The following two essays were written by victims/survivors who must, as will become evident, remain anonymous. Their experiences and sense of moral outrage are representative of the feelings expressed by many who have contacted the TELL network. The gag order the first author signed, while not unheard of, is extreme and goes well beyond merely limiting discussion of financial arrangements. Many gag orders preclude the victim from taking further action or publicly naming an abuser. The second author, an artist from New York, is grappling not just with being silenced but also with the recognition that settling a civil suit does not bring closure: To the contrary, there is still much work and healing to be done.
Paid to Lie: Paid to Deny: Paid to Hide
When a Therapist sexually and emotionally exploits a Client, the Client-Therapist relationship transforms obscenely to that of Victim and Perpetrator. If the Victim elects to seek civil relief as a result of the abuse, he or she becomes a Plaintiff: The Perpetrator becomes a Defendant. In the end, the Plaintiff is often silenced while the Perpetrator is free to do or say whatever he or she wishes.
I cannot tell you that I was sexually and emotionally exploited, abused, and finally abandoned by the therapist I saw for almost six years. I signed a gag order. If I were to tell you such things, the abuser could sue me: I could lose my home. So I need to make clear that I am absolutely not saying that these things ever happened to me.
I was told that I had done nothing for which I had to be ashamed. I was a victim. I am a survivor and deserve to feel proud of myself. By suing my abuser, I sent a message that what he did was not okay. But I cannot tell a soul what happened. Despite this, it will never, never not have happened. If I tell or not, it happened.
It's oxymoronic and confusing. I have worked hard, and continue to work, with a subsequent therapist to learn how to keep myself safe, how to take back my life, and how to live that life moving forward. I have worked to regain the belief that I can trust myself and to understand and accept that what happened was not my fault, that I have done nothing wrong, that I need not be ashamed.
For more than three years, and more times than I can possibly count, I told my attorney, my subsequent therapist, and my advocate that I would not sign a gag order that related to anything more than the dollar amount or details of any possible settlement agreement.
After the years of delays, meeting cancellations, and postponements, a settlement offer finally was made through my abuser’s attorney. It was then that my attorney pressed me to give up my right to bear witness to my reality.
My attorney told me that the gag order, included as part of the settlement offer, was standard and that my signing it was expected. I had thought, naively, that any financial settlement would be to compensate me for the damage that had been done to me by mistreatment and abuse. It had not occurred to me that it was to purchase my silence.
My attorney told me that insurance companies offer financial settlements to buy silence. If I didn't agree to be silent, why should they pay?
My attorney assured me that the insurance company, by law, would be required to report its payment to me on behalf of my abuser to the licensing board. Despite this assurance, I insisted that the agreement specifically stipulate that the insurance company would inform the Board of the settlement. My belief was that, knowing about the payment, the Board surely would investigate. Wrong again. I was left feeling tricked, gullible, and stupid
My attorney assured me that, even with the gag order, I would be “free to teach a course on the subject of sexual abuse by therapists.” He said that “all” I was giving up was the right to say that it had happened to me. So I need to make very clear that I am not saying that such a thing has happened to me.
Signing the gag order was done without ceremony. Without celebration or memorial, the paper was signed and my lawsuit was completed. By signing the gag order, I gave up my right to own what happened to me. By signing the gag order, I robbed myself of choices. I gave up my right to speak in the first person or seek help in an open forum. I disowned the right to acknowledge a part of myself, a part of my life and my history, to anyone but a paid professional. I may tell a “…psychiatrist, a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional who is treating me, my financial advisors, including my accountants, and my personal attorneys, but I may do so only if and after they expressly agree to be bound by all of the confidentiality provisions….”
Imagine a world in which every victim is paid off. By signing a gag order, I gave up any way to use what I l have learned for the good of society. By signing my gag order, I agreed “…that I will not disclose to any person or to or through, nor discuss with or within, any public forum, any public or private meeting, any publication, any public medium, or any news medium [including, without limitation, radio or television stations, publishers, newspapers journals, magazines, newsletters, and internet facilities or websites] (1) the terms and/or amount of this settlement, and/or (2) the factual circumstances surrounding my treatment by, or prior interactions with” (Dr. X) “and/or (3) any allegations set forth in the complaint.”
It is difficult for me to feel strong. It is difficult to feel empowered. It is difficult to feel that I matter or that what happened was truly wrong. By signing a gag order, I agreed that it wasn’t so wrong as to be beyond being paid off. The perpetrator is free to act again. I’ve done nothing that will influence his ability and his freedom to do so.
By signing a gag order, I agreed to protect the perpetrator, for the rest of my life or his, from the reality of what happened. I agreed to uphold this agreement “‘til death us do part.” I suppose in time I will grow more and more used to my role as gatekeeper of this secret. But signing a gag order does not allow me to let go of the abusive relationship and move on. Instead, signing a gag order has left me forever connected to the offending therapist whose secret I must keep.
To have participated in an obscene, abusive and exploitive relationship feels, among other things, shameful, even when you were the one abused and exploited. Intellectually I understand that such a relationship should not be a source of shame and self-hatred for me. I would like to believe, as well, that the relationship is a source of profound embarrassment and shame for the perpetrator about whom I have many ambivalent and complicated feelings. These feelings range from fantasies of revenge and annihilation to dreams of reconciliation and living happily-ever-after. I have other fantasies of letting go of my shame and accepting my new reality. That letting go does not come naturally or without a great deal of pain, tears, flashbacks, nightmares and work.
It has been just over two years since I signed the gag order. Sometimes I wonder what I would say if I were to be asked if I had ever been sexually abused. The thought of lying, of consciously denying such a significant part of my life leaves me feeling bruised and sad. From time to time, I can almost imagine that there may be a day when I don’t feel anger or extreme disappointment in my attorney or my subsequent therapist for not supporting me in my wish not to sign the gag order. I wonder sometimes whether, if I won the lottery tomorrow or otherwise felt I could financially afford to break the gag order, would I? It was never and still isn’t my intention or desire to publicly expose my abuser. I don’t think I would. But perhaps I would feel more intact, whole, and complete if I had retained the choice to do so. Instead, I sold it. It would feel good to have that freedom back.
My desire in writing this is to share with others what I have learned, and so I pass on the following recommendations:
Before signing a settlement agreement, have at least one attorney, other than your own, review and discuss with you the details and options of the proposal. Doing so may cause you to be concerned about offending, appearing ungrateful, or otherwise jeopardizing the working association with your existing attorney. These are normal feelings and do not justify your not getting a second opinion. By way of comparison, ask yourself if you would worry about offending your child’s doctor by requesting a second opinion regarding a significant medical procedure that would have an effect on the rest of your child’s life? If you’d do it for your child, if you’d do it for someone you cherished, respected and were responsible for taking care of, then do it for yourself.
Interview more than one attorney, even if you like the first attorney you meet.
If you are seeing a subsequent therapist, be sure he or she is either experienced in the issues of abuse and lawsuits, is willing to learn, or is actively consulting with another therapist who is experienced.
Find an advocate, especially if you are without any personal supports such as family members or friends.
Gag Order Vows
Because I am tired
Because I have given years of my life to an exploitive and abusive relationship
Because I am being told that this is what I am expected to do
Because I am being told that this is standard and expected
I, (victim’s name here)
Do solemnly swear
That from now until the day I die
Sick or well
Rich or poor
Content or suicidal
To uphold my silence
To not tell the truth
To deny my own history
And, if need be, lie
The therapist who abused me
May continue to practice his profession
And be free to abuse again
Without fear of interference of any kind from me.
I make this pledge in exchange for
$ (fill in amount here.)
The Case Settles but the Pain Lingers
I settled my case against my perpetrator, I call him Evil Eyes, at the end of last summer. Only a few months ago, really.
It was pretty open-and-shut due to the vast amount of evidence I had against him: his incriminating, outrageous emails and texts; my letters to him expressing horror at his sadistic betrayals; and the wreckage to my state-of-mind. There were no depositions, and no being in the same room with him telling a jury how he sought to control, keep, and destroy me. Most unfortunate, there was no footage of him doing the “Walk Of Shame” on the six o'clock news. Just some quick and dirty letters, and I got a check three months later. Hush money. Blood money. Soul-selling, if-it-was-five-million-bucks-it-wouldn't-be-enough money.
I only know this now.
At the time, I thought it would bring some measure of closure, some greater sense of peace. I thought that with the clearing of that check, so would be the clearing of my mind.
I reached out to TELL at the end of my case. One of the first responders told me how she had settled several years ago and was tormented by her gag order. I listened, I took it in, but I didn't really understand that not being able to tell one's story is another assault, a devious and toxic lockdown for an abuser to continue to control, keep, and destroy his prey.
This is not an essay about the impact of gag orders and how wrong they are or how they let criminals continue to go on with their lives unscathed by the atrocities they have inflicted, or how they are a direct affront to mental health law and public safety. Any one of us can (and will) tell you that.
This is about the pain, confusion, and silent suffering that lingers long after the check clears.
You see, I still have nightmares and daymares. I am still riddled with flashbacks and every hallmark of post-traumatic stress. Every lie he told, every poison he shoved down my throat, still swirls in my body like a tornado. His raping of my soul is imprinted, embossed, inscribed on me to live with and keep to myself. Forever. Sure, I can buy more therapy with that grimy money, but my confusion and despair and longing, my nausea and late-night agonies remain.
I thought I'd feel better by now! I thought settling would settle my mind! I thought that at this point I would be sharing with my friends mundane and happy things! How I wish I could tell them (and you) that my day was filled with joy and that Evil Eyes did not taunt me for a second, that I did not spend hours trying to find ways to circumvent my gag or rationalizing the risk of violating it.
But I won't lie to you. Little goes away when the ink is dry. Sometimes the pull gets stronger, the load gets heavier, and the burden of betrayal still takes me down.
Life has gotten better, though. To leave you without hope would be misrepresenting the truth. I am alive, I survived, I am (mostly) clear now that this was not my fault, not my reenactment, and not something I deserved or provoked in any way. I am filled with compassion for others, with the spirit to lead some kind of charge in advocating for victims of exploitation and abuse, and to take the shame out of the horrifying reality that it does happen and happens to the best of us.
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