Are Mothers of Sexually Abused Girls Really to Blame?
What roles do mothers play, are they conditioned to play,
when fathers, stepfathers or close relatives sexually abuse their daughters?
Little reflection has been done on this subject, which is riddled with myths and prejudices
because incest is still one of our societies’ best-kept secrets.
The following are a few pointers in an area in which
we still have a lot to learn...
María López Vigil
In June 2001, the Nicaraguan media latched on to the case of Gema, a little girl who became pregnant after being raped by a stranger, and probably also her stepfather. It was just one of many similar cases. Eleven-year-old Gema gave birth to Abigail de los Ángeles by cesarean section. In interviews with a journalism student who examined this particular case for her final degree assignment, Gema accepted her unexpected maternity “calmly” and “happily” as she breastfed the baby in her ramshackle house.
The student’s study included a focus group to find out what six working children thought of the case. The four boys and two girls between the ages of 11 and 14 unanimously blamed Gema’s mother for what had happened: a 13-year-old boy felt that “we shouldn’t have to pay for our mothers’ injustices,” a girl of 14 that the mother had not performed “her duty” of looking after her daughter, an 11-year-old boy that “she wouldn’t have ended up pregnant if the mother had been paying attention” and a 14-year-old girl blamed the mother because she changed both home and partner and “was never on top of what was going on.”
Even at such an early age, Gema and others who share her age and hard life repeat what they’ve learned from their elders: regardless of how it happened, being pregnant is a “joy”; but the mother is to blame when her daughter is sexually abused.
Beliefs, ideas, myths and prejudicesThe world is full of species with which we share the primary biological task of simply reproducing: of transcending ourselves by having children and leaving descendents. Women invest much more vital energy in this task than men. A man can engender a child in seconds, but the woman has to dedicate all of her body’s organs to carry that child within her for nine full months. This notorious imbalance of efforts cannot be altered even with cloning. Culture, which alters so many things and changes according to time and geographical location, has built upon this immutable biological inequality a phenomenally unequal power relationship that benefits men. It is a process that has stretched over thousands of years and is expressed through myths and prejudices.
These cultural constructions include the powerful myth of the ideal mother, which overburdens her with responsibility by relieving both men and society of their share. How far back does this myth date? Could we reverse it? Mexican anthropologist Marcela Lagarde has an excellent formula for doing just that: maternalize society and dematernalize women by deconstructing women as maternal entities at the service of others and socializing the care that they lavish.
Another powerful myth is maternity as a woman’s natural destiny, the only dream she has to fulfill. How can this still be considered “destiny” in the 21st century when humanity is fully conversant with birth control methods? The idea that a woman is not really a woman until she has had children is yet another myth. But do all women really choose to have them, or are some just drawn in that direction by a social illusion? Is the pressure the same for poor women as for rich ones? Then there is the myth of the bad woman and bad mother; but what characteristics mark good or bad in each particular era?
Also deep-rooted is the myth of maternal instinct, supposedly responsible for providing not only the hormones activated by pregnancy and childbirth, but also the moral virtues required to raise children: tenderness, patience and the capacity to care, which are allegedly found in all women and lacking in men. Are there really no women devoid of such feelings or men endowed with them? Is there no such thing as paternal instinct? And if there is, how can it be cultivated?
Biology and culture: which has had greater weight and when? Can a balance be achieved and if so what is that balance? While we work on the answers, it’s impossible to deny the compendium of beliefs, both taught and learned, surrounding the figure of the mother. For years now, feminists have been airing this whole package of beliefs in theoretical debates, seeking to remove their cultural adhesive. The dizzying advances in biology, genetics and neuroscience are providing information that is highly important in working out the origin, validity and shelf life of such beliefs. This isn’t to refute the feminists who blame everything on culture, but rather to enrich their arguments and allow humanity as a whole to examine these issues with increasing complexity.
Capable of pregnancy and childbirth:“So where do you want to go, mother?” asks the taxi driver after stopping for a woman on the street corner. “No, mother, that’s the price,” amiably replies the fish peddler to a woman haggling over the day’s prices at his market stall. It happens all the time in Nicaragua. Men naturally address women as “mother,” even though they know absolutely nothing about them. All men see all women as mothers. That’s their role in life. In Nicaragua you’re not even expected to be legally a woman to be a mother. With alarming frequency girls are becoming mothers before their time. “Being a mother isn’t child’s play,” warn Costa Rican feminists struggling to legalize abortion for forced pregnancy. No such battle cry has yet been taken up in Nicaragua.
But also capable of being mothers?
Our country holds the continental record for child and adolescent pregnancy, with almost a third of Nicaragua’s children born to mothers between the ages of 11 and 15. Biologically speaking, these girls are capable of becoming pregnant and giving birth. But is that the same as possessing the capacity to be a mother?
Social pressure, the “packet of beliefs” they have been raised to adopt, leads many of these adolescents to a conviction repeatedly revealed in a study conducted in Nicaragua a few years ago by the United Nations Population Fund. The study is called “¿Qué más podía hacer yo que tener un hijo?” [What else could I do than have a child?], which reflects the most personal motivation behind these pregnancies. With no opportunities for study, work or personal realization, living in homes lacking affection and saddled with boring, never-ending household chores, many girls quickly get the idea that they will only start to be someone when they have a child; that their status as adults deserving of some kind of respect and social recognition depends on their being mothers. So they go off with the first boy that “makes eyes at them,” running away from home, accepting any offer... and pregnancy is the almost immediate result.
Away from myths, ideals or cultural expectations, being a mother above all implies responsibility. As does being a father. It implies taking responsibility for babies that need help to grow, develop and become independent; for educating them through play and preparing them to survive through care and affection, stimulation and words, answers and questions. Is a girl of 12 or 13 really able to assume this responsibility in today’s Nicaragua? In the community and family structures of times gone by, it might have been possible. But here? Today?
Those who insist that such children have the capability and thus will develop a maternal instinct along with their hormones turn their back on a series of alarming figures, such as the Ministry of the Family’s announcement that 175 infants were simply left to their fate in hospitals, public places and churches during the first half of 2004. That’s a rate of almost one a day. The authorities suspected that most of these babies belonged to child-mothers. How can this be explained? Forced pregnancy caused by rape and early pregnancy out of desperation result in unwanted babies and—when added to staggering economic difficulties—abandoned children. This chain of reality imposes itself over any myth of maternal instinct. Although these social problems appear in no electoral program or political debate, who seriously doubts that the heavy links of this chain are dragging on our country’s development, affecting Nicaragua’s future and influencing its chances of finding its place in the world?
A great biological burden Are there any limits to this maternal responsibility in our culture? There don’t appear to be. Being a mother means being unconditionally devoted to your children, sacrificing yourself for them, prioritizing them and giving them everything, including time, pleasure, effort and money. It means suffering for them in perpetual abnegation, living for them, making them the center of your life, expecting all joy and rewards to come from them and seeing them as containing the entire meaning of your life. This stamp of identity is so central that in addition to being mothers to their own daughters and sons, women also become mothers to their husbands, other relatives, neighbors, pupils… mothers in all of their human relationships. In short, they become universal caretakers.
and an even greater cultural one
Mothers give up their own lives and ignore their own needs, often including their health. The national statistics reflect this “self-neglect” of women-mothers who don’t go for checkups, endure pain without going to the doctor and don’t seek medical attention in time, putting it off until tomorrow when it’s too late. Naturally, the poverty prevailing in most of our households feeds this tendency towards “self-neglect.” When living amounts to survival, every day implies prioritizing who will eat, who will be cured, who will push ahead… and women-mothers always prioritize their children, most frequently their sons. So without meaning to, without knowing it, they sow in their growing sons the poisoned seeds that will germinate in the idea that their sex ensures them certain rights, that they are superior and worth more than their sisters, than their mothers… than women in general. How often does machismo start with “M” for mother?
The biological burden of maternity weighs heavily. Pregnancy weighs physically on the entire female body. The cultural burden is even heavier, aggravated by the macho culture characterized in men by irresponsibility, the practice of sex without affection, control over women’s sexuality through all kinds of abuse and aggressiveness and by the male tendency to have numerous partners simultaneously, typically younger and with less power than them, whose pregnancy is proof of their virility. Such a culture, which has resulted in female identity being based on having babies, bases masculine identity on “putting” the babies in her, as men in Nicaragua commonly phrase it.
In comparison with the past, women today have fewer children and live quite a lot longer throughout the world. And they now dedicate fewer hours of their daily lives to raising children, because schooling is more widespread and many household chores are facilitated by inventions that would never have been dreamed of just a century ago. Despite all of this, the burden of being a mother is still very great, because of its cultural nature. It is a yoke that weighs on her conscience and is carried in her heart. It is an emotional burden; the fear of being a “bad mother” or being labeled as such haunts all women like an unshakeable ghost.
Mothers faced with incest:After taking this peek at the set of beliefs maintained by our culture and observing some of the myths, we’d like to reflect—albeit it preliminarily—on one of the prejudices derived from the mythifying of maternity and the hyper-responsibility that society imposes on women-mothers. This is the perverse—and perverting—prejudice that sees mothers as guilty, responsible, for the sexual abuse suffered by their children, especially when the abuser is their partner, the child’s father or stepfather. In other words, when they have to face the crime of incest and the criminal in their home who has committed it.
In search of a “guidebook”
This prejudice is what we witnessed among the boys and girls who commented on Gema’s case, and is precisely what many men and women in Nicaragua think. What role does the mother play when her daughter is sexually abused within the four walls of her house? It is a painful and delicate situation that has only recently been the focus of studies, research and reflection. As a result, we have barely started along the path in search of a few clues. According to Argentine psychologist Eduardo H. Cazabat, “The feminist women’s liberation movement that developed in the seventies in the United States brought attention to a reality that had been hidden for centuries: that of domestic and sexual violence against women and children. Up until that moment, speaking about the violence suffered by women and children in the ‘intimacy’ of their home only led to greater shame, humiliation and disbelief.”
But it’s never too late, even when the objective in question has been hidden for centuries. Concern is starting to spread in Nicaragua and there are already groups working with girls and young women who have survived sexual abuse at home, helping them with their personal reconstruction in the company of their mothers. We have started to accumulate experience. To provide a summary of this experience, I again looked to Lorna Norori, who has listened to hundreds of young female incest survivors and their mothers. With her help, I have tried to draw up a “guidebook” that will help us get a better perspective on this situation.
The first reaction: “The mothers’ first reaction,” explained Lorna, “is incredulity, whether they later support their daughters or not. They don’t believe it, and not because they’re trying to protect the abuser, but because they fear him and are fundamentally trying to protect themselves. It’s an unconscious personal protection mechanism. In that first moment, the pain is so great that the unconscious warns them that they’ll bear that pain for who knows how long, and the easiest mechanism it to deny it. They all refuse to assume such a fact and formulate the same response: ‘It isn’t true.’
”I don’t believe it; I can’t believe it”
“I remember a case in which I asked the grandmother what her first feeling was when she found out that her daughter’s husband had abused her granddaughter. She replied, ‘My daughter and I started to cry and scream.’ I made her see that this was a subsequent reaction, that she should remember her very first feeling, there in her heart. And she confessed, ‘I didn’t believe it. I said, ‘This can’t be true,’ and my daughter said the same. She couldn’t believe it. Everybody else in the family, when they all found out at the same time, also said it wasn’t true; they couldn’t believe it.’
“Don’t believe could be translated as don’t know what to do. The subsequent reactions are diverse. Some mothers will end up believing it and support their daughter, while others will never accept it, even when they see it with their own eyes. But however they find out, and whatever their subsequent reaction, they all have the same first one: they don’t believe it. It could be called a norm. It’s a generalized resistance, a resistance to pain.
“The tendency to deny the facts happens regardless of how the mother receives the information about the abuse: whether the girl tells her or she finds out from third parties. It even happens if she discovers what’s going on by herself. I treated a 9-year-old girl who was abused by her father. The mother came home one day and found her husband abusing her daughter; she saw it with her own eyes. And just like all the other mothers I know she said, ‘It isn’t true, I can’t believe it.’ She just couldn’t accept what she was seeing. Seeing it or even personally discovering it, is particularly traumatic; much more so than being told by other people. But it doesn’t stop them from refusing to believe it.
“A long time after the mother said to me, ‘I didn’t react when I saw it; I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t believe it; I didn’t know what was happening. When I remember it today it still feels like when you’re watching a movie, but you know it isn’t real. I feel the images I saw dancing around my head, like something that wasn’t real.’”
Heartbreaking feelings:“This initial incredulity is mixed with many other emotional elements, including the daughter’s pain and the fear of what will happen and what people will say: ‘What’ll happen if the family, the neighbors, the community find out about this, if people know about it and it’s in the papers? It’ll be so shameful.’ There’s also a fear of reacting. If the man already has a history of violence towards the woman and she presses charges, she knows there’ll be more violence. The unconscious works very quickly; it’s much more agile than the conscious. Everything’s mixed up, everything combines, pushing her to say, ‘It isn’t true, I can’t believe it, I don’t dare believe it.’
Who am I? Who have I been living with?
“Another element that appears in almost all women when they first find out is rooted in their idea of what it means to “be a mother.” Like all women, they are taught that being a good mother means caring and protecting. So if such a thing has happened to their girl, then they’re bad mothers. Furthermore, the man who did it was the child’s father or stepfather, the woman’s partner, the person she built her personal project around, the man she’s loved, that she loves. ‘How could he have done that to his daughter, my daughter, a little girl? That man is a monster. Have I been living with a monster? Then who am I?’ These are heartbreaking feelings. It’s not just society that blames the mother; she also blames herself, either for not taking enough care or for sharing her life with a monster.”
Good mother-bad mother:“After the first trauma of finding out—hearing from others or discovering for herself and accepting the evidence—the mother immediately experiences a new anxiety: ‘Why didn’t I realize before?’ This also has to do with the duty of being a ‘good mother,’ with the feeling of guilt. ‘I didn’t realize because I’m a bad mother.’ Mothers assume all the responsibilities, and when something goes wrong they also bear all the guilt. As you work with them, you discover all the mechanisms that they themselves create to take responsibility for everything that happened. This resistance, this self-blame, has to do with the social construction of what it means to be a mother, to be a good mother.
Dominated by feelings of guilt
“The patriarchal culture has designed women to take responsibility for everything and has always blamed them for men’s irresponsibility. In the case of incest, this is fully achieved. The woman tends to assume the responsibility and the man is released from it: it was the girl who seduced him; it was the mother who didn’t look after her daughter properly; or it was the mother as wife who didn’t sexually satisfy her husband and he was forced to look to the girl. For one reason or another, the man, the real guilty party, ends up completely unpunished.
“David Finkelhor, an expert on child sexual abuse, argues that mothers who have problems with their partners tend to blame themselves the most. But I’ve seen this self-blame in both women with a good relationship and those with problems. Incest even happens in ‘model’ harmonious homes or among couples with a healthy sex life; the mother still feels responsible and blames herself for what happened.”
From “I can’t believe it” “Taking the step from ‘I can’t believe it’ to ‘I believe it’ depends a lot on the woman involved. In my experience, if the mother is the victim of violence and has been very subjected, it will take her much longer to accept it, to admit it. It might take months, if not many years. In some cases it could take a whole lifetime and she’ll still refuse to believe it, clinging to the idea that nothing ever happened. There are also cases in which mothers react almost immediately and the initial moment of disbelief passes quickly.
to “I believe and support you”
“When the many girls and young women who I’ve treated talk about telling their mothers, they all say that there’s a moment in which the mother repeatedly asks, ‘Are you sure that this happened to you? Are you really speaking seriously?’
When they’ve calmed down a little, they want to make sure. And even then they hope that what their daughter told them isn’t true. Once they’re quite sure, with all the pain that goes with it, and have achieved a more rational state, another stage of the process starts: they have to decide whether or not they’re going to support their daughter. Once they’re sure, they can take one of two possible decisions.
“Many women dissociate themselves. Some live all of their lives dissociated. If they decide to continue living with the man who abused their daughter, they need to cut their feelings off in order to continue with him. In my experience, most women opt to support their daughters and decide not to continue with the man. They leave home and break up with the husband or partner, the father or the stepfather. This decision demonstrates very strong cohesion, but also demands enormous strength, which they can’t count on always having in the required amount. Or if they do, they sometimes try to employ it to protect themselves in other ways, avoiding a total rupture with the man for a number of different reasons, such as economic dependency or social pressure.”
“My mother supports me“The first and most important form of support a mother can give her daughter is to believe her. Believing or not believing establishes the primary border. There will be other forms of support, all derived from having believed what the daughter said. When I ask the girls, some of them now adult women, why their mother supports them, they always say, ‘Because she believes me.’ Even if they do nothing more, that is a huge support for the daughter. For survivors of sexual abuse, being believed is fundamental. And being believed by their mother is absolutely essential, because if their mother—from whom they expect so much and who sleeps with that man in that room—believes them, they experience everything that has happened to them in a totally different way.
because she believes me”
“After that first step, daughters expect their mother to take new ones. Is she going to sleep with her daughter to stop the man from approaching her? Will she leave him? How far will she go? Will she go with her daughter to press charges? Will she accompany her in the judicial process, in therapy? How far will she accompany her? The girls quickly sense whether or not their mothers really support them.”
Mother-daughter rivalry At this point I mentioned to Lorna that, just like our prejudiced population, some authors have also written about complicit mothers. Complicity with the abuser, supposedly fed by a number of different fears: that if they support the daughter, the man—on whom they depend economically—will leave them; that he will become more violent and find some horrible way to wreak his vengeance; and in small communities, that he or his family will bring their influence to bear… These fears are very similar to those that stop many women from leaving husbands who physically harm them. They are invariably fears of power exercised as dominion, imposition and aggression; fear of the abuse of power.
and the guilt-free perpetrator
In other cases, the mother assumes the role of “sufferer” culturally assigned to women as a “virtue” and feels relieved that the man leaves her alone, even if he seeks out the girl. In such cases, rather than being complicit with the man, the mother is engaging in an emotional juggling act, seeking to make the daughter complicit with her and her frustrations. She thinks, “I’ve suffered with this man; it’s your turn now.” Some women don’t want to be the only ones suffering and want their daughters to know what “they’ve had to endure.”
Other mothers assume the role that macho culture teaches all women, and which they so quickly learn: competing among themselves for men’s attention. From this perspective, they consider that if their daughter has fallen into the man’s hands it was because “she turned against her and took away her man.”
The mother-daughter competition or rivalry is also fueled by all of the prejudices and myths surrounding sexual abuse and incest: that men are like that; that if a woman or girl excites them they can’t resist, even if it’s their own daughter or someone living in the same house; that if a wife doesn’t satisfy her husband he has the “right” to seek that satisfaction with his daughters… In all these cases, the man who is actually responsible ends up relieved of responsibility.
Diane Russell reflects on this in her book The Secret Trauma. She argues that in cases of father-daughter incest, the mother find herself placed in the profoundly painful and humiliating position of being rejected by her own partner and replaced by a younger woman; in this case her own daughter. In macho culture it’s quite common for women over 40 to be displaced by younger women, but what could be more execrable than being dispossessed in your own home by your own daughter? What could be more destructive of the mother-daughter relationship?
Rivalry is not the cause, “According to my experience,” Lorna responded, “what this author identifies as so humiliating not only happens but is even more frequently visible when the incest involves a stepfather and stepdaughter. I’ve seen a greater tendency for the mother to rationally elaborate a story that allows her to avoid the reality when the aggressor is the adoptive father: ‘My daughter seduced him, she provoked him, she got crazy and came on to him, she took advantage of the fact I wasn’t there, she put on tight shorts to excite him.’
but rather the consequence
“The mother-daughter rivalry, which is so often talked about superficially, is based on this kind of rationalization. But it neither causes the abuse nor represents its origin. Quite the contrary, such rivalry is the result of abuse, the end product of a whole process of maternal negation: ‘I can’t accept this, and therefore it isn’t true.’ And she elaborates a story in which the daughter is acting like her rival. At the same time, the mother’s rivalry makes the daughter blame her for not protecting her. The mother blames the daughter and the daughter the mother, and the only person not being blamed is the man, who’s the one who’s really responsible.
“The media, particularly radio and television, are cultivating a culture of sensationalist news. They provide morbid, superficial reports of crimes of incest, helping strengthen the prejudice against mothers ‘who don’t look after’ their daughters and against daughters who ‘throw themselves at men,’ thus fueling rivalries and triggering greater emotional confusion among all women, be they mothers or daughters.”
Those who support, those who doubt,“If I had to make a classification based on the cases I’ve known, I’d say that there are two kinds of mothers who support. I refer to them as ‘firm supporters’ and ‘bifurcated supporters.’ The firm ones believe their daughters right from the start and accompany them in all of their personal processes, including the judicial one. They are mothers who decide for themselves to press charges, who take their daughters to the psychology sessions and participate with the psychologist when necessary, who try to find out more about the subject and take measures to prevent new abuse.
those who blame, those who protect the man
“The bifurcated ones are found more frequently in families in which the sexual aggressor is the girls’ brother. The mother finds herself divided between her love for her son and her love for her daughter. In such cases, I’ve frequently seen that the mother believes the story and starts the process, but soon becomes engulfed by fear, seeks to delay the process and makes excuses for an indefinite period of time, or else produces her own interpretation to minimize the responsibility of her aggressor son.
“Doubts predominate among the non-supportive mothers, who minimize the abuse and its consequences and deny the damage caused to the daughter. They blame the girl, if not for the deeds then for having revealed them and thus causing so many problems. The extreme case of non-supportive mothers is that they don’t even believe their daughters; they blame them and even unconditionally protect the aggressor as a way of feeling protected themselves. They end up assigning themselves the role of victim that actually corresponds to their own daughter. Such cases provide the greatest expression of the mother-daughter rivalry phenomenon, which is definitely provoked by the incestuous man.”
The reign of indifference:I mentioned to Lorna that secrets are always imposed in the trauma of incest; there is always silence, which is the best shield for sexual abusers, particularly in incest. It’s much easier for a girl to tell her mother that a stranger violently raped her in the street than to confess that her father abused her during the night under the guise of tenderness and affection, or used fear and threats to do so when the mother wasn’t home.
Devoid of education, pleasure or communication
That secret and that silence are shielded by whatever sexual information and education girls receive or adult women know, which is limited at best. Most of today’s women were threatened or severely punished for masturbation, that healthy exercise of exploration, satisfaction and bodily pleasure that teaches us so much. A majority received no information about menstruation, sexual relations, pregnancy or childbirth from their mothers, much less their fathers. Many women were told from an early age that “you’ll learn all of that when you’re with a man.”
The unnamable and evasive “all that” confirmed for them that sexuality is dirty, dangerous, risky, something to be feared. Furthermore, the man who would supposedly one day initiate them was probably just the same as them; someone who had never had anything explained to him, who had only learned in the street what the pervasive culture had to teach: that being a man is having any woman you want, that women have to be dominated, that women always like it and when they say NO, they really mean YES; in fact that’s all they’re looking for… Ignorance piled on top of ignorance; that’s how a sexual life lacking in love is built; it is plagued by fears, submission and abuse and nourished by a total lack of communication. It’s how what Nicaraguan feminist Sofía Montenegro has rightly termed “the reign of indifference” is built, stone by stone.
How mothers find out:“What I’ve seen most often,” said Lorna, “is that virtually all the girls are frightened of telling their mothers; first and foremost because they’re afraid they won’t be believed. That fear is what most prevails in them: ‘If they’re not going to believe me, it’s better not to say anything.’ And that’s how they think: they have no trust, because it’s sexuality that they’re going to talk to their mothers about. And from an early age they’ve learned that sexuality is something forbidden, dirty, that you don’t discuss; that talking about it is vulgar, filthy. They’ve learned that they have to keep quiet about it and fear they’ll be punished for talking about it. No matter how much trust there is with their mother, they still have that fear derived from the powerful taboo surrounding everything related to sexuality. Given the little sexual education that we have, the girl isn’t wrong: her mother isn’t going to understand her, because sexuality is a taboo subject for her too.
The powerful taboo of sexuality
“In my experience, most mothers don’t find out from their daughters; they learn from other people, because the girl tells someone close to her, such as an aunt, a cousin or a girlfriend, and the story reaches the mother’s ears by that route. Or else she’s already catching on because she’s observed certain reactions from the girl and although she’s asked and her daughter didn’t tell her, the girl ended up telling someone else who finally told the mother. Some mothers find out when their daughter gets pregnant, which is often when the girl reveals what was going on. While the pregnancy often offers the daughter the chance to tell her mother, it sometimes provides the mother the excuse not to believe her daughter, interpreting it not as the result of abuse, but rather of some crazy moment with a boyfriend. They rationalize another story, reinterpreting the facts, to avoid the dramatic reality of the incest and feel more secure.
“It’s a different case when the girl reveals the abuse to her mother many years later, when she’s an adult and is talking to her mother about the past, about things that have been shut up in her memory, protected by the silence of so many years. In these cases the mother most commonly neither believes her nor supports her. After so much time, it is emotionally unacceptable for the mother to accept that she has lived at the side of a monster her whole life. Now that the girl is an adult, how can they retrace their steps? How can the mother accompany her daughter? It’s much easier when the daughter is still a girl. The mother’s history of living with the man is shorter and she can assimilate it better.”
What the papers sayI shared with Lorna the results of some “research” I had done. Between February 2002 and September 2004, I religiously cut out all cases of incest that appeared in the two national daily newspapers, El Nuevo Diario and La Prensa, to see what they could tell me about the reactions of the victim’s mothers in the almost invariably schematic journalistic accounts.
Appearing much more frequently than incest cases were those in which the sexual abuser was not connected to the family, in which the crime happened in the street, in a vacant lot, on a track or on a river bank. According to the newspaper reports, the girl’s mother almost always reported a case of rape by a stranger to the police. In fact, these crimes end up in the newspapers precisely because formal charges are made.
Cases of incest involving fathers or stepfathers appear much less frequently. During that 32-month period, only 31 cases were reported—about one a month. Is this a true reflection of the number of cases, or were there more? There is an enormous under-recording of accusations of incest, although the tendency to report them has been increasing in recent years. In 20 of the 31 cases that did appear in the newspapers the perpetrator was the stepfather; in the other 11 it was father. Cases are less likely to be reported when the father is the abuser. The silence is greater and the secret is better kept within the house.
In all cases, the girls involved were aged between 2 and 14, with almost half of them between 9 and 11. Seven ended up pregnant as a result of the incest, although it was not reported whether the girl ended up giving birth. Only in two cases did the girl’s biological fathers take the initiative in denouncing an abuse case committed by the stepfather.
How do the men line up in this drama? According to different experiences told in the report Me reconozco y te acompaño [“I recognize myself and accompany you”] published in 1999 by Dos Generaciones, a Nicaraguan NGO, as the result of its work with mothers of sexual abuse and incest victims, “There have been very few cases in which a male figure has supported the victim, and all of these have subsequently delegated the responsibility to a woman in the family.”
Mothers defend, denounceIn the reported cases I clipped, it was most usual for the girl making the charge to admit that she kept quiet as the result of a threat, with the father or stepfather saying he would kill her mother or her, or cut her tongue out if she talked. In most cases, the mothers were working outside the home, while the unemployed men were bumming around or inflicting the damage.
and put themselves at risk
All of the cases happened in rural zones or impoverished urban areas. The secret surrounding incest is almost always impenetrable when it happens in households with more resources, where dirty linen is never washed in public. Although there are also many such cases, it’s harder to talk about them and they are almost never reported in the media.
The most interesting thing about the information I collected is that although the social condemnation based on the myth that the mother is guilty, responsible or even complicit prevails in the collective imagination, in 25 of the 31 cases it was the mother who denounced the man for what he had done to her daughter. In three cases, confronting the man endangered the women’s lives: one was stabbed, one had her arm burned and another barely escaped being strangled. As no journalistic follow up is ever given to these cases, we don’t know how many paid dearly in the end for defending their daughters.
They bear their daughters’According to Lorna, “The information you collected from the newspapers is confirmed by my own experience. I can state that most mothers of girls who were abused at home by their father or stepfather believe their daughters and accompany and support them. I consider these women to be truly heroic. The revelation of incest implies a complete change in a mother’s life and the life of her family. From the outside it’s tough to gauge the strength a woman needs to confront this drama satisfactorily, to imagine the burden she has to assume. She has to carry her daughter’s burden and her own at the same time, and often alone. Society judges her unjustly, blames her unfairly and doesn’t accompany her, thus making her already painful burden even more unbearable.
pain on top of their own
“Incest is still the best kept secret in our society and in all societies. Only a minority of girls reveal this secret to their mothers or to anyone else. Most of these stories remain guarded in silence, in a sub-registration of hidden figures, cases nobody else will ever know about. I’ve often met adults who confess to me, ‘At this time in my life I hadn’t even realized this had happened to me.’
“The increasing information about sexual abuse in our media, the revelation in the United States and other countries about sexual abuse committed by priests and increasing information about what is meant by sexual abuse is contributing to reflection and preventive actions. The information being increasingly disseminated is stirring memories of past events among many women who had forgotten them because they happened when they were very young. They are also encouraging many to speak about what happened.
“Naturally, this encourages mothers to distrust teachers, priests, ministers and male relatives. Some believe that promoting distrust as a form of prevention and teaching children self-care generates paranoia and panic among mothers. But these feelings appear mainly when they begin to become aware of the problem. And I believe that they’re necessary. There’s nothing wrong with a little paranoia. It forces a search for alternative forms of prevention.”
History repeats itself:“One woman who suffered incest at a very early age said to me, ‘I’m convinced that my mother also suffered abuse during her childhood, but it’s hard to help her as she doesn’t want to talk about it. And that makes my process more difficult as well. It’d be a lot easier if she’d open up. My mother belongs to a generation that doesn’t talk about that kind of thing. She’ll take it to the grave with her.’
Abused mother, abused daughter
“That’s not an exceptional case. I’ve often worked with abused girls whose mothers also had a story of sexual abuse during their childhood or adolescence. It’s very common for abused girls to be the daughters of mothers who also suffered abuse. I’ve confirmed that in Nicaragua and David Finkelhor has confirmed it internationally. It’s what we call ‘modeling.’ The mother who experienced sexual abuse and has probably never been able to process or express it has been living as a typical survivor: subjected, vulnerable and fragile. Even if she doesn’t say anything, she transmits these signals, these attitudes to her daughters by her modeling behavior.
“Having had a similar but unprocessed story limits the support such mothers can offer their daughters. They are not prepared to assume that pain, even if they have been able to identify and process their own. They also tend to react by wanting to protect their daughters and think that this involves asking them for silence, forgiveness and to forget, which is what they did a long time ago. But silence, forgetting and forgiveness never resolve anything.
“The case of mothers who suffered sexual abuse in their childhood and have never accepted it or wanted to recognize or assume it is particularly difficult. They are always more resistant to believing, accepting and supporting. When they find out what happened to their daughter, they see it as fate and put up a lot of barriers. In addition, as they never told their own story and believe they’re strong because they got over it, they think, ‘If I never said anything and haven’t had to say anything about that, why does this brat have to say anything? If I could get over it and be strong, why can’t she? I’ve never needed anyone; it’s a long time since I’ve thought about that, so who does she think she is, what has she got to teach me?’ Accepting what the daughter is saying, entering into her process, would force the mother to accept her own story, her own abuse. And that implies questioning her whole life. To escape that anxiety, the mother rationalizes that her daughter is bad, considers her an enemy who wants to destroy her home. These aren’t exceptional cases. They demonstrate in greater depth the self-defense mechanism many women adopt in reaction to incest.
“I remember a case in which the grandfather raped his granddaughter and years earlier had also raped his daughter, when she was a little girl. The mother said to me, ‘Now the important one is my daughter; I don’t matter now because I’ve forgotten everything.’ But then she’d contradict herself, saying, ‘There’s not a single day that I don’t remember it.’ Sometimes she’d tell me that and burst into tears. She hadn’t forgotten anything her father had done to her. She believed that her daughter would be all right if she forgot, and told her to forget it like she’d done. I soon found out that she drank to forget her story and she ended up telling me she’d been doing that for years. In her case, her partner was a good man, but she was living with an open wound.”
An ancient problem that“When we discover the crime of incest, we also discover many other connected stories. And the chain has very firm links: the survivor mother unconsciously transmits signals that make her daughter vulnerable; the daughter picks them up, learns them, is in turn abused; and the mother either makes her keep quiet or considers her a rival. And with all probability, the story will be repeated in the next generation. If we don’t know how to intervene, these stories will continue for generations. If we don’t introduce a therapeutic process into this chain there’s a risk that it will never end.
we now have the ability to see
“In the case of survivors whose mothers have a similar story, both need to receive therapeutic help. Experience tells us that there are many generational chains in Nicaragua. And it’s from that perspective that we have to examine what is currently happening, what we’re seeing. It’s a mistake to think that sexual abuse is a recent problem, that it’s more frequent now than before or is more common because girls are more out of control. No, this is an ancient problem that we finally have the ability to see and talk about. This is something positive; it’s a first, but big step forward.
“When the mother doesn’t have a similar story, the revelation of the facts always surprises her more. Finding out about sexual abuse in the family is always inconceivable, but when there has been no previous story, the incredulity tends to be greater: ‘This has never happened in my family; it’s something that happens to other people, that you read about in the newspapers.’ In many cases I’ve started my sessions based on the idea that the mother hadn’t been abused, which is what she told me, not because she was denying reality but because she really didn’t remember. But pushing a little deeper based on indicators that suggested otherwise, I discovered that there was a similar story in her past that had been ‘erased.’ Each new case, each new chain, shows us just how prevalent incest is in our society.”
Feelings of guilt and betrayal:“Adult women who were abused in their childhood and didn’t say anything to their mothers at the time have to especially prepare themselves to tell their mothers. Many years may have passed, but sharing it with their mothers is fundamental to their therapeutic process. Even though they are older, they continue seeking their mother’s support; they want to be believed. Telling them and having their mothers believe them is fundamental to overcoming the feeling of betrayal. All survivors, both children and adults, feel betrayed by their mothers. When they are adults, this feeling is more deeply rooted by all the time that has passed.
The two pillars we have to face
“They feel that their mother betrayed them because she didn’t realize what was going on, because she didn’t do anything to stop it happening, because she carried on living with that man… These are very strong feelings in the girl’s conscious that prevail even when she’s an adult, and have to do with the fact that in the culture in which we’re raised, daughters also learn to mythify the figure of the mother and to expect everything from her, including total protection. They live the myth of the ‘good mother’: who has to be perfect, know everything, resolve everything.
“Mothers and daughters have been culturally taught this omnipotence and super-protection. If the mother doesn’t achieve it, she’s a bad mother. And the myth is reaffirmed by everyday reality because Nicaragua’s social reality shows girls from a very young age that the father leaves home, abandons the family, while the mother stays and takes care of everything.
“If the most profound feeling of all mothers is ‘I can’t believe it,’ their daughters feel that ‘my mother let me down, she betrayed me.’ These are the two fundamental feelings in the mother-daughter relationship that have to be worked on: guilt and betrayal. They are the two pillars we have to move. The starting point is to know that an incest survivor cannot progress without establishing a social support network to help her rebuild her life, and the mother occupies an important place in that network.
But we also have to demythify the mother. Survivors can still rebuild their lives if they don’t have a mother, if she’s no longer around or doesn’t support them. And in fact they do. Experience has demonstrated it. Perhaps the process is more difficult; perhaps not. Many survivors look for and find someone to take their absent or unwilling mother’s place. It might be a relative, a friend or a psychologist. It works. And there are also self-help groups where women survivors talk and share experiences, supporting each other and acting as each other’s mothers. That works as well.”
So much to be reflected on and doneThe experiences Lorna continues to learn from and that she can teach us, the information we learn from books and workshops, the reflections that have been done and remain to be done all indicate that there is still much to do, to talk and think about, to transform; a lot of awareness to be built among women to stop maternity being a manifest destiny and become something that can be chosen with increasing freedom. It is equally true for men so that paternity can be actively, responsibly and joyfully assumed.
It will be very hard to stop the violence, the sexual abuse, the incest unless men are involved in the changes needed to create fairer and happier societies. Our country’s emotional and spiritual underdevelopment has a gender: it’s male.
Men must create networks to review among themselves alone the damage caused by the way they were brought up by their mother—and their father as well, if he was around—that made them believe they shouldn’t cry, cook, sweep up or hold and kiss their children. It should be a place where they can analyze their deer-like fear of “looking like women”; evaluate and re-examine the “education” they shared at school and in the streets laughing at crude jokes about women, visiting brothels or raping girls. They have to create networks in which together they can prepare for responsible paternity and a happier sexuality that is not exclusively based on the exercise of power.
And while all this is happening, the existing women’s networks have to review how they educate their sons, how they mortgage their affection by living with extremely macho men out of a fear of loneliness, and what verbal violence and power games they themselves exercise over other women. They have to analyze whether the feminist discourse is really a vital attitude or just a passionate theory never practiced outside of books, speeches, workshops and reports.
What’s God got to do with it?Given the extent of incest in our country, we need to ask ourselves as we begin to construct a new awareness among men and among women how it is that, while anthropology tells us that the taboo of incest is the most universal “legal” institution among all the cultures on the planet, our men transgress that institution so frequently and with such impunity.
It’s not easy to find a convincing answer. To find a few clues I believe we also have to look at religion, that ground we barely dig in out of respect or ignorance—and perhaps out of fear that we might dig it out from under us if we question our religious ideas, our own idea of God.
The unequal and distorted power structures between men and women that we currently live with so “naturally” have been fed first and foremost by religion for thousands of years. Has this feeding process been so prolonged and abundant that it has managed to break the taboo of incest? Has the culture derived from those religious ideas provided men with such power that they feel they have the “right” to use their own daughters, granddaughters and other girls sexually in their family surroundings? Much is being said in Nicaragua about the “patriarchal culture,” to borrow a term from the sociological language that all NGOs “workshop” to the most varied sectors of the population. But there has been less reflection on the religious roots of that culture, particularly the deepest root of all: the image and idea of a male God that emerged some four thousand years ago, thought about , invoked, imposed, preached and adored in masculine, and masculine alone.
The war of the gods against the goddessesThe strongest foundation of men’s awareness of their superiority over women is found in the image of a male God. That idea, that image, that representation of God has reached us from the depths of time. It is so ancient that it gives the appearance of being true; the only truth. But it isn’t. That image has its own history and dangerously reduces the truth about God. That idea of God—which extirpated the female side characterized by spontaneity, intuition, emotions and instinct from everything that was divine —is historical, a cultural creation. It wasn’t always like that and doesn’t have to be now.
The war of the tribal, violent father gods against the vital and compassionate mother goddesses, initially waged four thousand years ago in Babylonia, in the lands of the Near East, has affected the whole of humanity in stage after stage of our development more than we can imagine or would like to accept. Within our Western culture, the image of the God Yahweh—exclusively Father—that we have inherited through the Judeo-Christian culture expressed in the Bible has wreaked havoc on our minds and our be-
Some 2,000 years later in Palestine, long after the male gods had imposed themselves over extensive territories, Jesus questioned that predominantly authoritarian, intolerant, demanding, severe, exclusionary and jealous image through words and attitudes. Jesus revolutionized the idea of God. He called him Abba (Papa) and proposed virtues to both men and women that were scorned by the culture of the time and attributed exclusively to women. Jesus proposed them as tools that could transform the world: power exercised as service and care, compassion and tenderness.
But official Christianity later chose to follow Paul of Tarsus more closely than Jesus of Nazareth. And the theology of the misogynist Paul gained ground over Jesus’ feminist movement, with very serious consequences, including violence and the abuse of power. Do these consequences also include sexual abuse in the home, known as incest?
Where God is a man, the men are godsIn a regional meeting of Protestant women held in 2004 in Buenos Aires, Reverend Judith Van Osdol forcefully argued that the image of God preached and employed in many churches is inappropriate. The churches relegate women to a second or third category as if they were inferior beings, thus helping conceal the important and historic leadership they exercise. She stated that churches that imagine or represent God as a man have to take responsibility for that heretically created image. Because where God is a man, men are God. For Van Osdol, the term “Father” is a relational term that aims to demonstrate the equality of all people as daughters and sons. The root of the temptation in the Garden of Eden was the desire to be gods, and this temptation has remained alive right up to the present day. She concludes that men putting themselves forward as gods above women is a continuation of the consequences of that sin through a gender imbalance and injustice.
The macho: The Gran ChingónThe Myth of the Goddess by Jules Cashford and Anne Baring has been very important to understanding the damage done to humanity by the exclusively male image of God, with all female aspects stripped from “his” sacred nature and Eve blamed for all misfortunes and calamities. It tries to explain this history from an unusual and highly intelligent perspective abounding in information.
Many years before, in The Labyrinth of Solitude, his wonderful X-ray of Mexican and much of Latin American culture, Octavio Paz accurately perceived the damage and located the religious roots of Mexican machismo, the violent and daily continuation of that ancestral war of the gods against the goddesses.
According to Paz, the image of God the Father is presented as an ambivalent figure in all civilizations as soon as it dethrones the female divinities. He is the king of creation, the cosmic regulator, origin of life, the One from which everything springs and to which everything leads. But he is also the owner of lightning and the scourge, the tyrant and the life-devouring ogre. This aspect—furious Jehovah, the God of wrath, Zeus rapist of women—is what appears almost exclusively in Mexican men’s popular representations of virile power.
The phrase “I’m your father,” used so much in Mexico, has no paternal flavor, argues Paz, nor is it said to protect, safeguard or guide; it is rather used to impose superiority, to humiliate. Its real meaning is the same as the verb “chingar” and some of its derivatives. The Macho is the Gran Chingón. It’s a phrase that summarizes the aggressiveness, impassibility, invulnerability, stark use of violence and other attributes of macho power. It describes a force unlinked to any notion of order: arbitrary power, unbridled and unchanneled will Chingar is to perform violence against another... to humiliate, punish, offend, fuck over... It’s a masculine, active, cruel noun that pricks, wounds, tears, stains. For Paz, the chingado [the object of the verb] is passive, inert and open, in opposition to the subject, who is active, aggressive and closed. The chingón is the “macho,” he who opens. The chingada [the object in feminine] is the woman; pure passivity, defenseless against the outside: the idea of violation darkly governs all of the meanings.
Women’s fear and men’s fear All of this is starting to change all over the world. There are so many signs that it would be impossible to list them in this edition of envío. Describing what he termed “global fear,” the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano refers to women’s fear of men’s violence—an ancient fear that has still not been banished. And he adds another more recent fear: men’s fear of fearless women. It’s a sign of our times, of new times, that women are increasingly becoming aware of their dignity, discovering their capabilities and skills, managing to hacksaw through and break in a thousand different ways the bars of machismo in which they were trapped. They don’t let anyone do anything to them; they’re losing their fear. They’re also being mothers in a different way, finding other ways of being mothers.
Many men are frightened of these women. And fear tends to engender violence. Is that increasing fear what is so frequently breaking the taboo of incest? When the woman starts to break with her cultural identity of the ever submissive, abnegated, sacrificed “good mother,” it questions the man’s own identity and he experiences fear. It happened in France and England at the end of the 19th century when women began to find out about and employ contraceptive methods for family planning and started to flood into the labor market. Las hijas de Lilith, [“Lilith’s Daughters”] is an interesting book in which Catalonian author Erika Bornay closely analyzes men’s fear during that period, which generated great amounts of male literature and paintings in both countries whose protagonists were “bad women,” known at the time as “femmes fatales” or “vampires.” At the same time, the number of girl and adolescent prostitutes was on the rise and there was prolific pedophilia and sexual abuse of girls.
In what will be the “CAFTA area” of Nicaragua and the other Central American countries, the structural unemployment will be “resolved” by means of maquiladoras (assembly plants for re-export) that mainly employ female workers. These jobs will be sought by women increasingly conscious that they don’t want to be subordinated or limited to the role of “good mothers.” Might the response to this be the same kind of male fear? And might this fear explain at least in part the new wave of violence we’re seeing, the phenomenon known as feminicide in Ciudad Juárez and other places where men’s traditional enjoyment of women’s abject subordination is being challenged by the latter’s entry into the maquila labor force while male unemployment mounts? If so, it is unfortunate that this fear is not manifesting itself in literature or art in our cases, only worsening violence. Just as we increasingly hear of sexual abuse and women being murdered just for being women, could this fear also be manifesting itself in incest in Nicaragua?
María López Vigil is editor-in-chief of envío.