Healing from Assault Is Almost Impossible Without Family Support

*Trigger warning* This article contains references to sexual assault

Katherine Singh
by
Two people, wearing tank tops, lean into each other, their faces obscured
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“There was kind of a moment of regret,” recalls Madi Fuller. She was sitting in a police station break room in New York City, stranded and alone. “I was like, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything.’” A third-year politics major, Fuller was visiting New York for an international model UN event in March 2016. The week-long conference brought students from around the world—including the man who spiked her drink at a bar.

“All I knew was that I fell asleep and [then] this was happening,” Fuller says of her assault. “I woke up in a hotel room with someone having sex with me that I didn’t know.”  

She confronted the man after the attack and his response was horrifyingly glib: “I didn’t think the pills would kick in so hard.”  

But her own haziness about how the night transpired, conflicting reports from witnesses (all friends of the accused who claim Fuller was awake and consenting during the incident) and discouragement from the police, who warned against a drawn-out legal process that would require her to stay in New York longer, meant that Fuller’s case never went beyond that break room. Having already missed two flights home, feeling evermore exhausted and ashamed, she decided to go home without pressing charges.

But back in the GTA, her humiliation swelled. Reporting to police was one thing, but disclosing to her parents—especially her father—was another.

“He was just like, ‘were you drinking?’” Fuller recalls about her father’s reaction. “He [said] ‘You shouldn’t have drank that much; who’s this guy?’ It came up in anger against me, and that’s the last time we talked about it.”

Two years later she’s still struggling to come to terms with how her dad mishandled the situation.

“There are times when the reaction to the disclosure can be more traumatic than the actual assault,” says Stephanie Albiani, a clinician at New Directions in Winnipeg. Albiani runs the Families Affected by Sexual Assault Program, working with the parents and siblings of individuals under 18 who’ve experienced sexual violence by someone outside the family. The program—which has been operating for 30 years and is one of very few of its kind in Canada—works under the premise parents play an essential and active role in the healing process.  

“What we know is that when children are believed, that sets them on a good track [for recovery],” Albiani says. Without an initial message of support, she explains, the healing process gets halted. And while Albiani notes that survivors can sometimes heal without this familial support—either through the help of friends or other support groups—the feeling of being alone can be incredibly hard to overcome.

The most recent numbers from Statistics Canada, based on self-reporting, estimate that only 5% of sexual assaults in 2014 were reported to police. Nearly half of the women said they didn’t want the hassle of dealing with police, while others decided not to pursue legal action due to a perceived lack of evidence and the belief that reporting wouldn’t lead to a resolution. Essentially, they didn’t think they’d be believed by the system, which makes familial support that much more essential. We live in a world where survivors are constantly questioned,” says Yamikani Msosa, a counsellor at Ryerson University’s Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education. “It’s one thing when society does it, but it’s another thing when it’s coming from people you should feel safe with.”

Through her work with survivors, Msosa has seen the effects that a lack of family support can have on victims. “Sometimes survivors say to me, ‘I’m able to deal with the fact that I was sexually assaulted, but I cannot deal with the fact that my family didn’t believe me.’”

There are a lot of reasons parents may react unfavourably

Anna Scott* was molested by a husband and wife that babysat her when she was three years old. Growing up in a small farming community in Ontario, she says it was hard for her parents to handle the geographical intimacy of her perpetrator, who was a member of her family’s church. “We had to leave the church [because] it’s a small, small, small place.”

When she tried to bring it up with her parents again years later, Scott was met with silence. Now in her thirties and working with child victims of sexual abuse herself, Scott says this lack of acknowledgment has been painful—but at the same time she understands the root causes. “I know that the reason they’re so reluctant to talk about [the assault] is because it really fucked up their lives too,” she says. “But at the same time, I am a little resentful that they can’t put [their feelings] aside and just have a conversation with me.”  

While every case and family is unique, it’s important to note that most parents aren’t reacting poorly out of malice. “I think that the denial comes from parents feeling guilty that they weren’t necessarily there [to stop the assault]…and not knowing how to negotiate that,” says Msosa.

Besides the guilt, Msosa says, there can also be a tendency among families to want to keep assaults secret if the violence isas in Scott’s case—perpetrated by a family member or someone close to the family.

Scott’s experience with her parents after her initial assault influenced how she reacted to the next two (she was raped twice in her final year of grad school, by different individuals she had considered friends)—she never told them. Just a few years ago, her younger brother disclosed that he had also been sexually assaulted by a different babysitter at a young age. He never told their parents, either. And they both never plan to, Scott says.  “I just don’t think they would get it in the way that I need them to get it.”

What survivors need is simple: love, acceptance and support  

After her third sexual assault, in the summer of 2010, Scott says she “really fell apart.” Drinking excessively and acting out, she resorted to behaviour that was out of character, and those around her who didn’t know about her assault struggled to understand her actions. “My choices made no sense to people who didn’t know what I’d been through.” Had she been able to speak about her experiences with those close to her, she would not have felt the need to drown them out with alcohol, she says.

Without her family, she built up a support system of her own—she had to. But it took a lot of work and proactiveness on her part; relying on friends who experienced similar harassment and could help her cope. “I’ve been in therapy on and off for a long time,” she adds. In grad school, she sought therapy directly after both assaults—especially the second incident. “Because I was super fucked up after that one.”

Although Fuller has a close relationship with her parents, her journey to healing has been largely independent as well. She attended counselling alone and stayed at school in St. Catharines, Ont., rarely travelling home for fear of opening up conversations she says she knew her parents didn’t want to have. “I just felt it would be easier not to face that conversation,” she says, “because no one likes [it].”

But, she concedes, this inability to discuss her assault and pursue legal action has been the hardest part of recovery. “I think I kind of lost faith in my dad [as] this figure that’s always protective and on [my] side,” Fuller says. And because of this, her path to healing looks a little different than people may assume. “In the process of—not forgiving my rapist—but obviously some sort of forgiveness for myself and forgiving the situation as a whole, there was some forgiving of my dad for the way he dealt with the situation,” she says.

What families can do

Understandably, it can be difficult to act as if everything’s the same post-assault, but Albiani says acting “normal” is the best way to engage with survivors. This can be especially tricky for dads she says, who may feel inappropriate being affectionate with their daughters, fearful that it may upset or further traumatize them. But ultimately, it can be what survivors need the most. For Glen Canning, a sexual violence advocate and father of Rehtaeh Parsons—the Halifax teenager who was assaulted in 2011 and died by suicide in the aftermath of her assault—the period after his daughter disclosed her assault was one of uncertainty. “I told her I have absolutely no idea what my role is as a father.” He’d never imagined being the dad of a sexual assault survivor, of having to help someone in such a vulnerable state. “She said what she wanted from me was was for me to keep being her father, the way I always was,” Canning recalls. “Because it was one part of her life that was still normal.”  

Ultimately, Canning says, there’s no foolproof plan for helping a family member cope with sexual assault. “But we did believe that we did everything we could to let Rae know she was loved and that things would get better for her,” he says. “We did everything we could.”

For fathers, especially, supporting a daughter who has been sexually assaulted can be extremely complicated. “A lot of men were taught to keep their emotions inside,” says Fuller, commenting on her own dad. “So when something very traumatic like this happens they don’t know how to deal.”

Regardless of how much a parent is hurting, though, the emphasis needs to be on the victim’s needs and feelings. “Believe me, you’re furious,” Canning says. “But at the same time your focus has to be on your child.” This means allowing survivors to take the lead in their own healing, while supporting their decisions from the sidelines. For Canning, it was providing Rehtaeh with information and resources, but allowing her to dictate whether or not she pursued them. “We always said it was important, but we never, ever put her in a position where she had to do something she didn’t want to do,” he emphasizes, “because that’s already happened to her.”

Programs like the one at New Directions acknowledge the complex emotions family members can feel during what Albiani describes as the tumultuous period around disclosure. “Our role is to help mitigate that and help parents continue to be there as a support for their kids,” she says. And this support begins before they’re exposed to sexual violence. Canning emphasizes that parents need to have open and honest discussions with their kids about sexual violence, healthy relationships and consent. “You have to have a lot of trust with your child so that they do feel safe talking to you about things like sexual violence in their life,” he says. “If they don’t feel comfortable talking to you then I’d just hate to imagine the place that they’re in.”

Two years on from her assault, the place Fuller’s in is one of reflection. Currently living and working away from home, she  sees her ongoing healing as a two-way street—for both herself and her parents, especially her dad. When she looks back at the period around her disclosure, she says now that she wishes she’d run towards, instead of away from, her family. “I [wish it had been] more so moving forward as a family rather than just me. There [were] more people to the story.”

“I know from my own life that we don’t always behave our best with the people we love, and we don’t mean to hurt them,” Scott says of her feelings towards her parents now. “I choose to believe they love me and have always done their best.” And, most importantly, Scott wants to keep moving forward. “I don’t want to minimize my experience, but I don’t want it to overwhelm my identity, either,” she says. “I just know that if this comes again—with my own children or with friends or their children—I will handle things differently than my parents have.”

Related:

“After Being Raped, I Needed to Learn How to Have Sex Again”
I Was Raped, Then, My Rapist Tweeted About It
10 Women, from 24 to 60, on Aziz Ansari, Sexual Assault and Bad Sex

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