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Jill Greenberg high def red painting


I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.

I will not be defined by the damaging events in my life; I am more than my abuse.
But to deny this beginning – failing to talk openly about this (and face whatever irrational shame it kicks up for me) – merely perpetuates the culture of silence I’d been well-trained to maintain.

Where to begin?

There is so much to say, so many issues to explore with regard to childhood sexual abuse, and from so many angles, the subject becomes unwieldy: statistics on sexual abuse; rampant, socially sanctioned child abuse; sexualization of children in our culture; hands-off offending; pervasive objectification of women in our culture; the culture of silence in dysfunctional families; effects of poverty on physical and mental health; the failure of institutions charged with caring for and protecting children.

I’ve written and rewritten this relatively short piece so many times, it’s become a practice in procrastination.
I want to be clear.
I hope to be heard.
I realize there is no simple way to cover it all in one piece. Sifting through the mess of my own history in order to write a coherent piece about this painful beast feels too large a task to tackle.

So, I’ll focus here on the shame.

Like nearly all abuse survivors, I felt responsible not only for the ongoing assault, but also for maintaining the myth that my family was a close, loving, and supportive unit. It was necessary that I believed this, and even as I got older I felt I had to protect my parents’ image. I couldn’t bear that others might think ill of my family (they’d trained me well).
I believed I was at fault, and couldn’t bear the public blame I knew was inevitable.

The regular nightly abuse happened at the hands of my parents from the time I was a tiny child until I was 17 years old. My father was the aggressive sexual offender; my mother was complicit in this ongoing assault, repeatedly denying it was happening when I’d turned to her for help.

Though their overt sexual abuse eventually stopped, their insidious, covert abuse continued. My parents had no sensible or healthy boundaries. They sexualized everything.
I was not allowed personal space or thoughts of my own. Any attempt I made to individualize was met with ridicule and shame.

My parents made me feel so ashamed, responsible, and unworthy that their derision became my internal voice, taking over for them even when they fell silent. They kept me down so thoroughly that even when they were no longer present, I’d learned to keep myself down. I was groomed to serve a purpose.

I was their thorn, their painful and burdensome afterthought; considered oversensitive, irritating, sad and tragic, frumpy and dull, destined to make trouble and, in the end, to fail. For a very long time, I believed them. I was guilty and ashamed, certain I was broken. They were my parents, my definers and protectors. Surely, they were right?

I’ve learned that many people confuse Guilt and Shame, often using these words interchangeably. But there is a distinct and powerful difference:

Guilt is a reminder we’ve done something wrong.
We feel guilt when we’ve behaved in harmful ways. Though painful, it is a useful feeling; it helps guide us toward more proactive behavior. We can change the way we act.

Shame tells us we can never be right; we will always be broken.  Shame tells us we are unworthy.
Feeling shameful is paralyzing.  It holds us still.
Shame hobbles us so we can never run. Shame makes us feel we’re not worth saving.
Shame is a cancer, eroding everything good about our sense of self.

Guilt is a feeling or response to behavior:  I’ve done something wrong, buI can change the way I feel through improved behavior.
Shame is an identity:  At my core, I am not worth saving.

My family’s abuse left me shattered.
Their guilt is not mine.
Shame was their effective tool and does not serve me.
It took me some time into adulthood for me to realize I had painful, personal, internal work to do in order to heal.

Even now, so many years after having left my parents, and after years of good, expensive therapy, the ability to talk openly about the ways my parents harmed me does not come easily. But I am strong.  I can push though the mess and fear, and speak my truth. So many survivors continue to feel silenced by their shame. 

I did not create this mess, but I am left to clean it up.  I will not be hobbled by shame.
I will keep cleaning and sorting through this wreckage, so I can feel sturdy and whole.


Photo credit: Jill Greenberg  (I love her work so much)

Brené Brown on Shame

Brené Brown on Vulnerability