Mother's Denial of Sexual Abuse

In The River of Forgetting, you talk about how your mom, "Myra", basically told you to forget about what your dad did to you as a child. How did that make you feel then and now? And how did you move on from it?
It made me feel crazy. What was I supposed to do with this huge betrayal? My feelings were not seen or heard and my reality was denied.

My mother’s pushing me away was intensely isolating. It meant that I was all alone, unprotected, and vulnerable. As a child, I coped with it by forgetting, just as she told me to, and becoming a good, obedient child who got the best of what the family offered in many ways. I developed a very competent fa├žade.

If only one adult had said, “That is wrong. You were hurt and I will protect you. Here, come cry on my shoulder. I will make sure it does not happen again.” If I had had one ally, my world would have been different.

How I moved on was, in a way, by going back and reliving it, but now there was a caring adult, my therapist, to hear me and to say the things no one had said in the past. I learned to love that child who had been violated, to listen for her voice, and to admire her strengths. As I learned to care for that inner child and for myself, the lighter, more creative parts of me came out to play, as well.

I also came to understand how very frightened my mother had been. I remember one role play where my therapist asked me to play my mother’s part and speak to the child. As Myra, I said, “That’s all I can do. I’m helpless. You have to forget it.” I felt her despair inside my body at that moment. I am grateful that my life is so much bigger and I have more power than she did.

This is an excerpt from an interview with Adam Adamson, on his site Zentactics, where he's asking about my book, The River of Forgetting: A Memoir of Healing from Sexual Abuse.

Getting to Know the Wounded Inner Child

After my father died, recovered memories took me over and I began to know that I had been abused. With my therapist’s help, I learned to listen to the little girl inside me who had been molested and who was confused, incoherent, and very needy.

It felt impossible to find enough time for all the feelings that inhabited my soul and body. To relieve some of the pressure, I set aside twenty minutes every morning before work. I sat in my favorite rocking chair in the spacious light of my living room, closed my eyes, and turned my attention inward.

Sometimes a wave of feeling—neediness or grief or wrongness—washed over me. I stayed inside the emotion, letting it shower me, and some understanding might come. As I sat with a sudden feeling of wrongness, I might recall an incident at work and see how a student’s plea to see me right away triggered old feelings that I must please everyone.

If no feeling pounced on me, I would try to ask my inner child what was happening with her. In these early months, she was like an adopted real child, shy and untrusting. The adult part of me tried to be patient and reassuring, learning how to become trustworthy. Sometimes there were mere glimpses of a girl running by or hiding from me. Most of the time I knew she arrived when I felt a rush of sadness and tears. As I wrote in my journal:

I’ve been so busy, suddenly I feel so sad. Ancient sadness. No end. It feels like a raisin shriveled up in my chest where my heart should be. I want the red hot pain of opening and living, loving people and things, loving the world as it is. Instead I have this shriveled little triangle.

I want to cry but I can’t. The tears swim at the edge of my eyes. Little girl, I want to hold you and let you cry.

This is an excerpt from chapter 2 of The River of Forgetting – A Memoir of Healing from Sexual Abuse.

Reactivity is a Symptom of Childhood Abuse

I have a friend who read my memoir and reacted very strongly, shunning me and telling me to leave her alone. I don’t know enough about her past to speculate, but the off-scale nature of her reactions made me think.

Back when I was in the cauldron of my recovery work, I felt that way, too, as I describe in the memoir. Small incidents set off chain-reactions in me. If a tall, hefty colleague loomed over me at my office, asking for a favor, I became small inside, shaky, and helpless-feeling. The inner child’s reaction was all out of proportion to the magnitude of the incident. It was just a professional interchange, with a moderate amount of pressure on me to give out money from a grant, but the child inside felt it as an emergency in which this man would do whatever he wanted and I’d be helpless.

That’s reactivity. It feels crazy, out-of-control, and painful. It’s not a place we would willingly be. But I needed to be there and to understand my inner child’s reaction, so that I could understand what I had gone through years ago. Because my father violated me, because I was not allowed to set boundaries when I was small, a part of me remained helpless and confused. Now I needed to listen to this inner child, relive her pain, but have her see, too, that I could now set limits. I did say no to the colleague demanding funds; I sent him to a committee to make his case.

So here I am on the other side of it. This friend of mine must be really hurting inside to act so out of character. I feel hurt, rejected, confused, and wondering whether I really did something wrong. I need to remember it’s all about triggers, not so much about what I did as how she is feeling. All I can do right now is back off, understand, and wait and see.

Tender, raw, adrift in relativity
not knowing, feeling sad,
all the images are watery—
washed, wave-surges,
afloat, a pool of tears,
but you know
it’s salt water, it buoys me.
I can’t touch bottom with my feet
but something holds me up
lets me drift, suspended.
Lie back on the interface,
let the ocean of possibility
keep me. Open heart,
let it be washed by pain
and sorrow.

Therapy as Reparenting for Survivors of Childhood Abuse

When we are abused as children, we don’t get the protection and care that we deserve from our parents. We grow up not knowing what really good parenting is. My father was a charismatic character who had many good qualities, but also self-indulgent narcissistic ones that led him to abuse me sexually. My mother loved me, no doubt at all, but she was emotionally distant, depressed, and weak.

As fragments of memories of abuse returned to me, I needed to turn to someone else for help. Fortunately I had a marvelous therapist, Sarah, but allowing her to help me was difficult. I was used to taking care of myself. Slowly, with many fits and starts, I began to depend on Sarah. I began to trust her care and know that she would not abandon me when my feelings got intense and when I had ugly, disgusting memories. She was not like my birth mother.

My trust was childlike. I needed Sarah intensely. It was an enormous leap of faith to allow myself to depend on someone, especially since I only saw her once a week. I asked Sarah about that and she said,

“It’s all right. You may feel childish for a while, and I know that’s scary. But it won’t last forever. You are a basically strong person. And it’s fine to depend on me. I won’t run away and I’m not scared of feelings.”

Sarah modeled a good mother’s care, understanding, and love at a time when I couldn’t find those things in myself. She reparented me, and I had to be willing to surrender to her care in order for the magic to work. The magic of transference. Gradually I developed an inner Big Jane who can do much of the mothering, but still Sarah is a part of my inner landscape as a beloved internal character.

This is the journey I describe in The River of Forgetting.

Why I Wrote a Memoir on Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse of children is awful, unthinkable. Who wants to go there?

And for the survivors, there is so much heavy lifting to do—the (misplaced) shame; the fear; the flashbacks of sensation, sight, emotion; the mistrust that is the emotional ocean we swim in. For many of us, it’s years of therapy and hard work.

Who would want to revisit that in a memoir, and why?

For me, it came as a flash, about five years into the process. It came as a wave of gratitude to my therapist and gratitude for the process and the life it brought forth in me. I found I wanted to document and share this most intimate, scary, and redemptive portion of my life. I hope that being honest about the doubts, the openings, the fragments and the fears will give heart to others.

Now that my memoir, The River of Forgetting, is available, I hear that others do find it useful. John Lee, author of The Flying Boy and Growing Yourself Back Up, said:
In this moving narrative a most talented writer/poet/artist puts eloquent words to her pain, past and path to healing. Jane tells her own story and in so doing is transformed. Her story will go a long way to transforming anyone who has experienced child abuse. As a survivor myself I highly recommend this book.

I hope you'll take a look at the excerpts and read my story, and that it will be helpful.

Memoir on Abuse and Recovery

Here are the opening lines:

IT'S ONE OF THE GOOD MEMORIES. My father is bending over the hull of the upturned boat, picking out the old caulking, scraping away at last year’s paint and barnacles. He uses a putty knife to push ropes of smelly, tarry oakum into the cracks. He will paint the boat gray, with a rusty fouling-resistant paint on the underwater part to keep the barnacles from slowing it down. ...

I HAVE OTHER MEMORIES, blurred in a sickly fog. Urgent night voices behind closed doors. “What can we do about it?” “There’s nothing we can do.” “She’s too young to remember; she’ll be all right.” And memories murkier still, fastened into my spine and pelvis with binding force, huge with emotion, no pictures.

When the foggy memories arrived, they rocked my world, forcing me to ask dizzying questions: What is truth and how do I know it? Is it in the Kodak-sharp image? In the wrenching gut, the nausea? How do I keep the clear-cut detail and also give the nebulous shadow its weight, neither denying the other?

This is the story of how the past overtook me, how I found help, and how at last I integrated the shadows of my childhood into my life. In the process, I found unexpected love, joy, and freedom.

Read more at .

Ellen Bass Praises New Memoir on Abuse and Healing

I’m so excited - my new memoir of healing from sexual abuse is available, and here’s what Ellen Bass has to say about it:

"The River of Forgetting: A Memoir of Healing from Sexual Abuse is a brave and inspirational book. I appreciate Jane Rowan's fidelity in documenting her childhood, her pain, and her healing process. She has made an important contribution to our understanding of child sexual abuse and healing, affirming that we can transform trauma into lives filled with peace and joy."
~Ellen Bass, co-author of bestseller The Courage to Heal

Further information and how to order at . Read more blurbs

Loneliness is an Inside Job – II

Loneliness frightens us. It frightens us in ourselves and in others. It can feel needy and infantile. People don’t like to talk about it.

I think that loneliness evokes our inner child’s fear of being abandoned. Whether we first experienced that in a relatively benign way, with a parent being absent for short periods or not responding as we wanted, or whether we suffered the more difficult abandonments of neglect or abuse, that primal fear lives inside us. It is the social animal’s fear of being left by the herd, the infant’s fear of being deserted.

In addition, I sometimes feel a fear that there’s something wrong with me. My inner child is afraid that she was bad or wrong, and that she caused the abandonment. In such a mood, I fear I’m not loving enough or good enough. Then I begin fearing that I’ll always be alone—that’s the fear of fear. My thoughts take me in catastrophic directions, regardless of my reality.

At such times, I need both to hold the inner child and listen to her fears and also to let her know that these feelings are not based in reality. It’s not true that I’ve been so bad that everyone has deserted me. It’s not true that I am unworthy of love. Just by the act of connecting to my inner child’s emotions, I can begin to love her back into an inner connection. With this greater security inside, I can more easily make the outer connections to other people, as well.

Loneliness is an Inside Job – Part I

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about loneliness. Being alone is not the same as loneliness. Lots of times I can be happily alone, but sometimes I tip over into a darker feeling. Conversely, I can be very lonely with people talking all around me. Loneliness, it seems to me, is a mix of yearning for connection and fearing it might not happen. Sometimes the yearning predominates, and sometimes the fear.

Today I want to talk about the first aspect.

Yearning for connection is not a bad thing. It can be the yearning for human connection - for a touch, a phone call, a voice. It can also be the yearning for a more spiritual kind of connection. Sometimes I find that tapping into the yearning itself is a difficult but very fruitful way to open up to love. As the 14th century Persian poet Hafiz said so eloquently,

My Eyes So Soft

Don't surrender your loneliness so quickly
let it cut more deep.
Let it ferment and season you
as few human or even divine ingredients can
Something missing in my heart tonight
has made my eyes so soft
my voice so tender
my need of god
absolutely clear.


In this way, if I sit with the loneliness, I can feel a young voice inside of me, my inner child, calling out for connection with the universe – whether you call it god or spirit or universal love. When I fully acknowledge and feel that longing and ache in my heart, then sometimes I also can hold the inner child’s yearning, and sometimes miraculously I feel the love of the universe and of other people flow into me and through me.

New Interview about Healing the Inner Child

It's been my pleasure to be interviewed by Adam Adamson of the zentactics website, a site devoted to helping people heal from childhood abuse.

Adam posed a number of thought-provoking (or even challenging) questions, such as asking me to compare the effects of different types of childhood abuse (sexual, physical, emotional). Check out the interview, "Healing the Inner Child," to see what you think about my answers.

Getting in Touch With the Inner Child

I spend time each morning sitting and talking with my inner children, so it surprised me when an interviewer from ZenTactics asked me “How do you know if you’re in touch with your Inner Child?” But on second thought, the question made more sense. This inner child stuff can be nebulous and changeable.

When I first began doing inner child work, I felt the Child’s presence mainly through grief and pain. I experienced great waves of sadness whenever she was near—the pain of betrayal, the grief of realizing how my parents had failed me, the loss of my illusions about my family. It was often hard to stay with the little one and not run away from her pain.

It took longer for me to learn to feel the tenderness and love towards this child and learn to listen to her subtler feelings.

These days our time together (what I call my “Big Jane” and the little ones) is varied. Some days I feel the presence of my Good Girl and her anxieties about the world and I need to soothe and reassure her. Sometimes I sit with the intention of being present to the inner children and I feel blank or confused, only gradually getting a sense of their needs. Some days I feel a yearning for love and I sit in my imaginary cabin and rock for a long time in the rocking chair, simply hugging and loving the inner child.

In this way, being present to the inner child is a meditation. Things are always changing and it takes some clear intent for me to be patient with the experience as it comes and goes.

Denial Makes Us Crazy

When I was abused by my father, my mother told me to forget it. My parents managed to believe that no harm was done, that I was just fine. I did seem to grow up OK and was successful in my life, but underneath was a sense of not trusting myself or others.

I’ve been reading the book Denial: A Memoir of Terror. I recommend this book only if you are feeling strong—it is full of graphic descriptions of rapes and of dissociation. The author, Jessica Stern, was raped when she was a teen and the whole town colluded in denial: the police dropped the case quickly; her father did not intervene on her behalf, and everyone seemed to take the attitude that “It can’t happen here, so it didn’t, or else it was your fault.”

Jessica Stern’s words on denial are strong and true:
Denial helps the bystander. We don’t want to know….

But the victim, too, cannot bear to believe. She may bury or dissociate from or disown her pain…

When authorities disbelieve the victim, when bystanders refute what they cannot bear to know, they rob the victim of normal existence on earth. Bystander and victim collude in denial or forgetting, and in so doing repeat the abuse…. [T]he victim can no longer trust the evidence of her senses…. The ground disappears….

The dizziness brought on by the denial of others is often worse than the original crime.

I agree, and this is one reason why we need to share our stories and make them public.

Update on My Memoir

The River of Forgetting, A Memoir of Healing From Sexual Abuse, will be out to the world on December 1, 2010, published by Booksmyth Press and available through Amazon, B&N, etc. Now there are the real-world technicalities. The book is currently out for review by the major national reviewers such as Booklist, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and others.

Meanwhile, I got a great blurb from Marilyn Van Derbur, the best-selling author of Miss America By Day. She called it:
A powerful and sensitive portrayal, full of insight into Jane’s own confusion as well as her family’s bewildering dynamics. The writing is by turns lyrical and gut-wrenching, angry and tender. This inspiring, important book shows that healing and joy are possible after childhood abuse. 

UPDATE: advance copies are available for $14.95 postpaid at The River of Forgetting.