Over the weekend, I came across a compelling essay about the incredibly complex relationships that women raped during war have with the children born of that violent act.
The essay, which was published August 18 in the journal The Lancet, was written by two Dutch psychologists, Elisa van Ee and Rolf J. Kleber, who have worked with victims of rape from war-torn countries.
“Clinical case reports describe a high rate of ambivalent parent-child relationships or even abusive relationships and a high rate of serious discrimination within the societies in which these children are raised,” they write. “National difficulties have serious consequences for the child, who might experience attachment disorders, disturbances in psychosocial development, and identity issues.”
And this: “These children are generally regarded with disdain by their communities — they are referred to by such names as ‘devil’s children’ in Rwanda, ‘children of shame’ in Timor-Leste, ‘monster babies’ in Nicaragua, ‘dust of life’ in Vietnam, or ‘Chetnik babies’ in Bosnia-Herzegovina. [The World Health Organization] has described children born of rape as at risk of being neglected, stigmatized, ostracized, or abandoned. Cases of infanticide have also been reported. Despite such general concerns, little is known about the fate of these children.”
Van Ee and Kleber tell a moving story of Arya, a woman who was raped by soldiers during a 2003 coup d’etat in the Central African Republic, and her 5-year-old son, Anselme, born nine months after the rape: “Arya described her complex feelings for her son: she loved him because he was her own blood, but she also hated him since he resembled the rapists. She told us how sometimes she was tender towards Anselme, yet on other occasions she was harsh and wanted to beat the rapist part out of him. Most of the time, though, she just did not notice him so consumed was she with her own memories and sorrow.”
Unfortunately, as the psychologists acknowledge at the end of their essay, Arya is a composite of different women they have seen and treated. So although the story’s essence may be true, it lacks the force of a fully factual account of an individual woman. (That’s why journalists do not use composites in their reporting.)
Yet the ambivalent feelings of “Arya” toward her son are similar to what writer Andrew Solomon details in a New Yorker essay he wrote a few weeks ago in the aftermath of Rep. Todd Akin’s (R-Mo.) now infamous comments on “legitimate” rape. Solomon interviewed women in the United States who are raising children conceived in rape for his latest book, “Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity,” which is scheduled to be published in November.
“The aftermath of rape is always complicated,” he writes.
Many victims are simply in denial that they are pregnant in the first place: a full third of the pregnancies resulting from rape are not discovered until the second trimester. Any delay in detection reduces women’s options, especially outside major urban centers, but many women struggle with the speed of the decision; they are still recovering from being raped when they are called on to make up their minds about an abortion.
The decision of whether or not to carry through with such a pregnancy is nearly always an ordeal that can lead, no matter which choice is ultimately made, to depression, anxiety, insomnia, and P.T.S.D. Rape is a permanent damage; it leaves not scars, but open wounds. As one woman I saw said, “You can abort the child, but not the experience.”
Even women who try to learn their child’s blamelessness can find it desperately difficult. The British psychoanalyst Joan Raphael-Leff writes of women bearing children conceived in rape, “The woman feels she has growing inside her part of a hateful or distasteful Other. Unless this feeling can be resolved, the fœtus who takes on these characteristics is liable to remain an internal foreigner, barely tolerated or in constant danger of expulsion, and the baby will emerge part-stranger, likely to be ostracized or punished.”
One rape survivor, in testimony before the Louisiana Senate Committee on Health and Welfare, described her son as “a living, breathing torture mechanism that replayed in my mind over and over the rape.” Another woman described having a rape-conceived son as “entrapment beyond description” and felt “the child was cursed from birth”; the child ultimately had severe psychological challenges and was removed from the family by social services concerned about his mental well-being. One of the women I interviewed said, “While most mothers just go with their natural instincts, my instincts are horrifying. It’s a constant, conscious effort that my instincts not take over.”
The rape exception in abortion law is so much the rule that many women who wish to keep children conceived in rape describe an intense social pressure to abort them, and the pressure to abort can be as sinister as the restriction of access to abortion. There can be no question that, for some women, an abortion would be far more traumatic than having a rape-conceived child.
I read the harrowing autobiography of a girl who was put under involuntary anesthesia to have an abortion of the pregnancy that had occurred when her father raped her, so that her parents could keep their reputation intact. It’s a horrifying story because the abortion clearly constitutes yet another assault: it is about a lack of choice. But ready access to a safe abortion facility allows a woman who keeps a child conceived in rape to feel that she is making a conscious decision, while having the baby because she has no choice perpetuates the trauma and is bad for the child.
Rape is, above all other things, non-volitional for the victim, and the first thing to provide a victim is control. Raped women require unfettered choice in this arena: to abort or to carry to term, and, if they do carry to term, to keep the children so conceived or to give them up for adoption. These women, like the parents of disabled children, are choosing the child over the challenging identity attached to that child.
The key word in that sentence is “choosing.”
You can read Solomon’s essay, “The Legitimate Children of Rape,” on the New Yorker’s website. The essay by van Ee and Kleber, “Child in the Shadowlands,” is also available in full on the Lancet’s website.