Bulbul Bahuguna, M.D., is a Chicago-based psychiatrist and author who has specialized in helping victims of sexual abuse for the past 22 years.
She is giving a voice to the many silent victims of sexual abuse through her sobering book, The Ghosts That Come Between Us. Her main character, Nargis, narrates on the complexities of sexual abuse from a firsthand perspective, giving the reader a rare inside look at the heart of a victim.
In the interview below, Bulbul explains the multifaceted nature of sexual abuse and the importance of female empowerment in healing.
MM: Bulbul, can you talk about the psychological aspects related to recovering from sexual abuse? Does it differ depending on the type of abuse, such as incest versus molest by a stranger or rape?
BB: Sexual abuse can involve molestation or rape, either by a stranger or by a family member. While each patient is different and has her own unique story of abuse and victimization, there are several common themes in her clinical presentation.
Symptoms vary depending on the age of the victim at the time of the sexual assault, age of abuser, relationship with perpetrator, concomitant verbal, physical, and emotional abuse or threats, family constellation and dynamics, level of education, intensity, extent, frequency, and duration of the abuse, and finally, access to a support system or mental health professionals.
Usually, the perpetrator is not a stranger and is well-known to the victim.
MM: As a practicing therapist for 22 years, what are some ways society can begin to de-stigmatize sexual abuse?
BB: Sexual abuse often happens in the secrecy of the home and goes unreported.
It is critical to enhance the awareness of abuse issues, which I hope to accomplish through my novel, The Ghosts That Come Between Us.
The role of social media in furthering the awareness of child and women abuse issues is crucial, and the platforms now available can deliver this awareness at unprecedented speed.
The key is to have such platforms accessible across all socioeconomic strata of society. Fighting the war against child abuse through film, television, and radio is equally critical, as is easy access to mental health in schools and communities.
MM: How do you think this greater awareness could assist victims and societies in the healing process?
BB: People have been coming forth and telling their stories of abuse. This helps other victims have the courage to come forward and talk about their own abuse issues, understand and learn new coping tools to deal with these very difficult issues in their own lives, and take solace in the thought that they are not alone.
All these efforts help reduce the stigma associated with sexual abuse, galvanize people resources, and direct people to getting the right kind of help and attention they deserve.
MM: How did your work as a psychiatrist influence your novel, The Ghosts that Come Between Us, and its main character, Nargis?
BB: I have been a psychiatrist for over 22 years, and have treated scores of patients with abuse issues. I have seen people struggle with family dysfunction and sexual victimization; i.e., having to cope with blame, guilt and shame, as well as secrecy, stigma and self-flagellation, feeling stuck and having difficulty in moving on.
Listening to these heart-wrenching stories helped me to create a fictional character, Nargis, who is molested by her father. I was able to step into the shoes of the protagonist, which enabled me to tell as authentic story as is possible with multiple points of view reflected in a layered manner.
Holding her hand, I walked with Nargis through the same streets, sights and scenes that she did – through agony, hate, and love – through fear, heartache, and longing. Through self-talk Nargis says it all: the most brutally honest thoughts and the most floridly distorted ones as well. Sometimes she expresses feelings that other victims may have also felt, but are afraid to acknowledge.
MM: What are the most effective methods a woman can employ to deal with and overcome childhood trauma, such as sexual molestation?
BB: Empowering a woman is the first step on the path to recovery.
First of all, it is important to recognize that it takes a lot of courage for a victim to talk about sexual abuse. She feels excessive guilt and shame because of her body being sexually aroused.
Often times, the victim has a lot of difficulty with trusting others and does not believe that other people can help. She is afraid that most people will either not believe her, like her family, most likely, did not believe her. Or that most other people will blame her for what happened, like her family probably also did.
It is important for her to understand what happened: that the victim was not the instigator of the crime.
MM: What is the first step to preventing sexual abuse as a society?
BB: Society can prevent the tragedy of sexual abuse through education, education and education, of both men and women.
As a National Trustee of the American India Foundation, a leading charity involved in accelerating social change in India, we work with local NGOs in India to empower women through education and livelihood to help families. This promotes self-esteem and self-reliance in women.
MM: Do you feel the stigma of abuse is diminishing?
BB: People across the globe are working toward a society that does not discriminate based on gender. The stigma of sexual abuse is slowly diminishing, and there is a greater willingness not only to get help but also to help the victims and survivors.
The recent national outcry in India against the gang rape of Braveheart speaks to this societal change, and it is a tribute to the Indian media that it did not disclose her name. Millions of men and women came out on the streets demanding that rape cases not languish in court for 10 years, but be put on a fast track for justice.
But there is a lot of work ahead. Silence only enables the crime.
Photo credit: Bulbul Bahuguna