Author Interview: Tracy Stopler

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Skyler Boudreau is talking with Tracy Stopler, author of The Ropes That Bind: Based on a True Story of Child Sexual Abuse.

FQ:  The Ropes That Bind is a work of fiction based on a true story of child sexual abuse. Why did you decide to approach the story as fiction, rather than non-fiction? What kind of impact do you picture your novel having on readers? 

STOPLER: The Ropes That Bind started out as my personal journal that I hid away for several years until I was ready to revisit it in therapy. My healing (please know that it’s different for everyone) took a positive turn when my therapist asked me to share my trauma in a third person voice rather than a first person voice. So, for example, I was now telling the story about some other nine-year-old girl, not me. This was so eye-opening for me because it gave me permission to see the experience as an outsider and therefore I was able to be more objective. Although I was still anxious about the storytelling, I was no longer swimming in the stress hormones that previously flooded my bloodstream.

Several years later when I was writing my memoir, I turned the voice back from third person to first person and experienced an emotional setback. My therapist suggested that I keep the voice in first person but rename the narrator—and so, Tali Stark was born. Tal means morning dew in Hebrew and Stark means strength in Yiddish. Tali Stark discovers the inspirational meaning of her name at the right time in the story.

The nonfiction part of this story includes naming many other missing children—the children who were abducted and found alive, the children who were murdered and the children who are still missing.

The impact of my novel has already exceeded my expectations. Many survivors have shared their stories with me and told me how reading The Ropes That Bind empowered them to break their silence. They felt less alone and more prepared to take that first step. They understood there would be many more steps to follow as they began their own journey to Freedom.

FQ: Your main character, Tali Stark, takes decades to heal from her abduction and assault. By the end of the novel, she’s still healing. Do you think trauma ever truly goes away, or is it something survivors must live with forever?

STOPLER: The answer to this question will be different for each person and dependent on many different factors. For example, STRESS + ADVERSE CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES [ACEs] (physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse, emotional or physical neglect, and/or household dysfunction (alcohol/substance abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, parental separation or divorce and/or incarceration) = ALLOSTATIC LOAD—the wear and tear on the mind and body. However, healthy eating, exercise, meditation, sleep, support, spirituality and cognitive skills can increase one’s resilience. Researchers, McEwen and Stellar, reported the higher the allostatic load, the higher one’s vulnerability for disease (Stress and the individual. Mechanisms leading to disease.” Archives of Internal Medicine. 1993). So, intellectually one may feel that they’re handling the trauma just fine, but the body keeps the score and knows what’s really going on.

Individuals who have not experienced trauma cannot possible understand why it’s so difficult to move on. As mentioned in one of Tali’s therapy sessions, trauma does not go away simply because a child grows up. There are real tangible effects on the developing brain and body. There are changes in brain chemistry. There are changes in the immune function. There can even be changes in the DNA. The sooner a child gets help, the better the outcome. This is much easier said than done because the problem we are facing is that the majority of these children are keeping their traumatic experiences secret.

Just to give you an idea of how big this problem of secrecy is, one in four women and one in six men report having been sexually abused before their 18th birthday. The majority (87%) never told anybody. Keeping secrets plays a terrible role in staying stuck in trauma.

FQ: It takes Tali time to discover what helps her own healing process and what doesn’t. It’s not a clear cut path and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Is this a typical scenario outside of fiction? Is there any way to make it easier?

STOPLER: Healing is an individualized journey that requires self-awareness and self-care. It’s important to nurture your brain—eat well, exercise, get enough sleep and discover a relaxation response that works best for you (meditation is just one form). Seeking wisdom, understanding and knowledge from experienced health professionals may provide a short-cut here and there, but I wouldn’t call any part of the recovery phase easy.

FQ:  Tali keeps silent about her assault and abduction for many years, as is often the case with survivors. What can society do to change this, and encourage more survivors to come forward and seek healing?

STOPLER: We can learn the physical and behavioral signs of sexual abuse. We can listen better. We can ask the tough questions. And we will have to address the secrecy caused by fear tactics of those who abuse.

Physical signs, like bruising and bleeding, are not identified in many cases because some sexual touching offenses like fondling, kissing and masturbating as well as non-touching sexual offenses like exposing a child to pornography, taking nude pictures, communicating sexual messages on the Internet, exposing oneself, do not leave visible signs. For this reason being aware of the behavioral signs is extremely important.

Behavior signs include: using new words to describe genitalia or sexual behavior; using toys or dolls to act out sexual scenarios; being afraid to be left in the care of a particular person or to play with a particular child; being reluctant to give details about time spent with another adult or child; experiencing headaches, stomach pain, change in appetite or eating disorders, nightmares, sleeping problems, bed wetting, anxiety and/or depression, frequent urinary tract infections, abusing alcohol or drugs; engaging in self-harming behaviors. Sexually abused kids are three times more likely to show their genitals to other children and 14 times more likely to imitate intercourse when compared with non-abused children. Parents who see or suspect any abuse should take their child to a pediatrician or ask to see a nurse examiner who specializes in sexual abuse examinations.

Although these signs are not 100 percent indicative of sexual abuse, they are signs that a child is under stress and parents should take action. Some questions parents can ask include: “Is something upsetting you?” “You seem quiet, is everything okay?” This can be an important start to help a child begin to communicate about what is happening to them.

There are many reasons why children keep secrets. We are responsible to teach our children that in order for us to protect them, there cannot be any secrets. We can explain this by saying, “Surprises are secrets that are meant to be fun when they are told, like a surprise party. But secrets that are not supposed to be told can be dangerous. If someone is playing with your private body parts or asking you to touch theirs, please tell me so I can protect you.”

Adult victims keep secrets too. They may fear repercussions from their abuser or they may not want to go thru the trauma of an investigation or prosecution. They may be experiencing self-blame, embarrassment and/or humiliation. Perhaps they are unable to report the crime due to a mental or physical disability. If you suspect something, remind your loved one that they are not alone and tell them that you will be with them every step of the way.

FQ:  Your interest in preventing childhood sexual abuse goes beyond fiction. You’re also The Enough Abuse Campaign Coordinator at the Safe Center on Long Island. What does an average day on the job look like for you?

STOPLER: There is no average day for me. As a trained facilitator, I go where I am needed when I am needed. Once a year I use my skills as a Master Trainer for a two-day seminar at The Safe Center. During this time we train volunteer facilitators to educate the community on how they can help to prevent child sexual abuse. They learn how to recognize the signs of sexual abuse in children and the personality traits of abusers. They also learn the short-and long-term impacts of child sexual abuse, how adults can be proactive in protecting children and the specific steps to take to report child sexual abuse.

FQ: What is the first piece of advice you give survivors to begin to seek help in healing from trauma? What is one piece of advice you would give to the families and friends of survivors trying to help them through it?

STOPLER: There is not ONE piece of advice when it comes to working with survivors and their non-offending family members, but I would encourage them to seek professional help as soon as possible. Family members and friends can listen without judgment and simply be there in whatever capacity the survivor needs. It’s okay to ask, “What do you need from me?”

FQ: What steps can parents and people without children take to protect children and lower these numbers?

STOPLER: Thank you for asking such an important question. Perhaps the answer can be found by exploring more questions.

  • Who abuses children?
  • Why do people sexually abuse children?
  • What skills can we develop that will help us prevent sexual abuse before a child is ever hurt?

There is so much focus on child sex abuse treatment, which is great and important for those who need it. However, as the public health model demonstrates, the benefits clearly are with child sex abuse prevention. This is where we believe we can have the greatest impact. Common strategies to prevent child sexual abuse include identifying, prosecuting, treating and monitoring the abusers. Also, preventing perpetration and preventing re-victimization through educating the community through programs like the ones offered by The Safe Center and the Enough Abuse Campaign.

It’s important that we understand the character traits of those who sexually abuse children. Collecting data can be challenging because what we know comes from those who have been caught and convicted. The majority of sex abusers have not been caught, convicted or even suspected and are known only by their victim(s). Which reminds me—please do not use the sex offender registry as your only source. The names on this list are a small percentage of the actual number of offenders out there. From the data collected for these studies we know that the majority of abusers are male, heterosexual, married, have some college education, hold steady jobs and belong to some religious organization. However, women and youth also abuse. There are also a significant number of cases where a child sexually abuses another child.

These adult sex offenders are generally nice and likeable. They are patient and select jobs where they can work with children. Preferential (high risk) abusers, like Jerry Sandusky, often take jobs that will put them in positions of trust with easy access to children. They target single-family households with children. Children who lack a father or adult male in their lives are especially at risk. Male abusers often nurture relationships with the single mothers of these children as a strategy to gain trust and eventual easy access to their children. They build attachment through gifts, money, special treats. They befriend children who appear more vulnerable or in need of adult attention. While all children are vulnerable to abusers, children who are socially isolated with few or no friends or who lack adequate parental supervision may be easier targets.

Children who are developmentally or physically disabled are at greater risk since they would be less able to explain what happened to them or to stop abusive acts. Deaf and hard-of-hearing children are two to three times more likely to be sexually abused than their hearing peers. Deaf females reported sexual abuse more than twice as often as hearing females and deaf males more than three times as often as hearing males. The abuse of deaf children also tended to be more serious and less likely to be reported to parents, teachers or authorities. Risk for these children increases as their number caregivers increases.

Zabin, A.(2013). Conversations With A Pedophile: In the Interest of Our Children. Barricade Books, New Jersey.

Salter, A. (2003). Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, and Other Sex Offenders – Who They Are, How They Operate, and How We Can Protect Ourselves and Our Children. Basic Books. New York.

Poole, D. A., & Wolfe, M. A. (2009). Normative sexual and nonsexual behaviors that may be confused with symptoms of sexual abuse. The evaluation of child sexual abuse allegations: A comprehensive guide to assessment and testimony, 101-128.

FQ: Are there any precautions children can take to protect themselves? If so, what are they, and how can parents and schools teach them?

STOPLER: Both parents and teachers share the responsibility to protect children and reduce the opportunities for child sexual abuse. Here are some things we can do. When a child is enrolled for individual lessons, whether it’s for piano, acting or singing, sports coaching or tutoring, let the instructor know that you are serious about protecting your child from sexually inappropriate behaviors as you know they are. Ask what their policies are around keeping doors open and allowing parents to drop in. When you leave your child with a new babysitter, come home earlier without warning and be sure to ask your child how time together was spent. Observe any changes in your child’s mood or behavior.

The Enough Abuse Campaign recommends for parents to begin talking to their child about personal space and privacy by age three. Parents should only allow those they trust to provide personal care for their child. Encourage your child to become independent in their personal self-care. Parents should introduce the concepts of “OK touch” and “Not OK touch,” rather than “good touch” and “bad touch” which can be more confusing to the child. Parents should discourage co-bathing with siblings once children begin elementary school. Parents should also teach their children to respect adults’ and siblings’ privacy by knocking on closed doors before entering.

Parents should teach their children that the actual names for what some people call ‘private parts’ are penis, vagina, breasts, and buttocks. When we purposely avoid mentioning private body parts, we send our children the message that these parts are not to be spoken about and mentioning them makes us uncomfortable. This is exactly what the perpetrators want because it increases the likelihood that the child won’t tell.

Parents should tell their children, “Nobody should be touching your penis, vagina, breasts, and buttocks.” “Sometimes grown-ups need to help children wash or wipe these body parts, but that’s not the same as playing with them.” “Sometimes doctors or nurses examine these body parts to make sure they’re okay.” “It should never be a secret.” “Grown-ups and older children never need help from children with their private parts.” “If any grown-up or older child should ask for this kind of help, or if any grown-up or older child shows you their private parts or pictures of private parts, please tell me, even if it’s someone in our family or someone we know. That would be a brave thing to do. I promise I will listen and I will not be angry.”

Parents teach your child that it is important not to cross another child’s body boundaries and touch their private parts. Clothing stays on when playing with friends. Tell them “The only time you take your clothes off is when you take a bath, get undressed for bed, get ready for swimming and when you go the doctor for a check-up.”

Children with a strong sense of self-esteem and who are confident and assertive may be less likely to be targeted by a sexual offender and children who learn about personal safety are 6-7 times more likely to develop protective behaviors, talk more openly about abuse and experience less self-blame.

FQ: What should a parent or adult do if a child discloses to them?

If a child discloses to you, remain calm. Responding in an upset way may make the child feel badly that he or she told and could make them stop sharing information or even recant. Be sure to tell the child: “Thank you for sharing” “It’s not your fault.” “You’re brave to tell me.” Make sure there’s a plan for safety so the child will not be left vulnerable to the alleged abuser’s actions if they learn or suspect the child has disclosed. Communication is a very important part of preventing the perpetration of child sexual abuse. If you are concerned about an adult’s inappropriate behavior around children, you can call your local child protective services office for support and advice on how to deal with the situation.  If you are concerned that a child may be being abused, you must immediately report them to child protective services and/or the police.

Visit www.enoughabuse.org and  www.stopitnow.org for more info and resources.

FQ: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from both writing The Ropes That Bind and working on The Enough Abuse Campaign?

STOPLER: First, child sexual abuse is one of the most underreported crimes—it’s a silent epidemic.

Second, although “Stranger Danger” exists (as portrayed in The Ropes That Bind), sexual abuse is usually committed by someone the child and family knows and trusts. Most people who sexually abuse children do not look or act differently from the norm. They are part of our communities, circle of friends, and yes, even members of our families.

And finally, children rarely make up accusations of sexual abuse. Do children lie? Absolutely. They lie that it isn’t happening. It’s far more common for children to minimize or deny the extent of abuse they have experienced. Children will often test the waters by disclosing lesser offenses to see if the parent/adult will respond with belief and support or react with disbelief and anger. And just because a child recants their story doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. Experts say that recanting is common and should be considered part of the disclosure process rather than an indication that the abuse did not occur.

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