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The Silenced Child
Secrets & Lies
By Tanya Robinson
Partridge AfricaCopyright © 2015 Dr. Tanya Robinson
All rights reserved.
The Child Silenced by Sexual Abuse
I was nearly halfway through my case load for the day, a busy day as usual, when one of the doctors rushed into my practice. 'I have a patient for you whom you need to squeeze in!' I felt tired and drained, but the adrenaline of the day kept me going, and I knew I still have a few patients to see. 'You can send her in by tomorrow,' I replied, but the doctor insisted that I see her right away. I was a bit irritated as I also only had so many hours in a day, but I appreciate my duty to see those in need of help. 'What is the problem?' I asked in a slightly anticipating way, but the doctor only repeated that this was a crisis and that the child might be possessed. I was startled at the description of a child being 'possessed'. In an upmarket medical practice, this is unheard of, and neither is the description medically 'correct'.
Possessed? By whom?
The medical doctor explained with enthusiasm that this child may just be possessed by Satan, and either I see her or she will have to send the child to a priest. I was, to say the least, gobsmacked! Are you telling me that if I don't open my schedule and see this child today that you will send this child for an exorcism?
An exorcism ...?
I did not know if this was a matter of laughter or to report this doctor to the medical council. But I was so tired that I just nodded and said I would fit her in. Let her come and sit in my waiting room.
In between suicide cases, couples in a hysterical position about their relationships, and admissions of drug addiction cases, I saw a little girl walking through the doors of my practice. This child did not look possessed. I must be honest—I have never seen a possessed child up to that point in my career. I don't even know if this 'diagnosis' really exists, but from my perspective, I could not say why the doctor made such a fuss.
I explained to her mother that they needed to fill in all the forms and that it was a busy day but that they just had to wait and I would see them. I looked at her mother, who looked scared and very concerned, and inside me I wanted to hug her and tell her that everything was going to be okay. I did not know for sure that it really was all going to be okay, but as a practitioner in private practice, you need to emphasise the positive outlook while remaining clinical and objective, and you need to be able to read the situation correctly. Thus, I kept my distance, realising that this was the first meeting of many to come, in which I would be able to understand this formal medical diagnosis of 'possession' made by a general practitioner.
After seeing various patients, while my assistant was entertaining the child, I asked the mother, who was accompanied by the grandmother, to have a seat in my consultation room. It was already dark outside, and a sinister mood filled the consultation room. I could detect that both mother and grandmother felt anxious and worried about what was to come. My first impressions were that they looked like a wealthy family, and they were well dressed. The mom was quite slender and looked stressed, but her well-applied make-up and jewellery masked her real emotions. I started the session by asking why they came to the clinic and what they thought was the matter with the child. The mother started crying and explained that she really struggled with her little girl, who was five years old at that time. She said that she and her father were separated and that the little girl sometimes visited the father. The father stayed far away, and they had to travel a distance for her to visit with her father, but her mom and dad (the girl's maternal grandparents) helped with the travel arrangements. The older lady nodded to confirm that this was the case. When I asked why they thought it was necessary to see a general practitioner, the two ladies looked at each other and explained that they thought there was something very wrong with the little girl.
Very wrong? In which way?
The mother said that her daughter would sit and scream for hours on end and would just look at them, almost as if looking through them, repeating the same sentence: 'He is talking to me, he is telling me to do bad things ... He is talking to me, he is telling me to do bad things ... He is talking to me, he is telling me to do bad things ...' Remembering what my colleague said earlier on and now hearing this and feeling rather tired, with the time by now being well into the early evening, I felt a bit spooked, but I tried to maintain a clinical frame of mind. In any case, in this therapy room, I have heard everything, and hearing that a child might be possessed is not that farfetched. I asked them what else she did, and the mom replied that the child would often draw scary pictures. All black! Pictures of 'things' that they could not explain! Both adult women looked rather terrified, and I felt emotionally compelled to say to them that we would get to the bottom of this and help their little girl. I explored the matter further, and it emerged that the child would often talk to herself and that she also heard voices. I thought to myself that there might be a mental disorder (perhaps schizophrenic tendencies), but it was too early to indicate any form of suggestion of a diagnosis.
The mother looked exhausted and emotionally drained, and I suggested that they should both have a strong cappuccino at our clinic coffee shop. I often think about how many people I had sent to the coffee shop and what they tried to process while having one of those foamy cups that give me clarity in my decision-making time. When I refer them to the coffee shop, it is nearly as if they have the hope that when they come back, I would have made everything okay. I think they sometimes also imagine that on their return I would have been able to wave my magic wand and to take away all their problems and pains. I sometimes wish that it could be the case, but unfortunately (or perhaps rather fortunately), mental health can't be fixed with magic.
I watched the little girl sitting in the corner of the playroom, playing little imaginary games with the dolls. I asked her if I could come and sit down in the playroom, but she said nothing. I am used to this kind of response, and therefore, I asked her if she could just show me with a nod of her head if I could enter the room. She started to scream (the general practitioner would have said a 'demonic-like scream'), but I remained, standing quietly so that she could see I was not a threat. I went on my knees and just sat unobtrusively at the door, observing her anxiety-filled behaviour. I asked myself what had happened to this child to make her so defensive. She was so guarded that she must have been hurt intensely by someone close to her. Little did I know that this child was not demonic; she had been traumatised by someone very close to her. That was my first impression of the situation.
As the weeks went by and as I was still sitting at the door of the playroom, I could see that the child was slowly starting to trust me. Slowly! With silence ... She would not allow me in her space, but she was drawing me closer by presenting with more conversation and more chatting and by allowing me to give her some coaching in her play. The little blonde, blue-eyed girl often talked to someone in a very angry manner. She often repeated that this person was telling her to do things that she did not want to do. She had open and intimate conversations with this persona, and it seemed that she was in a constant struggle with wanting to follow its instructions and then sometimes not wanting to do so. The little girl was torn but felt obliged to listen to this authoritarian persona.
After a few weeks and through lots of observation, I gathered that this persona giving her instructions was definitely a male gender and that it had to be a person of authority as the little girl referred to the persona as he, him, mister, or master. As I was still sitting at the door of the play therapy room, not entering the room without invitation, I could see how this child got instructions from this invisible monster and that she did not know what to do. This little girl was being tormented. This child was mentally challenged with such enormous responsibility because of what this invisible monster was telling her to do, but she could not comprehend what to do or how to process what was given to her.
One cold winter's morning when I arrived at the clinic, the little girl was sitting in the waiting room and asked me, 'Dr Tanya, I need you to help me. Come and sit next to me!'
I felt ice-cold! Finally, after months had passed of this child looking through me with her iced blue eyes and after so many sessions, this child wanted to trust me with her secrets. Human nature wanted me to jump up and down and do a little victory dance, but my clinical experience has taught me to approach with caution and to leave the little dance for somewhere private. Since my graduation, I have this eccentric Indian dance ritual that helps me to get centred and release some tension from the day. I work from a strictly medical model, but some eccentricity is sometimes needed in my personal life ... Possibly later, when I arrive home after intense therapy, I will do my Indian-infused dance ritual to de-stress.
I entered the playroom with caution and allowed the little girl to take control and tell me what to do. 'Can I sit here? What do you want to do?' I remained silent, not wanting to overbear her with my presence. The child came closer and said, 'What can we do today?' I asked the little girl to just sit and tell me what she hears. We sat in silence for what felt a long time ... Silence ... And she said in a rather soft tone, 'He is here, and he wants me to tell you something.' I pacified the situation and said in an even softer tone, 'When you are ready, you can talk to me. Today, tomorrow, whenever you want to.' The blue-eyed girl with such anger and pain in her eyes said, 'He wants me to tell you that if I talk to you, he will kill my mother.' I remained calm and looked for some emotional expression.
The little girl projected hate and anger, but this was a mask that hid the immense pain and fear she experienced. I spoke directly to this imaginary monster and loudly said, 'You don't tell this little girl what to say or do. If you want to talk to me, you tell me what you want to say!' The girl did not know what to do or say; she sat in silence and then said, 'You can't talk to him like that!'
It was a confrontational moment.
I looked directly into the little girl's eyes for the first time and said piercingly, 'These are my rooms, and if he wants to say something, he can come out and say it to me!'
I placed some paper in front of the little girl and gave her a crayon and said softly, 'Can you please draw a picture of our messenger.' The little girl, to my surprise, picked up the crayon and said, 'You can go now.' I went to the coffee shop and asked for one of the insightful cappuccinos and a babycino. I slowly walked back to the rooms with the coffees, and I went and sat at the door of the playroom. The girl asked me to come in and pushed the paper towards me. She had drawn a face of a man. I asked her if he had a name ... but she closed up and said it was time to go.
That night I thought about the little girl as I wrote my notes. After the day's tension, I forgot all about my little shake-off dance. It was becoming clearer that this child was giving me a message that someone was talking through her. But therapy was a process, and it is never a good idea to jump to any conclusions when all the facts had not been divulged. One thing was for certain: theory never fails, and the general practitioner's speculations of demonic behaviour were proven wrong, as my initial thoughts were. I asked myself how a medical practitioner could make such statements without having insight into what was really occurring.
After a few sessions of parallel playing (the little girl playing on her own and I playing or just sitting beside her), she drew another picture of the messenger and suddenly exclaimed that he was getting very angry that she was coming to therapy. I said to her softly, 'Let me write down a message that you can give him.' I wrote on the picture, 'When you are ready, you can come and talk to me.' The little girl then asked me for more paper and drew the face again and said, 'My father will not talk to you. Never! He hates you!'
The child all of a sudden seemed relieved but entirely exhausted. It just came out!
Is this what we were waiting for? What do I do with this information? Is it premature? Is it a distortion of reality?
I stopped the session and asked her mother to keep a close eye on her that night. The mother phoned me that night saying that the child fell asleep and that she was sleeping peacefully for the first time in a very long time. No nightmares, no night terrors ...
The mother seemed grateful, surprised, relieved, but also concerned. She broke down in tears and had a long night ahead of her. I was thinking and rethinking all of this information. Did the little girl's father molest her? Raped her?
In the days to follow, the girl seemed calmer, and I started doing some more directive play therapy sessions. The little blonde, blue-eyed girl engaged more but still seemed weary. The deeper I explored, the more evident it became that this child was severely sexually abused by her father. It was exhilarating for the little girl that someone was starting to understand what she was feeling, what she had experienced. The schizophrenic behaviour traits started to subside. No one was giving her instructions any more, and the imaginary monster was something of the past. She was freed to some extent from this burden. But this little girl was the barer of such emotional turmoil, and there was still a mountain to climb to help her understand how an adult that she trusted, cared for, and loved manipulated her in such a way and sexually exploited her and took away a piece of her that she would never get back.
After divulging the information to authorities and to her mother, the process of addressing this sexual crime started in the legal realm. The mother approached an attorney and opened a case, and the police was informed of the matter. In such cases, we have to support these cases with the relevant paperwork. This gave me time to reflect on the case and write up all my case notes that I made through the months of spending time with the little girl. Looking back at such a case, it is always an insightful process as it sheds light on all that had happened in the therapeutic relationship.
Often, these cases can drag on for years in court, and especially when private attorneys get involved, it becomes a rather messy fight, and the child's evidence is often incriminated to suit the case of the defence: 'The child is making it up! The child is mentally unstable! The child is not a good witness!'
Sadly, in this little girl's case, no prosecution took place, and the father of this little girl walked away scot-free. But action was taken that the child no longer had to see her father, and the child was safe.
After the closure of a case like this, I am saddened by how the system can sometimes fail a little girl and how justice is not necessarily done. However, it is often difficult to stand as a judge in these cases and to criticise the system as all cases remain complicated, and it is not always easy to make a judgement call. Yes, I felt like screaming and protecting my little patient, but it was a complicated matter. You learn to accept what you cannot change, but you also have to keep on trying to change what you cannot accept.
The upside to this case is that the little blue-eyed girl had the opportunity to express her emotions. She had the opportunity to tell her story and to be protected, by not having to have any further contact with the person that put an ugly scar on her, victimised her, and took away her childhood. This child will have to carry this burden and survive and live with what has been taken away from her. It saddens me that a child's happiness can be placed in an adult's hand of protection but that this person then does not take care of the child and does not love and protect the child as is needed to create a happy and fulfilled child that can grab life's challenges with both hands.
Excerpted from The Silenced Child by Tanya Robinson. Copyright © 2015 Dr. Tanya Robinson. Excerpted by permission of Partridge Africa.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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