It's Never to Late to Say Something
Dear Engaged Bystander: 50 years later, the impact of a bystander to child sexual abuse could not be more profound. Imagine finally making the decision to talk about incest with your elderly aunt – only to find that she is willing to listen, acknowledge your reality and loving say “I am happy to hear you know it was not your fault.”
This week, I had the chance to spend some time with a wonderful friend and colleague, Donna Jenson. Donna has written and performs a one woman play, “What She Knows: One Woman’s Way Through Incest”, based on her life as an incest survivor and what she has done to make her life worth living. It is a powerful play that she ties to an open conversation with her audience.
She shared with me an amazing bystander story and conversation with her 80 year old Aunt Mable. As background to this story, Donna has let me share with you that she was sexually abused by her father from the age of seven to the age of twelve. Although she has been an incredible activist for women and for survivors for decades, it took her until the age of 45 to come out to her family as a survivor of child sexual abuse. Many in her family refused to believe it. Others recognized that something was not right.
Joan: What did that mean to you, that some of your family recognized what was going for you at that time?
One of my aunts told me something I hadn’t known. Early on in my life (I was maybe 3) my maternal grandmother knew something was very wrong – she noticed I trembled whenever my father entered a room. She tried to talk to my mom about it. My mother told my aunt, “If she makes me choose between him and the family, I’ll choose him.” And my grandmother remained silent.
I still wonder what would have happened to my life if their world had been surrounded by the idea of helping whole families, offenders included, rather than either putting up with them or throwing them away?
Joan: Now that it is 20 years later, what is it like for you to be in touch with your Aunt?
I love having contact with my family and especially my Aunt now that my grandmother is gone. My Aunt Mable writes to me every Christmas and now even stays in touch through email and texting. In January of last year, I told her about my play and what it was about. Her immediate response was, “I would love to read it.” I did not send it to her because, even after all of these years, I was afraid that I would lose her too…”
When I said I was coming to visit, she sent me a text that said, “So glad you are coming to visit. By the way, I am still waiting for a copy of your play.” I took a deep breath, wrote back and sent the play and my website. Two days later, I got a note that said “Just to let you know received the narrative. Have read it many times – trying to absorb it. Letter will follow.” I felt my stomach cringe, and even after all of these years, I got nervous about what her reaction might be.
Then I got another note that made all of the difference in the world. “I liked it. It is written well and serves the purpose for why it was written… I am happy you can say ‘it wasn’t my fault’ because my dear it was not your fault. Thank you for sending it to me. Love you.”
Joan: How did you respond to her? How did it make you feel?
I wrote back to tell her that she is the best Aunt a girl could ever hope for. And her message, which I still have saved on my cell phone, makes me cry. It is like a little piece of grace. No matter how much hard work I do, there is a little pool of muck that remains – that is not fully drained. But when someone that close to the situation validates what I have done. It is the grandest, purest of affirmations, especially when most of the rest of my family can’t deal with this.
Joan: What would you say to other families that might have a sense that something is not quite right?
You can make a difference -- just by being there. My Aunt Mable was one of the people I felt safe with. She has let me know that she knew something was not right. She was aware of the alcoholism and recognized what a tyrant my father was, even if she was not aware of the depth of the sexual abuse. Aunt Mable would always find ways to have special time with me, bounce me on her knee and sing silly songs together. In reality, when she came to visit I was safe. On her visits, she would sleep in my room and on those nights, nothing happened to me.
These moments of safety and this special attention is part of the foundation that allowed me to build my healthy life today. My Aunt, my grandmother, my husband, my daughter, my grandson, Cole and the people, friends, I call my family of choice are all a part of this foundation. And for those who struggle with what to say, please know that her affirmations 50 years later of what was not right in my childhood is healing for me. And yes for me the only word to describe it is a form of grace.
Joan: For more information about Donna’s work as a survivor and her incredible play, go to: