Monday, June 18, 2012

Why the Silence about Sexual Abuse?

Joel Achenbach, writing in the Washington Post today, noted a pattern of suspicion followed by silence among those who knew something about Sandusky's behavior with young boys.  Those who work with survivors (a term I prefer to victims) of child sexual abuse know this pattern all too well and are often angered by it.  How do we explain the reluctance of people to talk about their suspicions openly so that something might be done to stop these atrocities?

One of the explanations suggested is that the abuser is a person of power or status who could use that power to punish anyone who dared talk about what they suspected or knew.  Though there is some truth to this, especially in the minds of the young person who has been manipulated and sometimes threatened into silence, I think there is a more basic explanation that comes clear in an understanding of the nature of shame and our responses to behavior that evokes shame.

Shame is one of the powerful survival emotions with which we are all hardwired.  It is the emotion that compels us to surrender and try to hide when we are faced with an overwhelming threat or defeated in competition.  It can save our lives in a primitive battle over status, and it has a complex function in forming our consciences and guiding our moral awareness.  But although we use the word in a way that has many complex connotations, it is a fundamental and powerful basic emotion, and shares some characteristics with other survival emotions.

1. Shame compels an immediate behavioral response.  Fear compels us to freeze first, then run.  Anger compels us to attack. And shame compels us to surrender and withdraw, averting our gaze and trying to hide.  We want to become invisible, and anything that draws attention to us makes the shame stronger.   So when someone tells an inappropriate joke at a party, everyone wants to crawl under the table.  And when someone in your group is behaving badly, no one wants to be the first to call attention to the problem.  "For some people," notes Achenbach, "the subject is literally unspeakable."

2.  Shame is contagious.  Like the panic triggered in a crowded theater when someone shouts fire, or the rage evoked in a mob when it is focused on a target, shame over someone's exposure evokes an emotional response in all of us.  Depending on our relationship to the person shamed, the emotional response can be one of shame or anger, but if the person is a member of your family, tribe, or a group with which you identify, the shame will come first.  When Dad is drunk and making a fool of himself, everyone in the family wants to leave the scene.  A secondary reaction of anger may set in soon, but the initial response is shared shame.  If our political leader makes a gaffe, we all groan inside before we go into defensive action.

3. Shame is followed by anger.  Take my word for it (or read my book about it) shame almost always leads to anger.  But the anger may be expressed toward almost anyone.  After feeling the sting of shame, we may be angry at ourselves, we may be angry at the world, we may be angry at the easiest person to be angry at - which may be the victim of the abuse - or we may fear the anger of others that we know is likely to emerge if we make a lot of noise about the shameful situation.  So family members enable the alcoholic rather than confront, institutions shield and hide the abusers in their midst rather than share the shame of exposure, and people with suspicions of others, particularly leading members of the group with which they identify, keep their mouths shut and their heads down (the classic posture of shame).  The fear of angry reprisals can extend to fear of legal action against the institution involved.  But underlying this fear is the naive wish that it will all just go away if we can cover it up or keep quiet about it.

Understanding the nature of our powerful survival emotions, how they compel us to freeze, run, attack, or hide, can help us resist the self defeating behavioral responses that can arise in response to emotionally loaded situations and help us solve problems sooner.  Wishing the problems and the feelings would just go away only prolongs the damaging situation.