This poignant image of a precious little girl on her way to have fun in the company of a wolf stirs me deeply. As she glances over her shoulder, she is unaware of the menacing look in the wolf’s eyes. The image captures for me both the innocence and vulnerability of a child being “groomed” by a sexual predator.
Yesterday I saw an old photograph that troubled me even more. It was a group photo that included my older sister as a small child. She was holding the hand of an uncle who I now know sexually abused his own children. Other relatives, whose abusive histories I also learned about later in life, were in the photo too. Many years after that photo was taken, my sister confided in me that one of those men had sexually abused her when she was just four-years-old. Incest was a tradition in our family even before I was born, and grooming was unwittingly accepted as “love.”
A website I discovered after learning my own daughter had been abused, defines “grooming” this way: “Grooming is a process that sex offenders use to gain the trust of the child victim and reduce natural suspicion. The grooming process breaks down the child’s defenses. The offender then manipulates the relationship so that the child will engage in sexual activity and perform specific acts. The relationship is maintained by secrecy…Grooming gives the child a sense of uniqueness or specialness, separating him or her from other family members or from peers…The grooming process is meant to establish trust and affection, increasing attachment and loyalty. Grooming increases the child’s acceptance of touch.” The author also explains how a parent may be groomed as well in order to gain access to the child. (Source: MOSAC (Mothers of Sexually Abused Children) – Grooming).
Reading this description of grooming breaks my heart because that is exactly what happened to us. I think it is important to understand that grooming can be a long process that is shockingly deceptive. It is much easier to recognize in hindsight then when it is occurring. In retrospect, the tell-tale signs were all there; I just didn’t know what to look for or that I needed to be concerned. Besides, it was unfathomable for me to suspect a brother whom I had trusted since childhood. I will never forget the time he came to my house and asked to take my daughter to the beach for a few days. He assured me he would take good care of her, and she was eager to go. Unbeknownst to me, the sexual abuse was already in full swing. If only I had been better educated! I now cringe as I recall that conversation and my decision to let her go. For years afterwards, my brother threatened my daughter with the destructive impact his crime would have on the family if she told. Consequently, it was 15 years before the secret was out, and all his grooming techniques came to an end.
From my perspective, the emotional turmoil that followed the grooming was like a tsunami wave that redefined the landscape of our lives. My brother’s sexual addiction and resulting crime, robbed me of feelings of safety and trust that I previously took for granted. There was also a lot of shame attached to my naivety. One of the most difficult emotions for me to deal with was self-blame. Why didn’t I recognize the grooming for what it was? How could I have mistaken such betrayal for love? Did we not matter to my brother at all? I thought we were special to him, only to discover we were being manipulated and used. It may be hard for someone who has never been groomed to understand, but the positive memories of being treated so special lingered long after the deception was exposed and compounded the pain.
Who doesn’t like to feel special? Everyone wants to be loved and to feel significant. Abusers prey on children (and adults) who are emotionally vulnerable by responding to their felt needs. Children need to be better protected, and adults need to become more aware. There is a prevention program, called Darkness to Light, I highly recommend to church groups, school teachers, and others that can help adults learn how to advocate for children. If you send me a message, I may be able to recommend a facilitator in your area. The photo of my sister mentioned earlier was taken at a family Easter gathering! At a time when she was thinking only of bunnies and eggs for her basket, I wish others had been more aware of the dangers that surrounded her. It could have saved her from a lifetime of alcoholism that I’m sure was an attempt to numb her pain.
Grooming is a travesty that masquerades as love and leaves broken hearts on life support. Surrendering the broken pieces to Christ is the only effective means I have found to restore my soul. As I prayerfully embrace what Jesus did for me on the cross that first Easter, my sense of significance is renewed . As I consider the power that raised Him from the dead, I find hope for myself and my loved ones. In contrast to some of the members of my family who groomed children for their own selfish ends, my Savior sacrificed Himself for me so I might receive new life. My brother offered heart-felt conversations and thoughtful gifts to my daughter and I, but he never offered to die for us! Jesus provides a new understanding of what it means to be truly special. His love is the best remedy I know for bad grooming!