Sunday, January 18, 2015

I'm sorry, but your pain makes me uncomfortable. Can you please, just quit talking about it?

Author's note- Mr.X is a pseudonym for the _____ who raped me 
when I was 6.  I can't in good conscience call him a man, and the word I want to use is inappropriate. 

If you have experienced telling someone, other than a professional, about your abuse you have likely experienced the look.  Very few friends and family, no matter how much they love you, can avoid giving you this look. It's a natural response on their part. It's a reaction. It's visceral. But it's a look of discomfort that says to the speaker, "I don't want to hear what you are saying."

I have experienced this look in many ways. The first time was the year I turned 12. It was spring; the daffodils and pear trees were in bloom. The fields that were normally being prepared for the upcoming season lay unplowed. We were not going to plant the acres of green beans and corn as we had in the years that passed. My dad had already moved out and my mom and I were moving to the city. I laid there on the hillside with my best friend, knowing it would likely be the last time we would get to watch the clouds together.

"There's something I need to tell you", I started after a long silence. "I was raped by Mr. X before we started first grade. He raped me more than once, and chased me and tried to catch me all the time for years. What do you think I should do?"

My friend was quiet for a long time. "I don't know" was her only response. I couldn't see her face, but I could feel the look.

My second experience with the look came from the 7th grade librarian. I had heard from the older kids that there was a special room in the library with books about sex in it. These books were not for circulation, but if you pretended you had questions, she would let you go in and look at them. I was already a reader and a fan of the library and talked to the librarian often. After working up the courage, and being offered a study hall I went to her and told her I'd like to research the difference between sex and rape.

Her look was a mixture of shock, fear, and pain. She stood there, tilting her head slightly, her eyebrows coming closer together, her lips moving slowly and silently as if she were repeating my words to herself. After what seemed like minutes of awkward silence and staring, the librarian lifted keys from her pocket and led me to the door, in silence.

Several weeks later I sat at the kitchen table with my mother. I repeated the same words to her I had spoken to my best friend. The lines on her forehead became more pronounced. When I asked her what to do, she laughed. "Oh, Trisha Ann, boys do things like that. I remember the boys used to pull their pants down and show us their privates while we were jumping rope."

I was shocked that mom seemingly didn't hear me. "Mom, he didn't moon me. He penetrated me, and more than once. He raped me, and that is a crime," I argued, accentuating the word crime with a hand slap on the table. My mother's tone began to more match her look. It was the beginnings of anger, and I began to feel hope. "Yes, you are right. So what if it is? We're here now and he can't hurt you."

"But mom," I continued to plead.  "If I don't call the police soon the statute of limitations may run out and I'll never get my chance."

"No, you aren't going to talk to the police. There is nothing to say." My mom's look changed, as worry began to spread over her cheeks, her respiration increasing as she turned to stand. "This conversation is over."  And so it was. She stood and left the kitchen, and we never spoke of it again.

My dad was drunk when I told him. His response was the worst ever. "Hmm. I didn't think he had it in him." My dad does not remember having that conversation.

I told friends and boyfriends. I told teachers and school counselors. All of them got the same pained look on their faces. The wrinkles on their foreheads and the shapes of their eyebrows mirrored my mother's. The silent movement of their lips, like the librarian's, all of them tongue-tied and tripping over their own hang-ups. And with 100% efficacy, all of them telling me with merely the look on their faces, "I don't want to talk about this." So we didn't.

The most pronounced disapproving look came from a nurse. I was 17 and in a psychiatric hospital after an attempted suicide. I was to write an essay about something I did or was doing that bothered me. I wrote about my promiscuity and the number of partners I had had through high school. In that essay I hypothesized that my actions were indeed tied to being raped at 6 and 14; that I acted out physically because my first exposure to sex had been violent assaults against me. I came face to face with how I allowed myself to use sex as a tool for destruction just as it was used to destroy me.

What I didn't expect was the psych nurse's reaction. She came in to my room with a look of anger on her face, her brow was beyond furrowed. Her cheeks were red and her steps hard and fast as she sat in the chair next to my position at the desk.

"This...disgusts me!" She shouted as she slammed the paper down on the desk. "we are not going to talk about this. Now write something else." And with that, she left the room.

After that, I spent years in silence. In fact, I disclosed only to two people, and not in a way to solicit help, but rather as an excuse for my inability to perform. I was still a victim.

Now I speak to people as a survivor, an over-comer even. But that look, the one on the face of the listener as I tell my story; it hasn't changed.  Brows still furrow, lines on foreheads become more pronounced. People shift their weight in their seats. Some look down, or will fiddle with something in their hands. There is often a lot of heavy sighing or clearing of the throat. I watch lips curl as a listener practices words in his or her head before speaking. The difference now is that rather than take the body language of the listener personally, I pity the listener. I understand that many, many people in this world have never had to face a monster like I, we, have. They think it is too big, too scary, too hard to face.

And it's how I know, immediately,  whether or not I'm talking to a victim.

I asked a group of college-educated professionals this question (paraphrased); why are you silent when a victim shares his/her story? The biggest answer was "I don't know what to say" with the following qualifiers:

1) I'm afraid I will say the wrong thing.
2) I don't know how to comfort (the victim)
3) I don't have time to come up with a good response, I don't want to rush a response
4) It's too personal
5) I'm busy
6) I don't want to hurt you
7) I don't want to unintentionally minimize you
8) I'm just kind of lazy

To the victim I say, tell your story. Tell it as often as you need to. I recently heard about a study that shows people who talk more frequently about a break-up actually get over it more completely. This is huge news, but nothing I didn't already know. I knew I wanted to talk about being raped. I knew I wanted someone to listen to me. It only took 36 years for it to happen.

To the listener I say, listen. There is only one thing you need to know; the victim needs to be heard and believed. There are a number of phrases you can use; I'm sorry that happened to you. It wasn't your fault. I believe you. I am angry for you.  And listener, know that the victim is watching your body language. Be honest with yourself. It's ok to allow yourself to feel the anger and pain the victim feels. And if you are really uncomfortable, just tell us. We know how hard it is to talk about. We know that the pain we feel makes you uncomfortable.

But I won't stop talking about it.


  1. Good post Trish. Perhaps we need a layman's class on appropriate responses. For many people it's not a lack of desire just rather not knowing what to say to something so horrendous.

  2. Thanks Mary. I think all too often people try too hard to be sympathetic, when in reality, empathy is all that is needed. You don't have to understand abuse (alcoholism, miscarriage, cancer, death, etc) to express sorrow and caring. Pain is pain. Grief is grief. I don't think the source matters all that much.

  3. You are right Trish. I experience the look more and more as I open up too. Trauma is trauma. It doesn't take much just some compassion.

  4. It gets easier Kathleen. Once you learn to open up to safe people, the ones who are less comfortable with your story don't bother you as much. I actually feel a little compassion toward them.

  5. What a great blog entry.. Its so important to talk about how we interpret other peoples reactions to our telling. People struggle to talk about what has happened to us and people struggle with having to hear about something so reprehensible to their understanding ..Its a painful story to tell and hear.. But we need to tell just the same..
    Love your post and thoughtfulness..Appreciate your writing..

  6. Thanks Kim! I know I've misinterpreted so many people's reactions over the years. I didn't appreciate how hard it is to hear because I simply don't know any differently. I've learned so much from non-victims in the last few months. I hope in some way I am helping victims and non-victims alike deal with each other a little better.


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