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The Incest Diary: New memoir chronicles the devastating legacy of family sexual abuse

The Incest Diary, published this week by McClelland & Stewart, chronicles an anonymous woman’s sexual abuse by her father from the age of three to 21.

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A child sits at the side of the road with a suitcase full of pennies and Cheerios. She's run away, but goes back home when she gets thirsty.

"When an animal is scared, it goes home, no matter how terrifying home is," writes the woman, now an adult, in a relentlessly sad new memoir called The Incest Diary.

The book, published this week by McClelland & Stewart, chronicles the anonymous woman's sexual abuse by her father from the age of three to 21. Her writing is exceptionally clear-eyed and beautiful, though the content is appalling, revealing a monstrous family.

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Incest is the worst betrayal of trust, a crime we continue to look away from. While we are slowly coming to understand that most child sexual abuse doesn't come in the form of "stranger danger," with men lurking in unmarked vans, there is reticence to acknowledge that much abuse happens within families.

Nearly 13 per cent of women and nearly 8 per cent of men have reported childhood sexual abuse by a parent or caregiver, according to an exhaustive meta-analysis of global studies published in 2011. "Incest offending is a big, important puzzle," said Michael Seto, a clinical and research psychologist who has assessed and treated incest perpetrators and who is forensic research director at the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group.

"It accounts for a large proportion of child sexual abuse. It's something that, as a society, we've not fully grappled with."

The Incest Diary is one in a haunting genre of memoirs that detail incest and child sexual abuse.

They include Canadian author Elly Danica's Don't: A Woman's Word (1988) and Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss (1997), which describes the author's relationship with her father beginning at the age of 20, after she is reunited with the man, who was absent throughout her childhood. Another is the disturbing memoir Tiger Tiger (2011) by the late author Margaux Fragoso, who recounts the 15 years she spent with a pedophile, starting when she was 7 and he was 51. Critics blasted the book for being tantamount to child pornography and rightly wondered who would be reading.

It's very likely some readers will have the same visceral reaction to The Incest Diary: The book is highly graphic, which is problematic. It's a legitimate concern that has been considered by the publisher.

"This is a discussion we had, about whether it is exploitative," said Jared Bland, publisher of McClelland & Stewart. "Ultimately, I don't think it is. This is a person who in the very authorship of the book and in the execution of the writing demonstrates a profound level of self-awareness."

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The author told her editor that she would have felt less alone had she read such a book in her youth. Bland added that he hopes it will help people trapped in situations involving sexual violence. "It's important for us as publishers, where we can, to publish work that advances the discourse and challenges the way we, as a society, think," he said.

The memoir shows the complex ripple effects of incest. The Globe and Mail spoke with Canadian researchers, educators and therapists about survivors, perpetrators and what can be done to heal in the aftermath.

How the trauma of sexual abuse imprints on children

Incest is a profound misuse of power and of one's role in the family. Many offenders intimidate children with violence; others threaten to leave the family or commit suicide if the child discloses, as The Incest Diary author's own father did.

"For children experiencing chronic childhood abuse, they're in survivor mode all the time," said Jacqueline Compton, a psychotherapist at Toronto's Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic who helps women who were abused as children.

Unable to fight back or flee, many children freeze during the attacks, dissociating from their bodies to cope. The Incest Diary author often imagines floating above the scene in the sky during her assaults, though trauma remains afterward. "My body remembers everything," she writes.

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Offenders will often alternate violence with care, creating immense confusion for a child who may love the relative but not his behaviour, which the child is forced to tolerate. Sometimes, the abuse is the only reprieve from other forms of violence: The Incest Diary author surmises that participating saved her from being killed by her physically abusive father. That resonates with the complicated dynamic experts see time and again with this type of abuse.

"We don't get to choose who our caregivers are or who provides us safety, so children have to navigate the world and find a way to survive their environment and get their important needs met: security, trust, attention, connection, care," Compton said. "Often, when a child experiences trauma, [there is a] linking of having your boundaries violated – or having a belief formed that you don't have boundaries or needs – with some kind of connection and care. It's complex and it builds a map at a young age for how we're going to navigate."

Damaging new norms can emerge as some children come to view such abuse as the only form of recognition and attention they get within deeply dysfunctional families. "On the nights when my father didn't do anything to me, I felt abandoned," the author writes. "Was I not good enough anymore?"

As Seto explained it: "There is a normal desire to want to be loved and to want your parents to pay attention to you and to appreciate you. For [the victim], instead of appreciating her because she's smart or athletic or kind – things we value as a society – it has become muddled with, 'He sexually desires me.'"

Cycles of abuse

Experts agree that not every victim who endures abuse will be permanently scathed. "Some people are extraordinarily resilient and can go on to lead healthy and happy lives," Seto said. "Others are extremely damaged."

Sexual consequences can involve inhibition, a delaying of sexual activity, low sexual desire and dysfunction. Other victims develop precocious sexuality, having sex earlier and with more partners. "They're more likely to get pregnant and to get STIs and – this is one of the tragedies – more likely to be sexually victimized again," Seto said.

Throughout their consensual relationships in adulthood, some victims may develop deep trust issues, severe shame around their own sexual needs or they may start to correlate violence with intimacy. "Trauma impacts how we are in relation with others. … If you are taught not to have boundaries and you step into a relationship not having boundaries, it can be hard to navigate what's safe and what's respectful," Compton said.

Some victims form unhealthy relationships, such as the author, who takes up with a married 49-year-old man when she is 18 and studying in Chile. Once again, she becomes a family secret, this time, in someone else's family. She is revictimized at various points in her adult life by a teacher who kisses her, a friend's father who solicits sex and a work colleague who rapes her.

"It's a direct line from one abuse to another," said Lyba Spring, a sexual-health educator who created lesson plans on sexual abuse during her three decades of work with Toronto Public Health. "Kids who are sexually abused, if they don't disclose and they don't get counselling, they become revictimized because they live with the mentality of, 'I am worthless,' 'I am garbage.'"

The family members who condone

Tragically, family and friends will often turn a blind eye when children disclose incest. Often, they simply can't believe it is true. "If the perpetrator is an upstanding member of society and is, as far as everybody else is concerned, a good husband and father, people have a hard time reconciling it with the idea that he would do this," Seto said.

The author's family's well-to-do façade doesn't help matters either: Mom rides horses, dad plays tennis and their beach house has an American flag planted outside. Although abuse crosses all class lines, the veneer helps to conceal the reality.

Her credibility takes another hit because she is, on occasion, "a problem child" who runs away and grows aggressive at school. They are common behaviours among victimized children, but are used to undermine them when they disclose, Seto said.

The psychologist sees parallels with the way people doubt victims of domestic violence, questioning why they stayed or returned to their abusers. "People have a hard time reconciling the anger and the fear associated with being abused with simultaneously still wanting to have a relationship with this person," Seto said. "What I hear often is, 'Why did she not leave as soon as she could and never talk to them again?' But it's family. It's complicated."

The memoir author discloses to a number of friends and family members, but has her story rejected each time, leaving her completely isolated: "These secrets are the most protected things," she writes. When the abuse comes to light, her grandfather tries to have her committed to a mental-health institution. And when the author confides in a beloved family friend, the woman confesses that she too had been molested and her parents did nothing. She advises the author to "forget it, and get over it."

But it is her mother's inaction that devastates the author most of all: "More than everything my father did to me, it hurts me that she denies it."

Mothers who stand by and do nothing often suffer from depression and substance-abuse issues and may be victims of violence themselves, Seto explained: "Sometimes she has her own abuse history and it shuts her down. This is what she grew up with and her way of coping as a child was to shut down."

In a horrifying legacy of intergenerational abuse, the author divulges that her abusive father's maternal grandfather molests him, his sister and his mother. Says Seto, "It's rare for incest to occur in isolation."

Why incest offenders do it

The clinical explanations for why people sexually abuse their family members are broad. Some offenders have a sexual preference for minors and some are highly opportunistic or have high arousal, novelty or thrill-seeking tendencies. Others exhibit psychopathic traits: "Their lack of empathy for others and strong desire to meet their own needs for pleasure, thrill or stimulation would be a motivator," said Julie Zikman Toporoski, a Toronto social worker whose clients include sexual offenders who are mandated by the court system to see her.

Often, sexual offenders will try to rationalize their behaviour with a series of "thinking errors," as the clinical community calls them. Many offenders are in denial and dishonest with themselves about the harms they've caused. Some will minimize frequency ("It was just once or twice"), intention ("I was educating her") or seriousness ("She was sleeping, it couldn't have harmed her"). Entitlement is a recurring theme: Some offenders will blame a victim's mother ("She shouldn't have trusted me") or erroneously believe that a child initiated or willingly participated, as does the author's father before denying it and gaslighting her in front of other members of the family.

"What's different about working with intrafamilial sexual abusers is that there is often quite an almost delusional bubble around the nature of the relationship and their role in the relationship," Zikman Toporoski said. The social worker will share a list of these "thinking errors" with her clients so that they can identify such thoughts when they bubble up.

Treating perpetrators

Individual therapy can serve to educate offenders on consent. For others, the wake-up call comes during group therapy: "Hearing other people's distortions is so very effective. It's identification: 'Oh wow. That's me,'" Zikman Toporoski said. The court process can also shatter offenders' mythologies, as can reading victim-impact statements.

The social worker said that while every offender's "lightbulb moment" is different, the rehabilitation process is long."On some level, they know what they're doing is harmful, hurtful, illegal, immoral and taboo, which is why they do it in secrecy," she said. "There's a lot of internal conflict around continuing to harm their child."

Also in dire need of help are the men who have not yet acted out, men who have the fewest resources. "They don't wish to act," Zikman Toporoski said. "They don't know where to get help. That's a tough group to reach. It's a large, significant group."

Healing victims

Spring believes schools need to strengthen their education about inappropriate touching and reporting abuse. She also stresses teaching proper dictionary names for all body parts so there is zero misunderstanding when a child discloses. While she does not believe childhood sexual abuse can be prevented, Spring argues that schools can help bring about disclosures, meaning a child can see a counsellor faster and a perpetrator can be removed from the home sooner. "While a kid may not be able to stop someone from doing what they intend to do – because predators are magnificent manipulators – at least they would know that they can come and tell," she said.

Spring would speak to Grade 5 and 6 classes about sexual abuse: "We'd say, 'You tell and you keep telling until somebody believes and helps you. Is there somebody in the school you could tell, or a teacher?'" A number of children disclosed to her after class. (The Incest Diary author recalls a Grade 11 health class where child abuse is discussed. She faints at the word "incest" and later lies to school staff about the assaults. No one pushes the issue further.)

For Catherine Gildiner, a retired Toronto psychologist whose forthcoming book Still Standing is about abuse survivors, the word to watch for is "secrets." Gildiner advised educators and other caregivers to say this: "If someone comes in at night or when nobody's around and says 'this is our secret,' it's not a good secret."

In adulthood, it takes time for survivors of incest to reassert boundaries, explore their own desires without guilt and build a healthy sexual relationship with themselves, something Compton works with her clients on, using art therapy and sensorimotor therapy, body-centred work that asks clients to notice the sensations that the body in trauma holds, and physically work through them.

Gildiner helps people develop friendships, closeness and consensual intimacy. "It takes a long time to figure out what you want. You have shut that down and have no idea what you want," she said.

It's crucial, Gildiner said, to work to break the bonds victims have with those who hurt them and then reframe their sexuality on their own terms: "It's about understanding that you have rights."

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