The Shadow in Our Lives:
One family’s recovery from child sexual abuse
by Tracey Wilson Heisler
This book review is different than what you’re used to seeing here. Though I’ve covered non-fiction of various subjects, this memoir is about a friend of mine. It’s her personal story of discovering a lineage of sexual and domestic abuse in her own family. There are big TRIGGER WARNINGS with this. If you’ve been personally affected, I hope you at least read this brief review and visit Tracey’s website where she has a page dedicated to resources for survivors.
- sexual abuse
- domestic abuse/violence
- childhood sexual abuse and grooming
- ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences)
“Sometimes he touches me, and I can’t take it anymore.”
It was October 31st, 2003—Halloween. The kids had just gotten home from school, and Tracey Wilson Heisler’s family was getting ready to go trick or treating. That’s when her daughter finally confessed that she was being sexually abused.
This is the story of one family’s experience with child sexual abuse—made even more difficult by the fact that the perpetrator was her father.
In this compelling memoir, Tracey Wilson Heisler, MA takes us through her family’s experiences step-by-step from discovery through recovery. Then she gives us a look at what she did right and what she now wishes she had done differently.
Both memoir and self-help guide, The Shadow in Our Lives: One family’s recovery from child sexual abuse is a must-read book not only for anyone who suspects abuse in their family as well as professionals working with victims and families.
THE SHADOW IN OUR LIVES is not the sort of book one picks up on a whim. I’ve been trained to be a trauma-informed yoga teacher which means unpleasant and ugly experiences are going to be in the histories of the people I teach. Author Tracey Heisler and I have taught workshops together based on the scientific discoveries of Bessel van der Kolk, who was influenced by Pierre Janet, Steven Maier and Martin Seligman.
As a reader, I can promise you, you don’t need to dig deep into the neuroscience of trauma to find THE SHADOW IN OUR LIVES a valuable resource. Heisler’s book her one of the opportunities she has sharing the tragic history of learning that her daughter was being abused. The abuser? The girl’s own father and Heisler’s first husband. He did all he could to blame his victim in his post-conviction relief petition to the court. Heisler didn’t need to include her ex-husband Dale’s perspective in this project, but it is illuminating to read how an abuser, desperate and incarcerated, thinks he can explain his behavior and even reverse a divorce.
In this family, Dale worked his way through a Masters program, a PhD, then post-doctural research at the Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, his new wife gave up her academic ambitions until later in life. They had five children in nine years. In this book, their names are changed. This paints the picture of an educated white man with privilege who attended an evangelical church every Sunday. They certainly were never rich and finances were often a stressor. Still, when it comes to matters of the law, judges and juries generally show this kind of man a lot more sympathy than they would others. Yet, when Dale was finally sent to jail, he included “reverse discrimination” in that petition.
At the beginning of this, Heisler is 20-years-old and eager to be married with children. The trauma her family endured because of Dale would force her to mature. This is presented at the end of each chapter with sections What I Learned and What I Would Have Done Differently. She bares her flaws in a way that can easily leave a reader questioning, “Why didn’t she call the police sooner?” or “How could that go on in your house without you knowing?” Each chapter begins with a fact from the data available at this time. Those facts alone are enough to cause a jarring wake up call.
Fact: Only 55% of child sexual abuse reports are investigated. The rest are “screened out.”
Heisler takes responsibility for her own privilege as a white woman. In Chapter Six, she says that law enforcement was an ally for her; and, later, she admits that this is not the case for everyone.
Where does grooming fit in? This is a can of worms in today’s (2023) political landscape. It’s become a buzzword for political campaigns and used to gain clicks with zero responsibility. The real truth is grooming is where sexual abuse begins. Heisler lists the stages generally defined as grooming:
- Identify a victim;
- Gain their trust;
- Fill a need;
- Isolate the child in a “special” relationship;
- Sexualize the relationship; and
- Maintain the control.
Those steps are practically a formula, same as intimate partner violence (historically called domestic violence).
Many of the details are repeated throughout the book. I believe this is done because the material may not be the type that a reader is able to digest multiple chapters at a time. I recall Tracey telling me she designed the book to be short and accessible because victims might not be able to contend with so much information at once; and parents/guardians of children being abused don’t necessarily have the time to dedicate to reading a giant textbook on trauma. This is the answer for those concerns.
THE SHADOW IN OUR LIVES is almost like a workbook or journaling prompt book disguised as a memoir. Each chapter divulges more information about Heisler’s family history which could bring out a reader’s own questions, realizations, or memories. These chapter-ending lessons are there to help people learn from mistakes of a generation before. And if the police aren’t an agency you can go to for help, there are others. Heisler lists them in the back of the book and on the official website, theshadowinourlives.com.
This is an important book, though obviously not for everyone. However, it may be for someone you know. And if you aren’t ready to read this family’s history of breaking the cycle of intergenerational child sexual abuse and intimate partner violence, give author Tracey Heisler a follow on Amazon. This will alert you to any new published content or updates to this book.
Rating: 5 Stars with content warnings