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The Dilemma of Incest Survivors

My doctoral research is on intrafamilial incest. In the course of my work I have often been touched by the situation of the those persons who have shared their stories with me.

Reflecting on the relational encounters of the incest survivor, there are many challenges and important decisions that the survivor is faced with. The reality of disclosing the abuse which may seem to be a private family affair and facing the consequences without compromising their own personal dignity and integrity.

One of the most difficult things for an incest survivor is on one hand the ability to confront the truth and reality of the abuse and disclosing it and perhaps even losing family and relations or on the other hand remaining silent and living with the burden of keeping a secret and maintaining a connection and seeming love of a family. This is a hard choice.

This dilemma is terribly profound and has the possibility to compound the devastating effects of incest on the life of survivors.

At the deepest level a child who is sexually abused by his/her family member is forced to internalize the sexual abuse and the challenge of needing support to confront the abuser. Due to the vulnerability of the child, his/her fears, and its unprotective environment, makes it difficult to make an informed choice. However, in speaking the truth about what happened and working through the effects with caring others, a survivor can gain freedom from the abuser and the possibility of receiving some form of help to facilitate healing.

In this process the survivor is faced with an ambiguous situation, a deep dilemma, that is dealing with the consequences of the abuse within the self. There is a real struggle with the presence of love and hatred, good and evil, life and death at the foundation of the self. The dilemma is compounded when thy have to choose  between the life of a child conceived as a consequence of incest, and an abortion.

There is a challenge of how to sustain internal relationships with family members without conceding the right to justice and truth. It may take a long process of work for a survivor to be strong enough to confront these persons, to speak up and to face the after effects of disclosing the horror of incest experiences. When strong enough to confront the abuser and the family with this reality the survivors face this evil. They represent a voice that is liberating not only themselves in their particular situation, but also as a sort of model of liberation for others who act to break the abuse of power and trust that other victims are suffering in the most important of all relationships, that of the immediate family.

The non-abusive caregiver is also faced with the same reality of believing, supporting and helping the victim heal or choose to lie, cover up and forbid further disclosure. There are many complicated situations in families where a child has been a victim and becomes a perpetrator against siblings, or other complex configurations of abuse. It is not so simple as a choice to hate the abuser and to love the victim and survivor.

Choosing and living in the light of the truth is very dignifying even in such a dilemma. The capacity to stand face to face with one's potential for good and evil and have the strength to choose the good is one of life’s most difficult challenge for everyone. Incest survivors face this challenge every day with or without any support.

The language of Church as family could be something that even creates a distance and struggle for incest victims but it may also be the one place words like “Father” and “brother” acquire a positive meaning. Incest survivors looking for a corrective experience of family in the Church are seeking a model of justice and forgiveness that permits human beings to safely relate to one another beyond simple labels of abuse. The church, similar to a family broken by incest, has members who are at one and the same time both victims and perpetrators and is faced with the difficult task of extending justice and that mercy which will heal and reintegrate in a safe way.