The psychological and behavioral reactions described in the last posting are based on how the child’s brain developed. In addition, the child tries to make sense of what happened and creates a narrative (what I have called a “story of pain”) based on how he or she perceives the world, which is in great part based on the messages, overt or covert, received from adults responsible for his safety (or lack thereof). The story might go something like, “I am bad, I am guilty, responsible for provoking what adults did to me. I am alone. I deserve nothing except punishment. I am not worthy of protecting myself, and I do not know how to do so. I am too afraid to show my anger, etc. I would like to end with a story about how this narrative can be rewritten. It is about an institution that created a “healing place” for children who had been sexually abused. The abuse was perpetrated by one of the highest authorities in the institution, a father figure. This is of course not uncommon, as is witnessed by the story of the The Horace Mann School, the story of Jerry Sandusky, and many stories about the Catholic Church.
In this story, the second person in authority, a mother figure in the institution, was determined to create healing out of harm. Even though this woman had also been betrayed by the perpetrator in a painful way, she did not turn away, but engaged the situation with great courage. She brought the children – a group of girls from about 9 to 15 – together, to talk about what had happened. She told them that what they had experienced was not their fault, that it was terrible they should have been abused in this way, that they had been let down by the adults, and that she would ensure their safety from then on. She told the girls that there would no secrets kept from them, that it was important for them to be able to speak freely about what had happened. I was present during the meeting to give her support, and after her speech, I waited anxiously to see if the girls could speak. After a moment of silence, one girl spoke, then another. As they sat in the circle, some of the girls sat leaning against one another, one girl fixed another’s hair. They seemed remarkable relaxed and comfortable. By the end of the meeting, all the girls had spoken. They had spoken about their confusion about the perpetrator’s motives, about their anger, about their fear that he would return and their curiosity about what would happen to him. One girl said that she thought the devil had entered his heart. In the end, the “mother” had helped these girls to tell a different story about the hurt, pain, and betrayal they had experienced at the hands of a “father”. Their “mother” had helped them heal.