Rachel's Story: From a Survivor

When I was 12 I didn’t know I couldn’t get pregnant by kissing and fondling. I was scared. I was even more scared because the person who was doing the kissing and fondling was my father. I wanted to make him stop, especially after he went on to touch my two younger sisters in the bedroom we shared, but I thought if I told, it would destroy my family.

When I was 39 years old, I had an overwhelmingly frightening nightmare about my father coming into my bedroom to sexually abuse me, but this time in my own home. This was a safe space that I had created for myself as a loving adult. I thought I was done dealing with the sexual abuse, but I realized that the abuse I experienced as a child was still a family secret. I finally confronted my father with the abuse and he did acknowledge what he had done.

At the time, I thought that this confrontation would be enough. Three years later when I saw a photograph of my father holding my young niece, I realized I had to talk about this within my whole family if I wanted my niece to be safe.

I call this a story of hope because in this second confrontation my father admitted what he did — not just to me, but to the whole family — and apologized. The family is now aware that we have a problem that can’t be buried any longer, even though they wish it would just go away. It’s a story of hope because maybe more abusers will understand they can admit what they did and help their families heal. Maybe more survivors of abuse will realize they can confront the history that haunts them and regain control over their lives.

Don’t get me wrong — this story does not have a fairytale ending. Life isn’t usually like that. The first time I confronted my father was in a letter after I had a nightmare that was really a flashback to when I was 12 and my father came into my room at night to fondle my breasts and kiss me. But in my dream, my father was in my own house, the home and safety I created for myself as an adult.

After a couple of years, he stopped touching me, but it was worse watching him kiss and fondle my younger sister. When I caught him touching her, he would tell me to go away and I would simply walk away. I was the oldest. I was supposed to protect my younger sisters, and I couldn't. I'd lie awake in bed at night and try to figure out how to stop him. I thought if I could just understand why he was doing this, I could make him stop.

I wrote that first letter nearly 20 years after I left home for college. My father acknowledged what he did, but that was it. My sister, who had just given birth to a daughter, wrote me a long letter. She was afraid, she said, that if her husband found out about the abuse, it would ruin her marriage. She asked why it was coming up now and why I wanted to hurt mom and dad. After all, she wrote, "dad never hurt us, he meant no harm". She urged me to resolve this in my own mind so we could be a family again, and so that I would not live in regret if my parents died before we were reconciled.

I had very little communication with my family during this time. The communication I did have was minimal and there were no family visits except for major holidays. After three years of further silence around the sexual abuse, I received a photograph from my sister of my dad holding my three-year-old niece. A chill went up my spine. He molested his own daughters, so how could my sister trust him with her daughter? To keep my niece safe I had to bring it all up again and make sure the whole family understood about dad sexually abusing us.

I called and asked my parents if they would come to one of my therapy sessions. My dad didn’t argue: where and when I wanted him there was all he asked.

When I got to the therapist’s office, my parents were already there. My mother was crying, "What are you doing to me?" I had to explain that this session wasn’t about her, it was about me and the pain I had been through. She said that when I was a child, she felt trapped, too. "I told your father not to go into your bedroom, but he still did. I just didn’t know what to do to stop him."

My father first tried to excuse his actions by saying that in the culture of the time, "my daughters were my property and I could do anything I wanted to with them." At least he admitted the abuse. My therapist said I should tell my parents what I wanted from them.

I wanted my father to tell my brother about the abuse and to acknowledge to my two sisters that what he did to us as children was abuse and to apologize to them. I was also very passionate about making sure that everyone agreed to never let my niece be left alone with my father, hopefully protecting her from any sexually abusive behavior. I know he told my brother, who wrote me a letter of support. As far as I know he apologized to my sisters. And we’re all involved in keeping my niece safe.

I think my dad is "getting it" about his inappropriate actions, and when he doesn’t I feel confident about talking to him directly. For example, at their 50th anniversary party, he asked me to slow dance with him. I looked him directly in the face and told him that this was not something I could do with him. He respected my decision. A few days later he called me to ask how I was doing and to apologize for his poor choices in that situation. That feels like progress. Now, if only he can learn to think about it before instead of after!

We're not living an everybody-lives-happily-ever-after fairytale. It’s not easy. But I’ve done enough work on my own issues to let me claim my own life and find my own sense of peace. My family isn’t perfect by a long shot. But there’s hope.