What “The Emperor’s New Clothes” Can Teach Us About Larry Nasser And Ourselves

I wish I could say I was shocked by the revelations of Larry Nasser’s behavior. But I can’t. After 23 years as a therapist who treats children who have experienced sexual abuse none of it was new. None of it!  

What turns my gut is people witnessed inappropriate behavior, or people told about inappropriate behavior by Larry Nasser, yet Larry Nasser like Jerry Sandusky, offended for many more years afterward. Why? What blinds our eyes as a society and helps these offenders hide in plain sight? What causes us to believe them and disbelieve their victims?

As a child, I was fascinated by how the swindlers in The Emperor’s New Clothes tricked the adults into believing a lie that they could see with their own eyes was a lie. From a child’s point of view, this was funny!  Of course, I loved that it was a child who told the truth about the lack of clothes. It felt to me that children were often the ones stuck in such a mess like the child in The Boy Who Called Wolf or the children in Hansel and Gretel. So, a child hero was fantastic! When I was younger, I did not understand the dynamics of what kept the adults in the story quiet. As an adult, that’s what intrigues me.

The swindlers in The Emperor’s New Clothes were savvy manipulators. They understood that everyone wants others to see them as intelligent and worthy and they used this desire against them. The swindlers spread the lie that the people who could not see the garments they created were people lacking in intelligence and were not worthy of their post. None of the Emperor’s court, townspeople or the Emperor himself wanted to risk losing their perceived intelligence or their station. They worried so much about this that they doubted themselves and their own experiences. None of them admitted that they saw nothing on the loom.

Individuals who sexually abuse children are masterful at manipulation, and like the swindlers in The Emperor’s New Clothes, they use our needs and desires against us. We want to believe that people who abuse children are strangers who lurk in parks ready to lure them away or strangers who hide in the darkness ready to snatch them or dirty old men. The truth is far scarier. They are people we know. Often, people we trust immensely. They look like us. They are in our families or are people we invite into our lives. Rarely are they strangers. Offenders use our need for our lives to be safe.

Offenders prey on us as much as they prey on our children. They are keen observers of what we need/want just as they are keen observers of what children need/want. Everyone needs something. Everyone!

People who molest children need access to them. The best way to gain access to children is to have a job or to volunteer in places that serve children such as schools, medical facilities, sports leagues, education, child-care facilities, camps, and churches. To have access to children, offenders must gain our trust. They appear non-threatening and are usually well-liked, even loved by adults and children alike. Like the Emperor who gave the swindlers loads of silk and gold we unknowingly give them our children.

Larry Nasser was a physician who specialized in treating female athletes. Like many offenders, he had a position of power and authority in the community. His medical title not only gave him access to young girls, but it also gave him cover. How many times did he say it was only medical treatment, the child misunderstood? How many times did he sexually abuse a child with her parent in the room? We want to believe doctors have our children’s best interest at heart. We want to believe that our children are safe when we are in the room with them during an examination.

When we see odd behavior, something amiss or see the abuse what do we do? Often we convince ourselves that we misinterpreted what we saw. We tell ourselves he would never do that; she would never hurt a child. She is so kind and loving. He is a marvelous person, a good father, a dedicated husband. He’s just a kid. We reassure ourselves that we don’t know any people like that. We ask ourselves what if we are wrong? Do I want to ruin someone’s life?

Sometimes we ask the person about what we saw, and he lies. Yes, she lies. They all lie. They know that we want to believe them and disbelieve what we saw. Sometimes we ask others about their experiences with this person. Like the trusted aides and townspeople, we hesitate to share our experience with others for fear of what it may reveal about us, or we fear how others will treat us. Sometimes people we share our experiences with reassure us that she would never do anything like that to a child. Sometimes the offender admits to what you saw but says you misunderstood. He would never harm a child. She was just answering the child’s questions about sex. He asks, “Why do you have a dirty mind?” or the offender blames the child or someone else like Mr. Nasser did.

Like the emperor’s trusted aides, the coaches and organizations who employed Mr. Nasser did not speak up even when they were told directly about his behavior. What kept them silent? What made them disbelieve? Perhaps they were blinded by their worry about the embarrassment it would cause if it were true. Perhaps their worry about the financial impact of such behavior blinded them to the truth. Whatever it was they were protecting made them blind. They put their needs ahead of the safety of these young women.

Some of the young women abused by Mr. Nasser told about uncomfortable or weird experiences with him during medical treatments. None of them were believed until reporters began investigating. Why? What myths, beliefs, or needs stand in our way of believing our children? I frequently hear adults say children lie about being sexually abused. Children recant which is not the same as lying. They take back what they said because of pressure by the offender, the non-offending parent, other family members, the community or the hardships that befall the family. Lying, however, is not a frequent enough occurrence to be in our societal psyche the way it is.

In reality, we want it to be a lie. We don’t want to believe that people sexually abuse children as often as the statistics say. We don’t want to believe that people in helping professions sexually abuse children. We don’t want to believe that a person we admire or love sexually abuses children. The truth is few tell about their abuse when they are children. Some tell when they are adults, and some never tell. There are many reasons why children do not tell. Some reasons children don’t tell are they fear not being believed, are afraid of getting in trouble, believe the abuse is their fault or feel guilty because their body responded to the abuse. When we scrutinize the reasons we can see that we create the environment that offenders use to keep our children silent. We don’t believe our children. We get angry with them and believe that our children did something to cause the abuse. We are embarrassed to talk about sexual matters and the private parts of our bodies so children do not know anything about what is normal. We give offenders ways to hide their deeds. If we want our children to be safe, we need to fully examine what causes us to believe an offender over our children. Might we learn from The Emperor’s New Clothes that children often call it like it is?





Within These Walls

100_0740Within these walls I have heard horrific accounts of abuse.

Within these walls I have felt the agony of torture.

Within these walls I have witnessed the failure of mankind to protect the most vulnerable among us.

Within these walls I have watched sorrow drip from the eyes of children.

Within these walls I have felt parents’ sense of failure.

Within these walls I have watched relationships heal deep wounds.

Within these walls I have watched the most fearful children bloom.

Within these walls I have watched families overcome and triumph.

Within these walls I have watched as they began anew. a brave heart

Within these walls I have stretched.

Within these walls I have fallen short.

Within these walls I have met failure.

Within these walls I have seen success.

Within these walls I have grown and discovered.

Within these walls I have felt loving kindness.

Within these walls my heart has ached and yearned.

Within these walls I have given all that is good within me.

Why is Consent a Big Deal?

DSC_0033This past week the Girl Scouts stirred up some folks with their statement that girls should not have to hug people they do not want to hug. It seems that the responses were split 50-50 agreeing or opposing this statement. What struck me was the arguments the opposition used. Most of the opposition said that the important people in the child’s life, like grandparents, deserve to be hugged, that the child’s feelings did not matter.

Raising children is hard and tricky. There are so many pitfalls that parents do not see at the time. Issues like consent are hidden in the fabric of relationships. Most adults think about consent only in terms of sexual intimacy but consent is a part of everyday life.

A few days ago, I was helping a clinician learn about how she communicates using her energy and I needed the help of one of our horses. I approached one of them and asked if he was willing to help me. I did this by holding out the halter.  The horse turned and placed his nose into the opening and pushed the halter up. By this action, the horse agreed to help. How did I know he had agreed? I had placed the open halter by his shoulder so he had to turn to insert his nose into the opening. This action required a choice and did not occur by accident.

Why is consent in this context important? He is a horse after all. As a human, I could have forced the horse to help me by putting the halter on him and dragging him into the round pen. As a matter of fact, I grew up doing just that. If I had chosen to force the horse to comply, what impact would that have had on me? The horse? Our relationship?

Let’s think about this for a moment. In order for me to force the horse to go with me, I would have to stop seeing him as a being with feelings, needs or desires. I would also have to disconnect from myself so as not to have any feelings about what I was doing and so I would not see his reactions. Or if I saw his feelings and reactions I would have to see them as being inferior to me and my feelings, needs or desires. In short, I would have to see the horse as an object. Since objects are not alive they do not feel or have needs or desires and we can treat them any way we want to.

The action of forcing the horse causes problems for me because I either have to disconnect from my body so I do not notice the horse’s reactions to my force or I notice the reactions and judge them to be unimportant or inferior. Disconnection from my body separates me from a large input of knowledge about myself, and others. It reduces my ability to respond in ways that are good for me and good for my relationships and it inhibits my ability to be aware of information coming in about my safety. So forcing the horse causes multiple issues for me and my relationships.

When the horse is forced to comply he learns to submit to my will which is a lower brain response. Using force over and over prevents the horse from exploring and learning to problem solve. The horse also learns that relationships are built on might. As new people enter his life he explores the parameters of the relationship. Will he have the most might or will the new person? The horse also learns to disconnect from his body in order to function in the relationship.

A relationship between two disconnected beings is an unsafe and unhealthy relationship. As is a relationship built on might where the demands and needs of one are always met and the needs of the others are unimportant or nonexistent.

This one example shows that interacting with another being in a manner in which we are not asking for consent sets in motion problems within each being, (me and the horse) and creates problems in the relationship. Consent is a vital part of all healthy relationships and a pattern of not requesting consent has a lasting impact.



How to Talk to Your Child about Charlottesville

girlethnicAs adults we often think that we shield our children from the realities of the world, but more often than not they are keenly aware. And when we do not talk to them, they are left to their own explanations which usually create more fear.

It is important talk to your children about what is happening in our country so they are less fearful and have a better understanding of what is happening around them.

Before talking to your child spend some time thinking about how you have been effected by what you saw. Think about what you want your child to understand, and how you want to impart your values.

When talking to your child remember to let him lead the conversation. Answer his questions honestly but with age appropriate information. Remain calm, and breathe deeply. From you your child is learning how to talk about difficult subjects.

You might start the conversation like this, “There has been a lot on the news about people getting hurt have you seen that? Tell me what you have seen. What do you think about what you have seen?

Or “On the news there have been many people saying mean things about other people and hurting each other. Did you see that? What do you think about that?”

Gently correct any misinformation that your child has gleaned from news coverage or conversations.

If you are confused about what your child is asking or saying, ask for clarification before continuing.

Omit the gory details- focus on the what happened. For example, “A man hit some people with his car and people were badly hurt. And a lady died.”

Share your feelings about what happened.

Honestly answer questions about your child’s safety. You cannot tell your child that nothing bad will ever happen to them but you can say, “I am doing everything I can to keep you safe.” You can even name the things that you are doing.

Share your values with your child.

Talk to your child about what you and other people are doing to help the situation. Give your child a way to contribute positively toward the solution. Being able to take action reduces fear.

Keep the door for further communication open. Let him know you will talk about this with him again. Check in with your child from time to time to ask how he is doing and to learn what he is thinking and feeling.

Finally, do something fun! Do something you and your child like to do together. Play a game, read a book, take a walk.


Fear in Our Children

FearIn one-week fear rose in our country. We heard it in the adult voices on TV, radio and in the print lining newspapers. But did you realize that fear grew in our children too? Sometimes as adults we forget that they are watching and soaking up everything around them.  As Haim Ginott said, “Children are like wet cement. Whatever falls on them makes an impression.” And the images from Charlottesville made a huge impression. This week young children of color asked me, “Are they going to hurt me too?” “Is it safe?” “Why do they hate me?” Children who already had some dislike for minorities stated more boldly their dislike of them. Caucasian children shielded from overt racism expressed confusion. “Why do those people hate black people?” “What’s wrong with black people?”

The future of our country resides in the hearts of our children. Be careful with your words for they hold immense power. There are no neutral words. We shape our beliefs with each thought we think and say, and those thoughts become the bedrock of our future. Be careful with your actions because they carry enormous weight. Little eyes are watching and from you they are learning how to be in this world.