Covert Childhood Abuse

Psychology Today [New York, NY]

January 27, 2023

By Mackenzie Littledale

An interview with actress Marylee Martin on her memoir.


  • When unusual events of our childhoods have labels and a diagnosis, it can open doors to different directions in our lives.
  • A parent doesn’t have to physically molest a child for it to be an abusive situation.
  • Martin’s memoir shows how helpful a therapeutic relationship can be in changing the course of an undesirable emotional state to a thriving one.

Marylee Martin is a member of EQUITY, SAG/AFTRA, ASCAP, The Dramatists’ Guild of America, the WorkShop Theater, and the Gingold Theatrical Group. She has performed in over 30 productions. We discussed her memoir, An Unsuspecting Child: Coming to Grips with Childhood Abuse, which won first place in memoirs from Fireside Books and third place for women’s issues from Outstanding Creator Awards.

Mackenzie Littledale (ML): Marylee, thank you for joining me. An Unsuspecting Child begins before you are born, and your family leaves you with unanswered questions. Did that history help you empathize with or resent the people who inflicted pain on you?

Marylee Martin (MM): I went back in my family history to understand what happened to me and why. How did my father get to the point in his life where he made the decision to educate me on becoming a perfect wife at nine years old? My grandmother was deserted by her husband and left with five small children and no way to support them. She placed the baby with an aunt and left the other four, including my mother, in an orphanage. My mother spent seven years in a deeply Catholic orphanage with 300 kids and would never discuss what occurred there. I believe it affected her to the core.

My father’s family was doing really well. My dad was popular growing up. He went to parties and dated and went on picnics. My parents’ lives were polar opposites. Knowing their background helped me understand an emotionally unavailable mother and a father who needed love to feel fulfilled. As an adult, I can see how mismatched they were. I’m not sure they ever had a chance.

ML: Very tough childhood. Your mother never shared the emotional toll that being in an orphanage with so many other orphans had on her. How did your journey evolve from not knowing to finding out?

MM: I think it took my adulthood and being in therapy to see her story. My father’s story, I knew. I look at how she grew up, and she would not tell us what happened to her there, then what she went through trying to be a wife and mother. I wish I could apologize to her for not understanding everything that she had to go through.

ML: That’s a massive leap forward for your own emotional development, stability, and spiritual development. The scene in your memoir where you’re walking home alone as a child, and you handled a stranger. Your thoughts and intuition guided you to safety. Do you think your mom would have read your cues better when you arrived home if she’d honored her own intuition?

MM: I was devastatingly upset, and she didn’t even pick up on it. It must have been hard for her to be a mother when she grew up without one. I wonder how much affection she got, how people talked to her, if she ever saw her brothers and sisters, or even if something sinister happened to her. She always seemed lost in her head. I don’t see how Mom could possibly pick up on the clues of danger to her child when she never faced up to her own situation as a child.

ML: You don’t even know how she might have processed it if she’d been in a similarly dangerous situation. Later on, when you got married, your husband wiretapped your phone. What effect did that have on you when you found out he was eavesdropping on your calls?

MM: I felt totally naked. Apparently, he’d been doing this for a couple of weeks, hoping to catch me in an affair that he decided I must have been having. I was humiliated. The good side was he found out I was not having an affair, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me.

ML: I think the good side is you honored your anger, and you didn’t suppress it just to make him happy. Back in that time, it was a woman’s place to be married and submissive. That invasion of privacy with the anger and humiliation was a trauma that you experienced. I just love that you took hold of that and said, “No, these feelings are signaling something real.” You didn’t talk yourself out of it.

MM: Thank you for that.

ML: Some of the emotional phases you went through in your second year of therapy: shock, anger, rage, then wonder and sorrow. At what point did you absolve your child self of guilt, and what was that process like?

MM: Going to therapy back then was looked down on. It’s not like today, where we understand how important it is. My biggest fear when I stepped into the office was that someone might recognize me.

At that first interview, the psychiatrist said to me, “I saw you in the waiting room, and I thought you had very sad eyes. Now you’re sitting there telling me your story, and you’re laughing, but you still have very sad eyes.”

“So when you have something here,” she said, pointing to her heart, “it must come out here.” She pointed to her mouth. “Or it will come out here,” she said, pointing to her head.

As we were digging into my past, I kept saying my father loved me. She changed the question a bit to: “Is there something unusual between you and your father?”

That was the key to unlock that door. I realized his training and teaching and wanting me to be this perfectly sexual wife was inappropriate for me as a little girl. Abuse permeates your entire self-image, and you carry that inner child for the rest of your life. Therapy gave me a chance to clear my brain, and I forgave my dad for his foolishness. I think he just needed a grown-up friend.

ML: The covert childhood abuse is the starting point of your memoir, and the ending point was, “Was that what it was? It has a label?” You used to define a successful intimate relationship by how you could satisfy a man sexually. How do you define it now?

MM: It isn’t anything that I thought it was going to be. What is intimacy? It’s not what I read about; it’s not what my dad said it should be. It isn’t about sex as much as it is about warmth, togetherness, shared experiences, and understanding. A simple kiss or hug is everything.

ML: How do you know when it’s safe to be intimate with someone? Are you still tearing back layers of your upbringing or relying on techniques you learned in therapy?

MM: I’m so free in my mind from the flashbacks. I know what happened to me. I’m much more open to trusting and understanding than I was as a child. My trust was shot.

ML: Sometimes, we have to dig for it. We can’t always start at ground level but go beneath the surface to lay the foundation.

MM: Remember, I’ve been married three times, looking for love in all the wrong places.

ML: Do you think that motherhood gave you an additional layer of understanding for your mom in addition to therapy? It was a conversation with your daughter that led you to therapy, wasn’t it?

MM: Yes, I had been 53 and living this life of confusion for many years, and I was really depressed. She said I needed to talk to a professional. It was like, “Why? I’m not crazy.” But I took her advice and went. She’s strong, smart, and would never let any of this happen to her. I raised her that way. In being a mother, you can gift your children the strength that you didn’t have.

ML: You set a powerful intention—consciously—as opposed to a subconscious reactivity, which is possibly where your mom was at.

MM: It’s a decision you have to somehow make. Finding your core and ability to stand tall and believe in yourself is tough, which is why I wrote the book. I want adults to know there’s an end to this.

ML: The label, the diagnosis—covert childhood abuse—why is there so much hope when something that’s been bothering us for so many years has a diagnosis?

MM: It’s unbelievable that it’s such vindication. Knowing that what happened to me had a name was the first enlightenment for me. It’s also called covert incest. My dad never laid a hand on me but damaged a future all the same. When something has a name, it means it exists. People told me maybe my memories were confused. Covert incest is what happens when a parent turns to a child for the affection they’re not getting from a spouse. It leads to trying to find love through sex.

ML: Once it had a diagnosis, and you knew it was unusual, you could change the trajectory of your life. One of the most memorable lines in your memoir was, “The demons in our heads are not deterred by money or fame. Depression is a kidnapper.” If those words resonate with readers, tell me what next steps you hope they take.

MM: It’s easy to get lost in your mind. What I hope for everyone who has suffered covert or overt sexual abuse is to recognize that there is no shame in anything that happened to you, because you’re not guilty of anything. You survived. You have a voice, so speak out. You have an inner voice, so listen to it. You have animal instincts; obey them.

Most importantly, reach out for help because friends aren’t trained to give you the advice you need, and though therapy sounds scary, it’s the most important thing you can do for yourself. It will make space in your mind for all of the wonderful, happy memories you’ll create. You have the power to change your destiny.

To find a therapist near you, visit Psychology Today‘s Therapist Directory.