(The following is the 3rd in a series of posts related to my re-reading of Miss America by Day: Lessons Learned from Ultimate Betrayal and Unconditional Love, by Marilyn Van Derbur.)
Ms. Van Derbur begins Miss America by Day‘s “Introduction” with a single word—”tikkun”— explaining that “tikkun” is a belief from a mystical tradition that each individual human being has a unique mission or purpose. (A quick check shows that the concept of tikkun comes from mystical aspects of the Judaism.) For Ms. Van Derbur, an epiphany regarding her own tikkun occurred when she saw her picture on the cover of the June 10, 1991 issue of People magazine, for the article (titled “Miss America’s Triumph Over Shame”; subtitled “The Darkest Secret”) in which she first revealed the story of her sexual abuse, from the age of five until the age of eighteen, by her millionaire father, to a nationwide audience. (Her story had already come out, in front-page articles and otherwise, through various local media outlets of her hometown of Denver, Colorado.)
Her tikkun? To devote herself to “addressing the epidemic of child sexual abuse, helping survivors on their journey from victim to survivor,” and to helping people in “learning how to support a loved one,” presumably a survivor, and “learning specific ways to keep children safe.” Ms. Van Derbur has fulfilled this mission in a number of ways over the years, including through making numerous appearances, as a highly skilled speaker, before key groups such as judges, doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, therapists, parents, and adult survivors; talking personally with thousands of adult survivors after her presentations; responding to large numbers of letters and emails from survivors (eight thousand and counting at the time of Miss America by Day‘s publication and thousands more since), and by writing Miss America by Day.
Regarding Ms. Van Derbur’s use of the word “epidemic,” my sense is that this word can be taken, in its context, as referring, not to any rapid increase in the actual incidence of child sexual abuse in the United States (or elsewhere for that matter) at the time of the People magazine article’s and/or Miss America by Day‘s publication, but, rather, to the rapid and substantial increase in public awareness, knowledge, and discussion of child sexual abuse that was occurring at the time of the article’s publication and that has continued at such substantially increased levels ever since. The rate of incidence of child sexual abuse was, in other words, already substantial prior to this rapid increase in public awareness, knowledge, and discussion, which increase can be credited with markedly weakening the taboo against its public acknowledgement.
Following this line of thinking leads to broader questions—however unanswerable, in some respects, they may be—including:
– whether or not the incidence of behavior now recognized in the United States and many other societies as clearly involving child sexual abuse has always existed more or less to the same degree throughout human history;
– whether the incidence of such behavior exists, in our present day, more or less to the same degree worldwide, across cultures;
– the extent to which some customs and behavior now recognized in the United States and many other societies as clearly involving or facilitating child sexual abuse were, or still are, viewed as acceptable in other societies (child marriage comes to mind);
– the degree to which what constitutes child sexual abuse is a socially determined construct.
I will leave these questions, for the most part, for possible later examination.
Suffice it to say, for now, that I do not believe cultural or temporal relativism should be employed to undermine one’s own society’s standards for what does or does not constitute child sexual abuse. Rather, each society bears a responsibility for carefully formulating the criteria of what constitutes such abuse, for clearly articulating these criteria, for thoroughly and steadfastly educating its citizenry as to the existence and content of these criteria as well as the penalties for transgressions which meet any one or more of them, and for providing, to whatever degree possible, justifiable rationales for the criteria’s existence. To the degree that a society fails in various aspects of this responsibility, it runs the risks of contributing to the occurrence of substantially higher rates of child sexual abuse within its domain than would otherwise be the case, and of relegating the context of social dialogue concerning the subject of child sexual abuse to the realms of taboo and superstition. To this degree, as well, a society’s various institutions fail its citizenry (or, viewed from another perspective, its citizens fail themselves), and fail its children most of all, as well as those of its members who, for whatever reason or combination of reasons, genetic or environmental, might be most likely to commit acts of sexual abuse (as articulated by the criteria of the society in which they live) against children.
Another example, in addition to child marriage, of cultural relativism with respect to what constitutes child sexual abuse—and one directly pertinent to parental abuse such as Ms. Van Derbur and I suffered—would derive from the belief, which still seems to be prevalent in some societies (ones that, for example, allow child marriage), that a parent, or other legal guardian, basically owns their children as human chattel, even to such a degree that a parent is perceived as having the right—short, perhaps, of little else but murder—to do with, and to, their children whatever they wish. Based on such a belief, what a parent does to their children in the middle of the night—including the infliction of sexual abuse—could be viewed as being beyond society’s proper sphere of interest. The United States? One can, I believe, make a strong argument that this often unexpressed perception of children as more or less their parents’ chattel still exerts a strong influence in American society, and that a lack of concerted effort to overtly combat this perception contributes to conditions in which child sexual abuse may more readily occur. Could such a perception, held, to whatever degree conscious or subliminal, by Ms. Van Derbur’s and my fathers, have contributed to the specific conditions facilitating our fathers’ abuse? I believe it well could have.
Further with regard to cultural relativism, I believe that international pressure and persuasion can and should be brought to bear upon societies in which practices such as child marriage continue to exist and attitudes such as the perception of children as being little more than their parents’ chattel continue to prevail—pressure and persuasion aimed at eliminating such practices and changing any such attitudes which serve to facilitate the sexual exploitation of children under the guise of social sanction. Activities of various NGOs concerned with children’s rights and international accords such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child can be very useful in this regard.
Other passages of the Introduction that particularly stood out for me include:
“As I began addressing medical conferences, doctors and nurses began to better understand the connection between childhood sexual abuse and adult physical pain and disease.”
This sentence brought to mind the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, which I learned about only late last year when I came upon an article about it while browsing the Internet. The study, which is a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente’s Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego shows a very strong connection between the degree of highly adverse experiences, including sexual abuse, that a person suffers during childhood and a person’s chances of developing various serious diseases as an adult, quite independently of other risk factors for these diseases.
When Ms. Van Derbur began addressing professional audiences about child sexual abuse, she “felt compelled to be more specific about what my father actually did to me. It’s too easy to casually dismiss trauma when vanilla words like ‘molest’ and ‘abuse’ are used.” This resonates quite strongly with my desire to write and publish Preludes which includes graphic descriptions of child sexual abuse, based largely on my own experiences of sexual abuse by my father, in order to fully illuminate the horror of such abuse from a child’s perspective.
And from the Introduction’s conclusion:
“One of my goals is that, no matter what your age or stage in life, whether you are a survivor of sexual abuse or one who has been spared, . . . hopefully you will take action, such as writing a letter to a television reporter or newspaper editor . . . “—action, in other words, that can serve worthy ends such as raising awareness of and educating people about child sexual abuse, supporting survivors in their recovery, and reducing the possibility of such abuse’s occurrence. For me such action has taken several forms over the years, including supporting organizations such as RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) and, more recently, publishing Preludes and opening this blog-site.
On a final note, as I read the Introduction I find myself asking: if the same levels of public awareness, knowledge, and discussion of child sexual abuse had existed in the 1960s as exist today, might at least some significant portion of my abuse by my father have been prevented? In particular, might my mother, or one or more teachers at my kindergarten or elementary school, or our family pediatrician have been more capable of clearly recognizing various signs of such possible abuse, and, if they had recognized any such signs, more likely to have had the courage to openly confront this possibility, including the possibility that my father could have been its perpetrator, and to have made every possible effort to stop whatever abuse was occurring?
Answers to these questions are, I believe, not at all certain, for even with the far higher levels of public awareness, knowledge, and discussion that exist today, clear detection of child sexual abuse is often extremely difficult or impossible to achieve, as is, consequently, winning, through the legal process, protection of the abused child from the abuser. Nonetheless, today’s substantially increased levels of public awareness, knowledge, and discussion can, I believe, in many instances, provide significant benefits for preventing child sexual abuse, stopping ongoing abuse, and supporting the healing of child sexual abuse survivors, children and adults alike.