The Atmosphere of Abuse

I want to discuss the atmosphere of abuse.  I’ve written about the abuses of my childhood.  I’ve said many times I was never sexually abused.  Yet, there’s been so much written this year about child sexual abuse I find myself questioning my own statement.

When I read how a judge dismissed felony charges against a former child predator priest because his attorney argued there was no penetration I was infuriated.

How can you dismiss the fact that a grown man manipulated a ten year old boy and, I’m surmising here, used his priestly powers to take him to the brink but since he didn’t actually rape him it’s not a felony offense?

This upset me very much.  It also made me think about what I have stated before… I was never sexually abused.

I was exposed to sexual behavior at an early age thanks to my mother.  She slept around a lot.  Her third husband, my second step-father, was in my life from the age of five until I was thirteen.  I’ve often said he was one of the good guys.

He and my mother separated four times during those years, but he always put the welfare of my brother and I above all else. I wouldn’t have been able to run away with my baby brother to a safe place without his help.

But something changed the last time they got back together… me.  I was pre-pubescent and he clearly noticed. 

He walked in on me bathing and commented about pubic hair.  I never left the bathroom door unlocked again.  One night while my mother was at work he told me she was frigid and asked if I knew what that meant.  I said no and he proceeded to explain.  It was beyond awkward.

He never touched me, never made any move toward me but everything was different.  I knew enough to feel unsafe alone with him. I didn’t sleep very soundly anymore.

One evening when my mother was home he began talking about a book he was reading.  He always read trashy novels that I wasn’t allowed to see. 

I was washing dishes and heard him say, “This story is crazy, some guy rapes his daughter.” The hair stood up on the back of my neck.  He went on, “How could you do that?  A step-daughter maybe, but not your own daughter.”

I went to my mother and told her we had to get a lock for my bedroom door.  She got her car keys and we went straight to the discount store for a lock. It made me feel a bit more secure.

Here’s the point I’m trying to make.  You don’t have to be raped to feel violated.  You don’t have to be raped to feel insecure.  You shouldn’t have to be raped to prove you were in fact abused.

The judges and lawyers trying these cases have no concept of what it’s like to live with someone you know could violate you at any time.  You can be savvy, you can be street smart, but you know who’s got the real power.

Anyone who’s ever lived in a home with abuse, sexual or otherwise, knows there is a distinct atmosphere you have to learn to live with, within, and around.  It’s palpable.

The worst step-father ever was all about head games.  He really should have been in an asylum. We would all hold our breath when we heard his car pull in the driveway.  If he got out whistling you could exhale.  If not, you couldn’t be sure how the rest of the night was going to go.

That is no way to live at any age, but children are truly innocent victims by virtue of having no control.  If people in authority can’t understand the whole picture they shouldn’t be allowed to try these cases.

Living within an atmosphere of any type of abuse is hard to describe.  It’s manic in a way.  The highs are higher and the lows are indescribable. 

When the worst step-father came home whistling there would be hugs and smiles and lively dinner conversation.  It seemed exalting.  The other nights I couldn’t eat for fear of him erupting over the slightest perceived infraction.

I understand how difficult it must be to imagine living this way if you’ve never experienced it.  It’s not like knowing you’ve done something wrong and you’re going to get a spanking when dad comes home.  You may even be able to talk your way out of that spanking.  Trying to talk your way out of punishment from an abuser is only going to make the situation escalate.

I believe when so many victims wait until they’re grown before they can acknowledge the abuse speaks volumes.  Maybe the legal powers that be should be required to learn more about it before they can pass any judgment.

I know some of you have had similar experiences, but whether you have or not I would love to hear your take on this.





  1. Like you I have not been abused but I have experienced the fear when I spent a week living with a french family. The mother was terrifying, the children cowed and the father convicted many years later of abusing his daughter (my friend) along with many others.

    • Barbara

      It’s so sad when these things fall through the cracks Annabel. It happens more often than anyone wants to believe.

  2. This is so unsettling. Yes you were groomed. It doesn’t matter if it was touch it still feels ‘violated’. keep asking your heart and it will answer and bring to your mind what it doesn’t want to remember. (in reality the mind remembers way before the body will) Keep praying about it.

    • Barbara

      Sharon, I’m praying more for the kids who’ve become pawns in our legal system. Abuse is more of a mental drain than physical hurt. It effects your life in so many ways. It needs more compassion and understanding from society and specifically from the legal system.

  3. So very very creepy Barbara. Thankfully you realized something was off and you were spared any physical abuse, but what you did endure WAS abuse, and it is sad and sickening that many of these predators will continue with their disgusting behavior and never be caught and be made to pay the consequences.
    What a story – I can see this as a movie seen – wow.

    • Barbara

      Letting them off easy is only perpetuating the sick crime it is Lee. In the paper yesterday was a story of a priest who’d been moved around and ultimately defrocked who moved to Thailand and started a children’s organization. Everyone knows what the hell he’s doing. He should be extradited and tried for crimes against children.
      Didn’t mean to go off on a rant again but this is very unsettling.

  4. Yes! The atmosphere of abuse can be just as bad as actual abuse, no matter what type it is! And when we’re brought up to “suck it up” and told, “don’t act like a victim” or “you only have yourself to blame…don’t blame anyone else for your problems” what ends up happening is we blame ourselves. And when we’re not allowed to acknowledge or talk about what happened for fear that we’re coming across as “victims” or as blaming, we can’t move on and many of us abuse ourselves because we don’t know any other way!

    • Barbara

      Well said Karen. It’s the mental side of abuse that creates broken adults. We need to stop the bullshit and call abuse abuse whether there are physical marks or not!

  5. My jaw dropped reading this… and yes, any form of threatening behavior to a child is abuse. Again, another powerful piece and, thankfully, your mother listened this time… You know what? She probably sensed it too.

    • Barbara

      You’re right Elizabeth, she did sense it. He was so different that time and we both knew I was going through puberty which created a whole different set of circumstances. God was looking over me, for sure.

  6. ~~The hair on my arms lifted reading this.
    He IS an abuser…even though he never touched you.
    He is an abuser & a pedaphile & a sexual predator with his ugly hideous offensive words.
    This is what he IS.
    I am absolutely appalled that ANYBODY would assume otherwise.
    Thank you for sharing. I am so sorry you lived with this man/monster. Xx
    btw, he touched you every single time he spoke his vile unwanted sexual words.

    • Barbara

      This is exactly the point Kim. Our legal system has to stop narrowing that definition down to the ‘acts’ and understand how dangerous and damaging these animals are simply by being near these kids. Living with an abuser of any kind and never being able to relax and be care free is constant abuse. Treat is as such.

  7. Helen costello

    I experienced some of these type of behaviors with my father. I
    was always afraid of him. My mother was always watching. He drank a lot on weekends.she never left us alone with him. she had a a terrible life. we were four girls. Anyway life goes on,
    we have to watch over the children.Love the blog,Helen c.

    • Barbara

      So fortunate you were to have your mother watch over you Helen, but probably at her own cost. You are absolutely right… life goes on!
      I love that you love the blog.

  8. Sadly I have some experience of this as the victim. I was never touched but I lived in terror and the memory has never left me. I have three daughters and the sense that they should see me as a haven and a friend has always been at the front of my mind. That you should live in fear of those whom you should most trust is truely horrific. You know this more than me, of course, but you touched a nerve anyway. I love the way you just get at things. Your the best.

    • Barbara

      I’m sorry you had to experience the atmosphere of abuse too, Peter. The fact that we are adults, and may I say not young adults, and this still haunts us at times speaks volumes about why it should be considered in these court cases.
      Like you, I wanted my kids to feel safe. If nothing else, perhaps, it made us better parents.
      Thanks for contributing. I appreciate it.

  9. Greetings, Barbara, found you via My Inner Chick.

    Yes, creepy. There’s a specific name for the insecurity/fear of a father or father-figure’s sexual interest, but I can’t put my brain or fingers on it.

    Yes, it happens, and it IS abuse. So sorry that happened to you; I was molested by my b-f’s dad when I was 12, though he “just” felt me up and had his hands in my underpants. (Later he died in jail of cancer, so sometimes karma does get her own).

    Children deserve to grow up in a home where they feel safe, plain and simple.

    • Barbara

      Beverly, so glad you found me. The step-father in this case died at 50 of a heart attack on the golf course. Not as fitting as your abuser’s demise, but gone just the same.

  10. Yes, it is horrible for children to grow up feeling “unsafe” in their own home. I think of third world countries and developing countries where so many young girls are sexually abused from a very young age and have nowhere to go. It’s almost “accepted” as part of life in the village. I cannot imagine what their lives must be like. I was told that it’s common for many young girls at the school in a Mayan Villa where I volunteered, that they quit going to school when their period starts. Many of them are ashamed, and stay home. What a horrible life with no future for them. Thankfully we have laws in place in developed countries, but as you said, they are not always enforced, and the abuse still goes on.

    • Barbara

      Honestly Sonia the laws, and those who enforce and interpret them, aren’t really working. When legalese is used to diminish punishment of an offender something is very wrong. We need more compassion in cases of abuse. It’s not, and never should be, heartless justice.

  11. Betty

    There was never sexual abuse in my childhood.
    Yet, abuse is all my father had to offer.

    He was very angry all the time. Every single day.

    I lived in fear my entire childhood. I never spoke
    to my father. My mother rarely spoke either. My older
    sister would speak out in protest. She was beaten most
    every day.

    I do have something I am curious about Barbara, is it just
    me? Or, is it common for childhood memories to become more
    painful with age? When I left home, I was so relieved to
    be free! Life was exciting! I had little problem putting
    my memories to rest.

    I am 50. I have slowed down. Now if I am not careful,
    I can feel all of it like it was yesterday. Does that make

    • Barbara

      It makes perfect sense Betty. I won’t say these memories are more painful now, but I find more clarity when I write about them. I’ve been able to forgive my mother and her array of husbands and move on. The forgiveness is for you, not the abuser. I also had to let my mother know I couldn’t have her in my life. Forgiveness doesn’t mean acceptance.

      Perhaps you should write in a journal when these memories arise. It may help.

      Thank you for contributing to this discussion. I really appreciate it.

  12. I think a lot of young girls can say they’ve had similar uncomfortable experiences. I remember once when a friend of my brother’s dad met me and then called my parents later to say what a nice, friendly young girl I was. I thought it was so strange and unusual that he would call about such a thing. My brother just told me yesterday that the reason they lived out in the country like they did was because the father was a level one sex offender and that could be why his friend and his siblings seem messed up today.

    • Barbara

      Sara that made me shudder. It is so much more prevalent than anyone wants to think about, let alone admit. The shame needs to be lifted from the victims and put squarely where it belongs.

      I’m so glad it never went any further with you.

  13. It’s almost unfortunate how many comments this post received. Except that it’s good to talk about and acknowledge it. How prevalent it is. I can relate to your whistling story. We could tell if we were in for trouble depending on how our father parked the car in the driveway. Askew and he was drunk and we retreated to our rooms. Straight up and we were ok. He was demeaning and nasty when drunk which was frequent. Good advice for your commenter who says she feels it more later in life. Write about it or talk about it because it never goes away. All we can do is understand it and how it affects our lives.

    • Barbara

      So true Stephanie. I think the healing begins when you can talk and/or write about it. It’s never healthy to keep those feelings inside.
      Thanks for contributing to this piece.

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