My Journey from Abuse and Madness to Surviving and Thriving

How I used grit, wit, luck, and love to build a satisfying life.

Dr. Michelle Stevens receiving the Dissertation of Distinction in 2012 (photo by Chris Sanagustin)

We almost didn’t make it. There was traffic on the 5 all the way from LA. By the time I got into the building, I could see that people were already in their gowns. I found mine and threw it on, taking care with the peculiar-looking cap, known as a tam, that is the pride and humiliation of all doctorates.
I took my place in line just as the class marched into the auditorium. After a series of predictably boring speeches, the dean started calling out names. We had to sit through a couple of hundred master’s degrees before they even started on the PhDs. There were about fifty of us in our medieval hats. Knowing my last name starts with S, I wished I’d hidden a snack in my fancy robe. Better yet, a scotch.

Finally, they got to our row. I watched with anticipation as each graduate stood up and stepped forward. By the 239th time, I knew the drill: name gets called out, graduate walks up, diploma and handshake from the provost while the dean inelegantly shoves the hood over the poor graduate’s head. Once the person’s hair is thoroughly messed up, a fast click-click from the school photographer. Then it’s get off the podium; they’re already calling the next name.

So, when the lady next to me got called up, I readied myself for the mad dash. But as she left the stage, there was an unexpected lull. The provost turned away from the microphone as the president walked to it. I panicked. What the hell was going on? Oh, God, I thought. I must have screwed up my credits. Suddenly, I was regretting the seven-hour drive to San Francisco when I wasn’t even going to graduate.

“Every year,” the president said, “the faculty chooses one graduate to receive the award for the dissertation of distinction. This year’s award goes to an ambitious project that simultaneously tells the story of a girl whose life is taken over by a skilled, determined, and extremely cruel pedophile, while presenting an anthropological, sociological study of the pedophile and sadomasochism subcultures in the western world. It is the bravest piece of academic writing I have ever read. It was written by Michelle Stevens.”

The auditorium erupted into applause. People who knew me hurrahed. The president stepped back from the microphone and shot me a smile. It vaguely occurred to me that I was supposed to go up there. Pushed forward by my classmates, I reluctantly walked to the stage. Along the way, it was moving to see all the people who had supported me. My wife, Chris. Our little boy, Mikey. My best friend, Steve. My whole dissertation committee was there, plus a slew of supportive professors. It was miraculous, really, that moment.

Miraculous that I was even alive.

See, up until that point, I’d led a very dangerous life. First, as a result of heinous child abuse. Later, as a result of the severe mental illness that stemmed from it. Just six years prior to graduation, I’d been confined to a mental hospital because one of my alternate personalities kept trolling for sadistic men who aimed to hurt me. Another was continuously suicidal and had made quite a few attempts.

While at that hospital, which specializes in treating people who have suffered severe psychological trauma, I was told by a seasoned therapist that my prognosis was not very good. I was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, more commonly referred to as multiple personality disorder, which is one of the worst psychiatric diagnoses a person can get. All around me were patients who had lost everything due to the disease. Their jobs. Their spouses. Their kids. I was told I would never be able to lead a normal, functional life. I was told I was a lost cause.

So to say it was a miracle to be standing on the podium that night in from of the faculty and student body is not an overstatement. And to be lauded for my dissertation, well, that was a miracle too. See, the topic of the dissertation was my fucked-up life. Not the usual academic fare, I know. But as the survivor of a child-sex ring, I wanted to shed light on pedophiles. I needed to explain why they do what they do and how it affects their young victims.

I had noticed that we, as a society, are fed a steady stream of news stories about abductions, fallen clergy, and child pornography. But despite all the TV ratings and magazine sales these stories garner, we seem to know very little about sexual abuse or why it occurs. Thus, every time a big story breaks — Elizabeth Smart, Catholic priests, Jaycee Dugard, Jerry Sandusky, the Cleveland kidnappings — we are left with the same questions:
How could it happen?
How could it happen in that neighborhood?
Why didn’t they try to escape?
Why didn’t they tell anyone?
Why didn’t anybody notice?
How could it go on for so long?
Why didn’t anybody do anything?

On a deeper level, I could see that these stories trouble us. They make us worry about our personal safety and the safety of our children. We wonder:
How do I know who to trust?
How can I protect myself and the ones I love?

I knew I had answers to these questions. I had answers to all of them. I had answers because I survived more than six years of rape and torture at the hands of countless predators — men who, due to their nefarious activities, are notoriously difficult to find and study. During those years, I had a front-row seat to the operations of a career pedophile. I watched him pull off his dirty deeds, watched him molest lots of typical kids from middle-class families. I also watched a considerable number of his pervert friends. As a voyeur, I learned a lot about sexual predators — how they think, how they choose their prey, how they keep their conquests quiet. Furthermore, as a survivor, I knew what it was like to suffer abuse — what it does to a person’s spirit, to their psyche. I knew because I’d been there; I’d lived it.

So I wrote down all I knew. Then I read books and studies and interviews to learn more. After eight years of research, I had a hell of a lot of information on predators and victims and society’s response to them, and I was ready to share it with the world.

I was even ready to share the details of my own abuse and healing.

But I was nervous.

How would people react?

As I walked onto the stage and stared out at the sea of faces, I suddenly flashed back on a story from my History of Psych class. Once upon a time, another therapist stood behind a podium and talked openly about child sexual abuse. Things didn’t turn out so good for him.

The year was 1896, and the therapist was a fellow by the name of Sigmund Freud. Freud was working with patients who suffered from hysteria, a catchall diagnosis for a dizzying array of symptoms in women, including insomnia, irritability, and sexual desire (or lack thereof). Freud saw more serious cases of hysteria — cases involving women with hallucinations, unexplained paralysis, and radical personality changes with amnesia for certain events. Searching for the cause of his patients’ symptoms, Freud made a monumental discovery: He realized his patients were screwed up because they’d suffered “one or more occurrences of premature sexual experience, occurrences which belong to the earliest years of childhood.”

Basically, Freud had figured out that his patients were victims of childhood sexual abuse and that such abuse causes long-term psychological damage. Excited by his findings, the good doctor decided to share them with colleagues in a lecture. Unfortunately, his cronies didn’t react well to the news. Hysteria, after all, was a widespread diagnosis.

If Freud was right, it meant thousands of little girls were being molested all over Vienna. Rather than accept this unpleasant reality, the boys’ club expressed extreme skepticism. They figured Freud must have inadvertently implanted false memories of abuse into his suggestible patients. Bowing to societal pressure (and perhaps his own discomfort with the reality of widespread abuse), Freud recanted. He decided, instead, that his patients’ horrific memories of child sexual abuse were just wishful fantasies.

Thanks to Herr Freud, for the next eight decades, if a woman went to therapy and reported her memories of child sexual abuse, she was told the memories weren’t real, just wishful thinking. Yeah, that’s right: She only wished she’d been raped as a kid! This ridiculousness was so thoroughly accepted that a 1975 psychiatry textbook still claimed that the incidence of father-daughter incest was just one in a million.

While I’d love to believe I’m one in a million, nowadays we know that, far from being rare, child sexual abuse is actually all too common. Up to 40 percent of all women and 13 percent of all men in the United States were sexually abused in childhood. Internationally, some regions report that up to 50 percent of female children and 60 percent of male children are sexually abused. This means everyone reading these words was either a victim of abuse or has a close personal relationship with someone who was. Sadly, child sexual abuse is one of the few life experiences that the entire world population shares in common.

Knowing this, you’d think the sexual abuse of children would be an ordinary topic of conversation, as commonplace a subject as work or the weather. But, of course, it’s not. For, unlike the weather, sex is a rather taboo subject. And sex with a child? Well, that just makes us cringe. We’re so uncomfortable with the topic that we’ve banned it from polite conversation. As psychiatrist Judith Herman says, “Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable.”

The problem is: If we don’t speak to each other about child sexual abuse, how can we ever hope to make things better? If we want to protect children, thwart perpetrators, and help adult victims, we need to talk openly and honestly about the problem.

That’s why, when my name was called on graduation night, I made the decision to walk to the stage, stand behind the podium, and share my personal story of abuse and healing.

It’s the same story I tell here — the story of an eight-year-old girl who is forced to become a sex slave.

I was raped and tortured and prostituted to countless men. I was used in child pornography. As a result of this abuse, I grew mentally disturbed and was in danger of a wasted existence. But I made a decision not to give into despair. I vowed that, no matter what, I was going to fight for a good, decent, normal life. The journey to that good life wasn’t easy. It was fraught with pain and self-doubt and self-loathing. But I persevered and eventually found the help and love I needed to be happy.

In time, I went back to school to become a psychologist. I wanted to help people who suffer like I did. I’ve now had the honor of working with hundreds of survivors of childhood abuse. And no matter how crazy they seem, I never, ever tell them they’re a lost cause.

But that’s getting ahead of things. Let me take you back to the beginning.

##

Excerpted from Scared Selfless: My Journey from Abuse and Madness to Surviving and Thriving by Michelle Stevens, PhD (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)

Like what you read? Give Michelle Stevens a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.