On Blaming Ourselves

 

The topic of sexual abuse surfaced in a major way more than a year ago. We have been made aware of abuse to children in churches and to people in the performing arts. Many famous names surfaced as both perpetrators and victims. People accused of abuse lost their work positions. 

It often begins with one person disclosing abuse. This prompts others to come forward. The numbers can be shocking. 

Victims hold on to their stories of abuse for years before disclosing. They are afraid of consequences. They are embarrassed. They are ashamed. They are scared. But the experience haunts them. 

Within one week of the Kavanaugh hearings where Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford told their stories before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I heard new stories from clients of mine. These are people I have been seeing in therapy for a while. 

Typically, during my second session with clients, I ask questions about their backgrounds. It is valuable to me to know about their families of origin, education, health, etc. One of the questions I ask is, “Have you ever been physically, emotionally or sexually abused?” 

One of the people who told me a new story, had answered “no” to this question. She then told me about a man in a hotel room exposing himself to her when she cleaned the room as a housekeeper. I asked her why she had not disclosed this to me when I asked her about abuse. She said that she had been instructed by the head of the hotel to not allow young staff to clean a room with a male in the room. 

The night she cleaned this room, she was the only housekeeper working and was following directions to clean his room when he had submitted a request. As a result, she felt responsible for the abuse, because she knew the management did not want young staff cleaning a room with a man in it. 

She was 20 years old. 

She immediately went to the hotel office after the man exposed himself, and he was asked to leave the next day. 

But she still felt responsible because she had gone against the guidelines of the hotel. The management never criticized her. And yet, she felt guilty. As a result, she never disclosed the story to anyone until she heard the testimony and realized she was a victim. 

This is what other clients have revealed also. Each felt responsible. Particularly when younger, it is hard to understand that the perpetrator is solely liable. We may live with the nightmare of the memory, feel ashamed and tainted, but we believe we asked for it in some way. Sometimes, it is just because we were there. 

I hope that both women and men are supported who have held onto their traumatic stories for years. Thus far, we seem to be less likely to chastise the men. 

 

Dr. Natalie Gelman is an Alameda-based therapist. Submit questions to drnataliegelman@gmail.com or through her website, 
www.drnataliegelman.com.