Shattered Reality

Shattered Reality by Kimberly Cheryl is an ARC I received as part of the author’s blogworld book tour. It’s the story – testimony, really – of the experience one family underwent when it was discovered that their 14-year-old daughter had been abused by a much-loved, much-trusted, uncle. The narrative is essentially an account of a mother’s emotional odyssey through guilt and denial, accompanied by the even more chilling journey through the US justice system. The written account only takes up two-thirds of the book, however, as the rest is given over to a wealth of extremely useful information. Explanations of post-traumatic stress disorder, indications of sexual abuse in children, helplines, support agencies, all kinds of information on what to do if the worst should turn out to have already happened. This is exactly the kind of book you want to hand if you, or someone you know, has suffered abuse, and I can imagine many people being extremely moved by the fearless honesty of the author. Really, I have to salute her for accomplishing an act of such maternal bravery. Like many mothers, Kimberly Cheryl found it terribly hard to accept that the abuse had happened, and found herself drowning in her own extreme emotions of guilt and shame. Her extended family was close and loving, and uncovering her uncle’s actions resulted in four other family members stepping forward to admit to similar experiences. Yet it seems that the bulk of her family refused to countenance the claims and an irrevocable rift has occurred. When a chain of events like this is set in motion, it’s all too easy for the adult woman in such a situation to take the responsibility entirely on her shoulders and to be lost to the emotions and the grieving it provokes. Cheryl is graphic and intense in her descriptions of her own emotions, but tends to keep her daughter out of the account for most of its early stages, with the result that their pain is completely intermingled and indistinguishable: they hurt as a unit. This may well be perfectly natural, but what Cheryl comes to understand the hard way, is that it doesn’t help her daughter one little bit. She needs to be strong and separate if she is going to offer her daughter the support she needs, and this means acquiring some perspective on what has happened and how she feels. Finding a really good family counselor has an extremely positive effect, and the family brace themselves for entering the law in the hope of achieving closure.

In many ways the representation of the justice system is one of the most striking features of the account, because it seems that right from the start there is precious little justice to be had for the victims of child sexual abuse. Only one in sixteen child molesters is ever convicted, 85% of abuse is carried out by adults known to the children, and some figures estimate over 80% goes unreported. Prosecuting attorneys do not want to take the cases on because they are considered ‘frivolous’, which is to say one person’s word against another. Also, when the children and adults involved are related, the belief is that the victims will make poor witnesses. Despite having four family members testify to abuse, Kimberly Cheryl writes that their case is dismissed, and it was only taken on with extreme reluctance by the authorities, after an initial refusal (conveyed in a phone call nine months after the charges were made) to hear the case was followed up by a television appeal. This strikes me as appalling. I don’t know how many people have ever had a conversation with a child under the age of 12, but it doesn’t follow on the lines of adult conversation. Children don’t give information, because they are too young to recognize it as such. I cannot imagine how any child could speak out after an act of abuse and not be given credibility, as they have no imagination to create such scenarios (even images on the television tell them nothing about how they might feel or what might have occurred). This is pretty much still the case for teenagers between 12 and 16. Well, anyway, I was horrified by Cheryl’s account of their encounter with so-called justice, and it left me with the feeling that things are just horribly, badly wrong in this side of the law.

So, all in all, this is a courageous work of testimony that would offer comfort and information to poor souls who end up in a similar position. I would certainly recommend it to anyone working in social services or citizen’s advice, and think it’s the kind of book all libraries should stock. But I have one more comment to make on it and that’s about the issue of artistry. Cheryl’s book here strives for emotional honesty – that’s why she’s writing it, to connect with people in similar situations. But it does not always follow through the patterns of an orthodox narrative. Cheryl is so deep within the events she is describing that she lacks the perspective to organize them in such a way as to make a clear story for the reader. So there are lots of gaps that an inquisitive reader may wonder about. Why, for instance, do so many family members refuse to conduct their own form of justice on the uncle? How did the family miss the signs of sexual abuse in their daughter for so many years? On one occasion each, Cheryl mentions her husband’s problems with addiction and her daughter’s ADD. But no evaluation is made as to whether or not they had a bearing on what occurred, particularly on the fact that her daughter could get under the family radar and suffer in secret. At the end of the narrative, Cheryl mentions that one of the victims of her uncle is her sister, and I wondered why her complaint against her uncle was not given more credibility than that of a child. Now there could have been simple answers to fill in all these gaps, and perhaps Cheryl doesn’t mention them because they weren’t important, or the word limit prevented her. But in the absence of any explanation they hang about in the narrative.

When I was talking to my husband about the book and told him about the gaps he instantly said, ‘Oh, so maybe there’s more to the story than meets the eye, maybe it didn’t happen.’ I looked at him strangely and wondered why he would jump to such a conclusion. It never occurred to me for one moment that either mother or child wasn’t being completely truthful. When I pressed him on the point, he instantly retracted his statement and said ‘I suppose I don’t like to believe that that kind of thing can happen.’ Aha. Cheryl talks about this a lot, about the way that people treat the victims of sexual abuse like lepers, the way her family refuses to accept they have a pervert in their midst, the way that it is still deemed the victim’s fault that shame besmirches the respectability of a family. And what I think most of all is that it takes real artistry to tell the tale of abuse in such a way that it can be heard. Holocaust victims had exactly the same difficulty; the human imagination cringes from horror, particularly when people we know might be its cause. But most people who end up victims don’t have perfect narrative control at their disposal. They tell stories back to front, the way we all do when we’re upset or frustrated or enraged. And other people hear gaps and leap to their own, reassuring conclusions. What’s to be done? I don’t honestly know, but I think that education yet again has a part to play, as well as consciousness raising for sexual abuse, which destroys our sense of delicacy and dignity, but which needs as a story to be told over again until we’re sure enough people are listening.

15 thoughts on “Shattered Reality

  1. Cheryl is brave for telling her story. The numbers you mention are quite shocking. I knew it was bad but I didn’t realize it was that bad. It will take a lot of work and a lot of brave people like Cheryl to get past the stigma and the shame and fear. Even if the book lacks artistry, I hope it does well and makes a difference.

  2. What an interesting review. My first thought about the gaps was that the author probably wrote the story too early to answer all those questions and she might never get there. What I mean is that the abuse happened in a context of family dysfunction that goes back at least one generation and current dysfunction in her own family (addiction) besides the abuse. All of that generates walls of denial, secrecy, and distorted logic. It is greatly to her credit that she believed and supported her child and sought counseling. But it may take longer for her to sort through her own history and her own way of surviving it. For all we know, she herself was abused like her sister but has never been able to acknowledge it. And even if herself wasn’t sexually abused, she lived in a family where that was going on and covered up. So it isn’t any wonder that the signs of abuse weren’t seen. They were probably just familiar ways of being. Whether she can go the distance in her own healing from that upbringing, or will stop short with acknowledging her daughter’s abuse, is her choice. It’s a tough journey and a lot of people won’t even start on it. There’s where you have the split in her family. Despite all the evidence, they don’t want to face their own pain and adjust their own story of themselves to a complicated and difficult reality. Others will start the journey but stop at the point where life is fairly livable even if that means limitations (keeping up walls, holding onto dysfunctional coping mechanisms). And yet some people do go the distance for themselves and their loved ones, facing the truth however difficult, so that they can be free of it.

  3. This is such a tragedy in our society. It happens all too often and like you say, goes unreported because of fear of reprisal or not being believed or even a misplaced sense of guilt or shame. Unfortunately, the reverse can happen as well, which is just as devastating for those involved. I have a first cousin who was accused by his teenage stepdaughter of sexual abuse. He was convicted and spent time in prison and has to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. The stepdaughter later admitted that she made it up because she was angry with him for reasons I don’t even remember now. She went to the courts and attempted to retract her statement, but they wouldn’t take it.

  4. Your comments on narrative control are really interesting to me, I do think this is why compelling nonfiction is so difficult to write – a lot less leeway to make things work and fit. Especially in a situation such as this, where the narrator has gone through the trauma and forced to organize it for the reader. Wonderful review, Litlove, thank you.

  5. Thank you so much for the incredible and detailed review. I am an avid reader but don’t “read” my stories the way I do my historical romance novels and you made several wonderful and interesting points about the “gaps” which as a writer and the person experiencing this journey – I didn’t look at from an outsider’s perspective. That is one reason I have enjoyed this book tour so much – it has given me insight into what can be done to improve on our story to make it the most impactful for everyone – so we can make a difference. I would love to try to answer your questions, although many just don’t come with answers either….that is what has made this such a difficult and heart wrenching event. That’s what makes it so difficult for many of the families dealing with CSA – especially those of incest. Why, for instance, do so many family members refuse to conduct their own form of justice on the uncle? I suppose as a law abiding family, with members of the Legal community and law enforcement – we all felt that it was an “open and shut” case and truly believed the legal system would take care of him as we felt was deserved. I would rather have my husband living at home with us rather than in jail himself for murder.
    How did the family miss the signs of sexual abuse in their daughter for so many years? My daughter’s grandfather who was the center of her world died at about the same time the abuse started. She still is working on resolving his loss – I think because she never truly mourned at the time due to the abuse. But we always assumed the tears, the clinging behavior, came from the loss. She had been threatened by her uncle with harm not only to herself but to me as well so she was silent. As I’ve talked with grown victims, I have learned that we need to start asking the tough questions, one I had never imagined: Has someone been abusing you? We had such an open relationship about everything else and talked about everything that I guess I just assumed she would share that with us as well. When asked if it had been a teacher, coach, etc. would she have told…she said yes. Most of her relationship with her uncle was a loving one, as a child, she didn’t want him in trouble.
    On one occasion each, Cheryl mentions her husband’s problems with addiction and her daughter’s ADD. But no evaluation is made as to whether or not they had a bearing on what occurred, particularly on the fact that her daughter could get under the family radar and suffer in secret. As a family we have been through years of counseling, AA, group support, we did everything in our power to make our family a whole, functioning, unit (9 years now). So, I don’t think either of these things had a bearing on our problems. It’s the secret and silence that it still so very hard for me or anyone in the family to believe. My daughter is a loving child who just wants to please those around her and wants everyone happy – she does what she can to avoid confrontations of any kind. Unfortunately, she made a very good victim.
    At the end of the narrative, Cheryl mentions that one of the victims of her uncle is her sister, and I wondered why her complaint against her uncle was not given more credibility than that of a child.
    Unfortunately, my sister’s story was 20 years old…she was 18 and working for my uncle at the time of the abuse – he was the administrator of a large medical clinic. As far as the law is concerned, you can’t always use old behavior on a new case. If his picture had been plastered all over the news as many are, I’m sure we would have found many other victims. Sadly though, my uncle is friends with our county prosecuting attorney and has many influential friends, enough said. Which leads us to our civil case.
    As far as why we never noticed, that is a question I will forever be asking myself. I was never abused – my personality, loud, strong and I would have never stayed quiet. My uncle is an educated man with many college degrees, is a professional, is involved with many organizations (neighborhood, church, etc), he is well traveled, funny, lovable, generous, enjoyable to be around. Our family was very close knit. From the time I was very little my uncle had an “off color” sense of humor telling dirty jokes. We just said he was a “dirty old man” and wrote it off as that. That’s how he was forever. To me, he was harmless so why would I ever in my wildest dreams imagine otherwise (my sister never telling a sole her secret until my daughter’s disclosure)? This is the one thing that will eat at my guilt as long as I live – why didn’t I see?
    I appreciate your speaking with your husband and hearing his response – how interesting and the reason why this is such a silent epidemic world wide. We can’t grasp this concept and therefore, don’t want to believe it exists or is happening as frequently as it is. The more we talk, the more we educate, maybe one day it will be something that can be stopped and we will have less children who grow up into suffering adults because they lived so long with their secrets.
    Thank you all again for letting me share my journey! God Bless – Kimberly

  6. This story hit close to home for my husband as something similar happened in his family. Loved reading your take on the book – thanks!

  7. Thanks for tackling this difficult topic. Your comments about your husband’s response remind me of Judith Lewis Herman’s comments (in Trauma and Recovery) about how difficult it is for people who listen to these stories to really believe the victims. It’s much easier to just disbelieve that this could have happened. I have the book to hand so I’ll quote from the first page: “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander does nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain.”

  8. Talking about your husband’s response and our (cultural?) desire to disbelieve, because it’s too horrible to acknowledge, made me think of a semester I spent at college under two very different teachers.

    One was teaching a “History of U.S. Foreign Policy” focusing on the early 20th century and the other an ethics class. Any time I tried to bring up examples from history class in ethics class the teacher would look at me like I was revealing horrible character defects whenever I’d bring up the human-rights abuses of various countries from that era.

    It was made very clear to me that believing humans capable of such behavior and insisting it exists just showed the blackness of my own soul. I was 19 or 20 at the time and had never run into this kind of thinking before. It staggered my imagination to wonder what truth he had access to that would negate the authority of my history teacher who looked like she could have lived through much of what she was teaching about.

    But having seen that and being (uneducated, you might say, or perhaps just under-credentialed) dismissed in what I had so long accepted as true, it is all too easy to imagine the same thing happening on a smaller and more-devastating scale within a family.

  9. I think there’s a strong tendency in people to deny evil, lest we admit our own shadow sides. It’s a terrible kind of cowardice, that instinct to scapegoat victims.

    This sounds like a very interesting book. Thank you for posting about it.

  10. Hi!
    I stop by often to read, and rarely comment, but this is just too scary to remain silent about. I think your review is excellent. Cheryl’s willingness to go ‘on tour’ with her story says much about her courage, but I think she dodged your query on the ADD/alcoholism connection and whether there is any other history within the family? The statistics are frightening; the family has my sympathy, and the whole thing makes me want to run out NOW and grab my college student and hide her under my wing until she’s…forty-five?

  11. Stefanie – you’re right, this is a very brave book in many ways. I do hope it’s clear in the review that the question of artistry is a more general one, and that I was not intending to detract in any way from the account. I absolutely agree that we need to think more about these issues in sensible ways.

    Lilian – what an interesting comment from you. I was particularly struck by these lines: ‘So it isn’t any wonder that the signs of abuse weren’t seen. They were probably just familiar ways of being.’ And thought that yes, of course, that’s why these things are so often invisible. I also think you are right that any abusive behaviour finds its origins in previous generations, and so there are many more stories to be heard before an event like this could be understood fully. I can’t quite understand the mentality that wants to cover up and conceal and pretend (although I agree it’s prevalent). So my sympathy is decidedly with the ones who are prepared to stand up and do something about it.

    Lisa – what a horrific story. I can’t help but feel that this reinforces my belief in the power of the story-telling. I wonder whether, if you were actually calculating how to frame someone, you might be able to put a better and more convincing story together than if you were the bewildered victim of abuse. But it is amazing how many genuine victims can’t seem to find justice and then people with an axe to grind can achieve a conviction. Whatever is going on?

    Verbivore – thank you! And your remarks about non-fiction are extremely interesting to me. I’m spending a lot of time thinking about what you can do with real life stories, what can be said about them, and so I do appreciate all insights!

    Kimberly – thank you so much for dropping by and contributing so interestingly to the discussion. Thank you also for taking the time and trouble to fill in the gaps. I really hope so much that your civil case this summer is successful and that all the reviewers on your book tour will give you support and encouragement as well as useful information to strengthen your case. Just to add that I didn’t quite mean vigilante action on the part of anyone in your family – I had something more like ostracism in mind. And I do quite understand how come you could miss a child’s behaviour by attributing it to another form of grief. I’m also the talkative mother of a quiet son, and I dread missing something important (it could so easily happen). It’s every mother’s worry, isn’t it? But in many ways it’s kind of irrelevant now, because the only thing that really matters is how people cope after mistakes have been made. Things are going to go wrong all the time – that’s life – so the people who survive and grow are those who find a way to deal with the raw deals. It seems to me that your family has gone through hell, but that you are all finding admirable ways to cope, and that you and your daughter will in fact have done a great deal for others in the way you are speaking out and raising awareness. Anyway, the very best of luck with the book, and with the court case. I hope you nail him.

    Amateur – oh my heart goes out to you and your family. Thank you for leaving your comment and the very best of luck.

    Pete – that is one fantastic quote. Oh my, I read Herman years ago and can remember very little, except that it was a good book. I should dig it out and reread.

    Amy Jane – what a story, and what an interesting and relevant parallel to Kimberly’s book. But isn’t that worrying? If teaching insists that there is one way to think, one way to interpret information, wow, that is a very thin end of the wedge. Thank you for sharing that.

    David – yes, I agree. It’s some sort of projective identification that must operate all the time. I don’t know the mechanisms, but it would be interesting to look into it. It is not an admirable side of humanity. Or perhaps I am too harsh, perhaps it’s just a kind of blind willing that things are okay really. But I’m very much of the opinion that pessimists are optimists with better information.

    ds – hello and thank you so much for stopping by to comment! I do appreciate what you have to say here. And I agree so much – these stories just make a person feel hugely insecure about letting children loose on the world!

  12. This has got to be one of the worst things a family can be faced with…right up there with the loss of a child. Robbing the innocent of their childhoods, destroying trust – so essential to family life – it’s all pretty horrifying. It takes courage to bring the story into the sunlight.

  13. Many years ago I read a book by David Finkelhor on childhood sexual abuse. One thing he said I had never and have never since read anywhere else was about prevention. He state four pre-conditions for abuse to happen. The perpetrator has to want to do it. The perpetrator has to, in some way, think it’s okay (or justify it). The perpetrator has to have access. The perpetrator has to think he/she is going to get away with it. The importance of outlining those pre-conditions is that intervention can occur at any point along the line. One of the ways that we, as a society, can help prevent further abuse is in our attitudes about it.

  14. The number of unreported cases of abuse is truly shocking as is the fact that it’s so hard for justice to be served. It’s such a hard thing that nobody wants to disrupt family life and people tend to think of it as a purely private sphere, so cases of abuse are difficult to prosecute. And the narrative issue is a very interesting one too — it highlights just how important the ability to tell a story well is.

  15. In my work as a massage therapist, I learn many things about people’s lives. The incidence of child molestation is much higher than you might think. And the reactions of the families involved and the justice system are just exactly as Cheryl describes. Deny, deny, deny.

    My husband and I adopted a young teenage boy who, along with his younger brother, had been horribly victimized by his step father. The boys were systematically tortured and starved for two years before the school authorities noticed. In this case, the wounds were quite visible, the man was prosecuted and convicted, and served 6 months of an 18 month sentence. Even after all that, the birth mother and her relations were quite sure that the abuse never occurred, and not only that but since the abuser had found God in prison, repented and been baptized, all was okay and they could ignore the ruling of the court as to whether or not he had contact with the boys after he got out of prison. Believe me, there is a long story involved in this event and the ensuing events. I want to write this book. But I am afraid my work would suffer from the same “flaws” as Cheryl’s: gaps and incomplete information. I don’t know Everything that happened, but the story still needs to be told. I find myself telling myself this over and over and yet, I don’t actually get started.

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