Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Incest: Does the Pain Ever Stop? A Personal Story

This will be my last post for a while in recognition of April being Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. It is a continuation of my previous posts of April 16, April 12, and April 11. In this post I write of the pain and trauma of incest and its on-going effects not only on the victims, but also on the people who love her/him.

My now ex-wife and I married in March of 1970 while I was a newly commissioned Second Lieutenant in the army and preparing to go to (then) West Germany. During our brief courtship, she told me of the sexual abuse she and her three sisters suffered at the hands of their natural father. I was appalled and angry at my soon-to-be-father-in-law and when my soon-to-be-mother-in-law said I must ask him for his daughter’s hand in marriage, I mumbled something akin to “I’d much rather ram my fist down his throat.”

My wife-to-be and her mother were alarmed by my words. They told me that one must never upset “him” (they seldom referred to “him” by name) because one never knew when he would blow up and hurt someone. I had already heard their stories of the terrible beatings he had given his only son, who was by then out of the home and serving in the Air Force. God forgive me, because I played along with their game and did so for many years afterwards.

When we married I knew that my bride had been sexually abused because she had told me. She shared that information, but few of the details and I was too young and inexperienced to understand the horror and dynamics of what she had endured. Still, her pain and suffering were evident to me and increased my love for her and my desire to protect her.

I shall not write about the details of the sexual abuse. I will only say that for many years my wife and her three sisters shared the same bedroom; at night their father would come into it and abuse one or more of the four. My wife said that she was usually awake when he entered the room (sleep was not easy under the circumstances in which she and her sisters lived) and she would close her eyes and pray that he selected one of her sisters to abuse. (Even as I write these words, I feel my stomach tightening and rage building in my clenched fists).

A couple of weeks after our marriage I went to Germany. She joined me about two months later. We remained in Germany for a bit over two years and it was there that our first son was born. When I was discharged, we returned to my hometown of Louisville and I found a job as a social worker.

Our marriage had seemed “normal” to me. However, I grew up in an alcoholic home and can now admit I had no idea what “normal” was. However, within a year of our return to the States, my wife’s moodiness and bouts of depression became more and more frequent. I now suspect that the source of this was the more frequent contact with her family. In Germany we had been separated from both of our families by the Atlantic Ocean; now we had relatively frequent contacts with them.

Being who I am, I began to think there might be something wrong with me causing my wife's depression. My work as a frontline social worker often exhausted me emotionally, especially the encounters with the situations of my clients, which were unlike anything I had ever formerly experienced. I went to see a psychiatrist, which was a mistake because his treatment was exclusively a prescription for an antidepressant medication whose side effects were ghastly. Shortly afterwards my wife began what eventually became many years of psychotherapy.

In her early therapy, the therapist discounted the effects of the incest of her childhood on her present life. Likewise, in our attempts at marriage counseling, the therapist did not believe that sexual abuse could impact our marital relationship. Both were wrong—very wrong.

After fourteen years of marriage, I left my job, which was by then as a social work county supervisor, and we moved to St. Louis where I attended seminary. The almost three years spent in seminary were good for us, except the studies were demanding of my time and the time I would have spent with my family. My wife obtained an excellent and highly respected job and seemed happier than I had ever known her to be.

After graduation, I was called to pastor a medium sized church in southern Indiana. The town was problematic at best: it was economically and emotionally depressed and there was a high rate of alcoholism, drug addiction, domestic violence, and child abuse. My wife went into an almost immediate depression, which was not unusual for outsiders moving into that community. (The new local bank president’s wife did the same thing; he and I decided it was the result of “cultural shock").

About six months into my wife’s depression, I confronted her and told her that she had to do something about it. She agreed to enter therapy as long as it was not in the community in which we lived. So we located a therapist in Louisville. This therapist was trained in the dynamics of sexual abuse and incest and keyed in on that with my wife.

Over the next several years my wife suffered as she began to recall more and more details of what her father had done to her and her sisters—as well as the beatings he had inflected on her brother. At times the memories were so traumatic that she would curl up in a fetal position on the floor and cry. I did not know how to help her: if I knelt beside her to hold and comfort her, she would scream at me to get away; if I did not offer to comfort her, when she stopped crying she would accuse me of being uncaring and callous.

So I, too, again went into therapy. I had learned quite a bit about sexual abuse and incest during the years I had been a social worker; however, my knowledge and skills did not help when the victim was my wife. I searched for any resource I could find and eventually located two books that gave me insight into what my wife was experiencing and how I could help her.

The first was entitled Ghosts in the Bedroom : A Guide for the Partners of Incest Survivors. It was written by Ken Graber, a trained social worker like me, who also married a survivor of incest. He wrote about how confusing and disturbing it can be when memories of sexual abuse—especially incest—begin to return to a person. He spoke of the long process it takes for one to recover from sexual abuse and how the recovery process is draining on the person as well as their immediate family. He also listed a series of stages in the recovery process (see the above link to Ken’s book and read the sample provided). When I obtained the book, my ex-wife was in the third stage—Remembering—and I realized how much further we had to go in the process. Thankfully, because Ken had been through the process with his incest survivor wife, I trusted his observations and the recommendations he made. What I did not appreciate or accept was his caution that the healing process might bring an end to our marriage.

The second book was entitled Allies in Healing: When the Person You Love Was Sexually Abused as a Child. This book was written by Laura Davis, herself a survivor of incest. Where Ken’s book gave me insight into what my wife was experiencing from the viewpoint of one who, like me, was going through the healing with her, Laura’s book expressed the needs of the survivor who was in the processand the role of the survivor's partner—“the ally in healing.” She also included stories of nine partners of survivors and the issues each faced. Both books, along with continued therapy, helped me through the traumatic those harrowing times.

As I wrote in an earlier blog, I consider my ex-wife a very heroic and courageous person, although she repeatedly denied that what she did was laudable. At the suggestion of her therapy group, she contacted the then Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and using Kentucky’s delayed prosecution law—which states that the statute of limitations on a crime does not begin until the crime is discovered—based upon her recovered memories of the abuse, charges were brought against her father. In this process, only her youngest sister in her family of origin supported her actions. Eventually her mother admitted that all that my wife had remembered was true. Her father pleaded “no contest”—an Alfred plea—and was sentenced to prison for his crimes.

Following the conviction of my father-in-law, we hoped to get on with our lives, But that was not to be. Ken Graber’s words proved true and after thirty years of marriage, at my wife’s insistence, we divorced. My now ex-wife has now chosen to live a Lesbian lifestyle; I hold no hard feelings toward her. I do believe than our marriage was another casualty of the horror of incest.

It has taken quite a bit of emotional energy for me to write the post. Thus, I am going to take a break from posting on Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. I shall, however, make one final post on the subject before the end of the month, in which I shall list resources regarding sexual assault, abuse, and incest.


  1. (Rev.) J. Richard FowlerWednesday, April 19, 2006 6:34:00 PM

    How painful to read... and yet... and yet an echo resonates for me. My first marriage, too, was marked by many similar dynamics for both my first wife, and for me. Jung was so right when he stated that we don't learn squat until we come face-to-face with our first mid-life crisis. Your generosity to your first wife and to yourself is very touching, and admirable. We don't learn what we learn until we are able to learn it... and not before.

  2. A personal story has much more of an impact that reams of sterile statistics. I think you helped a lot of people today. Thanks for writing.

  3. Nick, I knew part of the story but not all of it. Lord, it must have been difficult for you both—and your sons, too. I have great respect for you and J.

  4. I admire how the both of you stuck at the marriage for as long as you did, that in itself is quite amazing.
    Sadly, your ex wife's story is one that any women mirror. I'm just so glad that today 'reporting rates' are higher than ever.

  5. I'm not sure, but I thought you might like our blog. There's kid related info and health resources. Check it out and let me know what you think. Thanks!

  6. Wow, Nick! I bet you need a break after that. You and your ex-wife must be very strong people though. I'm sorry your marriage was also a casualty - neither of you deserved that, as it was her father who was the criminal.

    Thanks for the insights and the book links!

    lil sis

  7. Nick, that was so sad and hard to read. I cannot imagine how hard it was for you to write. It is through people like yourself that this issue will be brought to attention, and hopefully, if not addressed at least thought of. There are so many victims. People that will never have the courage to tell their story. To make other people aware. They are the ones who need people like you who are strong enough to tell their story for them.

    Thank you Nick. Much love,

  8. Wow, this was a very sensitive post---and just very insightful for what people of abuse go through, as well as how hard it is on their loved ones to witness this.

    I’m unfamiliar with this all, but I can only assume the reason she couldn’t remember it all was because of the traumatic events that took place; which ultimately puts your mind on ‘self-defense’ mode and shuts down.

    I’m so sorry for what you and your wife went through. That had to be hard to deal with. Sounds like you loved and still do love her very much. You’re very supportive as far as researching how to cope and handle it all, by reading more on it. I admire that a lot in you. Some people would just cast it aside and not look into it, as you did. You’re an amazing person with the ability to understand people.

    As far as her choosing a lesbian lifestyle, I can say it made her feel ‘safer’, I can say it makes her feel ‘calmer’, but all in all, if it was someone she fell in love with, I’m not sure if incest or anything traumatic in the past had anything to do with it. People fall in love---regardless of gender. I hope that’s not weighing heavy on your mind.

    The best to you, and thank you so much for being so open!

  9. It is difficult to write about ones experience and what makes your story so compelling is that you write without a trace of self pity or blame.

    I've recently written the first 10 years of my memoir and that was a harrowing experience. However it was also very liberating. In a few weeks I'll write about the following ten years, to show how society perpetuated the 'silence' you mentioned by not allowing me to talk about the subject - to anyone.

    I admire you Nick and feel compassion for you as a person. I am glad that today, there is help for people who've suffered so they can move forward and live full lives.

    Your sensitive approach to this subject is a credit to you. Thank you for sharing your story.

  10. I can feel the pain you and your wife went through. Thank you for sharing. Someday I may have the courage to share my own story.

  11. What an experience. Thirty years of marriage---that's huge. So much of the focus is on the victim, which is appropriate, but sometimes the person living with the one going through the healing process has almost the harder time of it. I sure feel for your experience, and I'm glad that your wife had the courage to confront and conquer the hard stuff. So tragic that you and your marriage were a "casualty".

    Thank you for sharing....

  12. WOnderful how you stood by your wife through all of that. It must have been hard from the beginning. I rather wish your would have punched her father in the mouth rather than asking "for her hand." I rather wish I could punch him myself.

  13. Thank you. I read that twice. It really touched me. My girlfriend was molested by her uncle many times. I will get the books you talk about. Maybe they will help me understand what is going on with her and why she so often confuses me.

  14. heartbreaking and very powerful. Thanks for sharing.

  15. Nick:
    Your story really touched me. I'm a survivor and sometimes wonder why my wife has stuck with me through 18 years. Through the therapy... and the bouts of depression... and the flashbacks... and everything else that comes with recovery from incest.

    Anyone who sticks with a survivor through recovery deserves a gold star on their forehead. It is not an easy task ever.

    I wish my wife, though, had your resolve, to learn about how to help. And how to reach out to others who are in the same boat. She rejects all offers of therapy, of marriage counseling, of self-help books.... and often suffers in silence and sadness.

    I applaud both you and your ex-wife for your strength and love. I do wish, though, that you had rammed your fist down the throat of your ex-father in law.

    He certainly deserved jail or worse, but somehow the image of your fist and his throat is just so much more satisfying.


  16. I thank each of you for your comments. I want and am going to respond to each. Usually, I post one comment and address all of the comments I have received in it. However, I have much to say to many of you and so I have decided write a specific comment in response to each of your comments. I shall write in the order in which I received the comments, so, if you are down the line, please check back. I shall respond to all by the end of this weekend.

  17. Rev Richard Fowler—Rick, I sincerely appreciate you reading my blog and your comment. Although we have just recently become acquainted, I feel I know you well since you are the brother of my dear friend and pastor, Doug (who, by the way, has supplied many of the jokes I have posted on Mondays).

    When you write that the post resonates with you in regard to your first marriage, I can only guess at what pain she and you endured.

    What you deem as “my generosity” I termed as my “love”—unconditional love—for my ex-wife. As I continue with my responses to other comments, I will most probably expand on my understanding of “unconditional.”

    I think we “learn” what we need to learn when the time is right and we are open to leaning. I also believe that that “learning” involves an acceptance of what, as Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer indicated, cannot be changed.

    Thanks again for your comments.

  18. THOMAS—Thank you for your words, my friend. It took me a while to decide to share this story. I did so exactly because of the words you wrote: “A personal story has much more of an impact that reams of sterile statistics.” Yet, sharing a personal story is also a risk and makes one very vulnerable. I realized this before I wrote it.

    After my niece told my mother what I had written in this post, she was (and still is) displeased. In her words, I should not have “hung my dirty laundry out for others to see.” She is also afraid that my ex-wife will sue me, especially since I mentioned she is a Lesbian.

    In my discussion with my mother I pointed out: (1) keeping the “secret” is what allows incest to continue to exist; (2) the silence was broken not only when my ex-wife prosecuted her father, but before that (see next paragraph); and (3) my ex-wife will not sue me because she does not hide the fact of her Lesbian lifestyle, but is an activist.

    Something unique and important that I did not put in my post took place around the time of the persecution of my ex-father-in-law. I pointed out that the only one in her family who supported my ex-wife in the prosecution was her youngest sister, who happened to then work for Kentucky Public Radio (she now works for Kentucky Educational Television). Three radio spots were produced telling the story of the incest in their family, specifically featuring my ex-wife and her wiliness to break the silence and prosecute. The series won an award and was picked up by National Public Radio, condensed, and broadcast on NPR.

    I sincerely hope that sharing the story does help folks. At the very least, may other understand that they are not alone in their pain and that there are resources to help them.

    Thanks again for your kind words.

  19. AZSONOFAGUN—Thank you, Rex. Yes, I believe it was difficult for them. It wasn’t until after he was married that Rob, my #2 son, told me about his feelings and some of what he went through. I am truly sorry and disturbed that I did not see what was happening to Rob. Nick, my #1 son, refuses to discuss his issues, which also grieves me.

    Again, thank you for your comment.

  20. MICHELLE—Thank you. I suppose that, even though it is over, a 30-year marriage is rather amazing these days. I understand that the percentage of women who have been sexually abused at least once before the age of 18 is now estimated at one in three—at least in the United States. I know that I have met many. My ex-wife has helped many and I suppose I have also.

    Thank you again for your comment—and even more so for the work you do for sexually abused kids.

  21. GEOPP-WATCH—Thank you for your comments. I have visited the blog sites you have related to Dr. Julius G. K. Goepp and I am impressed with the work he/you are doing. Many blessings and much shalom to you.

  22. LITTLE SISTER—Yes, I do need a bit of space after writing that one. That’s also why I am responding to the comments one at a time, as I am able. I sometimes have wonder if , had I known more about incest and sexual abuse and its long term effects on the victims, I would have married my ex-wife. I have no answer to that question. I do believe that what we went though was evil and the results of an evil act by a very evil man.

    I often temper describing my ex-father-in-law to myself as evil because I know that he was severely physically abused throughout his childhood. But I tell myself that, had I been so abused, I would do everything I could not to pass the abuse on to my own children.

    I hope the book links are beneficial to those who follow them. Both books are relatively old, but both are excellent resources.

    Again, thanks for your comments!

  23. Don’t blame yourself, Nick, for how the incest affected Nick and Rob. It was horrific for all of you. I am thankful that you all lived and are able to tell the tale.

  24. JD’s ROSE—Yes, it was very difficult for me to write it, even though I have shared the story before in workshops for partners of incest survivors. No, let me correct that: I shared the story in workshops along with my ex-wife before we separated.

    I agree: there are many victims/survivors—and there are many people who love them. As Ken Graber says so well in his book, loving a survivor of incest is difficult because the survivor’s sense of love was shattered in his/her childhood by the adult—parent, grandparent, uncle, aunt—who was supposed to love the survivor but exploited that love for the perpetrator’s own twisted pleasure.

    Thank you for your affirmation. If this post and my response to its contents can open doors and understand for even one incest survivor or the partner of one, then I have done what I intended to do.

  25. You're quite a man. I could not have done what you have done.

  26. Hello Nick ~~ What courage to write that story. What your poor ex-wife went through as well as her sisters.
    What a rotten individual her father was. You were really great to go through all that with her and to have been such a help. I salute you.
    I am sure your story has helped others
    who were abused. Thirty years is a
    long time to stay together under the
    circumstances. Thanks for sharing.

  27. Hello Nick

    I commend you for your honesty and openness. My wife alos was abused by her family in so many ways. I cannot tell you number of times I wanted to beat the living crud out of so many people. The direct outcome of her abuse was she became multiple to survive. her traumas were so repeated that she ended up a "mega-multiple". Her bothers and sister were also abused, so far 2 of her brothers have admitted such. Most of the people who abused them or arranged for it are dead now, but the effects live on. Aunts and Uncles who did nothing still will not discuss and sadly are covering up for a son of the uncle who abused my wife. His son has carried on the family tradition. When my wife found out she called family serviecs and reported him. The rest of the family was aghast!!! How could she? It makes me sick. What makes me even angrier is our children who were told to some degree what happened to their mother to bring about the multiplicity, do not support her anymore. when they were home they did, but when they got married their attitude changed, to the point of excluding us from thier lives. We don't fit in the mold of "normal" parents or in-laws. We have been married for 36 years this September, we report abuse, we distance ourselves from people who abuse, emotionally as well as physically, our attitude is if you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem. It sounds like you and your exwife tried to work it all out, I respect both of you for your efforts and your feelings, all of which i agree with.

  28. The pain and the memories of abuse can arise and present themselves in the most unexpected places and ways. The words, "just get over it" are callous and what the person who speaks them does not realize is that there is nothing we would rather do. However, even when we think we have, we will realize in the most vulnerable moments and in the simpliest everyday tasks, that even when we think we have, we have not and we never will.

    I realize this is an odd thing to ask, but when it gets closer to the date for the blogger event, can you remind me?

  29. This was very difficult for me to read as a married survivor of sexual abuse, but I thank you for writing it. What a powerful, important post. You are a very special individual, to have seen your wife through this and to have endured your divorce with the level of grace and acceptance that you show here.

  30. Your story is amazing and so poignant. Thank you for sharing it.

  31. Thank you for your courage to write this most helpful post and for including it in this month’s Blog Carnival against Abuse. Like others who have commented here, I am touched by your grace, faithfulness, integrity, and love.

    I know how emotional it is to revisit painful experiences in written word. Yours is the most heartfelt and eloquent story I have read from the partner perspective.

    Thank you for providing a wonderful model for a community of survivors and partners.

  32. Nick,
    I so admire how you stood by your wife and tried to get your hands on as much info as you could that would help you in understanding her pain as she tried to heal.

    I tried marriage 4 times myself, and none of them lasted. At the time I had no clue why, for I hadn't even begun to deal with my abusive childhood until the last marriage.

    There are so many fallouts from incest and sexual abuse--it's not just the victims themselves.

    I'm sorry you and your wife didn't make it, but I admire the fact that you hold no bitterness towards her.


  33. I read all 4 of your linked articles on incest. Thank you for your insights and the information you shared. I am the partner of an incest survivor.

  34. Nick, thank you so much for allowing us to include this excellent series in this month's edition of THE BLOG CARNIVAL AGAINST CHILD ABUSE. I'm just getting to know you and your blogging through Enola and I hadn't read these posts, so I'm glad you resurrected them! I hope you will consider joining us again for the carnival. You write with such compassion and I appreciate all the links. Details are always at my blog each month, as I maintain this particular carnival. (Thanks a lot for including the BC widget on your sidebar as well. We appreciate your support and advocacy.)

  35. Whar sad story. I am so sorry you and your wife had to go through it.

  36. This is becoming a very famous post, Reverend Nick. I encounter references and links to it all over the Internet. Thank you, dear sir, for your openness, honesty, vulnerability, and the courage it must have taken to share this story.

  37. I followed the links from Rhapsody's blog. This story is so close to what happened to me and my sisters that it gives me chills. I never thought that others were abused by their father like us. Thank you for sharing this. If writing it was as painful for you as reading it was for me, it took courage to share. By sharing the story you have helped me more than I can explain. Thnank you!!!!!!!!!

  38. I just found your article. All I can say is THANK YOU.