Thu | Sep 21, 2017

Michael Abrahams | Retraumatising childhood sex abuse survivors

Published:Monday | January 16, 2017 | 1:56 AMMichael Abrahams

The Moravian Church sex scandal has escalated a national conversation on the sexual abuse of children. The story reads like a sordid soap opera, with allegations and revelations being spat out at maddening velocity. Apart from the alleged victims and their families, and the families of the accused, there is an entire subset of our population that is also in pain and being tormented while suffering in silence. It is the women, and men, who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

What many of us fail to understand and appreciate is that whenever there is public discourse about the sexual abuse of minors, survivors of this egregious violation experience a nauseating feeling of déjà vu. They are restimulated, as the bombardment via traditional and social media, and workplace and other discussions, stir up unpleasant memories, producing negative emotions and triggering depression relapses. Feelings of sadness, shame, embarrassment, anger and guilt are once again brought to the fore, and these women, and men, are forced to relive and deal with their traumatic histories all over again.

Over the past week, I have had conversations with six women, in different decades of life, who have confessed to me that the present imbroglio has reopened old wounds, with the revelation of each new detail piercing them like daggers thrust into their hearts.

Sonia* is 26 years old and was molested as a child by a family member who was very active in church. She commenced therapy last year to deal with the effects of her trauma and has been doing well, but the present crisis has deeply affected her. She remarked to me that she feels like a “derailed train”. As a matter of fact, during our conversation, she broke down and had to terminate the discussion.

Angela* is 34. She is a friendly, energetic and outspoken woman who, during a conversation outside a pharmacy regarding the scandal, revealed to me that she was molested at seven years of age by a gardener. He was fired, but no report was made to the police.

The present discussion about the scandal has created much discomfort. Every time a situation like this occurs and is publicised, it takes her back to a very dark place. According to her, there is so much sexual violence out here that she “cannot even get a year off” from being restimulated.

Carlene* is 51 years old. After I posted an update on my Facebook wall regarding the scandal, I received an inbox message from her: “Jesus Michael how deep does this go? Feeling so sick.” I called her and she told me that she, too, was a victim of abuse at eight years of age.  While boarding at the house of a family friend, she woke up one night to find the woman’s son, a teenager, between her legs. She made a report to his mother, who removed her from the room, but kept the incident from her parents. Like Sonia and Angela, the present church scandal has brought back memories of her own trauma like a boomerang.

Pamela* is 54 and I have known her for most of her life. What I did not know is that she had been molested as a child. Like Carlene, she had seen a post on my Facebook page about the crisis. She is usually outspoken about human-rights issues, but sent me an inbox message that read:  “I am sitting this one out, because I am too angry. I too was fifteen and it was a teacher, not a pastor. I have been in therapy since I was 26 (the first time I ever broached it), and at 54 I am still angry. Every time I type a response, I have had to erase it.”

Perhaps the most excruciating pain is that experienced by women who grew up in the Moravian Church and were initially traumatised there as children. The story just hits too close to home.

Candice* is now 32 years old. She attended church in St Elizabeth and told me that at age 11, she was fondled by a Moravian pastor, who took her virginity when she was 14. He threatened to kill her if she spoke about it. She claims that there were several other victims, and that after he was exposed following a particular incident, he was transferred by the church to another Caribbean island. The present situation has not only enraged her, but has also energised her to seek justice. (There is no statute of limitations regarding statutory rape in Jamaica.)

Gina* is a 27-year-old woman from Manchester, and reports having sexual encounters with two Moravian pastors, with one taking her virginity at 15 years of age. The scandal has sent her into a tailspin, affecting her ability to function, but, like Candice, she plans to take legal action.

All of the above-mentioned women have experienced severe clinical depression and disruption of their lives. Sonia feels suicidal at times. I clearly recall one Sunday when she spent the entire day in bed in the foetal position, and ate nothing from sunrise to sunset. Pamela also reports having problems with alcohol.

Intimacy and trust issues, as well as psychosexual dysfunction, are constants in the lives of these women. Angela told me that she has never been alone in a room with a man because the gardener is always in the room with them. During intercourse, she wants the sex act to be over quickly, and is uncomfortable with intimacy, saying that she can “have sex” but is unable to “make love”.

Similarly, Sonia only sees sex as a way to “scratch an itch”.

The psychological scars of childhood sexual abuse run extremely deep. Those affected live and walk among us. Please be empathetic and be mindful of what you say in your discussions, especially in public spaces. When you lift your eyes from this article, and raise your head, you may be looking directly into the eyes of a survivor.

- Names changed to maintain anonymity.


- Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.