(The following is the 17th 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.)
Click. She was on the first step. Then, slowly, very slowly, click, down to the second step. Then even more slowly we heard the third click as she stepped down the third step. My door was less than six feet away. Finally! My mother was coming. Finally it would be over. At the sound of the first click, my father had frozen. I had frozen. We remained motionless at the second click and the third. It was a dramatic moment in time when each of us knew what the other was thinking. . . . Then we heard another click, but she wasn’t coming to save me, she was going back up the steps. She knew.
In this passage from the second chapter of Miss America by Day, Ms. Van Derbur describes a moment one night when she was ten or eleven, her father had come to her bed to, as usual, sexually abuse her, and, after he had begun doing so, they heard the click of her mother’s mules (slippers with leather heels) on the top step of the short set of stairs that led down to Ms. Van Derbur’s bedroom. And so a hope bloomed briefly in Ms. Van Derbur’s child’s heart that her mother was finally going to save her—to enter her bedroom, confront her father, and end the abuse. But, instead of opening the bedroom door, her mother walked away.
She walked away from me, back into her perfect world—a world in which she was admired, respected and charming.
This incident is a perfect illustration of the all too common phenomenon—from what I’ve read and heard of other survivors’ experiences—of the “other parent,” the non-abusing parent, turning away from an opportunity to confront the abusing parent and protect their child. As I describe in my short story Preludes, In my mother’s case, she did confront my father to some degree when he was abusing me when I was nine years old: she told me (after I had become an adult, recovered memories of the abuse, and we were discussing it) that after I had shown her—when I was nine—my raw and swollen penis, a result of the abuse (but without telling her how my penis had gotten that way, even though she asked me directly about this, since my father had threatened to kill me if I told anyone, including my mother, and I had believed him), she had asked my father if he had any idea how my penis could have gotten that way and he had denied any knowledge. But as for directly questioning my father as to whether he was the cause of the damage (thankfully transient) to my penis or whether, more generally, he had ever behaved sexually with me or my siblings, she was never able to do this.
In my mother’s case, I believe the substantial power imbalance that existed between her and my father (my father was the breadwinner, one hundred percent; my mother was a housewife without any income) was a major factor in her never directly confronting. Another factor seems to have been her conviction that no one would have believed her accusation if she had taken it public. And, actually, thinking about it, this may well have been true, or it may have been true, at least, that no one would have publicly supported her, given that she couldn’t have presented any definitive physical evidence (for, after all, when she took me to see our pediatrician about the state of my penis, the pediatrician seemed to believe that the rawness, swelling, and discoloration were perhaps the result of an insect bite, or, perhaps, masturbation) and that I had denied any knowledge of how my penis had gotten in the state it had.
And I believe that the combination of these two factors—a power imbalance favoring the offending parent over the non-offending parent, combined with the non-offending parent’s quite understandable fear that they may not be believed if they can present no definitive proof the abuse and the abused child seems unwilling or unable to testify to the abuse’s occurrence—often continue to prevent the non-offending parent from directly confronting the offending parent about the abuse.
The solution? Parity or near parity, economic and otherwise, in the power balance between parents, plus a degree of trust between the non-offending parent and abused child so solid and deep that it can withstand even death threats made to the abused child by the offending parent, thereby enabling the child to tell the non-offending parent of the abuse. But how all too often, in cases of child sexual abuse occurring within a family, do these conditions continue not to exist!