Their lives. Courage,sister, we will do it together.

  4. Letter Writer, I want to tell you the impression I got from your letter: that you are a strong, loving person trying to do the best you can – not only for yourself, but for your family – in a bad situation.

    I admire that, and I salute you.

  5. I was away when this was posted, which is why my response is this late. Thank you Captain and everyone else for your replies. Maybe therapy is the way to go; if nothing else it’d give me someone to talk to who isn’t emotionally affected directly by what I need to talk about.

    It’s always seemed to me that there is no room in the world for victims who aren’t completely devastated by what happened to them – I have a good life, I’ve friends and lovers and cats and horses and it’s not like it has destroyed my ability to love or feel good about my sexuality or my body. In fact, I think it’s the secrecy that’s hurting me more than anything else.

    I could of course talk to my sister about telling what happened to me but not saying anything about it happening to her, too. In other words, I could tell my story without taking away her own choice about her own story. I never thought about that before; it always seemed like something we shared and hid together.

    1. “It’s always seemed to me that there is no room in the world for victims who aren’t completely devastated by what happened to them.”

      There’s no way you *should* feel, and I’m glad you have such a great life and a great outlook. You seem like a very strong person. I hope you figure out a way to get what you need.

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