There are many different things that survivors of ritual abuse may try to talk about. Although talking is usually very difficult and painful, as it is designed by the abusers to be, with the right sort of support, they can do it. There are a few common elements that many survivors talk about and though all can’t be covered here, the most common in our experience are the following.
Teaching: Many survivors talk about being taught in the ways of the ‘group’ from a very early age – usually pre-school. They talk about things such as being taught to endure pain, how to obey without question, learning how not to cry, to more fundamental lessons in languages (both written and oral), history and tradition, beliefs and position in life. The lessons learned early in life can be instrumental in forming the survivors belief systems and that can last for a lifetime. A lesson they are taught very young is not to talk about the group or family or tell anyone.
Helping: Keep telling survivors that they are allowed to talk and tell. Keep giving permission and reassuring the survivor that it is okay. If talking is a problem, survivors can sometimes be encouraged to write or draw at first until it gets easier for them to talk. Thinking of simple ways of enabling people to communicate can be effective.
Beliefs: Survivors often have a different belief system from what is generally considered normal in this society. They are taught from an early age about the beliefs of the group and are taught in such a way that it is almost impossible not to believe what is taught. Most survivors believe that they are worthless and have no rights whatsoever.
They may believe that they are evil and the cause of everything that happened. They may believe that abusers are all powerful. They may not believe that want happened to them was even abuse. Some survivors may believe in lay lines or astral planes. They may have been taught to believe that they can be controlled or attacked on the astral plane during sleep for example.
Helping: Try to encourage the survivor towards believing that s/he does have rights and is a worthwhile person. Ask about beliefs as the survivor may be aware of ways of protecting self from within the belief system.
Supporters may find the belief system that the survivors hold difficult to comprehend or understand. The survivor may feel the same way about the supporters beliefs. Do not expect survivors to be able to reject their own beliefs just because you think them to be wrong or are shocked by them. Beliefs held by survivors are usually taught and formed through a lifetime of experience and cannot just be ditched.
Religion: Sometimes the survivor is brought up in a very religious manner. The parents, extended family and others may have very firm and clear beliefs that what they are doing is right. The religion may be couched in terms of a church-like system with all the trappings. The belief system may be in a god or the devil. It may be a belief in an spirit, unseen force or an astronomical body. While it may be okay for adults to hold whatever beliefs they wish, the line must be drawn when children, adults and animals are abused and forced to do things that are morally and legally condemned by most.
Helping: Some survivors do, even when they have left the abuse situation, continue to believe in part in the religion they grew up with. This is their right. The bottom line to hold with a survivor is that they were abused, they were forced, and they were given no choices. This can never be right, regardless of any religious teachings. People can and do have a right to make choices for themselves, but have no right to take away another persons right to choose for themselves.
Pornography: Many survivors, with difficulty, talk about the use of pornography. They talk about being photographed and/or filmed and most will talk about the events as being ‘hard core’ pornography.
Helping: Believing survivors when they try to talk is vital. It costs a great deal to tell you about these experiences. Honour this and stay open to hearing. Many survivors who have endured this are afraid of cameras, videos and filming equipment. They also worry about the fact that pictures and videos of them are out there in the world.
Deprivation: Abusers use various kinds of deprivation to force survivors to behave the way they want. Depriving of food, drink and sleep are all common experiences. Sleep deprivation, even after a few days, can cause anyone extreme disorientation. Sensory deprivation, through ensuring survivors can see, hear, touch and smell nothing at all, is used to mould survivors to the abusers wishes.
Helping: Remind the survivor that the abusers had no right to do these things and that they are losing their power as more is talked about. The fact that the person is talking to you is proof of this fact.
Power: Survivors often believe that they have no power and for most while in the group setting, this would have been true. They may believe there is an all-powerful force, which they cannot prevail against, and that the power of the group is absolute.
Helping: It can be a long slow process, but the survivor can be helped to realise that he or she has some power. In the first instance, there is the power of speech, which can be encouraged to continue to break silence. Encourage the survivor to make decisions for self and begin to take back control.
Symbolism: Survivors often talk about the use of various symbols, which convey meanings that only those associated with the group would know. Some of these symbols are common to different groups across this country and indeed, the world. Symbols are used to add mysticism and a ‘religious’ flavour to the proceedings. They are also used to cause fear, pass messages and convey a sense of importance, pomp and ceremony.
Helping: Check with the survivor that there is nothing you are wearing or in the room you are using that causes upset. If the survivor is willing, get them to teach you about the symbolism.