Tall Girls Have Difficulties with Breathing or,
An Unfinished Story About Incest and Incest Survivors
Four hugs a day for survival,
eight hugs a day for maintenance,
twelve hugs a day for growth
Incest between myths and reality - experiences of women’s groups from Belgrade
Child sexual abuse was "discovered" by us, the members of the women’s autonomous groups against violence against women, the women who had already discovered the horrors of domestic violence and rape1Along with facing the long lasting traumas caused by rape, another Pandora’s box was opened : life-long traumas caused by incest. So, the discovery of the phenomenon of child abuse is not primarly linked to changes in the child’s recently improved social status, in the sense that the child must be recognized both as an individual in the course of development and as a future investment for society. And the discovery of incest was not the result of recognizing the child as the basis of the future of society, which becomes responsible for its sound development through the implementation of abuse prevention politics and by providing adequate responses to abuse.
Many myths concerning incest are wide-spread among ordinary people. Members of Belgrade’s feminist groups against violence against women and children have faced the usual prejudices dealing with incest : incest happens extremely rarely, in some visibly socially-sick families ; incest is mostly the fruit of children’s fantasies ; incest is something atypical in "our" culture, it happens in some other countries, but not among our people who are firmly committed to traditional family values ; incest perpetrators are never normal human beings able to function normally at their jobs and in public life in general, and that is usually taken as "proof" that somebody is not and could not be an incest perpetrator (when a man is known to be "a decent man", he is unlikely to be identified as an incest perpetrator) ; incest happens mostly in far away mountain villages as a part of old pagan rites, or strange customs, but never or rarely in urban areas ; all kinds of sexual offenses as well as incest happen mostly among lower class members as a kind of specific expression of their social frustration and anger.
When incest is discovered and proven beyond any doubt, another set of myths is ready to be used : some children probably enjoy having sex with adults ; many children behave seductively ; mothers are the most responsible because they were not informed about what was going on and did not protect their children ; child-victims of incest will soon recover and easily forget everything ; incest is kind of rape (the social and physical power of children is such that no power is necessary to make them accepting of the sexual advances of the perpetrators) ; incest is always sexual intercourse in a sense of genital penetration (traumatic enough is the touching or fondling the children’s intimate body parts, masturbating or the exposing of genitals in front of them, making them touch or fondle parts of adult persons bodies) ; the sexual molestion of children is the cause of homosexuality ; uncovering incest is an attack on family itself ; uncovering incest perpetrators is a threat to the very foundation of the family because "parents always want the best for their children".
Women from Belgrade’s autonomous women’s groups continue to fight the violence against women by establishing women’s groups, places and hotlines for counseling and supporting victims and survivors. Thus men find themselves in the not very comfortable place of being accused as perpetrators in large numbers of domestic violence and incest cases. On the other hand, they also find themselves in the position of being advocates for "not exposing the family’s dirty underwear" e.g. advocates of keeping the status quo, "genuine family values", "tradition", mostly by negating or belittling the whole problem od domestic violence, including incest.
There were and there are moments when the women members of Belgrade’s women’s groups feel so psychically and physically menaced by the patriarchal society that they simply do not have any other choice than to strengthen their struggle against men’s violence. Their society found itself in such historical circumstances, in which men started to be lethally-dangerous for women, children, and for men themselves ; and even for nature, the environment, civilization, the earth and the air, for the survival of all beings, even for the history and the future of humankind. That is why women have to continue to speak about incest cases. A feminist struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgeting. As one of the most dangerous kinds of violence against the most vulnerable victims, and as a product of patriarchal society, incest is permanently considered in the focus of feminist’s activities.
Scenery of incest- some social characteristics of incest
A typical characteristic of incest cases is that the perpetrators of incest and their victims came from all kinds of social backgrounds. Incest happens among poor as well as among rich people, among highly educated as well as poorly educated, in villages as well as in towns.
Belgrade’s women’s groups are the places where all women and children victims of all types of violence can come and tell their stories2. Along with incest survivors, they are faced with both social and family conspiracies. Women-activist and volunteers are mostly helpless to do more than to listen to them, to break together with them their life-long silence and to record their stories. Needless to say, not one of the incest perpetrators in the stories incorporated in the text has been prosecuted or else faced the justice in any way.
Incest survivors often say that when they were children, they did not dare tell anybody what was going on, because they feared the adults who had always backed each other up. They felt that nobody would believe them, and everybody would believe their perpetrators. It is the brutal reality, particularly when a conspiracy involves many powerful adults trying to silence the victim.
I. wrote a love letter to her teacher when she was a teenager. A teacher (woman) gave the letter to her parents, warning them to take better care of I because something is "wrong with her". I’s family sent her to a mental hospital where she was given electric-shock treatment in order to be cured of what was diagnosed as "a lesbian perversion". But the fact was, I’s older brother had been sexually molesting her from her earliest age. When she returned home from the hospital, her father began to "teach her to be a real woman", meaning, to have sexual intercourse with I against her will. At the age of 20, I gave birth to a baby girl, her sister at the same time, a daughter of her father. The baby was taken from her instantly after childbirth and was given up for adoption. (I remembers only the image of her screaming, while her just born baby was taken forever from her). I was sent to the mental hospital again and doctors were generously bribed by her father4 not to pay attention to her stories about allegedly giving birth to a daughter by her father. I was exposed to heavy treatment with medicaments for the few next years. Although visibly distracted due to two stays in the mental hospital and incest experiences, I obtained a university degree. She has never been employed. She is now about 50 years old, strange in appearance, and on tranquilizers all the time. She was severely punished for being a lesbian - something what has never been a crime. Her father and brother, criminals and incest perpetrators, are still respected as decent citizens and members of the community.
The most typical for incest scenario is the permanent presence of a thoroughly organized family conspiracy. All family members, perpetrators, their victims and even all others, whether they were informed properly about incest or sometimes maybe not at all, were involved in something like a mutual conspiracy of not speaking, obeying a kind of "silence order". Outside interferences are usually rejected like a danger threatening to the family structure as a whole.
W : "I am the oldest of my siblings : I have a year younger sister and a four year younger brother. My father is the owner of a workshop for repairing printers and counting machines. My brother never liked to study and completed high school with many difficulties. He works now with our father in my father’s workshop. My sister liked sports, she was once even a member of the national swimming team. She graduated from the Sports Academy and now works as a swimming coach for children. She is married and has two children. Unlike them, I was very fond of school, maybe because I was born with a defective foot. I could not walk until I was operated on when I was five. Anyway, during my childhood I was not very much mobile/active. I preferred to sit alone and read, while my brother and sister were playing. Now I am 38, and I am a graduated speech pathologist. I am one among many other survivors who live with the life-long traumatic memories. Also, I am one who has never gotten any help or support from the family, neither at the time when the incest was happening, nor later.
The sexual molesting was happening when I was between 2 and 5 year old. The perpetrator was my father. When I was 10 and older, I started to remember. From time to time I had memories as something like pictures as pieces of a bad dream. The pictures were always the same, with the same awful details. After the appearance of such pictures, I was sick for days, vomiting and having difficulties with breathing. I started to ask myself, if it was only a bad dream ? I started to believe that the events from my "bad dreams" actually had really happened. My family did not want to listen to anything about my hypothesis and my problems were explained as "typical problems" of a girl in puberty. By the age of 15, I was completely convinced that I neither had dreamt, nor had seen such pictures in a movie. I realized that the sexual molesting done by my father really had happened. During that time, I had intense memories of everything that had happened during my early childhood. My mother was also in the pictures, standing and watching passively, pretending to see nothing. This was the price she had to pay to keep family unity, and the sufferings of her invalid child seemed to her not very expensive.
I suffocated more and more, but my family had a theory of self-protection according to which tall girls normally had difficulties with breathing ! When I finished high school I literally could not breath in the house. In spite of all expectations, I did not enroll in the university. Although excellent in high school, I did not become a university student. I left home and lived several years abroad, mostly in London and Rome. I used to work odd jobs to survive. I have learned languages fluently, I have discovered feminism, and also how to live with people along with my trauma. I have discovered that I was a lesbian and I needed time to accept the fact. Also, I have discovered aikido. Seven years of sports perseverance brought me a very necessary self-confidence and also almost destroyed my walking handicap. When I was 28, I enrolled in the University and finished speech pathology. I returned to my native town and found a job there. I went through many therapies, among them a feminist one.
As a final result of the therapy, I wanted to face my family, to explain to them how I was hurt, naively believing, that my mother was only uninformed. My secret hopes were that she would eventually leave my father. I had a special fear about my younger sister, for she could be another victim of my father, but not so lucky to remember. I counted on my brother, because during our childhood we were best friends. I wrote three different letters to them, explaining what had happened in my childhood and what kind of monster our father was. I finished the letters calling them to join me. My healing process was over, and besides support I really did not need anything else from them. My expectation for us was to become a family again, but not like in the past, when secrets and fear were its foundations. I expected new family, one built on a healthy ground of mutual respect and trust. I expected the family was ready to name incest perpetrators as such, to condemn and reject our father.
Instead, they rejected me. My brother never answered my letter. He had a good business partnership in my father’s workshop and he simply did not want to take into consideration some not-understandable problems of his long-since-gone sister. My mother answered me by trying to convince me that everything I said was simply my imagination and that nothing likely had ever happened. "It is true that your father was not the best father on the world. He had many imperfections, and in the past, he had them even more. But now everything is different : he regularly goes to church, he is completely committed to his job, and his workshop develops greatly. He does not drink anymore and nobody can say anything bad about him." My mother further accused me of family disloyalty and a lack of understanding. "You do not even know what it means to be married, to have family obligations, to have children. You have an easy life, full of personal freedom. At your age I had three little children. You cannot imagine what it means to have three children and the whole month in front of you. Your father’s business was just at the beginning, and we never had enough money. I had to work, although I had three little children. Those times were the worst in my life, it was difficult but I managed to survive, working hard, day and night. You certainly are not entitled to complain about anything."
My sister was the cruelest. She thought I really exaggerated everything I said. "You lost your mind due to those feminists. Accusing father like this is complete nonsense. If he was such, he probably would have done "this" to me, a normal and healthy girl, but not to you, a crippled child. You are only trying to find some justification for your problems, for your lesbianism. Behind you are only wasted years of doing nothing, wandering over Europe and an unsettled life. Supported by your feminist friends, also frustrated failures like you, you decided to accuse our father of the worst and most awful thing any person could be accused of. Instead of imagining, it would be much better to find a husband and to have children. This would help you to get a grip on yourself, to be more real, to be finally a responsible adult person. Accusing innocent parents who took the best care of you while you were a handicapped child, is a crime. You are much worse than the villains in your sick imagination".
After those letters I cut all relations with my family. Actually, I rarely use the term family, only sometimes to define my circle of feminist friends and colleagues from the aikido club. I changed all my names, family and given name, in order to make myself a new person without any connection with those people. I am very sensitive in my work for children’s problems. I meet with many children who could be victims of incest, but only once has my intervention led to the identification of a perpetrator. In all other cases, I was seriously warned by my superiors not to deal with these problems. It is a story of family "solidarity" repeated so many times in my life." This was a story told by a 190 cm tall woman W, a feminist leader, speech pathologist, lesbian, athlete and an incest survivor5.
Incest as a product of patriarchy
Silence derives from the social dominance of men over women and the imbalance of their social powers : and silence hides the various types and cases of men’s violence against women, including all kinds of domestic violence but particularly incest as the most shameful event. Silence was (and still is) the way of negating the very existence of domestic violence (particularly incest), or at least, belittling the responsibility of perpetrators, or if/when possible, both. The real achivement was to break the walls of silence around incest since incest creates sometimes a silence quieter than death, placing incest-survivors into specific exile of speechlessnes.
Incest is often transferred through generations, from grandfathers, to mothers, from one child to another. They all create a firm network of family pseudo-security and family pseudo-loyalty which later in the lives of victims makes it more difficult to remember and nade difficult therapeutically to solve the problem.
M : "My grandmother asked me one day, when I was about 16, if my father had used a condom when he molested us. I have no memory of him molesting us, I have few memories before the age of 14 anyway. It just pissed me off that she asked me that. Not only did it hurt me that she put that seed into my mind, looming over me, but if he was and she knew, why didn’t she help us ? How come that "the condom advice" was the best she could offer me ? I’ve always been angry with my grandparents. They knew how abusive my father was. They saw my mom’s face all cut and bruised and swollen. They saw the bruises on my legs with cuts down the middle from the special brass belt buckle my father had made to beat us with. She also told me that she saw him beating on me as early as just a few months. And yet I had to live through 14 years of it. I’m still so angry that no one helped us even when they all knew and didn’t live that far away.
Incest as long lasting, several times repeated sexualmolesting
Incest is never a single event, that happens once and never again. Incest usually consists of through several years of repeated (hundreds and more times) approaches of the perpetrators to their victims.
E. I have a common story about my father, similar to many other girls all over the world. Maybe you can guess what was it is, incest of course. The story began when I was 6 and continued util I was 13, without interruption. As I remember, because I forced myself to forget everything, he always wanted it two-three times a day. I told everything to my mom when I became aware of what he did to me. Those were unbearable days for me. I’ve never hated sexual relations with a man, but I’ve always preferred girlfriends. Now I am "thankful" to my father for "showing" me the right way to happiness.
Incest between consenting adults : dilemas and questions
There are significant differences between the two types of incest : the first type is committed against children by an adult person of trust (mostly blood relative) and the second involves only consenting adults. Although the persons involved in the following cases are6, according to all criminal laws criminals, they were not and will not be prosecuted. Everybody just turned their heads from their cases. They are to be condemned but not convicted. They deserve to be pitied but not to be sent to prison. Unlike the cases of sexually molested children, the common characteristics of the following cases lack any kind of violence and any kind of exercised force towards any involved participant. Also, unlike child-victims in incest cases, all involved participants were adult persons. Therefore, those cases are the permanent source of the most difficult dilemas among feminist activists in Belgrade : it seems to women-volunteers that neither side could be defined as a victim. It is up to readers to decide whether these persons should be punished and how, or just left alone in their privacy.
Genetic reasons are important, but why then is there a prohibition against close blood relatives living together, even when they do not want to or cannot have children ? At the same time, the alleged public interest of having healthy offspring is not in any way protected by criminal law provisions in cases of mental sick persons, physically transmitted deseases (e.g. like hemophilia, diabetes), HIV positive persons, people with various other defects and problems which sometimes no doubt are transferred genetically to their children. The most importance is the protection of children from sexual violence and sexual exploitation, done by adults the children trust, in the domestic environment. Is the trend towards a total decriminalization of all sexual relationships between consenting adults to be supported by feminist or not, is still open question and permanent dilema among feminists from Belgrade.
J : A woman, 35, phoned SOS a few times, always using another "name". She needed a long time to decide to speak and several times just stayed silent. She had difficulties beginning to speak, because of "shame", as she described her feelings. She was afraid that she was only an abomination, because she "sleeps" with her step-children. She married their father when she was 30. At that time she was a virgin, without any sexual experience. Sex with her husband was only trouble for her, something highly unpleasant. He has not cared about her pleasure at all, and even was frequently violent. From the beginning of their marriage, her step-children rejected her and openly expressed antipathy towards her. She understood their attitude as mourning for their dead mother. Over time, they became closer to her. Her step-daughter even used to watch TV while putting her head in her lap. Her husband now works abroad, earns pretty good money, and she lives alone with her step-children. From December 1994 she has had regular, daily sexual intercourse with them. She began with the girl and continued later with the boy. Sometimes they make love all three together. There is not any force from any side. The boy is not initiating at all, and does not pretend to be "replacing" his father when he is not at home. The entire initiative is on the part of the girl. Although she is the youngest, she leads the "game". M. now knows that the girl (16) and her brother (18) have had an intimate relationship over the years. From the beginning of her marriage, she noticed that those two were somehow "too intimate", but she convinced herself that they probably needed mutual tenderness to replace their mother’s love. Whenever she saw them hugging, or freely and openly changing clothes in the presence of each other, she was a bit confused, but always thought "there was nothing weird", nothing that does not happen usually between brothers and sisters. When she began her involvement with them, she realized that the siblings were involved in the same "game" over the years. She has guilty consciousness now. She feels that she is responsibile. She is aware that she has to stop making love with them, but also says that she is too weak to do this. She confesses that she enjoys everything, particularly making love with the girl. That was the first time in her life she enjoyed sex and discovered all the pleasures that come from intimacy.
B : B, a young man (19), called twice, asking for advice on what to do with the situation he was in. The "situation" was the following : he completed high-school a month ago, and from that moment heashad regular sexual intercourse with his mother (38). She is not employed and stays at home all day long. While his father works, she enters in his bed naked, begins to fondle him and kiss him. After the foreplay, they have complete sexual intercourse. They make love everyday when his father works. From the beginning, his mother was telling him what to do and he was following her instructions, but as he explains : "I was always in over my head". When they completed making love, she always asked him how it was and he always answered, the best in his life. He admitted he had initiated for two or three times. He knows that "this" is not OK, but he has always enjoyed it. He is aware that he has to stop with this, but does not know how. He has also a girlfriend, and his mother knows about her. His mother repeats all the time that he must not speak about their "secret" to anyone. Also, his mother often tells him that it is up to him whether to stop : in a moment he decides to stop, they will instantly stop. But somehow he cannot decide yet.
U : U, a man (24), called to ask how to solve the problem of "living together" with his sister who is 8 years older. In 1992, his sister became a war widow. Her husband was killed at one of the civil war battle fields. She found herself in the middle of problems, alone in an unfinished house, unemployed, with a 2-year old, unhealthy child, in debt over her head. She called U. as her brother to help her, and he accepted. He paid his brother-in-law’s debts, finished construction of the house along with the workers, paid the construction company, and stayed with his sister to help her with his salary while she was trying to find a permanent job. After half of a year of such life, they started to be intimate. From New Years’ Eve, they began to live like a "real" family in harmony. He adores his sisters’s child, as his own. He does not want to continue to see his friends and peers, whom he finds "boring and childish". He used to have a girlfriend but broke up with her because she was also "dull and banal". He is aware that what he does with his sister is wrong, and does not try to justified the whole event. But he does have some explanation : they were children of divorced parents and were raised separately by various relatives. No place was "a home" for him. This is his first and the best family and home he has ever had, the place where he feels completely accepted and beloved. Asked what he has done to stop living together with his sister, he answered that he thoroughly checked his and her origin, hoping that they maybe were only half-blood siblings, children of maybe different fathers. But this was a bad idea, for he only discovered that they really were full-blooded brother and sister, children of the same parents. The next thing he did was to announce the selling of the house in order to move, to go somewhere where people will not know anything about them. Obviously, he does not want to stop living with his sister, but to continue. "Neither do I ask for nor do I know any better relation ; neither have I ever had more love, nor will I ever have more ; I cannot imagine more love, more tenderness, more care, more family warmth than I have currently", he explained his position.
1 In Belgrade/Serbia, during the civil-war-time were stablished several autonomous women’s groups dealing with violence against women and children. The author was the member and co-founder of some of them : SOS Hotline for women and children victims of violence, Autonomous Women’s Center, Women’s Studies Center, SOS Hotline for girls. Her personal experience with adult survivors of incest provide her the necessary information for this text.
2 Here incorporated stories were recorded by Zorica Mrsevic, during her three year period of being a volunteer of SOS Hotline and Autonomous Women’s Center Against Sexual Violence, directly, by telephone or via e-mail communication.
3 She has never being able to tell her story completely, interrupted by crying, entering into deep silence, taking sleeping pills. Here and there she remembers, speaks about but only fragments, and always to the same two persons. We together made her story from those pieces.
4 The father has been a criminal through all his life. He has never been persecuted and with his son he gained all their wealth by unlawful activities.
5 The story was told to Zorica Mrsevic in April 1994.
6 All here mentioned cases are cases of SOS Hotline from Belgrad