Truth and lies in sexual abuse

Why is it that so many abuse victims are not believed when they finally come forward?

This is not a new problem. Well over 100 years ago, Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer noted a strong connection between the psychiatric symptoms of “hysterical” women and reports of sexual abuse against them.  But for whatever socio-political-personal reasons, Freud believed that the sexual molestation of girls could not be as widespread as his patients were reporting, so he assumed they must be fantasizing. Because he disbelieved his patients, the actual extent of the sexual exploitation of girls in particular was reburied for the best part of another century.  So was the connection between sexual abuse and mental illness.  Interestingly, Freud’s attitude also set a precedent in psychiatry for blaming the victim – a stance which continues to be too common.

What concerns me still today is the disbelief that continues to meet people who manage to summon up the courage to speak of their abuse. This incredulity is not something that confronts other victims of crime to nearly the same extent. Very few people who have their houses burgled or who are bashed in the street are in any way doubted when they report the crime.

Part of the problem is that reporting sexual abuse often takes place a long, long time after the abuse, and quite often the victim has for many years behaved as though there had never been any abuse. In other words, for many years survivors lie about their existential state, as a form of self-protection. Some victims actively cover up the abuse they have suffered and others are in such deep denial that they live their lives as though nothing untoward has occurred.

Here is the crux of the issue about a survivor’s veracity when it comes to sexual abuse. The very act of abusing a child turns her/him into a liar because the perpetrator invariably demands secrecy, often with threats and menaces.  When the abuser is a priest, he often also tells the child that no one will believe him or her against an exalted priest; even that the secret belongs to God who will exact punishment if the child talks.  The child is not only confused, with his or her notions of truth and trustworthiness upended, but immediately locked into an obsessive need to lie to protect life’s equilibrium.  If the abuse is ongoing he or she becomes more and more adept at it -- so adept that eventually the truth can become harder and harder to recall and assimilate.

The long term after-effects of childhood sexual or other abuse are many and varied and often contradictory.  Anxiety, depression, social and sexual dysfunction, phobias of all kinds, disproportionate meekness, unwarranted anger, hypervigilance, recklessness, under-achievement, over-achievement, risk taking, timidity, undue secrecy, compulsive openness – the list is endless. All of these after-effects give rise to disturbing and troubled lives, but the one long term after effect which many survivors find the most distressing is a propensity to tell lies. Often the lies are unnecessary, ridiculous and very transparent but they are told anyway. I have heard one abuse survivor describe his tendency to tell lies as being as inevitable as a light coming on when a switch is flicked. This tendency is often doubly distressing, because the same people who recognise that they tell lies are often people who also consider themselves to be ethical, sincere, loyal, honest, dependable and steadfast. More often than not they are all of those things.

Let’s try to unravel this most painful conundrum. Any parent, carer, teacher, doctor or other responsible adult should be alarmed if they detect that a child is lying, especially if the lies are elaborate, ridiculous or unnecessary. More often than not such behaviour should be seen, not as a moral issue to be punished or otherwise corrected, but a case of fear made manifest, to be understood and handled with consummate care and subtlety.

Lying, prevaricating, dissimulating, deceiving, dissembling, follow abuse in a number of different ways.

Victims learn to lie the very first time they are abused because together with the abuse comes an admonition not to tell anyone -- which is usually accompanied by a threat to further harm (even kill) the victim or a victim’s loved ones if the secret is not kept.  So victims learn to make up stories to explain away any signs of abuse. All sorts of explanations are proffered for damaged or missing clothing or for cuts and bruises. Some victims put on a distracting persona so that no one could possibly guess the pain and suffering being experienced.  One survivor says she used to return from every occasion when she was viciously sexually abused as “Little Miss Sunshine” so her mother would think she had been having such a nice time with her uncle, because he threatened to kill her father if she told anyone what he did to her.

Sometimes the abuse comes as “punishment” because the abuser claims to have been angered in some way. In these cases victims learn to tell the abuser whatever it is she or he thinks the abuser wants to hear. Thus many victims become extremely placatory – making up stories in the hope of keeping the abuser happy and liking them.  This is futile, for an abuser intent on abuse will always find another excuse to “punish” – but victims keep on trying anyway and the lies become more and more elaborate.

In addition, more often than not childhood abuse is accompanied by feelings of worthlessness. Many survivors tell of how they felt they did not exist when they were being abused. Or they felt that they were being abused because they were bad or at the very least, not good enough. Being told, explicitly or by implication, that they are worthless, or bad, or not good for anything, makes victims feel as though they have to be someone other than themselves to get the positive attention every human being craves. So, many victims begin to make up elaborate stories about themselves, their adventures, their accomplishments, their friends. Some fabricate or extend illness or other maladies to engender sympathy and a loving touch. 

Here, then, is something that can be said unequivocally – in survivors of abuse, lying can and should be seen as a survival mechanism. Sometimes it is a mechanism for protection, sometimes it is a mechanism to placate and sometimes it is a mechanism to shore up severely damaged self esteem. Sometimes it is all three. It is always a survival mechanism.

Curiously, though, the fact that a survivor of abuse might be shown to be a liar about a simple or even ridiculous matter is not proof that they are lying about the abuse they suffered - just the opposite in fact. Nefarious lying, that is lying to gain some significant advantage by deceit, is always careful and controlled. Survival lying, on the other hand is easily exposed and usually harmless, in that it is not used to disadvantage someone else, but simply to protect a fragile soul. A history of such lying should be seen as a symptom of underlying or deep seated social trauma. It is a survival mechanism – perhaps decreasingly necessary as the survivor matures, but a survival mechanism nevertheless.