“Of course I need to feel ashamed,” I said sharply to the would-be healer of my soul.
“You don’t need to feel guilty,” or “You have no reason to feel ashamed,” are two statements that irritate me. I wonder how individuals can say those things. How can they possibly say what I need?
The people who say such things imply that if we see the logic of their statements—that we were innocent and did nothing to bring about the abuse— we simply flip the shame button to the off position. If only it were that easy.
If I could have cleansed myself from those negative emotions, I would have done so long ago. Instead, it took me years before I knew the freedom from those enslaving feelings. I don’t think I’m unusual.
People who try to talk us out of our emotions don’t understand us. Shame. Guilt. Low self-esteem. Loneliness. Pain. Those are natural reactions to what happened to us who were sexually assaulted in childhood. No one explained to us that something bad was done to us and we were innocent-but-needy kids. The neediness is where they exploited us.
For us as children, if something was wrong, it was our fault. If our perpetrators said they loved us, we believed them. When they no longer wanted us, we were certain that we must have made them angry. Why else would they reject us?
Too often, we rationalize the situation. For instance, at one time early in my healing journey I was a member of a group of 15 men who had been sexually assaulted in childhood. One man named Rob said, “If I hadn’t been such a good-looking kid he wouldn’t have bothered me.” He had been in therapy for more than a year and he was still blaming himself for being victimized. He was vocal about it; too many of us remain silent with similar (but false) explanations.
As young children, we didn’t have the maturity to know that we had been chosen by perpetrators because of our innocence and our neediness, and that it wasn’t our fault.
The testimonies that came out in the trial of Jerry Sandusky sounded like the story of which many of us could have related. A lonely boy, especially one from an impoverished background and certainly someone who didn’t feel loved or wanted, gravitated toward an adult who showed him attention. And why wouldn’t the child respond to kind gestures and to someone who asked questions and actually listened to him?
The perpetrator groomed the boy with gifts and even more attention. The adult listened with a show of sympathy to the kid’s sad tales. Unknowingly, the child’s “skin hunger” was so severe the boy was probably open to anyone who expressed interest in him. The perpetrator touched the boy—in the beginning, a pat on the head or a clasping of his shoulder. Sometimes a hug, but nothing more. The “more” came later to that love-starved child who felt special for the first time in his life. The “more” came at different times for each of us, but as our perpetrators gained our trust, we naively trusted him.
Regardless of when we felt the shame, we experienced it. We didn’t know the proper terms, but we certainly felt the emotions, and thought of ourselves as unworthy of true affection. Consequently, we felt bad. We weren’t mature enough to grasp that we were innocent.
If people want to help us heal, I wish they would say, “I’m sorry you feel ashamed. It must be a terrible burden.” If they speak to us like that, they not only show they understand, but they offer us comfort.
- By Cecil Murphey
Cecil Murphey wrote, When a Man You Love Was Abused and Not Quite Healed with survivor Gary Roe. Murphey is the author or coauthor of more than 130 books including international best-sellers, 90 Minutes in Heaven and Gifted Hands: the Ben Carson Story.