Coping with My Mother’s Reaction to Sibling Sexual Abuse

Unhappy boy sitting on floor in cornerMy family moved to England from the United States when I was very young. My first memories are British ones. I remember learning to tie my school tie, and being proud of the little sword and shield crest on my tiny blazer. When I was 7, we moved back to America.

Shortly after arriving back in the United States, my older brother began his sexual advances. I have never been able to find out what had happened to him before he began to repeat the behavior, or when and where it occurred, but I am sure he was abused at a point prior to moving back to America. The behaviors he adopted and the activities he was interested in experiencing were far too advanced for a boy of 10 years old to come up with on his own. I had tried to get these answers from time to time over the years, but my mother was far too delusional or ashamed to ever give any real information.

The first interval of sexual activity occurred over the first two years in the US, and escalated quickly until we were discovered. It wasn’t until about a year ago that I learned exactly how that happened. She must have stumbled on us during a “session” in his room, but didn’t react right away. My memory of this is mostly blocked out.

What I do remember happened later in the evening. She angrily grabbed my younger brother and me and shoved us into the van and drove like crazy to a park nearby. I assume she left my older brother at home out of shame, or merely because she didn’t know what to do. My father was out of the country for work, probably somewhere in Europe. It was in the winter time, that much I remember. The heater was cranked up to the max and we were in snowsuits. I wanted to get out of the van at the park, but she refused to let us out. We three sat there for hours in silence. I got more and more scared and confused. What had she been thinking?

Eventually, I worked up the courage to ask her if I was in trouble. She looked at me with wild black eyes and started to snap, then, as suddenly as she started yell, she stopped. I can’t recall hearing any actual words. I was petrified, and I didn’t even know why. I wanted out of that van immediately. My mind raced feverishly through ways to escape and protect my younger brother without arousing her anger. I came up dry, but luckily, she grew tired of the pointless sitting and drove us home without another word.

Lasting Aftershock
Two weeks went by with no mention of that night, and then my father returned home from his trip. Normally, we loved it when he came home; we typically got small presents, and we got to hear stories of the friends we had left behind in England. This was not to be such a day. I was summoned to the living room to sit on the couch next to my older brother and wait for mother to finish talking to father in their bedroom. They came in and sat across from us. I knew immediately that doom was imminent.

We were both then subjected to an intense and specific interrogation, so laced with shame and disgust that I had to bury my 9-year-old head in the couch cushions. I wept with total abandon. I have been trying to remember the specific details of this morning, but can’t seem to get there. A lot of my childhood has dark windows of redacted information — blank spots surrounded with shame and sorrow, but silhouetted by the clear details around them. I remember it ending at some point when I eventually stopped crying and sat up to see that I was alone in the living room. I ran to my room and hid under my bedclothes. Mother came to me later to tell me I was to stay away from my older brother and that he was clearly “sick” and something would have to be done with him. I look back now on that day and cry only for him. Whatever had happened to me could not have compared to what she had done to him.

Several decades later, I have drawn the conclusion that my mother suffered from borderline personality disorder. She is yet undiagnosed. I have become an apt student of everything related to those with borderline personality, and I try to share what I have learned where it is appropriate to do so. One of the defining characteristics she would manifest regularly was the projection of shame and revulsion regarding anything remotely sexual. I have pieced together a few loose theories on why this is, but not enough to really write about. As traumatic as the sexual abuse eventually became for me, it paled in comparison to what she did to both of us as a result of the discovery.

The “All-Good Child”
This event touched off a campaign of hers to emotionally destroy my older brother. He was painted black with an indelible ink that would never wash away. He was the “all-bad child” for the rest his childhood. I was elevated to the status of the all-good child. It was never that simple, and if we could have gotten together to figure it out, maybe we could have defeated her emotional polarization of our characters. But then again, we probably never stood a chance. A side effect of my mother’s “splitting” was that my brother started sneaking back into my room at nights to continue the sexual advances. This continued for two more years before I got strong enough to resist him and smart enough to keep a buck knife under my mattress. One night I put the blade to his face and made my unwillingness to participate clear. He never bothered me again.

When I turned 15, I met my first girlfriend. She was a visitor at my church, a guest of a single mother and her daughter. One Sunday after the church service had ended, my mother walked up to my girlfriend and me, grabbed us both by the shoulders, and pushed us roughly off to the side of the sanctuary and into an office cubicle. She brought in my girlfriend’s host mother and our pastor, and called her little meeting to order. She began by telling everyone there about my sexual abuse in graphic detail. I had never told a soul what had happened to me those years past, and she just trotted it out like a juicy rumor. When she had finished humiliating me, she moved on to my girlfriend, who had apparently been molested by one of her mother’s boyfriends a few years earlier. Until this point, my girlfriend knew nothing of my abuse, and I had known nothing of hers.

My mother’s apparent goal was to get it all out into the open as to prevent our involvement that she saw ending in debauchery, depravity, and most likely shameful pregnancy. My girlfriend broke up with me over the phone a week later. I couldn’t blame her. My mother in full witch mode was a soul-chilling experience.

Fear into Obedience
I spent the rest of my time before leaving for college trying to please my mother, mostly out of fear. It would take some time away and separation from her to be able to look back and think critically about the time before I realized the truth about her. She reacted to anything remotely sexual with hysteria every time. Even things that were barely risqué resulted in meltdowns for her. A movie with a sex scene (no matter how PG), led her to fits of anger and projected shame. I would do anything in my power each time to escape her presence or distract her with whatever I could. Her shame, unchecked, always seemed to focus on her poor son, or worse, on the older brother who would be forever painted black.

I became a master at reading her moods and deflecting or distracting her scrutiny. My style of survival clashed with that of my brother. Where I chose capitulation, he opted for open rebellion. My great regret from all of this conflict was ever siding with her to spare myself. I’ve since been told that doing this to survive was nothing I should feel ashamed of, but I’ll bet my older brother suffered greatly as a result. I haven’t ever been able to talk to my brother about any of this, but I hope that one day we might try.

I suspect that when our mother passes away, there might be a window of time where we can find a common fraternal safe haven to talk candidly about our horrid upbringing. This is probably wishful thinking, as he has presented a lot of the hallmark traits of a narcissistic personality disorder. I have kept my distance from him for the last few decades. My younger brother was mostly shielded from our mother’s emotional abuse, and I see him once every few months. Since I have suspected my mother’s borderline personality, I have shared a little here and there with him, but for the most part we don’t talk about our childhood. I can’t help but feel that this is building to a conclusion of some sort. Her instability has gotten much worse in the last few years, and her alcohol abuse worsens as well. My father’s enabling has allowed her to continue on unchecked in her madness, but she has turned on him as well.

Healing from Shame
Coming to terms with my childhood has only come about since I sought out a therapist. I actually found her using Goodtherapy.org’s therapist finder application. I have been working with her for almost a year now, and have made a lot of discoveries, both good and bad. I write a blog of my own to make sense of what I was forced to be and what I am trying to become, but this particular story doesn’t want to fit in there anywhere. It’s too rough, too raw, too painful. While I have banished my mother from my life, her ghost still comes to call from time to time.

I write this now as a cleansing ritual to scrub her influence from my mind and spirit. I have reclaimed my life. Memories of pain like these ones have no place in my future except as footnotes. I hope that in sharing this story I can share the hope that comes from deep within me — the hope that we can heal ourselves from anything we’ve had to endure. The transmutation of shame into healing is the greatest magic I have ever seen, and it brought me to tears to see it for the first time in my own life. My greatest wish is to find a way to show this magic to anyone else who has ever needed it.

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  • eva

    eva

    March 28th, 2013 at 1:25 PM

    This is such a sad story, mainly because of the hurt that you have been forced to relive over and over again through the actions of the adults in your life and the horror of having this happen to you by someone that you knew and that you loved. I think that for anyone enduring this is so painful but it must be even more so and confusing when it is done by someone in the family. The trust is broken and it just creates a situation that is going to be hard for almost any family to recover from. I am so sorry that this happened to you but I am also glad that you were wise enough even through the pain to seek help and to one day get the peace that you deserve.

  • Dan Greenfern

    Dan Greenfern

    March 28th, 2013 at 2:13 PM

    Eva,
    Thank you for your kind comments. Like I wrote in my piece, the worst pain from this experience was a result of the reactions of both my parents as well as the confusion and dissonance I was stuck with. Getting to therapy was the single best decision I have ever made for myself. I go weekly and it has given me a new lease on sanity. I wrote this mostly in the hope that someone else who might’ve suffered in a similar way could use the hope to get the help I did. It was a hard one to write, but it would be worth it if it helps just one person. Thanks again
    Dan Greenfern

  • Rashmi

    Rashmi

    December 12th, 2016 at 8:21 AM

    Love you, Dan. Thanks for sharing this. I too have recovered a lot, and have a very good job for the first time, but the pain and memories have to be battled with daily determination. I so understand your wishful thinking about the positive effect your mom’s death might bring. When my mom keeps complaining to the police about me and when I have to buy a paid app to block her abusive SMSs, and when I have to hide where I stay, where I work to be safe from her, I feel the same way, too. But I know that her death will not solve anything, it is my learning to love the people around instead of being immersed in the horror of the past that will help. Me and the people around need that they be my friends, not my witnesses. Take care, handshake.

  • eva

    eva

    March 29th, 2013 at 3:58 AM

    Thanks Dan. I hope that there are tons of people who read your message so that they can know that life after this can contain hope again. It might not come to you without you first seeking it out, but it is there and it is possible.

  • martha

    martha

    March 29th, 2013 at 11:39 PM

    Very courageous of you to talk about all of this. For me events from the past are something hidden deep inside me and I am afraid to let it out. I hope you have healed completely and I hope to be able to reach that point myself someday.

  • Dan Greenfern

    Dan Greenfern

    March 30th, 2013 at 4:04 PM

    Martha,

    “Completely” still seems like a lofty goal in my healing, but I hope, one day…
    There’s always fear attached to the digging process, but it gets easier. My therapist has been a great buffer for me in the work we do on my past. The good news is that the initial pain of discovery gets less and less with each day. The first time you confront a tough memory, it can really kick your butt, but in confronting, you make each subsequent remembering less painful. I hope you can heal too, don’t wait too long to try. Everyone deserves a life free from these kind of chains. Good luck.

  • Tonya Sims

    Tonya Sims

    March 30th, 2013 at 5:59 AM

    I am not diminishing at all what you have experienced, but I think that the best thing that could be done when it comes to family situations like this would be to cut off all contact with them. I am not sure that anyone could ever fully heal from this kind of abuse and then treatment from the others in the family with them still around. How would you ever feel like you could trust them or that they were ever on your side? Sometimes it is like people are only looking out for themselves and never for those who most need their help. That’s sad.

  • Dan Greenfern

    Dan Greenfern

    March 30th, 2013 at 3:53 PM

    Tonya,

    I agree wholeheartedly. I went no-contact about 18 months ago with all but my younger brother. I took the step before learning about BPD, and it’s been responsible for a lot of new insight and a catalyst for many healthy changes in me. Once you learn a few skills as a life mechanic, you look under the hood and just keep finding more things that need fixing. Mine has been a jallopy for a long time. Now it’s a drivable work in progress.

  • Erica

    Erica

    March 31st, 2013 at 12:04 AM

    Brave of you to not only tell this story to the world but also to confront your memories and get through them. You have done a good job at these.

    I have memories of my own that I have no strength to confront. They were of abuse yes, but whenever I do want to dive in and fight them and defeat them I automatically go into the lockdown mode. I feel incapable of doing anything for the next few hours, or sometimes even a couple of days.

    Been to a few therapists but I feel I am constrained due to my own lockdown. Do not know how to get out pf this but I do hope to, someday.

  • Dan Greenfern

    Dan Greenfern

    March 31st, 2013 at 5:35 PM

    Erica,

    For my worst memories, my therapist suggested we try EMDR as a way of safely remembering and processing the associated feelings. I tried it and it was an interesting process. I won’t explain the whole thing here, there’s a lot out there on how it works. It did the trick for me. I exposed a doozy and cried buckets the next day, but now it’s not really painful at all. Footnotes of the past. I wish you all the best in your recovery.

  • Kathryn

    Kathryn

    March 31st, 2013 at 7:48 AM

    Your mom was really a piece of work. It made me cry to think of everything that you had to endure not ony from your brother but then from her. It is amazing that you maintained your sanity!

  • Dan Greenfern

    Dan Greenfern

    March 31st, 2013 at 5:42 PM

    Kathryn,

    Thanks for your sympathy. I white-knuckled the last year or so, but made it through. I made a great mix for my iPod with music like the Pixies “Where is My Mind”, and Monsters & Men “Little Talks.” You have to find courage somewhere, every little bit helps.

  • lao phan

    lao phan

    July 8th, 2013 at 11:21 PM

    Wow I thought I was the only one but after reading this it really helped me out with my situation except my mom still hides the truth from everyone because she feels shameful about it. My story is similar with me and my sister. I’m a girl and we pretended like it never happened until I finally confronted her. I haven’t really forgave her yet bc she’s in denial. I feel like I am the only one trying to help or get therapy. I truly feel your pain and am still healing.

  • Dan Greenfern

    Dan Greenfern

    July 14th, 2013 at 1:51 PM

    Lao Phan,

    Denial is such a powerful tool. It’s so hard to fight against. One of my hardest challenges in recovery was to let go of my need for my family to confront the truth and just take care of myself. Talking to my therapist is massively helpful, but I still sometimes wish I could make my family see the truth. Coming to terms with the reality that they never will because they refuse to look has been a struggle. I’m glad you’re getting help. Good luck with your journey.

    Dan Greenfern

  • Andrea F

    Andrea F

    May 3rd, 2015 at 1:52 AM

    Thanks for sharing your story Dan. It helped me alot. I am in the middle of two brothers and my older brother abused me for 6 years. It started when he was 9 and I was 6. I truly believe something terrible happened to him. My father was/is totally emotionally unavailable. Your story portrays well how sick the family is with personality disorders, alcohol abuse, enabling etc. I have had to cut ties with my mother and the rest of them too, except for my younger brother. He seems so much less affected which I can only be happy for him about.

  • lisa

    lisa

    November 5th, 2016 at 6:09 AM

    thank you for writing your story I am trying to come to terms with my mother, who still has a relationship with her brother, who was my tormentor.

  • Bushra Iqbal

    Bushra Iqbal

    January 13th, 2018 at 11:34 PM

    Very courageous piece. Love and peace from Pakistan.

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