|An Interview with Svava Brooks, Program Director for Talk about Abuse to Liberate Kids
Healing and Spirituality
October 20, 2010
JJR: I'm happy to meet another pioneer and teacher in this field. You brought the program, 'Darkness to Light' to Iceland. Please tell us about that.
SB: In 2003 I saw Oprah on television talking about child sexual abuse with another survivor of sexual abuse. I was both shocked and excited about it. Shocked because I am a survivor of sexual abuse and like many survivors had felt unbearable shame about it, but here was someone sharing their story of sexual abuse on public television. And I was excited about it, because I had been feeling the need to start speaking about it openly. I did not have an education in social work or counseling, but I had learned a lot about CSA and the effects of it during my 10 years of recovery. I understood that talking about it was a part of the healing journey and the truth was, I was not the one that needed to feel ashamed or embarrassed about what had happened to me. I was just a child, and my step father was someone that I trusted.
It was shortly after seeing the Oprah show that I found Darkness to Light online. I visited their web site and printed out a prevention guide called 7 steps to protecting our children. I read it cover to cover a few times and immediately knew this was it! Before I had contacted D2L to ask for permission to translate it into Icelandic, I called my twin sister in Iceland and shared with her the good news. I had found the tool that would help people start talking about sexual abuse.
The very next day, I called Ann Lee the CEO of D2L and convinced her that I was going to mail a copy of this 7 steps booklet into every single home in the country. I was certain that if I had found this information in my early teen years, I would have found a way to ask for help. Anne Lee gave her permission and with that, my sister started visiting businesses and organizations in Iceland looking for startup funding for this adventure.
Within 6 months I had moved my family from the east coast of the US to Iceland. Confident that we would find a way to make this happen, we did! A private bank in Iceland was willing to donate enough money to translate, print and mail a copy of the 7 steps to protecting our children into every single home in Iceland, or total of 110000 copies. This happened in November 2004.
Since then we now also provide Darkness to Light Stewards of Children prevention training to adults in Iceland.
JJR: What were some initial responses to this discussion/ work in Iceland?
SB: As a result of the 7 steps being sent to every home in Iceland, I started getting phone calls mostly from teachers and parents. These were people involved with their schools PTA's and/or representing youth serving organizations, and teachers that wanted to learn more about bringing awareness to their work place or school. These concerned adults were asking me to come and help them talk about it. In the 7 steps booklet, much of it emphasizes the importance to talk about it openly, but these adults reported to me that no one was willing to talk about it. That was how my public speaking career started. Along with providing statistics on sexual abuse, and information on why kids don't tell and the importance of reporting, I always give the audience permission to ask me about my child hood. I share openly what happened to me in the hopes that they can learn from it, in hope that it will help someone else get help or prevent it from happening in the first place.
There was some opposition in the beginning, people saying that this was very American and this kind of abuse could not be happening in Iceland the way it would be in a big country like America. But what people quickly realized once they got educated was that it is just as big of a problem in Iceland as it is in the rest of the world.
JJR: How do you think this outreach has impacted society in Iceland?
SB: I think now in our 6th year, we have turned the tide when it comes to people being in denial about child sexual abuse. Our education programs are now regularly scheduled in schools all over the country.
BÁ, (Blátt áfram) offers prevention training for adults, presentations for teenagers and puppet shows for younger kids. Our primary purpose is always prevention, but we know that our programs are giving kids and even adults the words to use to ask for help and giving them the support to do so.
Our annual media campaign has been a crucial part of our mission to make the general public aware of the issue. We have been fortunate to have very talented people donate their ideas and time to the cause. The ads talk about what abuse is and are very straight about it. Not everyone is impressed but again we know it is helping people in breaking the silence and children finally understand what is happening to them. We have had parents that have called us to say thank you for saving their kids. They were sitting watching TV with their kids and the kids pointed at the ads and said, "This is what Uncle Joe is doing to me!" The primary message of the ads is that child sexual abuse thrives in secrecy and denial and adults need to know how to prevent it, talk about it and educate their kids. We teach about making it a part of your relationship with your children, by using age appropriate language to explain boundaries, good touch, bad touch and good and bad secrets.
More and more we hear about kids disclosing abuse as a result of our programs and also that teachers are reporting more often as a result of getting trained in detection and prevention. The bottom line, we are empowering people, young and old to do something, to take action and that alone creates advocates for keeping kids safe!
JJR: How has your family dealt with your role as a teacher/ facilitator of breaking the silence around abuse?
SB: In the beginning of disclosing my abuse, I stood alone. I do have a twin sister that was abused along with me, but our journeys were different. It did help me that I had moved to a different country and I had the support of my husband and friends here in the states.
For most survivors, we find ourselves having to choose between ourselves and our families. Very few families do survive incest without some drama.
When my sister and I started the non-profit in Iceland, we had many people in our family that were upset with us. My mother was very upset that I went to the media, TV and radio and talked very openly about what was going on in our home growing up. I understand why it was hard for my family, but it was never about getting back at them. I had taken responsibility for what had happened to me. I did not see myself as a victim anymore and I wanted to prevent other children from going through what I went through. I have enormous compassion for my family. It is hard to face when we find out that we have let someone down.
Today, my mother is very proud and tells me every chance she gets. I do however have a half-brother and sister and they choose not to talk to me. We have not talked for over ten years. They love their father and have a hard time believing that he could have done something like this. Again, I respect that they are choosing to live their life and making their choices, just like I had to choose for me. I still love them and am hopeful that we will connect again down the road.
JJR: I described you as a pioneer earlier. Now that you are continuing this teaching/ facilitating work to promote healing and end abuse in California, is that pioneer description still accurate?
SB: I believe that I am more a part of a pioneering movement. None of this was my unique idea, but I found other programs and tools to utilize that worked well and I believed in. Looking back, I can see that my courage to speak up and talk to people about something that was very painful was and has been my greatest gift to others.
Now that I have the experience of having a successful program in Iceland, I hold the vision of doing the same thing here. I have seen how things developed over the years and now I do think that I offer people hope. It is done through many little steps, over and over again, and actually lately in California, I am starting to feel the momentum building and more people are inspired and are willing to help.
Something that I provide during my prevention presentation, that perhaps is somewhat pioneering, is how I interact with people during my presentation. I invite people to pay close attention to how they are feeling during the conversation and challenge them to notice their thoughts and feelings.
There is a reason why we don't like to talk about this issue and the reason is within us!
I want people to become aware of how comfortable or uncomfortable they are with this topic. There is always the possibility that there are a handful of people in the room that are survivors and know someone close that are survivors. Those thoughts and feelings will affect them hearing my story and the facts that I share. I challenge people to take personal responsibility for creating change around this and it starts with each one of us looking inside. We cannot change the world around us, unless we start with ourselves first.
I am also very mindful of and take responsibility for the fact that what they experience or see in me while I am communicating with them about child sexual abuse, is a big part of the learning. I am demonstrating a level of comfort, trust and hope around this topic that may be new to them.
The trust I have and demonstrate is not just in me but also in them. I trust that every one of us wants to do the right thing, report the abuse or respond with courage to a child disclosing abuse. Even if you are not sure what to do, you need to trust yourself enough to know that you will do your best and take action.
JJR: What has helped you to become less of a victim and more of a survivor, or more of a thriver?
SB: It has taken me a long time to see that being a victim was a way of life. Some of it is what kept me safe. It was my comfort zone.
One day I realized that I had a choice to create the life I wanted to live. Every day I needed to make choses that sometimes were uncomfortable, and challenging to stop being the victim. I had given my perpetrators power over my life, long after the abuse was done. I was still letting them run my life, making me feel bad about who I was and what I did. That had to stop.
I became a survivor and a thriver when I started doing things that successful, happy people do. I stopped treating myself the way I had been treated as a child. Many of our behaviors become our best attempts to numb our pain and to keep us going but in the end many of them are destructive and dysfunctional behaviors.
Loving and caring for myself became my full time job. I had to stop taking care of everyone else in the hopes that they would love me for it. Self-care; physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually is what I do every day, some days more than others, but it needs to be a priority for me. I take responsibility for how to have a good day. I am more and more at peace with myself, my body, my family, my community and God. I am very grateful for my life, all of it!
JJR: What do you think is needed for more profound transformation, not just in religious organizations, but in society related to healing and ending abuse?
SB: Adults need to recognize that as long as they think that the abuse only happens to other people out there somewhere, they and their kids are in trouble. They need to see that perpetrators are all around us. If they don't believe that this could be happening in their church or community, then they don't understand the issue and what they are dealing with.
Trust me- I know that perpetrators are not all evil. My step father was also nice to me and taught me things about life that I still love and enjoy today, but he did mess up a lot for me when it came to trusting the world, intimacy, and my self-worth.
Adults need to find a way to be comfortable with talking about this issue with other adults and their kids. That step alone can help in keeping perpetrators at bay. We need to ask questions that perhaps will make other adults uncomfortable (at least in the beginning) but if you tell adults why you are asking and that you want your kids to be safe and hope they will do the same for their kids, learning takes place and kids will be safer. Education and awareness is they key!
With 39 million survivors in the States, we need to provide services and support for teens and adults to get the help they need to recover. We are already paying the heavy price of sexual abuse of our children, through our overcrowded prison system and burdened healthcare.
I think survivors or "thrivers" of abuse are already providing many of the solutions to the problem. With healing ourselves, we find our compassion along with our buried/broken hearts. We have growing empathy for our community and the struggle for others to understand what we have been through. Many of us become the councilors, the attorney, the policy maker, the police officer, the parent, the teacher that we ourselves needed as children. We are already changing how the world sees us.
JJR: Can you talk a little bit about your own spiritual life or development over the past several years that you have been working in this area?
SB: I learned to meditate early in my healing, and I think my spirituality grew from my experiences during meditation. Through mediation I learned to stay in my body, to appreciate my body and my mind, and my heart. I also learned to appreciate the unseen and at the same time, trusting my intuition and inner guidance.
I would not be here today if it was not for my faith in something greater than myself. I do not practice organized religion but I am a person of faith and believe that I call upon God or the Universe simultaneously for help and support much of the time. I also give thanks to God and/or the Universe every day for trusting me to do what I do, to be of service to help others. I regularly say prayers and ask for direction, help and clarity and when I settle down my mind, the answer is as clear as day.
I know that I find people and people find me when the time is right. I have learned to trust in the divine timing of things. So many things have fallen into place over the years that I know I had very little to do with.
JJR: Thank you so much for your ongoing commitment to promote healing and end abuse everywhere. Is there anything else that you would like others to know or do about this work?
SB: I want to thank you, Jaime for all the work that you have done on yourself and also with helping others. I am truly honored to know you and hopefully get to work with you in the near future.
I would like people to consider this – If you can help save a child's life or prevent a life time of suffering, is it worth it for you to get educated about how to prevent child sexual abuse?
It is a simple question and I think it has a simple answer. Most people don't do anything because they don't know what to do. There is much you can do!
It does not have to be something big. Just start talking to the people around you and your kids about it and see where it takes you. Look up on our web site for some books on the topic for kids or download the 7 steps, the guide for responsible adults from Darkness to Light.
Perhaps you can ask the organizations were your kids spend time, how they train their staff on CSA and prevention. Suggest that they get trained and bring a speaker like Jaime Romo that can educate the staff and parents on how to work together to keep the organization and the kids safe from perpetrators.
I invite you to get comfortable about the topic and start talking about it. You can visit TAALK.org or find us on Facebook were we share tips every day about child sexual abuse awareness and prevention.
Please choose to take action and do something – Doing nothing is also a choice! Trust yourself and help us, we need you! Your partner in prevention and healing! Love and Light. Svava Brooks
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