Developing a Character with a History of Sexual Assault

There’s many things I love about the landscape of writing, but one of the most wonderful discoveries is the breadth of knowledge out there waiting to be shared. Every one of us has something to share, and we’ve chosen to do it with the power of words. Today, I’d like to welcome J.C. Christian, who has written a book which explores the very difficult, but real, experience of child sexual assault. Any author incorporating such a traumatic crime needs to do so sensitively and authentically. Hearing from a survivor is a key way to do that. So, without further ado, I’m going to hand it over to my fellow author, J.C. Christian. Thank you for your honesty and courage. 

(Please be aware, as with any deeply emotional and distressing topic, be cognisant of your own emotional health. Look after yourself, and access your support network if anything in this article triggers any difficult emotions.)

The crime of child sexual assault is a national tragedy. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2012 population of the United States was 314,000,000. (The latest year for which data is available) Statistics provided by Incest Survivors United Voices of America paint a grim portrait of this tragedy. In 2012, there were approximately 2,286, 000 female victims of child sexual assault and approximately 1,876,464 male victims. All victims are under the of age 18 and 95% know their offenders. 80% of substantiated cases of this life-shattering crime are committed by a parent who is nearly always male. Female perpetrators are rare as are gay men. This often surprises people not familiar with this crime.

I lived these statistics. My offender is the #1 perpetrator of child sexual assault. He is my step-father, a sadistic predator who molested and sexually assaulted me from the time I was just 8 years old until I was 18. My mother did nothing to protect me. Most people who know my story find my mother’s failure to protect me as horrifying as the crime itself. To this day, they are still together. This too astounds most people.

With the increase in public awareness and education in recent years, the long-term impact of child sexual assault on survivors is gaining increasing recognition. Conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Major Depression, Anxiety, and Drug Addiction are now generally well-known challenges survivors face. Similarly, it is not difficult for most people to understand the severely impaired ability to trust that is virtually universal among survivors of this crime.

In the context of character development, all of the above are important considerations in creating an accurate, realistic character. Equally important are other lesser known factors which both impact and are impacted by the more well-known challenges faced by survivors every day of our lives. Some of the lesser known factors include:

Trauma Changes the Brain

Although the symptoms of what we now recognize as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be seen throughout history, the disorder was not officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association until 1980 when it added the condition to its diagnostic manual. It was then that doctors, psychiatrists, and therapists began to understand that trauma actually changes the brain and, in turn, how it functions.

As a child, sleeping was dangerous. From my earliest memory, I trained myself to stay awake listening for the sound of my step-father’s footsteps coming downstairs to my room. The chronic insomnia that has plagued me my entire life is believed to be rooted in years spent in anxiety and fear.

Last year, a sleep specialist my doctor consulted in an effort to help me sleep better, decided to investigate how my brain has been changed by the years of trauma I lived through. For 24 straight hours, I wore a monitor which recorded my brain activity.  The results showed that my brain, like the hard drive of a computer, has been formatted not to sleep at night.  While I know I am completely safe now, my brain remains hard wired from the terrifying years of my childhood. My doctor, sleep specialist, and therapist are now working together to hopefully teach my brain that its okay to sleep now.

Poor Self-Care/Eating Habits

It’s very common for survivors of childhood violence to exhibit poor self-care and/or eating habits. For some survivors, depression, anxiety, chronic insomnia, and nightmares make it difficult just to get out of bed. The typical daily hygiene and grooming most people do without thinking can easily become overwhelming to a survivor.

It’s equally common for survivors to demonstrate unhealthy eating habits. In contrast to alcohol or drug addictions, many survivors, myself included, turn to food as their drug of choice.

I learned early in my life that food, especially sweets, were a quick fix for anxiety, depression, loneliness and just about every other unwanted emotion. I gave no thought to the cumulative effects a life time of out of control eating would have on my health and weight. Though I have now learned to respect food and to eat to live not live to eat, I am now fighting to lose the weight accumulated through decades of emotional eating.

Promiscuity/Prostitution

My friend Christy was surprised to learn that many prostitutes are survivors of child sexual assault. Why would someone sexually brutalized as a child become a prostitute? Children who were sexually abused as children may come to associate sex with the way of getting affection. Another survivor, who regularly works as a prostitute, said she learned as a child that sex is power and she has something men want and are willing to pay for it.

The challenges described above are just a few factors for writers to keep in mind when developing a character with a history of trauma and child sexual assault. In reality, the struggles faced by survivors of this heinous crime are far more extensive than can be included here. In fully developing such characters, further research may be useful.

Tamar here again. Although child sexual abuse is a difficult and painful topic, it’s a testament to the resilience of the survivors that J.C. Christian is sharing this with us today. I truly appreciate her candor and courage. 

Have you had a character with a history of sexual assault? What have you learned that you may want to incorporate? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, or Twitter.

Have a wonderful week,

Tamar

Picture1.pngJulianna (JC) Christian lives in Nebraska with her husband, David, a musician and insurance analyst. She is a 20-year social worker, author, and passionate advocate for survivors of childhood trauma.

In 2015, J.C. was invited to be a guest speaker at the University Nebraska Omaha on the topic of childhood sexual assault and its long-term impact. One of Nebraska’s largest state universities, the school recognizes the number of survivors that are inevitably a part of their student body.

J.C.’s first book, Reaching for the Light: An Incest Survivor’s Story, was published on July 4th, 2016. The book describes J.C.’s recovery journey as a survivor of incest.

To date, the book has consistency received 5 stars among its many readers across the globe.

J.C. is currently working on her second book entitled Searching the Light Together: Incest Survivors and the Challenge of Relationships which is expected to be released in early 2019.

Find her on her website, on Facebook ‘Giving Survivors a Voice’, or check out her book here.

2 comments

  1. Thank you J.C, Christian and Tamar for this post. Great stuff! I have found myself reading many books with incest as a theme. The psychological aspects of both the abuser and abused are compelling. I read a wonderful memoir years ago titled, Bastard out of Carolina and it was memorable. Recently I have read My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Talent. There was quite a bit of controversy surrounding this book, but I thought it was brilliant. I will pick up a copy of your book and add it to my list. Abuse is a theme I keep returning to, and wrote a novel that portrays narcissistic abuse. Thank you for your bravery and for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

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