I think it’s appropriate to start this post off with a bit of vulnerability because I strongly believe it’s the reason I am here today, writing this post about this particular topic. Ready?
I know I’ve talked about my past trauma and the ramifications of that trauma on my family, but there’s a specific situation that set in motion a significant change within myself.
Last year, the day my abuser stepped out of jail, he was immediately arrested again on new charges for another victim that stepped forward. This was obviously a very emotional and tumultuous time for all involved. As is usual for me, I wrote about the situation as a way of processing and trying to understand why this was still happening. However, some of the family members that are close to my abuser didn’t like that I was speaking out. I got some not-so-nice messages from them, and I’ll admit… I got extremely upset.
I was upset that I was being told to “shut up.”
I was upset that the family members I thought loved me seemed to have turned against me.
I was upset that I had never said things to them that I thought they needed to hear.
So, I lashed out at them out of anger, hurt, and resentment. There were a lot of nasty things said by both sides. I own my part in that. I’m human and not immune to saying some hurtful things that stem from my trauma and anger. But a few weeks after this explosion of emotions, I had an epiphany.
I had been looking at my family members through the lens of a victim. A lens that brings back all the haunting moments that have torn apart my family. I’ve spent so much time behind that lens that it’s difficult to see them as individuals with individual experiences rather than a collective whole, a collective group of people who are involved in the dissolution of a family.
But… that’s not the only way to see them. My epiphany hit home when I realized that they are precisely the kind of clients I’ve been gravitating toward helping because…they too have trauma. And it’s so intertwined with the victim’s trauma that it’s hard to unravel where it starts and ends.
Through this new lens, I was able to see them and the family unit as a whole not as the people against me but rather a lot of traumatized individuals that aren’t being tended to. Where are the support groups for the family members of perpetrators? Who is helping them navigate the traumatizing road they have to walk? Who is invested in helping families STAY families?
The greatest gifts I possess are passion and compassion. I truly believe this is the key to why I’ve been a better, happier version of myself. It’s also why I see the need for serving the gap — not just for the family members of sexual abuse offenders, but for family members of any kind of offender.
I get it. It’s hard for a lot of people to stomach the idea of sitting in front of a wife still married to a pedophile or sitting with the parents of a guilty murderer. But that’s why I want to do it and why I think they need more support than is currently available. I don’t always understand a person’s motive or intent but what I do understand is trauma. I understand all the ways in which trauma can manifest and change people. I understand that trauma often takes a person we know and love and turns them into someone we don’t recognize. It’s easy to blame what you don’t know, but now that I do know, I feel a responsibility and a duty to use my compassion to help those who are in need.
Once I made this realization, I immediately started to dive into researching and reading everything I could about the support and services available to the family members of offenders and sadly, I wasn’t shocked that there was very little available to them.
During my research though, I began to see a pattern of unique issues that family members of offenders are faced with. These things include (but aren’t limited to):
Guilt by Association
There is no denying that when the transgressions a loved one has committed is made public, the stigma attached to that crime is not only directed at the offender — but his/her family as well. Even if a family member had absolutely nothing to do with the crime, simply by being associated with the offender, they become a target of stigmatization and prejudice. This is made even more apparent with technology and social media. The invincibility of the screen gives some people the idea that it’s okay to harass the family members of the offender since there’s so often no closure or ability to harass the actual offender.
Shame and Blame
Often, family members of offenders will blame themselves (or other family members) for the crime their loved one committed. They will feel a responsibility on their shoulders that is not actually theirs to bear. The pervasive shame they feel for themselves and their loved one begins to corrode their lives, and it’s a vicious cycle that brings this burden to their feet.
I believe that this shame and blame becomes so prevalent in their lives that they often react or lash out at others in an attempt to rid themselves of it. Some even begin to believe that the fault belongs with the victim or the “others” instead of with the offender.
Lack of emotional/mental/financial support
It doesn’t matter what crime an offender has committed when it comes to the financial burden placed at family member’s doorstep. Beyond the legal fees, restitution, medical fees, civil suits, etc., that they face — family members often lose their sole source of income. For many families, this is a tremendous burden to face. Not only are they trying to deal with the emotions, consequences, and realities of what their loved one has done — they also face the reality that their shelter, food, and clothing may be an additional thing to worry about.
We, as a society, forget that the family members of offenders are just trying to do the very best they can given the circumstances and their lives are now ten times harder to navigate without resources available to them. The family members are often told that this is what “they deserve” even if they were not involved in the offender’s crime at all.
Loss and Grief
We’ve all experienced that sorrow and heartache that accompanies the grief of losing someone. In the case of an offender’s family members — they often have to live in a world of “limbo.” The offender may be convicted and in prison or otherwise incarcerated. The fact that this loved one’s presence is gone but physically, they remain alive is a confusing reality for many. The constant emotions of grief and sadness can be punctuated by relief and acceptance, but it’s often so intermingled that the family members end up living in a constant state of grief.
And in most cases, the offender’s actions divide family members and even cause many to “disown” the members directly related to the offender. So not only do they have to reconcile losing one loved one, they have to reconcile losing many family members… and thus, losing much of the support system they have come to rely on.
These examples are not exhaustive and by no means apply to all families in all situations. I think it’s important to acknowledge that even though the family members of an offender may not have been directly involved, their responses, actions, and intentions to the situation may affect how much or little support they receive. As is the case with many families — there are often underlying traumas and situations that make a difference in the treatment of family members of offenders.
I absolutely know how difficult it is to put yourself in the shoes of someone who denies their loved one’s abuse or a family member that has chosen to “stand by” the offender. It is excruciating and painful to the core. But acceptance and understanding are very powerful tools in recovery and being able to identify some of these issues they’re facing, there’s a chance that recovery and unification can happen. And even if reunification is never an option — there’s still a chance that if the family members had the proper support, the family unit may be able to prevent further destruction.
There’s a passage in the book, Conversations With A Pedophile: In the Interest of Our Children that really stuck with me. Though she speaks about offenders here directly, I believe that this theory applies to the family members of offenders just as much.
I feel in my core that most people are basically good and decent but have the capacity to do awful things. Some people are sick and twisted and do horrendous things. I retain this faith in their basic humanity, not to excuse them or to deny the need to keep them from doing more damage, but because I believe that people have the capacity to change, even if ever so slightly.
Zabin, Dr. Amy. Conversations With A Pedophile: In the Interest of Our Children (p. 205). Barricade Books. Kindle Edition.
I strongly believe that the sentiment she’s trying to make here is that caring enough to give all people support can make a difference. It can lead to change. In society and in others. I share this sentiment with her because I think that if we spent more time understanding basic human behavior and trauma, we could find ways to support offenders and their families in a way that not only encourages rehabilitation and recovery — but even fosters prevention.
It’s my belief that people are just trying to do the best they can with what they’re given (intelligence, education, illness, etc.) but how do you expect families to do their best when the guidance, support, and education is not provided to them? How can we, as a society, expect resiliency and recovery from these families if they are not given the tools to do it? Most of the time, these families are shut down, shut out and disgraced rather than given the support they need to recover and stop the cycle of intergenerational trauma.
As I progress in my research and education on trauma recovery in general, the more convinced I am that this silent and often ignored group of people are in need of serious support.
I can’t help but think about my own family members when I talk about this topic. How different would things be if my abuser’s family was taught that they could love him and me? That they could hate what he did and admit that it was wrong, but also remain supportive and encouraging about his rehabilitation? What would our family look like if there were resources that could have been used to explore our collective and individuals traumas? What would things look like today if we had been able to heal and recover earlier in the process? Would they have attended my sister’s wedding with joy and love in their hearts? Would my dad have a healthy relationship with his siblings instead of a painful, broken one? Would I be able to look at my grandmother with respect and appreciation instead of disappointment and grief? I wish I knew the answers to these questions but I don’t. I can only imagine that if the resources were there, we might be a different family then we are now.
It may be too late to salvage the broken pieces of my own family, but I believe if resources and support were more readily available and accessible, we may be able to save other families from intergenerational trauma. We may even allow for a future where families don’t have to live in a state of shame and guilt and blame for one another.
If you or someone you know would benefit from a support group tailored to the family members of offenders, please direct them here: