What therapist Sally Baker wants survivors of sexual abuse to know
I’ve been working therapeutically for many years with adult survivors of sexual abuse. It is not always the primary reason that my clients’ present for therapy.
Clients may seek me out because they are struggling with weight-loss, drinking too much or overwhelmed by feelings of low self-esteem. Equally, as adults they may be feeling unsure about who they are and are dealing with panic attacks or crippling social anxiety.
Often clients will acknowledge how exhausted they feel. They keep up the facade to the outside world that they are fine, when in reality inside they feel vulnerable, scared and lost.
I’ve already had adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse make contact about wanting to come into therapy since they have watched the ‘Leaving Neverland’ documentary.
With this much-anticipated programme, intrusive thoughts, the re-playing of events and the prompting of long-buried memories are hard to ignore for adult survivors of childhood abuse, even though many of them have kept their experiences of abuse secret for many decades.
The media can trigger survivors of abuse
This concentration of new client enquiries and existing clients referring to their own experiences of childhood sexual trauma reminds me of what happened in the UK when the news and current affairs were dominated night after night by the growing scandal of British celebrity Jimmy Saville.
His death in 2011 finally prompted a long overdue co-ordinated investigation across several regional police forces. This resulted in him being posthumously labelled by Scotland Yard as a “prolific, predatory” sex offender of as many as 500 children and young people.
The response from many of my clients has been a rollercoaster of conflicted feelings, triggered from watching the understated and often quietly heartbreaking testimony of Wade Robson and James Safechuck.
One of my clients, Jon (not his real name) commented on how wistfully he thought Safechuck and Robson sounded in the documentary as they reminisced about their time as Jackson’s ‘special friend.’
Jon recalled being a child at boarding school and being singled out by a charismatic and popular teacher. He experienced the same conflicted emotions of feeling special and was he was willingly seduced by how that made him feel. At the same time, he felt profound unease with the sexual activities his teacher introduced him too. And as he felt complicit he felt powerless to say no or to object.
Jon wholeheartedly agreed with Safechuck when he said, “Secrets eat you up. It’s like a part of you is dead.” At that point, Jon said he knew Safechuck was telling the truth beyond all doubt because that’s how he had felt as a young boy.
He recalled how stressed and pre-occupied he felt lying, covering-up and the daily pressure to keep secret the sex with his teacher. Jon added how riding on that roller-coaster of ‘candy and porn’ was both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.
He thought what he experienced as an eleven-year-old was similar to what Michael Jackson had allegedly orchestrated to entice the young boys he was sexually abusing.
Miray (not her real name) is in her late sixties now. She originally came to see me after the Saville case had made her no longer able to ignore her own experience of childhood sexual abuse. In the last few days, she has made contact with me again after feeling triggered by watching Safechuck and Robson’s interviews.
Having been abused by her father for many years, she acknowledged that just like Safechuck said when speaking of Michael Jackson: “He was great in a lot of ways. I still have love for him. I’m still grappling with that.”
Miray berates herself for not being able to feel hatred for her father. Although she cannot forgive him for his actions, there is a part of her that still has some love for him as her father. Miray said it could take her a lifetime to make sense of the intricate and complex spider’s web of love, trauma and abuse she suffered at his hand.
Another client who was not believed as a child by her mother when she disclosed the sexual abuse she was subjected to by a friend of her family, said she felt right back there with her old trauma after watching ‘Leaving NeverLand.’
Sophie (not her real name) said the same distress and anxiety she felt as a child from not being believed and not being listened to. She said it must be just like it is for Safechuck and Robson when Michael Jackson’s most ardent fans and the Estate of Michael Jackson itself refuse to believe them.
Dealing with Contradictory Emotions
So how do clients grapple with healing from the contradictory emotions caused by the seduction and courting that sexual abusers carry out?
Many survivors of childhood sexual abuse struggle to square the circle in their own mind of what part they played in the sexual abuse they experienced. With so much confusion of memories of blurred boundaries, adult survivors can often be left with residual feelings of guilt and shame for many years or even decades.
As adults attempting to make peace with the sexual abuse they experienced as children survivors, later find it particularly challenging to forgive themselves for their willing participation when the sexual abuse was cloaked with seduction and grooming, and happened behind closed doors.
As children, they were encouraged and coached to participate in sexual acts and brain-washed to believe these acts were consensual and natural physical expressions of love and pleasure.
Just like Robson and Safechuck, other adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse often wrestle to create a cohesive narrative from all the contradictory emotions they felt. Robson and Safechuck commented that the alleged sexual activities they participated in with Michael Jackson were never mentioned or referred to at any other time.
It was described as if it was “night and day’ as a way to emphasise the contrast between the times of innocence and depravity. Or the distinction of the times of “candy and porn” they shared with Jackson.
Feeling complicit and enforced secrecy blurs the lines of abuse
The enforced secrecy and the way the sexual abuse intensives incrementally over a long period of time desensitises the child and helps to normalise an abuser’s behaviour. Their seduction made it impossible for either Robson or Safechuck while still children to see through the dark arts of persuasion, manipulation and influence they were subjected to.
Living through their polarised reality meant almost certainly they had to ignore and override any nascent gut-reaction or intuitive response they felt that attempted to signal to them that Michael Jackson sexual behaviour towards them was abusive.
Sexual abuse of a child also robs that child of agency over their sexual awakening. It can make it confusing and overwhelming for adult survivors to know who they are. Particularly when they had no chance to find out for themselves, in their own time; at their own pace; and their sexual orientation.
One of the casualties for survivors of childhood sexual trauma can be a stalled sense of intuition. The intuitive part of themselves which had to be ignored or pushed aside during their experience of the abuse.
Intuition or gut reaction is the unique instinct that gives us hunches. It judges whether a situation or circumstance is right or authentic for us or not. Intuition is our best friend and always has our best interest at heart so a crucial part of recovery from childhood abuse is to strengthen one’s intuition and encourage it to build in strength. A strong intuition is a vital inner resource that is there to call upon whenever a person is unsure of something or someone.
Just like a muscle intuition grows stronger through flexing so to build up the strength of your gut recreation you need to use it and listen to it. Make it your new habit of checking in often with yourself before you make a decision, and the more you check in with your hunches and the more you honour your instincts, the stronger your intuition will become.
Everyone can build a strong intuitive sense of self. It can help empower adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse to feel they are in charge of their own life. Learning to trust one’s gut-reaction helps individuals respond to events and experiences and to make sound judgements that are right for them.
To tell or not to tell
Michael Jackson fan’s have been pretty aggressive in their response to the allegations made by Wade Robson and James Safechuck, calling them unreliable witnesses at best and outright liars at worst. The fear of being discredited or not believed makes it even more daunting for survivors of sexual abuse to come forward. It’s completely understanding why survivors choose not to disclose the abuse they experienced for many decades if at all.
Robson’s mother asked him, “Why didn’t you tell me?” and he answered, “It’s a real complicated question.” And why survivors of abuse who have been groomed and seduced don’t tell for often decades or why they are sometimes considered unreliable witnesses or protect and lie for their abuser remains complicated.
James poignantly said, “We are mentally just little kids. We just got older”. He continued by recognising how hard it is to “go back to those difficult moments” and try to make sense of them many years later when they were unfathomable for them as children all those years ago.
The difficult truth
Robson said he couldn’t tell the truth, he said “I’d break”. Safechuck remembered how lost he felt when Jackson dumped him and he was replaced by a younger boy.
It is not surprising that survivors of sexual trauma are fearful of coming out with their story. It’s not surprising they are contradictory when they do. It is complicated because the sexual abuse of children is so often nuanced and hidden in plain sight.
Survivors of abuse deserved to be listened to, heard and believed for sure. But survivors of abuse also deserve to be released from the spider’s web of lies and secrets that entangled them as children. Breaking those enduring ties that bind them through time often needs professional specific therapeutic work. And then it is highly possible to transform how they think and feel about the child they once were and who they are now.
The bogey-man could be someone you know
Finally, many parents take some small but misplaced comfort from believing that any threat of sexual abuse their children may face while growing up is out there in some unknown place with some faceless perpetrator wanting to pray on their children.
‘Leaving Neverland’ is an opportunity for us all to understand the power of seduction, grooming and courting of not just children but whole families who are made complicit, through omission of due diligence at best, to their own children’s abuse.
Understanding that not all sexual abuse is violent and perpetrated by strangers is an opportunity for us to keep our children safe. Statistically, the sexual abuse of children is by someone known to the child and trusted by the family.
Innocence is not bliss
Keeping our children ignorant can no longer be confused with keeping our children innocent. Our children need to be taught that their body belongs to them and to teach them the difference between safe hugs and uncomfortable touching. Children need to know its okay to say no and that the adults in their life will listen and believe them.
If you are an adult survivor of sexual abuse you’ll need to decide whether you would benefit from watching the ‘Leaving Neverland’ two-part documentary. Your priority is your mental well-being and if you think the poignant testimony of the two men will trigger you, then please do give yourself permission not to watch the programme.
If the media focus on grooming and childhood sexual abuse has struck a deep chord with you that feels unresolved, then do reach out to a professional who specialises in this area of therapeutic work. Take all the time you need but do understand that you deserve to be free of any conflicted emotions from your experiences, including those of shame and guilt so that you can finally live your life to its full potential.
Sally Baker is Senior Therapist, published Author and Speaker in private practice in London for face to face sessions and the world over via the internet.
With almost twenty years of professional experience, she employs cutting-edge therapeutic approaches to help one person at a time to transform their lives.
She has extensive experience working with people to alleviate their anxiety, depression, anger issues, eating disorders as well as conflicts within relationships and the family.
To find out more about Sally Baker, her books and her work visit her website, www.workingonthebody.com