A haunting touch

Nov. 14, 2006, midnight | By Ashley Lau | 14 years, 2 months ago

Blazers remember childhood molestation

Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources.

Michael, who graduated from Blair last year, shuddered as he felt his grandfather's hand slide up the inside of his leg. Despite his grandfather's soothing words, assuring him that everything would be fine, Michael knew that things were not all right. As the hand slipped into his boxers, Michael, then in eighth grade, felt powerless to resist his grandfather's unwanted advances, which had become commonplace over the previous two years.

Five years later, Michael is still recovering from the emotional pain caused by the molestation - a pain that drove him to self-hatred and frustration. "It's difficult to explain the mentality of a sixth-grader," he recalls. "You can send signs you don't want to engage, but it's difficult to just walk away from it."

Battles like Michael's are often overlooked because of an almost universal cultural stigma against the discussion of child molestation, according to psychiatrist Nancy Montagna. But the consequences of inaction are dire: Victims feel they can't speak out when they are being abused, and the molestation continues. According to the Child Molestation Research and Prevention Institute, at least one out of every 10 boys and two out of every 10 girls are victims of sexual abuse.

For victims like Michael, the emotional scars never fully heal.

A painful past

Although a few years have passed since the worst period of the molestation, Michael still vividly recalls how it began. For most of his life, Michael's grandfather was a caring member of his family. The transition from protector to predator was entirely unexpected.

Because he lived nearby, Michael would often be called over to his grandparents' house to help with household chores. "I became an easy-access child. At one point, he just made the decision," he says.

Gradually, Michael's visits turned into excuses for his grandfather to spend more time with him. "He always used to praise me, saying, 'I'm just trying to help you. I wouldn't do anything you wouldn't want me to do,'" Michael says, adding that it was difficult to hear his grandfather sweet-talk him as if he were a baby.

The molestation, which Michael's grandfather called "sexually enlightening a younger child," continued on a regular basis – every one to two weeks. During these visits, his grandfather would make physical advances on Michael and show him pornography.

Michael's situation is not unusual - more than 90 percent of all victims know their abuser, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Almost 50 percent of abused children are victimized by their family members.

But in those cases where the offender is a stranger, the abuse is no less painful. For Gerard, a senior, the molester preyed on his youth and vulnerability. When Gerard was a preteen, he was at a community festival when an older man lured him into a secluded area. The predator pulled him in, whispering to Gerard as he violated him. "He would tell me 'shhh' and to be quiet and not worry," Gerard explains. "I didn't know what he had meant at the time. I was so young."

According to Michael, feelings of powerlessness are common because victims are abused at such a young age. "As a young child, it's relatively difficult to confront someone over what they're doing," he says.

Pinpointing a predator

The differences between Gerard's and Michael's predators demonstrate that no single description encompasses all child molesters. They can be married or single, professional or blue-collar, young or retired, attracted to toddlers or teens. As Ken Wooden, founder of Child Lures Prevention, explains on his web site, "Pedophilia, or sexual attraction to children by an adult, is a sickness that does not discriminate by race, class or age. It knows no bounds and afflicts people in every segment of society."

Because it is so difficult to pinpoint, abuse is easily hidden. Michael recalls that his grandfather certainly didn't fit the prototype of a pedophile. "He wasn't the kind of person who makes a lot of sexual jokes," he says. "Even his wife, the whole time, was just one floor away in the house."

According to Montagna, there is no primary target for child molesters. Different predators have different fixations, she explains. Some may focus on "budding sexuality in a young girl, while very often the victims are around 6, 7 or 8," she adds.

For Anita, a junior, the predator fit this very description - an adult who took advantage of a young child's naïveté. Though Anita herself was not the direct victim of the abuse, she was still deeply shaken when she discovered someone she loved had been victimized.

Bitter memories

Last February, Anita's 5-year-old niece, Carolyn, was sexually abused by her uncle. At the time of the incident, Carolyn, whose parents are divorced, and her uncle had both been staying at her father's house.

At first, Carolyn didn't know where to turn, so she remained quiet and let the abuse continue. After a week, she told her mother. The uncle fled, and the family has not seen or heard from him since, according to Anita.

When Carolyn's mother told Anita what had happened, Anita began to notice changes in her niece. She became more timid and awkward.

Though it has been several months since the incident, Anita still finds it difficult to talk about the abuse of someone so close to her. "It makes me upset," Anita says. "It's a really sensitive topic. It's hard for me to talk to her about it. I don't want to remind her."

According to Montagna, coping with child molestation can be especially difficult when the predator is within the family. "Sometimes, [the molester] is the only person in the world that the child is loved by, which makes it even harder," Montagna says.

For Michael, the fact that he was molested by a member of his family made walking away from the situation even more difficult. "As a young child, it's an authority figure, someone who you have respect for," Michael explains. "I was told to treat it as 'our little secret' or he would get thrown in jail."

Lingering emotions

Michael's silence meant that the molestation continued. Because he felt he had no control over the situation, he developed intense feelings of self-loathing. "When you're not in control of something you're supposed to be in control of - the person in your body - it brings on self-hatred: a feeling of worthlessness at being unable to stop something from happening," he says.

According to the ChildTrauma Academy, characteristics of sexually abused children may include guilt, self-hate and helplessness, as well as behavioral symptoms such as truancy and excessive crying.

As the victims of child abuse silently endure their trauma, many of them struggle to seem normal to others. Constantly haunted by their past, these victims never really find peace of mind.

Michael began to dwell on painful memories of the abuse, and so to distract himself, he turned to excessive studying and became increasingly involved with extracurricular activities at Blair. "I looked forward to times when I had enough work to keep my mind off of it," Michael says.

But even as the molestation ended, Michael's pain and pent-up frustration increased. A few years into it, Michael went through a stage where he cut himself as a way to relieve his mental anguish with physical pain. "I never considered telling anyone," he says. "I knew that it would create pain for a family member to go to jail. I figured it was my sacrifice I had to make to the family."

According to Montagna, when the predator is a member of the family, it's especially difficult to tell anyone about it in order to end the abuse. "There is an incredible betrayal of not being believed," Montagna says. "It plays into politics in the family. A child could be blamed by the other parent."

Suffering in silence

Because his molester was a relative, it's not easy for Michael to forget the abuse. Simply walking into his grandfather's bedroom brings back a flood of painful emotions. "It's like a thorn stuck in me. You can't just put it behind you," he says.

According to Montagna, the memory of child abuse can leave a heavy burden on a victim. "Their sense of who they are becomes sexualized early on, and you can't go back from that," she explains.

Though Anita's niece no longer sees her uncle, it is also difficult for her to stay at her father's house because it evokes painful memories. Still, Anita explains, Carolyn has no choice in the matter "He's her father," Anita says. "She still has to live with him."

For Gerard, learning to cope with his painful past has been a gradual process. Over the years, his memories of the trauma have become hazy enough for Gerard to discuss his experience.

For the first time in seven years, Michael, too, told a few close friends about the abuse that has haunted him. Though Michael's friends were supportive, Michael says there is no way for someone who has not actually experienced molestation to ever completely understand. "Often, people who don't experience it can't truthfully understand how something actually hurts," Michael says.

With this frame of mind, Michael, Gerard or Carolyn have not sought counseling or treatment. All three continue to suffer in silence, as they struggle to come to grips with their abuse. Openly acknowledging the problem is only one step in a battle that all three agree has no foreseeable end. "It feels like you aren't worth anything," Michael says. In the end, he says, "There is no resolution that can come from it."

If you or anyone you know have been the victim of child molestation, call 1-800-CHILDREN.

Ashley Lau. Born in Boston, Ashley is a huge Red Sox fan and sometimes wishes she could just live at Fenway Park. She loves to run, do tae kwon do, travel, cook, go to concerts and has a new obsession with the TV show 24. Someday Ashley … More »

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