“Words of Hope”

article AJN June 16th

Cathy Kezelman was just five years old when she was first brutally sexually assaulted. The abuse continued for close to ten years at the hands of a number of people.

But it was only at the age of 43 that the then medical practitioner revisited the horrific memories she had repressed for her adult life.

The nature of the trauma was so severe that Dr. Kezelman has developed a severe dissociative disorder that fragmented her personality into different parts, causing a disconnection between her thoughts, memories, feelings and actions – a condition to which she attribtues her survival.

But when her 18-year old niece died in a car accident, it triggered the repressed memories of the abuse to return and she began to relive them over a ten-year period in the form of flashbacks.

“As my memories came back I was dissociated as I recovered them, ” the 56 year old doctor recalls.  “The memories came back as fragments. My body was taken over; it was like I was being driven. I would mouth words that were being said to me. It was terrifying beyond belief.”

As the memories returned slowly, painfully and in fragments, her seemingly normal life took a horrible backflip, sending her into a spiral of deep depression.

After she relived each flashback with her husband or clinical psychologist, she would write down the memory. “I couldn’t actually speak,” she recalls. I was just so overwhelmed by the memories I thought I was going crazy.”

It was those writings throughout a therapeutic process which coalesced to form a recently published memoir, “Innocence Revisited – a tale in parts.”

The book tells the story of her ordeal – from the depression she fell into after her niece’s death, to the subsequent flashbacks, and finally to overc0ming her trauma.

More than a cathartic process, teh mother of four children and one foster child wrote the book to also help counter the shame that victims commonly experience.

“That shame is totally silencing and of course, so inappropriate because you’ve been the victim,” she emphasises. “The societal shame keeps people silent, particularly when you start talking about abuse in a white Anglo-Saxon, Australian, in a family, in a home, in our area. And of course perpetrators also implant that shame and guilt to silence you.”

As the chair of Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA), Dr. Kezelman has worked in a voluntary capacity for 10 years, lobbying the Government for funding and helping to devise the national organisation’s strategic direction. 

“At ASCA we know that child abuse continues unabated despite all the best attempts of child protection services. There are a lot of survivors in the community doesn’t make it go away. It’s still there.”

As a director of the Mental Health Coordinating Council, she says that unless more people start to talk about abuse, change won’t come about.

“It’s time to erode the secrecy, shame and stigma. People are scared of things they don’t understand and I think fear perpetuates the issue because it leaves it unaddressed.

But together with the silence often shrouding child abuse victims, the issue is also compounded by those who don’t accept the existence of repressed memories and their validity.

In launching the book Senior Crown Prosecutor, Mark Tedeschi said the book should be seen as a landmark in “it’s intense portrayal of the way a child can survive severe sexual abuse by dividing their very essence into fragments.”

“There will be come people who read this book and are reluctant to believe that such abject cruelty to a child or young adolescent could happen.” he said. “As a prosecutor in the criminal courts for more than 10 years I can tell you that it exists in every segment of our society and many other societies.”

Now with her book on the shelves Dr. Kezelman hopes that her book will reach out to other survivors.

“I want to show that there is help and hope and a future out there. I want to show that you don’t have to stay overwhelmed by your past and stuck in your trauma together, that you can move on and have a really positive life.”

“There’s no shame in seeking help for being a victim, ” she stresses. “It’s courageous to stand up and say, “I need help.” People need to be encouraged to do that and acknowledged for doing that.”

It’s been more than three years since Dr. Kezelman relived her last repressed memory. The therapy process has enabled her to form deeper relationships and live a richer life. She no longer controls you; it’s no longer all you are. It’s a part of you like everyone’s past is a part of them.”

It’s taken courage for Dr. Kezelman to tell her story, particularly within her own community and it’s come at the cost of her relationship with her mother and her brother, who is a Holocaust survivor. But silence would have come as the greatest sacrifice.

“I accept now what I can’t change. What I do get more upset about is the resistance and denial in our community that continues,” she says.

“And that’s what drives me to want to educate and keep speaking out because I want to see that change that creates a more positive world of support for children and adults that actually helps to stop this happening.”

“I think I’m privileged in a way. I’ve had an education, I’ve got a medical background, I’ve got the skills and advantages that other survivors don’t have. I feel like those can be used to create change and that’s what I’m trying to do.” 

Innocence Revisited – a tale in parts can be purchased at www.jojopublishing.com

Child sex abuse victims. Why don’t we believe them? Radio Australia editorial

Child sex abuse victims. Why don’t we believe them? (by Phil Kafcaloudes)

5 May 2010

Today I interviewed a woman who was one of the lucky people to have survived being sexually abused as a child.

So severe was the abuse she endured from the age of 6 until 14 or so, that the entire decade of her childhood was blocked out of her adult memory. The whole thing just wasn’t there. She went on to become a respected doctor, a mother, a person who contributed to society, but for much of this time Cathy Kezelman had no memory of much of her childhood. There were snatches, sure, but she didn’t think back to Kindy or First Class or Year Five like many of the rest of us.

She couldn’t. It was wiped.

How? It was pretty simple. Cathy, as a medical practitioner, can see how. She says children have an amazing resilience, and can cope with just about anything. At a price.

When her father started sexually abusing her, her child’s mind reacted in a way that allowed her to keep going. It fooled her into thinking that this can’t be a bad thing.

Her father though, was not so resilient. He killed himself, perhaps out of guilt for what he was doing to his daughter, perhaps because he was a flawed personality. Cathy doesn’t think it was the latter. She says that he was very loving, and would snuggle up with her, non-sexually, as a father should, and do all the things that father must do, like reassure, love and care. Most of the time.

More horrifically, after her father passed on, Cathy’s sexual abuse continued, carried out by other people who were in positions of power over her. And finally, some years later, a trusted family doctor sexually assaulted her, again and again.

Where was her mother in all this? According to Cathy, her mother denied that this was happening. When Cathy told her mother that the doctor had started touching her inappropriately, her mother said something like: “Oh that’s just him, just tell him not to be silly”. This is a sentence that speaks volumes, for a mother who suspected the truth, and was too fearful to stand up for her daughter.

You see Cathy’s mum was a victim herself, a victim of the Holocaust. Her parents were murdered by the Nazis, and Cathy says it is easy to see now that the damage caused to her mother as a young woman came down the line. Her mother sheltered herself from the bad by denying it, just as her daughter did for thirty years.

Cathy’s father too had a traumatic childhood. He was a sexual abuse victim.

It is called patterning, and it happens with some victims of abuse, where they will do the same to young people in their care. I remember as a court reporter, hearing psychiatrists tell judges that a convicted sexual abuser was a victim themself. I even remember hearing one abuser, a scout master, say in his defence that it happened to him as a child and it did him no harm; it was a way of being loved. The judge wore none of it, explaining to this 50-something year old man that sexual abuse has nothing to do with love. It is about being a predator. The pattern may have been set, but it was up to him to break that pattern.

No-one could suggest that patterning happens in even a majority of cases. There must be thousands of abused people living good lives, the abuse a secret that in many cases will never be revealed, locked in their minds by feeling of guilt or fear of not being believed or fear of the damage it would do to their fathers or uncles. Others, like Cathy, have dealt with it and lives with the memory.

But there are many who don’t come through it. Recent statistics show that victims of childhood sexual abuse are eighteen times more likely to commit suicide, and are 49 times more likely to die of a drug overdose.

Cathy, mother, doctor, almost went this way too. Once her memory of the years of abuse returned to her (after counselling), she found herself standing at a cliff edge, going closer to the precipice, saved only by a voice that told her to speak to her counsellor. The talk pulled her back to this world, and into a life where she was determined to share her story, if only to let other victims learn that they are not alone.

Sexual abuse is part of every society. It is one of those things that just keeps on, like corruption, thievery and tax avoidance. The difference is that this one kills.

And there is far too much denying, perhaps from the victims, and certainly from the people who should believe them.

Cathy Kezelman interviewed on The Circle 4th May

Cathy Kezelman is interviewed on The Circle about her personal process of recovery for her own childhood abuse.