Monday, September 21, 2015

Book Notes: Joelle Casteix's The Well-Armored Child: A Parent's Guide to Preventing Sexual Abuse

I have a book to recommend to you — particularly those of you raising children, or with friends and relatives raising children. The book will also be useful and very instructive for those committed to addressing the problem of sexual abuse of young people, as I believe many readers of this blog are. It's Joelle Casteix's The Well-Armored Child: A Parent's Guide to Preventing Sexual Abuse (Austin: River Grove, 2015).

Joelle's book arises out of her own struggle to deal with having been sexually abused as a teenager by a teacher in her Catholic school. As she tells readers in the book's introduction, "I realized that in order to heal, I needed to make an immediate difference" (xi). As a survivor of abuse, she has recognized, that is, that her commitment to healing others (and to preventing sexual abuse of minors) has been part and parcel of her own healing process.

The book also flows from her growing recognition that the abuse prevention movement has neglected its most important resource for prevention: parents. As Joelle also notes in the book's introduction, in her years of lecturing about child abuse throughout the United States, the question she is asked more frequently than any other question is, What can I do to keep my child safe?

If those of us without children imagine that because this challenge applies exclusively to parents — if we imagine that the problem of child abuse in our society doesn't affect all of us — we're badly informed. As Joelle notes, child sexual abuse represents a huge burden affecting our entire society (15): 

When you add up the costs to our communities — for mental health care, police services, jails, adoption and foster care, victim services, drug and alcohol rehab, food stamps, welfare, and other social services that many victims and their families require — the price tag is staggering (ibid.).

As Joelle states poignantly later in the book, echoing her own experience of abuse, 

Some may say that teenage girls and boys "should know better," but the sexual abuse of teenagers by adults in positions of power is damaging, isoating, and most important, a crime. For me as a teenager, the abuse was devastating. It destroyed my family and most of my relationships (25). 

The book that follows from these insights is a smart, engagingly written step-by-step guide for those raising children that draws on Joelle's own rich experience as an advocate for the abused and a skilled educator in the field of child sexual abuse, as well as her experience as a parent. Its step-by-step guide  depends on the premise that protecting a child from abuse and educating a child about abuse are easier than many parents think — a premise that the book's introduction breaks down in bullet-point fashion as it addresses five common misconceptions about the challenge of protecting and educating children in this area (16-9). In Joelle's view, "No matter the age, you can help your child learn about abuse in an appropriate way, identify abuse and predatory behaviors, and report abusive crimes" (19).

The book that follows is a how-to manual designed to fulfill the promise of that statement. It begins with three chapters examining "the basics." Were you aware, for example, that 

• One in six minors will experience sexual assault before they reach age eighteen (23)?

• Or that there is not one predictable "face" of the sexually abused minor, but that the kind of abuse experienced (the type of predator, the type of abuse exhibited, the circumstances of the abuse) are as varied as the victims themselves (24)?

Did you know, as Joelle explains in a valuable section of her study addressing ten often-cited myths about child sexual abuse (26-33), that sexual abuse of minors is not primarily about sex but about power — hence the mass rapes of women and children that occur during war — or that it's entirely inaccurate to say that women cannot sexually abuse minors? The book's persistent reminder that women can be responsible for sexual molestation of minors every bit as much as men can is one of its most impoprtant contributions (see also a later section of the book, 82-3, addressing this topic).

In the section of the book setting out the "basics" of child sexual abuse, parents and others concerned with this topic will find Joelle's list of warning signs and symptoms of abuse (33-4) especially valuable, I suspect, as with, as well, her smart chapters on the responsibilities of parenting (36-49) and on the imperative need for parents to listen to the "twenty-foot brain" of their gut (51-60) as they monitor what's going on in their children's lives — and to teach their children to trust their instincts, as well. 

Part two of The Well-Armored Child provides a sharply incised, detailed picture of the predator. This section of the study begins with an informative chapter on grooming as the gateway predators use to gain access to and influence over their victims (63-77). 

The following chapter challenges readers to move beyond common stereotypes of predators. As it notes, predators rely on our stereotypes and preconceptions (the dirty old man in the trench coat) as they mask themselves and their behavior (80). And, in fact, "Most predators come from the places we least expect" (79).

As many of us have learned definitively in the past two decades, those places can — they predictably do — include institutions and families, social arrangements set up, as Joelle points out, to do good things which can actually end up inflicting considerable misery and pain on people when they malfunction (89-107). 

Among those social institutions, religious bodies constitute a special case (91-3) — again, a point about which many of us have become critically aware as the abuse situation in the Catholic church has entered the public eye in an illusion-shattering way in the last two decades. This valuable section of the book also includes excellent sections about how parents can exercise particular vigilance regarding the dangers institutions may pose to their children (99-101), and what they can do to protect their children from institutional abuse (101-104).

As someone who has not raised children, I found the next section of the book — on how parents can protect and educate their children from infancy through adolescence into young adulthood — especially fascinating. The chapters in this part of the book are designed to impart a wealth of age-specific information about dealing with the challenges at each stage of development of children, teens, and young adults. 

There's an enlightening and thoughtful discussion of the complex issue of sexual abuse and sexual identity or orientation (198-200) — complex, since quite a bit of evidence suggests that 1) not a few adults, notably adult men, who later struggle with questions about whether they're homosexual think that early experiences of sexual molestation "turned" them gay, and, related to that myth, there's also the myth that 2) the minors targeted by predators attract a predator because they show signs of being gay or lesbian at an early age. The book deals with both topics deftly and convincingly.

I would imagine that many parents today will also find the section of part three dealing with smartphones and handheld devices (211-2), apps and social media (212), and online sexuality (with problems of online anonymity) particularly useful. I know from talking with my family members now raising preteens and teens that such technologies are major challenges for parents raising children at present, and that many parents feel they're floundering in a world in which the rules appear to have shifted rapidly and no new rules have been forthcoming.

The final section of Joelle's book is a call to action (265f) to which she has appended an outstanding list of resources, support groups, etc., that will be of great use to parents as they protect and educate their children. I've used the word "smart" a number of times in this review of The Well-Armored Child, and deliberately so: it's a smart, accessible, well-organized book by a savvy, experienced educator-parent who knows what she's talking about. I highly recommend it to parents and educators.

The photograph of the cover of Well-Armored Child is from Joelle Casteix's website. The Amazon page for the book is here.

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