My mother, bless her heart, was the queen of denial. When bad things happened to her, she acted as if things couldn’t possibly be that bad and just went on about her business. And it was a strategy that worked for her. It saw her through two bouts of cancer and a car accident that very nearly left her widowed with three small children.
But my mother’s strategy of denial, while it worked for her, didn’t work for other people. We all learned fairly quickly that when you told my mother about something difficult or stressful in your life, she would minimize it, try to find the silver lining, or occasionally just pretend that you’d never said it at all. As a parent, I understand where this comes from. It is terrifying to realize that something bad has happened to someone you love and that you could not prevent or control it. So sometimes we accept the faulty logic that since the world must be a safe place, then the person disclosing something terrible must be exaggerating or must have misunderstood. We can’t let ourselves believe that the situation is as threatening or painful or uncomfortable as we are hearing, because to believe it calls into question everything we think we know about how the world should work.
But we have to start believing. As I watched all those young women who had been victimized by Larry Nassar over the years talk about their experiences, I also watched parents stricken to the core with guilt and sorrow because their daughters had told them something was wrong and they didn’t listen. While it is certainly true that a pedophile grooms the adults in a child’s life every bit as much as the child, lulling them into believing that he/she is safe to interact with children, it is also true that we sometimes don’t believe children when they tell us something is wrong.
We do this not because we think children are liars, but we do it because we can’t face the reality that this evil could happen to the child we love. As hard as it is to accept the reality of the abuse of someone we love, our need to maintain a view of the world that is safe cannot take precedence over the words someone who is experiencing that abuse.
The fact of the matter is that victims of abuse — domestic violence or sexual assault — rarely exaggerate their experiences. It is much more likely that they will minimize or play down what has happened or is happening to them. There are several reasons for this. First, their own understanding that the world is a safe place is being threatened and the trauma of that is extraordinarily difficult to put into words. Second, victims know at a deep level that what they have experienced is for many people, too horrible to be believed. And finally, and this is the most pernicious reason of all, the abuser has told them, often repeatedly, that no one will believe what they say.
No matter how painful it is for us, no matter how unbelievable it sounds, we must believe victims when they come to us. We must believe and we must act. It is the only way to effectively address this evil that sadly continues among us.