the silent accomplice

All this talk of Cain and Sandusky and Paterno just makes me just want to crawl under the bed, and pull my kids in with me. Pretty much every woman I know has had one (or several) experiences in which someone said or did something inappropriate, whether during a surfing lesson in Waikiki, as my friend Annie recounts, or by a babysitter, a friend of the family, a boss, a colleague…the list goes on and on.

I will never forget that scene in The Kite Runner, that horrible scene where Amir witnesses the rape of Hassan and runs away. I remember literally gasping when I read it, and holding my hand to my chest for I felt like I’d been punched.

How could someone walk away? We can process what Sandusky did as an example of pure evil, but what do we do with Mike McQueary? What do we do with all of the silent accomplices who were aware of what was going on but did nothing?

Years ago I was a witness. I did not witness the actual act of sexual abuse, but was told of it, by the victim. She was in late adolescence and on that lovely brink of womanhood when a girl is full of boundless sensual innocence. She was like a younger sister to me, her mother a friend, and she confided in me often as we ate ice cream and had movie night in my small apartment. She trusted me in the way that young girls often do, seeking out someone who is not a parent but is still old enough to be one, or at least has the life experience to be able to offer a ready ear, gentle advice.

I violated her trust. I had to. When she told me what a friend of the family had done—calling her over to his apartment one day on some innocent-seeming ruse, asking for a back massage and then caressing and trying to seduce her—I was stunned, and despite the fact that she begged me not to say anything, I did. I had to, and it was not easy. In her mind it was the ultimate betrayal, but I knew that he had been the betrayer, not I.

Being a witness can be terrifying. We are taught not to rock the boat, to keep to ourselves, not to interfere in the lives of others. There can be all sorts of factors which make the witness feel isolated and fearful of coming forward.

We need to have discussions with our children beyond those “don’t talk to strangers” and “your body is your own” ones that we have when they are young. We need to keep talking about it to them as they grow older and even as they become adults. It’s not an easy discussion, but so very important. This is a reminder to us of their vulnerability.

As parents and as a society we need to add to our lessons not only how to distinguish right from wrong, how to take responsibility for our own behavior, but how to take responsibility for the behavior of others. We need to teach them (and ourselves) how to be a responsible witness, and how sometimes it is our moral imperative not to remain silent, but to “tell.”

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12 thoughts on “the silent accomplice

  1. I liked Annie’s post and I like yours too. It is admirable that you did the right but difficult thing. Even though you were not the girl’s betrayer, it is so hard to be wrongly perceived as such, especially by a young person who trusts you. I just wish people would respect the innocence of children and not do this sort of thing but I am becoming more aware of how many people do.

    1. Again, I did nothing admirable, just what I had to. For so many others the decision to expose the perpetrator is a huge one, but so very important, which is why I hope we can all talk this up so that the innocents know they can speak openly about abuse and the abusers may think twice. Maybe wishful thinking.

  2. Tracey,

    I know it must have been extremely difficult to come forward and tell what happened to your friend, but you did the right thing. I am always amazed how often people remain silent and give those who molest the chance to continue to their next victim. It is not always easy to do the right thing…or to have those difficult conversations with kids, but it can save a person from years of pain. Thank you so much for linking to my post.

    1. It was difficult, but hardly as difficult it is for many to come forward and expose a family member or friend, a priest, a coach. I suppose if we foster an atmosphere within society where speaking out becomes easier than keeping silent some of these tragedies might be avoided. Today I watched the video they found where he spoke of his love of children…just made me want to vomit. Did you see it?
      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/14/jerry-sandusky-interview-nbc-penn-state-kids-1987_n_1092148.html

  3. Oh, sweeties… This shit is hitting close to home for too many of us, isn’t it? I know you aren’t looking for recognition for speaking up, Tracey, but I so appreciate your courage. And I agree, doing the right thing shouldn’t be notable as a courageous act, but it is. My heart goes out to your young friend, yet how fortunate that the lasting message of this experience won’t be that of frightening oppression, but of an empowered female role model standing with her.

    I just listened to a tremendously powerful Risk! podcast, where the storyteller described her mom’s response to learning that she’d been molested: Keep it a secret, get over it, or she (the daughter) would be guilty of breaking up the family. Years later, when she finally told a therapist, the therapist gave her this turning-point perspective: “Don’t you realize that your family is already broken – and it’s not your fault?”

    Thank you, Tracey, and thank you, too, Annie.

    1. So sad, your recounting of the woman whose mother guilted her daughter into keeping silent, and yet it’s a story heard over and over by victims of abuse. Devastating. How very true that the family was already broken.
      Thanks so much for your comments, Tele.

  4. I think this is amazing that you’re speaking out on this. I’m ruffled up because Cain is talking about abolishing abortion and then his obvious next step, birth control.

    Who do these men think they are? First they want to touch us inappropriately and then they want to take away our protection from that. UGH. Disgusting.

  5. Thank you for sharing this important message. Here is a quotation from my favorite book on trauma:

    The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness…. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word “unspeakable”…. Atrocities, however, refuse to be buried…. Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites for the restoration of the social order and for the healing of individual victims…. When the truth is finally recognized, survivors can begin their recovery. But far too often secrecy prevails, and the story of the traumatic event surfaces not as a verbal narrative but as a symptom…. -Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 1992

    She also talks about how the trauma caused by acts by people you trusted are so much more damaging than acts by strangers or natural disasters. I’ve never understood why society is so willing to turn a blind eye to rape, domestic violence, or child abuse.

    1. Thank you. The irony is that the silence that is meant to keep things from boiling over can have even worse results when the victim, whose voice was never heard, perpetuates the crime, as seen in cases of domestic violence, where often the perpetrator was the victim of the same crime.

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