At age 10, Laura Landgraf crouched outside her parents’ bedroom door and overheard a shameful secret: Her father had gotten an older sister pregnant.
Landgraf herself hadn’t escaped sexual abuse as a middle child among five daughters, three who were adopted and one biological. All were affected by her father’s incest “in one way or another,” she said.
As an adult, she tried to leave it behind until she realized her two kids were at risk of being her father’s next victims. That’s when she fought back, getting therapy and legal support through a child advocacy group. She petitioned in court to rescind grandparents’ rights.
The 65-year-old Post Falls author revisits that painful past, but with a perspective of recovery, in a newly released memoir: “The Fifth Sister: From Victim to Victor — Overcoming Child Abuse.” At 7 p.m. Saturday, Landgraf will read from her first book at Auntie’s Bookstore.
“I’m the fifth sister, the whistleblower, the one who told her family’s secret to protect her own children,” Landgraf said. “All five sisters experienced at some level sexual abuse by my father, and my mother was passive at first, then complicit, and then active.”
She said her mother aided and abetted the behavior, and later attempted to get Landgraf committed under an involuntary psychiatric hold. Exposing her parents turned ugly.
The book details Landgraf’s personal healing and steps taken to ensure safety for her children, a son and daughter, today in their 30s. Her writing a memoir now is intended to help incest victims and protect other children, she said.
“It’s first and foremost a story of hope,” said Landgraf, who moved to Post Falls eight years ago with her husband, John Landgraf. “Bad childhood does not mean bad life. It means victor is preferred over victim.”
“It takes work to decide to be healthy, but it is completely possible,” she added. “I’m loving life.”
Today, she is a victim’s advocate, life coach and speaker. She writes for publications about child abuse and is a Huffington Post contributor. Landgraf also previously worked with the Victim’s Assistance Program in Southern California and led adult support groups for the Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Landgraf often shares statistics from the Advocacy Center, which offers support to victims of child molestation. The center estimates one in three girls and one in five boys will be molested by 18 years of age. It also cites that 85 percent of them are sexually abused by people they know and trust.
Landgraf acknowledged people still find it uncomfortable discussing family incest.
“No one wants to admit it could be so close to home – an uncle, a nephew, a priest – someone known and loved,” she said. It casts shadows of shame and shattered trust. “For a child, the betrayal of trust is so overwhelming. Who would they turn to if the person they should trust has betrayed them?”
Her memoir spans 30 years and two continents. “I had to go back to places I didn’t want to revisit in my heart and my head, but to have hope for others was the reason this was written. If I can do it, so can you.”
She also had to uncover family secrets to prove a 20-year history of abuse. The journey started when she took her young children for a rare visit to her parents and walked into a room to see her father playing “tiger” with them. Memories flooded back: The game was always a prelude to molestation.
Landgraf said she used three voices in the book: her as a little girl going through the experience, as a teenager in Africa with family to avoid exposure of her dad’s behavior, and as an adult discovering her father hadn’t stopped. The court battle against her parents was devastating in itself, she said. Her name and those of her parents are the only real ones used in the book; others are pseudonyms.
“This is the complicated nature of incest, or any abuse,” Landgraf said. “The complicated nature is you love your parents and you hate your parents; they’re all you have. You have to let go of your sense of family. It wasn’t a healthy family we grew up with, but it was the only family we knew.”
“Only my children’s safety kept that light alive at the end of the tunnel.”
She credits child advocacy support for providing resources when she went through the ordeal.
“If you find yourself in this situation, put a strong team around you so you can walk sturdily forward,” she said, including emotional, legal, and psychological support.
After a 15-minute reading from her book, Landgraf allows an hour for questions. She’s also scheduled for an author event May 24 at the Well-Read Moose in Coeur d’Alene.
“My mission going forward is to empower women and men who were abused as children,” Landgraf said. Keeping the dialogue going and informing about signs of child abuse are other goals.
“If we can do that, I think we can protect our children.”