Dear Doctor: What you didn’t ask, and what I didn’t tell you

Connie Valentine founded the Incest Survivor’s Speakers Bureau (ISSB) in Northern California in the 1990s. When we met in 2004, I asked if the organization actually received many speaking requests. “Not so much,” she laughed.

Connie is one of the most intrepid women I know. She set up the ISSB, and then started annual meetings to focus on child trauma, particularly child sex abuse. Some years, only a handful of people showed up. She was serene. It doesn’t matter, she said. We’ll hold it, and whoever shows up, that’s who needs to be there. At the last meeting in April — No. 17 — 165 people attended. That’s not bad for a gathering about an issue that most people would prefer that didn’t exist in our world, and yet that has touched one out of four women and one out of six men.

In 2002, she wrote an open letter called “Dear Doctor”, which was published by The Permanente Journal. Connie wanted the journal to use her real name, but the editorial board, after great debate, decided not to, to preserve the “anonymity of any involved persons”, even though Connie did not name anyone in her essay, and her abuser is dead.

By the time I met Connie, she was well on the way to a healthy life. I wouldn’t call her robust, but for all she’s experienced, as she says, it’s amazing that she’s alive. I asked if she was okay with her essay appearing on ACEsTooHigh. She agreed, and, again, wanted her real name used, for the same reason she gave The Permanente Journal: “I no longer feel shame about the events of my life. The shame belongs to the perpetrators. Rather, I feel sorrow. They are people who need forgiveness, and I forgive them.”

Her essay is the story of many people who suffered child trauma, of our health care system, and of the power of healing. It is painful to read, and, in one paragraph, graphic.

SO DO NOT CONTINUE IF READING ABOUT CHILD SEX ABUSE WILL CAUSE YOU ANGUISH. Usually, we journalists put a barrier of our own descriptions of a situation between the people who experience it and our community. But this is a first-person account. No barriers.

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See no evil: child trauma research shows us how to never have another Penn State

A few days before former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on child sex abuse charges, and before Graham Spanier, president of Penn State, and long-time Penn State coach Joe Paterno were fired, NBA great Jerry West gave a very

Graham Spanier (l) and Joe Paterno (r)

poignant interview on NPR about his new book: “West By West: My Charmed, Tormented Life.”

When West was a boy, his father beat him and his siblings. “You know, I know what corporal punishment is,” West told NPR host Scott Simon. “This was a lot more than that. And I think that I got to the point in my life where I’d had enough. And I told him one day after an incident with my sister where he had hit her and I just – I said to him, I said if you ever do that again, I am going to kill you. And I slept with a loaded shotgun under my bed.”

Despite Jerry West’s very difficult childhood, he became a success by anyone’s standards. However, as he says, “I can’t forget the things that I saw in my life. I will never forget those days.” He lives with depression. He says he doesn’t know what love is and,

Jerry West, during his L.A. Lakers playing days

remarkably, has little self-esteem. Some people might say that Jerry West had some inner resilience that got him through those bad times. But that inner resilience was nurtured through playing basketball, where he had people who encouraged and mentored him.

So, let’s think about little Jerry West, the 10-year-old, for a moment. Or kids like him — kids who were targets for Sandusky’s charity, The Second Mlle. Those kids were called “disadvantaged”. That’s a euphemism — our society’s code for kids who are living with or have experienced trauma. That trauma can include a parent who has abandoned them, or a parent is an alcoholic or addicted to other drugs, a parent who beats them, verbally abuses them, or neglects them. Or a family member in jail or diagnosed with a mental illness. Or the kids have seen their mom beaten up. And yes, they might even be experiencing sexual abuse at home – that’s much more common than being sexually abused by a coach or a priest. And let’s say that these kids look up to a coach and dream of being a successful athlete, or of just relying on the organization and its adults to obtain some relief from what’s happening at home.

Let’s say that instead of having a supportive coach, West had a coach who sodomized him in the school’s shower room. Would little Jerry West have become an NBA star, or would that have been one trauma too many? Would his career have ended early because he drank himself into a stupor to stop the nightmares? Or would he have been unable to control his anger, beat up people at the slightest provocation and ended up a career criminal?

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Every human function affected by ACEs, says Anda

Although the ACE Study shows a direct link between child trauma and adult onset of chronic disease, it’s not just health that’s affected by child trauma, says Dr. Rob Anda in this presentation he did in May at a meeting of the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative in Canada. “I see this as a developmental process that affects all of society,” he says.

Anda is one of the co-founders of the CDC’s ACE Study. In case you haven’t seen Anda in person, it’s worth checking out this 53-minute video — The Wide-Ranging Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences: Connecting the Developmental Lens to the Health of our Society. It’s fascinating.

Anda incorporates art from Paul Klee, Michelangelo, W. Eugene Smith and others into his talks. “All art, to me,” Anda says, “mimics public health.” His interpretation of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” is an eye-opener.

Toward the end of the 53-minute presentation is a short video of a woman Anda met at a community meeting in Washington state several years ago. When she filled out the short 10-question ACE survey, and answered yes to all 10 questions, a light bulb went on. I’ll let you watch the video to find out what she did with that knowledge.

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