When Someone You Know Might Be Molesting a Child
Witnessing, stories and six strengthening responses
Posted May 26, 2016
I once had a client who walked in on her older brother French kissing her younger sister, but then wondered if she really saw it. Years later she was not sure if it was real, if she made it up or if “Maybe it was just that one time…." Another client revealed that her sibling, a teacher, was sleeping with with a student, age 15. My client, who was in graduate school at the time, tried to talk her out of it and thinks it ended. Years later, concerned that she should have reported it, she consulted a lawyer friend, but was told that hearsay is not enough. She wonders what became of the boy. Another client entered a room in a neighbor’s home and saw a father groping his daughter. The daughter pushed him away with a look of disgust on her face. Still another client was told that a relative was part of a pedophile ring, but he did not know if the accuser was trustworthy. Years later he found out from another source that it might have actually been true.
Molestation is common and can be committed by seemingly upstanding people. It has lasting deleterious effects on the victim. Why do these perpetrators do what they do and what goes through their minds? Here is an article from the Boston Globe citing stories and lawsuits involving the molestation of students by teachers at elite prep schools. Here is an article from the Child Molestation and Research Institute which attempts to explain the underlying psychopathology.
According to this document there are four etiologies. The perpetrator is a teen with curiosity and the desire to experiment, is a person with a medical/mental problem, suffers from antisocial personality (no conscience) or possesses an errant and overwhelming drive to perpetrate. We know that abusers have often been abused, are frequently known to the victim and choose vulnerable beings for their prey. Whatever the reason, guilt, shame or conscience play a part in self-control especially with regard to inappropriate or unlawful acts. Destructive tendencies can be thwarted by an ethical and healthy mindset that makes doing damage more uncomfortable than not doing damage. Basic human compassion also inhibits the infliction of harm. It may be that for all four of the above causes, a lack of conscience is present, not just for antisocial personality disorders. Sometimes diagnostic categories do not capture the full human being, conditions overlap and people can have more than one illness.
Antisocial qualities include egocentricity, entitlement and self-pleasure as the ultimate priority. Personal gratification is all that matters. Such individuals just cannot understand that other people matter too or they do understand but do not care. In fact, for some thus afflicted, witnessing the suffering or helplessness of another is a plus. The satisfaction can stem from sadism, control, power or hubris. They may feel quite clever and “all is right with the world” when the act has been committed. If they do not get to gratify their sinister desires, the world feels unfair. A primitive, regressed state of being that may not be apparent to others is operating.
The confusing thing is that contradictory qualities co-exist. Super ego lacunae – holes in the conscience– are not uncommon. Areas of moral thinking and areas of immoral thinking can be present in the same person. These individuals can lend you money, drive you to a doctor appointment, give you their lawnmower, hold your hand when you are crying, babysit your kids and then molest a minor. They may preach about the importance of leaving a big tip at lunch and rape someone after a dinner date. Righteous, moral speeches about religion or politics might spew forth. They compartmentalize their own wrong doings or do not experience them as wrong in the first place. Morality is getting what they want. Virtuous personas may be presented to function in a social world or to fool others (or even themselves.) Still, moments of authentic generosity or kindness can occur as long as nothing interferes with their aims. The co-existence of the contrasting qualities can be mind boggling.
We know that those who have undergone abuse or molestation suffer in lasting ways. “It was unbearable. I wanted to die.” “I didn’t count, I didn’t exist.” “ I will never feel safe again.” Substance abuse, fear, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, poor body image, shame, constant vigilance... the list goes on. The healthy suppression that keeps such realities at a distance and allows most of us to move through with a semblance of safety is ripped away.
If this is happening in your inner circle and you are young or vulnerable, complexities arise. If you reveal “secrets”, the tables may turn upon you. You might hear, “What are you talking about, so and so is such a nice person, look at the way he tends to the dog, you are distorting things …” You may be de-valued for giving voice to such a sordid subject. The family perpetrator, especially if charismatic, is often defended and protected. Perhaps he or she is the life of the party and worth having around. Maybe since he or she has singled out one target, this target is the only one who knows the truth. For some, the disruption of the existing structure is an absolute threat.
Sometimes it is even hard for the witness to manage the truth. The mind can distort, dismiss or deny because it so wants to not know especially if the criminal is a family member or someone you loved, or thought you loved. It is hard to get your mind around the idea that a person who shares your household is a molester. They have to live somewhere and be part of some family.
What can one do? If you are the victim:
- Find good treatment : EMDR, CBT and varying psychotherapies can all help. http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/treatment/therapy-med/treatment-ptsd.asp
- Seek justice. Fight back in any way you can by speaking up, helping others, etc. Moving from passive to active can be psychologically useful.
- Detach from those who supported the perpetrator. They will probably never change. There are people out there who prefer to do the right thing for altruistic or psychological reasons.
- Switch tribes if you must. Some people are born into the wrong family. Those who validate, empathize, care and have a natural capacity for insight do exist in large numbers but they maybe outside the clan.
- Develop self-compassion. Not self-pity, but self-compassion. Dr. Kristin Neff, psychologist and researcher at University of Texas at Austin, has found that self-compassion is the antidote to low self-esteem. Here is her Ted Talk. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=11U0h0DPu7k
- Become absolutely clear about what you were up against. This conjures self-respect. Victims are often self-critical and they self-blame. Some forces cannot be reckoned with and some people harbor monstrous qualities. Survival is huge.
For the observer: Of course, if you witnessed a crime, are sure and especially if you have evidence, you should muster the courage to report it. However be careful about making a false accusation because that can destroy a life.
If as a child, you, solo, managed a “Shit Show” (as one client described her family, who protected an abusive brother) have a benevolent superego regarding yourself, a softened conscience. Be gentle and forgiving for what you could not prevent. If there is nothing that can be done now, let it go.