Dehumanization, Disbelief, and Disenfranchisement: Why We Must Believe Survivors

[content note: child sexual abuse, Woody Allen, rape apologia]

I never met my uncle.

I should clarify. I come from a fairly large extended family. My dad is the first of seven, and my mom is a middle child of four. My dad has three brothers and three sisters and my mom has two sisters and a brother. It’s my mom’s brother that I’ve never met. He died while I was in middle school, but, by then, I’d already gone thirteen years without meeting the man. I barely knew he existed or the circumstances of why I didn’t meet him until I was in graduate school.

According to my family, my uncle had a … predilection, you might say, toward young girls. When I was born, he offered to babysit frequently, and my parents turned him down every time. They kept me from him in order to protect me. I don’t know the circumstances of how my parents discovered his pedophiliac behavior, and I honestly don’t care to know. The man is dead, of cancer, in his own home, never convicted and never, to my knowledge, brought before the court on any charges.

It’s easy to imagine that my uncle was a monster, destitute and alone in his dying days, but I know that it’s not true. He had at least one son, a wife, and a family that probably loved him. He had a job, and insurance enough that paid his medical bills. Far from being a monstrous predator, ostracized from all who knew him, my uncle’s pedophilia was an open secret in the family, the missing stair that my family worked around. My parents, by protecting me, took a remarkable step of setting and keeping a strict boundary, unusual in this day and age, and even more unusual in the 1980s Midwest.

Dylan Farrow was [allegedly] molested by famous and popular director Woody Allen when she was 7 years old. She is one year older than I am. Selfishly, when I hear her story, I think of how that could have been me. If my parents had not been more vigilant, if they had not believed the victims, if they had rationalized away predatory behavior, I would be telling a very different story now.

The sad and tragic truth of many people who molest children is that they get away with it because those of us on the outside aren’t willing to believe their victims. They are small children, we say, and children make up stories. Someone else is manipulating them, refusing to believe that, yes, manipulation occurred - by their abuser. Pedophiles must have some kind of trait to show themselves as monsters – there must be something off about them that I, a mature, functioning adult, must be able to see!

When I was a senior in high school, a junior at the school was convicted of child molestation. He molested a small girl at his mother’s daycare and was subsequently placed on the South Dakota sex offender registry, which was a pretty new development in those days. I don’t remember if he went to jail, but I do remember seeing him in school after the trial, walking through the halls like any other student. He didn’t grow horns or wear a t-shirt that said, “I’m a pedophile.” If you didn’t know the news, you would have just assumed he was another high school student.

Had the adults around him not believed his victim – a three-year-old girl – when she articulated, in what ways she could, that he had assaulted her, he probably would have simply kept going. You see, rapists and molesters rely on people not believing their victims, on not noticing the signs and changes in behavior or simply writing them off as “children.”

It is (unfortunately) a radical act to believe that a child is telling the truth. We dehumanize children all the time, believing them to be malleable, changeable, imaginative little creatures, rather than fragile, small humans who do listen, who do communicate, and who do learn about what the world is like, from us. Saying “I believe you” to a child is a declaration of their humanity, of their trustworthiness, that what is important to them is important to us.

This is especially important in cases of abuse. Not believing a child when they say they are in pain or that someone hurt them often creates confusion and secondary trauma. It signals to them that when something bad happens, they need to keep quiet about it because they won’t be believed otherwise. It hands the power right back to their abusers, who often use “who would believe you anyway?” talk as a manipulation tactic. Not believing the victims allows the abuse to continue.

Great artists can be molesters. People who are nice, and kind, and otherwise loving can use that reputation as a cover for the worst abuses. Abuse, especially the abuse of children, depends on our silence. It depends on our calls for both sides. It depends on us demanding proof apart from the victim’s own story.  It depends, even, on our calls to extend grace to the abuser because Jesus loves them too – grace that, when issued, excludes all survivors by asking that they forget their hurt so their abuser may have grace.

It is our silence, our “debates,” our words of disbelief that create a world in which abuse can occur at all. And we have to understand that if we wish to be truly against it.