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Jennifer L. Tanner
Jennifer L. Tanner Ph.D.

Child abuse induced suicide: What helps people write different endings?

Most child abuse survivors are closeted. I don't do silent.

Bill Zeller died of suicide at age 27, due to abuse he suffered during childhood.

But what helps people write different endings?

In this guest post, Emily Rosenbaum, PhD writes about the stories of child abuse she hears. She writes about the child abuse story she tells. She encourages listening. She encourages us not to turn away from her story.

She even encourages shouting.


I get the emails regularly - at least one a month. They come from high school acquaintances, college classmates, grad school friends, and assorted others from my past, all now rediscovered thanks to the magic of Facebook.

Some of the emails ask for help, guidance. "Did you always know?" "How can you talk about it?" "Is it hard talking to others who have been through it?" But most of the emails simply say "thank you."

"Thank you for speaking up, for telling your story. Someday I'll tell you how much it meant to me, and why." But, of course, they don't have to tell me why. I know why, because I've heard it far too often in the past few years.

I used to think I was unique, that very few people had childhoods like mine. That my sister didn't speak about our past seemed strange and unhealthy to me. I was completely open with everyone I knew, and since no one else told me the same story back, I figured most people had decent families. It wasn't the focus of every conversation I had, and I didn't always get into details, but most people knew I had suffered intense physical abuse as a child. I was completely out of the closet.

Five years ago, I began writing about it more. I began to testify, as it were. I met a lot of survivors online, and one by one they started blogging their stories, telling me they were following my lead. Then, the emails from old friends began, and I realize that what was unique about me was not my experiences, but my willingness to talk about them.


My mother died before I turned two.

The story always starts that way, because we believe mothers protect their children, and so the story must begin with an explanation of why she wasn't there. Mothers, of course, do not always protect their children. Sometimes, they hurt their children. A lot. But in my case, the only thing my mother did wrong was marry my father and then die.

Which left me a self-absorbed father and the sadistic woman he got involved with shortly after burying his wife. Well, actually, they got involved while my mother was dying. No sense wasting time.

Kate -not her real name - was herself a survivor of child abuse, or so the family story goes. She got right to work on an assortment of physical abuses: hitting, punching, starving. She locked us out of the house, dressed inadequately, to face brutal Amherst winters. Kate was creative. When we threw up rotten food, she caught the vomit on a plate and made us eat it, again and again, until we could keep it down. I spent nights sleeping naked on the hallway floor, a large piece of black plastic underneath me as the drafts came in under the door to the garage.

You're already looking away from the computer, aren't you? Because, if you don't, then you think you must be some sick weirdo who is fascinated by the story. But it is fascinating. The depths of cruelty to which human beings regularly subject their most vulnerable populations are astonishing. Being interested doesn't make you a weirdo; it makes you human.

Don't look away from the computer. Don't look away because we - all the survivors - we need you to look us in the face.


Most child abuse survivors are closeted. There is a stigma attached to what we lived through, like we're some sort of damaged goods. Sure, we're brave and strong and all that crap, but you don't want us marrying your sons, right? You're so impressed that we've made it out intact, but maybe you don't want a sexual abuse survivor teaching your third-grader.

So we remain silent. Well, actually, they remain silent. I don't do silent. There are some safe places for people to speak, but most people keep their mouths shut.

The silence ends now.

We are not damaged goods. Yes, we are broken in many ways, ways in which we may never be fixed. However, we need to stop feeling like we need to pass for whole. We need to be able to stand up and say, "I'm affected by what happened to me, and that's OK. Because I'm also a strong, capable person." We need to know that it is safe to talk about what happened without fear of judgment, because being a victim does not make a person damaged goods.

The silence ends now because it is killing people. Actually killing people. I'm not saying every person needs to shout it from the rooftops like I do. That's my business and that's how I choose to conduct it. I plan on talking a lot. I will go to schools, to churches, to synagogues, to community centers, to libraries, wherever people will let me come and speak. For three chocolate chip cookies and a cup of lemonade, I'll even speak at your neighborhood block party if you want me to. I'm hoping that my shouting will create a safe place in which others don't feel so completely alone.

Bill Zeller had to pass for "normal." He was stuck in a society that would have judged him for what happened to him, so he kept silent. And then he killed himself.

The silence ends now.


Emily Rosenbaum is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey. She does remain silent about the abuse around small children, including her own, because she doesn't think kids should learn about violence that young. She blogs at

About the Author
Jennifer L. Tanner

Jennifer L. Tanner, Ph.D., is an applied developmental psychologist at Rutgers University.

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