Who is to blame for abuse?

I don't want to speak to the mother of my abuser, even though she did nothing wrong

Topics: Since You Asked, child sexual abuse, Sexual abuse, Family,

Who is to blame for abuse? (Credit: Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Hi Cary,

This is about my birth father, whom I found when I was 34, and how to have a relationship with him, if at all. He split the scene in 1971 when I was a baby.  

First some history: Things were not good between him and my mother (teen parents). When he got a low draft number, he quickly entered the Navy, and I never saw him again. My mom, newly divorced and with a small infant, remarried a man who turned abusive. By the time I was six, he had adopted me and I had a half-sister two years younger than I was. Unfortunately, my mom was getting beaten up regularly.

She courageously left him (when I was six), and he started molesting me during each visit we had with him. My mom remarried again, and then that stepfather started molesting me. The police found out, and by the time I was 12 no one was abusing me anymore. The second stepfather did come home after about a year (county jail-work furlough program). We did some family counseling, which was over by 13. As I became an adult, I started to go back to therapy. I got my B.A. (in child development), married my best friend, did some more therapy. My mom left that guy and found the man she should have spent her life with, a sweet man who treats her very well. And I found a way to deal with toxic people — I cut them out entirely from my life.

So when I was 34, I did a sort of quick Internet search and found my biological dad. At first it was blissful. He said all the things I had always dreamed of him saying when I was a little girl: that he always loved me and never stopped thinking about me. We started visiting each other and introducing our families (he has a daughter just couple of years younger than my older kids).  

Then things started to go a bit wonky. He smoked pot regularly. While I am not against pot smoking, I am very much against lying and secretive behavior. He asked me not to tell his wife. He then smoked pot in my bathroom while my two kids and his daughter were playing. It bugged me and started to make me feel uneasy. Luckily, they lived in Colorado and we lived in New Jersey at the time. So I just let the physical distance guide me into establishing some mental distance. His phone calls, however, started to increase. He demanded the names and numbers of the two stepfathers who abused me. He demanded my mother’s information. I gave him neither. He frequently got angry with me for not giving in to his demands. He told me I wasn’t healthy in the mind because of what happened and he wanted to find us a counselor. He found one in New Jersey and he came out so that we could go together. She told him I was fine but that he obviously needed to work through the guilt of what had happened to me and that he had abandoned me to that fate. He did not like this and called her a fraud. I  continued going to her, but he stopped. Soon, I decided that he was becoming quite toxic for me and I cut him off. Life returned to normal. The kids grew and life is good.

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Recently, the mother of my second stepfather passed away. I felt (feel) remorse for not talking to her for the last 12 years of her life because of what her son did to me. I wish I could have said goodbye. And it pains me because while her son was horrible, she was really really good to me. I have begun to wonder, if my bio-dad dies will I feel like this? Will I regret that I did not try harder to have a normal relationship with him? And I do have another half-sister. When she was six, I was part of her life and then, from her perspective, I left. (I know this because this was what my bio-dad accused me of when I cut him out). I have tried very hard to have a the most normal, loving and stable life for me and my family, but now I am doubting my decisions with my birth father.

Fatherless Daughter

Dear Fatherless Daughter,

I would encourage you to trust your instincts in this matter. They have served you well so far.

While you start by saying your main question is about your birth father, I would like to focus on your feelings about the mother of your second stepfather. It wasn’t her fault that her son molested you. But this did not matter to the child who was abused. It seems to me that you did the right thing in honoring that child within. If that child — who is still a part of your being — did not want to be around the mother of her abuser, so be it.

I note with interest your concern about causing injury to an innocent party. Do you see the connection?

I wonder if there isn’t some fruitful work for you to do in the area of respecting your own innocent self. It would make sense that this would be a troubling area. Maybe this is something to pursue with your therapist. Who is the injured self and what are our rights of retribution later? How do we manage our feelings of retribution when we have been abused as children? Should we feel guilty for not wanting to associate with the supposedly innocent parents of our abuser? Can we set up limits that feel right to us? Do we have to defend the limits we set up?

My personal opinion, and my lay observation, is that people who have been abused as children, people whose trust has been broken, need to set their own limits for their own reasons, and we bystanders ought not to press for explanations. Who are we to say what limits you need to set for yourself, you whose own boundaries have been so catastrophically violated when you were too young to resist or know the difference? We weren’t there at the scene of the abuse, and we are not inside your head or your heart now. If you do not feel safe around your former stepfather’s mother, then it seems healthy and right that you should not have to be around her.

You have learned the crucial lesson of abuse survivors: Setting limits and maintaining boundaries later in life is of existential importance. There is a part of you that has been mortally wounded, and you are its savior and protector. So you do what you feel is right.

His mother’s sorrows are her own. If she is a feeling person, she will feel awful about what her son did. But her sorrows are her own. It is not your responsibility to pretend that this did not happen, that it did not scar you and that you do not still carry those scars. We, those of us around you, should not press that upon you. That’s my opinion, anyway — that abuse survivors grow strong by setting their own boundaries without apology.

This question of innocence continues to knock at my door as I sit here thinking about you. I wonder. Could it be that, having been an innocent victim, whenever you feel you are mistreating an innocent person you feel a glimmer or an echo of some early experience? Or you feel some contradiction that may be stated thusly: How can I, who knows what it is like to be an innocent person mistreated, how can I mistreat another innocent? You may have said to yourself at some point, I would never treat an innocent person that way. Old feelings may be triggered by this dilemma. It is something you might bring up with your therapist.

This dilemma also triggers ideas about innocence and purity central to religious and moral thought; in the modern mind, ideals of legal fairness must contend with the primitive urge to burn the house of an evildoer and everyone in that house, to punish the family of a transgressor and to salt his lands so nothing grows there for a thousand years. Deep within our primitive and ancient hearts, though we know better as modern civilized people, we harbor these urges. We must combat our own instincts to assume guilt by association, guilt by contagion. Especially in the area of sexual abuse of children, when there are boundaries ignored or destroyed, where the very emerging self is assaulted, boundaries blur and so there may be unconsciously an assumption that, say, when a man commits such a crime, he is co-extensive with his family, that they are all to blame, and so his mother and his father and his brothers and sisters ought all to perish in fire.

When thinking about how a child may respond to sexual abuse, I can only speculate about what primitive longings for retribution may be triggered. I wasn’t there. I am not in your head. I don’t know. My suggestion to you, therefore, beyond saying that your boundaries seem appropriate, is to explore the idea of innocence with your therapist and ask how this primal violation of your own innocence may influence later life decisions and family relationships.

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