Incest: The Ugliest Word in Our Language (June 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

An Interview With “Jane”

by Joy McMillon
June, 1992

They were the perfect all-American family. The father was a gregarious church elder and a greatly-admired Bible school teacher. The stay-at-home mother faithfully served in the church nursery. Their four children were bright, well-behaved, and active in the church’s youth group. Who could have guessed this family’s powerful secret?

“Saturday nights were always a special time between Daddy and me,” says Jane, the second daughter. “Daddy would go to bed with me, and he would read my Sunday school lesson to me.” But what happened next sounds more like page out of hell than a Bible school quarterly. “After I would fall asleep,” says Jane, “he would wake me up, fondling me and caressing me, and having sex with me.”

INCEST. The ugliest six-letter word in the language. It happens in all economic classes, in families that appear completely normal to outsiders. No one wants to believe that parents ever sexually abuse their own children, especially in religious families where the family unit is considered a gift from God. The family is revered as a place of safety, repsect, and love where nurturing parents try to meet their children’s needs. Unfortunately, however, inces also happens in Christian families.

The number of incestuous sexual abuse cases is either growing rapidly or being reported more often – probably both. Researchers estimate that between 250,000 and 350,000 cases of child abuse occur each year in the U.S. Perhaps 80% of these involve incest. Surveys by psychologist David Finkelhor in California and Massachusetts in the 1980s found that as many as one in five girls and one in seven boys under the age of 18 had been sexually abused by a relative.

Incest with a child is among the most horrible crimes an adult can commit. But it is also one of the easiest to hide. Fear and shame make it nearly impossible for children to tell. When religious families are also incestuous, experts say the impact on the children is doubly devastating.

Even though she is 40 years old now and has recently completed more than two years of therapy, it is still not easy for Jane to talk about her childhood ordeal. But she is determined to speak out since as long as incest survivors keep quiet, the numbers will only increase. It is a crime that thrives in silence and secrecy. “Incest was my secret shame for years,” said Jane in a recent Wineskins interview.

Born and reared in the mid-South, she had a lonely and isolated childhood. What little outside social life allowed the children was controlled by her father, a strong, patriarchal figure.

He was a handsome, successful salesman and church leader with hundreds of acquaintances. “People thought we were the perfect family, but they didn’t go home with us,” she told other incest survivors at a recent seminary. “IT was very confusing as a child. I would listen to the preacher talk about love and forgiveness on Sundays, and then we would go home to all the horror and abusive behavior.”

The children were caught in the volatile crossfire of a dysfunctional marriage. At church, their parents were models of Christian behavior. At home, they argued and fought violently.

During the day, the parents were cold and aloof toward the children. At other times, their violent tempers would boil over into harsh, unpredictable whippings. “Both of them would explode at any time and hit us with anything in their hands. They would call us terrible names and make us feel like dirt,” says Jane.

The weekend sexual encounters with her father began so subtly that Jane didn’t realize they were abnormal. They started when she was four and continued until she was 13. Later, they became a toxic mixture of pleasure, self-hatred and guilt. “The sex was like affection and violation,” she says. “Sometimes I would almost look forward to it because that was the only time I had any closeness to him, and you will do almost anything to be loved as a child.”

To keep the conspiracy of silence, Jane’s father not only controlled her social contacts, but also he warned her repeatedly that if she were not a good little girl, God would take the people she loved away from her. That threat terrified Jane. “As a child, I never thought it would do any good to tell anyone. I was sure no one would believe me. Besides, I just thought this is the way fathers are,” she says.

At some point, Jane began to realize that their relationship wasn’t right because she couldn’t talk about it or tell anyone. “Then, instead of thinking the incest was not good or it was a mistake, I began to think I am not good and I am a mistake,” she says.

During her teen years, Jane’s life grew steadily worse. Her relationships with boys became a problem as jane struggled with knowing how to handle affection appropriately. Like most incest survivors, she fell victim to extremes. “On the one hand, I wouldn’t let a boy I was dating kiss me for two years. But, then, I let another boy put his hands all over me. I sat there like I didn’t know it was happening. I had learned that when something like that happens to you, you just lie still, and after a while it will go away.”

Troubled by chornic yeast and urinary infections, jane grew more and more depressed. Finally, at 16, she slashed her wrists in the first of four suicide attempts. Ten years later, after her father died, she tried to kill herself once again. That time she almost succeeded and had to spend nearly four weeks in a hospital’s psychiatrict ward. Strangely enough, no one there ever asked her about the possibility of incest.

She got in tocuh with her abuse only three years ago when she entered therapy to deal with the anticipated loss of two foster children. Still single, she had kept two foster children for nearly a year, a six-month old and a three-year-old, both of whom had been sexually abused. She “freaked out” when she learned that the courts were about to return the children to their abusive home.

“I started to see these flashbacks of memory during therapy. And they kept getting bigger and bigger. I knew I had been abused emotionally and physically, but I had blocked out so much of the sexual stuff,” she says.

Not remembering the abuse until late in life is not uncommon, says writer Laura Davis, who co-wrote The Courage to Heal, a 1988 best-selling handbook for survival. The experiences often are revealed when women enter therapy and fragments of memory are triggered.

Part of the recovery mechanism for incest victims is dealing with those parts of the memory suddenly coming into consciousness, says jane, who is now a therapist herself. She describes the process as agonizing.

Although some experts believe confrontation with the abuse is a necessary part of recovery. Jane did not confront either of her parents. Her father had died 11 years prior to her therapy, and the week she had planned to speak with her mother, she died from cancer. “But I really think she knew. During the last week of her life she told me tht she knew they hadn’t done right by me,” says Jane.

Recovery is not easy. Childhood incest has a life-long impact on its victims. “This is something I will never get over completely,” says Jane. The messages her parents filled her with had to be replaced with self-esteem. Even though she quit dating at 26, she believes that trust for men is slowly returning. Still, she feels cautious about relationships. “I get sucked into relationships that victimize me. I still have trouble knowng where boundaries are. I don’t know whether people are trying to be my friends or use me,” she says.

Jane also had to deal with the impact of her experiences on her faith. In her 20s, she threw herself into church work, driving herself to serve on all kinds of committees and programs. Then she burned out. “I realized that I was trying to do the same thing with God I had tried to do with my parents all my life. I was trying to prove I am worthy to be loved.” Because she felt ashamed and hypocritical, she refused to go to church for several years.

Issues of trust have understandably been a significant part of the therapeutic process. “I deal with a lot of trust issues. And this had really hampered my trust in God at times. When you have had a father who wasn’t all he was cracked up to be, and that father is supposed to be a wonderful spiritual leader, it really messes up your mind to try to think of God as your father,” says Jane.

At times she has felt enraged that she had to endure so much pain. Once, while she was listening to a religious tape, a song about God’s love began to play in her car radio. “I jerked it out and slung it so hard that I cracked my back windshield. I screamed, “You don’t love me, God! You don’t love me! You never protected me! You threw me to the wolves!” She feels she isn’t nearly as angry toward God now, and she says she has learned it’s okay to be angry with God. “It’s not really him I’m angry with anymore; it’s the circumstances I have lived through.”

Thanks to Christian friends and therapy she is back in worship services, and she says that she could never have survived without God and without her faith. “I have held on to one scripture like a rock through my dark moments. ‘And the God of grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.’

“To me that means that after you have come through those things which the world deals to you, God will be there for you if you will let him. He will pick you up and put your broken pieces back together again in his own time and in his own way,” says Jane.

Today Jane feels hopeful about her future. Because of her own experiences, she is able to help her own clients, many of whom are also survivors of abuse. And she will continue to speak out in the hope that she and other incest survivors can break the cycle of shame and prevent the next generation from suffering.Wineskins Magazine

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1584 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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