By Sarah Newman, MA
In the new Amazon series One Mississippi, loosely based on the life of comedian Tig Notaro, she finds herself living back home in Mississippi following the sudden death of her mother. Staying in her childhood home with her stepfather, Bill, and her adult brother, Remy, Tig isn’t just facing the grief of losing her mother, she’s recovering from breast cancer, which resulted in a double mastectomy, and suffering from a C. diff infection. She’s also dealing with the ghosts of her past. Tig — as she’s also called on the show — was molested by her grandfather throughout her childhood.
Although it’s estimated that one in 10 children will be sexually abused before age 18, it’s rare to see a TV series deal with the reality of child sexual abuse. There’s so much about the issue that One Mississippi gets right.
One in 10 is a very conservative number. The best estimates are about 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 10 boys.
People are a part of the trauma even if they don’t want to be
Looking through a box of old photographs with her brother, Tig sees a picture of herself as a young girl sitting beside her grandfather. “Hey look, you’re being molested right now,” she says to the photo.
“Aw, come on, Tig!” her brother squirms.
“What? I was,” she tells him. “At least let me joke about it.”
“We should just throw that out,” he says grabbing the picture and leaving the room.
Hearing about child molestation can make people uncomfortable. It may be disturbing to imagine that your memories of a situation are tainted because in a back room or while your sister was away at camp she was being victimized. You don’t want to be a part of that reality — but neither does the victim.
Pretending that the past is over and that the pain doesn’t remain can’t fix anything. It’s alienating. It reinforces shame. It tells a victim, “This thing that happened to you is too grotesque for me to face and so I can’t be connected to you right now.”
Pretending it isn’t there, doesn’t make it go away
Tig’s molestation keeps coming up even at the most seemingly unrelated moments because it is related. It’s related to everything. Trauma is woven into the fabric of life. She’s at home — not just in the town, but in the very house she lived in during the abuse. She’s surrounded by the same individuals who were a part of her life during the abuse, even if they had no idea what was happening to her.
Each times her family tries to keep abuse out of the conversation, resentment wells up. When her stepfather’s cat disappears, he accuses Tig of letting her out. She claims he might have mistakenly let her out himself. “You miss a lot,” she tells him.
After a pause, as if it’s the furthest thing from his mind, her stepfather Bill says, “Oh I can’t believe you’re bringing up that again.”
“That? The fact that I was molested by a creepy old man my entire childhood?” she asks.
“It’s been over 30 years. The man is dead,” he says. “ You know, when are you going to let go of that? It’s in the past.”
Moving on from abuse takes more than just “leaving it” in the past and learning to cope requires empathy.
You can’t accept good memories without accepting the bad as well
That’s just how autobiographical memory works. Our experience — good and bad — informs everything we do every day.
“You say to move on,” she tells Bill. “Why not move on from the good, too? Like the day I learned to walk or birthday parties. Or when Remy pitched a perfect game? The good is in the past, too, Bill. You can’t pick and choose. Every chapter matters.”
“This is nonsense,” he says.
“You don’t seem to comprehend the impact all of this has had and continues to have on my life and Remy.”
It’s alienating when others won’t accept the bad. You lose closeness and trust in a way that can be difficult to repair.
The truth wants to be told
It takes an inordinate amount of courage for a person to talk about the sexual abuse they suffered. When you’re very young, it’s difficult to understand what’s happening to you. You doubt yourself because it’s easier to imagine you’re misinterpreting the abuse than it is to accept the fact that you’re in a very dangerous situation. In this case, it would also mean having to accept that family, someone who is supposed to love and care for you, is hurting you.
Shame is paralyzing and, despite not being responsible for what’s happening to them, victims often blame themselves. Personally, I felt defective and damaged by the abuse I suffered. I observed that what happened to me at home wasn’t happening in my friends’ homes. But rather than wanting to tell, I felt deeply ashamed. I thought that if other people knew what happened to me they would think I was disgusting, contaminated, perverse. I thought they wouldn’t want to know me anymore. Simultaneously, I didn’t want to keep my abuser’s secret. I didn’t want to protect him, but I felt powerless and afraid of his wrath.
One can only live in denial for so long. The truth will come out. It shows up in your thoughts and behavior — panic attacks, anxiety, depression, trouble with intimacy, difficulty in relationships, and many other symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
In a flashback, we see Tig’s grades have plummeted and her mother asks her to take her education more seriously. Decline in schoolwork — a sign of the insidious secret abuse. The truth wants to be told.
I dealt with molestation through denial. In the show, Tig appears to deal with it through humor. I think a lot of trauma survivors can relate to “inappropriate humor.”
Empathy is the first step in ending the shame surrounding child sexual abuse and listening to the victim’s story is part of that. Validating their feelings, instead of turning away and giving into your own feelings of shame and guilt, is an important first step.
Maybe if more shows and movies confronted the reality of child sexual abuse, people wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable with the subject, they wouldn’t be caught so off-guard when it touches their lives, and they might learn to respond with empathy. Instead of running away from the truth, we can be inspired by the victim’s strength and remind them that they are worthy of respect and connection.