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To Confront or Not: How Forgiveness Impacts Incest Survivors

Family confrontation and the role of forgiveness with incest recovery
It’s best to be further along with incest recovery before confrontation.

This has potential to be very devastating. I've witnessed fellow survivors of abuse confront families. They felt they needed to do it, so they did, and I've seen them come back into incest survivors counseling far worse off for having done it. Not that they shouldn’t have but that maybe it was not the right timing. It’s not easy on either side of the fence to know the best way to expose the abuser, and often the abuser is very well loved.

Then conversely I have witnessed others confront and things seemed to work out. I think timing plays a very big role here, as well as having a very strong support system and being pretty far along in your recovery. Even still, confronting can break you down and be very painful. But if you have made a lot of progress already, then you should bounce back fairly quickly.

It seems in my experience, the folks I witnessed that were still very fragile – and new in recovery for survivors of abuse – with little support, fared the worst in the confrontations. Some even dropped out of incest recovery counseling. I would encourage you to really have your ducks in a row, so to speak, before taking on this monumental – and highly explosive – confrontation head on.

There is any number of reactions/emotions by family members after they have been confronted. These are some of the scenarios I've seen play out:

A. The core family divides- some protecting the accused and some protecting the victim.

B. The core family turning against the victim.

C. The core family discounting what the victim has said.

D. The core family acknowledging what the victim has said, and confirming that they had suspicions and backing the victim.

E. The abuser asking if everything's ok between the two of you, but not acknowledging that he did anything hurtful.

No matter how you slice this up, it’s a rocky, painful, ground shaking experience. I don't advise confronting anyone until you are on very solid footing and have a strong support system set up.

Dial back the clock to my years of abuse, and I had many confrontations with my father. I would scream and cuss at him… and he would beat me until I passed out. Later in life when I was 12 – before his last incestuous assault on me – he asked me if I would forgive him for what he had done to me. (I can't help but shake my head with bewilderment at this. For years, this man tortured me and beat me almost to death several times for telling him how I felt about his abuse, and now he asks me to open up and forgive him.) I was wary and street-wise at that point. I had dodged as many beatings as I received. So, I just lied to him and smiled and said: “I forgive you” and waited in incredible fear until that moment passed, and I was allowed to walk out of the room without being harmed.

I want to talk about forgiveness here. In some ways, I thought that "forgive" meant that I was saying to him, to the world, to myself that: “What you did to me is alright.” So, for a long time I would not even consider forgiveness. Then I realized that forgiveness is about me moving on and not about him. As a child, I had taken on the shame of what he was doing to me as my own shame. I didn’t realize that until I was in counseling for incest survivors. I actually needed to forgive myself, even though I had not done anything wrong. I had been carrying his shame and his guilt like it was my very own. I forgave myself from the soul-destroying guilt and shame, and dumped all that burden back on his head.

Forgiveness happens in layers. Where you are at internally grows and changes… then you reach another layer that needs forgiving, and each layer gets easier in a sense. But I forgave a little bit, then a little bit more, but I was still only forgiving myself. What he did to me was unspeakable horror. What he took away from me can never be made up to me by saying he is sorry. The years of abuse left its mark upon me. I think he should be forever damned to burn in hell, so it is really odd to think that I forgive him. I think that I do on some small level and – on other levels – I can hardly wait for my justice, which will never come… not with our laws and the way they protect the criminals.

Forgiveness and rage are intertwined. Forgiveness and pain are intertwined. Sometimes well-meaning – but very ignorant – people start harping at you to forgive… blah, blah, blah… when they don’t have a clue what they are talking about. And really, you are not ready for forgiving because you are still so full of pain and rage. (Try to be patient with the ignorant well-meaning people, despite the meddling that they do. Try not to tell them to shut up. They just don’t know what to do or say, so they say what they think will help. Try to be patient with them.) Anyway, there is timing to this forgiveness thing. As your pain is released and your rage subsides, then you can actually have space in your heart and in your head to consider forgiving.

It’s also interesting to note that the people in my past who played lesser roles in the whole messed-up family dynamic were the easiest to forgive. The closer you came to the impact zone, so to speak, the harder it was to forgive. It took 9 years for me to forgive my mother for her role. It is hard to wrap my head around it taking 9 years. But the forgiveness happened a little bit this year, and a little bit more that year, and finally there was enough forgiveness for me to consider actually speaking to her again.

So many people will tell you that you have to forgive, and so forth and so on, and this is true… it does help. But it’s like I said earlier- it is more about forgiving yourself, because so many times we blame ourselves and we were the innocent. He was the adult. I do not forgive him for his crimes of incest and assault and cruel mental torture against me. It’s not alright and I am not going to act like it is. I will forgive myself for taking all the shame and blame on, and let that go back onto his bloody hands.

My whole family suffered at the hands of a psychopath pedophile abuser. Not everyone in my family had to cope with incest, but we all had to survive his physical abuse and verbal abuse. My little brother told me one time that he confronted Dad about what he did to me. My little brother never saw any of the incest that I can remember, but he told me that after he moved away he began to recognize my behaviors in woman who had been molested. He began to wonder about me and Dad and he finally confronted Dad. I felt amazingly vindicated and validated, and such joy that my little brother stood up for me. I cried tears of joy.

Believe me when I say there is great risk for me in coming forward, but I believe with deep conviction that by sharing my journey of abuse and incest recovery, I can help a lot of people. My dream is to leave behind this legacy of helping others.

Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, you will rise up again and be renewed!

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