Sina Niemeyer On How To Heal From Sexual Abuse


© Marlena Waldthausen

Sina was sexually abused as a pre-adolescent girl. Her project was born out of the necessity to understand and come to terms with what happened to her, and to ultimately get to a place of reconciliation.
To be able to close a chapter that hurt her so much, and influenced how she grew up to become a young woman.

 

Please read our conversation with Sina below. The book is now ready for pre-order —> HERE!

 

What has happened to you has happened, nothing will ever change that fact. In your talk in Perugia you said: I had no words for it.
Of course, how can a child express in words something of which it has no words for?

Exactly, I truly didn’t know how to verbally explain what happened. I was never the person to react physically by intuition. So I kept quiet. I think, it is very important that young girls and boys are trained to not only speak up but also how to use non-verbal language – simply how to express their feelings on different levels.

Still today, I experience situations in which people cross my borders – physically, mentally or emotionally. Of course it is mainly the other person’s responsibility how to act but I am learning how to protect myself by reflecting my non-verbal language – because sometimes there seems to be a difference between what I’m saying (Please stop!) and how I’m acting.

On the other hand, I want to stress that both languages have to be accepted as a NO. There is no such thing that if someone states a clear verbal “No.”, they actually mean “Yes, please continue with what you’re doing.”. I learned at a very early age that sometimes saying “No.” is not enough for the other person to stop.

In contradiction to that, all the workshops I have attended that deal with these situations usually only tell you to scream out loud if something happens. But that’s exactly the difficulty: When is that point when you feel like screaming? Often sexual abuse is not a sudden action, but it comes up creeping silently and growing stronger, from people you know and trust. It’s like watching someone grow – when you’re with them every day, you hardly notice, but when you haven’t seen a child in a while you will say: Oh, you’ve become so tall! So when it is a continuos, slow process there is no point where you can suddenly scream.

Is there anything that you would tell a child about what they could do, that could help them recognize and reach out to someone? What should parents, family members, teachers, be aware of, what should they look for, how could they recognize and help?

We have to train our children to express themselves in any way possible and to trust their own feelings. As soon as they feel that something is strange, they should say something, run away, tell an adult, scream, jump, whatever – every child has a different way of expressing her/himself. For us as adults it is important to know these individual ways and recognize them.

If a child suddenly changes behaviour, then usually there is a reason. And it is our responsibility to find out about it. If we can’t get the child to talk because it is too scared or doesn’t know how to verbalize the situation, then we should seek advice. For example, art and photo therapy are great ways to gain access to children in a harmless, playful, easy way. We need to train teachers, parents, youth group leaders and so on to be sensitive to these changes of behaviour.

Also, we must take children’s feelings seriously – otherwise we’re undermining their self-esteem and they themselves will not take their own feelings seriously. It is a proven fact that perpetrators often choose children with low self-esteem. I never wanted to believe this because I thought I had been a strong child and my parents had not made any mistakes. I wanted to protect at least some parts of my childhood. But unfortunately I found out that as a young girl a lot of my feelings were laughed at. Instead of being angry, I was a “stubborn child”. Instead of recognizing that I wanted to explore the world and start co-deciding how we did things as a family, I was a “hardheaded child”. From a very early point, my feelings and wishes weren’t taken seriously.

This is something we strongly have to take into account as adults in education. If a child cries, then for them the worst thing just happened – although we know that it might not be that bad, we need to listen. If a child wants to explore, we must accompany them and give them trust. This is the first very important point.

When it comes to more practical ideas, I believe that we have to set up workshops for teachers as well as parents in schools, to train them how to recognize abnormal behaviour of children and what it could mean. There needs to be a lot more research about how child sexual abuse victims react, what the phases are they go through.

And of course help needs to be more easily accessible. It has to be crystal clear that if there is the suspicion of sexual abuse where to turn to. Just like I know that if I want to inform myself about environmental activism, I look at what Greenpeace is doing for example.

This strong, simple connection needs to grow in our consciousness.
We need:
– a central head-organization, possibly on a global level, to allow networking between the individual local organizations
–  advertising campaigns and educational workshops in schools and kindergarten
– discussions in print media/TV

In the end, this is all political will and resources, politicians need not only to discuss about climate issues or how to best lead our economies, but to also come up with a way on how to tackle the issue of (child) sexual abuse. Because it is a wide-spread disease in every country of the world. In fact, one in three women have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime and it takes up to eight attempts for a child to be heard. Yet, there is by far not enough action to change this.

It is very exhausting for a an affected person to continuously have to repeat their story. Because it is such a hushed up topic, everyone told to is shocked and doesn’t know how to react. So the victim has to deal with the other person’s emotions when really, it should be about them and their emotions. That’s why so many victims feel guilty: If they tell someone, they feel responsible for causing pain. We need guidelines and advice for relatives and friends on how to treat people who tell them their stories, and to make it as easy as possible for an affected person to step forward.

Overall, there is a lot of work to do and I really hope to find other people who are willing to push this topic forward.

Statistics say that every third to fifth woman (depending on which country we look at) have suffered or will suffer sexual abuse or harassment at least once in their lifetime. That means that one of how many men will abuse or harass a woman? It is most likely that not only we know more than one woman who has suffered abuse, but that we also know an abuser. If we look at numbers, there’s no way around that. And this does not take into account the men that are abused. So the problem is really huge.

Yes, there are female abusers as well, although statistics say that when it comes to child sexual abuse, the perpetrators are by far mainly male. But we don’t know how many men were abused as boys and never had the chance to reflect on it. That also brings us to the discussion of abuse in general which could be emotional abuse as well which is even more subtle and harder to grasp.

On the other hand we can’t turn the statistics around and think that one in three men will abuse a woman. Mostly it is a reoccurring pattern so one person abuses more than one person. Unfortunately, it is often also a reoccurring pattern for victims to trust the wrong people and fall into an abusive relationship more than once. So again, more research and openness is needed in order to gain accurate numbers.

Your project is not meant to point a finger towards your abuser specifically, but to put the problem out there, for everyone to see, for everyone to know, for opening a dialogue and to speak about it. You rightly say, we can’t talk the problem away, but we must speak about it. It is the only way to take consciousness of the vastity, and leading the way to a change.

Yes, I totally agree with you that my project is not about pointing a finger at someone specific. This is not about looking for guilt, it is about understanding. As much as we have to understand how to protect our children, we have to understand where pedophilia comes from, why it exists, how it can be treated. Because, as a matter of fact, it is a kind of love that cannot be reciprocated. Therefore it is to be considered an abnormal behaviour, it is a risk factor and damaging for the person themselves as well as for others.

We need much more research and funding for research on the matter of pedophilia, and we need to make it easier for these affected people as well to seek help. As hard as it was for me to finally find courage to openly speak about what happened to me – it is so much harder for the person who is the abuser. I at least get sympathy and understanding because I’m the victim, but the offender has no room for explanation at all, society has a very strong image about pedophiles in general and even worse about the ones that become criminals.

We must stop just stigmatizing pedophiles and we need to open a discussion – because it is something that has always existed and we won’t stop it by despising, by condemning it. I believe that change can only be achieved by opening up a dialogue and hearing all sides.

What do you want to achieve with your project, who do you want to reach? What are your hopes for yourself and for others?

There are many things that my book means to me or should hopefully achieve. Firstly, it was a great therapy for myself. Secondly, it explains to others about how victims of child sexual abuse can feel – it opens up an explanation where words can’t help. Other victims might feel heard and understood, they realize that they are not alone.

Lastly – and this is my biggest hope – I want to push the discussion into the center of our society. I am hoping that politicians and institutions will react and that overall people, us, will understand that this is a big issue, not only in my country, Germany, not only in Europe, but worldwide – and actually, there is no big difference between cultures, education or anything else. It happens everywhere.

I also believe that we have to take this discussion to a wholesome level about abuse, which can happen sexually, violently, verbally, emotionally, in medicine, in our relationship and friendships – basically, in every situation where we interact with each other. For example, if I’m trying to talk someone into something they don’t want to do, and I’m using my knowledge and friendship to convince them, then that’s already abusive behaviour on a very small level. We all do it, all the time. It doesn’t matter what gender or of what skin colour we are, what kind of job we have – it happens.

As we become adults, we learn about responsibility and how to respect other people. And I think that’s the foundation, what is greatly missing in our Eurocentric society at least – the respect for other people and other opinions, the ability to listen and not to judge. To learn that we cannot always take what we want, that everything we do has an impact on our surroundings.

Because we are social beings, we interact, we see, feel, observe, try to interpret, we try to make sense of the world around us and we react. Too often we’re too impatient and we’ve forgotten about how to really listen to someone, how to perceive their verbal and non-verbal language, to make sure we understood them correctly, to respect boundaries, to respect a “No.”.

As children, we grow up with the idea of dualisms, of good and bad, right and wrong. But as a matter of fact, when we become older, we find out it’s not that easy anymore. It can be overwhelming to understand that actually there are many shades of grey and it is important and sometimes also beautiful or rewarding, almost healing, to become aware of them. On a bigger scale I am also hoping that the discussion about how we treat and respect each other as human beings on a global level will grow stronger.

Für mich - Sina Niemeyer In your book there are pictures of family scenes, the ones at the beach, the ones at your grandparent’s home, where we can see you with him. How did or do you feel about seeing yourself with him, in happy times, before anything happened?

When I was working on the book, I could only see my negative feelings: anger, grievance, loss, disappointment about having trusted the wrong person, frustration, fear. They made me feel very melancholic and sad for a long time, especially the ones where he hadn’t yet been in my life.

Only when I recently met him and asked him many questions, there was a short moment in which he reminded me of how much I had liked him as a child. It crashed right into my heart and almost made me cry because it was something that I had forgotten about for a long time.

When I look at the destroyed images of him now, he almost seems like a stranger. I never thought that one can un-know a person, but I guess, this is what forgiveness feels like. He is not an important part in my life anymore. Finally.

And that makes me regain control about the other images, the ones before I had met him. I can see a child that seems mostly happy but I can also see the problems that were there in my early childhood, and it is okay. There’s nothing I can change about my childhood now and at that time my parents were raising us the best they could.

I can see that these images don’t only show one thing, but actually very many. And I understand why as a small girl I sometimes look detached, angry, mistrusting. Now I can work from there and regain self-esteem and take myself and my emotions seriously.

Looking through your family pictures, what else did you notice?

When I first started making the book, I realized that there was a lot of suppressed anger. I had never let myself be angry towards the person that deserved it, only towards myself.
So I wondered what to do with this anger. Obviously I couldn’t just go and punch my perpetrator in the face, especially after all these years. After some thinking I decided I would take as many images of him as I could find and project the anger onto them, destroying them in any way possible, in ways I had destroyed myself before. This is how the book started.

After that first very important realisation I began scanning my family archive and old diaries and notebooks. As I was going through stacks of old images, I made another very important realisation: In the pictures of 2002 and 2003 I suddenly shifted my behaviour towards the camera from an open, careless girl, smiling into the camera, to a shy, contemplative family member. I looked absent and sad, with my shoulders hanging down, often there was a lot of space between me and the other people in the picture.

Before I went into this process, there was one image that I already had in mind that I wanted to use. It was from a holiday in Turkey with my family, where I stand aside, pressing my lips together. My Dad hung this picture in his apartment and already a few years ago, I noticed how strange I found it.

So I went through all the old family pictures we had and chose the ones from that time. When I scanned the pictures, I was truly surprised, though. I could exactly reconstruct how I, as a little girl, changed more and more and the time when the images were taken fit my memory. It helped me reconstruct my story and memory.

When I noticed this I was very moved. To me it was finally a clear proof that something did happen. I am sure that everyone who has a similar story knows what I’m talking about. You’re in a constant limbo of not believing yourself, not wanting it to be true, thinking you’re exaggerating, discrediting your own feelings and memories. You’re simply unable to classify what happened, because as a child you don’t even know any words for it.

Do you think that denouncing the abusers publicly helps to diminish these cases?

No, not at all. I think the only thing that helps is to seek a deeper understanding of why pedophilia exists and to come to an acceptance that it does exist – it has been in our societies for a long time and it might always be there. But it doesn’t have to be such a big stigma on both sides as it is now, it all depends on how talk about it, how we treat it – not only on a professional medical level, but also on a personal, societal level.

Tell us about the cover, what does it mean to you?

Eva’s daughter Giulia Betti, who is a great artist, did the cover work. Eva, the publisher, had the idea of asking her to adapt the photograph we wanted to use for the cover as a painting. Then Sergio came in and had the idea of using the transparent paper for the cover as well. So, slowly we developed the idea of how the photograph and the acryl and the title could work together.

Originally, in the dummy, there used to be the sentence “I need to fly” at the end of the book. This was taken from a letter I wrote to myself at the age of 16. When I saw a woman in my exhibition in Perugia who started crying immediately after she finished seeing the exhibition, and also from some other reactions, I gained the idea that people might think that I am still not over what happened, which would be wrong. I didn’t want people to develop a kind of pity or empathy that I don’t really need anymore. Eva had also made suggestions about this last sentence before. So we started thinking again how to change it. But Eva wasn’t satisfied with any of the sentences I came up with – for both of us, they never felt completely right. Finally, on the day of going on print, I had the idea.

It didn’t need to be words. I wanted it to be the wing of an eagle because this has always been the animal that symbolizes strength and freedom the most for me. Actually, I had been wanting to get a tattoo including an eagle for years. Now was the right time to include the symbolism of this animal into my work. So again, we asked Giulia (after some failed tries of mine) and she realized the vision perfectly, making the eagle fit with the painting of the cover photograph and therefore creating an interaction, a constant transformation between these two images, conciliating inner as well as outer beauty and personal strength.

Having this as the cover and knowing that one of my photographs has been adapted by another person, it also feels like a protection not only for the book, but also for myself. Because that is what happened by going public with this project. Suddenly I receive a lot of empathy and protection which I used to lack. It is a truly beautiful process because I feel that every time someone shows me their honest sympathy a part of the scar in my soul diminishes.

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