By Nkem Ndem
I recently realized that my brain has this coping mechanism where it either buries or camouflages memories I find excruciatingly painful or severely embarrassing. It hides and secures them so well that when I try to revisit, I am assaulted with a wave of anxiety that goes away only after I move on to a more pleasant memory. Perhaps the idea is to dissuade me from reliving them, or further probing and analyzing them. The terrible thing about it is that after a while, the memory disappears, becoming inaccessible until it is triggered again.
One of those kinds of memories was actuated recently when I got a call from an old classmate of mine from high school. She had read my last essay, The Dark Side of Living and Moving Abroad, and wanted to share her experience with me. From talking about the challenges we faced over the years, we started to reminisce over high school days. She asked me, “How are your sisters?” and I said they were fine. Next, she asked, “The two of them were our seniors in school then, abi?” It seemed like an absurd question because, at that moment, my brain could only think of one older sister who attended the same high school as I did. So I replied, “No, I only had one sister in school.”
Perhaps, if she had dropped the matter, I wouldn’t be writing this right now. But she continued and said the names of my two sisters. Immediately she mentioned the names it felt like some veil had been lifted and suddenly, I remembered a second sister, a half-sister. Somehow, my brain had temporarily erased an entire sister from my head. While it might sound odd, it actually makes sense. I was probably 6 or 7 the last time I spoke to or acknowledged that half-sister. It has been decades.
After the call, all memories I had of that sibling came flooding in. It was so intense that I had to grind my teeth hard and pace my thoughts. My earliest memory was of her locking me inside a room with her and asking me to let her kiss me. I can, literally, recall the salty taste of the phlegm that she made me swallow each time in the name of kissing. Either she had no clue what she was doing or she deliberately wanted to poison me with all the mucus she could gather from inside her body. There were also the times when she would guide my hands to parts of her body, encourage me to touch her inappropriately. The most ridiculous of it was her asking me to allow her tie a string around my underdeveloped nipple and pull at it so that my boobs would come out just like hers.
I think the most significant of all the memories, the one so painful I decided to cut her off at age 7, was when she made me recopy what turned out to be a very graphic and sexual letter she had helped me write to a boy that I told her I had a crush on during one of our numerous ‘secret’ conversations, asking me to give it to him in church. The thing was, while she made me believe it was our secret, she had told her brother, my half-brother, about it, and asked him to collect the letter from inside my bible and hand it to my dad. Luckily, my mom found the letter with him before he could get to my dad and after reading it, she flogged me mercilessly. I was 7. How on earth did she even believe I could write such a letter? I was a clueless child. The betrayal and violation cut so deep.
Thinking about and analyzing it all, I realize how my encounters with her affected me all these years: my indifference and even acceptance of relatives and family friends who touched me inappropriately as a child; my hesitation to be touched by anyone as a teenager and young adult; the slight shame I feel now as an adult every time I think I might be in love with someone and need to express it; the silent repulsion I feel when other women absentmindedly touch their bodies in front of me; my hesitation to kiss anyone until I was 24 for the fear that it would be utterly gross; my distrust of my mother in my teenage years; and my inability to forgive my half-sister all these years. Chances are she probably doesn’t even remember all of this.
Being the person that I have grown into today though, I stopped and tried to wear her shoes on the matter. What if her actions toward me were not intended as acts of sexual abuse, but some form of sibling rivalry with the motive to establish superiority or incite fear or distress? She could have been venting her rage by trying to dominate me, the younger, weaker sibling, in the way she knew and thought most effective. And since I didn’t get much attention growing up, I naturally just wanted to please her, so I conformed.
Again, what if it was all normal sexual exploration. I mean, sexual curiosity in children is normal. My half-sister was only 6 years older and also technically a child. Children explore their bodies and engage in visual or even manual exploration of a sibling at times. It is one way they discover sexual differences between boys’s and girls’s anatomies. Even siblings of the same gender become curious about variations in shapes and sizes of their sex organs.
I have to admit though, while some sexual contact between siblings may be normal, sibling sexual behavior becomes abusive when the victim is not developmentally prepared for it, the behavior is repeated, or the interaction doesn’t reflect normal curiosity for the perpetrator’s age. Could she have just been repeating a learned behavior with me? What if she had only done to me what was done to her?
The truth is, sibling sexual abuse is more common than many realize, and deserves much more discussion than it receives. The lack of awareness is predominantly due to the societal denial of the seriousness of the problem. There is no definition of sibling abuse or laws governing it. Yes, my family will probably frown at this article and ask why I chose to wash dirty linen in public, but if I can create some measure of responsiveness with this article, it is well worth it.
Too many victims are made to suffer alone, convinced by siblings that they were complicit in the behavior, or that their parents won’t believe them if they tell. And worse, parents do not recognize the signs because no parent wants to believe that siblings, tied by blood, are capable of abusing one another. They want to explain away the abuse as normal childhood curiosity. Unfortunately, it is not. It is a violent form of control that leaves victims feeling frightened and alone. Sexualized activity kept secret because of fear, coercion, or threat should never be considered harmless sex play.
Like myself, most victims don’t reveal the abuse until they are adults and have endured serious, long-term effects. Luckily, my damage is not as severe, but in most cases, survivors continue to struggle into adulthood with shame, low self-esteem, lack of assertiveness, and an inability to protect themselves, which leads to difficulties in resolving conflict at work and in intimate relationships. They are confused about boundaries and what constitutes a healthy relationship. Some may even become aggressive or develop codependent behaviors, and repeat their accommodating, submissive, victim role in adult relationships. Again, having been betrayed by a sibling and parent (through lack of protection), they are distrustful and fear dependence and vulnerability. They may be hypervigilant and emotionally unavailable or attract someone who is. Consequentially, they seek self-sufficiency and independence because they perceive depending on someone as unsafe. This leads to intimacy problems, loneliness, and isolation which can mostly only be resolved through intense therapy.
Sibling abuse is the most common but least reported abuse in the family. Whether both siblings consented to the behavior or not may not matter, as sibling sexual abuse can be based on fear as well. To protect our children, we must start talking about sibling sexual abuse, recognizing it when it occurs, and taking action to end it. And for adults who have experienced it, there is no need for shame. Open up and speak about it, then do your best to seek the help you need.