Sexual Abuse and the System: Fighting Back

A year ago I wrote a story on my use of anti-depressant drugs and my experiences in the mental health system.

My subsequent choice against anti-depressants has led me into a different arena–the criminal justice system.

Last February, I made several police statements implicating two uncles (one for allegedly molesting me when I was about three or four years old, and another for allegedly doing the same to my brothers); my mother and stepfather; and two other men (for allegedly raping me when I was 17). When I mailed the letters to the out-of-province jurisdictions in which the incidents occurred, I expected a simple “I’m sorry,” in response. Instead, I find myself at the root of a massive investigation. Each day, I grasp better its effects on my life.

What prompted such action? It began with my choice to be drug-free. But it really began when I started to write. I took a writing class and though I risked being dubbed ‘morbid,’ I let my main characters reflect what I know best: feeling small and ineffectual, not believing I had rights (while others around me seemed to know everything they were entitled to), and coping with the despair of a seemingly-bleak life.

One of the scenes I described in a story–of being locked in a dark attic–began to haunt me over the weeks. “Our captivity time I gauged by my need for a bathroom. When acute abdominal pain was replaced by a leaden ache, I knew they meant business.” As this echoed in my mind, it slowly began to make sense. This was about ME.

Then something else happened which heightened this focus.
After a three-day drinking binge, my brother Tim suddenly just died. He had just been released from jail where he served six weeks time for beating his girlfriend.

My reactions were varied. On one hand, I couldn’t believe it. So soon after Dad died, hadn’t I already paid my dues for a while? On the other hand, I felt angry and guilty. I rarely sent him letters and never told him I loved him. Then again, I was jealous that by dying he had found an ‘out’ from the suffering that had gone on for generations in our family. Yes. I was happy that it was over for him.

Meanwhile, my other brother vowed he would kill the uncle he held responsible for Tim’s death. Bulimia ravaged the health of my sister. I was feeling fairly strong, but still not immune to moments of despair. No matter how strong we are, everyone has a limit. Now, seeing those remaining in my family dying in front of my eyes, I slowly reached mine.

I took the first step of many to save us all from the same fate as Tim.

In February, in my letter to the police, I told them about what my parents had allegedly done to us. The response a month later said my allegations were serious.

In May, I wrote again about being allegedly raped at 17.

I had reported this before, in 1987, while I was still on medication. At the time my account was too vague for the Crown to proceed with a case. Now that I was drug-free, I came up with an additional nine pages of clearer detail about what had happened.

Early this summer, I had my first face-to-face interview with a detective from the Sex Offence Squad in Vancouver about the alleged sexual assault at age four.

I was nervous because I thought I wouldn’t be believed. I expected to be ‘charged’ with having false memory syndrome, a new so-called syndrome alleging that a woman’s memories of child sexual abuse are false. This pronouncement is used to discredit those who come forth to report.

The paperwork was endless. I refused to sign a release allowing the police access to my medical records. I was afraid they would label me unbalanced. I had to fill in a Criminal Injuries Compensation form, which is essentially a victim impact statement. The final step was naming my siblings as having knowledge of the alleged assaults.

My brother went through a hard time in the interview he had with Ontario police. Two strangers, hiding behind badges, plunked down a tape recorder and a stack of spare batteries, and demanded he tell them “all about it.” How could they be allowed to be so insensitive? My brother, who has never spoken in intimate detail about his alleged abused, was now expected to trust these two male cops. It is difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to give the kind of detail needed for such a statement. Even with the language to describe what has happened, you still have to break through the feeling of intense shame.

Because of their approach, that meeting was short and a flop.

My sister, however, didn’t regret her experience with the police. Even though she told me this wasn’t exactly the right time for her to do this, she agreed to do an interview just to help me. Later, I heard she corroborated every detail of my account in an interview that lasted almost four hours.

Then the officers made a mistake. While asking my sister if she knew about me being raped, they mentioned it would be a shame if the case went to court. When they said my first attacker would ‘slit his wrists’ if he was publicly charged, they showed their bias in favour of the accused. I couldn’t believe it. I berated myself for being so gullible. No cop in a small town, where everybody knows everybody, is going to care about the truth. I realized from their mistake that I had to work harder to get a fair chance.

I then spent weeks mailing letters to the Ministry of the Attorney General, the Human Rights Commission, the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, the Action Committee on Public Violence Against Women and Children, ex-therapists, old friends, and rape crisis centres. To date, this has worked. People have pressured the police department, asked questions, written character references and supported my efforts … and even taught me more about my rights.

My next step was to write a letter of complaint to the sergeant of the officers who had interviewed my sister, and a carbon copy to his superior as well.

This brought results! After being told for months that the police had no personnel or time for the case, suddenly the final interviews with witnesses were done. My case proceeded to the Crown Attorney.

After this, I collapsed for a week. Then I found out about the library at the Law Courts, where I was referred to Martin’s Criminal Code, 1977 I still had some trouble labelling the abuse I had survived as a ‘crime.’ But I was shocked at what I found. Inconceivably, Section 43 justifies force to correct a child ” …if…[it] does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances.”

When Section 43 was still the law, an officer had been sent to visit my home. We were not removed from the house and charges were not laid against my parents. (The alleged charges they could face are: failure to provide the necessities of life; unlawful confinement; indecent exposure; sexual interference; conspiracy to commit rape, assault and assault causing bodily harm; cruelty; and abandonment).

Knowing the officer did nothing left me assuming either one or both of two things: they considered it ‘reasonable’ to beat girls with bats, or that they didn’t want to jeopardize their friendship with my parents. Swift action at the time could have altered so much! [I can’t even think about it. It causes such pain to me.]

Apart from the emotional and psychological costs, the financial tally is staggering. I had to juggle my finances to pay for eleven hospitalizations, three surgeries, regular periods of uninsured time off work, fourteen years of paying for therapy and for innumerable remedies for a stubborn back injury. It left me bankrupt and bereft.

With my non-payment of debts including an old student loan, the government considers me a typical default and refuses ever to give me one again. I am launching an appeal because I am determined to go to school again.

This process, from day one, has been fraught with so much, I’d never truly known my pain until it began–the sadness, fear, and crippling doubt. Nor did I realize the potency of a fine mind and inner grit.

Yet, when forced to acknowledge my power, I often felt upset. The steps I had taken have challenged my brother and sister, who are just beginning their own healing process, to move faster and further than they might have on their own. Occasionally, I wished I could turn back the clock. Still, my gut told me I did what I had to do.

We’re all weathering the legalities better now. My sister seems relieved she’s having the opportunity to talk about it. She’s learning how to be a survivor, getting help in dealing with her feelings, and even makes jokes, “You’re pretty gutsy, Thompson. Do you suppose, the next time you might try bungee jumping?”

Even my brother is beginning to sound more relaxed. When we spoke last, he alluded to the exhilaration of not bottling up his pain, “I’m going to start charging anyone who twitches!”

I hope these positive responses will continue a long time, but will offer them my help if things get bad again.

Me? On the bad days, I claw for my life. I worry about everything, like being perceived as bitter and cold, or as some sort of gold-digger. Am I prone to the mother-blaming that society teaches? Or is my anger as balanced as the scales of justice should be?

Once, the words ‘arrest’ and ‘handcuffs’ made me feel sick. I imagined the reaction of my parents if the police tried to pick them up, and felt guilty and afraid of them. This led to me try excusing them for what they allegedly did to me, to seeing them as victims themselves. For example, they had simply acted out on me “the result of the accumulated feelings, rules, interactions, and beliefs … [that had been] handed down [to them]. (Toxic Parents by Dr. Susan Forward.)

And, with a warped package like that, how could they possibly prepare “…an independent young adult to leave home, develop a network of supportive friends, feel autonomy yet committment in intimate relationships, develop a career and earn a living, possess interest in community and feel value in the world, be responsible to self and others, parent emotionally healthy children, face traumas, grieve losses, experience joy, face death?” (Children of Trauma, Jane Middelton-Moz).

Yet, in allegedly choosing brute force to express their unresolved conflict, they made me easy prey in the world. Held captive by their teachings and incessant self-trashing, I was vulnerable to everyone bigger than me or in a position of authority, including the proverbial ‘boy next door.’

No more. I won’t let another negative Crown decision translate into making me think that I am expendable. What these people have done to my life has had many consequences. I know a trial costs money and the Crown may decide it isn’t worth it to proceed. I choose not to let the value of my life hinge on something so subjective. Nobody will wield that kind of clout in my life ever again–not the police, the Crown Attorney, or those who question my decision to use the criminal justice system.

When things are going well, I allow myself to savour the tiniest of triumphs. Taking this risk is about love, empathy, and the very best of intentions. I’ve inspired people around me by my choice to fight and stay alive. That makes me happy but uncomfortable; it sets off accusation-like tapes in my head, “You think you’re better than us,” “I’ll bring you down from that high horse,” and “Look at the ego on this one!” I still struggle with these things.

I accept the responsibilities that are mine to own. I’m not responsible, however, for the behavior of others, nor the decree still pending from a bureaucratic hiccup.

All names changed to protect the identities of the people in this article. Marie Thompson is a pseudonym.

This article was originally published in September 1993, in Kinesis, a small local newspaper, which is now out of business.

3 Replies to “Sexual Abuse and the System: Fighting Back

    1. Linda, I don’t know how to tell you how much your support means! Your words have been a joy to me every time I was feeling broken-hearted or beaten down. Thanks so much!

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