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.