Families exist along a broad range of healthiness and unhealthiness. Some people are fortunate to come from families where the parents have a healthy (but not necessarily perfect!) relationship and raise their children with a strong sense of safety and of their own value as people. Some families have more than a few problems: parents that don’t get along, personality clashes between the parents and the kids, depression in a parent or other issues. These issues can affect the children’s sense of safety and happiness in the home to quite varying degrees.
Some families are troubled by problems that are quite severe: alcoholism or drug abuse in a family member, domestic violence, physical and emotional abuse of the spouse or children. Sexual abuse is one of the most destructive of these severe family problems. It may seem odd, but sometimes sexual abuse is the “quiet problem”. It can be happening but is not as obvious as violence and alcoholism in the home. This is because of the secretive nature of sexual behavior, the obvious taboo against parent-child sexual contact and the fact that most victims of sexual abuse are threatened by the perpetrator not to tell anyone “or else”.
It would not be uncommon for your sister not to realize or start to deal with the fact of having been sexually abused until her early or middle adult years. I see this all the time in my practice. And her realization may have been there long before she felt brave enough to tell you about this. I can understand your extreme shock and not knowing how to respond. Often people doubt whether this could be true of their own parent. However the incidence of false memories or vindictive fabrication of abuse stories is close to zero and I would take your sister at her word.
Families deal with the blow of this kind of revelation in lots of different ways, but the most important thing you can do is listen and give emotional support to your sister. You may be the first or only family member to whom she has disclosed this. I also recommend not taking any kind of impulsive action toward your father, such as confronting him or cutting off contact with him, until you have had time to deal with this yourself emotionally. Anything you do should be in consultation with your sister and respectful of her wishes. It may be helpful for you to talk to a counselor who knows about sexual abuse to help you with your own emotional reactions.
The occurrence of sexual abuse in families is real and unfortunately more common than we would like to believe. Both women and men can be abusive and both girls and boys can be victims of abuse. I am glad you wrote in about this topic. My hope is that anyone reading this column who has this problem, whether they are committing sexual abuse of a child or a victim of sexual abuse, will be awakened to the fact that this behavior is completely unacceptable and wrong and that they need not remain silent. There is help available for every family member, whether the one acting out their problems by abusing someone or the victim, spouse, or other members of the family.