Overcoming Victimpostor Syndrome

Since you follow this blog with rapt joy, you will recall that I have like a shit ton of trauma from my childhood. It took me a long time to work through and “process” a lot of that trauma. By process, I mean the work of shaping that trauma into something less dangerous and painful, reducing the risk and severity of its triggering intense physical and/or emotional responses as I go through my life. More on that in a future post.

I have participated in a few outpatient trauma-focused programs with group therapy settings. The most recent was a few years ago, during the early months of the COVID pandemic, so it was all online. It was four hours per day for 3 weeks, but I took the full 3 weeks off from work knowing that it would take all my energy. When it comes to therapy, I go all in. Therapy is one of those things that requires commitment and openness to get the most benefit, so I jump in with both feet.

Trauma-focused group therapy

Group therapy settings, in general, come with rules about confidentiality. What happens in group stays in group. Trauma groups have even more. One of them is that participants are asked not to share details of their trauma. This is to help protect other members of the group who may have similar experiences from getting triggered by discussions of events that remind their brains of the trauma they experienced. While Exposure Therapy can help some people with their trauma, group therapy is typically not the place for that.

Each of the trauma-focused groups in which I have participated included people who were raped, sexually assaulted, sexually abused, or some combination of all three. As I shared in John Cazale and Inmate 19250 ยป Can’t Juggle (cantjuggle.com), my father sexually assaulted a teammate of mine. While I myself was not raped, sexually assaulted, or sexually abused by my father or anyone else, a lot of my trauma comes from my father’s behavior and the giant blast radius of the events and experiences stemming from it.

Victimpostor syndrome

As I listened to these survivors discussing the toll their trauma has taken on their lives, I started to feel like my own trauma was less valid. I felt like MY trauma was on the wrong side of the line (the side of the perpetrator) and therefore I was less entitled to the empathy and compassion that I and my groupmates were bestowing upon each other. That I was being fraudulent in my pursuit of healing.

I didn’t have a word for this at the time, but the other day I came up with “victimpostor syndrome,” a portmanteau of “victim” and “impostor syndrome,” which I am defining as the feeling that I didn’t earn my victimhood, that it was only a matter of time before people learned that my trauma comes being the family of a sex offender, not from being a direct victim of that behavior, and once people found out, I would be excluded or even become the target of anger or outrage.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is currently in its fifth edition, the DSM-5. The DSM provides the criteria and framework for mental health challenges so that there is consistency across mental health providers and researchers when it comes to mental health. The diagnosis of mental health challenges still has a degree of fuzziness and art to it since there is still so much about the brain that we don’t understand. It includes no entry for Victimpostor Syndrome as far as I know. But it feels like a valid thing to me. So, who knows what the DSM-6 could include, yeah?

It is worth noting that many prefer the term “survivor” to “victim” and while I use both in this post, in the future I will try to lean more on survivor. OK. Now I want to listen to Eye of the Tiger. Back shortly…

Taking the bull by the horns

Since, as I mentioned above, I commit fully to therapy, I decided to share with my group-mates that my dad was a sex offender (going into zero details out of respect for the guidelines of the group and the spirit behind them) and that I was struggling with feelings that I was less worthy of compassion than they were because my trauma was “on the wrong side” of the line. I want to stress that there had been nothing in their behavior or words that suggested this to be the case.

The response was swift and unanimous. My feelings of being unworthy were misplaced. Neither me nor my trauma were “less than” because of my father’s being a sex offender. It helped so much to get what amounted to acceptance from survivors of rape, sexual assault, sexual abuse that my trauma mattered, too. That I mattered and was worthy of all the help I could get for my trauma.

Why am I sharing this?

Given the emotionally charged nature of my father’s behavior, I have no doubt that, now that I have shared it, some people will find it a little harder to have compassion or empathy for me. While you may want to believe that this is not true for you, I think it is only natural. I’ve been there. It took me extra effort to have compassion and empathy for myself. For some of you, this extra effort is minimal and we’re good. I have received direct expressions of this since I shared it recently.

For others, you may still be working through this effort. Some of you may never get through that effort, and you will be unable to find that compassion and empathy for me that you otherwise might. Please know that I accept that and hold no ill will toward you if you need to pull back from me. This is hard stuff.

My main reason for sharing this is so that others in my situation may feel less alone. The families of sex offenders can be ostracized, forgotten, or even become victims of disdain and vitriol due to their connection with someone who perpetrated crimes against children or other vulnerable people. Please know that someone else understands that isolation and fear.

The other reason is to remind everyone else that the families of people who do things that society has labelled as heinous are victims, too. Lumping us in with our family members that do these things is easy and may make you feel better in the moment, but it is unjust and wrong. In the long run, it does NO ONE any good. I have never experienced this myself (not directly, anyway), but I know that there are some who have. Let’s remember the sage advice of Bill S. Preston, Esq, and Ted “Theodore” Logan: “Be excellent to each other… and party on, dudes!”

John Cazale and Inmate 19250

Trigger warning: This post will mention sexual assault and prison. If either of those are troublesome for you, stop reading when you see the warning box, pictured below, further down.


The actor’s vulnerability

I have degrees in Theatre and English. I’m a trained actor. I was by no means a great actor, but I had a few moments. My point here is that, while I made no terrific accomplishments as an actor, I understand the craft. I understand the work that goes into making something look effortless; the work that goes into convincing people, both audiences and fellow actors, that someone in a play, etc., is not a character, but a person.

One of the most important things an actor can bring to any scene is vulnerability. This can also be one of the hardest things to accomplish. As humans, our most basic instincts are to seek safety instead. Part of actor training is learning and practicing letting go of this instinct, of baring one’s soft underbelly to scene partners in an effort of creating something more than the sum of its parts.

The great John Cazale

John Cazale was an actor. A masterful actor, his performances so subtle and natural and vulnerable that it is easy to miss them. It’s rarer than you might think to find an actor that makes you so completely forget they are acting. Since he was not the leading man in any of his films, it is also easy to miss the impact he had on his fellow actors.

Part of an actor’s job is to poke, prod, and support their scene partner(s) to create an experience that transcends what any of the actors in the scene could do alone. Even when a character is quite aloof, the actor must traverse and build upon vulnerability to find that aloofness and make it natural and believable.

John’s film career was a brief one. He acted in only five feature films before succumbing to lung cancer at age 42, in 1978:

  • The Godfather (1972)
    • As Fredo Corleone
    • Winner – Academy Award for Best Picture
  • The Conversation (1974)
    • As Stan
    • Nominee – Academy Award for Best Picture
  • The Godfather Part II (1974)
    • As Fredo Corleone
    • Winner – Academy Award for Best Picture
  • Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
    • As Sal
    • Nominee – Academy Award for Best Picture
  • The Deer Hunter (1978)
    • As Stan
    • Winner – Academy Award for Best Picture
    • John was fighting/losing his battle with cancer during filming, passing soon after filming completed.

For such a short film career, he was in iconic films. And nothing but. There is a spectacular documentary of John and his work: I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale. The documentary covers his stage acting career, his all too brief film career, as well as interviews and discussions with actors, directors, and others who had the privilege of working with him or were inspired by his work.

Asking questions without having to answer them

There’s a great moment in the interview with Al Pacino discussing working with John on The Godfather Part II: “He became whoever it was he was playing; and he did that by asking questions. Because he taught me about asking questions, and not having to answer them — that’s the beauty. What’s wonderful about it is you open the door to things.”

In life, like in the stories we tell, we don’t get answers to all of our questions. We don’t get solutions to all of our problems. What matters most, I feel, is pursuing those answers and solutions regardless of our chance of success. To me, the measure of a person is not the answers they can provide, but the questions they are willing to ask (of themselves, of others, of society, of the world).

Asking hard questions can come with vulnerability. Sometimes lots of it. I have been using some of my acting training, namely making myself vulnerable, in my sharing my experiences living with Trauma, Depression and Anxiety. It’s been difficult. It has required courage. I have done it anyway, particularly since not everyone can. I have done it anyway in the hopes of helping to nudge society in the direction of openness so that sharing mental health challenges doesn’t require courage. Mental health stigma is a giant bag of dicks that our society tries to make us all carry around. It doesn’t have to be this way.

My vulnerability

I’m going to start sharing more about my childhood trauma, with more details related to my dad. It’s going to be hard. But I have a unique perspective, a perspective that most people don’t think about, a perspective that doesn’t get much coverage, even in the era of the 24-hour news cycle. I will be getting vulnerable AF, risking ire and outrage from people who may not understand I am trying to shine a little light where there is currently just darkness; not taking light from anywhere else, but adding new light.


Inmate 19250

I sat at a 4-seat rectangular table that was bolted to the floor. All four chairs, likewise, were bolted in place, capable of swiveling but not being lifted. The chairs, as I remember, were in varying colors of muted blues, greens, and oranges. The room had 12-15 such table/chair installations. Along one wall stood vending machines with various snacks in their soft, plastic packaging; nothing that could be even improvised into anything dangerous (other than trans-fats and sodium).

My mother and I had entered the room through a stout metal door with a small, reinforced, shatter-resistant glass window. At the opposite end of the room as another such door. We weren’t allowed to go near that one. Nor was anyone that came out of that door allowed to go near the one my mother and I had used.

It was only a few moments of waiting before we saw a familiar face through the small window in that far door. It opened and a brown-haired man in his fifties with perpetually stooped shoulders approached us. He was wearing a faded, but deep green, button-down shirt with a label on the left breast, “19250” in dull, whitish letters. We hugged and he sat down at the table with us. On the table rested coins for the vending machines; the man was allowed to touch neither.

The room was the visiting area at NH State Prison in Concord, NH. The man was inmate 19250 and my dad. The scene was repeated often, weekly when we were able, over the course of more than 5 years. He was convicted of felonious sexual assault of a minor (11), one of my soccer teammates, and served most of a 7-year sentence.

Forgotten victims

While my father never sexually assaulted/abused me, I am nevertheless a victim of his behavior. There is a fuck-ton (not sure how many shit-tons are in a fuck-ton, but a fuck-ton is undeniably bigger) of trauma for me in and around his arrest, his trial, his conviction, his sentencing, his term in prison, his release, and other events that happened in relation to and/or in conjunction with all of this.

I cannot even fathom what my dad’s victim had to go through and is quite possibly still going through. I sincerely hope that he got/is getting any help and support that is needed. I hold no ill will toward him, or his family, either. Just empathy and compassion. My opening up about my own victimhood is IN NO WAY INTENDED to lessen his. This will likely be the last time I mention him at all since my goal is to share MY lived experience and on one else’s.

There will undoubtedly be people who will have the knee-jerk reaction that I am trying to defend my dad or clear his name. I have no intention of doing either. There is no doubt in my mind that my dad was guilty. I didn’t witness any instances first-hand, but there were things I did witness that, upon reflection, take me beyond a reasonable doubt. I have no plan to go into any of those details.


Our society stresses OR. Someone is either a decent/great person OR they are a monster, with very little, if any, middle ground. Nuance is something people just don’t have patience for. There are lots of famous names I could mention here. There are many crimes/deeds for which we vilify people. People that harm children are pretty damned high up on that list. And I can’t argue with that, nor will I attempt to.

While it is effortless to mark strangers as monsters, it is a lot harder to do when that person worked hard to make sure you had food, shelter, a good education. It’s harder when that person loved you, read to you when you were little, played games with you, made you and so many others laugh. It’s harder when that person volunteered so much of his time, and when possible, his treasure to help people and taught you to do the same. It’s hard when you witnessed that person doing so much good to throw that all away and label them: MONSTER.

My quest(ion)

I understand taking the position that no amount of good makes up for horrible actions. If you hold that position, I respect that. I will not try to argue with you or change it. Rather, I will be focusing on the question I feel is worth pursuing:

How do I hold all the good things that my dad did in one hand AND the horrible things he did in the other? I just can’t apply the OR here that society would dictate.

I make no promise (to myself or anyone else) that I will find some grand answer or make any startling realization. My hope is that I will, to borrow from Al Pacino, “open the door to things.” I also hope that I can shine a light on the difficulty of being the family of a sex offender; the difficulty in being caught in the blast radius of the actions of someone you love.

I don’t know how many posts there will be as part of this effort. And they will not all be in an unbroken sequence or series. I will need to take breaks to blog about other topics for my own well-being. I am creating a new category and tag “AND” that I will use to denote posts related to this important quest(ion). So, if this is content you would rather avoid, but you still want to read my brilliant posts on other topics, just skip the posts in the AND category.

I hope you will follow along as I try to sprinkle some AND in among the OR.