I’ll never forget my best friend in college. She was a tall, elegant, modelesque African American woman who was molested repeatedly by her father from late childhood until adolescence. She told me bits and pieces of her story one day after confessing to a bout with insomnia. Her predator lived miles away. Yet, his prior misdeeds still kept her restless and tense at night. She was an incest survivor; a person who’s childhood was ripped away by a self-centered sick adult. However, my friend’s years of suffering wouldn’t prepare her for what was next – revictimization by the other members of her immediate family.
Revictimization is a term used to describe the backlash that frequently happens to incest survivors after they go public with their truth (story). Unfortunately, the very people who should understand and support them – their family – react negatively to the news. Instead of compassion, they often receive ridicule, disbelief or stoicism. The latter is what best describes what happened to my friend. After exposing her dark secret, she was told by the matriarch of her family to ‘just let it go’. Why? Her incest was in the past. Likewise, the immediate response from other family members was lack luster further injuring her. Unfortunately, my friend’s story is just one example of revictimization. Another one involves Mackenzie Phillips, daughter of popular folk singer john Phillips.
Who can forget the gut-wrenching interview between Mackenzie Phillips and Oprah? During it, Mackenzie told how years of incest and rape by the hands of her father John turned into consensual sex. Her story was unsettling and disturbing, but helped partially explain why she spent years clouding her everyday existence with drugs. How did her family react? They defended John. He was described as a ‘loving’ man not capable of doing such a vile act. Consequently, he is the same person that they all agree was strung out on drugs for years and got Mackenzie hooked on them too. Is that the act of a loving man? So, the question becomes, why do families react this way?
Families often revictimize incest survivors for several reasons. Most of them are tied to underlying emotions of fear, shame and disbelief. Family members are often afraid to deal with the financial, legal and social consequences of incest. If the sole breadwinner of the family is convicted of rape or molestation charges, he (or she) may have to go to jail leaving them in dire straights. Also, family members might feel guilty because they suspected or didn’t suspect incest was occurring in the home. Then, there are family members who just refuse to believe the predator was capable of doing such an awful act because of his (or her) social standing. Either way, the incest survivor ends up with the short end of the stick.
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to the challenge of revictimization. Incest survivors along with their families require years of counseling to deal with the devastating effects of rape and molestation. It’s just a sad commentary on life.
Thankfully, my friend continued to seek professional help after coming out publicly about her incest. Today, she’s emotionally stable and able to deal with her childhood. She was one of the lucky ones. She not only survived incest, but the backlash that followed it.