CASE STUDIES;Loyalty Violated: Ambivalence Haunts the Victims of Sexual Abuse

By Sheinberg, Marcia; Fraenkel, Peter | Family Therapy Networker, May/June 1999 | Go to article overview

CASE STUDIES;Loyalty Violated: Ambivalence Haunts the Victims of Sexual Abuse


Sheinberg, Marcia, Fraenkel, Peter, Family Therapy Networker


When the sexual abuse of a child by a family member comes to light, painful loyalty binds surface for everyone involved. The abused child may feel terribly guilty for having gotten an adult in trouble, especially if the offender previously preyed on this very vulnerability to manipulate her into secrecy. The child may secretly blame the nonoffending parent--usually the mother--for not preventing the abuse, even fearing that the mother knew about the abuse and did not stop it. The child also may fear that the mother's loyalty to the offender will pave the way for his return, making the child again vulnerable to abuse.

In our approach, we try to widen the focus to address the conflicting family loyalties and emotions that incest sets in motion. Our goal is to engage family members to collaborate with us to direct the flow and content of the sessions--determining how much to talk about the abuse, when and with whom.

Ruth, a 29-year-old Irish American, Catholic woman from Queens, New York, first came to see us after her family had been torn apart by incest. (Marcia Sheinberg was the therapist, and the treatment team behind the one-way mirror was Peter Fraenkel, Fiona True and Sippio Small.) Three months earlier, she had been happily living with her second husband, Tom, a city fireman, their three young children and Ruth's 11-year-old daughter, Laurie, from a previous marriage. Now Tom was in a cell on Riker's Island awaiting trial for having sexually abused his stepdaughter. Ruth had been charged with child neglect for not having reported the abuse and a Family Court judge had sent all four children to live with Ruth's parents, who lived a few doors away. A child advocacy center had referred the family to us.

We usually see the nonoffending parent first, allowing the mother an opportunity to present her account and express her feelings about the offender, her daughter and herself without having to edit what she says because the child is present. Ruth told us that two months earlier, she had found Tom at her daughter's bedroom door in the middle of the night and Laurie crying in the bathroom. Ruth had been abused by her own brother as a child; she took one look at Laurie's tear-stained face and knew what Tom had done. "When I got out of the bathroom with her, I opened the door to kick him out," she told us. But Tom had pushed her against the wall and told her that if she called the police, they would believe him, not her, since he worked for the city. "Shocked and stunned and mortified," Ruth was intimidated into silence.

Like most women in her position, Ruth could take no action that would not affect the lives of all the people she loved--people who now had radically divergent and competing needs. She wanted somehow to protect her daughter without reporting Tom. She didn't want to cause additional stress to her parents, especially because her father was battling cancer. She worried about how her younger children would react to the loss of their father, to whom they were very attached. She worried about how the family would survive without Tom, the only breadwinner. She was also frightened that her husband might become violent if she reported him.

Waiting for a moment that felt safe to call the police, Ruth sent Laurie to stay with her grandparents when Tom was at home. Ten days later, Laurie told a friend, and the friend's mother called the police. Tom was arrested. At the hearing, Ruth told us, she discovered to her horror that Tom had been having oral sex with Laurie and sodomizing her as often as three times a week for more than a year.

Our immediate reaction to hearing an account of abuse is to support the mother in her anger, rage and sense of betrayal. Yet, we believe that it is critical to also give her a chance to talk about her positive feelings for the perpetrator. We find that the more we elicit conversation about the woman's attachment, normalize it and help her hold its inherent contradictions, the more she will feel clarity instead of confusion, and strength instead of shame. …

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