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.
Anxious daughter and granddaughter
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:
- Penelope Trunk: How to decide how much to reveal about yourself (On the subjects of keeping secrets in families)
- 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.