Ask A Therapist: Healing from and holding accountable perpetrators of childhood abuse

by Liz Covey

Counselors Roy Fisher and Liz Covey answer readers’ questions for South Seattle Emerald’s “Ask A Therapist.” Have a question about a relationship? Wondering about the struggles of being a parent? Others likely have the same questions and Covey and Fisher bring years of professional experience to provide their insights.

In this article, Liz Covey addresses a reader’s question about holding perpetrators of childhood abuse accountable, and healing from that trauma.

If you have a question, please click here and let us know. We will select two questions each month to answer. The form requires no email address or identification and is completely anonymous. If you are in crisis or in immediate need of care, please contact Crisis Connections at 1-866-427-4747.

Question: how can adult survivors of childhood abuse do more to hold perpetrators accountable? After all the healing’s done. In my case, I am wondering about the possibility of either bring a public display to the perpetrators home via fliers, signs, etc., but I also know our courts are designed to make a person whole again after suffering personal injury. I’ll be living with my disability, due to emotional and physical abuse for my lifetime. What do you know about the possibility of filing a personal injury claim against a living perpetrator childhood and adult abuse?”

Dear Reader, 

Before getting into the larger question about retribution for crime or abuse, let’s take a moment to behold the beauty within your statement that complete healing is in fact possible. Though you say that you will live with lifelong disability, it sounds like you have also found a way to reclaim yourself. Writer and psychotherapist Esther Perel, whose parents met in a German concentration camp, describes what she witnessed in post-war Belgium as a child: while some people simply did not die, others learned how to truly live. Brava, Reader, for having had that experience in your own healing. Lord knows, not everyone does.

As for legal matters, they are verifiably out of my scope of knowledge, Reader. I will tell you, based on years of experience in various systems that serve families and children, that our legal system is not set up to redress personal harms that are incurred within families, other than active child or elder abuse and current domestic violence.  

Recovery from trauma is usually much more about repair than it is about securing justice. Even on a large scale, such as in South Africa following Apartheid, or in Rwanda following the genocidal civil war, there were public forums created to address harms done. The former being the well-known Truth and Reconciliation Committee, and the latter being the Gacaca Courts. Each effort encouraged the naming of names, and the airing of grievances, not for the sake of punishing individuals, but instead to make room for a collective process of grieving and reckoning before moving on from those horrific times. As Demond Tutu once said, “The fundamental law of human beings is interdependence.” Never is this more true than in family.

When it comes to the utterly private matter of healing from one’s own family abuse, it is common for there to be an aspect of that work that is truth-telling, as in the above examples. In some cases, there is fear that one’s perpetrator will continue to harm others, so speaking up is a way to stop a cycle of maltreatment. In other cases, this is a justified emotional response that might be lived out another way: championing a cause and working toward real reforms in that area, or harnessing energies within oneself that were needed, but not available when one was a child, such as learning self-defense, or beginning to stand up to bullies encountered today with a confidence that was previously lacking. Sometimes, truth-telling looks like exploring a previously cut -off part of oneself, like taking creative risks, or being allowed to feel one’s feelings. 

In whatever way, the mobilized, reclaimed power of a healed abused person is likely the stuff at the core of the most admirable people throughout human history. The struggle is real, and so is the return journey. When it comes to the most personal work of our lives, the question of how we come to make peace with our past harms usually isn’t one of fairness. It’s one of freedom. 

– Liz Covey, LMHC