My grandfather abused me years ago and I just told my boyfriend. Should I tell my family next? (2022)

Dear Arielle,

Last Sunday I spoke something out loud that I have carried alone with me for maybe 14 years. I told it to my very supportive boyfriend, and I'm happy I did it. I was abused by my grandfather when I was a child. I never told anyone, because I was afraid that I could never again celebrate Christmas or anything with my family in peace. My family, apart from my grandfather, means so much to me.

But now I don't want to be silent about it anymore. I want my whole family to know it. I am afraid that my parents won't be able to carry this, and that it will break them or that it could even trigger an illness in them. The thing is, I also have a twin sister and a cousin, and it would be deeply painful if he has also done something to them. If so, I think my twin sister wouldn't be ready to talk about it yet. What do you think? Do you think my family, especially my parents, will be able to process this?

I, of course, will talk to my sister first, which is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done.


No More Secrets

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* * *

Dear No More Secrets,

This letter is very difficult for me to write. My whole body is tense, and my arms feel heavy as I type — but just because something is hard, doesn’t mean it’s there to ignore. It doesn’t mean we don’t confront it. It doesn’t mean we can’t work to build up the tools and support we need to take it on.

I am so proud of you for speaking up and sharing your story, for releasing it from your body and bringing it into the world where it can be dealt with, for making it so real that you can’t run away from it, no matter how much you want to. It makes sense to me that you told your boyfriend first, as the intimacy you share is a deep one, but one that is separate from your family. You trust him enough to tell him, and because undoubtedly there are ways in which this trauma has shown up in your relationship, you can now both work through them together. Is he a big reason why you felt ready to speak out to your family about your grandfather? Does he provide that safety for you?

You were hurt when you were a child by an adult. You were hurt by someone you trusted. You were hurt by someone that everyone in your world trusted. None of this is your fault. You did not do anything to deserve it. I will remind you again. This isn’t your fault. You did not cause this.

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You were the victim, and yet you’ve been protecting your abuser for 14 years. Ask yourself why.

You’re scared to break up your family who means the world to you. You’re scared to hurt your parents. You’re scared that your safe space will be taken from you. You’re scared to find out the truth about the other potential victims your grandfather has hurt. You’re scared that it will be all your fault when this blows up. Whatever your other reasons, every single one is valid, and is a normal response. But this isn’t your fault, remember? You did not do this.

Your family being uncomfortable and being forced to confront the reality of who your grandfather is isn’t your burden. Your parents being hurt about this situation has nothing to do with you — your grandfather did this. He hurt them by hurting you. Your grandfather potentially having hurt your sister or cousin? That’s on him, but making sure he doesn’t keep doing it? Making sure the women in your family are safe from him? That’s on you. Because you know they aren’t.

If he did hurt your sister but she’s not ready to talk about it yet, that’s OK. It doesn’t mean your experience wasn’t real; it doesn’t mean you made it all up. It doesn’t mean watching you heal won’t help heal her. But ultimately, whatever happened to her is her journey to process, and she’ll deal with it as she needs to. You need to deal with this the way you need to, and it sounds like speaking up about it is the first step.

Four years ago one of my uncles molested me when I was staying with him. I was an adult. I was terrified. As I laughed him off me, the only response my body knew to invoke in that moment, I walked out into his living room, back to the cup of tea I had been making. I robotically sat myself on the couch. I was in a foreign country without a phone or wifi. I was sleeping in his home, and his wife and two young children would be home soon. I must have made everything up. How could I be so perverted? Why was I imagining the man who had helped raise me and my siblings, the one who I could talk to about books and my meditation practice, the one who I trusted most, trying to finger me? My body felt cold and my fingers were shaking around the tea cup. I felt sick. If I took a shower maybe I’d feel better. The moment my body came under the water, it started convulsing. I was shaking so hard my teeth began to chatter, and I noticed I was hysterical in my weeping, but lucid enough to understand I couldn’t be any louder than the falling water. My eyes kept darting to the door, wondering if the lock worked. In that instant I understood, my body, my heart, and my mind had all been shattered at the same time. I understood what had happened to me, I understood that I wasn’t safe, and I understood that I may never feel safe again.

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The moment I had access to my cell phone a few difficult days later, I told everything to a friend of mine. Not because I trusted him more than anyone else, but because he didn’t know anyone in my family and had no way of ever talking to them. I remember texting him quietly so that no one would know I was on my phone, and telling him I needed to write out all the details, I needed to see them exist before me, know that someone else knows it happened, because it was very possible that in a few days I would convince myself, again, that I had made everything up. Something I had believed so far away from my reality had actually happened, and now my brain was playing tricks on me. I couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t anymore.

I stayed quiet. I gave my uncle a goodbye hug when I left to the airport. I thought this was my secret to keep. I had to protect my family, my cousins, my mom. They’d be heartbroken. They’d be terrified. I was silent.

I lied to my family when I didn’t stay or visit him on the next trip, about why I wouldn’t be at the family get together, about why I didn’t engage in the family Whatsapp group. I was told I was selfish and rude, and still I stayed quiet.

For weeks I wasn’t really functioning, and I couldn’t work. Whenever I was alone, I stuffed my body with food until I was sick. I’d get in the bathtub, bloated and in pain, and weep. I felt alienated from everything and everyone I loved, I felt a stranger to myself. My body and my mind didn’t feel mine. One day, it got so bad I called RAINN, the national sexual assault hotline. I didn’t know who else to tell, and as I sobbed on the phone to a stranger with a clinical personality, I realized I was not OK. I ended up writing about these experiences publicly before ever telling my family. I screamed into the internet (without identifying my uncle), and heard collective screams back. For the first time, I realized I wasn’t alone. Women I had never met, women I’d gone to school with, women who were my friends — they’d all had similar experiences like the dozens I had been forced to carry by existing in this body. I was often the first person they had ever told their stories to. I realized, more than the actual point of trauma, it was the silence that was suffocating and strangling me. It was being quiet that was killing me, the way it had been killing all the women that reached out to me. I caught strep throat three times in one month — even my physical body was telling me I needed to speak.

I met a boy I liked around this time. I realized that if I didn’t confront this in me, my uncle, who had already taken so much from me, would take away any chance I had of ever having a healthy relationship in the future. I wasn’t OK with that. So the day after I went on a second date with this new guy, I told my dad.

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This set in motion every step of me actually beginning to heal. He helped me pay for a therapist, and if it wasn’t for the few sessions I had with her, I may not have been able to finally confront my uncle and yell at him. I may not have been able to realize how I was doing everything in my power to protect him, while it was hurting me. I may not have been able to realize that my younger sister wasn’t safe around him, and only I could warn her.

The rest of my family eventually found out. They weren’t all supportive. I got scolded at for writing publicly about it: “It’s not like he raped you!” His older daughters asked me questions I didn’t feel emotionally prepared to answer. Family would pick up his phone calls while we were together, look at me, and then just say they’d call him back later, as if nothing had happened.

I stayed on the Whatsapp group for three years after, until I realized how unfair it was that every single time my phone lit up, I’d freeze. This wasn’t fair. I told everyone in my family group that I’d be leaving it, and anyone that wasn’t my uncle was free to contact me. No one really has, and when one of my cousins did, I got a panic attack.

The effects of this experience never stop. They are part of my daily life when I black out in a presentation, when it hurts to put in a tampon, when my body gets sick after hearing the news. I am looking at them, living with them, and healing with them — and it all started with recognizing what happened to me wasn’t my fault. It’s not my job to protect someone who hurts others. It is my job to protect myself and those I care about, and let them know when someone close to them is dangerous. It is my responsibility to do what I need to do heal, and no one can do it for me.

It isn’t really your concern if your parents are able to process this or not. Whatever illusion they have of your grandfather needs to be shattered. Who else has he hurt? Who else has he done this to? How do you know your parents aren’t his victims as well?

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If you don’t feel safe telling your parents, that’s one thing. The reality is, they may not be as supportive as you like. Things get weird and very complex when incest is involved, and unfortunately victims are often made to feel like we’ve made it all up for attention, or that the abuse we received was in the name of love. You deserve to be supported no matter what, and that also means finding it outside of your family — sounds like your boyfriend is a great start. Speaking to a qualified professional is also a really, really good idea, and one whose importance I can not stress enough.

I share my story because I know you will relate to most of it. I know it will help remind you that you didn’t make things up, and that you’re not alone. I know it will give you strength to take the next steps in your healing. I know it will show you that the silence is what hurts the most, and you deserve to speak and to heal and to own your story. You have a full life ahead of you and no one, not even your grandfather, can take that away from you. It’s time for you to take it back and put yourself as the center of it. Your family will be OK. You will be OK. You deserve to feel protected and have time with your family be a safe space. You don’t have control over whether that will happen or not, but you do have control over making sure however you do want to spend your Christmas, it’s not spent protecting your abuser — at your expense, no less.

When you are ready to share your story, don’t apologize for it, even though you may want to. Don’t brush off or minimize this secret you’ve been living with. Don’t let anyone tell you what was or wasn’t true. This story is yours to tell and yours to own. No one else gets to rewrite or edit it, except for you, when you’re ready to.

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