(The following is the 12th 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.)
Some additional thoughts that reflecting on my re-reading of Chapter 1 of Miss America By Day has brought to mind:
That a child sexual abuser can have sexual relations with other adults which he or she genuinely, thoroughly enjoys, with the abuser not, in the least, carrying on such relations for the purpose of constructing a false front or cover for their sexual abuse of children (although such relations may, without any necessary intent on the abuser’s part, serve such a function, as I believe they did for my and Ms. Van Derbur’s fathers); with such relations, rather, forming as much a part of the abuser’s core identity as their sexual relations with children.
That, comparing (non-sexual) physical abuse of children with child sexual abuse, it’s ironic that, while growing up, if I recall correctly, I would sometimes feel myself lucky not to have suffered physical abuse, at least of any significant sort, such as a whipping with a belt or birch stick, or a beating, or anything that would leave welts or other marks, when, in fact, I was experiencing sexual abuse which eventually reached the point of rape—abuse which I was blocking from my mind almost all of the time when I wasn’t actually experiencing it.
Of course, one can’t make any perfect comparison of forms of suffering, and, of course, it makes sense that sexual abuse would be far more something to conceal in a society in which depictions of physical violence are much more readily and graphically shown in mainstream media than depictions of sexual violence.
One difference between my mother and Ms. Van Derbur’s is that, in contrast to Ms. Van Derbur’s mother’s seeming lack of any interest in the sermons preached at the Presbyterian Church she and her children attended in Denver, my mother took a serious interest in the content of the sermons at Westminster Presbyterian in Nashville, and, in general, seemed to enjoy discussing theological matters. Perhaps this was due, in part, to the influence of my mother’s paternal grandfather, who had been the minister of First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia.
Unlike Ms. Van Derbur’s father, who, unlike his wife and daughters, never attended church, my father attended church regularly with his wife and children.
My and Ms. Van Derbur’s feelings, while growing up, about the atmosphere of church seem similar, with both of such disliking its authoritarian tendencies, in particular those of a paternalistic nature—not at all surprising considering we were both sexually abused by our fathers. (Ms. Van Derbur notes that, “It would be many years before I understood why I didn’t want another father—certainly not a more powerful one.”)
The dangers of one parent being largely or completely dominant over the other—as was the case for my and Ms. Van Derbur’s fathers with respect to our mothers—are, indeed, great in situations in which the dominant parent is abusive towards the children and views the children as little or nothing more than his chattel. (Ms. Van Derbur notes: “My father believed he owned my mother and his four daughters. We were his property and he could do anything he wanted with us.”)
I’m reminded of a comment my mother made when I interviewed her about the abuse—that she had been raised to believe that a wife should submit to her husband’s authority more or less without question. Such a belief certainly didn’t serve her well as far as being able to recognize or effectively combat any sexual abuse by her husband of their children.
That a child can feel great admiration, even adoration, for a parent who is sexually abusing them, regarding, of course, aspects of the parent’s behavior, personality, etc. not directly related to the abuse. Ms. Van Derbur says, “My father was my role model and I adored him.” In my case, I admired, among other things, my father’s intelligence and his having a position as a professor in the Economics Department at Vanderbilt University, and I adored his sense of humor.
Such admiration and adoration can, of course, make it all the more difficult for a child to accept that the very same parent is sexually abusing them, and can, thereby, increase the possibility of a child’s having no memory of abuse episodes or any sort of awareness of the abuse except when it’s actually occurring.