“I really appreciate your seeing me again. I didn’t know who to turn to. I’m so scared, so, so scared.”
Across from me sits Jennifer, a patient I have not seen for over eight years. We’d worked intensively for a five year period, until Jennifer gave birth and decided that she’d like to try it on her own. I’d questioned her timing. The victim of childhood sexual abuse by an uncle she’d kept secret from everyone but me, I’d wondered what feelings might resurface with the birth of her daughter. But she was insistent and I had to respect her decision.
“I saw Samantha masturbating in the living room a couple of weeks ago. It freaked me out, but I talked to myself, said it didn’t mean anything happened to her, just a kid exploring her body. So I told her those were things we do in private. She seemed to accept that and I let it be. It still bothered me – I even started to have my scary dreams again – but I dropped it with Samantha. Then it happened again and I got more scared.
“So I tried to talk to her about it. I reminded her what I had said before about that kind of stuff being private, but this time I asked her if anyone else had touched her down there. She didn’t say anything, just looked away from me. I panicked. I told her I wouldn’t be mad at her, but she needed to tell me if anyone else was touching her. Then she nodded and I thought I would die. Not again I wanted to scream. This can’t be happening to my daughter too,” Jennifer says, crying, tearing at her hands. I feel my own anxiety rise along with hers.
She continues. “I asked her if she could tell me who it was and she pointed to the house next door. That confused me because there’s no man next door, just a divorced Mom with kids. She has a daughter, Emma, who’s the same age as Samantha and they play together sometimes. Then I thought maybe the Mom was dating someone, or was it the Mom herself, all these thoughts racing through my head. Then she almost whispered, ‘Howie.’ For a second I didn’t even know who that was and then I realized that was Emma’s brother who’s probably ten. Is that abuse? He’s ten. What were they doing? Was anyone with them? Where was Emma? I asked the last question. Samantha just shrugged. So I stopped. And I called you.”
“I’m glad you called, Jennifer, I know how very difficult this is for you. It would be difficult for any Mom, but it sets off so many old terrors for you.”
Jennifer’s tears cascade down her face. Her agitation decreases. “I knew you’d understand. I talked to my husband, Bill. He said I was over-reacting that they were just kids, doing what all normal kids do. Maybe he’s right. I don’t want to terrify Samantha. I don’t want to give her the message that sex is bad and dirty. I’ve had more than enough of that to deal with myself. Please tell me what I should do.”
Thoughts have been swirling through my mind during Samantha’s panicky recitation. I always believed that her daughter’s sexuality would present problems for Jennifer, but the possibility of sexual abuse raises those issues a hundredfold. On the other hand, Jennifer comes in with a good deal of insight. She knows she has to rein in her fears to avoid terrorizing Samantha, although children easily intuit their parent’s underlying and unspoken feelings. And there are the practical questions. What should Jennifer do? What did actually happen? Although the facts do matter in a case such as this, how one understands those facts will vary greatly depending upon the lens through which they are viewed.
“There a lot going on here, Jennifer. Are you asking me what you need to do about your feelings, about how to deal with Samantha, about what actually happened?”
Jennifer stares at me. “I don’t know. I can’t even think straight. All of the above, I guess.”
“You’re feeling overwhelmed by your feelings and you can’t think straight. Is it possible for you, for example, to talk with Bill again about your feelings, to talk with the Mom next door, have the two of you talk with the Mom?”
“I can’t,” Jennifer wails.
I remember that forlorn cry. “You still haven’t told anyone but me about your abuse, have you?” I ask.
Jennifer shakes her head sobbing.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry you still feel so much shame you can’t speak. Let’s see if you can come in again tomorrow. I don’t want to leave you feeling so distraught.”