Victims may keep abuse secret for years, experts say

Sunday, December 17, 2006
Dallas Morning News/Denton Record-Chronicle

By Donna Fielder

Staff Writer

It is not unusual for victims who were sexually abused as children to wait until adulthood to make the abuse public, experienced counselors say. Feelings of confusion, betrayal and guilt often are so overwhelming that they are suppressed, and sometimes it takes years for a victim to be able to confront what happened, psychologists say.

Dr. Karen Cogan is a licensed psychologist with a private practice who also works at the University of North Texas Counseling and Testing Center.

“This has been one of my areas of expertise for many years now,” Cogan said. “Often it takes the victim many years to come to terms with what has happened and understand it enough to come forward and tell people. They may have tried and not been believed by other adults in their lives. Who wants to deal with that, having people think it didn’t happen or that they brought it on themselves?”

Telling the story is reliving it, Cogan said.

“They have to be at a very strong place in their lives to bring it up,” she said.

Cogan is not familiar with the local cases but was speaking in general terms.

Adult victims commonly struggle with their memories and emotions, and may turn to alcohol or drugs, or develop eating disorders, she said.

“It is very typical for people to self-medicate because they are dealing with such intense emotions. When they hit bottom, they get into treatment,” she said. “What comes out is this abuse that has happened. Through treatment, they learn more healthy means. Bringing it out is one way of healing in a productive, healthy way.”

Cogan said she rarely sees a case in which a woman is lying about being sexually abused as a child. The whole process of making something so intense, so embarrassing and humiliating public is not an experience most people want to take on, she said.

“Typically, the abuser is an authority figure. She [the victim] may share some personal things with him,” she said. “Then, if he starts violating her in some way, there’s, ‘Who can I trust?’ He is able to influence her and to convince her to keep a secret.”

Merry Evenson is a licensed professional counselor working at Texas Woman’s University who has been in private practice for 26 years. She is not familiar with the local lawsuits. She also has worked on sexual abuse cases for years.

“I never intended to specialize in working with survivors of sexual abuse, but that’s who walks through my door,” she said.

She says she has not seen a case involving a grown woman lying about being abused as a youth.

“I never have seen that. I have heard things, but it’s kids who are angry with a parent or stepparents who do that,” she said. “I am not seeing people who are making that up to hurt someone else.”

Many times, a young victim does not have anyone she trusts well enough to tell something she feels such shame about. So she suppresses it. Then she begins having problems she doesn’t even associate with the abuse, Evenson said.

Troubled marriages, promiscuity, addictions and suicide attempts are common with such women, she said.

“A lot of people I see come in for another issue and we work on that, and then this issue comes up. And what I’m seeing is that it’s not unusual for people in their 30s or 40s to begin dealing with that issue. They are finally ready,” Evenson said. “A lot of people have to get healthier in some respects before they can even process and deal with this issue. It was so uncomfortable and so awful and they feel so much shame, but they say they’re not going to let it affect them. They don’t want to talk about it and they think they’re getting away from it. But in fact, it’s who they are.”

It’s common for perpetrators to have more than one victim, she said.

“People who have perpetrated, unless they have gotten help, are going to continue to perpetrate,” she said.

An adult has a great power differential over a young person, and often there is a tremendous amount of “grooming” or slowly manipulating the victim into accepting the abuse, Evenson said.

Youngsters who are sexually abused often are made to feel like co-conspirators in the abuse. They may achieve sexual gratification and feel guilty about that. They may be made to feel like they have a special, secret relationship, she said.

“If it went on more than once, then the feeling is, ‘I’m in on it. I’m to blame and I can’t tell anybody.’ They often will go to great lengths to protect that person,” she said.

When they decide to make the abuse public, they finally are coping with the fact that a crime was committed against them, Evenson said.

“They’re saying to the perpetrator, I know what you did.”

DONNA FIELDER can be reached at 940-566-6885. Her e-mail address is