Obituary for My Mother

My mother, Kathleen, as a young woman. Photographer unknown.

My mother, Kathleen, as a young woman. Photographer unknown.

An obituary cannot contain a life.

Words and pictures cannot contain a life.

Not even memories can contain a life. Each life is its own story and no one can know the full story of it except the one who lived it.

An obituary gives dates, organizations that a person may have belonged to, relatives who preceded them in death and those who remain behind to grieve. But it can’t define what happened between those beginning and ending dates, the service provided to those organizations or to others, the real relationships that were shared, or the fullness of being.

I can’t do that either, but I know that my mother was more than a few words and dates, so I decided to write my own obituary of her from my point-of-view. It, too, will fail to capture her essence. We all know our loved ones in different ways and the things that were important to me may not have been noticed by others and I know that I cannot know much of what she meant to my siblings, her friends, her townspeople, and others.

My mother was born Kathleen Townsend in 1925 in Shullsburg, Wisconsin, two years shy of a century after her great-grandfather settled there in the same year the city was founded. There are four generations beyond her who still count the town as home. From everything I know she loved her alcoholic father although she didn’t like it when he drank and she loved and admired her mother as much as I have loved and admired mine.

She grew up Catholic at a time when the parish priest’s word was law. She was throughout her life fiercely devout to the church. I remember often walking into the living room to find her sitting in the chair with her eyes closed and fingers on a rosary bead or saying a novena. When she prayed I don’t know that it was ever for herself. She prayed a lot for others who were less fortunate or might be in some kind of need, be it financially, spiritually, or emotionally.

A few short years after her birth the stock market crashed and my mother’s already poor family became even poorer. I recall stories of the children going to school in all seasons wearing ragged shoes with holes, having to huddle together in bed at night to stay warm in a cold, drafty house, and living with the shame of having to wear old and tattered clothes when other children were dressed in their best school finery. The family lived next to the railroad depot and often itinerant men would stop and ask for food. Her mother would always share what little they had and I know this example of Christian spirit impacted my mother as she was one of the most generous people I have ever known. Our family was comfortable although we never had much, but Mom always shared, too. She also gave back in other ways. I remember her taking care of the needs of several elderly women in our town–driving them to appointments, picking up their mail, taking them groceries, spending time with them when their families would not or could not visit. She loaned or gave money to others when she had little. When a neighbor had a fire the woman and her son moved in with us until their house was fixed. My Great-Aunt Leona lived with us, too, when she was ill. Friends and relatives could drop by any time to talk or ask for favors.

I know from her stories that my mother was shy and felt awkward as a youth. She may not have known it, but she was a beautiful young woman, a beautiful young mother, a beautiful middle-aged woman, and a beautiful old lady. The beauty emanated from within and shone through her physical being.

Mom had eight siblings and she loved each of them in their own ways. Like all siblings they might sometimes argue or not understand each other but they were all pretty close. My mother spent a lot of time with my Aunt (and godmother) Gen, Uncle Bergen, and especially with my spinster aunt, Avene, the eldest child in their clan. We would often drive across the border into Illinois to visit Marge and Bill, Evelyn and Harold, Phil and Ruth. About once a year we would see Ed and Fran from Milwaukee and occasionally my bachelor uncle, Lyle, would stop by; while he lived in Shullsburg we didn’t see him that much. Mom and Vene were the closest. Vene would join us every Sunday at noon for a big Sunday dinner and was always part of our holidays. She was like a second mother to us. My mother always believed that Avene was a “saint on earth” as she often said. She admired and loved her so much and missed her dearly after she passed. Mom was the youngest in their family and outlived them all.

She graduated from high school in 1942 during the middle of America’s involvement in World War II. After the war she met my father, Chuck Harty, a man whose picture she had previously admired as she thought he was incredibly handsome. She told me recently that she always thought he was handsome. The picture stayed with her throughout her life, even through her second marriage years later. Mom and Dad danced. They went to big band shows with Lawrence Welk, Bunny Berrigan and others. They danced a lot. She often went to a place called The Palace in Galena, Illinois. From what she told me she used to love to dance. One of my favorite memories of her is that of her kicking up her heels and dancing crazily in the basement as Aunt Leona pounded out “Turkey in the Straw” on the piano.

My dad and mom had a whirlwind romance. They were engaged within a few months after they started to date and were married shortly after that. She loved him dearly. From what I understand (I didn’t witness it as he died when I was two) they had their share of fights, too. He would go for days without talking to her when he was angry. Still she stood by him and I believe she loved him until the day she died. His picture hung on the wall where she could see it from her bed at the end.

They had five children. The oldest, Loras, was born with spina bifada at a time when there was nothing doctors could do about it. He lived to be about two and a half years before he passed away and that was one of the great tragedies of my mother’s life. She carried the heaviness of his painful life and his death with her throughout the rest of her years. She talked about him often as I was growing up, about what a beautiful baby he was, and how he endured his suffering with such grace. She told about how she walked in on him shortly before his death and saw a beatific smile and knew that he was at the end and that he would be at peace with God. His picture also hung on the wall where she could see it at the end.

The other four of us were born after Loras had already lived and died.

When I was two my father died of a massive heart attack. My mother was left in her mid-30s with four children ranging in age from two to eight. I was the youngest. She made a conscious decision not to date anyone else the entire time we were growing up because she didn’t want any other man telling her how to raise her children. It was her job–housewife and mother. It was her career. It was what she devoted her life to and what she did as well as she could. When my father died we received government checks which my mother used to feed, clothe, and house us. He had worked for the government and had served in the war so she got Social Security, Civil Service, and Veterans’ benefits. She was frugal and managed to buy a house and pay for it in about ten years or so. We never had a lot but we had what we needed and a little bit more.

Most importantly, we had love. While Mom didn’t always know how to deal with all of her children she did the best she could with the tools she had and she loved all of us unconditionally. She didn’t always know how to show it, but I think we always knew that she loved us and that she was proud of us. I know we all failed her in various ways and yet I know also that she was proud of every one of us for our essence. She saw beyond the surface flaws. She focused on our successes, on who we were deep in our souls, and loved us all. She endured while we all went through those phases where friends are more important than family. She withstood that period when children realize their parents aren’t perfect and remove them from their pedestals. She loved us even as we made the mistakes young people make when they are growing up (and plenty of them as adults as well). She accepted us even though she was disappointed that none of us followed the teachings of her church. While she never explicitly said it I believe that she felt this was her failing as a mother, that she must have done something wrong in how she raised us. But while we may not have followed in the faith we all learned morality from her. I think we turned out to be good people. We all know right from wrong and we try to live ethical lives of meaning. I believe she succeeded as a mother and I think that she knew she had instilled in us a clear understanding of right and wrong.

Mom was tough. She survived several hardships in her life. As an elderly woman she survived falling down a set of stairs and breaking her hip, another fall where she lay for three days with no food, water, or medicine. She survived months after all of us thought she had maybe a couple weeks left to live. She lived for more than two years after she was given last rites. At the end her mind was almost gone. The woman who used to start every day with the newspaper and crossword puzzle was not able to even recognize the people around her much of the time. She was likely in pain but also likely refused to admit it because she truly believed that suffering was a gift and part of life and something that a person must bear and offer up to God.

I am missing so much here.

There were the short trips to the drive-in over in Benton for ice cream treats, picnics, candy treats hiding under plates at dinner every so often, her Yahtzee obsession, family gatherings, her dedication to elderly relatives, waking up together to watch thunderstorms in the middle of the night, long conversations in the living room, sitting under the stars out in the front yard while pondering the enormity of the universe . . . This is a never-ending list. My memory cannot begin to contain all that it should.

Even this summary of my mother’s life is simply that–a summary. It doesn’t begin to capture her smile, her insecurities, her dedication to her family, her laughter (with big snorts when she really got going), the breadth of her generosity of spirit, her deep spirituality, and more. Like all of us she wasn’t a perfect person, but she did her best to live her life authentically and she did her best to not just believe the doctrine of her church but to live it. She gave me life and then taught me how to live it right. I am glad that she is at peace after several years of winding down and losing strength and I am glad that while she lost her physical strength and mental acuity that she never lost her spirit. I am glad that whatever suffering there was is now ended and it all ended very peacefully. And I know that she will live on in the actions of others whose lives were impacted by her living. Her legacy will be in the kind acts of others who learned the true meaning of love from her.

The other thing an obituary can’t contain and that I can’t capture in a few sentences or paragraphs is the depth of my own sorrow. Regardless of the time I had to prepare for it one can never be fully prepared to lose a parent. I will miss her deeply and love her always and that deep, deep love also cannot be contained by anything.

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Dreams of Justice

LaFayette County Courthouse

Lafayette County, Wisconsin Courthouse. Photo by Callen Harty.


Last night I had a disturbing dream. I was at a restaurant. In a booth near me sat a man and a boy. I overheard the boy tell their waiter that he and the man were “together”. He mentioned that he was 15. The man looked to be in his 30s or early 40s. I knew that I needed to do something to protect the boy and bring the man to justice. After they left I found evidence in a bag that was left behind that the man had put ads in the paper looking for someone to be with in that way. I called the police and asked them to come to the restaurant.

I saw two officers in the restaurant, but when I went up to them they wouldn’t acknowledge me because they were there to investigate another issue. Two other officers responding to my call showed up and said they had to wait to talk to me as it was too busy. It was closing time and a huge line of people was leaving the restaurant. By the time it quieted down the officers were nowhere to be found. I desperately wanted to get them back to the restaurant but was unable to get my phone to work to try calling them back. I asked a cook to help and she said she had to leave in a few minutes. Another friend tried to help me but couldn’t get her phone to work either. As time passed I got more and more frustrated and was never able to report the incident before I woke up.

Shortly before going to bed last night two articles had caught my interest. One was the story of Bill Cosby’s mistrial. A jury of twelve could not reach a consensus about the case and was unable to reach a verdict. For now, at least, he remains free. I believe Andrea Constand and the nearly 60 other women who have accused Cosby of assaulting them. Their stories are too similar and there are too many of them. However, hers was the only one within the statute of limitations, so the court case was not about the other five dozen women. Believing them and seeing justice done are two different things. In a court case sexual assault often comes down to whose version of the story is believed and sexual assault can be very difficult to prove, particularly when years have passed and there is no physical evidence. Also, sex assault victims sometimes do things that make no sense to those who have not suffered sexual abuse. The behavior is interpreted through a different lens. So for now, Cosby has escaped a guilty verdict and sentencing.

The other story was about a school police officer in Texas who fondled a 14 year old girl and got her to perform oral sex on him in a bathroom at the school. While he pleaded guilty his attorneys also arranged a sweet plea deal in which he only got five years of probation. If he follows the orders in the probation agreement he will not serve any time and he will not even be required to register as a sex offender. His only real punishment was losing his ability to serve as a police officer.

These kinds of results are all too common in sexual assault cases. The victim is victimized again by having to recount the horrid details of the assault repeatedly (to whomever they entrusted with it first, to the police, to attorneys, to the court) and then are revictimized when they aren’t believed or when the perpetrators are let go with a slap on the wrist and a warning to be a better person.

This is the kind of frustration often felt by victims of sexual assault. People don’t pay attention. Authorities don’t take it seriously. Cases fall through the cracks. Sentences are too lenient. And on and on. This is what played into my dream last night, the realization that of all the possible crimes the ones that most horrify our society besides murder are sexual crimes such as child sex abuse, rape, and sexual assault. But while we gnash our teeth at the horror of it and in a very generalized way feel sorry for the victims we don’t consistently deal with the perpetrators and we don’t believe the victims when it gets down to specific cases.

Cosby may be found guilty in a retrial and the cop in Texas may violate his probation and go to prison at a later date, but I wouldn’t count on it, any more than I could count on the police and the citizens in my dream last night. In another dream world those who commit crimes against children and who rape others would have to answer to society. In reality, the justice system is a nightmare for victims of sexual assault. We need to wake up.


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An Open Letter to Mitch McConnell

U. S. Capitol

U. S. Capitol. Photo by Callen Harty.


I’m sorry, but I can’t start my letter with “Dear” because you are not, and I don’t respect you enough to address you by the title of Senator (and believe me, I deliberated that longer than most bills get deliberated in the Senate these days). There are other words I could use but I respect reptiles enough not to do so.

Now that we have that out of the way: I am writing to call you out for what I recently read in the newspaper. The report was that you intend to block any attempt to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Donald Trump, Russia, the firing of FBI Director James Comey, or, I’m guessing, anything else that might make your party look bad. Of course you can’t block the worst elements of your party from speaking or being themselves so they’ll look bad despite your best efforts. But hey, as the Majority Leader you have to try, right? Then again, you are one of the worst elements of your party, so there’s that.

But back to the issue at hand: The newspaper report was not really all that surprising. You’re going to block something, they said. Ooh, shock, I thought. You block more than a starting lineman on a professional football team. You spent the better part of eight years blocking anything (everything) that President Obama tried to do. You remember him, don’t you? Our first African-American President? African-American? You obstructed everything he attempted. Coincidence? I think not. You most recently spent nearly a year blocking hearings on a qualified Supreme Court nominee, longer than any nominee in history had to languish. And then, as soon as your side got into power you changed the rules to rush through the Trump nominee. Blocking things is what you do best. Somehow you are still blocking the devil from taking you home.

In politics blocking is a negative approach rather than a proactive, positive one. It stops things instead of moving them forward. It prevents rather than creates. It also gives you that smug old white guy look of someone who loves power for the sake of power.

Please get over your smugness.

Please know that you will fail.

Please know the truth will prevail.

In the last dozen years or so our government has passed bill after bill chipping away at our rights. Each time you and your flag-waving Jesus-praising small government-loving hypocrites defended things like spying on American citizens with arguments telling us that if we have done nothing wrong then we should have no fears about such things. While I don’t have anything to hide I disagree with the logic of your argument. Still, it is your argument. So I would counter that if Donald Trump has done nothing wrong, if he has nothing to hide, then neither he nor his party should have anything to fear from an independent investigation. If he is truly innocent then an independent investigation will clear him of any wrongdoing and allow you and your fellow Republicans the freedom to lash out at Democrats for pursuing the Russian story as heartily as the Republicans pursued Benghazi or Bill Clinton’s misdeeds.

One would think that as Kentucky’s longest-serving Senator and a long-time Washington insider (or denizen of the swamp, as some might say) you might remember the Watergate era. The more that the Nixon administration tried to hide the facts the deeper was the hole that they dug. But that’s okay. Ignore history the way you ignore the Constitution. Do your best to block any investigations from happening. Sooner or later, you will fail. Sooner or later, the truth will prevail. And sooner or later the devil will come to visit and carry you home.

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Without Memories


Dad (Chuck Harty). Photographer unknown.

There was one recurring dream that I had when I was a child. I would be standing just outside the side door of our house where there were a number of steps leading up the hill to the door. Looking down the street I could see a column of soldiers marching up from several blocks away, in perfect formation, covering the pavement from one curb to the other. As they reached the corner where our house sat the first several rows would all do a sharp turn and start coming down the side street, and then stop at the bottom of the stairs and turn sharply toward me. It was then that I would see that the man at the head of the column was my father, coming home. It was also then that I would wake up and the dream would end. No fanfare, no three-gun salute, no hugs or words from my dad. I would open my eyes before any of that could happen and wish that it were not a dream, that if I ran from my bedroom to the side door of the house and looked he would be standing there with his fellow soldiers, waiting for me.

The only memory I have of my father is that one dream that would never come true. The only images I have of him are my memories of photographs of a man forever young. Still, I know he is part of me in some ways and I am like him.

My father died of a massive heart attack when he was only forty-one years old. I was just days past my second birthday. As a result all I know of my father is photographs, some items from a scrapbook, and stories told by others. I grew up without memories of him. I think I knew the word deceased much earlier than most kids because I often had to write it on school forms under “father’s occupation”. The entire time I was growing up, in a different era and in a small school system, I was the only one in my class from a single parent household.

For some reason I have been thinking about him a lot lately and I’m not sure why. He has come up in conversations. Someone posted a photo the other day of the place where he worked at the time of his death–the Savanna Army Depot–and many, many people posted about working there or that their fathers or grandfathers had worked there. I posted asking anyone who may have known my dad to contact me to share stories because I want to know what he was like. Nobody did, but I still know instinctively that I am like him in many ways, even without those stories. As a child I always wanted to know more (and I guess I still do). I would ask my mother questions about him until I’m sure she tired of answering them. It didn’t occur to me that she probably suffered with each question being a fresh reminder of what she had lost.

My mother now is 92 and even when she looks at her favorite picture of him, as a handsome young Army man, a picture she fell in love with even before she met him, she doesn’t know who he is. She most often doesn’t know who I am, though I can usually tell she knows I’m someone close to her and someone she should love. The other day she told my sister she was going to heaven, so maybe underneath it all I’m thinking that she and my father will be rejoined in whatever realm lies beyond this one, and maybe I wish that for her. She has been without that love for so long. She deserves to have her suffering end and be bathed in nothing but light and love.

Maybe these thoughts about my father are also or actually about my mother, whose time has been slowly winding down for several years now. Maybe they’re about me. I had my own heart attack nine years ago and I’m now nearing sixty years old. Maybe they’re about mortality in general, about how we are all going to die and even when there are memories they fade like old photographs. One day you can’t remember what the person sounded like any more. Sometimes your thoughts of what they looked like are fuzzy and are influenced by those old photographs. Generations down the line the lives we lived may be nothing more than names and dates on fallen tombstones or a brief mention in a Bible or genealogical work. And a thousand years from now we’ll all just be unnamed parts of the mass of people who lived during this particular historical epoch.

That idea of there being nothing left of us but dust is so final and so scary in some ways.

But then I think of my father again, and I know that even without memories he lives on in me and my siblings, my nieces and nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews, and even in my great-great nieces, none of whom ever knew him except for my generation, but all of whom carry on some of his features, his humor, his loves and likes in their genes. I also know that those who influence our lives are carried on in the way we influence others and they influence others on down the line. This, I guess, gives me comfort. When my mother’s time finally comes it will only be the end of her physical presence. Her spirit will continue. She will live on in so many ways through so many people and we will do our best to honor her by carrying her influence for generations to come.

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On “Religious Freedom”

Alabaster Jesus. Photo by Callen Harty.

Several states have either tried or succeeded in passing bills over the last few years that are supposedly “religious freedom” bills. Many have been blocked from getting through or states have suffered boycotts and loss of business before or after passing these bills. But proponents keep trying and the more they try and succeed even a little bit the more inured the general population gets to the idea and the less resistance there is to such draconian bills. Now Donald Trump, who held up a rainbow flag during the campaign and who swore that he would stand by the LGBT community, appears to be on board with the idea. Multiple sources are reporting that he is set to sign an Executive Order tomorrow that does just that. Apparently he thinks that it is in the best interests–not of his country, but of his political life because you have to keep those wacky right-wing Christians happy and in the Republican base–to sign an order promoting the idea of “religious freedom.”

For anyone who did not already know this–and I’m guessing with his views on Frederick Douglass, Andrew Jackson, and how little he understands other historical facts, Trump probably doesn’t–freedom of religion is already enshrined in the Bill of Rights. It guarantees that all Americans have the right to worship as they choose, if they choose. Nobody is stopping conservative Christians from praying. Nobody is stopping them from joining together in community. Nobody is even stopping them from believing that abortion, gays, contraception, and more are evil. But someone needs to let them know that they are also free not to get an abortion, practice a “gay lifestyle” (as if there were only one gay lifestyle), or use contraception. It is their choice.

What they are not free to do is to discriminate against fellow Americans because of their beliefs and their hatred. Big surprise, but blacks can sit at the counter now. They can join formerly white country clubs. Women can join formerly all-male country clubs. Muslims can build mosques in America, but they can’t discriminate against others and neither can Christians. What these laws and Trump’s Executive Order do is to allow discrimination based on hatred under the guise of “religious freedom”. A shop owner who is a right-wing Christian who believes that homosexuality is evil will be able to refuse service to someone because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Don’t think it would happen? Wrong. We have already all heard the stories of photographers, cake makers, and others refusing to work on gay marriages. Last year Mississippi failed to pass a “religious freedom” bill and a funeral home there still allegedly refused to cremate the body of a gay man because, according to the nursing home where the man died, the funeral home “did not deal with their kind”. A lawsuit is currently pending. Just imagine how many businesses there are that might refuse certain potential customers but don’t go that far because they are afraid of getting in trouble with the law or don’t want to face a potential lawsuit.

Trump’s Executive Order essentially says to them, “Go ahead. It’s okay. Follow your beliefs. You don’t have to serve sinners in your business.”

Of course those same people will happily provide cakes, flowers, or whatever their business offers (even cremation services) to adulterers, idolaters, murderers, thieves, men whose god is money, those who don’t keep the Sabbath (in fact, these days most of those Christian store owners are probably open and doing business on the Sabbath), those who lie, steal, dishonor their parents, take their own God’s name in vain . . . But if you’re queer, “we reserve the right to refuse service” because of our heartfelt beliefs.

I am saddened beyond belief that in this country bills like this and an Executive Order like this are even considered. This does not represent the land of the free or the nation where all men are created equal.

The moment Trump’s pen signs the order there will be lawsuits filed against it as an unconstitutional approval of discrimination and an unconstitutional elevation of one religion over another. In the past, even with conservative courts, I would have had utter faith that the plaintiffs would win, but we are not living in a rational world any more. I fear that our current Supreme Court justices could bend the arc of their moral universe toward injustice.

If this stands LGBT citizens, women who want or need an abortion, and those who wish to purchase contraceptives will just be the first. Don’t kid yourself that it will stop at that. The Bible teaches that women should be subservient to men–would it not be freedom of religion to beat and rape women to keep them in their place? Likewise, those who do not accept Jesus Christ as their savior are doomed to hell, so what good Christian shopkeeper would not refuse service to Muslims, Hindus, atheists, and anyone else who did not subscribe to their beliefs? If a person’s belief system tells them that murderers, those who practice the occult, and other sinners should be stoned to death how dare the government infringe upon one’s right to do just that? These are extreme examples, but the far-right in this country is as extreme as the radical Muslims they so hate. They would like nothing better than a theocracy that honors God’s literal law (as long as it’s their god). The Constitution is meaningless to these people. The only law that matters to them is the law of their god (and their specific interpretation of it).

What the people who promote these kinds of laws don’t understand is that as an American people we have decided that the Constitution is the law of the land, not any one person’s religious beliefs. We have also decided that the Constitution and its amendments are not so black and white as they appear on paper. As a people we have decided it’s not okay to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. We have said that those whose religions do not believe in medicine are not allowed to let their children die because of their beliefs. We have said that there is freedom of speech and press but that a person is not allowed to spread untruths about the subjects of that speech or the press. We have given freedom of religion to our citizens but we have not required anyone to believe in a particular religion and we have not let the beliefs of a specific religion infringe upon the rights of other citizens. We have done our best as a society to balance the rights of one group against the rights of others, with certain ideas implicitly understood and accepted.

These “religious freedom” bills and Trump’s Executive Order turn those long-held understandings upside-down. They make it possible to rob me and others of the pursuit of happiness. If this happens and it stands liberty will be the next to go. And then I fear for my life.

Note: Today (Thursday, 5/4/17) Trump signed an Executive Order on “religious freedom”. The part that would have allowed for discrimination against LGBT citizens that appeared in earlier versions was removed, likely because it was so clearly unconstitutional. What was signed, however, loosens IRS enforcement of the law that prevents ministers and other religious leaders from tax-exempt churches from endorsing candidates or promoting political viewpoints from the pulpit. Not a good thing for those who believe in the separation of church and state. It also appears to allow companies to prevent employees from obtaining contraception from their employer-provided health plans based on religious reasons. This is also a blurring of the lines between separation of church and state.

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Signs of Possible Sex Abuse

Teddy Bear

Teddy Bear. Photo by Callen Harty.



As we near the end of Sexual Assault Awareness Month I’ve been thinking about something helpful I could write about it. One of the things I talk about when I share my survivor story to general audiences is what signs to look for in your child that might tell a parent or other adult that a child has been (or is being) abused. At the very least asking the young person about these signs could open up an important conversation and let the child know that you are concerned and that you are open to them sharing whatever is going on in their lives. If they are not ready when you first talk to them they will know that they can come back to you later and it will be safe.

Unless there is some physical evidence of abuse or a child tells you directly that they have been abused there are really no definitive signs–there is not just one thing you can point to as proof. Usually it’s a combination of signs or changes in the child. Some children will exhibit a number of these signs, some only a few, some almost all. The difficulty is that there are many things that can cause some of the things to look for–sex abuse, drug use, bullying, and more. The important thing is that if a child exhibits a number of these signs there is likely something going on and checking in with them is an important thing for you to do. If it proves not to be sex abuse it is likely to be something else for which they need help.

These signs have been culled from a number of different resources. Most of them are on most of the lists and a few are only on a small number of the lists. With that said here are some of the things to look for:

  • Withdrawal from friends or usual activities; becoming unusually secretive. All of us, young and old, sometimes lose friends or move on to new friends, but withdrawing socially or from activities that were once enjoyed can indicate deeper problems.
  • Sudden changes in behavior. Any time there are sudden changes in behavior checking into what is going on in that child’s life is probably a good thing.
  • Changes in school performance. I had been a good student up until the time that abuse started on me. After that I lost my interest in school and studies. Apparently my mind went elsewhere and I suspect I was dissociating a lot.
  • Depression, anxiety, sudden loss of self-confidence. Again, these things may be the result of a number of causes, but something is going on if these are noticed.
  • An apparent lack of supervision. Child sex abusers tend to prey upon young people who are vulnerable and will notice if parents or other adults are seldom around.
  • Frequent absences from school; reluctance to ride the bus. It could be that like some kids the child just does not like school. This could also be a big warning sign of bullying, or perhaps the child is being abused at school.
  • Reluctance to leave school or school activities. This could be an indicator that the child doesn’t want to go back home. If horrible things are happening at the house this makes perfect sense that they would try to avoid going back to the scene of those events.
  • Attempts to run away. Running away from home literally removes the child from whatever dangers there might in their life.
  • Rebellious or defiant behavior. A certain amount of this comes with puberty and growing up, but if it’s particularly out of character it may be a sign of abuse.
  • Suicidal ideation or attempts; self-harm. One of the things about sex abuse is the shame and guilt that comes with it. While a number of factors can lead a person to suicide, sex abuse ranks high on the list of reasons for self-harm.
  • Sexual behavior or knowledge inappropriate for a child’s age. If a child knows terms and knows about things that they probably should not know at their age this could be one of the most important signs of sexual abuse. I would want to question them about where they learned these things.
  • Pregnancy; sexually transmitted diseases. Clearly if these signs show up your child has been exposed to sex–the question would be whether it was voluntary. Obviously with these signs a serious conversation is in order regardless of what the reason proves to be.
  • Blood in the child’s underwear. Sexual abuse, particularly of younger children, can cause physical damage to private areas and bleeding may result. While there could be other reasons, especially depending on the age of the child if they are a girl, this is a sign that deserves immediate follow-up.
  • The child tells you they were abused. Statistics show that more than 90% of children who report abuse are telling the truth. It is not very likely that a child would make this up or have the knowledge to lie about it. The rare exceptions are almost always cases involving an ugly divorce in which one of the parents is feeding lies to the child in order to hurt the other parent or get a step ahead in a custody battle.
  • Trouble walking or sitting; complaints of genital pain; unexplained sores. Both a check-in with the child and visit to the doctor seem appropriate in these instances.
  • Abuse of other children. This is not normal behavior. If a child is found sexually abusing other children then those children need help. But it is also likely that the abusive behavior was learned.
  • Bedwetting. While this could simply be from something physical, such as a small bladder, it is also sometimes a sign of child sex abuse, especially if it is something that starts at a later stage of development.
  • Nightmares; trouble sleeping. Obviously nightmares are a sign of some kind of fear and trouble sleeping may be because they are afraid of someone coming in and are trying to stay alert. When I was a child I was sometimes awakened from sleep for the abuse to take place.
  • Unaccountable fear of certain places or people. Trust the child’s instincts. If they seem afraid of someone or some place there is likely a reason for that. Don’t force them to accept hugs or kisses if they seem unwilling or afraid.
  • Changes in eating habits. Sometimes traumatic events can cause a loss of interest in food and sometimes abused children start to eat more in a subconscious effort to gain weight so they are less attractive. Any sudden change in eating habits or other behaviors is cause for concern.
  • Drug/alcohol abuse. Often victims of sexual assault end up turning to drugs and alcohol as an escape from the pain and as a way to avoid the reality of what happened. Of course many young people (and adults) abuse drugs and alcohol for a variety of reasons.

This may not be a comprehensive list, but it includes many, if not most, of the signs of potential child sex abuse. Please keep in mind that any one of these signs, or even a number of them together, may not be an indicator of abuse, but they could be cause for concern. Checking in with a child about any of these could open up an important conversation. Even if it proves not to be sex abuse, a person may discover other important things going on in the child’s life for which they need help.

There are also some signs to watch for in adult behavior which may be danger signs of a potential child abuser. Predators tend to groom children over a period of time, getting them to trust the adult little by little, even long before the first instance of abuse. There are also abusers who may not be serial predators but for one reason or another take advantage of a situation that presents itself. Again, any one or a number of these, do not necessarily prove that the person is an abuser, but could be cause for concern and extra precaution. It wouldn’t be wise to suddenly accuse someone of abuse just because one or more of these signs is present, but it might be prudent to be more watchful or to talk to the child.

  • Not allowing a child privacy; walking in on them in the bathroom. Most of us need privacy. Barging in on a child in the bathroom or their bedroom can be an invasion of that privacy. It can also be a way for an adult to surreptitiously check out the young person and/or start to get them used to their body being viewed. It takes away their right to privacy and sets the stage for potential abuse.
  • Insistence on physicality (hugging, kissing, wrestling) even when it’s clear the child doesn’t want it. Some parents or responsible adults are afraid of hurting feelings if Uncle Joe or Reverend Smith wants to get a hug from a child and the child doesn’t want it, so they’ll insist the child go ahead and hug or kiss the adult. It is far better to trust what the child does or does not want. If they are uncomfortable there could be a reason for it. Making them do it also tells them their boundaries don’t count, which could lead to bigger issues down the line.
  • Unusual interest in the sexual development of a child. To be blunt this would creep me out. It is none of anyone’s business and that unusual interest would make me very concerned.
  • Spending a great deal of time alone with children. A man (or woman) who seems to spend a lot of time alone with children could just simply love children and be completely innocent. They could also have much darker reasons for wanting to be alone with children so much.
  • Not spending a lot of time with people one’s own age. Most of us develop relationships and friendships with people our own age or somewhat close to it. The older we get the less the difference in years make, but a person who is spending most of their time with those who are children and who doesn’t seem to have a lot of people their own age in their life might be a cause for concern.
  • Offers to babysit for free or taking children off on overnight excursions. While these again may be completely innocent they could also be ways for that adult to find themselves alone with children.
  • Buying gifts or giving money to children. Oftentimes abusers will buy silence or love in this way. They appear to be loving and generous both to the child and  the adults in their lives when it could be a way to get the child to like them more and adults to trust them more.
  • Treating one child as a favorite. A child who is not getting love can be a target for a predator who in showering them with love and attention earns their trust.
  • Picking on one child. Conversely, picking on a particular child may undermine their self-confidence and make them more vulnerable to an advance in the future.

As noted any one or a combination of these signs does not prove that the adult in question is an abuser. However, it would not hurt to keep a watchful eye on that person or even to go so far as to try to ensure that the child is not left alone with them. Trust your child and trust your instincts. Most child sex abuse is perpetrated by adults that the child and family both know and trust. Some of these signs may help adults determine who to trust a little less.

The most important thing is to always have open communication with the young people in your lives. Let them know early on that you care for them and that they can talk to you about anything. Listen to them and trust what they tell you. Talking regularly to them and checking in about all aspects of their lives could prevent a great deal of heartache down the road.

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I know


I know what happened to you

even though you cannot say it,

because I hear it in the words you do not say,

and I see it in your eyes,

in the way your body hides its secrets.

I see me in your eyes

and the way your body hides it secrets.

And I know.

I know the truth that your eyes

want to hide from the world.

And I want you to know

that the man who touched you,

who hurt you, abused you,

doesn’t want you to know

that it was not your fault.

It was not your fault.

It is his burden, not yours.

But he wants you to believe

that no one will believe


if you say a word.

I believe you, even in your silence.

He wants you to believe that it was you

who invited his hands, his mouth, his . . .

other parts of his body

to join with yours.

Know that it was not you.

It was not your invitation.

It was not your fault.

It was not what you wanted.

He wants you to believe that because your body

reacted naturally

that you shared equally in the act.

Know that it was your body reacting naturally–

not your heart, your mind, your soul.

Not you.

I know it was not something you wanted.

You know it was not something you wanted.

Believe yourself.

I know also that you feel shame,

that you are afraid to speak,

that you are afraid,

and I understand the fear.

But know that I have heard you speak

despite your silence–because of your silence–

and I will hold it all with you.

When you are ready

I will be ready with you.

I will hold it all with you in brotherhood,

and when that time comes

his lies, your fear, the shame, guilt, horror,

all of it,

will start to slip through your fingers

and you will be able to touch

the truth that is now hidden behind your eyes.

Know that I will be there with you,

that I will hold it with you,

and that it will be the beginning of healing.

Your eyes will open, tears will fall,

and you will know then with certainty

it was not what you wanted.

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