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Disclosure and Confrontation: Considerations for Survivors

By Ken Singer, LCSW

Disclosure is the act of telling someone about a secret or private information. With survivors of sexual abuse, it may occur immediately after the abuse, or years later. Sometimes it is a planned or purposeful disclosure. Other times it is forced or accidental, or may come out in a therapy session where there was no intention to discuss it or any recollection of the abuse.

This article is written for survivors who want to disclose their abuse. Disclosure may made to a partner or spouse who is unaware of the abuse, a non-offending parent or relative, sibling, friend or other person the survivor believes should know. This article is also about confrontation which will be covered in Part 2. The two acts, disclosure and confrontation, need to be well thought out to ensure success and reduce the possibility of additional trauma for the survivor.

As a rule, if there is going to be confrontation with a perpetrator, some disclosure will likely have taken place before the confrontation. There are reasons why disclosure should precede confrontation (if confrontation is going to take place at all. In many cases, confrontation is not recommended, but more on that later.)

Part 1 - Disclosure

Disclosure, as noted earlier, can be planned, forced, accidental, or therapy-related. Forced disclosure is when the survivor has no intention to disclose the abuse but it may come about due to the perpetrator's being arrested for another offense and confessing that he has also abused the person who did not want to be identified as a victim. It may come about when there are multiple victims, such as siblings or several children who may have been abused by the perpetrator and one of them discloses and gives the name of the person who did not want to be identified.

An accidental disclosure may come about when a victim's diary or journal is discovered and s/he talks about the abuse there but had no plans of disclosing. It may also come about when someone suspects abuse by the victim's drawings or behaviors and brings up the suspicion to the survivor. This article is on purposeful or planned disclosure.

There should be goals or reasons for disclosure. Some of the reasons expressed by survivors include:

  • Validation- getting acknowledgment and support from significant others. It may be helpful to the survivor's healing to know s/he is believed by someone. This may also help elicit additional information not consciously known to the survivor, such as confirming that the perpetrator had also abused others in the family, or details that can confirm that the abuse memories are true;

  • Explanation of past or present behaviors- giving others a better understanding of why the survivor may have sexual dysfunctions, trust issues, depression or seemingly irrational fears;

  • Protecting others- letting someone know that his/her children may not be safe around a particular person who abused the survivor years ago;

  • Discrediting the perpetrator/revenge- getting back at the perpetrator (–You made me suffer, now it's your turn”);

  • Ventilation- just wanting to get it out and tell others because it breaks the secret and helps get rid of shame;

  • Sympathy- a little different than explaining past behaviors. This is more of a –poor me” approach. May also be a means of justifying the inability to do certain things. It may also be used to create an identity of being a victim. A person who tells everyone about his/her abuse may be disclosing to get sympathy;

  • Preparation for a confrontation- disclosing to key people who will be available to support the survivor in a planned confrontation with the perpetrator.

There are other reasons, some positive and others possibly self-defeating, that survivors have for disclosing the abuse. Unless the disclosure is being done to protect children from an unrevealed perpetrator, the disclosure should be for the benefit of the survivor and not part of someone else's agenda (and that includes therapists who insist that a survivor disclose or confront.) The decision to disclose and whom to disclose to should be the survivor's.

Disclosure is usually most successful when the survivor has good reasons to tell someone. It is helpful to plan the disclosure. For example, a survivor who wants to announce to the family at Grandmother's 90 th birthday party that Uncle Bill abused him 30 years ago, may have good intentions but the timing might be ill-considered. Who you tell, where and when you say it, how you bring it up as well as why you are disclosing, are all important considerations to this decision.

Some survivors have considered disclosing to a significant other for many years. Others may have not given it much thought but apparently just blurted it out. It is important to weigh the pros and cons of disclosing before you do it. It is not recommended to disclose while under the influence of alcohol or drugs (although many people find they cannot say emotionally charged things without help from substances.)

Looking at the who, where, when, how and why , can help make a purposeful disclosure that can give the survivor a greater chance of success.

Who do you want to know? Select a person who is most likely to believe and support you, even if the most important person you want to tell will have to wait. For example, if you need to tell your mother that your father abused you and you are unsure of her reaction, disclosing to a partner, friend or relative may provide you with support before addressing the issue with Mom.

Where you disclose is important. As a general rule, private places are better than public places but if you fear a negative or perhaps threatening reaction to the disclosure, a public place may give you more safety.

When you choose to disclose is a consideration. You will want the person's full attention and time to process the news. Telling someone who is going out the door to work or late at night may not be the best time to disclose.

How to tell may be face-to-face, over the phone or in a letter. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. Many people feel that breaking serious news needs to be done face-to-face. However, in some situations, particularly where there might be a negative reaction or the person may take you away from the direction you are trying to go, a phone call or letter may be better. The letter may be a good choice where the survivor has difficulty expressing him/herself with words while feeling pressure, or the person s/he is telling has a tendency to interrupt or side-track the conversation. (The letter format or writing out what you want to say ahead of time may be very helpful in saying clearly and precisely what needs to be said. It can be revised numerous times until it expresses just what the survivor wants to say. Writing it out ahead of time may also allow it to be read face-to-face or over the phone to the other person without interruption.)

Why is about identifying your goal(s) for disclosing. It is also about why you are disclosing to this particular person or –why now?”. Sometimes disclosure can be made to multiple people. When a celebrity discloses his/her childhood abuse in the media, it may be to focus attention on the problem and bring it to the public's notice. Since you are probably not a celebrity, if you are considering widespread or multiple disclosure, you might want to consult with several other people as to why you are considering this approach.

Once you have gone through this process of looking at the purpose and target of your proposed disclosure, you can disclose with greater assurance that you will be successful. It is generally helpful that you discuss this with a therapist experienced in working with survivors, preferably one who knows you and your background. The therapist can be available for practicing the disclosure as well as being a support should the disclosure not go well.

In many cases of sexual abuse within the family, disclosure can create a major upset that can force family members to take sides. Where the family secret has been in place for years or even generations, disclosure can have serious results including blaming the victim or uniform denial that the abuse ever took place. The decision to disclose abuse in a dysfunctional family system must be weighed for the potential good it may do for the survivor and future potential victims versus the family's need to deny the truth and maintain destructive secrets.

Disclosure works best when it is well thought out, has clear purposes and increases the sense of empowerment for the survivor. Even if the abuse is not disclosed to anyone in the abuser's family, disclosure can be very beneficial to the survivor and his/her support network.

Part 2 - Confrontation with your perpetrator

(Note: Confrontation can be healing. It also has the potential to cause additional emotional and possibly even physical harm to the survivor. It should not be taken lightly or done impulsively. The survivor who plans to confront his perpetrator should go through the disclosure process [see first part of this article in the previous edition of the NOMSV newsletter or at the website, www.nomsv.org], and discuss this with his therapist.)

Many abusers fear confrontation from their victims. Like bullies, abusers are effective in their power only as long as the person they are controlling is unable or unwilling to fight back, stand up or reject the demands of the abusive person. In my 20+ years of working with adolescent and adult sexual abusers, I have found some abusers who would welcome a confrontation with their victims because they are truly sorry for what they have done. This generally does not occur until they have developed an understanding of the effects of their abuse on the victim and have really looked within themselves to recognize their total responsibility for the abuse. In other words, this usually happens through an abuser being in good sex offense-specific treatment, which can last for several years or more. Those who never were in this kind of treatment will likely resort to denial, make excuses, and blame the victim.

An abuser who has not been in treatment, or is in the early stages, will usually fear confrontation with his/her victim. Abusers choose children and vulnerable adults to assault. Unless they need to use a weapon, abusers trick, threaten, manipulate, bribe or use their strength or knowledge as an older person to get the victim to go along with the abuse.

When the abuse took place, the abuser likely was more powerful than the victim. For many survivors, the decision to confront an abuser takes many years and the survivor may well be physically stronger than the abuser by this time. However more physically powerful the survivor may be now, the abuser may seem to be just as powerful as s/he was when the abuse occurred. In other words, the survivor may be stronger (including having more knowledge and other resources) but emotionally may feel just as vulnerable and weak as when s/he was a child.

The decision to confront an abuser should not be taken lightly. It generally needs to be preceded by careful preparation, including disclosure to a supportive person and exploration of the best ways to confront to ensure safety and positive results. The considerations for a disclosure should be examined prior to having a confrontation. That is, who is to be confronted, why , how, where, and when should be part of a preliminary plan before a survivor confronts his/her perpetrator. As with a disclosure, there are several ways to confront a perpetrator.

Most people think confrontation must be face to face. This is potentially the most rewarding but also the most risky. Sometimes, the confrontation can be best done via a letter or phone call and later, if appropriate, in person. Whichever format a survivor decides to take, it is recommended to write a letter to the abuser as a means of clarifying the abuse and its effects on the survivor. The letter (whether sent or not) will help the survivor better understand the effects of the abuse and sort out any ambivalent feelings s/he may have towards the abuser.

I suggest this five part format to give the survivor some direction in preparing for a confrontation, whether in person or not. Be prepared to rewrite it a number of times and get feedback from a trusted person or therapist before sending it.

Part 1 - –What you did to me.” This should be done in some specific detail. Abusers generally rationalize their abuse and deny to themselves or others what they actually did. They may conveniently forget that what they see as –touching” may have been forced masturbation, or minimize that it only happened once when it took place more frequently. They may assume that the victim was sleeping and unaware of the abuse, but s/he was really awake and remembers all that was done to him/her. Abusers need to be confronted with specifics, not generalizations such as, –You stole my childhood”, or –took my innocence.” It is more real to the reader to read or hear, –You made me suck your penis.” It is important to convey sufficient detail to confirm what really happened without making it so graphic that it sounds pornographic. Some offenders will get aroused by the visual imagery that too much detail could provide, so there needs to be a balance between sufficient information and pornographic recall.

Part 2 - –How it has effected my life.” Abusers will frequently minimize the impact of the abuse on the victim. They may also attribute known problems the survivor is going through on other sources, such as the survivor's struggles with substance abuse being caused by the parents' divorce or other events in the survivor's life. Stating, –I abused drugs and alcohol to try to block out the feelings and memories of what you did to me” is more direct and any effects of the abuse, such as confused sexual identity, inability to trust others, fear or preoccupation with sexual gratification, should be tied to the abuser in order for him/her to take full responsibility. Letter writing can be a helpful exercise for the survivor regardless of whether the letter is sent. Taking a thorough inventory can help put the blame for the survivor's problems on the abuse and the abuser rather than the survivor staying stuck in self-blame.

Part 3 - –How I feel about what you did.” Some survivors may have mixed feelings about the abuse and the abuser, especially when the abuser was close to the survivor, such as a parent or relative. One can love the abuser but hate the abuse. It is helpful to let the abuser know how you felt about it. This is often difficult for male survivors who experienced physical pleasure, had an erection or orgasm during the abuse. Abusers have used the physical arousal of the victim as –proof” that the child enjoyed the sexual activity or somehow wanted it. Whether it felt good or resulted in physical stimulation, it was beyond the child's ability to fully comprehend what was going on.

Part 4 - –How I feel about you.” This can address the conflict (if any) between the abuser and what s/he did. If the relationship was completely negative and there was no positive feeling towards the abuser, it may well come out as –I hated what you did and hate you as well.” It may also be a way to let the abuser know how you truly feel about him/her and to be empowered to say so. For survivors who have positive feelings for the abuser, this part can help separate the abuse from the person. It can also help address how the relationship could have been, had the abuser not done what s/he did.

Part 5 - –What I want you to do about it.” Some survivors have requested money to pay for their therapy as a means of restitution for the abuse. Others have used the letter to establish boundaries with the abuser. This may mean the abuser is told not call or contact the survivor without the survivor's request. The survivor may insist on an apology or have the abuser confirm to other family members that the abuse did indeed take place. It is important that the letter-writer go through the first four parts before deciding on an appropriate action from the abuser. Going through all five parts provides opportunities for clarity and reexamination.

Writing this letter can be healing in and of itself. I recently worked with a male survivor who had a number of issues with his mother about the abuse he endured from a friend of his parents and a cousin, both of whom are dead. He had issues of anger towards his mother for not protecting him or seeing the need to get him help as a child (even though he did not disclose to his mother the abuse by either perpetrator). In writing the letter to his mother, he found his sense of anger greatly reduced and felt a greater degree of control in his life without even sending the letter to her.

The decision to confront an abuser should not be taken lightly nor should it be done in a moment of anger, and definitely not happen when the survivor is under the influence of alcohol or drugs. It should be well thought out and discussed with a therapist and a support person who may know the abuser. Writing the five part letter (and not sending it) may be a way to test the waters on a confrontation to see if the survivor is ready for such an action. If the attempt to write the letter causes the survivor to freeze up or become so overwhelmed with emotion, it likely means he is not ready to confront his perpetrator. However, if the letter, after being rewritten as needed, says what the survivor wants to say, it may be time to send the letter. If the perpetrator responds positively to the letter, it could be an indication to meet in person or talk by phone.

There are also ways to symbolically confront an abuser who is dead, missing or otherwise unavailable for confrontation. These symbolic confrontations may be done in a support group or individually with a trusted therapist. Visiting the grave of a dead perpetrator and speaking to the headstone has been healing for some survivors. One client of mine took a few personal effects (a scarf and seductive photo) of his deceased mother/perpetrator and burned them on her grave. Many therapists are experienced in use of symbolic acts for healing and can be a resource for this kind of confrontation.

The important point is that the confrontation needs to be empowering for the survivor and not a re-enactment of old abusive patterns. There are safety measures which need to be put in place such as having the abuser come in to the therapist's office or location that provides safety and support for the survivor. Remember that confrontation can be a powerful tool for healing and should always be undertaken with consultation from a trusted therapist.