When I was around 12 years old my mother told me to never be alone with Uncle Mario*. She told me that he had been sexually inappropriate with my Aunt Teresa when she was a child. I had some understanding of sex at the time, so I had a vague understanding of what might have happened. Hearing that about my family that was shocking to me as a kid, but I understood my mom was trying to protect me. My uncle had always made me very uncomfortable. I was a very observant, introverted kid, and I always got this off vibe from him. I stayed away and followed my mother’s advice.
My mother has always been torn up about what happened to Teresa. She was the oldest sister and felt protective of her. She blamed herself for having ‘missed’ the signs of abuse. My mom also never really knew specifically what happened or for how long it happened until recently. Not too long ago my mom called me, upset, telling me that Teresa was angry with her because she asked if Teresa was planning on going to Mario’s weekend get together at his home. Teresa said that my mother was being insensitive to the abuse she faced by asking her if she planned to attend. I told my mom I agreed with my aunt. My Aunt has spent her adult life avoiding any family gathering that involved my Uncle Mario. For the most part, Mario was the “black sheep” of the family, and he excluded himself of many family events which made it a bit easier for Teresa. However, it was no secret that Teresa didn’t want to be around him or even hear anyone speak about him. I asked my mom what she was thinking in saying that to Teresa. We then had a conversation about loyalty, alliances, and supporting survivors of incest/sexual abuse.
My mom said that she felt conflicted about the situation because in my mother’s mind “it was so long ago”. I told my mom that for however long the abuse happened, which we weren’t sure of at the time, it doesn’t end for my aunt, because she has to live with the emotional aftermath and trauma that this sort of violation and sexual violence causes. She has to deal with the memories and painful reminders of her abuser, given that he remained in touch with her other family members. My mom asked me if her sister should just forgive Mario. I said that’s not for my mother to ask of her. Firstly, Mario has never admitted to the abuse he subjected her to. Secondly, Mario has never asked for forgiveness. I told her that if Teresa one day finds it necessary for her own healing and peace to forgive without him asking for it, she can do that on her own time, in her own way. My mother tried to make comparisons, talking about people she had forgiven and resentments she had let go. I responded that sexual abuse is not a ‘mistake’ that you can let go like any other. I asked her:
“Mom, if it were me, if he had done that to me, would you expect me to forgive him just like that? Would you forgive him?”
She paused, “No, I wouldn’t.”
“If he had done this to me, would you ever maintain contact with him?”
“No, absolutely not.”
“He would be dead to you, right?”
“Right…you’re right.” She conceded.
“And this is your sister, what’s the difference?”
“If this had happened to me, and you maintained contact with him, I would never speak to you again, because it would be so disloyal to me.”
“…You’re right…But what about the family, should he just not have contact with the family then?” I can tell my mom is having trouble reconciling the family link with how she should position herself in relation to the abuse that happened.
“In my opinion, there are some things that make you lose the privilege of family, and that’s when you violate a family member to that degree. I don’t think there is any coming back from things like murder, rape, sexual molestation…unless there is some epic journey of redemption, and still, in my opinion the family should take the lead of the survivor as to what is OK and what is not OK.”
My mom asked “What should I do then?”
“Talk to her about it, ask her how you can support her. If she asks you to not have contact with him anymore, then you got to evaluate if that is something that you can peacefully do. But you should know that if you cannot support her in a way she needs it, you risk hurting her or alienating her.”
“OK, I’ll go see her tomorrow.”
The next day my mom calls me again and tells me that her sister sat her down and told her exactly what had happened between her and Mario. She said that the abuse continued over the span of several years, and began when Mario was already an adult. This surprised my mom because it occurred during a much longer period of time than she imagined, and Mario was much older than my mom had assumed.
My mom asked why Teresa didn’t tell anyone at the time. Teresa told my mom that she was confused because she was a child when it began, and later she was being told not to tell anyone by Mario under threat of grave violence. Teresa told my mom that she finally confronted the family and exposed the abuse when she was a young adult, many years ago. My mom had just given birth and wasn’t aware or involved in family matters at the time and wasn’t really informed about what was being exposed. My mom had vague notions of what was disclosed, but family secrecy didn’t allow for my mom to be really informed on what happened.
Teresa said that some family members minimized the abuse, saying that it ‘wasn’t such a big deal’. Another family member confronted Mario, and Mario told some story about being drunk one night and trying to touch her. That’s all that happened, Mario said. Teresa was accused of having ‘made it up’ of ‘fantasizing the situation’ or making it bigger in some way. Teresa told my mom about the pain of not being validated and believed when she told her family about it. She also talked about the pain of her family still being in touch with Mario after her disclosure. I told my mom that this can be a very isolating experience for a survivor, re-traumatizing them…
I asked my mom what she planned on doing. My mom told me that she cried during her sister’s disclosure to her, and they ended the conversation in a hug and an agreement to spend more time together to rekindle their relationship. My mom said that her sister didn’t ask her to not talk to Mario.
My mom reflected: “I don’t think I can be around him, just for my own sake. Teresa didn’t even need to ask me to not be around him, now that I know, from my own internal feeling; I don’t think I can be around him.”
I talked to my mom about the conflicting allegiances/loyalty issues that can come up in a family after incest or sexual abuse.
I reflected to my mom that it probably meant a lot to Teresa that she listened and was moved by Teresa’s disclosure, rather than minimizing, discrediting and invalidating her like other family members had. My mom said she was still shaken up by the conversation and would need some time to process it.
I also needed some time to process what had happened. I was glad that my mom was receptive to feedback and open to re-approaching that conversation with her sister in a sensitive way. I know my mom loves her sister, and she always believed her regarding the abuse. However, I can see how confusing it is to not have clarity because the actions of the abuser create conflict, polarization and divide in family relationships. Unfortunately, the “easiest” things for families to do are to avoid, deny, minimize, blame or discredit the survivor so that no one really has to deal with the reality or the pain of what happened. No one has to draw the line in the sand of what actions and values goes beyond the ties of family and define where their support is. The idea is not to create an ‘us vs. them’ mentality, but to respond to the survivor’s needs and be supportive in the way they need it.
This is hard for families, but it’s hardest for the survivor. I can only imagine how it is hard for a parent to make these definitions when the abuse happens between siblings, two of their children. I can’t speak to that part of it, it must be incredibly painful. I can only speak to what I would expect if I were the survivor, and I know that can be one-sided. The complexity of that situation would be best addressed by therapy to have a guide in working through these issues. It would be a long journey of healing. I hope, though, that sharing this story can contribute with some perspectives on the issue.
*All real names were replaced with pseudonyms. Some details were modified to further protect the privacy and identity of those involved.