Georgia and Olivia each received their updated version of Asher’s apology letter. This is the next step towards victim mediation where Asher will read these letters aloud. The girls both made significant changes to their brother’s initial draft. And though each receives a unique letter and processes that letter in private, several common refrains were heard in their revision requests. The most significant item for both the girls, and even Nathan, was acknowledgement of the physical and verbal abuse in addition to the sexual abuse. They all needed to hear Asher recognize his violence and repent of it.
Asher included a paragraph in Olivia’s letter that addressed his physical abuse of her. He wrote:
I am apologetic for the other ways I hurt you. I would become angry easily, many times over small things, and explode and would cuss and hit you and others because I was upset. I would pester you until you gave in to what I wanted. I recognize I physically abused you by holding you or moving you where I wanted you to be at the same time the sexual abuse was occurring. I know that this made the abuse even worse. I can imagine this has made you even more scared of me. I am ashamed of these behaviors and know it was not o.k. Violence and sex should not ever be mixed in any relationship.
When I initially read the letter last week, I was relieved to see the ways Asher appeared to be taking Olivia’s requests seriously. This whole paragraph was a new addition from the original. Asher took the time to not only acknowledge the abuse but recognize the ways it occurred and how it may have affected his sister. From my perspective, everything seemed good about it. So, I was startled when Olivia blurted, “You know, we always talk about the sexual abuse and how bad the sexual abuse was. And it’s true. No one should be sexually abused. But, really, Asher sexually abused me so few times that it isn’t the thing that hurt me the most. Why don’t we ever talk about the physical abuse? You know, he hit me all the time. That was what hurt.”
I was stunned.
For the next hour we spoke openly about how Asher regularly used physical threats and acts of violence to bully his sister – sometimes to get what he wanted but often just for the sake of aggression. And what he wanted was rarely sexual in nature. It was things like taking a turn on her bike before she was done riding, or playing by his rules even when he was cheating. Olivia talked about how degrading it was to feel like his punching bag.
It was eye-opening in a season when I didn’t think my eyes could get much wider.
When we met with Olivia’s therapist last week, I brought up this shift in my daughter’s needs regarding the apology letter. Tara, our counselor at the Trauma Recovery Center who walked us through our family’s TF-CBT and neurofeedback, gently explained what was happening.
Sexual abuse is rarely perpetrated in a vacuum. There is almost always physical, emotional, mental, verbal, or spiritual abuse working in parallel with it. However, these other forms of abuse are often overshadowed by the known quantity of sexual abuse when disclosure is made. As a culture, we are far more comfortable worrying about who put what where than trying to piece together the nuances of bullying and its effects. And considering how uncomfortable we are with handling the reality of sexual assault, that’s saying a lot! As a result, the underlying abuses that went along with the sexual abuse are often neglected – for years. To make matters worse, children usually do not disclose when they do not feel safe. They learned, from early on in the abuse cycle, that secrecy promised refuge. The threats won’t come true if you do as you are told and Don’t. Tell. It is not uncommon for a seven-year old sexual abuse survivor to take an additional 10 years before disclosure of physical or verbal abuse is made. And if sexual abuse is not disclosed until adulthood, then the other forms of abuse are often hidden for even longer.
So, when children disclose sexual abuse, it is generally not the most painful aspect of the relationship’s history because they keep the most agonizing pieces to themselves. It takes either profound work on the part of the victim and their support network to provide enough safety for a child to come forward with the deeper aspects for their abusive relationship or the child becomes an adult and is faced with parenting their own children through those same tender years when they, themselves, suffered so much.
This is, to some degree, encouraging. Olivia’s willingness to not only address the physical abuse but initiate the conversation is telling of her inner peace and sense of safety. Our home is becoming a place of regulation and comfort for her!
Olivia finished editing Asher’s letter today and this is what she wrote at the end:
The sexual abuse wasn’t as painful and hurtful as the physical abuse. I was much more scared to be living in the same house and be near you because of how you physically abused me. I couldn’t get away from you and had to live close by you even though you hit me regularly – so often that it feels like there was hardly a day that passed without it. The physical abuse made me feel bad as a person. It broke down my self-worth and caused me to question my value. I believed I deserved to be your punching bag. I feel like you aren’t willing to address the severity of the physical abuse because you only mention it as a side note or always relating it to the sexual abuse. I appreciate what you are trying to say when you say that sex and violence should never mix. But your violence was far more pervasive than your sexual abuse of me. You took my stuff, chased me with ropes, threatened to hurt me, hurt my siblings, or destroy my things if I didn’t let you have a turn on my bike or use my belongings. I don’t have a problem believing you are changing your values regarding sexual abuse. I hear the ways you acknowledge it and you appear to really understand how wrong it is. However, I’m scared that you are not changing your violent temper and physical/verbal assault tendencies. This was a significant part of how we related to one another and I don’t see it being addressed as such. -Sincerely, Olivia
We are ridiculously proud of the work Olivia, Georgia, and Nathan are doing to heal from their abuse. And during these times when it feels as though Asher may never return to us, these are small victories to which we cling.