Commentary Violence

What Would Make You Believe a Survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse?

Andrea Grimes

What I am seeing, with Dylan Farrow’s recent open letter concerning the abuse she says she suffered at the hands of her father, is that a lot of people do not believe that we adult survivors live among them. But we are here.

See all our responses to Dylan Farrow’s open letter here.

I don’t know if you know an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I don’t know if you know what an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse looks, sounds, or acts like. So let me tell you who I am, and let me tell you what I am like.

I am a 30-year-old white woman who lives in Austin, Texas. I have bleached blonde hair with a coral-toned streak in the front—it’s short, but I’m trying to grow it out (god, I wish it would grow faster). I work from home, but unofficially I office out of the back patio of a craft beer bar. I have a graduate degree in cultural anthropology. I am heterosexual and I am married, and together with my husband I own an old-ass house with a recent raccoon infestation. I have three cats who are named after boozy drinks.

I am an only child and I have awesome, twangy Texas-raised parents who Texas-raised me. My best friends are brilliant academics who sort of hate academia. I am overly friendly in awkward situations. I am funny and I love Star Trek. I throw big parties. I do yoga at home so I can skip savasana. I talk too much.

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And when I was a kid, a relative sexually abused me. I don’t know how long it went on. It started before I entered kindergarten but stopped sometime in elementary school. I remember feelings—dread, shame, embarrassment, panic, guilt—better than I remember incidents, but I remember some incidents too.

If you had asked me three or four years ago: Andrea, have you ever been sexually abused? I would have said absolutely not. Because it took me more than 20 years to admit to myself that what happened to me as a child was real, that it was abuse, and that it was not my fault.

Why 20 years? Why so long?

My abuser made me afraid of my own capacity to experience memories. My abuser made me afraid of what the inside of my own mind looked like. I built—like, really, purposefully built—delicate, intricate, elaborate mind-paths, each of which navigated away from and around one thing: my abuse. I did it consciously at first, and then as I became older, my brain seemed to do it for me, automatically.

Whenever anything would trigger an abuse memory, or memory-feeling, I would start down a pathway to, well, wherever: a song, a poem, a saying, a dance routine, lines from a play. Anything that was not the memory, or memory-feeling. Eventually those pathways filled up, and stacked these little piles of songs-poems-sayings-whatever between my present and that thing I never wanted to think about.

Maybe I could have lived my whole life like that. Maybe I would have, if I hadn’t discovered feminism, if I hadn’t discovered anonymous message boards, if I hadn’t married someone I trust with my whole heart. But feminism, and the Internet, and being in an incredible relationship conspired together in this wonderful way and empowered me to say a combination of words I never thought I could say: I was abused as a child, and it was real, and it was not my fault.

Those are the hardest things to say, because I am saying them to the most scared, most ashamed, most terrified little 5-year-old version of myself, and she is so scared and ashamed that she can’t hear it, refuses to hear it, because hearing it means it is real. My 5-year-old self is going to live 20 years before she lets herself back into her mind and her memories. Now, all I can do is tell her, over and over again: Yes, he hurt you. It was real. It wasn’t your fault. It is a strange cycle; it is all over, and yet it is ongoing.

Despite what was done to me—I don’t say “what happened” to me, because my abuse didn’t “happen,” it was done to me by another human being—I always get the impression that people are a little surprised when they hear about it, as if I am not the adult survivor of child abuse they were expecting. Should I be wafting around like some kind of hollow-eyed ghoul? Should I be especially brave, especially vocal, stumping about my abuse at every opportunity? Should I be significantly fucked up in some easily recognizable way? Would that make it easier for people to believe that I was abused, that abuse exists, that adult survivors walk among us, live among us, drink craft beer among us?

Because what I am seeing, with Dylan Farrow’s recent open letter concerning the abuse she says she suffered at the hands of her father, deified American film director Woody Allen, is that a lot of people do not believe that we adult survivors live among them. That there is something adult survivors can do that will make us believable, but that one of those things is not, it seems, recounting our own stories and speaking out against our abusers. Especially if our stories contain, I suppose, “palpable bitchery” and not the correct, carefully measured amount of humility appropriate to a child who has had her entire life torn apart by the very people tasked with protecting her from harm.

Strange, how credible evidence against an abuser rarely seems to include the testimony of survivors, but frequently does include the “expert” opinion of people who were wholly absent from the situation, or of abusers who have a vested interest in, say, not being imprisoned. No, if we survivors remember too much, we are clearly sticking too close to an easily fabricated story, but if we remember too little, we are suspiciously devoid of all those details people say they hate to hear, but which people really, secretly like to hear.

I hear people say that Dylan Farrow must be lying—after all, it took her 21 years to write an open letter in the New York Times! Well, it took me about that long to write an open letter to my own soul. I hear people say that Dylan Farrow must be lying—after all there is a video of her as a child, unable to recount her abuse in vivid detail, from start to finish, in one defiant take!

Oh, I cannot hear that one. I cannot hear it. There are no lengths to which 5-year-old Andrea would not have gone to prevent the details of her abuse from becoming known to others. In fact, every time I had a clear opportunity to out my abuser, and to detail my trauma? I denied it even more, created elaborate excuses, let details slip but then refused to cooperate. I lived in abject fear of being punished for what another human being had done to me.

I believe 7-year-old Dylan just as I believe 5-year-old Andrea, not because our stories seem to have a couple of parallels, but because I listen to survivors, and because of that, I believe survivors. I don’t think, in the wake of Allen’s recent Golden Globes accolade, that Farrow is being opportunistic. There is no such thing as an opportune time to have been sexually abused by your father, one of the most famous film directors in the world. There is no opportune time to have had notable public figures debating the possibility of your sexual abuse in glossy, thinky magazines, really trying to get to the crux of the question: Are you, or are you not, the calculating, lying daughter of a vengeful, spiteful actress?

Perhaps I am harming Woody Allen, and all his friends, by believing his daughter. Well, that’s fine. If my belief in Dylan Farrow’s story of abuse takes a little bit away from Woody Allen’s lifetime of lifetime achievement awards and fawning hordes of celebrity fans, I think that is something Allen can spare. And if I’m wrong, and Allen is falsely accused? I ask you: If this is what Woody Allen’s career looks like, having been damaged so egregiously by spurious accusations that he is a child abuser, what precisely do you imagine an untainted Woody Allen career would look like? Dude gets his face on an officially minted piece of U.S. currency? We rename the moon “Woody”?

Some research seems to suggest that rates of child sexual abuse are declining; while that is heartening, the truth is that however the numbers play out, child sexual abuse is shockingly common and grossly underreported. I believe Dylan Farrow not only because I find her testimony to be credible on its face, but because chances are, Dylan Farrow isn’t lying.

Maybe some folks think it’s a fun intellectual exercise to pick apart some kind of “he said, she said” brain teaser about the sexual abuse of children. How satisfying it must be for those folks to feel really confident in settling in for a gander every time Midnight in Paris comes on TNT. What a reward for running a 7-year-old girl through the ringer; how lucky we all are to have solved the mystery of Did Woody Allen Or Didn’t He? Oh well, Annie Hall is on!

Here is what I know: I spent the last few days trying desperately to distract myself from just about everything besides my closest friends and most beloved books and activities, because I could not bear to watch my friends and family members tear Dylan Farrow apart on Facebook or Twitter, call her a liar, call her a fool, call her an opportunist. I am still fragile when I think of my own abuse, and I do not know who in my life I might lose to an errant rape joke or a speciously timed Woody Allen oeuvre fest. I hate that this is a fear I must live with and mitigate, daily. But this is the reality of rape culture.

I know there are lots of those people—people who would give the benefit of the doubt to literally anyone besides a scared, confused child or an adult survivor just coming to terms with their past. I wonder why there are so many of those kinds of people who seem unable to, simply, listen to survivors without transporting themselves into some crudely imagined, hyperbolic Law & Order: SVU episode full of idealized victims and nefarious abusers.

I wonder how we can change that, and I believe part of the solution is to help people who aren’t survivors learn to hear stories of survival in productive, non-victim-blaming ways. We need to change the paradigm of reception, to empower people to hear the words “I was raped” or “I was abused,” so that they can hold them and experience them without defensiveness, panic, or pity. If we do this—give listeners a cultural script for hearing these stories—I think we will go a long way toward empowering survivors to tell these stories.

As an adult, after I had privately come to terms with myself about my abuse, I still feared—deeply, viscerally—talking about that abuse to someone else. I still have trouble disentangling it from victim-blaming language; in this very essay, I had to stop myself from “admitting” my own abuse, as if it is for me to seek absolution for a crime someone else committed against me. I dreaded the withering experience of managing other people’s pity, other people’s scorn, other people’s discomfort.

I very rarely talk about my own abuse, but whenever I do, I talk about it with a mind toward making other people comfortable with my story. I wish I didn’t have to, but I’m doing it for myself as much as I’m doing it for them. If we are going to do right by survivors, then we need to empower those who can support them. And to do that, we need to give our friends, family, and loved ones the tools they need to hear our stories.

The more stories survivors tell, the less aberrant we will be—though I contend this is an imagined aberrance. If we can tell our stories, and if those stories can be heard, we may someday stop this relentless “he said, she said” tug-of-war where no victim is ever perfect enough, no accused ever quite guilty enough. But I could not tell my story until I believed that there were people in my life who could hear it without putting me away in some cramped card catalog drawer, something marked under “T” for “tragic.”

This is a gift I wish I could give all survivors: a place for their stories to live that isn’t in their head or on a police report or court petition. A place where their stories can be spread among other people, diffused, made real through their voluntary, consensual telling, to be heard by people who will not immediately file them under “L” for “liar,” or “O” for opportunist, or “B” for “bitch.”

This is the enduring story of rape culture, the eternal lie: Give us the perfect victim, and we will believe you! That’s all they’re asking for—just one perfect victim, and then we can talk about all of this rationally! Send us someone we don’t have so many concerns about! This is a great deceit, and it is borne out of a cultural narrative that has no place for listening, only a place for victim-blaming, only a place for reinforcing stories that do not too terribly upset our Friday night movie binges.

I’m not asking you to decide, today, whether Woody Allen is a child abuser, or to preach fire and brimstone the next time someone picks up a copy of Manhattan. I am asking you to do something more powerful, more long-lasting, more revolutionary: Listen to survivors. Understand that our stories are not sad addenda, but part of our whole being, part of the people you love or hate or see in the elevator sometimes at lunch. See us not as victims, or characters, or some unidentifiable, sad and tragic “other,” but as the whole people we are, moving in and out of your lives.

Listen to us, so that we can listen to ourselves.

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