Jane Epstein, Sexually Abused by Her Brother as a Child, Is Voice for Other Survivors of Sibling Sexual Abuse

"I thought I was the only one. We have to talk about it and educate our kids," Epstein tells PEOPLE of the "silent epidemic"

jane epstein
Jane Epstein in August. Photo: Chloe Aftel

When Jane Epstein was 6 years old, her brother, six years her senior, began sexually abusing her.

"My brother's room was in the basement, and my toys were in the basement. I was accessible," Epstein, now 54, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "I recall my brother touching me and prodding me like a science experiment, and me feeling very confused. I have memories of him coming into my room at night. He started volunteering to babysit me and get me alone."

For more than 40 years, Epstein kept her suffering secret, ashamed by what had happened and unsure if she should call it abuse — until she realized how deeply it had affected her. "I thought I was the only one," she says. "It changed the trajectory of my life and who I thought I was." Epstein has since become an advocate for others affected by what's known as Sibling Sexual Abuse or SSA — a "silent epidemic," she calls it.

Rarely discussed and rarely reported, SSA is considered the most common form of child sexual abuse in the home, occurring at least three times the rate of parent-child child sexual abuse. "It's a huge problem, but so many survivors don't come forward," says Brad Watts, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based counselor who works with families affected by SSA and the author of Sibling Sexual Abuse, one of the few books on the subject. "And if parents discover it, their first reaction is, 'We can't let anybody know.' That's the worst thing that can happen. The most important thing is to get help."

Epstein suffered the effects of anxiety, depression, and shame for decades before she found support.

Her life growing up before the abuse began was starkly different, she says. "I was a shy, silly girl who loved dolls and riding bikes," she recalls. Her father, who has since died, was a school psychologist, her mother was a teacher and her brother played sports. The whole family was involved in 4H. "I was raised in a religious home. We were taught right from wrong," she says. "[But] sex education in the '70s was not really high on the list, nor was body safety." They were, she says, a typical family. "This could happen to anybody's family. No one is immune," says Epstein.

For years, she didn't know what to think about what happened with her brother. "My sibling never threatened me. My sibling didn't really physically hurt me. But there was something inside of me that knew something wasn't right," she says. At the time, however, "I thought it was just two kids being curious."

The trauma began to surface later. "Around sixth grade I was very angry. I was rebellious. And looking back now I can see that was the shame making me angry," she says. "And I've realized how promiscuous I was, and how important boys and boys' attention was to me."

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Jane Epstein in 1975, around the time when the abuse began. Courtesy Jane Epstein

The abuse ended after her brother left for college when she was 12. "There was no access. It was done. I think by that point, he'd realized," says Epstein.

When Epstein was 21, her brother apologized, and she later wrote him a letter of forgiveness. "I believe him when he said he didn't think he was hurting me," she says. "I think if he had known the damage that he was causing to me and potentially himself, he wouldn't have done it." She did ask him, "'Why did this happen?' I wanted to hear that he had been sexually abused and that's why he was acting out because that would make rational sense to me. I didn't wish that on him, but I thought that would make sense. Why else would this happen?"

He told her he remembered when he was 12 and she was 6, she had changed into her pajamas while he was nearby. He felt curious and so he got her alone. Years later, while watching the film The Color Purple, which depicts sexual violence, "he thought 'I might have hurt my sibling,'" Epstein says. "And he apologized."

Epstein didn't realize how profoundly she had been affected until six years ago when the abuse came up during a counseling session. Epstein was a stay-at-home mom of two boys and loved her husband. But she was unhappy and didn't know why. She was living with a dread that she couldn't explain and a depression so crippling that she sometimes felt like she wanted to die. "I admitted what had happened and asked the therapist, 'It's not really a big deal, is it? It was just two kids.' He said it was a big deal."

Once she understood the impact the abuse had on her, she began Googling for more information—and found very little. "No one is talking about it," she says. So Epstein began her own Facebook page for survivors of sexual abuse, which has more than 6,000 members, and she's since launched a website, Complicated Courage (that's also the working title of a memoir she's hoping to publish this spring), which is a resource for families affected by SSA who are desperate for help. "It's a whole family trauma," says Epstein, who has also shared her story on TikTok and on the TedX stage in January — her talk has more than 190,000 views.

Today, Epstein says she has a "good relationship" with her brother. (Experts have found that, with proper treatment, the overwhelming majority of children who sexually abuse their siblings will not go on to repeat the abuse. "Kids who complete a specialized program have a 95 to 98 percent success rate of not reoffending," says Watts.) And, Epstein says, her sibling supports her activism. "He understands why I'm doing what I'm doing," she says. "He understands that it's an epidemic."

Together with four other women, all survivors of SSA or mothers whose families have been affected by SSA, Epstein also founded 5Waves, a site that provides support and education on SSA, which is distinctly different from other types of sexual abuse. SSA, they say, is often the result of immaturity, impulsiveness and not understanding consequences.

Epstein's mission is to raise awareness, so both current victims and survivors know it's not just them, and they don't have to live alone with their trauma as she did for so many years.

"I hear from survivors time and again. They no longer feel they are being silenced and ignored. They matter. Every single one of them," says Epstein. "I cannot fix the past, but I firmly believe that with education, we can change the future."

For more information on how to recognize Sibling Sexual Abuse, and for ways to find support if your family is affected, go to: Sibling Sexual Trauma.com

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