The Secondary Victims of Rape

By Kate Nicholls

The secondary victims of rape are often children.  After I was gang raped in 2002 a loving friend gave me a book called Aftermath. I am sure it had many words of wisdom but I couldn’t read them. The opening of the book shocked me to my core and I hastily put it down. The author told me it had taken her twelve years to recover. 12 YEARS…no way Jose. That was not going to be my story…12 YEARS!

Three stupid men were not going impinge on my life. I was going to march on with my head held high. I was strong. I was going to show them! I …I…. I. And so it was that my world narrowed into an egocentric spiral that in time collapsed inwards. I was not thinking about my children.

I did not know it at the time but the most profound damage those men did to me was to strip me of my empathy. Perhaps it was because I found it so hard to live inside my own skin after the attacks that it became impossible for me to live inside someone else’s.

I am not blaming myself. Post Traumatic stress exerted a powerful neuro-chemical and endocrinal force that destroyed my familiar internal landscape. It’s hardily surprising I felt like a stranger in my own body. But I became a stranger to those close to me as well.

Living with a mother who is suffering from PTS is stressful and traumatic. At the time my children were aged 8, 14, 16, 17 and 23 so all at very different stages of development.  The two girls and three boys also responded to gender violence from different perspectives. It was a period of huge complexity and the person on whom they had always depended for loving and emotionally intelligent support was no longer functioning.

I was still there- still cooking the meals, still laughing, still able to home-school them. Still able to shower, keep clean and manage a complex household and work. But I was disconnected from my children’s hearts and that made me dangerous.

My fragmentation took many months and finally I broke into unrecognizable pieces. It took years for me to build myself back to the happy-strong-engaged woman I am today. During that time I drank, became self destructive, suicidal, focused inappropriate levels of anger on the wrong people and at times I was physically violent. To put it bluntly-I became abusive.

To anyone who knows me this is unimaginable. I am a loving, compassionate person-yes I am volatile but certainly not a person who would be considered an abusive parent.

Where did all the love go? How was it possible I could be the one who has been responsible for the long-term emotional damage of own beloved children? The answer is simple- I was living with levels of fear I could not endure and thus I was disconnected, and empathy requires complex levels of connectivity. Before the attacks I was at the hub of a sensory web we all travelled across freely and safely. As the children grew older I was able to spin more silk and keep the connections strong enough for heavier feet to tread. After the attacks I was no longer able to keep up production.

My children remained empathetic and their kindness towards me was matchless. But they grew weary of my relentless denials that anything was wrong and in time they became afraid of me. They were compassionate and any anger they felt towards me was sucked in because they knew I was hurting and ill and broken. So they protected me and they were kind to the person who was making them so unhappy. This is damaging at a fundamental level.  During my recovery there was no one there to help them.

My recovery is personal and I do not think anyone should offer advice as to the best approach. When you are raped you are stripped of control not just physically but emotionally and spiritually -for me this was harder to resolve than the sexual violation. Thus I found it hard to take good advice and I rejected going into therapy. I was going to sort myself out thank you very much! Life had to go on.

But the world and I were spinning at different speeds. I became inappropriately fearless because I was not in touch with my humanity. Perhaps that was because I had come literally face-to-face with man’s inhumanity to man-and it was unbearable.

I refused help because I had to pick up my own pieces- I had to reconnect to my own reality. However, the tiny incremental steps I took towards a better understanding were not visible to anyone else. Healing is not pretty- it’s not like in the movies. It’s muddled, energized by wearisome Sisyphean perseverance, and interrupted by life -which pays no regard to your frailty. Emotional scabs are easily ripped off by careless words and actions- healing is a painful, plodding process.

There were many components interacting together that helped me to become the healthy, happy woman I am today: first and foremost my children’s tireless, intelligent, and at times tough, love; eventually two excellent therapists and giving up drinking.  I held on to my ‘right’ to obliterate the pain through alcohol for far too long and that I regret bitterly. Sobriety gave me clarity and most importantly enabled me to open my heart again and take responsibility for my actions.  But all this took time and during that time my children suffered.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  Al-Anon and Nar-Anon offer support to the families and friends of alcoholics and drug users. We need to initiate a similar program for the families of rape victims.

We must find away to protect the children of traumatized women. In a perfect world the families of victims would be offered help when the crime is reported and a long term follow up program should be put in place. But this is not a perfect world. Many rapes go unreported because women feel afraid, ashamed or are too traumatized to face lengthy legal proceedings. But their families know what happened. Their families have to cope with the pain, the fear, the anger, the sleeplessness, the depression, the self-destruction and other symptoms of PTS.

By setting up support for the secondary victims we will also be helping the victims. This needs to be a global initiative and there is not the scope in the article to discuss how this might be achieved.

I am not suggesting setting up yet another NGO or a foundation that will require funding. I am suggesting a more pragmatic approach and one that would enrich the connections between existing NGO and welfare groups. It can and must be achieved if we are to prevent the exponential pain and emotional damage initiated by a few moments of sexual violence.

Rape takes minutes.  Recovery takes years.

If you are looking for support please contact a rape crisis centre: there is help for the families of victims. Also please feel free to e-mail me directly I am not an expert or a counsellor but I have boots on the ground and I am walking the walk.

Kate Nicholls

Kate Nicholls is a 59 year old mother of five, writer, home-school teacher, women’s rights activist, ex-RSC actress and lion researcher. Raised her family in the Okavango Delta, Botswana and is currently living in London running a home-school program for Russian children and writing a book.

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