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Story 9: What I have learned from stories told by abusers
Dear Engaged Bystander: Listening to stories is my passion – I learn so much from hearing how people cope, how people change, and I am especially moved by the strength and courage it takes to emerge into a new life after experiencing profound trauma. Stories are the way that people make sense of themselves and their world (Shannon, 1995). Throughout my career in prevention, I had the privilege of hearing hundreds of stories from families and friends who cared deeply enough to reach out for help. These are the stories that I carry with me every day.
The unique perspective I have taken is to listen to the stories told by sexual abusers. I thought it might be interesting to share some of what I have learned over the years.
“All of the signs were there… and no one in my family or circle of friends ever asked about them.” When a young man in prison said this, I asked him to explain the warning signs that people should have noticed. He said that he always took young boys to family parties but never someone his own age, all of his hobbies were things that would be of interest to a young boy, he did not have friends his own age, and the list went on. It was incredibly helpful to me at the time (Tabachnick, 2003). And over time, the question began to change. I began to ask questions about WHO he would have listened to (someone like himself, someone who had the same addictions but learned how to control them) and WHAT they could have said (“I am talking with you because I care about you”).
“My daughter had more courage than I did to be able to start talking about what happened…” I still remember when a father talked about how thankful he was that his daughter could say the words he had tried to say over and over again. He talked about the incredible shame he felt and how hard it was to bring up a topic that no one ever talks about. He also said that he wished someone had asked him directly about their concerns. For example, one friend knew something was going on, but only asked once if everything was OK. He said he mumbled some reply because he did not know what his friend might have known. In hindsight, he wished his friend had asked him a more direct question and said the words first so he knew he would not be alone through this ordeal.
“When I say don’t worry, I won’t ever abuse again – that is the exact moment when you need to worry…” One man, who became a close colleague, said that if anyone says “Don’t worry about me”, it means that they are losing a huge part of their social circle and the support to never abuse again. It is a huge conundrum since we want to hear that everything will be okay again. But the reality is that a sexual abuser who knows his/her own triggers, can talk with their family and friends to help keep them on track. It is a huge role for the family, but it is so essential to change the circumstances that lead up to sexual abuse.
Last, and most importantly, I heard over and over again the need for hope. Many people whose lives have been touched by victims and/or abusers report that they do feel hopeful: that victim’s can transform into survivors who are more resilient as a result of their struggles; that people who abuse -- especially the children and adolescents who have abused – can learn to control their behaviors and become safe, healthy and productive members of society; and that communities, though forever changed by child sexual abuse, can become stronger, healthier and better able to protect their children.
That is such a key role for all of us, as friends, family and bystanders.
PS I initially talked about some of these ideas in a 2003 article: Tabachnick, Joan. (2003) Create a Social Marketing Campaign with Information Learned from Abusers, those At-Risk to Abuse, and their Friends and Families. National Child Advocate. Vol 5, No 2. Summer.