She’d hardly told anyone about what happened when she was a young teenager. My wife barely gave any signs that she was anything other than fun, bubbly and (relatively!) balanced. When she drew me into a conversation about being raped by a family member at the age of twelve I was overwhelmed. It remains her story of rape survival, but I realised that, to parents, spouses and other family members of rape survivors, there is a story which rarely gets told.
As I have just said, the “ownership” of the event belongs with the survivor. If you consider, though, the flawed statistics based on reported and projected stats on rape in this country, you realise just how many people are affected. There may be one victim but many peripheral people trying to cope with that event.
When my wife told me about what happened I experienced what many people feel when they come across horrific injustice: I wanted to go directly to the bastard’s house and beat the living daylights out of him. Only I didn’t. I wanted to get the police involved, get him charged, convicted and sent to prison, only I didn’t. I wanted her to go back for counselling; only I didn’t.
How to respond to rape: survivors and their families
The survivors get to choose how to respond to their story. If that means denial, acceptance, forgiveness or a legal process, that’s up to them. These choices can be extremely difficult to make, and it’s very difficult for a family member to speak to a survivor objectively about those choices.
Counselling can help – trained counsellors are aware of what needs to be said, and what the survivor needs to express without hindrance.
If you’re married to a rape survivor or you are the parent of one, you will quite possibly need help and counselling, too. To help you understand the bigger picture as well as the possibly confusing responses the survivor has. After all, the gross physical violation just does not compute: we battle to come to terms with the meaningless cruelty of it all.
Realistically, we aren’t able to murder or beat up the perpetrators. Doing so would be to risk imprisonment. Frustration with the police or judicial system is also no excuse for vigilantism. The most important person in the event of a rape is the survivor.
Post-traumatic stress, shock, physical injury and more may mean that the survivor is unwilling or unable to speak about the event. Guilt, family circumstances, fear and other circumstances can also create a situation where a survivor is unwilling or unable to speak out.
If you are the family member of a rape survivor, don’t discount the value in seeking help for yourself, in order to process the hurt and anger and to learn how to support the survivor better.
If you suspect someone you love has been sexually abused or raped, don’t force them to tell the story, but rather love the person unconditionally and gradually open up a safe place where that person can feel the freedom to talk.
You can also call helplines at places like:
Rapcan: +27 21 712 2330
Childline: 0861 322 322
Lifeline’s web site provides a list of Lifeline Centres in your area, as well as contact details for Child Line. Alternatively, you can contact them toll-free at 0800 055 555.
The Child Emergency Line can be reached for free at 0800 123 321.
Child Welfare SA provides a hotline for reporting abuse: 0861 4 CHILD (24453)
* Author's name changed to protect the privacy of anyone mentioned in this article
Have you ever had to deal with family trauma? What did you do?