It can take decades for victims of child sex abuse to make a report to the authorities, often due to the cycle of fear and shame associated with living through years of torment. But a new bill before Parliament is set to make it harder for victims to claim compensation, stating that they must make an application within 10 years after the act or 10 years after they turn 18 if they were a child when the abuse occurred.
Here Angela* shares her own story of abuse and helps us to understand the hard road victims travel down to come to a place where they finally feel safe enough to come forward for justice. Sometimes they never do.
My heart was pounding so hard that my chest hurt, and I could see my twin’s eyes widen with fear. We were twelve and I can’t remember what our mother was raging about; possibly our supposed worthlessness, ignorance and inability to listen, or biscuit crumbs on the floor.
I started to cry. But something seemed to snap inside my sister. She took a deep breath, pulled back her shoulders and, for the first time ever, growled “Leave us alone!”
Mum was undeterred. “HOW DARE YOU?”
My sister’s bravado crumbled and she dashed back to cower with me. It was such a typical moment, my twin and me clinging to each other and sobbing over Mum’s daily battering of our spirits.
And then there was Dad, who began “examining” us when we were eight. We never spoke about it as children; I wasn’t sure if his actions were wrong and I couldn’t admit I somehow liked the attention from our mostly absent, workaholic father, which made me feel responsible and ashamed.
Eventually my sister saved me from my confusion and guilt. We were young adults living in different countries when she called me one night after lectures at university. Her voice trembled as she revealed what she’d learned about sexual abuse. At last, everything Dad had done tumbled out of our mouths. “We were molested,” she said resolutely, making me weep from an overwhelming sense of validation.
Up until then, no one had recognised we were abused. Growing up,teachers and other parents seemed blinded by the novelty of our identical faces and many would smirk “because you’re twins” to explain why we socialised either just with each other or with one or two mutual friends. No one cared that we were timid, overly compliant and jumped at our own shadows. We never knew who to trust; we had only each other.
We continued supporting one another as adults living far apart, spending a fortune on long-distance calls to commiserate over Mum’s harsh words or Dad’s cheerful façade which hid his wrong-doings.
During one of her trips to visit me, she spent an evening ranting about her life and knocking back shots of vodka when my back was turned. While rushing my unconscious, inebriated sibling to hospital, I kicked myself for letting my own struggles with alcohol and depression stop me from noticing she’d been wrestling with the same issues.
As we entered our thirties, I longed for us to get well. Thinking we’d be stronger together, I convinced my husband to relocate so my sister and I could live in the same city again. At first we couldn’t stop smiling as she helped me find a rental flat and took me to her favourite restaurants. Then, a couple of months after moving, I discovered I was pregnant. I lost sleep worrying about Mum or Dad hurting my child. Living across an entire continent from them wasn’t enough; I knew I had to sever ties.
“You’re inconsiderate and immature!” My sister’s reaction was like a slap in the face.
“It’s wrong to cut Mum and Dad out of your life!”
“Being around bad people can make you stronger!”
“You’re so weak!”
Completely gutted and bewildered by her attacks, I limped away to lick my wounds and tried to smooth things over a week later, but she refused to return my calls. By the time my son was born, she’d changed her phone number and email address. And when I went to her house, I found it vacant with a real estate sign in front. Clueless to her whereabouts, I felt the ground beneath me give way.
For the first few months of my baby’s life, I stayed indoors and cried on my husband’s shoulder, asking the same questions ad nauseam: How could she defend our parents? How could she, of all people, not support or join me in breaking free from them? Was she terrified of Mum putting her back in her place like when we were twelve? How could she abandon me?
My spouse got up one night to find me passed out on the floor. In my heartbroken state, I’d convinced myself that if I drank a bottle of vodka, my sister would race to my rescue like I’d done for her years ago. Of course, she wasn’t there when I came to and I felt stupid. But finally it sank in that our days of being there for each other were over.
It’s been seven years since I last saw her. My life has turned around so much that my own twin probably wouldn’t recognise me. With the help of my husband and on-going therapy, I’ve developed skills to stay positive and sober. I’ve learned to deal with the trauma of my abusive childhood and stand so much taller.
Now I have two sons, aged six and four, and I’m proud of their happy, resilient spirits and my ability to parent gently with lots of hugs. If only my sister could see their smiling faces; maybe then she’d understand that cutting ties with our parents was worth it to safeguard the wellbeing of my boys.
My spouse and children seem content with the strong ties our family has with relatives on my husband’s side. Only I feel a void in our lives.
Sometimes I imagine her spotting us, by chance, when we’re enjoying a family day out and it dawns on her what she’s been missing, prompting her to reconnect with me and get to know her nephews. I dream of her babysitting, laughing with us, and sharing our happiest moments. I dream and I ache every day.
*Names have been changed