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Many Who Are Sexually Abused Keep Quiet


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Last week on the first day of the sex abuse trial of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, a 28-year-old man referred to as Victim Four in court papers took the stand and offered graphic detail of years of abuse.

He also expressed regret for not coming forward earlier. He told the jury he had spent, quote, so many years burying this in the back of my head forever that when he heard there were other cases like his, he felt responsible.

But his reluctance is not uncommon. Earlier this month, an article in the New York Times raised allegations of widespread sex abuse of studies at the Horace Mann School in New York City, most of it in the 1970s and '80s. Psychologists say that many people sexually abused as children are silenced by fear and shame and never reveal what happened. Those who do can carry the secret for years or even decades.

If this is your story, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Later in the program, the art of the ultimate counterfeiter, but we begin with Sarah Pleydell, who joins us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in.


CONAN: And this is your story.

PLEYDELL: Yes, it is.

CONAN: When did you become aware as an adult that you needed to say something?

PLEYDELL: Oh, well into my 20s and into my 30s. It was an experience that, you know, had lain buried for 25, 30 years.

CONAN: What happened, briefly?

PLEYDELL: I grew up in a household in London, in the '50s, '60s. My parents were professionals. My father was one of those sort of debonair charmers, you know, sort of a Cary Grant kind of type. But he was a profound drunk. And my mother couldn't stand him. He totally exasperated her, and she would, you know, fly into a rage and pack up and leave.

And so he repeatedly abused my sister and me between the ages of eight and 11. I was left to give him dinner and put him to bed. I think one of the most poignant pieces of it is that in that kind of strange, childish heroism, I thought that if I were his caretaker that I could prevent him doing any damage to my sister.

CONAN: So you didn't know at the time that your sister was being abused, as well.

PLEYDELL: No, and when I discovered in my late 20s, it was just horrifying. It was, you know, one of the most devastating things.

CONAN: How did you find out?

PLEYDELL: Well, we didn't talk about it until we were in our late 20s, and by then, I was flooded with the kind of graphic dissociative images that survivors, you know, are flooded with. And I began to share them with her.

But up until that point, you know, none of it had really made any sense to me. I think that people don't speak up because of the way that sexual abuse impacts the body and the mind and the heart. My father was, when he wasn't drunk, my primary caregiver. I adored him. I was the apple of his eye, and the idea that he could betray me in this way was unthinkable. You know, I just couldn't engage it as a complete thought. And so my mind just scrambled up the images, scrambled them all up.

CONAN: And what did your sister say when you started to talk about it?

PLEYDELL: She asked me what I remembered, and I told her the kind of strange, dissociative, graphic images that I had that, you know, they were out of sequence, that didn't make any sense but were very vivid, had, you know, free-floating sort of sensory horror to them, smells and sounds and words. And, you know, she sort of revealed that she had the same things, the same things.

CONAN: And that's the devastating moment.

PLEYDELL: Yeah, well, we helped each other piece together what our immature brains could not do.

CONAN: Were your parents still alive at that point?

PLEYDELL: My father, because he was an addled drunk, unfortunately, well, in some ways fortunately, had a massive stroke in his 50s. So by the time I was ready to talk to him, he didn't really know who I was or not for more than five minutes. But my mother was still alive and still very together.

CONAN: And did you talk to her?

PLEYDELL: Finally in my 30s I made the choice to talk to her. I don't think it's the only choice to be made, but I did make that choice. And I confronted her when she came to visit me. And she at first was very defensive. She was - denied it, and I was very angry. So I can see why, in some ways.

And gradually she accepted it, and then she became incredibly sorry that she had not left my father earlier because she did leave him. And to fair to her, I mean, the symptoms that we were demonstrating would now be considered classic symptoms of child abuse, I mean, bedwetting and anorexia and all the rest of it, but then, you know, she just knew we were being hurt, and she did kick him out.

But we did this over a period of 10 years. Every time she came, we would go through this until finally I felt I'd done it enough.

CONAN: The range of emotions that must have warped back and forth between you and your mother, and your sister of course, too, feeling abandoned, lack of protection, a mother's obligation, her guilt yet her own need to be out of a situation that was clearly - she didn't know what was going on but clearly not healthy for her, either.

PLEYDELL: No, no, but it was the '60s, and it was a hard thing for a woman to get up and leave a husband. And the information wasn't out there. So, you know, I respect her for doing it; I wish to hell she'd done it a whole lot earlier.

CONAN: We want to hear from people in the audience today whose story this is, too. Give us a call if you've kept these memories quiet for years or decades afterwards, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Al(ph), Al's calling us from Phoenix.

AL: Yeah, thank you for taking my call. I was abused by several different people, cousins and neighbors and a few other people, as was my wife. And she was repeatedly abused by someone that she had babysat for, which led to later on choosing I guess abusive relationships as an adult.

And by the time she was really ready to deal with what had happened, when she and I came together, and she sort of started trying to heal and deal with things, the statute of limitations had run out to prosecute this man. And he's now in his late 60s and is now married to a 19-year-old girl, and we have since also found out that in the years when my wife had moved away from where he was, he had abused several other girls.

And to me the statute of limitations is extremely problematic not only because you can't prosecute someone but because it sort of implies that the victim should have gotten over it already.

CONAN: It does vary state to state.

AL: If you haven't done something about it in a certain amount of time, then you really couldn't have felt that bad about it is what it seems like.

CONAN: I understand, just - I don't think you could hear me, Al, but it does vary from state to state. In some states, there's no statute of limitations on rape, as there is none on murder.

AL: Right. Where we are, it is, so...

CONAN: How did you and your wife find each other?

AL: How did we meet, or how did we find each other?

CONAN: Well, how did you find out that you shared this background?

AL: Well, I think I have dealt with mine much earlier. I've lived on my own since I was a very, very young man and also had a lot of friends that had been molested, and I had helped some friends sort of move out of their homes or move out of abusive relationships. And so I think very early on in my relationship with my wife, I recognized the personality traits.

And she and I had been friends for many, many years, and she had been dating someone else, and I had recognized the type of relationship that she was in was also very abusive and a symptom of someone who had been abused as a younger person.

CONAN: Well, David - Al, thanks very much for sharing your story, and good luck to you both.

AL: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And Sarah Pleydell, he raises an interesting question. The effects later on, abusive relationships, clearly in your case it could have led to alcoholism, abusive relationships, a lot of things.

PLEYDELL: You develop a vulnerable personality, and you're susceptible to patterns that have been imprinted from childhood. And it takes a lot of work to change those patterns.

CONAN: David Lisak is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He's a clinical psychologist, a founding board member of oneinsix.org, an organization that serves men who were sexually abused as children, and he joins us today from member station WUSF in Tampa. Thanks very much for being with us.

DAVID LISAK: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And this is not just a topic you research, this is your story, too.

LISAK: That's right. I was abused when I was a kid.

CONAN: And when did you come to terms with it?

LISAK: Well, that started really only in my late 20s into my 30s. I either completely repressed the memories for about 25 to 27 years, and then over the course of several years began to come to terms with it and eventually told my surviving parent, my mother, about it.

CONAN: It was your father who abused you, too?

LISAK: No, no it wasn't. It was a babysitter, a boarder who was taken into our house to help pay the rent.

CONAN: So again, the emotions are unbelievably powerful. Your mother, again, is supposed to be your protector.

LISAK: Yes, and one of the - you know, there are so many effects that children who are abused suffer, both at the time and then as the years go by. And for myself, as for so many, when you're five years old, even though your mother does not know what's happening, you inevitably interpret it as an abandonment, as a betrayal, and why isn't she protecting me, why isn't somebody rescuing me from this.

And there's really just no way that a child that young can see it as any other - in any other way. And that really can so undermine the child's relationship with their parents, with adults, with authorities, and that can last a long time.

CONAN: We're talking about carrying the painful secret of childhood sexual abuse for years or even decades. If this is your story, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Jerry Sandusky's defense team continues to call witnesses in the former assistant coach's trial on dozens of counts of alleged sexual abuse. High-profile cases like this often spur conversations and sometimes revelations of past abuse.

As we've heard, victims often suffer in silence, alone, in many cases blaming themselves. We're talking today about why it's so difficult to talk about childhood sexual abuse and what happens when the truth comes out. If this is your story, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org.

Our guests are Sarah Pleydell, herself a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. She teaches writing at the University of Maryland, College Park. And David Lisak, associate professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. He researches the effects of childhood sex abuse. He's also spoken out about his own past abuse.

And David Lisak, some of these effects down the years, they can vary with different individuals.

LISAK: Yes, and they do, and that's an important thing to remember, that - the circumstances of the abuse, the context in which it occurs. You know, in my case, I was abused by somebody who was really outside the family. I had, I at least had a mother who was a good mother in so many ways. And in my other work, I do a lot of forensic work, I evaluate men who have committed serious crimes, most of whom have also been terribly abused as kids.

But most of them had no parents who were there to help them in any way, and that's one of the factors that can really alter what happens over the long run. So despite the abuse, I was able to get an education and get a foundation under me and recover from those experiences, and that's not always possible.

CONAN: That vulnerable personality that Sarah was talking about a moment ago, was that you too?

LISAK: Oh yes, for many, many years, and you know, to this day, you know, I - I'm an adult, I'm a professional, I do all kinds of research, I do forensic work and so forth, but the abuse lives on in me. And you know, there are still nights when I wake up with nightmares because of things that have triggered me during the day, and that's just part of, at least in my case, that's part of the reality that I live with, and it is for many survivors.

They can thrive in many ways but still suffer many of the symptoms.

CONAN: Sarah Pleydell, you were nodding there, yeah.

PLEYDELL: My sister has a very strong image. She says that childhood trauma is like a house with a horrible room in the middle of it, and you do your very best to keep the doors locked, but every now and again you wake up and there you are, and you're eight years old, and your heart's racing, and it's happening all over again, and you have to very slowly and carefully turn on the light and pick yourself up and take yourself out of there, and the room never goes away.

But the house changes, and the house over time can become a safer place.

CONAN: Let's get Tammy on the line. Tammy's calling us from Buffalo.

TAMMY: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, Tammy, go ahead, please.

TAMMY: (Unintelligible) bring back so many memories because as a child going through the same experiences, and coming from an African-American community, sometimes you could be alienated when you're up front about the experiences that happened to you as a child, especially molestation.

And even as an adult with my kids, I'm like very, very protective. I don't do overnights over at a friend's house. Certain smells trigger off, like, depression. And when I decided to finally get counseling, a part of my childhood, when my daughter was asking me about things, what happened to you when you were nine, or - I can't remember anything.

So when I decided to get counseling, and they suggested maybe I should, you know, rethink what happened to me when I went to the court and just get the information about my case, I was denied because in order for me to even - for them to even open the books on my case, I would have to get a lawyer, then the lawyer has to go to the judge. It was just really, really a stressful process. I mean, I'm still dealing with it, even today like with relationships and commitment.

And it's just like a lifelong struggle that you go through on a constant basis.

CONAN: I'm intrigued - smells?

TAMMY: Yeah, just certain smells like the cologne, it just triggers it off.

CONAN: You too, Sarah Pleydell?

PLEYDELL: Yeah, the book I've just written is called "Cologne."


PLEYDELL: And it's about this very topic, yeah, smells, absolutely.

CONAN: David Lisak, I know smell is a very powerful stimulant to memory. Is this common?

LISAK: Oh yes, it is, and it's just as your guests have been saying. All of the senses record just very sometimes microscopic but incredibly vivid details. And they are profoundly etched in memory, and they come back, sometimes because they're triggered by something that you've encountered, and it can be quite overwhelming when they come back.

CONAN: Especially 'cause it jumps up at you when you least expect it.

LISAK: Exactly, there's no (unintelligible).

PLEYDELL: And they're dissociated from one another. They don't add up. They just, you know, assail you.

LISAK: Yes, that's right.

CONAN: Tammy, are you continuing to get counseling?

TAMMY: Yes, I am. I mean, some people think, you know, I think there are a lot of misconceptions. People think you just go to counseling, and then after a certain period of time it just gets better. It just doesn't. I mean, just - it's a lifelong struggle.

CONAN: There's no cure certificate they hand you after a certain period of time, yeah.

TAMMY: Exactly.

CONAN: Well, good luck to you, Tammy, thanks very much for sharing the call.

TAMMY: Oh, thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: And David Lisak, she raises an interesting question. Are cultural differences in different communities - is it more or less - it's always going to be difficult, let's be honest about it, but is - some factors can exacerbate that?

LISAK: Yes, certainly, and there are differences amongst communities and the degree to which a child or an adolescent feels that they can speak about this. Of course there are differences between families and the degree to which a child may feel like they can disclose and speak out.

There are also gender differences, and we have very good data, there's good research that boys who are abused are far less likely to disclose at the time. They're far less likely to disclose over the years. There are many more obstacles that boys seem to have to tell anybody about the abuse and also then to seek help, whether professional help, any kind of help as they get older.

CONAN: Here's an email from Charlie(ph) in Portland: I was sexually abused by two women, first at the age of three or four by a church nursery volunteer, later at the age of 14 by my own alcoholic mother. I haven't been silent about this but have received a lot of denial by those who refuse to believe that women are capable of committing such abuse.

Others seem to think female abuse is somehow a lesser crime than abuse committed by men. The biggest impact of the abuse on my life has been a lifelong aversion to physical and emotional intimacy, leading to four divorces and no children. And Sarah Pleydell, that aversion to physical and emotional intimacy, I don't mean to probe too much, but is that something that has happened in your life?

PLEYDELL: You have to work very hard at it, and I'm very lucky. I have a wonderful husband and four children, but it's been a lot of work.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Debbie(ph), Debbie with us from Jackson, Michigan.

DEBBIE: Yes, hi, Neal. I have five children, and to our knowledge it was disclosed to us about nine years ago that at least three of the five have been molested by family members and by an ex-son-in-law. Now, one is male, the other two are female, and until it was disclosed by the daughter that was married to, you know, to our ex-son-in-law, we had never - we were never aware and had no idea this was going on, you know, prided ourselves on being aware and alert and, you know, thought we would know and thought we had taught our children that they had come to us.

And watching - I've been following - I follow everything I can, but watching the Sandusky trial, especially these brave young men that have come forward, I just as a mom, it's just heart-wrenching. And then to hear I think it was David talking about, you know, you think your mother protects you. And what do you do?

My children have not sought therapy. I've watched their lives, and I've watched alcohol creep into some of their lives. It's very difficult, very difficult.

CONAN: David Lisak, is there any advice you might be able to offer?

LISAK: Well, some of this depends on age. We know that with time, more survivors of sexual abuse become more able and more willing to seek help. It is - it's really impossible to make that happen from the outside. You can do everything you can to make it available, you can do everything you can to, for example, make sure you have the name of one or two good therapists, clinicians in your community that you've researched so that if the time does come where you have a child who's willing then to see somebody, you at least increase the odds that that will be a good experience and it will take, that they will stay in therapy and actually - and get some benefits from it.

But there are also, you know, there are a lot of resources now, online, on the Web, that men and women can go to get information. We know for male survivors that so many of them are loathe to disclose this to anybody, and so we know that, for instance, that the One in Six website, we know we have a lot of visitors to that website from men all over the world who are on their own, completely in private, visiting the site to get information, to begin approaching this. And then we hope, of course, that with time, that they will seek more help.

CONAN: And is it also possible that when, finally, you admit it to yourself, anger becomes so powerful that there is useful recourse to the police?

LISAK: Well, yes. But that's complicated, as I know you know. The - you know, the only sort of really sort of outlet for that anger, other than - you know, I spent months and months. For a long period of time, I put a mattress up on my wall, and I would go up there whenever I had to and just pound on the mattress. And that's useful for at least that - you know, for as far as it goes.

But if you want an actual outlet for that anger, something that you would actually do in the world or something, some way to hold the offender accountable, then the criminal justice system, the civil justice system, they're there. But as your callers have already noted, sometimes the statute of limitations gets in the way.

Very often, the criminal justice system itself is not a very hospitable place for victims of sexual crimes. It's a tough row to hoe. And that's why, I think, as several people have already commented, the courage of these young men in the Penn State case who've come forward to testify is really truly remarkable. And they're doing something for the whole community, not just for themselves.

DEBBIE: And - excuse me, but we discovered that the criminal justice service did us no favors. And then the statute, as far as civil lawsuits, statute of limitations, we're only one year past the age of majority. So that - you know, there's a lot that needs to be changed within the system that we've worked hard to try to get changed. But the - that's a long, long, long road, and has been a long road.

And we've been as active as we can in our community. And we have research and we have tried to seek counseling and made that available and offered it up to our children. But, you know, when they're in their 20s and 30s, and they, you know, they have to come to that - as you know - they have to come to that on their own.

But it's just so hard to sit back and watch their lives and - I'm not saying that they're destroying their lives, but in certain aspects, they are. And they're doing a lot of good, too. But to see that - and to see that - you can just see the, as you mentioned, anger sometimes. One of my children has now started taking boxing. So that's a good thing. I mean, she...

CONAN: The heavy bag taking the place of that mattress up in...

DEBBIE: Exactly.

CONAN: ...David Lisak's attic.

DEBBIE: She's a female, and she's, you know, in there with all the men, boxing away. And it's just very hard to watch, very hard.

CONAN: Good luck...

DEBBIE: Thank you.

CONAN: ...Debbie. Thank you very much for the call.

DEBBIE: Thank you, Neal. OK.

CONAN: We're talking about holding stories of your abuse in for years, even decades. Our guests are Sarah Pleydell, a writer and educator, and David Lisak, associate professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And this email from Meg in Chicago: I went to Horace Mann School in New York City. Recently, The New York Times published an expose of decades of sexual abuse. I'm talking about this with fellow students, while more and more victims come forward. I wasn't sexually abused, but I was there. I feel overpowering guilt that I didn't help. I know I was a teenager at the time, but what can I do to support the victims? What can I do to overcome my feelings of helplessness?

And I wonder, Sarah Pleydell, it's not unlike you're feeling - you feeling you failed to protect your sister.

PLEYDELL: Yes. It's a - fortunately for me, I had my sister. I always had my sister to share my story with. We always had one another as touchstones. I always felt that I could - that she was there for me, and I was there for her. I think if I hadn't been abused and she had, it would have been annihilating, totally annihilating.

CONAN: Here's another email, this from Maka(ph): Yes, abused by father, older brother, tried to speak out, told to be quiet. Oddly, the phrase that was given to me was: Loose lips sink ships. I never got the meaning of that phrase until much later. When I finally did speak out as a young adult, family was angry at me for blabbing, for embarrassing them. The last two decades, mom, dad, rest of family rally with abuser. He has the will, I'm guessing is the reason. It's troubling as they know what was happening, yet I was called horrid names like slut or others. I am the ostracized member of the family for daring to speak out and say something.

Of course.

PLEYDELL: Mm-hmm. I know women who go - who've gone through that. I was fortunate to have my sister, as I said. But I know women who have spoken out and been the single voice in the family.

CONAN: It's your fault.


CONAN: It's your fault.

PLEYDELL: And you shouldn't speak about it. You know, you are abusing us by talking about it.

CONAN: David Lisak, if there's one thing that I think we learn from this is that not speaking about it is the continuing crime.

LISAK: Yes, it is. And I think it - not speaking about it, not disclosing it is ultimately very hard, very harmful for the survivor. But it is also, of course, the cumulative silence that allows this to go on. So when we survivors don't speak out, when we are silenced by family members or by other members of the community, the silence is what these perpetrators rely on, and it's what they are camouflaged in. And that's why we need to speak out about it.

CONAN: Sarah?

PLEYDELL: I've also found that writing is a wonderful vehicle to work it through. It creates a context for exploring a lot of your feelings. In the book that I've been working on, I was able to kill my father.


PLEYDELL: It's satisfying symbolically.

CONAN: How'd you do it?

PLEYDELL: He dies in a car crash...

CONAN: Uh-huh.

PLEYDELL: ...at the beginning of the book, and at the end. And it was tremendously - I wouldn't say - cathartic.

CONAN: Cathartic.


CONAN: A car accident he caused, his own fault?

PLEYDELL: Mm-hmm. Well, yes. I mean, yes. And actually...

CONAN: I don't mean to steal your ending, but...

PLEYDELL: ...the character sort of wills it on him, and she knows she's willed it on him. And she has to struggle with that because, in a way, her fantasy is to kill her father, and she has to live with the consequences that maybe it did impact his ultimate, you know, his death.

CONAN: Well, I look forward to reading that.


CONAN: Thank you so much for being with us today. Sarah Pleydell, writer and educator, teaches writing at the University of Maryland, College Park. David Lisak, thank you for your time today, as well.

LISAK: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: David Lisak joined us from member station WUSF in Tampa, where he's an associate professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. I suspect it's not in Tampa, but in Boston. And thanks to everybody who called and wrote. We know these are difficult stories to share. We thank you so much for coming on and being willing to talk to us, and we're sorry we just couldn't get to everybody.

Coming up, one of the best counterfeiters in the world is not a hardened criminal, but an artist. We'll explain next. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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