Survivors of Incest Anonymous is a twelve-step group which uses the steps not to heal from an addiction caused by abuse, like many twelve-step fellowships, but to heal from abuse itself. Through its World Service Office, SIA provides:
- a worldwide directory of meetings;
- liason with all of the meetings;
- registration of new groups;
- over fifty pamphlets and brochures, audio cassettes, greeting cards, et cetera;
- a speakers' bureau for conferences and workshops;
- media interviews;
- public information and outreach through public service announcements and press releases;
- letters of introduction to healthcare professionals, community groups, colleges, and other interested organizations;
- a website which gets an average of one visitor every seven minutes;
- and exhibits at related conferences.
They offer literature in the form of tri-fold brochures and longer booklets on subjects including "Is Survivors of Incest Anonymous For You?", "The Effects of Child Sexual Abuse on the Adult Survivor", "Stages of Reaction to Trauma", "Family Dynamics in an Incestuous Family", "Incest and Eating Disorders", "Reclaiming our Spirituality", "Pastoral Sexual Abuse", "Love and Sex are Compatible Companions", "Must We Forgive?", "Female Perpetrators", various step work materials, and much more.
As in other twelve-step programs, meetings are free; each meeting passes a basket for donations, and most charge for literature, but that is all. SIA defines incest very broadly. Where many survivors start out by trying to convince themselves that what happened to them "doesn't count" as abuse, SIA considers that "any sexual contact, covert or overt, between a child and a trusted individual" qualifies as incest, and that anyone who wants to recover from such an experience qualifies to be a member of SIA and can attend any of their meetings. The sole exception is that no one who is currently abusing a child is allowed in any SIA meeting. As of this writing, SIA has about 200 meetings in twelve countries and six continents, as well as phone and online meetings which are accessible around the world - to anyone with the proper technology. New meetings are announced in every issue of the quarterly Bulletin.
In 1980, a woman named Linda D. called a rape crisis center and began therapy to deal with the effects of growing up with an abusive mother - "not because I was sexually abused, you understand, I just knew that I couldn't cope with life." Soon her denial fell away enough for her to begin attending an incest support group at her therapist's suggestion.
The group was a success in one way: it introduced her to several other people who, like Linda, were members of twelve-step programs. The group therapy process wasn't working for any of them, but one woman said: "Since the twelve steps have worked in other areas of our lives in which we were powerless, why not apply them to incest?" Thus began Survivors of Incest Anonymous. Like all twelve-step programs, it started small. Their first meeting was at Linda's dining room table. It included three people: Linda, Darlene, and Sue. They met for months, just the three of them, until Darlene convinced the group to open up to others. One of the members set up a phone line for SIA in her home. Darlene called local churches and clinics, and found herself having to explain over and over what "incest" meant. It was only 1982.
Within a year or two, the group was falling apart. Membership had dropped. Linda was having anxiety attacks, nightmares, crying jags. She was sure she was losing her mind. She wanted to close the meeting for her own sanity, but couldn't bring herself to make a decision alone which should have been up to the shrinking fellowship. She decided to just wait until no one came, but "for the next year, one person showed up every week! Damn!"
Then news of the meeting began to spread. People began driving two and three hours to reach the Baltimore County meeting, and then began to start their own meetings at home. As the media began to discuss child sexual abuse more openly, SIA began to be listed on national talk shows. In SIA's twentieth anniversary newsletter, Linda D. reminisced, "Nothing compared to when we were listed in Dear Abby's newspaper column. We had 'open the mail parties.' We were getting requests from all over the nation. It was exciting to see how far the message of recovery was spreading. It was also sad to see how much of a need there was for recovery."
With this infusion of publicity, and their own outreach to mental health centers, journalists, and places of worship, SIA was taking off. They began to write literature on recovery from sexual abuse. They had no computer, so a volunteer typed each piece and made them camera-ready for a printer. It was 1985, and the growth of their organization was quickly outstripping the growth of the technology they could afford. They were overwhelmed by the amount of work in front of them. Enter Lee and Lisa.
Thanks to these two dedicated volunteers, now considered co-founders of the proram, SIA's World Service Office could expand. It comprised Linda's front porch, Lisa's basement, and the backseat of Lee's car. They started meeting as a Board of Directors for the young fellowship. One new member found them a cheap office: a copier, two small desks, a six-foot table set with trays, a phone, and an answering machine, and Linda, Lisa, and Lee, all squeezed into the ten-by-eleven foot space.
For the first time in the history of the country, maybe even the history of the world, incest and the damage it does was being openly discussed. Members of the media were calling them all the time for anonymous speakers. A talk show asked them for speakers who had been perpetrators once, and offered $500, but they were never offered money for other guests other than traveling expenses. Linda reminisces that even with this new public dialogue about incest, the media only wanted to hear certain stories. Mother/daughter incest was always silenced, and people never acknowedged that men could be victimized, especially by women. This bias was even reflected by survivors themselves. One meeting, the only one in its area, had declared itself to be "women only." The World Service Office referred a male caller to them, and many women in the meeting declared that they would boycott it if he came. But when he showed up they found that he had the same experiences, tears, pain, anger, and confusion that they did, and accepted him immediately.
This story has been repeated over and over throughout SIA's twenty-five-year history. Not the story of rejection and fear, but that of surprising bonds between strangers. When survivors are open and honest about their experiences, over and over they report that they find many more like them. Members of Survivors of Incest Anonymous attest that they see a lot of people come in and timidly share as if they are the only survivor of a particular act, the only person abused by a woman, the only ritual abuse survivor or multiple or survivor of emotional incest in the room, only to find that most of the people there know exactly what they are talking about.
SIA experienced another boost in 1989. They were not the only incest recovery program around. Incest Survivors Anonymous, based in California, still exists today, although their limited number of meetings and low profile means that they seem to be slowly dying out - often because ISA meetings decide to move to SIA's larger and more responsive program. But Sexual Abuse Anonymous, a thriving Minnesota-based program with a great body of literature, agreed to merge with SIA. They brought not only meetings and members, but also booklets and brochures with a solid understanding of the twelve-step program. Their booklet on the "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions" is still read in SIA meetings today.
The 1990s were a turbulent time for the program. In many ways, the history of Survivors of Incest Anonymous is the history of the public discussion of abuse in the United States. SIA arose when mental health professionals were starting to expose the prevalence of abuse and introduce survivors to each other. It grew and stabilized when the media admitted the existence of child sexual abuse and turned it into a hot button issue. Its meeting rooms were flooded when topics like ritual abuse and multiple personalities seemed to be on everyone's lips. And it suffered with the backlash to this open debate.
Backlash is natural to the process of confronting abuse. Part of what distinguishes abuse from other kinds of trauma is that it is hidden, denied. Psychology professor Jennifer Freyd, in her 1996 book "Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse," explained that the betrayal of being intentionally and secretly traumatized by the very people who are supposed to be protecting us, denying us any safe place to go for support, is the very thing which causes people to repress the experience of childhood abuse and not, say, a car crash or an earthquake. And it is what makes survivors struggle to believe themselves when they finally begin coming to terms with their abuse - even attack themselves for "making things up for attention" or "being crazy" just as their abusers taught them.
In the 1990s, the country went through this same backlash. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation is the most famous example. With a high-profile blitz of books, articles, interviews, and even court testimonials from discredited mental health professionals (such as notorious pedophile Ralph Underwager) the newly-formed FMSF did its best to cast doubt on abuse survivors of all kinds. Some survivors could not take the pressure and recanted; others left the program to try other forms of recovery, or went to fewer meetings because they had gained so much recovery by working the steps that they did not feel a need for regular attendance anymore. Rumors spread that SIA was shrinking because of the FMSF's attacks, but individuals often told a different story.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, old-timers who have gone to the same SIA meetings off and on for fifteen or twenty years sit in rooms of three to ten people and tell stories of a time when even the smallest meeting had thirty members or more. They remember, too, how the fellowship struggled when the majority of its members were newcomers in early recovery. How difficult it was for people to not only face their abuse but also to deal with the emotions that arose when others shared their experiences. How sometimes, meetings would nearly be in hysterics as a roomful of survivors in early recovery found themselves giggling inappropriately at how ridiculously awful their experiences had been, and how sometimes the laughter boiled over to the point that there was barely time for people to finish their shares. How sometimes, couples who were clearly abusing each other would come to meetings, and nobody knew how to set boundaries around their inappropriate behavior. In one case, the story goes, the abusive partner routinely sat in the meeting molesting a teddy bear, and no one in the room said anything - but the meeting quickly died out. Other meetings run and populated by newcomers violated the twelve traditions, the rules by which all twelve-step meetings are run: the secretary running the meeting would make all decisions unilaterally, or the meeting would affiliate itself with the church in which it met and turn into more of a religious service than a twelve-step meeting. Often the issue was simply one of boundaries: in many meeings, no one knew how to stop intrusive cross-talk or inappropriate behavior. In many ways, the decline in membership after such growth from the media boom was a natural attrition: there was simply a greater newcomer-to-experienced-member ratio than the fellowship could sustain.
The future of SIA, as I see it, began in 1999 when they officially launched their website. For the first time, information about the program was easily available twenty-four hours a day, around the world, to anyone with internet access. The first version of the website was a lurid, toothpastey shade of turquoise. There was no email link, only a snail-mail address, a phone number, and a variety of information about the program. Visitors may not have been able to contact anyone easily yet, but they could read an entire booklet about the effects of abuse, find out about the steps and traditions, and print out an order form for literature.
It was not until 2003 that survivors were able to find other contact information on the site. Phone numbers for local area coordinators began to appear: New York. Philadelphia. California. Then an email address that could be used to instantly ask for meeting information. Finally, SIA had entered the twenty-first century. They soon allowed an online meeting to register for the first time, after years of refusal and debate. Several more quickly followed. Survivors around the world could share their experiences and work the steps together at all hours of day and night, no matter how far they lived from a meeting.
The advent of online communication also brought with it a new age of transparency. In April of 2006, intergroup representatives from all over created a listserv on which they could share news about their areas and discuss current issues. By the end of the year, there was one major topic being discussed: the proposed new set of steps that the organization's Board of Governors had come up with.
SIA World Service had made another major change right around 1999: they stopped making decisions by group conscience. The second of the twelve traditions that every twelve-step group runs by says that there are no leaders at any level: everyone is equal, and all decisions are made by a group vote. In 1992, they polled all meetings to get votes on whether to offer a new, slightly re-worded version of the steps. The motion passed, and meetings now had two versions of the steps to choose from. But only about thirty meetings voted: less than five percent of the fellowship at the time. And while meetings continued for a few years to be able to vote on issues such as whether to change the logo and whether to offer chips to celebrate varying amounts of time working the program, the low voter turnout resulted in the Board ceasing to take votes by the end of the decade.
Many members did not notice; many others joined later and were not even aware that meetings used to cast votes at all. Unaware, that is, until 2007, when SIA asked for feedback on a proposed third version of the steps - feedback, not votes.
All kinds of debate immediately ensued. Some was about the steps, which were different not only in wording but to some extent in the actions that they proposed. Where the original versions of the steps suggested that a higher power could restore sanity to people's lives, the new version suggested that people could restore innocence and hope to their own lives. Where they once suggested seeking daily contact with whatever people saw as their higher power, and an understanding of right action from that source, the new version suggested seeking only the "guidance and courage to thrive."
Others were concerned about the process itself. How, they argued, could SIA call itself a twelve-step program when it was not following its own principles? In the debate which ensued, one member of the Board explained that they did not think taking a vote would be democratic since in the vote taken about the steps fifteen years before such a small percentage of the membership had voted. They thought asking people for feedback would be more democratic. They explained, further, that they had not been running things the same way that other twelve-step programs ran them, like running literature through a committee and putting it up for a vote, for similar reasons. They argued that the fellowship was too small and its members too fragile to run things that way - that since some meetings were afraid to register with the World Service Office, and could not be polled, it did not make sense to take a vote among the groups that were registered.
Several members argued, in return, that none of these statements justified taking away anyone's vote. Many people left, some in major service positions; others decided to wait the debate out. At the time of this writing, the short time allowed for feedback on the steps is nearly up; many meetings and intergroups have taken votes anyway, voting to ask the WSO to allow them a vote. It remains to be seen what the ultimate decision will be. Survivors of Incest Anonymous' future is a race between the uniting qualities and outreach powers of the Internet, and the struggle for a functional organizational structure. It remains to be seen whether the fellowship will grow fat and healthy again with the tools available to them, or whether the power struggles emerging within will tear them apart.
Survivors of Incest Anonymous World Service Organization:
Online meeting information: