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STOLEN BODIES, STOLEN DREAMS: ECHOING SILENCES

The courage of survivors and the dedication of feminist scholars in the past decade has at last made it impossible to ignore the epidemic of abuse. The combination of activism and scholarship has also encouraged examination of the psychological and sociological dynamics of eating problems among survivors of sexual abuse. Feminists have rejected the notion that memories of sexual abuse are merely the products of delusional fantasies and identified reasons why women cope with sexual trauma by bingeing or dieting. The women I interviewed confirmed how bulimia, anorexia, and bingeing begin as logical responses to sexual abuse and explained multiple reasons why —both historically and currently — they have been forced to deal with this abuse alone. It is the isolation and loneliness that remain characteristic of sexual abuse that make anorexia and bulimia seemingly logical responses.

Most of the women I talked with grew up before the current feminist wave of popular and scholarly books on sexual abuse, and their relatives did not recognize their bed wetting, nightmares, eating changes, and depression as possible signs of sexual abuse. An eating problem, like these other symptoms, is often a cry for help that may be denied or misunderstood. In this vacuum, bingeing and dieting are solutions because a girl can do them on her own. Whether they stole food from a neighbor's house, hid food, made a chocolate shake last for an hour and a half, or threw up food they didn't want in their bodies, the women I interviewed did these things alone. While those who dieted openly admitted they were rationing their food, the women who binged and purged told no one. Regardless of their coping strategies, they either could not or would not reveal to others how sexual trauma influenced their actions.

Despite increased consciousness in recent years, abuse has not stopped. Public education encouraging children to speak up has done little to ensure that they will be protected. Nationally known cases of mothers who have tried to protect their children from abuse but got no support from the courts underline the fact that public visibility does not necessarily result in social justice. As Louise Armstrong writes, "Those in power are asked to condemn acts so often committed by the members of the power group." Calling out for help may simply bring on another violation. As Gayle Woodsum, an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse, said: "What's happening to the kids is what their offenders told them would happen if they told. If you tell you'll get thrown in jail. Or foster care. Or the mental health system. Or get a publicly endorsed life with an incest offender." Supporters of what they call false memory syndrome have recently formed a national group claiming that parents are being falsely accused of incest. In its ability to garner significant media attention and support from leading psychologists and other health professionals, this organization has fueled a backlash against the activism and research that seek to eradicate sexual abuse. Public awareness has not sufficiently changed the social landscape, and a frightening number of girls still cope with abuse virtually on their own.

The effect of abuse on family dynamics is another reason girls often cope with abuse by themselves. Children typically know that sexual abuse is wrong but do not necessarily have the vocabulary to explain it. Two therapists who work with survivors have said that the predicament is "like being a prisoner in a foreign country and not knowing the language." Many girls remain quiet about incest for fear that talking might jeopardize a sibling's safety. The secret the abused child keeps becomes a barrier to intimacy with her siblings; especially in relationships in which siblings are used to telling each other everything, a secret can create an impossible, inexplicable divide. Secrecy may also be a girl's attempt to protect her mother from pain. Many girls know that their mothers would be devastated to learn that their husbands or lovers are capable of sexual abuse and may be more terrified of hurting their mothers than of anything that could happen to them. Girls who come to believe they are the cause of the abuse are silenced further. This tragic reasoning is nevertheless logical: why tell people about something shameful, especially if you are the one who has caused it?

The enormous discrepancy between the love, tenderness, and respect that a parent is supposed to show and the abuser's selfish conquest of a child's body leaves children blaming themselves. Being abused by someone others respect can seem so incongruous that silence and the repression of memories make complete sense. The women I interviewed often described being abused by men who were admired in their communities and thought of as "family men" — "Uncle Harvey who is gorgeous and wonderful and loved by everyone," the math tutor whom children were taught to respect, trusted family friends. It is easier for a girl to believe that she has the power to cause someone to abuse her than to believe that someone she needs to trust and love is capable of cruel violation. Self-blame and its attendant emotion, shame, are forms of psychic protection. Anger aimed inward is more tolerable than the rage of being abandoned and injured, particularly by a loved one. With this transference, anger and rage are not dealt with directly, but instead become unexplained and diffuse emotions, triggered not only by abuse but by other painful experiences as well. Bingeing, purging, and dieting become a reasonable response to this diffused rage, turned inward in the form of shame. The body becomes a receptacle for this shame, an easy target for distrust and dissatisfaction. Bingeing and maintaining a strict diet are distractions from this pain. The druglike effect of a binge and the high resulting from lack of food also temporarily numb shame and sadness.

The silence enforced by patriarchy and the authority granted to adults may be further reinforced by racism and other oppression. For example, the Sephardic Jewish woman's silence about being raped was reinforced by her father's inconsistent parenting related to religious persecution and anti-Arab discrimination. Ruthie was afraid to reveal abuse by her godmother's father partly because of the power and authority vested in godparents within Puerto Rican culture. The Italian-American woman's silence was reinforced by her grandfather's prestige in the community and leadership in a statewide Italian organization; since she already felt intensely out of place as an Italian-American girl in an overwhelmingly WASP town, speaking out against a pillar of the Italian community was out of the question. Joselyn was unable to stop the enemas partly because of her grandmother's authority within the family and the racism she aimed at Joselyn and her father. Rosalee was isolated at school partially because of racial politics; at home sexual abuse reinforced male domination and internalized racism. Her father abused her sexually while relaying degrading messages about black women. During the same period of time, Rosalee was being abused by a white man whose actions echoed white men's historic sexual abuse of black women. Her early wish that she were white reflected her desire for a status that might rescue her from powerlessness. Rosalee saw being black rather than racism as her problem. This reality again underlines why finding a way to cope by herself was a logical response: eating was a symbol of agency, of her determination to find a way to survive injustice.

Taking into consideration women's multidimensional identities widens the range of psychological symptoms that may be attributed to sexual abuse. Shame, nightmares, memory gaps, depression, and a disruption of body consciousness may be reactions to sexual abuse common to women across race and class. However, since sexual abuse influences cultural/racial identities, responses to it are shaped by race and culture as well. For example, once Gilda remembered that she had been raped, she began to eat voraciously, a response that directly opposed her family's eating traditions. Her bingeing alone in her room and eating food that was not customarily in her house infuriated her father and distanced her from the family's Jewish and North African rituals. She not only gained weight, she also altered her cultural traditions. Similarly, Rosalee was caught between her father's internalized racism and her community's ideas about beauty. By dieting, she transgressed Southern, rural, and African-American cultural traditions she was raised to accept, which added to her sense of rootlessness.

Whether a child is a toddler or a teenager, victimized for six months or six years, sexual violation shakes up what "home" means—what it feels like to be comfortable and safe with those who are charged with keeping children out of harm's way. Since racial and cultural identity is primarily taught in the home, this socialization process is inevitably disrupted when the home is no longer a refuge, but rather a place of stress and fear. At the same time, sexual abuse makes it precarious for girls to feel at home in their own bodies. Painful emotions and feelings of despair make it risky to be inside of one's body—the very center of threatening feelings. When a girl is robbed of a place that feels safe and relaxed, the world can seem too big, too scary, too hard. It is this daunting situation that author Dorothy Allison describes in Bastard out of Carolina when Bone, a child robbed of her innocence by sexual and physical abuse, says, "I tried not to think about how much of an exile I was beginning to feel." Being forced into exile from their own bodies —their homes—leaves children feeling isolated and alone, believing that the injury that has befallen them is uniquely their own and that they are singularly and solely responsible for it. That sexual abuse is epidemic—and therefore neither individually caused nor prevented without collective action —is masked by secrecy and isolation. It is in this context that bingeing, dieting, and purging begin as protective responses to abuse.

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