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"The Truth is Out There"...and We Need to Talk About It
by Katrina Kittle
Author of The Kindness of Strangers

Writers usually choose their topics to teach others. With my third novel, however, the topic taught me.

The seed for The Kindness of Strangers was planted when I met a ten-year-old boy with HIV. I was a guest artist in a local school, teaching workshops in theatre improv and creative writing. I had asked each child to write three things they wanted me to know about them. Kevin (not his real name) a slight, pale boy with shaggy blond hair hanging in his enormous blue eyes, revealed that he was HIV+.

Because I had worked for an AIDS service organization, I knew that it was unlikely Kevin had been born with the virus. In the mid-90's, a child born with HIV would rarely live to see the age of ten. And I hoped it was unlikely for a child his age to contract the virus through any of the "traditional" ways.

During my two-week residency at the school, I received more pieces to Kevin's story. Kevin's biological parents had sexually abused him from the time he was five. To support their cocaine addictions, they prostituted Kevin to their drug supplier and his friends. When they were arrested and Kevin's abuse came to light, it was discovered that he had several sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. His parents (neither of whom had HIV themselves) were both jailed and Kevin was living with a foster family that had taken the initial steps to adopt him. He'd been with this foster family nearly two years when our lives crossed paths. I can't say I really "knew" Kevin. I interacted with him for only an hour a day for ten school days. And yet, this boy affected my life profoundly. His story horrified and consumed me. I knew, almost immediately, that he would be the genesis of the next novel I would write.

I couldn't tell his story; it wasn't mine to tell. But I wanted to capture the strength and triumph of his survival. If I had gone through what this child had, I pictured myself catatonic. And yet, here was this sunny, positive boy -- with issues, to be sure -- who was a living example of just what a human being can endure, bickering with classmates about who got to go first in an improv game, trading his homemade cookies for a Twinkie at lunch, and chattering about the latest episode of The X-Files. I was "in" with him from the moment I recognized the saying on his t-shirt -- "The truth is out there -- as the catch phrase of a character on that show.

As I wrote the book, it grew away from Kevin's own story. Jordan, the abused boy in the novel does not have HIV, and most of the story is told through the point of view of Jordan's mother's best friend, Sarah, who becomes Jordan's emergency foster care placement when Jordan's mother is jailed and his father goes missing.

I immersed myself in research. I began to look into whatever studies and information existed about child sexual abuse. I talked to social workers, child psychologists, police officers, and doctors. And my horror grew. I was stunned to discover that Kevin's story was not at all unique. What happened to Kevin continues to happen to far, far too many children every single day. Experts estimate that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused before their eighteenth birthdays. The only aspect of those statistics that was truly shocking or new, apparently, was that I didn't already know this. I discovered that child sexual abuse is a significant and prevalent problem in our society, kept hidden by silence and shame. Because of this cultural silence, many stereotypes and myths about child sexual abuse are able to flourish.

I encountered many of these misconceptions as I shared novel drafts with my writing group and with my editor. Some of the comments and questions I received included:

Shouldn't this family be black?
This stereotype is so grounded in racism, it is chilling. And yet, when I first shared details of Kevin's story to friends, I was shocked at the number of people who automatically assumed the family was African-American (they were not). Child sexual abuse happens in communities of all races, regions, and socioeconomic classes.

Female sexual predators are rare, right?
Wrong. They are less common than male predators, but by no means rare. Most female abusers are the primary caretakers of the child they abuse. The social workers I talked to expressed great frustration that abused children are often returned to their abusing mothers because it is too difficult for people to accept that a mother would harm her own children.

It doesn't make sense that this boy would be abused for a number of years and never tell anyone.
This particular misconception is disturbing because it places the blame on the child. Do we really expect it to be a child's responsibility to report and stop the abuse? The Center for Missing and Exploited Children has an ad slogan that states: "The sound a child makes when sexually abused is often silence." The majority of abused children never tell. Children are taught to obey their parents (and other adults) even if they dislike what the adults ask them to do. Young children don't understand sexual acts and have no idea how to express what is happening to them. Many abused children have been "taught" by their abusers that they are somehow at fault, that they "made" the abusers act as they have, and so the children stay silent because of guilt at what they perceive as their own complicity. Children abused by their own parents fear being separated from their families if the abuse is reported, and they may have been threatened with this consequence. They don't want their abusing parents jailed or taken away from them; they simply want the sex to stop.

Wouldn't you be able to tell from looking at him that he was being abused?
Not at all. Unlike other forms of physical abuse, the "scars" from sexual abuse may not be visible. Most abused children become masters at hiding the reality of their lives.

If this boy's father sexually abused him, does that mean the father is gay?
No. Child sexual abuse has nothing to do with homosexuality. Child sex abusers are attracted to children and the sex of the children rarely matters. Same-sex abuse often occurs because it is more likely that a coach or teacher will have access to children of their own gender (male coaches do not go into girls' locker rooms, for example).

Wouldn't you be able to tell from looking at the parents that they were abusers? They seem too normal for this to be believable.
The majority of successful sexual predators are white, affluent, attractive, described as "charming," respected members of their communities. Most predators are not the "dirty old man" lurking in the bushes or the crazed attacker who breaks into a home and abducts a child. Those cases make the news because they are unique and unusual. Most sexual predators are invited into our children's lives—as teachers, coaches, club leaders, friends, and baby-sitters. According to Darkness to Light, an organization which helped immensely with my research, 34% of those who abuse children are family members. 59% are friends of the child's family. Predators know they must win the trust of the adults in order to get to the children. Their actions are premeditated and meticulously planned. The "grooming" of a potential victim may take months.

Another common comment I received was, it happened to me.

Any doubt I had about the numbers in the research were dispelled as readers shared experiences from their own lives. Chances are, if it hasn't happened to you, it has happened to someone you know. The former victims who shared their stories with me drove home the point that silence made their recoveries more difficult. Meeting others who had survived and found meaningful relationships had a huge impact on them.

We must find ways to talk openly and honestly about this ugly reality of our culture. Silence cloaks the topic in shame. No growth or improvement can thrive in secret. I discovered just what a strong taboo I'd taken on when the publishing house that had released my first two novels rejected this one, claiming it would be too difficult to market. Seven other publishers did the same thing. Not one of them criticized the writing or the story (in fact, these were the most flattering rejections I'd ever received!); but each one shied away from the subject matter. I don't blame them; publishing is a business like any other and there must be some hope of success for the product. The blame lies in our society's steadfast determination to turn a blind eye on this topic.

Now that the novel has found a home and is about to be published, I still think about that skinny, tousle-haired boy. I think about the one and only line of dialogue in the novel that is actually something Kevin said to me. We were discussing his beloved The X-Files and I asked him, "Doesn't that give you bad dreams?" His face was hard to read as he said, "I don't dream about stuff on TV." I almost cried as I thought, No. No, I bet you don't. I hope more adults will educate themselves about child sexual abuse so that we can better protect our children -- wouldn't it be wonderful if the children of our society only had nightmares about fictional horrors instead of real ones?

Copyright  © 2005 Katrina Kittle

About the Author:
Katrina Kittle
is the author of The Kindness of Strangers (William Morrow; February 2006; $24.95US/$32.95CAN; 0-06-056474-1), Traveling Light and Two Truths and a Lie. She helped found the All Children's Theatre in Washington Township, OH, and teaches theater and English to middle schoolers at the Miami Valley School in Dayton, OH, where she lives.

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