Virginia Ironside’s Dilemmas: My brother abused me - should I reveal the truth to my family?

Dear Virginia,

My brother sexually and physically abused me from when I was 10 until he left home. A few years afterwards, he tried to attack me and then, three weeks later, after he'd said he wanted a physical relationship, committed suicide. My family were distraught. I'm now in my forties. Having never told them, should I reveal the truth to my family? Do I speak out and tarnish their happy memories of my brother; or keep quiet and continue to feel ashamed and haunted for ever?

Yours sincerely, Nell

I can quite understand the temptation, having suffered under such a burden for so many years, to resolve it in some way. I imagine that you feel that sharing your secret would make the weight of the abuse less severe. But I notice you're making a couple of really mammoth assumptions here. First you say that if you told your family you would "tarnish the happy memories they have of him". How do you know whether the memories would be tarnished? Since your family is clearly one that makes a point of keeping secrets, how do you know that they, too, don't have their own rather bitter memories of his behaviour in other ways? You have absolutely no idea.

You don't know, either, how they might react. Let's say you're right and they have happy memories they want to hang on to. Who would they turn on in their rage and shock at hearing such news? That's right. You. You'd be blamed, and roundly. There would be shouts of "Why didn't you tell us before? Then we could have had a chance to get treatment for him and then he probably wouldn't have killed himself!" No doubt they'd accuse you of bringing it all on yourself. It's quite possible that they'd start accusing you of initiating this abuse, and saying that it hadn't been for you and your behaviour, he'd never have killed himself. There are myriad barmy and irrational accusations they could make, their minds distorted by horror and grief. Are you sure you want to put yourself into a position where you might be on the receiving end? In other words, you might end up, by telling them, feeling every worse and more misunderstood than before.

Secondly, where you do you get this idea that telling them would stop you feeling "ashamed and haunted for ever"? Bit of a glib assumption isn't it? Even if, which is extremely unlikely, they all gathered around you making "poor you" noises and smothering you with affection and sympathy, how would this make things better for you? You might feel a bit loved for a few months, but after that you'd be back to square one.

I'm not encouraging you to keep quiet to spare your family, but to spare yourself, at least for the time being, until you've sorted out exactly what you want out of this and exactly what you'd be pretty certain of getting. There are patterns to how people respond in these situations – they don't fit every family, but certainly the majority. Before you think of telling any other members of your family, do talk about the whole scenario with someone trained in abuse cases. You might find that, in the end, keeping this to yourself is the best option for you, yourself.

Readers say...

Get professional help

Think very carefully about whether the healing you seek will actually come from revealing your painful history to your family at this stage. Unless they can accept your story in a mature and compassionate way, then you may be in danger of releasing a cathartic energy that will do you and them more harm than good. Revisiting traumatic events such as abuse in an uncontrolled way runs a very real risk of re-traumatising the one who was abused.

Rather, I would suggest you consider seeking your healing in a safe and constructive environment with a therapist or counsellor who understands the nature of your traumatic past and can help you deal with your feelings of shame and anguish and work with you build a more positive view of yourself and your life.

When you feel stronger and more in control of your life the you might start to think about telling them your story.

Jon Chapman

Pesso-Boyden therapist

Cambridge

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Tell them the truth

Your parents let both you and your brother down and both of you have paid the price for an unsafe childhood. Your brother sadly paid with his life, and you are having to live haunted by memories and shame while your parents are left free to hold memories of a family life entirely different from the one you remember, or your brother would have remembered. You will hopefully have as much life left as you have lived, and you are entitled to live that well so tell them. Before you tell them, find some support from outside your family because whatever you decide, it is likely that you will be the one to have to manage the process and the fallout. And don't necessarily expect to be believed by people who could not see what their son was doing to their daughter at the time. They will need time to absorb this news and may not be the right people to look to for any reassurance that you have done the right thing.

Michael Wilson

Lewes, East Sussex

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Don't pass on the pain

You are in a very difficult situation. You do not want to hurt your family, but you want to speak your mind to work through the situation. If you talk to your parents, you might find you have not worked through your situation and you might feel as you feel now. Secondly, you may make your parents feel unhappy and suffer even more – or worse, they might turn against you and deny all that happened, which would make things even worst for you. It was not your parents that were abusing you, it was your brother.

I am not saying you should keep quiet. I think your question already shows what it is you may really need – someone to talk to whom you can wholly trust. Perhaps you have talked to a friend about some aspects of the abuse, but have you told the whole situation?

If you have already talked to a professional and perhaps even had therapy, you should ask, what benefit does it bring to talk to my parents and let them know this? Even if your parents might not be hurt or would turn against you, perhaps they will suffer just by the fact that they do not understand what has happened.

You need to feel happier for sure, but passing your pain on to someone else does not make you more happy. I think, if we are able to decide to whom we may talk (which you seem to be able to do), we should then really be able to talk to the right person, so that the pain and hurt is not passed on to someone else, but that you still feel better after talking to someone.

Volker Steins

By email

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