"I thought I was going crazy," says this victim of incest

This article won a gold medal for writing from the national Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). Competition judges called the article “stark and dramatic” and “hard-hitting” and wrote: “Beyond the subject matter, a superior, extraordinarily powerful writer.”

Dr. B., who prefers anonymity, attended the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and practices in mid-America. Colleagues at her current hospital respect her judgment, refer patients and elect her to staff committees. “I’m afraid that a number of male physicians think sexual abuse of children is a crock,” she says.

This article is not suitable for children. 


I always knew something was wrong with me.

Something was different on the inside, but you could never tell on the outside. My family had community stature, and I went through the motions of an ordinary life, but the good-little-girl was all a facade. Inside I felt terrible. There’s an old song, “Laughin’ on the outside, cryin’ on the inside.” That was me. I just never understood why I was crying.

The signs were there, but I didn’t see them. It’s like you can’t find your keys, and they’re right there in your hand. It took 15 years of psychotherapy, including five years of analysis, before I began to recognize the signs that were there all along.

Growing up, my mother and I didn’t get along. My sister and I weren’t close. My father was the one who could hold me and comfort me when I was a little girl. I used to sit in his lap and jerk him off. Oh, God.

Some studies estimate that as high as 38 percent of adult women in this country have been sexually abused. The closer the relationship, the more damaging to the child. I was sexually abused, and I was very close to my father. It was very damaging. But I blocked it all from memory.

The first memory I recovered in psychoanalysis was an image of my father having an erection when I was between a year-and-a-half and two years old. I was lying on his lap with my hand on his erection. He was wearing gray trousers, and when he jumped up, he had a spot on them. I’m sure he ejaculated. That may have happened more than once.

In analysis I uncovered memories about taking a bath at the age of three, four, five. I would sit in the tub, and my father would come into the room.

As an adult, Dr. B. cannot bear to buy a pink dress because it reminds her of her father’s approaches.

He wore pajamas with an open fly, so his genitals were exposed. Sometimes he had partial erections, sometimes full erections. I would sit up in the tub, staring at his penis. I think he must have had his own fantasy system, which required visual contact with me. He would look at me, I’d look away. And then I’d peek, and then he’d look away.

If my father had been in the bathroom shaving, with pajamas on, having erections, no big deal. But he started to have erections in front of me when I was small. I wanted to reach over and grab him – kids grab anything. If he had gotten up and walked away, no big deal. But as it happened, it was a big deal.

I didn’t actually do anything, sitting there in the bathtub, although I must have had a lot of sexual fantasies and I was afraid they would cause my father to act.

Children learn to control their feelings because the parents stay in control. Children who are physically abused by their parents are terribly afraid of their own angry feelings. It’s not uncommon for abused children to believe that their own angry feelings toward the parent caused the abuse in the first place. I believed my sexual feelings caused my father to be out of control. So, if I stopped or controlled myself enough, then he would be in control. This, mind you, in the brain of a three-year-old. Self-control is an omnipresent theme for me.

My father and I were always together. In many ways he enjoyed me more than he enjoyed my mother. Mother was overweight, anxious, very depressed, always complaining. This is typical of families that produce child molesters: Often the mother is unable to be intimate with the child or father. Yet the father is too dependent to leave, to find an appropriate love object, so he just spends more time with the daughter. They play together and share hobbies, and the mother is left out.

On the surface it looks fine. And it may be fine. If the mother is able to mother when the child is young, if the father controls his urges and nothing overt happens, possibly not too much may be amiss. But if the father cannot control himself, as in my case, the child is beginning a life of grave neurotic problems – or worse.

The Oedipal complex involves a triangle.

The Oedipal complex involves a triangle: The child is sexually aroused by the parent of the opposite sex. But this should be only a fantasy for the child. If the father overtly stimulates the daughter in that phase of development, then she gets the feeling she has succeeded in winning her father from her mother. She is destined to suffer enormous guilt precisely because she succeeded.

The more damaging a thought is to the child, the longer it’s repressed. A lot of women who were sexually abused as children block it out until their forties, fifties, sixties, seventies. They don’t remember until they are able to handle it. When I was in third or fourth grade, two neighborhood boys, Terry and Mike, and I built a tree-house; and I started having sex with them. One of them told Billy at school, who told other kids in my grade. After everyone found out, I told my parents. My mother got a crazed look on her face and shrieked, “Oh, my god, what have I done?” and my father said, “Well, kids do things like that.” That was the end of that. It was never mentioned again.

I must have been so sexually stimulated, I simply couldn’t handle it. I was constipated for about a year and a half. And my mother would come in and look and demand, “Did you go today?” No, I didn’t. It was in the same bathroom where my father had erections while I was having a bath. I gained about 20 pounds and looked terribly unhappy. I don’t know how my family missed this. Repression of my sexual abuse really started at that time.

The sex play with Terry and Mike never got repressed. I always knew what I did with them, although I couldn’t say it. When I first went into analysis, I said, “I played with these boys in the neighborhood.” My analyst said, ‘What did you do with these boys?” I said, “I touched their….” I could not say the word penis. The feeling was so unbearable, I could not say the word.

Because my early childhood sexual activities with my father were totally repressed for many years, it always puzzled me why I felt so different. There was no logical explanation. My father was well respected in the community. He went to church every week, Lions Club, Chamber of Commerce. The family seemed fine, so I figured there had to be something wrong with me. But I was in therapy for 12 years before I began to understand why.

As a teenager I always had friends, I played piano for glee club, sang in the chorus, worked on the high-school yearbook. But inside I was a mess, much more anguished than most adolescent girls. I felt friendless. I felt ugly and fat. I went to a dermatologist for acne. But I wasn’t that fat or that ugly, and my acne wasn’t that bad. I always felt weird. Different.

Victims of incest often cannot stand to be trapped in a room. In medical school Dr. B. always sat by the door, came to classes late, and left early.

Somehow I knew that education was my only escape route from my family, although I didn’t understand what I was feeling. I went to my sister’s college and joined her sorority, thinking I could get closer to her that way. It didn’t work. My freshman year I noticed I was a little more anxious than other people. Routine, daily situations usually required intimacy, and that’s what my trouble was.

Incest people as a rule can’t stand to be trapped in a room, because their incest often involved being trapped (in a bathroom) and being forced to participate. In medical school I always sat in the comer by the door. I would come in a little bit late and leave a little bit early. I’m always not wanting to get trapped, very afraid of getting too close.

When I spent three summers abroad, things eased up quite a bit because I was an outsider, a visitor, and nobody got to know me, nobody came too close. This experience is relatively common.

Incest victims often displace their anxiety onto men who are similar to their father or the man who abused them, but they can date foreign men, who are somehow exempt. I had a black patient who was sexually abused by her father, and the only men she could get close to were fair-skinned Norwegians --  they were as different from her father as men could be.

If you knew me in college, you would have known an ordinary person who was successfully hiding the fact that she was in the middle of an anxiety attack. I felt very cut off from people, like I couldn’t contact them. The only real connection I felt was for our dog. Although I was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and although both my parents were college-educated, and although my family claimed to value education, and although my father had plenty of money, he refused to help me financially in graduate school. I worked for the summer and saved enough for school.

During graduate school I married. Tom and I eloped. I think I got married because I didn’t know what else to do. I remember feeling at the time that about 51 percent of me was getting married, and I had no idea where the other 49 percent was. We went to visit my parents, and I told my father my plan to start taking pre-med courses. He laughed at me.

According to analytic theory, intellectual curiosity is a sexual derivative, a sublimated form of sexual energy. Whatever neutralized, sublimated energy I had, I wanted to invest in medical school.

When my father laughed at me, I was crushed. If you accept analytic theory, his laughing about my education was identical to laughing at me while I was sitting in the bathtub. He was laughing at me. Men like this laugh at women, make fun of them. They are sadistic.

His laughing at me and his refusal to finance my education indicated how little respect he had for me as a person. When he said he would not help me financially, I could not speak about it for about two years, and I felt a numbness and something shift inside, but I didn’t know what. It was a clue that later on made perfect sense. Shortly after my wedding, I began feeling sexually aroused by women, which absolutely petrified me.

There was a woman named Doreen that I wanted to be close to. I wanted to touch her. I felt happy around her. And I thought I was going crazy. Remember that my early sexual furor was still deeply buried in my unconscious. In people who are sexually abused as young as I was, everything can become sexualized. It is part of normal development that when a girl is sexually aroused by her daddy, she turns to mommy, who soothes her and comforts her. But my mother was never available for me.

So basically I was replaying an earlier role: I was playing with Tom – who was like the daddy – and running to Doreen – the mommy – for soothing. Doreen never had a clue nor, like Mommy, ever gave me the love I craved.

On the outside, everybody still thought I was fine.

I was sexually responsive to Tom. I loved sex, intercourse was great, but if we were sleeping and he rolled over and bumped me, I would become irate and terrified. I couldn’t bear to touch him. You see, I was making a mental split between sexual activity and the person: I could have feelings about a man as a person, or I could have sex with him, but not both. Having sex with a man I cared about was too painful; it created powerful anxiety about my father. It’s actually just in the last few months that I feel I want to touch a man.

We moved to Philadelphia so I could go to Penn’s medical school, and Tom got a job in the city. During my second year of medical school, I became unable to concentrate, and Tom made an appointment for me to see a psychiatrist. Inability to concentrate can be catastrophic for any medical student, but for me it was even worse.

Because I saw education as my escape from my family, failing to study could spell the end of my deliverance. Starting with the shrink was the beginning of finding out what was wrong with me. For three years I saw the therapist twice a week.

She was sexually responsive to her husband but feared being close to anyone.

In my third year I had affairs with four members of the medical-school faculty, two men and two women. Tom knew about it. We had many discussions about open marriage and exploring yourself sexually. I think actually at first he thought it was fine because I wasn’t comfortable with my body. I was orgasmic, I could masturbate. It was a weird constellation of being overly stimulated in certain sectors and very frightened in others. Tom and I split that spring.

It was a very bizarre period. I dated a couple of men, but I was becoming increasingly constricted. I developed a fear of skiing. I was afraid to walk on snow and ice; it had to do with losing control. I was afraid to drive in the snow. I couldn’t read or teach. I was exhausted working 30 hours a week. I slept constantly. That was the closest I ever came to falling apart, the closest I ever came to letting everybody else know how crazy I was feeling.

Now I work 50 hours, teach house staff, manage a household, read fiction, play tennis and golf. I rarely sleep more than eight hours. I’m tired only if I’m regaining a memory or a set of feelings. I used to get very depressed at those same junctures. I don’t do that so much any more.

During my internship I met a woman and moved in with her. I felt comforted and safe for a short time and then began to fantasize about men. I was extremely anxious. I’d go out with a man, and I would get so anxious that I couldn’t feel anything. For years I went back and forth from person to person, from man to woman. With men I felt numb. I could be very aroused sexually, easily responsive; I just didn’t have any feeling about it. With women I could feel emotional and sexual initially, and then I would lose sexual interest. I felt very guilty about it all.

It’s only in the last few months that I have learned to feel. It sounds tautological, but being able to feel is a wonderful feeling. Each time I learn something, I feel sadder about all those years when I was really disabled. I have a friend who’s quadriplegic. Sometimes I get very angry with him because everybody knows he’s disabled.

Nobody knows how disabled I have been. Maybe not even I know completely. Part of my ability to feel came about in conjunction with remembering my brother-in-law tickling me. Just recently, in analysis, lying on the couch, I experienced a tingling right across my abdomen.

As the object of sexual advances by her sister’s boyfriend, she learned to turn numb to escape.

At first I couldn’t figure it out. I was 11 when my sister started dating this fellow Calvin. His home life was very unhappy, and he hung around our house a lot. What I remember is, he sat on me on the floor, holding my hands down with a leg and one hand, and tickle me until I was in tears. If I continued to be in tears and told him to stop it, he continued tickling me. But if I made myself numb and did not react, he quickly lost interest and stopped.

From which I learned that numbness worked. In all my subsequent relationships with men, as soon as I felt anything, I turned it off. Made myself numb. Because this activity, this quasi-sexual, abusive activity with Calvin was repressed for more than 25 years, I never understood why I felt numb around men who were suitable beaus.

The terrible dynamic of my family was repeated. First my mother married an abusive man, then my sister brought home another potential abuser. What kills me is, from the outside they look normal, too, or almost normal. My sister claims she didn’t know what was happening between my father and me. Consciously, I guess, she didn’t.

The stuff with my brother-in-law was all the more debilitating because it was the second time this happened to me, the second time a close family male took advantage of a girl in ways that he absolutely should not have done.

Altogether I had eight years of therapy -- working on trying to function without my outside world falling apart -- before starting analysis. It was during the first year of analysis that I began remembering.

There is a memory, in the backyard, when my father was fixing a swing set and wearing a bathing suit. He was kneeling, and a testicle and a half were showing. I got wide-eyed, and he moved to expose more. My mother then ran over, looking very anxious. I thought it was my fault because I shouldn’t have been looking. The pattern is: It’s the arousal that’s created in a child that is so overwhelming and terrifying.

If these events had happened to any other girl, the outcome probably would have been the same. I did not experience intercourse with my father, that I know of, and he did not touch my genitals, that I know of.

He may have put his penis real close to my mouth. I don’t know yet. I’m not sure if that was just in my mind because I was in the bathtub and he was right beside me, I’m not really sure. But these were not one-time events.

My father never discussed any of this with me. Once, though, after Tom and I separated, my parents came to visit. When Mother went to the bathroom, my father pulled out a newspaper clipping about a bisexual woman who had been sexually abused. The article said the sexual confusion was related to early experiences of abuse by her father.

He said, “Do you think that’s possible?” I said, “Probably yes, but I don’t know.” That was the only indication I ever had that he was aware of something. I think he was trying to figure out if he did any harm or if I remembered. I still get very upset at the thought that probably all he wanted to find out is if I remembered, not whether he hurt me.

Every step of learning about my sordid past is exquisitely painful. Everything I learn about myself brings up another feeling that I’m doing something wrong. Last week, for instance, I bought a blouse and jacket in a bright pinkish-orange, a color that represents “the new me,” the me that doesn’t need to be dressed in black, brown, dark blue. But I had an anxiety attack paying for the clothes. Then it came to me.

This pink color holds terrible memories. It is the color of a dress I wore as an adolescent. When I wore it, my father looked at me like a construction worker looks at a woman. I was mortified because I knew from the way he looked that he found me sexually attractive, and I was also mortified by my response to his looking at me.

My unconscious fear is that, if I wear that pink blouse, men will find me attractive and behave inappropriately and mortify me. Also unconsciously I suffer extreme guilt precisely because I am attractive: I was two-and-one-half years old, and my father was having erections and ejaculating in my hand.

During the decades that my victimization was repressed, hidden from me, my neurosis took the form of trying to avoid the stimulus; that is, trying to avoid being attractive to men. Only recently have I been able to feel attractive. Now I realize that I can turn on a lot of men easily. I love it, but at the same time, that’s the problem: I feel so guilty for enjoying it.

This is what sexual abuse does. Every little girl normally goes through stages of trying to be cute.

Every little girl adores her daddy and wants him to find her attractive. Normal development. She can act demure and seductive – which is fine as long as mommy and daddy stay happily married, and he keeps his penis in his trousers, does not have any erections, does not expose himself. The child’s wishes for daddy’s affection haven’t ruined the marriage. But if something untoward does happen, she’s panic-stricken because she thinks her wish caused it. In the future she learns to avoid the wish.

For me, in what should be an ordinary scenario as an adult, if I wish for a man to find me attractive, and he does, then I suffer. I’ve won and lost at the same time. I don’t know if I’ll ever be totally free of this. I really don’t. I know that I’m a lot freer now.

“If my father were alive, I would like him to say, ‘I’m sorry.’”

True, I have had a number of long-term relationships with men, but I wasn’t able to make a commitment. I became too frightened. It wasn’t the sex that frightened me. All I knew was that I did not want to get pinned down. I didn’t want to get trapped, as I was trapped in the bathroom by my father and while being tickled by Cal.

If my father were alive, I would like him to say, “I’m sorry.” I haven’t visited his grave since the funeral, which was seven years ago. Deep inside me is just a bit of sympathy for my father. He grew up on a farm, very deprived, the eldest of nine children. He worked a great deal. I think his mother was very cold. I don’t know if the boys had sex with animals or if the brothers abused the younger girls or if he was abused. I do know he had a perversion. His was a family of great repression with a large number of suicides. Yet the children were financially successful, they did all the right things in the community.

Typically in these situations it’s not just the father’s fault. He’s the one who actually performs the abuse, but the mother, who can’t stand intimacy, is actually relieved that the daughter fills in. So she has a very powerful, unconscious need to not see it. My mother can’t bear to hear about it. And my sister doesn’t really believe that it happened.

If I’m afraid of anything now, it’s myself. I don’t feel I’m in control yet. It’s very hard to feel comfortable about yourself if you can’t walk into a goddamn department store and buy a blouse without getting so anxious you can barely drive home. It’s very hard to develop a solid, steady sense of self-esteem. It happens much less frequently now. I used to live that way all of the time.

When I look back – which I do all the time – sometimes I feel sorry for myself. Sorry that I couldn’t connect to somebody. That’s the sad part of child abuse, the internal price that people pay. But when I meet somebody new, I’m a new person. I’m actually very funny. I think I’m considerate and understanding and attractive. I’m very interesting, I’m exciting, and I’m pleasant to be with. And it’s only taken 15 years of analysis for me to be able to say that about myself.

Actually that’s the way I felt as a little girl. Baby pictures of me are just adorable. I was obviously able to engage people. They liked me, I liked them. But my self-esteem was stolen. Actually thirty-something years were stolen.

So what does the future hold for me? Being normal, I hope. For me, normal means being able to feel, being able to calm down, having the ability to feel constantly a connection with people. I’d like to be able to respect myself and enjoy the respect of others.

The article appeared in the magazine Penn Medicine.