Denial

Hiding behind a mask. Scene from the play, Invisible Boy. Photo by Callen Harty.

In child sex abuse cases there tends to be a higher degree of denial than in almost any other crime.  While prisons are full of criminals who supposedly didn’t do the crimes for which they were convicted there are scant few child molesters who will ever admit to their sins, hanging onto the lies long after they have been exposed.

This is one of the most difficult things for victims of child sex abuse, to hear the person who did horrible things to them talk as if nothing happened.  Denial is a further hurt and it can be difficult to understand.  I was in a courtroom a couple weeks ago where a thirteen year old girl described a series of abuses in horrendous detail, then looked directly at the person she said had touched her inappropriately and told him that she loved him and that all she wanted was for him to admit what he had done and to get help.  He later took the stand and charmingly undermined everything she said.  He may have won in court that day, but he may also have permanently lost the love and forgiveness she wanted to give him.

From the perpetrator’s point of view there is good reason to deny the accusations.  First, it is our inclination as a society to believe an upstanding adult far easier than a child we may think is confused, trying to get even for something, or who may have mistaken a loving gesture for something far more sinister.  A denial is likely to be believed.  But the reality is that in study after study the number of children who reveal sexual abuse and are telling the truth is virtually always in the upper ninety percent range.  Very few children either make up stories or have false memories about abuse that didn’t actually happen.  Children should be believed most of the time, but it can be easier to put on blinders than to face a horrible truth.

Even if the child is believed and the abuser is prosecuted maintaining innocence can help the accused during a trial.  Juries don’t want to believe that adults could do these things to children and they also know they hold the responsibility of a person’s life in their hands.  They sometimes forget the responsibility for the victim’s life.  As a result they tread carefully and must be fully convinced that the crime happened before they are willing to convict.  I was on a jury for an attempted murder once (among other charges) and we understood the burden placed upon us, so we wanted to be absolutely certain about our ultimate decision.  The last thing we wanted to do was to send an innocent man to prison.

Once convicted it still behooves the abuser to maintain innocence.  Child molesters are considered the lowest form of life in prison and are at a great risk of being raped, injured, or killed by other inmates.  At the very least their lives are made as much of a hell as possible.  They likely believe that if they can convince some of the other inmates of their innocence that perhaps they will be spared.

In addition, once they acknowledge their crimes whatever support they may have had left from their close family and friends may be lost.  A wife may stand by a husband who proclaims his innocence to her because she would naturally want to believe that he could not have hidden that dark side from her for so long.  Even if she is not fully sure, his protestations of innocence may allow her an illusion that protects her own fragile reality.  But can she stand by him if he admits that he molested their child, or a neighbor’s or friend’s child?  Very few would.  So it is understandable why a man, even when presented with overwhelming evidence of his guilt, would maintain his innocence, as it can protect him in numerous ways.

The problem with the denial is that it doesn’t allow the perpetrator to ever face himself and the darkness of his soul.  As long as he doesn’t admit what he did he cannot deal with the issues within himself.  Further, and even more hurtful, is that the denial also does further harm to the victims of abuse in numerous other ways.  I will never forget confronting my abuser when I was in my early twenties.  I looked him in the eyes and said to him, “I hated you for years.”  It was in the past tense.  I was ready then to forgive, to accept him again, to let it go.  All I needed–I’m sure this is what I was looking for at the time–was to hear him say he was sorry.

Instead, he looked at me and minimized what I had said.  I can’t remember his words now, but he more or less indicated that it wasn’t that bad and then said that I had really enjoyed it and wanted it.  He put it all back on me and took no responsibility at all for his actions.  I found out almost twenty-five years later that he had done the same thing with another victim, a friend of mine who had lived across the street from me.  It took me that long to find that place of forgiveness again, and then I did so without regard for his reaction.  It finally became about me and my needs and not about him

An admission from a perpetrator about what they did, along with a sincere apology, can go a long way toward healing, but it is rarely given.  Most survivors of child sex abuse do not get that gift.  Most of us have come to terms with the idea that our perpetrators will never take responsibility for their actions, that they care so little for others that they don’t regard the needs of others in any way.  The reality is that this is what allowed them to commit their crimes in the first place–it was about power and control, self-gratification, ego.  It was all about them without regard for their victims.  Why should anyone expect that to change, even when they get caught or called out?

The lesson here is that emotional healing is not contingent upon the grace of others.  It is not dependent upon the willingness of others to admit their wrongdoing.  It can only come from within the heart of the one wounded.  This may be the difference between a victim and survivor.  A victim waits for permission to move on, for apologies to be offered, for retribution to fall upon the perpetrator, or for any number of things to happen that may help them move on and grow.  A survivor understands that those things are all outside of their control.  What is in their control is how they handle their own lives and their own souls.  They can choose to love themselves and others and either know instinctively or discover by accident that with love healing is possible.

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About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Both are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he has been an actor, writer, and director since 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events.
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