Childhood abuse still echoes in adult survivors’ lives

In a room recognizably located in a nursing home, a tiny lady with white hair speaks in a bird-like voice to her young nurse, “I must hide under my bed.”

“Why?” asks the nurse.

“He’s coming!” says the old woman.

“Are we playing hide and seek?”

“No, my papa is coming, please don’t let him find me!”

The Spanish short film at the Cleveland Film Festival several years ago breaks from the scene with a message: Childhood abuse lasts indefinitely.

This column demanded to be written, no matter what else I had in mind. Why? Because in the two weeks since my last column, many women have shared their stories with me.

Some have been strangers sharing the impact, if not all the details, of their decades-long struggle with the abuse they suffered as children.

Others are women I’ve known since childhood, like one who told me about her teen rapist. I first met him, too, in elementary school.

Many women who wrote were sexually assaulted, but equally as many were physically abused. “I was told that my dad loved me as he bashed me around. It’s the loss of trust that is so damaging,” said one.

For any child abused, even if that child is now 30, 50, 70 years of age, I am deeply sorry other adults didn’t intervene. If I could strip away the lingering pain and replace it with enduring safety for the child-self left inside these adults, I would. Just as I wish I could give the same to my own child-self.

What I can do is love and protect my own children. For though child abuse may never be 100 percent eradicated, we can do better.

Celebrity shame

Since my last column, Woody Allen told the media in Argentina he should be the poster boy for the #MeToo movement. Why? Because he’s never had a complaint of assault from any of the hundreds of famous or just-starting-out actresses he’s worked with over the decades.

Great. He kept his sexual assault limited to the children in his family and never took it to work. Based on his logic, my dad, too, could be a poster boy for the #MeToo movement. (Unless my doctor writes me an unlimited prescription for Zofran, I need to avoid reading anything Allen says.)

Days later, Bill Clinton went on the interview circuit. He has a new fiction book, co-written with author James Patterson, about a president battling a cyberterrorist. As a result, the topic of Clinton’s affair 20 years ago with Monica Lewinsky has resurfaced. At the time, he was 49 and president of the United States. She was a 22-year-old college grad.

Clinton was defensive when asked about the affair on the Today show, claiming two-thirds of Americans sided with him at the time. He was comparative, wondering why he had to endure impeachment hearings when Kennedy and Johnson were never pressured to resign over their affairs. He touted his record of promoting women to high positions in government. And he attacked the reporter asking the questions.

Nothing he said conveyed an iota of contrition.

“Clinton’s smart and can afford the best PR firms, I’m sure,” I said as we discussed his tone-deaf answers over dinner. “Why didn’t his advisers better prepare him for these inevitable questions?”

“I’m sure they did,” said Max, “And he ignored them.”

When the Clinton impeachment hearings were going on, a friend of mine from a well-connected Democrat family wished Clinton would resign. I disagreed. I don’t now.

No party should parse between the personal behavior of a politician and the political gain of his policies. As Frank Bruni wrote in a recent column in the New York Times, nominating the first women to serve as secretary of state and attorney general does not compensate for eviscerating the life of a 22-year-old.

Lewinsky, who has admitted her own mistakes in allowing the affair, has become a modern-day Hester Prynne. Meanwhile, Clinton has gone about his life, amassing fortunes and building a library to commemorate his life and time in the Oval Office.

The thing about men like Allen and Clinton is no matter what outrage they face, they will never see the error of their ways. Perhaps they are all narcissists. But also, when predatory violence against women continues, sometimes for decades, with impunity, it underscores a predator’s notion that the rules don’t apply to him. Everyone who witnesses such abuse and does nothing is culpable.

Complexity of abuse

Today is Father’s Day. If you read my last column you might think I have nothing good to say about my father. But that is not true. The complexity of child abuse is that nobody is always evil, just as nobody is always perfect.

When I was an undergrad at OSU, I read a review of a British movie about an abusive family in the student paper. The college-age reviewer couldn’t understand how the father could beat the children in one scene and have a joyous Christmas celebration with them in the next. Clearly that writer had an upbringing devoid of violence.

Just as all parent-child relationships are layered, if not complicated, reconciling the history of parental abuse can be fraught with conflicting emotions. Making this even more difficult, abusers, and sometimes other survivors, often claim the abuse never happened.

In 2013, Emily Yoffe, formerly slate.com’s Dear Prudence writer, wrote a column on what adult children owe the parents who abused them as children. Her answer? Nothing, absolutely nothing.

“Holy moly, you are right! I’m a horrible excuse for a human being and what I did to you can never be excused. I am truly sorry for the endless suffering I have caused you. Tell me what I can do to help.” These are words I don’t expect Woody Allen and Bill Clinton (and Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, etc., etc.) to say to their victims. Neither will most nonfamous parents who’ve abused their children.

“Make a list of all the persons you’ve harmed and become willing to make amends to them all.” That is step 8 in Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step program. It is also the step too hard for many to make. More people stop at this step, I am told, than any other.

For those with whom my last column resonated, do not give control to the people who harmed you by waiting for them to understand your pain and make amends. Seek whatever help you need, surround yourself with kind people — for most people are truly good — and be kind to yourself.

Be the adult you deserved in your life when you were a child and you will find what was taken from you. For me, parenting my kids as I wished I’d been parented has been the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.

The column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on June 17, 2018.


No more: All sexual assault is intolerable

On February 1, 2014, Dylan Farrow published an open letter in the New York Times describing how Woody Allen, her adoptive father, had sexually abused her.

A week later on Facebook, I shared a Vanity Fair article that deconstructed, point-by-point, claims made by Allen’s defenders in response to Farrow’s letter. To my surprise, several friends of mine who’d never met argued heatedly over Farrow’s allegations.

At the time, Farrow was pilloried in the press and by people I know. Most believed, if anything, Farrow was a victim of her mother, Mia Farrow, and her longstanding anger at her former partner, Allen.

Reasons to question Woody Allen’s credibility were no more hidden than Poe’s ‘The Purloined Letter.’

When she was 20 and he was 55, Allen convinced his stepdaughter, Soon-Yi Previn, to pose nude in photos he took for his personal pleasure. That they later married and had two children does not make their initial interactions any less predatory on his part.

And Allen’s movies, particularly Manhattan, are crystal-clear windows into his attitudes about women. In his films, mature women are too demanding, too brittle. But young women don’t question older men and often see them as mentors, including in bed.

Ah, the everlasting myth, held and promulgated by men, that young women want to be sexually mentored by older men, no strings attached. (Excuse me while I take some Zofran.)

My story

When I was 16, my father arranged for his friend John (not his real name) to watch me bathe.

John lived two hours away and often visited for days at a time. Months earlier, he had listened in the next room when a boyfriend broke up with me because I hadn’t had sex with him. After the boy left, John, a trained counselor, comforted me.

As one of those adults who didn’t condescend to children, I trusted him.

On an August afternoon, I returned home from Michigan Beach, covered in tanning oil and sand. Sitting at the table next to the bathroom door, my father and John were stoned. They cheerfully blocked my way.

I remember their words, both flattering — there’s nothing more beautiful than a 16-year-old bathing — and shaming. Nothing could be more natural, they claimed when I resisted, than what they were suggesting, especially since John would be naked, too.

None of their words considered my humanity or agency.

For decades, I told myself it was nothing. I had a college friend who was raped by her father for years. Multiple friends have recounted awakening in the middle of the night to find their brothers freely groping them. I’ve known women who’ve passed out at parties and been raped. One woke up with her skin graffitied in permanent marker by her proud rapists.

When I was 19, a boyfriend told me he believed my father had sexually abused me. I vehemently denied it. He didn’t know about that summer afternoon and I found his accusations an unfair judgment of my father’s hippie lifestyle.

Later still, I studied feminist theory at OSU. In those classes, I learned about the male gaze, the objectification of women, the commodification of women’s bodies, the infantilizing of women as reflected in laws across the globe, including in the United States.

But knowledge of institutionalized misogyny did not undo what I had internalized: shame and guilt for that one day and an abiding distrust of most straight men. With the exception of a few close friends, I told no one.

In 2007, my grandma died and my eldest child turned 13. While the death of my father’s mother ripped the prosthetic closure off a festering wound (we were close and only then did I realize I never wanted her to know), I also considered my adolescent son.

What would I do if a friend of mine asked to watch him bathe?

After initial disbelief, I’d call the police. I’d call children’s services. I’d struggle not to commit crimes of violence.

I found a therapist and worked to unpack that day and all it has meant and done to me. And I wrote about it, but never anything I intended to publish. While lighter than before, those events were still mine to carry quietly.

Taking on Weinstein

The common thread of all sexual abuse is power imbalance. And the more powerful the abuser, the more freedom he has to continue abusing, even when it’s a wide-open secret.

Ronan Farrow knows this as well as anyone. He stood by his sister Dylan and claims Allen not only assaulted her and Soon-Yi, but several of his sisters. Ronan Farrow is a privileged white man, but it took more than his power as such to pursue the story on Harvey Weinstein. It took tenacity.

As a reporter at MSNBC and NBC, Farrow was told to drop his investigation of Weinstein. By then, several women had told Farrow of their encounters with the producer, reliving events he described as “their worst moments of a lifetime.” Farrow refused to stop and was released from his television jobs.

Fortunately, the New Yorker picked him up and his stories on Weinstein were printed. Those pieces, along with others published weeks earlier by Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey at the New York Times, electrified the #MeToo campaign. Women posted this small phrase on social media to open the world’s eyes to the pervasiveness of sexual assault.

The beauty of those two words smashed together with a hashtag is nobody who shares them has to go through what Dylan Farrow and so many other victims have (and still do): The shaming of the victim.

According to Rachel Denhollander, one of gymnast-doctor Larry Nassar’s victims, “pedophiles are reported at least seven times on average before adults take the reports of abuse seriously and act on them.”

Now, I pray, we have turned a corner.

Mia Farrow, left, becomes emotional as she listens to announcement for her son, Ronan Farrow, right, 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner for public service, during an awards luncheon ceremony at Columbia University, Wednesday May 30, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

In January, Dylan Farrow’s brother, Ronan, along with Kantor and Twohey, won a Pulitzer Prize for their investigative reporting on Harvey Weinstein and other powerful predators.

In April, after decades of drugging and raping women with impunity, Bill Cosby was convicted. Two weeks ago, Harvey Weinstein was arrested, his passport revoked and a GPS snapped on his ankle while he awaits trial for two counts of rape and one count of a criminal sexual act.

While I’ll never know, I don’t think my father was done pimping me out. I didn’t wait to find out. I moved back to my mother’s house in Ohio for my senior year.

For me and many others like me, the power of #MeToo is the recognition of all sexual abuse as harmful and intolerable. Abusers of all varieties — sexual, physical and emotional — rationalize gradations of abuse in order to keep the door open for further assault. This must stop.

Thank you Jodi Kantor, Meghan Twohey, Ronan Farrow and all the brave women who shared your stories with these reporters. May your truth-to-power efforts stop society’s willfully blind eye to sexual assault, thereby saving many would-be victims from the violence of predatory men.

And Dylan Farrow, I always believed you.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on June 3, 2018.