• Editor's Note
 • President's Message
 • Disclosure and Confrontation
 • Taking the Fifth:
Hawkins, Antelope, and Jacobsen,
and How They Affect ATSA
 • Motivational Interviewing
in the Treatment of Sexual Abusers:
An introduction
 • The ATSA Data Sharing Service:
A New Online Tool to Facilitate Data Sharing Between Clinicians and Researchers
 • Book Review:
The Prevention of Sexual Violence
 • Book Review:
Grendon and the Emergence of Forensic Therapeutic Communities
 • Book Review:
Understanding, Assessing, and Rehabilitating Juvenile Sexual Offenders
 • Book Review:
Assessment and Treatment of Sexual Offenders with Intellectual Disabilities
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Robin J. Wilson
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Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers
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Vol. XXIII, No. 3
Summer 2011
Disclosure and Confrontation

Although most of us work with sexual abusers in some capacity, fewer of us also work with victims. We may have the opportunity to help a victim confront his or her perpetrator and that can give a sense of closure or finality in treatment. The bottom line for a survivor of sexual abuse often is feeling validated by family members, a therapist, or other significant people in his or her life and, when possible, acknowledged by the perpetrator that it wasn’t his or her fault for the abuse. For many survivors, disclosing the abuse and being supported is very important. Confronting the abuser can be empowering for many. It is also helpful for the abuser to acknowledge his responsibility for the abuse and perhaps helping the survivor with his/her healing.

Since many sexual abusers have a history of sexual victimization, it is important to address these issues in treatment. The abuser may not have disclosed his own victimization until he was caught for abusing another. This article can provide the clinician with tips as to how disclosure and, if appropriate, confrontation can enhance understanding of the effects of abuse on abusing clients as well as victim(s). This is excerpted from my book, Evicting the Perpetrator: A Male Survivor’s Guide to Recovery from Childhood Sexual Abuse. It is written primarily for survivors, although clinicians and others from his support system can also benefit.

Disclosure is the act of telling someone about secret or private information. With victims and survivors of sexual abuse, disclosure may occur immediately after the abuse or years later. Sometimes it is a planned or purposeful disclosure. Other times it is forced or accidental, or may come out in a therapy session where there was no intention to discuss it or any conscious recollection of the abuse. Disclosure may be made to a partner or spouse who is unaware of the abuse, a non-offending parent or relative, sibling, friend, teacher, or other person the survivor believes should know.

Confrontation is directed at the person who hurt you. It lets the person know that what he/she did is unacceptable and attempts to get the person to acknowledge that the abuse was his or her fault and responsibility. Confrontation is a serious step for the survivor and should be taken only with careful planning and support to avoid potentially damaging consequences.

The two acts, disclosure and confrontation, need to be well thought out to ensure success and reduce the possibility of additional trauma for the survivor. In most situations, a survivor who is considering a confrontation with his abusers should disclose the abuse to someone first. There are reasons why disclosure should precede confrontation – if confrontation is going to take place at all. In many cases, confrontation is not recommended (but more on that later).

Some may wonder whether disclosure or confrontation will have possible legal ramifications. Although most states, provinces, and nations have statutes of limitation defining how long after a crime is committed one can press criminal charges or sue in civil court, many laws are changing due to the widespread challenges from victims of abuse. Generally speaking, criminal charges are subject to shorter periods of time when such actions can take place, and civil lawsuits (for financial compensation rather than prison sentences) have a longer time frame to initiate litigation.

Disclosure

As noted above, disclosure can be planned, forced, accidental, or therapy-related. Forced disclosure occurs when the victim or survivor has no intention to disclose the abuse; it may come about if, for example, the perpetrator is arrested for another offense and confesses that he has also abused someone else who did not want to be identified as a victim. This may be the case when there are multiple victims, such as with abused siblings or where the perpetrator has abused several children and gives up the names of children who did not want to disclose the abuse.

Accidental disclosure may also come about when a victim knows of others who were abused and names them to authorities. Sometimes the disclosure comes about when there is an investigation, such as at a school or church, and the authorities talk to others who were there at the time. A disclosure of this kind may likewise come about when a victim’s diary or journal is discovered; the abused boy may talk about the abuse, but not with any plans of disclosing. The problem may also be brought to light when someone suspects abuse after seeing the victim’s drawings or behaviors and raises his or her suspicions with a therapist or the authorities. It may also happen if someone walks in on the adult and child in a sexual situation and the child has no choice but to admit or report what happened. The same situation would arise when a parent or physician discovers physical signs, such as blood on a boy’s clothing or an injury caused by the abuse.

A semi-accidental disclosure might be the drunken confession of an adult survivor. A woman began seeing me because her younger brother, while intoxicated, tearfully told her that their uncle had molested him years ago. Later, when he was sober, he said that he never intended to tell her, and although he tried to portray the disclosure as “the alcohol talking”, it was now out in the open and she had to deal with her feelings and desire to comfort and take care of him as well as her upset with their uncle.

Therapy-related disclosure occurs when the person is in therapy for some problem other than sexual abuse. It may come out when the person is in treatment for depression, substance abuse, sexual problems, or some other issue. The person has no intention to disclose, but the therapist puts “two and two together” and asks the client if he was sexually abused.

However the abuse is disclosed, the information is now out there and it is up to the survivor to begin the process of healing or continue to avoid dealing with it.

Goals for Disclosure

The disclosure we are talking about here is the planned kind. In this disclosure, the survivor has decided that someone should know about the abuse, and he has certain goals for sharing the information. He should, in fact, have goals or reasons for disclosure before telling others. Some of the reasons expressed by survivors include:

Validation – gaining acknowledgment and support from significant others. It may be helpful to the survivor’s healing to know someone believes him. This may also help elicit additional information not consciously known to the survivor, such as confirming that the perpetrator had also abused others in the family, or details that can confirm that the abuse memories are true.

Explanation of Past or Present Behaviors – giving others a better understanding of why the survivor may display sexual dysfunctions, trust issues, avoidance of certain family members, depression, or seemingly irrational fears.

Protecting Others – letting someone know that his/her children may not be safe around a particular person who abused the survivor years ago. Many survivors are willing to maintain the secret until there are vulnerable children who might be at risk by the abuser. Frequently a survivor will decide he needs to disclose when the person who abused him, a sibling, for example, has children. Or it might be an undisclosed abusive parent who would be babysitting for a sibling’s child.

Discrediting the Perpetrator/Revenge – getting back at the perpetrator (“You made me suffer, now it’s your turn”).

Ventilation – just wanting to let it out and tell others because it breaks the secret and helps the survivor to deal with feelings of shame.

Support – disclosing the abuse in a therapy or support group, on a discussion forum or chat room may help the survivor develop a sense of community when his own family isn’t ready or able to hear about the abuse and be supportive to him.

Sympathy – this is a little different than just explaining past behaviors. This is more of a “poor me” approach. It may also be a means of justifying the inability to do certain things. It may also be used to create an identity of being a victim. A person who indiscriminately tells everyone about his/her abuse may be disclosing to gain sympathy.

Preparation for a Confrontation – is the planned act of disclosing to a key person or people who will be available to support the survivor in an eventual confrontation with the perpetrator.

There are other reasons, some positive and others possibly self-defeating, that survivors have for disclosing the abuse. Unless the disclosure is being done to protect children from an unrevealed perpetrator, the disclosure should be for the benefit of the survivor and not part of someone else’s agenda (and that includes therapists who insist that a survivor disclose or confront). The decision to disclose and to whom to disclose should be the survivor’s. It should not be the decision of the therapist, family, or friends.

The act of disclosure may be liberating and supportive for the survivor, or it can have some negative consequences. Disclosure poses a serious dilemma where control is concerned. While the survivor keeps the secret, he has control of that information because the offender is not likely to tell anyone, but the price he pays for that control is often high. He has to live with the consequences of the abuse, and family and friends may have no clue that some of his behaviors or problems have their roots in the still-secret abuse. Disclosing, on the other hand, gives others that information, which is now no longer under the survivor’s control. However, in weighing the reasons for disclosing or maintaining the secret, it is most often in the survivor’s interest to disclose; the trick is how to do so successfully.

Disclosure is usually most successful when the survivor has good reasons to tell someone and has planned his disclosure with these reasons in mind. For example, a survivor who wants to announce to the family at Grandmother’s 90th birthday party that Uncle Bill abused him 30 years ago may have good intentions, but the timing might be ill-considered.

Who, What, Where, When, How, and Why

Who you tell, what you say, where and when you say it, how you bring it up, as well as why you are disclosing, are all important considerations to this decision. Some survivors have considered disclosing to a significant other for many years. If the survivor considers these six factors, he can lay the foundations for a purposeful disclosure that can give him a greater chance of success.

Who do you want to know? Select a person who is most likely to believe and support you, even if the most important person you want to tell will have to wait. For example, if you need to tell your mother that your father abused you but you’re unsure of her reaction, disclosing to a partner, friend, or other relative may provide you with support before addressing the issue with Mom. It will also give you another perspective on how to best address the person you primarily want to tell. So, running it by Aunt Martha first may be a better way to bring it up to Mom.

What you decide to disclose can be a difficult area for survivors. What you tell them can be difficult, with either too much information or not enough. For some people, insufficient information may lead to speculation that the worst possible abuses occurred while, for others, too much information can put terrible images in the listener’s mind for years to come. Generally, it might be best to ask whether the person you are disclosing to wants graphic information (if you are willing to share that) or just the basic details.

Where you disclose is important. As a general rule, private places are better than public places, but if you fear a negative or perhaps threatening reaction to the disclosure, a public place, such as a restaurant, may give you more safety. In general, it is better to be on turf with which you are more comfortable or familiar (your therapist’s office, for example).

When you choose to disclose is a consideration. You will want the person’s full attention and time to process the news. Telling someone who is going out the door to work is probably not a good idea, for example, and late at night may not be the best time to disclose. If you do not have nearby contact with the person to whom you plan to disclose, you may want to factor in some post-disclosure time. For example, suppose you are visiting your parents, who live hundreds or thousands of miles away. Telling them about the abuse on the last day of your visit might deprive them of face-to-face time that they will need to process their reaction and share their feelings with you in person.

Why is about identifying your goal(s) for disclosing. It is also about why you are disclosing to this particular person, and “why now?” Sometimes disclosure can be made to multiple people. When a celebrity discloses his/her childhood abuse in the media, it may be to focus attention on the problem of sexual abuse and bring it to the public’s notice.

How to tell may be face-to-face, over the phone or in a letter. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. Many people feel that breaking serious news needs to be done face-to-face. However, in some situations, particularly where there might be a negative reaction or the person could divert you from the direction you are trying to go, a phone call or letter may be better. The letter may be the best choice in cases where the survivor has difficulty expressing himself with words while feeling pressure, or the person he is telling has a tendency to interrupt or side-track the conversation.

If you choose to disclose in a phone call, writing out what you plan to say before you make the call is generally preferred to speaking off the top of your head. If you want to go with a script or notes, you may want to tell the person on the other end of the phone to let you speak uninterrupted and you will answer questions later.

Letter advantage

The letter format or writing out what you want to say ahead of time can be very helpful in that it will allow you to state clearly and precisely what needs to be said. It can be revised numerous times, if necessary, until it communicates just what the survivor wants to say. The recipient of the letter also has the advantage that he or she can re-read the letter and process it with someone else, if necessary. There is also little chance that the recipient will hear you incorrectly or misinterpret what you have to say, as can happen if you disclose verbally. It also keeps the discussion focused on what you want to say; that is, there is less chance that it will turn into an argument or provoke the refutation that it could not have happened as the survivor remembers, or other diversions that the listener may throw out.

Having helped many survivors with both disclosure and confrontation, I believe the letter format, even if seen as somewhat impersonal compared to a phone call or in person, is a much better way to go.

           

Once you have gone through this process of looking at the purpose and target of your proposed disclosure, you can disclose with a greater assurance that you will be successful. It is generally helpful that you discuss this with a therapist experienced in working with survivors, preferably one who knows you and your background. The therapist can be available for critiquing or playing Devil’s Advocate, practicing for the disclosure as well as being a source of support should the process not go well.

Disclosure to a family member can inadvertently involve others. In many cases of sexual abuse within the family, disclosure can create a major upset that may force family members to take sides. Where the family secret has been in place for years or even generations, disclosure can have serious consequences, including blaming the victim or a uniform denial that the abuse ever took place. The decision to disclose abuse in a dysfunctional family system must be weighed for the potential good it may do for the survivor and future potential victims, versus the family’s need to deny the truth and maintain destructive secrets.

Negative responses

There are several kinds of negative responses the survivor can receive from family members who are unwilling or unable to believe or fully support the survivor. One kind would involve calling the survivor a liar or questioning his memory or interpretation of events. The person hearing the disclosure may flat out deny that this could have happened in the family or by that person. They may question whether the memory is just a dream or misinterpretation of affection or physical contact. Or they may insist that they were always around and would have known if something like that had happened. I have heard many parents claim that the abuse could not have happened because they “were always around”. People sleep, do chores, go to the bathroom, or do other activities that could allow abuse to take place.

Another type of response is a minimization of the events. This can happen with statements like, “That was a long time ago. You should be over it by now.” Or they may try to put a guilt trip on your statement by stating that this should not be spread around because people will become upset (the concern more on the others rather than the survivor). Another example of a minimizing response is the one sometimes encountered by survivors abused by women who, when they disclose, are told that they “just got lucky”. A similarly minimizing response is the one that labels the abuse “experimentation” on the part of the abuser, or assumes that the victim “wanted it” to occur because he never told anyone while it was going on.

A third type of response is one that shows a distorted sense of priorities, with the survivor’s situation and needs being acknowledged but set aside in favor of other concerns. A parent told by his or her son that the other parent has abused him may recognize the victim’s need for support, but still find it difficult to provide this, fearing the collapse or disintegration of the family. Family members and partners may also be apprehensive about damage that could be done to the reputation of the family or themselves if the survivor decides to take public or legal action against the abuser.

Yet another kind of response is one that feels judgmental. It may truly be judgmental or it may feel like judgment. Statements like, “Why didn’t you say something?”, “Does this mean you are gay now?”, or “I would have done something if you had told me” likely will feel like judgments. Being prepared for negative or disappointing responses from those to whom you disclose can reduce the impact that such statements have for you.

Even in families that are not dysfunctional, otherwise supportive people can say things that feel or actually are not supportive of the survivor. The survivor should be prepared to hear statements and questions that may indicate the lack of knowledge and understanding of sexual abuse or its effects on males or the individual who is disclosing. That is, a statement like, “I don’t understand why you didn’t tell me years ago,” may sound judgmental or critical. It may just be coming from a caring person who is trying to let you know that s/he would have done something if s/he had only known at the time.

You may need to be more understanding of the person’s apparent lack of consideration, assuming the comments or questions are not malicious. In this connection it’s worth remembering that even today most people know very little about sexual child abuse and its impact on survivors; a response to your disclosure that may strike you as negative or disappointing may well just mean that the person you are telling has no idea what to say or how to help. Here is another reason why your support system needs to be in place; you may receive a negative response, even from those you trust.

In families where such a disclosure would be unwelcome and create animosity towards the survivor, it may not be in the survivor’s best interest to disclose to them. Many survivors have come to the conclusion that they cannot expect any support from a dysfunctional parent, relative, or family. So, if your family is that “toxic”, or if they are going to punish you for disclosing, think about someone else you can disclose to who will be more supportive and understanding.

Disclosure works best when it is well thought out, has clear purposes, and increases the sense of empowerment for the survivor. Even if the abuse is not disclosed to anyone in the abuser’s family, disclosure can be very beneficial to the survivor and his support network. Disclosure to a supportive community such as a therapy group or survivor bulletin board or chat room can be more therapeutic and safer than disclosing to members of the abusive family system.

Remember, disclosure is really about empowerment. If the intended target for disclosure is not going to be supportive, find someone else who will be.

Confrontation with the Perpetrator

           

Confrontation can be healing and empowering, but it also has the potential to cause additional emotional and possibly even physical harm to the survivor. It should not be taken lightly or done impulsively. The survivor who plans to confront his perpetrator should go through the disclosure process and have a competent therapist review and help him plan for a safe confrontation. Confrontation is usually best done in a letter format and should not be done without sufficient planning. In particular, it should consider contingency plans should something go amiss.

Most abusers fear confrontation from their victims.

All the fear you have had over the years, all that shame and anger, refer to someone who is likely afraid of the power you have now. Like bullies, abusers are effective in their power only as long as the person they are controlling is unable or unwilling to fight back, stand up, or reject their demands. In my years of working with adolescent and adult sexual abusers, I have worked with many abusers who would welcome a confrontation with their victims because they are truly sorry for what they have done. This generally does not occur until they have developed some understanding of the effects of their abuse on the victim and have really looked within themselves to recognize their total responsibility for the abuse.

Emotional vs. Rational

It is amazing at times to have a conversation with a survivor who goes back and forth between being his emotional child and his rational adult. It was, after all, the child who experienced the abuse, and his insight, feelings, understanding, etc. were all from a child’s perspective. The adult survivor, however, can use his now-adult intellect, knowledge, and emotions to process the experience from the adult perspective.

The survivor may be stuck in the childhood emotional state or go back and forth between this state and that of the rational adult. If the survivor can examine this totally in the adult state, he may have actually resolved the abuse or can defend himself well from all the emotions he previously experienced. Remember, the abuse created an emotional wound for the child. The fear, confusion, betrayal and other feelings associated with the abuse rest in the emotional part of the brain.

The adult has the resources and knowledge he did not have as a child. He can process the memories without reliving the actual abuse again. When he analyzes the safety he now has as an adult, he can recognize the emotions are coming from the child within. At least that is the adult understanding. The emotional part of him may still feel vulnerable and scared. There is no real danger today, but it may feel dangerous.

Survivors who are still experiencing strong emotions from their abuse are like the child who is still controlled by his emotions. It is this childhood emotional reaction, rather than a rational, logical adult response to the situation, that controls many survivors.

Moving from the emotional to the rational is not usually a simple leap. It is more likely a gradual process that occurs in therapy or perhaps with supportive people in your life.

Remember that when the abuse took place, the abuser was almost always more powerful than the victim. For many survivors, the decision to confront an abuser might take place many years later and the survivor is likely physically stronger than the abuser by this time. But however more physically powerful the survivor may be now, the abuser may seem to be just as powerful in the survivor’s mind as s/he was when the abuse occurred.

In other words, the survivor may be stronger (including having more knowledge and other resources), but emotionally he may feel just as vulnerable and weak as when he was a child. It is through the planning process, writing the letter (and rewriting it until it says what needs to be said), and directing what the survivor wants the abuser to do, that the confrontation can be empowering for the survivor. On a physical level, the survivor is often stronger and has more resources now. I’ve often said to survivors, “Could you kick his ass today?”, as a reality check that he is no longer the weak child who had been abused.

As with a disclosure, there are several methods to check readiness to confront a perpetrator. One way to test the readiness of a survivor for confrontation is to ask how old he feels when imagining the confrontation. While a survivor may feel like an adult, it is very possible that he will revert to the age he was when he was victimized. When the survivor feels like an adult when imagining the confrontation, he is more ready to have an actual confrontation. Bear in mind that the survivor may feel competent and strong enough, but it is possible that when face to face with the abuser, he will revert to the powerless child again. That is why the letter writing process and practice is so valuable in preparation for a confrontation.

Writing a Letter

           

Most people think confrontation must be face to face. This is potentially the most rewarding but also the most risky. I strongly recommend writing a letter to the abuser as a means of clarifying the abuse and its effects on the survivor. The letter (whether sent or not) will help the survivor better understand the effects of the abuse and sort out any ambivalent feelings he may have towards the abuser.

You could see the confrontation letter as having two goals. One goal is to help the survivor clarify the extent of the abuse and the effects it has had on him. This process can bring up powerful feelings and allow for venting emotions that may have been stuffed back or allowed to emerge only in the form of unwanted behaviors. Another goal is to help organize the thoughts and feelings that may be expressed to the abuser, should the letter actually be sent. It permits a safer confrontation that puts control back in the survivor’s hands.

The confrontation letter should first be written as if it will not be sent. That is to say, if the survivor writes it as if it is really going to the perpetrator, he may self-censor his text. If it is written as if it will be for the survivor’s own use, it will likely be more honest and raw. This is a useful exercise for many survivors. Since the abuse carries so much impact in different areas of the survivor’s life, it may seem like the abuse is a huge cloud of feelings, experiences, and confusion.

This is really the primary goal of the letter, which consists of five parts in order to provide some organization for the writer. The abuse experience is so pervasive and confusing for most people that it is a cauldron of emotions – guilt, fear, uncertainty, hurt, anger, etc. – as well as the adult’s attempts to make sense of it all. The five-part format for a letter of confrontation provides structure to this mess of feelings, memories, and thoughts.

I suggest this format to give the survivor some direction in preparing for a confrontation, whether in person or not. Be prepared to rewrite the letter a number of times, writing, once again, as if you are not going to send it. When it is seemingly satisfactory to you, seek feedback from a trusted support person or therapist before sending it. I can’t overemphasize that this is not a “do it yourself” project.

I caution survivors I see to send the letter only after we agree it is ready to be sent. Sometimes a survivor will write a powerful letter on a first draft and pop it in the mail (or hit the “send” button on an email) prematurely.

Part One - “What you did to me.” This should be written with some specific detail. Abusers generally rationalize their abusive acts and deny to themselves or others what they actually did. They may conveniently forget that what they see as “touching” may have been forced masturbation, or minimize that it only happened once when it took place more frequently. They may assume that the victim was sleeping and unaware of the abuse, when in fact he was really pretending to sleep and remembers all that was done to him.

Abusers need to be confronted with specifics, not generalizations, such as “you stole my childhood”, “you ruined my life”, or “you took my innocence”. It is more real to the perpetrator to read or hear “you made me suck your penis” or ”you put your penis in my butt”. It is important to convey sufficient detail to confirm what really happened without making it so graphic that it sounds pornographic.

This section can also focus on the deficiencies in the relationship, particularly where there was a close relationship, such as with a parent, relative, or family friend. The misuse of relationship, where sex was substituted for caring and nurturance, can be documented here. To tell the father that his parental role was perverted by his sexual abuse not only addresses the wrong behavior, but also can speak to his failure to be the kind of father he could have been.

Part Two - “How it has affected my life.” Abusers will frequently minimize the impact of the abuse on the victim. They may also attribute known problems the survivor is going through to other sources, such as believing that the survivor’s struggles with substance abuse were caused by the parents’ divorce or other events in the survivor’s life.

Stating, “I abused drugs and alcohol to try to block out the feelings and memories of what you did to me” is more direct and specific than saying “You messed up my life”, and any effects of the abuse, such as confused sexual identity, inability to trust others, fear, or preoccupation with sexual gratification, should be tied to the abuser in order for him/her to take responsibility for his actions. Where the survivor is bisexual or gay, the abuser may try to attribute blame for the abuse on the child’s sexual orientation. The abuser who blames the boy’s erection as proof of his “homosexuality” does not justify his abuse of that child. He needs to hear that you don’t buy that rationalization for his wrong behaviors. Your sexual orientation is not a reason or cause for the abuse. Even if a child is “seductive”, it is up to the adult to set a proper boundary.

Taking a thorough self-inventory can help put the blame for the survivor’s problems on the abuse and the abuser; that is, it assists the survivor in the task of breaking free from self-blame. At the same time, however, for many survivors, this section can generate feelings of profound grief over lost opportunities and relationships, years of self-defeating behaviors, and other effects. It may also lead to a lot of anger as the inventory emerges.

The process of compiling and reading a lifetime’s worth of negative consequences and lost opportunities can be very sad and upsetting for survivors. The effects of sexual abuse are intense and real. You have every right to your anger and grief, but it’s important to do something constructive with the feelings and negative thoughts that might emerge. Channeling all this into your letter can help you put the blame and responsibility on the one who deserves it – the abuser, not you.

For many survivors who write this letter, the inventory of damage and negative behaviors and thoughts for so many years can be overwhelming. I tell survivors who engage in this process to back off if they feel that their emotions are getting out of hand. It also makes sense to have your therapist or a support person aware of the work you are doing so you have more safety and assistance if needed. More than the other four parts of the letter, this effort to inventory the damage in your life can be truly upsetting. But, it can also be clarifying and empowering. Remember to use the energy productively, and remind yourself that writing the letter does not mean you will be sending it.

And, most importantly, if it becomes overwhelming, walk away from it and come back when you feel stronger. Some survivors who have gone through this process will take months of writing, putting it aside, coming back weeks later, working on it for a while, setting it down, etc. before finishing up a draft. It may take months and numerous attempts before you complete your letter, but that’s okay. You are on no one’s schedule.

Part Three - “How I feel about what you did.” Some survivors may have mixed feelings about the abuse and the abuser, especially when the abuser was someone close to the survivor, such as a parent or relative. One can love the abuser, but hate the abuse. It is helpful to let the abuser know how you felt about what s/he did to you. This is often difficult for male survivors who may have experienced physical pleasure and had erections or orgasms during the abuse. Many survivors may feel guilty or somehow complicit in seeking or allowing the abuse. Just remember that your physical reactions were normal and were exploited by the abuser.

You may have also experienced positive or pleasurable sensations from the abuse that you attempt to recreate today or perhaps did years ago. That is often quite normal and does not mean you wanted or initiated the abuse. Even in cases where victims went back numerous times for the physical pleasure, gifts or special privileges the abuser gave them, or sought emotional closeness with the abuser, it does not mean they wanted the abuse. They may just have wanted the relationship or the gifts without paying the price of sexual abuse.

Abusers who have used the physical arousal of the victim as “proof” that the child enjoyed the sexual activity or somehow wanted it may need to hear what the truth was for the survivor. Whether it felt good or resulted in unwanted physical stimulation, it was beyond the child’s ability to fully comprehend and consent to what was going on.

Since many abusers rationalize what they did and do not want to see themselves as bad people, they tend to minimize the damage. This can take the form of wishful thinking that the abuse was less harmful because they didn’t do this or only did that. Despite how much you are aware of the negative effects of the abuse on your life, others around you will likely have much less awareness of your personal problems, and the abuser probably will have even less knowledge of your issues.

If you think back to when the abuse was happening, did you let the abuser know how it was affecting you? Were you able to tell him/her about the pain or confusion you experienced? Likely, you did not or could not. And that is not a criticism of you or what you did or “should” have done at that time. Very few victims are able to tell their perpetrators how they feel about what the abuser is doing to them at the time, and few are able to express their feelings about the abuse even years later. This is the section of the letter that allows the survivor to let the abuser know that, now that the survivor is stronger and not controlled by the abuser.

Part Four - “How I feel about you.” This can address the conflict (if any) between the abuser and what s/he did. If the relationship was completely negative and there was no positive feeling towards the abuser, it may well come out as, “I hated what you did and I hate you as well.” It may also be a way to let the abuser know how you truly feel about him/her. Remember, this is about empowering yourself.

For the survivor abused by a stranger, the abuse and the abuser can be one. The person is really unknown to the survivor, and perhaps all one could conclude would be that only an evil person could do such a thing to a child. Therefore, the feelings about the abuse and the abuser are the same.

For survivors who have positive feelings for the abuser, this part can help separate the abuse from the person. For many survivors, regrets or anger may dominate feelings about the abuser. This may come from a realization that it could have been a fulfilling and joyful relationship but was damaged or destroyed by the abuse. It can also help address how the relationship could have been, had the abuser not done what s/he did. For some survivors, the thoughts of “what could have been”, in terms of the relationship, can lead to sadness as well.

Since the overwhelming majority of victims know or are related to the abusers, many survivors may have ambivalent feelings about the person and what he did. This is especially true, particularly in cases where the abuser could have been a role model, friend, or mentor.

Part Five - “What I want you to do about it.” Some survivors request money to pay for their therapy as a means of restitution for the abuse, or direct the abuser into sex offense-specific therapy. The survivor may insist on an apology or have the abuser confirm to other family members that the abuse did indeed take place. Others have used the letter to establish boundaries with the abuser. This may mean the abuser is told not to call or contact the survivor without the survivor’s request. Establishing boundaries is important for many survivors who have or could have a relationship with the abuser, especially if he or she is a family member.

It is important that the letter-writer go through the first four parts before deciding on an appropriate action from the abuser. Going through all five parts provides opportunities for clarity and reexamination. Sometimes the survivor will have an idea of what he wants the abuser to do when he first begins work on the letter. Many times this section changes as the survivor works through the first four parts and experiences a sense of empowerment and clarity. What he may have thought would be fair and just when he started the letter can change by the last draft. Even if the letter is not sent, the process of writing it will likely bring changes to the survivor’s perspective of the abuse and possibly the abuser.

Get It in Writing

My preference is to have the abuser write a letter in response to the five-part letter. As opposed to an “ambush confrontation” in which the situation passes out of the survivor’s control as soon as he speaks, a letter can be read in private by the perpetrator, contemplated and responded to in a process over which the survivor remains in control. Telling the abuser, for example, that you want a written response – with no phone calls or visits in person – sets limits that the abuser will hopefully respect.

Remember, the abuse remains a secret only as long as the parties involved keep it a secret. It is highly unlikely that an abuser will expose himself as a sexual abuser to denounce you and the letter. Some survivors fear that the abuser will show the letter to others. Consider this: how many people would show such a letter to others, even if they were to say, “Look at what that lying grandson of mine wrote about me?”

The abuser has the opportunity to think about what he wants to say. Of course, the perpetrator who has no relationship with the survivor may not care to respond. One survivor I worked with sent his letter to the perpetrator and did not get a response. However, rather than being disappointed, he said he fantasized the man sweating he might be exposed in the community or even possibly worrying that the survivor might attack him. Generally, the closer the relationship between abuser and survivor, the greater the likelihood is that s/he will respond appropriately. Abusers who are family members, particularly as they age, are more likely to be amenable to this process.

One survivor whose father had abused his sister, who then went on to abuse him, confronted his father with a letter but got back religious mumbo-jumbo peppered with denial. The survivor cut off contact with him and denied him access to his two young children, so his father had now become a grandfather who could not see his grandchildren. It took a few years but, eventually, the father’s declining health and inability to see his grandchildren caused him to drop the religious trappings in his emails (a condition that the survivor requested) and allowed the survivor to set the conditions for a possible future reconciliation. I believe it was a combination of aging, fear of death with unsettled family issues, and the firmness of the survivor to set the conditions that led to a turn-around.

A survivor I worked with recently wrote the letter to his older brother who had molested him nearly 40 years earlier. Although they had frequent contact with each other over the years, they never talked about the abuse. Perhaps the abuser thought or hoped his younger brother had forgotten about it. When the survivor sent his brother the five-part letter, the brother did not write back as requested but instead, called and said he accepted what his brother had written. The younger man felt partially vindicated, but felt there was still more that needed to be discussed.

We invited the abusive brother to come to a therapy session where the unstated issues were discussed. The good thing about this face-to-face meeting was that the older brother was now on the younger one’s turf (my office) and he could not control the therapy process. The survivor presently felt strong enough to confront his brother on many issues that had bothered him for years, but which he had been reluctant to discuss with him. After two clarification sessions, the survivor felt sufficiently healed and resolved that he could discontinue therapy after many years. His brother was sufficiently remorseful and wanted a better relationship with his survivor brother, so he was willing to accept responsibility and make changes in their relationship as requested by the survivor, including not calling him a childhood nickname the survivor hated and being more dependable when he promised to help work around their parents’ house.

Writing but not sending the letter

Writing this letter can be healing in and of itself. I worked with a male survivor who had a number of issues with his mother about the childhood abuse he endured from a friend of his parents and a cousin, both of whom are now dead. He had issues of anger towards his mother for not protecting him or seeing the need to find him help for emotional problems he had as a child (even though he did not disclose to the abuse by either perpetrator to her). In writing the letter to his mother, he found his sense of anger greatly reduced and felt a better degree of control in his life without even sending it to her. Though she was not his perpetrator, he carried negative feelings towards her for somehow not protecting him. As she is now elderly and suffering from dementia, he does not see a reason to confront her with his abuse history, but was able to gain some relief from his ventilation in the letter that was never sent. Being able to clarify his thoughts and feelings while being validated by his best friend (with whom he shared the letter) was sufficient for him to let go the anger he felt towards his mother, whose ability to respond appropriately would have been questionable were he to actually confront her.

One consideration in doing this exercise is that if you get too emotional and can’t write the letter, it is probable that you are not yet ready to do an actual confrontation with the perpetrator. However, if the letter, after being rewritten as needed, says what the survivor wants to say, it may be time to send the letter. If the perpetrator responds positively to the letter, it could be an indication to meet in person or talk by phone. Generally, it will take a series of letters to achieve sufficient resolution before initiating a face-to-face meeting.

It is important to keep control of as much of the process as possible. His father had abused one of the first survivors I worked with for years. We worked on his letter for months. When it was finally “good to go”, he wrote in Part Five that he did not want his father to call or stop by unannounced, as he sometimes did. He asked his father to respond to his points in writing within a few weeks. He had no reply for about a month, but then received a postcard from his father, who was on a business trip.

The survivor sent a short terse reminder that he was waiting for his father’s written response. His father sent back an apologetic and appropriate letter in which he accepted blame and responsibility and advised his son that it was not the young man’s fault for what he – the father – had done. While there were some issues that the father did not discuss in his letter, the son was able to reply to the father’s letter and requested he address those points. Eventually, enough was resolved through the written process that the son offered a face-to-face meeting in a location that he selected for safety. They were able to have a meeting that led the way to a more normal relationship that was essentially on the son’s terms. For the first time in his life, the son felt empowered and validated by his father and no longer lived in fear of seeing him.

If the Perpetrator is Dead or Whereabouts Unknown

The five-part letter can also be done for a perpetrator who is dead, missing, or whose identity is unknown. In this case, the purpose is symbolic and may just be a way for the survivor to vent. Again, the involvement of a support group or others who are aware of the situation can give additional encouragement that can provide the survivor a sense of completion. The support group can provide an audience or a designated surrogate perpetrator for the survivor to confront. In other words, there are things you can do to confront a perpetrator you can’t find.

There are also other ways to symbolically confront an abuser who is unavailable for confrontation. Visiting the grave of a dead perpetrator and speaking to the headstone has been healing for some survivors. One client of mine took a few personal effects (a scarf and seductive photo) of his deceased mother/perpetrator and burned them on her grave. Many therapists are experienced in the use of symbolic acts for healing and can be a resource for this kind of confrontation, even if they are not very familiar with male sexual abuse issues.

The important point is that the confrontation needs to be empowering for the survivor and not a re-enactment of old abusive patterns. There are protective measures that need to be put in place, such as having the abuser come to the therapist’s office or another location that provides a sense of safety and support for the survivor. Remember that confrontation can be a powerful tool for healing and should always be undertaken with consultation from a trusted therapist.

Some survivors have used surrogate abusers in confrontation sessions. Both the adult sexual offender prison and a juvenile sexual abuser residential treatment program in my state have used carefully screened groups of survivors meeting with offenders. The meetings are usually very powerful healing opportunities for both sides. The survivors have the chance to confront surrogate abusers who are in well along in treatment (and therefore less likely to say something that could feel like a re-victimization), and the abusers see and hear the results of victimization in adult survivors who were not their victims but represent the effects of sexual abuse. These confrontation sessions, if carefully done with consideration for safety and adequate preparation work on both sides, can be very powerful and facilitate healing for both abusers and survivors.

 

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