By Cara Lynch, HAVEN Therapist: responding to this article from the Detroit Free Press.
Dear Thomas Warda,
She’ll eventually forget all about it, like it never even happened. That is what you suggested at the sentencing hearing of your client Mickey Gotwalt, a 52-year old high school softball coach in Tuscola County who was recently convicted of criminal sexual conduct with one of the young girls he coached. According to you – who apparently has a magic crystal ball somewhere that forecasts the future thoughts and feelings of other people (speaking of which, can you hook me up with one of those?) – one day her memory of the entire “relationship,” i.e. not a relationship because the young girl could not legally consent to such a relationship, will simply fade from her consciousness and she will have no “psychological injury the rest of her life.” After all, as you pointed out, it’s not like he killed her.
Oh, Mr. Warda, if only that were the case. If only survivors could wake up one day and shake off those memories like a bad dream. Maybe then counseling programs like the one at HAVEN wouldn’t exist and there wouldn’t be support groups around the country for adult survivors of child sexual abuse and an ever-growing body of research literature on the subject of child sexual abuse. But alas, that is not the world I live in and frankly, dear sir, you do not live in such a world either. I will give you the benefit of the doubt, though, and suggest that perhaps you are simply operating with misinformation that no one, including yourself, has ever corrected before. That has to be the answer because I am certain that if you have ever had the chance to talk with a survivor or review any of the vast research on the subject or examine your own privilege as a man that allows you to walk around every day not thinking about such scary things like abuse and violence then you would not make such asinine and hurtful remarks. Well fear not, for I will gladly help you right this wrong and share with you some of what survivors have taught me so that you can avoid sounding like a rape apologist in the future.
Let’s start with this notion of “forgetting.” Forgetting is not an option for many survivors, as much as they might wish it were. In fact, remembering all too often and having the memories take on a life of their own is one of the many struggles that a survivor might have. However, truth be told, some survivors do not remember because in an effort to survive, they were able to block out and repress the memories. Unfortunately, repressed memories do not always stay repressed and sometimes will resurface, whether it’s one year or 20 years later.
Additionally, not remembering does not equal a rainbows-and-sunshine kind of life. There are some survivors who do not have clear pictures in their heads of what happened, but they have other clues such as body memories (ex. – when someone touches my hips, a wave of fear comes over me and I don’t know why), sensory memories (ex. – I can smell Aqua Velva a mile away and it nauseates me), or complete gaps in memory (ex. – I don’t remember anything from ages 10 to 11.) And while you seem to think forgetting is a blessing, many of these survivors will tell you instead how frustrating it can be to believe in your heart that something happened to you, but not have undeniable proof.
Now, let’s move on to no “psychological injury the rest of her life.” My first inclination about how best to help you understand the error of this statement was to inform you about some of the common effects of sexual abuse – you know , things like anxiety, panic attacks, flashbacks, feelings of low self-worth, difficulties with trust and relationships, etc. – but then I realized something, or two things actually: One, it doesn’t matter if you know what some of these common effects are because what matters more is that you understand that you do not have the right to tell other people how they feel, should feel, or will feel. The only person whose feelings you can attest to are your own. Period. There is no exception to this rule. Even if you are a survivor, you do not get to make blanket statements about how other survivors are going to feel. I understand that having a magic crystal ball that can predict such things for you probably feels like one of those “with great power comes great responsibility” situations but you are using your power for evil, not good. So just stop.
Two, I have a sneaking suspicion that the other reason that you felt compelled to speculate about the young girl’s feelings is that you don’t actually believe that what your client was convicted of doing is a big deal, hence the statement, “It’s not like he killed her.” And while there is a part of my heart that breaks when I think about the possibility of you just not caring about what happened to the young girl, I wonder if maybe this is more evidence of your misinformation. The media, and subsequently society in general, likes to portray sexual abuse as something committed by dirty old men that you would never let within a 10 mile radius of your children. There is also a myth that unfortunately gets played out all to often in the media and our justice system that is a victim isn’t “perfect” – i.e., white, beautiful, superhuman in her/his ability to have never made mistakes, acted in some previously unidentifiable way that the rest of us find acceptable, etc. – then she/he must not be a victim at all. Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this is important: All of that is crap. I wish I had a nicer way to put it, but I don’t. Sexual abuse can happen to anyone and regardless of the circumstances, it is never the victim’s fault. Again, there is no exception to this rule. Additionally, contrary to popular belief, girls and women are not evil seductresses and boys and men are not wildebeests who live at the beck and call of their hormones. Even if a young girl has a crush on her coach or some other adult in her life, as some girls (and boys) are wont to do, that does not give that adult the right to exploit the crush and sexually abuse the person. Having a crush on someone does not equal consent, especially when the person in question cannot legally consent in the first place.
I sincerely hope I have helped you, Mr. Warda, understand the many problematic elements of what you said that day in court. In fact, I hope that not only will you avoid victim-blaming, rape-apologizing sentiments in the future, but also that you will go one step further – I hope you will become an ally to survivors. I hope you will step up to the plate and begin to call out and challenge other people when they blame victims or minimize and deny the severity or even existence of violence against women. But maybe “hope” isn’t a strong enough word. No, Mr. Warda, I don’t “hope” that you will do these things: I expect it, because I expect more from men and from all people, even defense attorneys.
Cara Lynch, HAVEN Therapist