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Brandy's Blog

Forgiving My Younger Self for Staying Silent About My Sibling Sexual Abuse



the author in 7th grade

This month's guest blog is by Phil Goldstein, poet and author of How to Bury a Boy at Sea,  partner and Dad of fur babies. Phil has also shared his thoughts as a survivor of sibling sexual abuse on the podcast Flushing It Out with Samantha Spittle and Handing the Shame Back with Gloria Masters.


When you think back to what you were like as a tween, around the ages of 10 to 12, what do you remember about yourself? If you had a relatively stable upbringing, you might have specific memories of being in a class at school, or a sports team, with your family at home, or on a vacation. I have all of those. But if you were also sexually abused, you might have other more searing and painful memories. I have those as well. 


From the time I was 10 to about 12 and a half, my older brother sexually abused me. I never told anyone about it until I was 30. The silence of those years burrowed its way into the marrow of my body and into the core of my soul. It was something that, like many survivors of of sibling sexual abuse (SSA), I wanted to forget ever happened. My brother stole my innocence, destroyed my safety and boundaries, and violated my trust as someone who was supposed to look after and protect me. 


To be clear: I never did forget what happened; I simply made a conscious effort to bury it away. I was deeply ashamed of what had happened, and I knew my brother molesting me was wrong, but I couldn’t articulate why. I just knew I couldn’t tell anyone, certainly not my parents. The abuse also happened as I was starting puberty, a fraught and disorienting time for children under normal circumstances. 


I think that as a boy, I was particularly keen to avoid anyone knowing about what happened. I was raised in a society and on a media diet of cartoons, kids’ shows, and movies that portrayed men and masculinity in very particular ways. Men and male characters were muscle-bound, strong, brave, fearless. Think Power Rangers, Batman, Conan the Barbarian, American Gladiators. Men didn’t reveal weakness or vulnerability, they didn’t cry, and they certainly didn’t let or talk about their brother abusing them. 


I was also a scrawny, short kid, and not particularly athletic. I was into writing and reading books, history, and video games. I was definitely not and didn’t think of myself as one of the “cool kids.” Combine all of that with the onset of middle school, when kids are desperate to be liked by their peers and not cast off as “weirdos,” and you have a perfect recipe for a young boy wanting to stay silent about something like SSA. 


The sheer embarrassment and mortification of explaining to a friend or trusted adult what my brother had done was enough to convince me to stay silent. I was also worried my peers – girls and boys alike – would think I was gay, at a time when homophobia was much more rampant than it is now. Society’s expectations of what boys and men should be like definitely inhibited me, even if I couldn’t articulate it. I couldn’t even really describe what happened or how I felt. I just knew it was something that would destroy me, and out of an instinct for self-preservation I buried the trauma away.    


Staying silent for so long – and, of course, the abuse itself – had a profound impact on me. I became a people pleaser, desperately to ensure nothing was ever amiss or that my grades stayed near-perfect, for fear that disorder and dysfunction would invite questions that could uncover what had happened. This behavior carried over into my adult life, making me fearful of upsetting others, and leading me to not state and act on what I wanted, or even know how I felt. As I had when I was younger, I put my emotional needs behind that of others. Also, as I got older and became sexually active, I developed erectile dysfunction and anxiety around sex that marred many dates and relationships with women.  


It took years of intensive, trauma-informed therapy with a wonderful therapist to unpack and truly internalize all of this. I also benefited tremendously from using creative writing, and specifically poetry, to unearth, make sense of, and explore a complex array of emotions that therapy brought up. Sadness. Pain. Anger. Shame. Grief. Longing. Healing. And forgiveness. All of this writing culminated in my book, How to Bury a Boy at Sea


For a long time, I blamed myself for not saying anything about the abuse, especially because of how it had affected me. Maybe, I thought, if I had said something earlier, I wouldn’t have suffered so much. I was angry, and I felt enormous grief. It took therapy to recognize that when I was abused, I was just a child. I couldn’t and shouldn’t have been expected to say anything about the abuse or even to really understand what happened. I was just a boy, and I needed to offer that boy forgiveness and grace. I explored these emotions in the poem “A Note to My Younger Self,” which is in my book:


A Note to My Younger Self


You can’t be saved, not now. You must hang on

until the day you are strong enough to climb out.


You can’t be blamed

for staying beneath the water.

There, quiet felt like peace.


You must navigate a thread

so small it’s practically invisible,

the line between what you feel & what you can say:

pushing up a jagged wall everywhere you tread.


You are just a boy, you are just a boy, you are just a boy,

you can’t be anything but a boy.



If you are reading this and you are a survivor of SSA or know someone who is, especially if you are man, I want you to know that you are not alone. And I want you to realize that if you were a child when you were abused, you don’t have anything to apologize for, or be ashamed of. You were a child – remember that. You owe your younger self compassion and love.  


the author's boyhood home

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