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When Childhood Sexual Abuse Leads to Familial Estrangement

Earlier this month, I decided to run a series of stories for real people to talk about their experiences with mental health conditions and “invisible” illnesses. Over the course of the last couple of weeks, I’ve been approached with some truly touching stories from friends and strangers alike. It’s been a great honor to give these people a voice by bringing attention to what they live with every day.

When I was approached by Jonathan Matamala, who up until very recently was an acquaintance I had collected over the last couple of years (as we’re often prone to do in the age of Facebook), my interest was piqued when he told me he wanted to share his experience with what he referred to as familial estrangement (or familial rejection), and the anxiety it has caused in his life. Admittedly, I wasn’t very familiar with the condition. I took a quick trip down Google avenue and was astounded (and heartbroken) by the stories I found. I knew immediately Jonathan’s story had the potential to make a massive difference in the lives of young people who have experienced similar conditions, and that it would require a more in-depth discussion to fully encompass the tragedy of familial estrangement. For this reason, this story will be presented in two parts, with this being the first.

Jonathan and I spent almost two hours video chatting while we dissected his story together. I am deeply honored he has trusted me with the task of bringing his experience to a broader stage. Despite giving it my absolute best attempt, I must impart there are no words to explain the emotions Jonathan’s story left me with. I filled nine pages with scribbled notes from our conversation, and still, in retrospect, feel my choice of words does not entirely serve his story justice.

Most importantly,  it is the ambition of both Jonathan and I this story becomes a helpful resource for anyone, anywhere who has experienced familial rejection or estrangement. This is more important now than ever, considering we’re smack dab in the middle of the holiday season. Where most families are being brought closer together, this time of the year can often lead to severe depression, isolation and suicidal ideation for those who are no longer in contact with their family or loved ones. My research has led me to realize there is a vast spectrum of reasons familial estrangement occurs, but no reasoning behind the phenomena is easier to stomach than the last. If this story imparts any singular message, I hope it serves as a reminder to be kind to one another as we bring 2019 to a close. Most importantly, be there for your friends who can no longer return home for the season.

When I caught up with Jonathan by way of video chat, I had only prepared a small handful of fairly vague questions to help guide the conversation. It became apparent pretty much immediately that talking to Jonathan was going to be quite effortless, and I felt confident the conversation would naturally list in the right direction. For someone who has suffered a great deal of isolation in his life, Jonathan possesses a natural aura of comfortableness and sincerity.

The majority of our discussion occurred while Jonathan was shamelessly laying in bed with his cat Checkers and a flute of mimosa. When he panned his camera out to show me he was wearing his treasured Shania Twain tour t-shirt, I knew Jonathan was my kind of person. Absolutely living his best life in Ybor City, Florida (a historically Cuban and predominantly gay neighborhood adjacent to Tampa), Jonathan lives fairly comfortably with his husband (and partner of 11 years), Mitchell. As we began to move out of the preliminary chatter, it became evident that despite the nature of Jonathan’s story, he had a knack for keeping his sense of humor in tact.

“The Golden Girls and Roseanne basically raised me,” Jonathan mused, only half-joking, “I mean, the before Roseanne, not The Connors Roseanne,” he clarifies. I found many parallels between our lives, a shared appreciation for late 80s/early 90s female lead sitcoms being only one of them.

Jonathan grew up in Windsor, Connecticut as the youngest in what can only be described as easily the most complicated family dynamic I’ve ever heard. Jonathan’s father, Ralph, was a business owner whom is 22 years older than Jonathan’s mother, Ruth. Both of his parents were frequently absent from the home as they dedicated most of their time to their careers. “I was a latch-key kid,” Jonathan stated with an air of amusement. I wasn’t entirely familiar with the term, so he went on to explain: “It means I came home from school, and typically no one was around. I’d latch the door locked behind me and was pretty much responsible for taking care of myself.”

Regarding the relationship between his parents, Jonathan pointedly expressed his father most likely could (and should) be clinically diagnosed with a mood disorder.

“He was born in 1935, so he grew up in the era of the ‘urban cowboy.’ Basically, if you were a white male, you could do anything, say anything, be anything you wanted.”

As for his mother, Jonathan expressed an air of understanding that isn’t often reserved for the adult child to possess: “My dad was typically doing his own thing — which is really a whole other story of its own. That directly or indirectly really did a number on my mom emotionally.”

Jonathan is the youngest of six siblings, manifesting in a very blended manner. By the time Jonathan was old enough to retain memories of his childhood, most of his half-siblings (from his father’s side) had already moved on with their lives. The stark age difference between his parents was a source of resentment for some of his older half-siblings, as Jonathan’s mother was significantly closer to their age than that of Jonathan’s father. Jonathan’s childhood was shared with one full-blooded sibling, his brother Andrew.

“Andrew was born in May of 1981, and I came around in September of 1986. When I think of my siblings, I tend to think of him first for a number of reasons. Even though I now have an array of step-siblings and half-siblings, he’s the only full-blooded sibling I have — meaning, we have the same mom and dad.” Jonathan explains, “Some people don’t necessarily like the inclusion of the term ‘half’ or ‘step’ when discussing siblings. I respect that. I even like it. It’s just that I really only grew up with my brother Andrew, so that kind of dictates the way I talk about my childhood. I only saw my half-siblings at major holidays.” 

“So, Andrew is the only one that was really there for everything?” I asked for clarification.

“Basically.” Jonathan confirmed before continuing, “My parents divorced when I was 9, so he was pretty close to 16 at that point. He was on the brink of getting his driver’s license and wasn’t around very much. With that age difference, it isn’t very ‘cool’ to hang out with your kid brother, not that we were ever particularly close in the first place.”

Jonathan’s earliest sense of isolation was mostly embedded in his relationship (or lack thereof) with his brother. As an adult, Jonathan has been able to look back on the estrangement between he and his brother with a more mature perspective in mind. What he found and described to me was troubling. Jonathan realizes in retrospect his brother had intentionally isolated him in a family environment that was already pretty sparse in affection.

“I remember wondering if I had been the one to do something wrong to cause his behavior,” Jonathan recalls, “It felt very intentionally neglectful. The lack of interaction with my own sibling in my early childhood made it incredibly difficult for me to connect with people, or build meaningful relationships as I grew up. That didn’t really change until I moved to Florida when I was 17.”

In retrospect, it occurred to me that even after our parents die, siblings are typically there for the majority of their lives. I took a moment in between documenting Jonathan’s experience to think about my own. I am the second oldest of seven, also from a blended origin. Although I have maintained monthly contact and am fairly close to my step-siblings, I’m particularly close with my older half-sister, Monica, and my younger full-blooded sister, Geri. Parallel to Jonathan’s story, my younger sister Geri is six years my junior, and remains the only full-blooded sibling I have out of the lot. I try to imagine a world where I wasn’t close to any of my siblings at all. I try to imagine a world where not only were Geri and I not close, but established a palpable distance from one another.

According to The American Journal of Psychiatry, a healthy relationship with one’s sibling leads to better mental health later in their lives. Not only does remaining close with our siblings provide a statistically proven overall increased quality of life, but provides a support system when we’re dealing with traumatic experiences or financial loss. A stronger foundation with our siblings increases our personal happiness, but also dire social skills later in life. We learn to negotiate, compromise and handle conflict from pesky brothers and sisters.

As Jonathan continued to share his childhood experience with me, I began to comprehend and feel what a child in his position must have felt. I had expected to hear a story of some terrible event involving Andrew that led to the distance between them, but was ultimately met with Jonathan’s continuing tale of Andrew doing nothing at all in the place of something truly horrendous, which over time, certainly had its lasting effect on how Jonathan grew up. Andrew’s lack of interest in embracing his role as an older brother did eventually manifest in a massively harmful way.

“My brother had a best friend that was a pillar in my early childhood. His name was also Andrew, believe it or not. He was a year older than my brother, so when the sexual abuse started happening, he was pushing 17 and I wasn’t any older than nine.”

Jonathan’s story took an abrupt and startling turn, one that I am not personally unfamiliar with. As he continued to describe the sexual abuse imparted on him by a boy almost twice his age, my stomach swelled with anger on behalf of the nine-year-old who Jonathan had to leave behind in Connecticut. “I don’t remember being upset,” Jonathan recalls, “I just remember that someone was finally paying attention to me. I knew instinctively that I couldn’t tell my parents or betray him.”

The abuse occurred shortly after Jonathan’s parents divorced, resulting in his mother moving out. Jonathan continued to live with his father and his older brother, which set the perfect scene for a classic case of childhood sexual abuse to occur. As Jonathan provided me the details of what happened, he mentioned that this was the only period in his life he felt he and his brother had begun to form a bond, ultimately finding a mutual angst surrounding the separation of their parents. Jonathan was finally allowed to hang out in his brother’s presence, but this also put him in immediate danger by also placing him within reach of a sexual predator.

Jonathan considered the first time the abuse happened, “My dad called my brother out of the house to help him with something. He was gone for about 20 minutes. His friend Andrew immediately slid into action. Now, I realize that he must have been planning it for some time before it actually happened. I’ve always wondered if he recognized I was gay, which maybe made him think I was an easy target.  It started so effortlessly on his part.” Jonathan continues, “It occurred over a period of a year or two. Anytime my brother left the room, something happened.”

It wasn’t until Jonathan was 18 years old he had finally brought himself through the first few steps of accepting what happened to him as sexual abuse. When he finally told his family (including his brother Andrew) what had happened, he was met mostly with silence on the matter. From Andrew, Jonathan was met with disdain and a flat-out refusal to believe the claim.

Jonathan’s experience is shared statistically — one in 10 children across America have been sexually abused before their 18th birthday. Although that statistic reflects in boys as 1 in 25, it’s been my personal experience as a mental health professional this number is deeply skewed by a standing stigma against men specifically coming out about their own case of being sexually abused. Keep in mind, these statistics only reflect contact abuse.

Childhood sexual abuse is a deeply uncomfortable subject of discussion. It’s not uncommon for family members and loved ones to either brush off claims of sexual abuse or deny it happened entirely. This is because the act is so horrendous (and we live in a society that is built on brushing human acts of evil under the rug), people have a difficult time comprehending how and where it happens.

On a personal front, I reflected on how my own experience with childhood sexual abuse shaped my life in so many ways. A deep distrust for men, a riddling of mental health problems and residual effects of trauma have all played a part in the negotiation of who I turned out to be. Not unlike myself, Jonathan discusses his experience in a calm, direct manner. In discussing his experience, my rage on his behalf grew steadily. Jonathan, however, told his story as effortlessly as one would discuss their preferred candy bar. After 32 years of grappling with the truth of his experience, it’s evident Jonathan was left with the burden of handling his trauma on his own, where his family failed.

“To this day, they’re still good friends.” Jonathan told me, his eyebrows ticking up ever so slightly, accompanied with the hint of a smirk and a slow nod. “I’ve often wondered if my brother considers what happened as forgivable because I’m gay. Like, that makes it better somehow, or maybe he thinks I actually enjoyed it. What fucking nine-year-old would enjoy that? To this day, my story hasn’t changed. 15 years later, and I haven’t faltered once.”

Jonathan explains that eventually he was able to convince his mother to let him move in with her, which ultimately ended the abuse. Whatever positive repertoire had begun to develop between Jonathan and Andrew faded away with the distance placed between them, and would continue to grow stagnant into Jonathan’s teen years.

Jonathan’s story will continue with a follow-up story detailing how Jonathan brought himself through the trials of childhood isolation and into the recovery he thrives in today.

Unsplash image by Dan Gribbin