real life

"'Is this a random nightmare?' I didn't realise I was sexually abused until I was in my 30s."

Content warning: The following contains details of child sexual assault. If you are in need of support, help is available via 1800 RESPECT. Please call 1800 737 732.

Oprah Winfrey once said about grooming, “I have said for years that if the abuser is any good, you won’t know it’s happened… If the abuser is any good, he or she is going to make you feel like you’re part of it.”

Everyone loved my dad. He was quiet and kind, a youth minister and children’s church leader. He played guitar in a band, wrote beautiful music, made up funny stories, and told every dad joke in the book.

He also enjoyed pornography. He liked it a lot. He kept piles of magazines in his closet, between his mattress, and under his bed. I knew this because as far back as I could remember, he liked to show them to me.

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It always happened the same way. My mum would leave for some reason or the other, and Dad would turn off the TV and go to his room. He’d leave the door open and sit on his bed. He didn’t call me, but I eventually walked by the room and peeked in. He’d smile and wave at me, and I’d walk in. There I’d find Dad with his collection.

He didn’t show me the photos of real men and women directly but left them open all around him like he was sitting in a nest of naked flesh. He watched me poke around in the magazines curiously. I could read at a young age and often read a sentence here and there out loud, though I had no concept as to their meaning. He’d eventually call me over, turn the pages to the cartoon comics that were always in the margins. He asked me if I thought they were funny, and would tell me to pick out another one. When I brought one over, he’d read them to me while I sat on his lap or beside him on the bed, and he masturbated, sometimes rubbing against me, and sometimes having me touch him.

I didn’t know what he was doing was sex abuse until years later. I just thought it was a funny thing that all grown up men did. When I was four years old, I told my mum that I’d seen “white stuff come out of Daddy’s wienie”. Her immediate response was “Never tell anyone or you’ll never see my family again!” I knew after her passionate, scary response that something was wrong about these story times with Dad, but it wasn’t until I was an adolescent that I equated my father’s actions to sex abuse.

I thought for years that Dad stopped sexually abusing me after I told mum about it. I continually had nightmares about the abuse that happened while I was a toddler, but I didn’t realise he continued to abuse myself as well as my siblings well into our teens until I was in my early thirties. He’d simply found other ways to do it, insidious abuse that happened under our very noses.

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The way we figured out that the sexual abuse continued began with a nightmare my brother shared with me in a letter; “I keep having this dream about taking a shower with Dad when I was a kid. In the dream, he would have me wash him. I don’t know if this was something that actually happened or just a random nightmare. Is this familiar to you at all?”

As soon as I read that, I was floored. My father and I took showers together well into adolescence. I was nine in the last shower I remembered taking with him. I called my sister immediately.
“Do you remember taking showers with Dad? Did that ever happen to you?”

My sister remembered it clearly. I called my brother, and we confirmed it with each other. We all also remembered very clearly that he’d tell us that Mum told him to give us the shower.
Because mum told him to do it, and he’d been doing it since we were toddlers, we had no reason to talk about it. He also never touched us in obviously sexual ways. He touched us to clean us or had us touch to clean him. He always had an erection. I just thought that was the constant state of a penis, since it was the only one I’d ever seen.

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My sister and I asked our mum why in the world she told dad to give us showers. Her response? “What the are you talking about?” She was horrified.

My siblings and I were in our late 20s and early 30s before we had this revelation. I discovered years later, that he’d also treated me more like a girlfriend or wife when mum was gone, telling me how horribly she treated him, apologising that she was so jealous of me. He took me on “dates”, choosing the outfits I wore and didn’t tell anyone I was his daughter.

In retrospect it’s all obvious, but I had no clue while it was happening.

He was manipulative and intelligent. He found ways to abuse me where, not only would I not tell, but if I did tell for some reason he’d be able to explain it away as a misunderstanding as he had the first time I told my mum. “I’m so embarrassed. She walked into the bedroom while I was masturbating. I thought I had the room locked.”

Sometimes I still feel guilty when I talk about my dad. I loved my father and still love him. Most of the time I simply try not to think about him. Other times, I’m so plagued with nightmares and fear about him hurting other kids that I can barely function in other aspects of my life.

Always, in the back of my mind, a thought vibrates. “What else did he do that you still don’t recognise as abuse?”

This article was originally published on Medium and has been republished here with full permission.

You can read more of Toni Tails’ work on Medium, right here.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

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