Andrea: To Heal Is Truth & Peace

By Andrea Robin Skinner

***Trigger warning***

The sexual abuse of a child is a rape of the mind, in which any fledgling tools for healing are stolen. Without intervention, deep shame fills up the child’s life, and continues into adulthood. This is my story…

I was nine years old when my stepfather climbed into my bed and sexually assaulted me. My mother was away, and I’d asked if I could sleep in the spare bed near him. To understand how young nine is, I had only just realized I couldn’t grow up to be a sheep herding dog, a great disappointment, as I loved dogs and sheep. 

The next morning, I couldn’t get out of bed. I’d woken up with my first migraine, which developed into a chronic, debilitating condition that continues to this day.  

Later that summer, on the way to the airport where I was flying home to my father and stepmother, my stepfather asked me to play a game called “Show me.” I said no, so he made me tell him about my “sex life”–the usual innocent explorations with other children–and he told me about his sex life. 

Back at my father’s house, I told my stepmother what had happened. She told my father, and he decided to say nothing to my mother. I was terrified she would blame me anyway, as she seemed jealous of the attention I got. 

I continued to go back to my stepfather’s home every summer for the next several years. When I was alone with my stepfather, he would make lewd jokes, expose himself during car rides, tell me about the little girls in the neighborhood he liked, and describe my mother’s sexual needs. 

When I was 11, former friends of my stepfather told my mother he’d exposed himself to their 14-year-old daughter. He denied it and when my mother asked about me, he made a “joke” that I was “not his type” (I learned this much later.) In front of my mother, he told me that many cultures in the past weren’t as “prudish” as ours, and it used to be considered normal for children to learn about sex by engaging in sex with adults.

By the time I was a teenager, I was at war with myself, suffering from bulimia, insomnia and migraines. By the age of 25, I was so sick and empty, I couldn’t properly start my adult life. Realizing I would never heal if I couldn’t tell the truth, I wrote a letter to my mother, and told her everything, explaining that I didn’t want to hurt anybody, but just needed to connect with her. 

Things got worse after that. My mother reacted as if she had learned of an infidelity. I had a sense that she was working hard to forgive me. Meanwhile, my stepfather wrote letters to my family describing my nine-year-old self as a “homewrecker,” and noted that my family’s lack of intervention suggested they agreed with him. He also threatened retribution:

“Andrea invaded my bedroom for sexual adventure… for Andrea to say she was ‘scared’ is simply a lie… Andrea has brought ruin to two people who love each other… If the worst comes to worst I intend to go public. I will make available for publication a number of photographs, notably some taken at my cabin near Ottawa which are extremely eloquent, one taken in Australia with Andrea posing as a Lolita-like character in a crib, one of Andrea in my underwear shorts…” 

Again, there was no evidence of outrage from my family, no gathering around me to help or heal me. My mother stayed with my stepfather, and my father continued to have lunches with her, never mentioning me (I asked my father about these lunches before he died. With regret, he told me I just didn’t “come up” in conversation.)  My siblings and parents carried on with their busy lives. I was left alone with this thing, this ugliness. Me.

But I was learning through therapy that healing is real, wants to happen, is happening all the time. I was beginning to understand that it wasn’t my fault. I got married, had children, and poured myself into making my children’s lives magical and safe, and into growing their confident, exploring, adventurous selves. Meanwhile, I distanced myself from my family of origin. 

A turning point came when I read an interview with my mother, Alice Munro, in The New York Times, in which she described my stepfather as a gallant figure in her life. For three weeks I was too sick to move, and hardly left my bed. I had long felt inconsequential to my mother, but now she seemed to be erasing me.

I wanted to speak out for the truth. I went to the police and told them of my “historical” abuse, and showed them my stepfather’s letters. They pressed charges. I’d had to confront my shame (and other people’s), which was telling me I was being vindictive, destructive, cruel. For so long I’d been telling myself that holding my pain alone had at least helped other family members in important ways, and that the greatest good for the greatest number was, after all, the greatest good. Now, I was claiming my right to a full life, taking the burden of abuse and handing it back to my stepfather. Was I worth it? Was I even capable of a “full life”? How could I knowingly make any other human suffer only to maybe feel better? I answered these questions by imagining one of my children in this situation. Wow, that was easy. I was able to go ahead with it.

My stepfather was convicted of sexual assault, and got two years’ probation. I was satisfied. I hadn’t wanted to punish him, and I believed he was too old to hurt anyone else. What I wanted was some record of the truth, in a context that asserted I had not deserved it. I needed that. But victories such as these still hurt; they just hurt less than doing nothing. 

I was estranged from my family for years until my sister Jenny reached out, telling me she had gone to a place called The Gatehouse, in Toronto, to heal from our family’s trauma. Until she wrote, I had thought my disappearance was a relief to my sisters and step-brother. But I was wrong. They were hurting and needed help too.

In 2016, I went to The Gatehouse for the first time. No one there needed me to downplay my experience, justify my feelings, or help other family members feel better. I felt that I was in the presence of a collective strength that had been built by many voices, that could hold my shame and sense of failure with tenderness, love, and faith in me, and let me progress at my own pace. 

Since those early days at The Gatehouse, I’ve found so many ways to heal–through art, horses, and meditation–and in safe spaces with others. Healing isn’t something that comes to an end, but feeling alone can.

Andrea Robin Skinner

Andrea facilitates meditations at The Gatehouse and at Horse Discovery (