A Therapist's Therapy: Telling the Story of Sexual Abuse

Mental Health Comes to Terms with Traumatic Sexual Abuse

Dusty Miller

Whether delivered by hand grenade or by hurricane, by fist, machete, or burning plane, trauma is experienced across cultures, as are attempts to heal it. How well those attempts succeed depends in part on the stories a culture tells itself about trauma victims and victimhood---about recovery, wholeness, and resilience. This is particularly true of intimate family violence, which broke into the light in the late 20th century, casting ripples that continue to this day.

As a systems therapist, incest survivor, and recovering alcoholic, I’ve lived through several stages of our culture’s attempt to come to terms with child sexual abuse---as a victim in the silent 1950s; as a therapy client in the oblivious 1960s and 1970s; and as a psychotherapist in the 1980s and 1990s, when once-dismissed accounts of sexual abuse filled my therapy practice (and my television screen) only to be partly discredited within the decade during another swing of the cultural pendulum.

One in a Million

The simplest version of my own story begins with my father. After he came home from World War II, he led at least three separate lives: one in Manhattan with his German mistress and her mother, who followed him to the States; one with my mother and me in Northampton, Massachusetts; and one in my bedroom at night, with my mother seemingly oblivious and asleep at the other end of our house.

According to a leading psychiatric text, incest was something that happened in only one of a million families. No child I knew ever told me she’d been repeatedly struck in the face (as I had) by a father who at other times was playful, loving, and kind. Until I was 17, I didn’t try to tell anybody---not even my beloved godmother---that my father forced me to perform sexually. Nor before I was 24 did anyone believe me.

On an early winter day in 1978, a year after my father’s death, I found myself in a car on an interstate in Connecticut, being driven back to my job (as a dorm counselor near my childhood home in Northampton, Massachusetts) by someone I hardly knew. After I opened the car door and tried to jump onto the freeway---it seemed like a good idea at the time---the terrified driver delivered me struggling and shouting to the emergency room of a hospital off the nearest exit.

Three days drunk, covered with blood from self-inflicted cuts, my hair disheveled, dressed in jeans and an old army shirt of my dad’s, even my gender was unrecognizable. I was wrestled into submission by six emergency room workers, injected with a paralyzing amount of Thorazine, and transported by ambulance to a locked ward for violent women at the Connecticut state hospital in Waterbury. I was 34.

Once I stopped abusing drugs and alcohol, my flashbacks and dissociated states lessened markedly. With my friends’ encouragement, I weaned myself from the overpowering antipsychotic medications that had kept me groggy and debilitated. I’d given up the spoiled identity of the mental patient in favor of the more accurate---and therefore more helpful---label of the recovering addict and alcoholic. But in 12-step meetings, I often felt awkward and out of place, and there were still parts of my story that I couldn’t tell.

The Politics of Truth

Clean and sober, I returned to graduate school and shot like a rocket from chronic PTSD and rampant addiction to what seemed like the other end of the rainbow. Within six years, I was “Dr. Miller,” a clinical psychologist doing postdoctoral work in family and narrative therapy at the University of Calgary Medical School in Alberta. On one memorable day, I visited a Canadian mental hospital as a consultant and expert on domestic violence and addiction. I’ll never forget a social worker’s giving me an enormous key, which opened all the wards, including a locked ward similar to the one I’d been committed to in Connecticut. Holding that key and remembering the movie King of Hearts, I was tempted to open every door. I was also irrationally terrified that my identity as a former mental patient would somehow be exposed.

As a family systems therapist, I loved drawing connections between a family’s surface pain and hidden issues of addiction, patriarchal social assumptions, and domestic violence. I loved the “difficult” families, especially the mistrustful, mislabeled, and misunderstood mothers. I loved being mentored by iconoclastic family therapists who did battle with The System, personified by well-intentioned but oblivious social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists like those who’d mislabeled and mistreated me.

Then one day in 1985, I sat behind a one-way mirror supervising a graduate student working with a father and his young daughter. Someone in the therapy room---I can’t now remember who---said the word “incest,” and it resonated through the microphone and into my observation room. A student next to me whispered a question, but I couldn’t hear her words. Tears fell onto my hands as I twisted them in my lap.

Times had changed. If power consists in part in determining whose stories will be told and whose believed, the balance of power was shifting. Stories like mine were being whispered to a new generation of women therapists, spoken out loud in new 12-step meetings for adult children of alcoholics, and aired among feminists involved in the movement to stop domestic violence. The floodgates had opened. Control of the politics of truth had moved from the experts to the experienced.

This blog is excerpted from “The End of Innocence.” Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Trauma

Tags: add | addict | addiction | alcoholic | clinical psychologist | counselor | drugs | family systems | family therapist | family therapists | HEAL | narrative therapy | psychiatrist | psychologist | psychologists | psychotherapist | PTSD | resilience | social work | social worker | social workers | TED | therapist | therapists | traumatic

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3 Comments

Friday, August 11, 2017 3:46:03 AM | posted by Nova
I was molested by my "best friend" whom was also underage but i didnt know it wrong so when my brother touched me, i didnt know it was wrong, yes it made me feel uncomfortable but he said he was just "comparing weight" or would "randomly" touch my butt. He still continues to do this, if i tell my therapist will she contact authorities? That is the only thing holding me back from this.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016 1:11:28 AM | posted by Marc Aaron Goldbach
It's already proven that many untold stories for sexual harassment still exist and express it on different way from the victims. I truly understand your pain and your traumatic experience during your childhood and it is not easy to forget. You are brave enough to share your story with your reader and it is a good start for you lessen up the pain in your heart. Many women out there for sure are still on the shadow of fear by telling their stories.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016 7:38:36 PM | posted by rasheeda
I love Dr jen I know I need therapy I just refuse to go....I was molested as a child from age 8 to 17 never spoke about it...remain silent...I write music to express how I'm feeling..I still see the person who hurt me everyday...don't hate him forgive them.. I need Dr Jenn I. Will be wiling to talk only to here and tell her my story...