What if Junot Diaz Kept His Mask On? Addressing the scars of child sexual abuse and the residue of shame and secrets

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I was saddened to hear Junot Diaz’s story of child sexual abuse and then upset to hear that he was called out in person for sexual misconduct at the Sydney Writers’ Festival event. I was dismayed to hear that he had withdrawn from the rest of the festival following the accusations of “inappropriate and aggressive” harassment. What I would like to attempt is take the conversation away from the accusations and towards compassion. Juno deserves and has earned our compassion. We must hold open compassionate space around him. He has proactively taken responsibility for his past shared in his recent essay The Silence. The Legacy of Childhood Trauma.” I hope that these allegations —whether true or not—will give him the opportunity to continue to free himself and hold onto the “second chance at the light.” And if he needs a third chance, let us hold open the space for him to have that as well.

Inasmuch as I feel it is important to allow Junot this as a child sexual abuse victim, it is also important to create the cultural expectation that we will hold compassionate spaces around all child sexual abuse victims. Public demonstrations of compassion to sexual abuse victims is essential to honor and support still silenced victims—the one in four girls and the one in six boys—who need to know we won’t punish them for telling. It is also essential that as child abuse victims we work to understand how sexual abuse affects our behavior and take responsibility for getting help to address the scars of CSA and rid ourselves of the residue of shame and secrets. And Junot has done this. He courageously wrote about the messiness of unraveling his story, its consequences on his personal and professional life, on his spirit, sense of self worth, and identity.

Like many CSA victims, Junot has struggled with boundary issues. Many of us have done exactly what he has done—crossed social boundaries knowingly and/or unknowingly, sometimes out of compulsion, sometimes purposefully. In Junot’s recent New Yorker essay, “The Silence. The Legacy of Childhood Trauma.” he shared with us that he adopted a popular strategy of child sexual abuse victims—to pretend it never happened. “Classic trauma psychology: approach and retreat, approach and retreat.” And like him, many CSA victims, including me, tried to tell ourselves that the abuser has no power over us anymore. We work hard to prove it—and some, like Junot, quite successfully. We also set out to prove that the events had no untoward effects on our lives, as we engage in denial, avoidance, and numbing.

This excessive suppression of strong feelings can make us vulnerable to dissociative behaviors that end up hurting other people. We engage in behaviors that express what happened to us—but in adult ways—we abandon people, we steal the truth from them, we wear the mask of our versions of normalcy. We don’t commit crimes against children but we are prone to reenact other parts of the abuse. If we feel abandoned and unprotected, we leave others abruptly—without a care. If we are denied the beauty of living in a shared truth with others—of having a safe, fiercely protected space to say what we see, feel what we feel, we will deny others the truth. We lie, tell-half truths, omit important details because we are never quite sure what the consequences will be for sharing what we see and what we feel.

And many of us, like Junot, witnessed first hand the power of the mask—the mask our perpetrator wore that allowed him to commit his crimes on us. It is no surprise that Junot used the word ‘mask’ seventeen times in his essay. The mask is the ultimate tool we use to hide our vulnerability as child sexual abuse victims— to dissociate—to deny that something is messed up about us—that we aren’t alright—that we hurt. Children like us, who are exposed to long-term physical, sexual or emotional abuse, are not provided safe places to test boundaries. We don't learn how to adjust our feelings and expectations when seeking love and acceptance. We often fail to navigate the complexities when seeking validation for one’s own existence. Feelings of dissociation are particularly strong in those of us who knew our perpetrators, and who saw them successfully operate within their roles, wearing their mask, fooling everyone around them.

And as most things in life, the expression of dissociative vulnerabilities is a boon and a bane. Our ability to ignore, deny, dull any feelings associated with the sexual abuse we lived through can help us build strong supportive worlds of people who won’t judge us based on our missteps. It helps us find trustworthy, reliable, good people so we can understand our feelings when we are ready, and let us find a safe time and space to tell our story. On the other hand, our dissociative vulnerabilities also fool us into believing that we can hide forever, that the past will not find us, that our vigilance to silencing the screaming child within us will pay off—that we can wear the mask forever.

Roland Summit's theory, Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome (CSAAS), helps explain our hindrance, or unwillingness, to tell. The syndrome is not intended to be diagnostic, but rather it helps us put our behavior and story in context. It consists of five components—the first is secrecy—we are alone, away from our protectors where the perpetrator encourages us to keep their secret. (And that is a purposefully written—‘their’). Many perpetrators make us complicit in their wrong-doing—their crimes against us—by saying it is our secret.

The second is a feeling of utter helplessness. We are obedient to adults. We are taught to not ask questions. Sometimes we know what is happening is wrong, but we like the attention, or we like the rewards provided by the perpetrator. Sometimes we are physically, brutally harmed. Our vaginas feel raw, our anuses feel sore, our nipples feel bruised. We often avoid describing child sexual abuse acts with these precise words. Precise words take the mystery out of it—answer the questions so many of us avoid answering. What exactly happened? What did they do exactly? People are more comfortable giving precise words to what they imagine our feelings were during the abuse—you must have been scared, you must have been frightened, you must have felt shame. No one wants to talk about the physicality of an adult sexually abusing a child, what the child’s body experiences and how it reacts to violations. Junot's essay helps begin that conversation when he shares, “I was confused about why I didn’t fight, why I had an erection while I was being raped, what I did to deserve it.”

The third context for our abuse is entrapment and accommodation. Once we are in the situation with the adult doing bad stuff to us and with us, we start to own the perpetrator’s story. Our stories are forever entangled—our story is their story and their story is our story. We survive by disassociating. As young children we may act out, or we may become submissive. As teens we may withdraw into drugs or alcohol or fuel our sense of power and self-worth with sex or try to kill ourselves. As adults, drugs and alcohol may become addictions, or we may become workaholics, or we continue to unravel in ‘their’ story leaving a legacy of bad decisions and misconduct.

The fourth thing we do is delay telling—we wait a long time. And as I wrote above, if we are believed by a capable and trusting adult we receive care.

And if we aren’t believed, the fifth thing happens— we begin un-telling our story —we recant.

Junot’s accusers of sexual misconduct came forward now—-after he has taken a sledge hammer to the wall he had built around his feelings of vulnerability, pain, and shame. At a time when he is surrounded by people who believe him—the accusations and the manner in which they were made provoke a profound feeling of empathy and concern in me. Does this event, being called out in person, in public, after having disclosed numerous transgressions related to adverse childhood experiences, mean that all CSA victims must recount and confess every moment of bad sexual behavior? Isn’t the revelation of the abuse he received enough? If he had not written an essay in the New Yorker would these accusations been made? These public attacks run the danger of shutting victims down, not encouraging them to come forward. There is overwhelming evidence that most victims never tell--anyone.

Junot, like many of us, worked hard to protect himself until it was safe to tell. He learned how to survive in the dark, each secret another brick. But bricks can be laid on the ground rather than made into a wall—they can be a path for us to walk on—a new path from a solid foundation of accomplishment, genuine truth-seeking, personal responsibility, and compassion for self and others. I wish for Junot that his path be away from these allegations chasing him down and towards the conversations he seeks that will help to “teach all men about consent and boundaries.” A path that lets him hold onto his hard-earned “second chance at the light.” A path that is lined with people surrounding him with compassion and support not publicly shaming him. Fortunately, he understands that “repair is never-ceasing”.