Mother-Son Incest: Hidden in Shame and Rising

Gregg Milligan, and his mother.

The molestation began as gentle fondling when Gregg Milligan was 4 years old, but it soon escalated to aggressive touching and eventually beatings that would render him unconscious.

For seven years, until Michigan child welfare workers intervened when he was 11, Milligan was too ashamed to reveal that his tormentor was his own mother.

"She was very brutal," said Milligan. "Through her difficulty reaching climax, she would become frustrated and violent, hitting and punching and slapping not only my genitals, but my face and body."

"It was terribly confusing, and it wasn't just the violation," said Milligan, now 46, and director of infrastructure for a major health care provider in Michigan.

As bad as the incest was, things got worse. Milligan's father had left when he was 2, but by the time he was 8, his mother, an alcoholic and a prostitute, invited strange men home who would sexually abuse him.

"Back then I would never tell anyone, not even a sibling," said Milligan, the most "compliant and sensitive" of three children living at home. "I was just too afraid. It was so horrendous for me to believe she actually would do this to me."

One of the unspeakable secrets in the world of child sexual abuse is that mothers can be molesters. Often, they prey on daughters, but more frequently their sons -- who report increased feelings of isolation and sexual confusion along with thoughts of suicide.

Both of Milligan's parents are now dead, but his past still haunts him.

"Around 10 years old, I started to get this unbelievable feeling of dread that if I don't get out I am going to die from the decadence, the debauchery, the forced molestations and the beatings that became more severe," he said. "For three months I suffered from hysterical paralysis."

An estimated one in four girls and one in seven boys will be sexually assaulted or abused before the age of 18, according to the Alabama-based National Children's Advocacy Center . In 27 percent of these cases, the abuse is perpetrated by the child's parents.

Previous studies of day care workers published in 2000 in the Journal of Sex Research, found that women -- without male accomplices -- accounted for only about 6 percent of the abuse of females and 14 percent of males.

But more recent national surveys indicate about 12 percent of all child abuse cases are committed by women -- "a 100 percent increase compared with previous data," according to Chris Newlin, NCAC's executive director.

"We view females as care givers and protectors of children," he told ABCNews.com. "Now we are beginning to understand females are sexually abusing children, and it is occurring much more."

Professionals are stymied by public perception that incest is "an ugly subject," and that women can't commit such crimes.

"If it's a 35-year-old female and a 14-year-old boy, we'd say the boy is getting lucky," said Newlin. "And if it was a 35 year-old male and a 14-year-old girl, we'd call that a pervert."

Mother-Son Incest Often Unreported

And boys like Milligan aren't often believed.

"We have this overarching thing that goes back to the Salem witch trials of children making up stories," said Newlin. "You can't trust kids."

Survivors like Milligan say that these crimes often go unnoticed, not just because society can't imagine women as aggressors, but because boys feel riddled with shame.

"There is this terrible stigma that boys crave sex," said Milligan. "We are just as impressionable and naive and just as afraid. How can anything be consensual at 4 or 11 years old?"

He was finally able to tell all in the self-published memoir he took a decade to write -- initially titled "God Must Be Sleeping," he changed the title to reflect a more upbeat chronicle of his survival, "A Beautiful World."

But Milligan has much to be positive about. Though his childhood was ravaged, he has managed to raise a son, now 23, who "has never known violence or abuse."

Today, Milligan is a spokesman for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, sharing his experiences as a survivor.

About 10 percent of all crisis calls to the RAINN hotline are from males, according to program director Jennifer Wilson, who said they get about 100,000 calls a year.

"This crime is hard to track because people just don't share it with law enforcement," she told ABCNews.com.

In September, when child star MacKenzie Phillips went on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" to disclose her father had raped her at the age of 19, calls to RAINN's hotline from incest victims "spiked."

Mothers who sexually abuse tend to have higher rates of mental illness and are often the victims of abuse themselves. They also have easier access to children.

"It's easy for women to go unnoticed," said Wilson. "And at the legal stage, they get lighter sentences."

Because incest is considered taboo, few boys come forward and social service providers are not often trained in detecting signs in women abusers.

Abused As Child, Abuse as an Adult

One victim, Dominic Carter, a TV news reporter in New York, wrote about his own abuse at the hands of his mother in his 2007 memoir, "No Momma's Boy." Earlier this month, Carter was convicted of attempted assault after a 2008 fight with his wife, and could face up to three months in jail.

As a child, Milligan turned his anguish inward.

"My brother and sister could leave the house and naturally play with friends," he said. "I was petrified to leave mother. The clear sense was that if I did, the punishment would be worse."

His mother also threatened to kill herself and Milligan said he more than once was hit by cars while chasing his mother into the street.

His father was equally volatile, returning once to beat his mother "so bad he left her with an eye hanging out of the socket."

Teachers were also unaware of the abuse. "In their defense, I was kept out of school," he said about his frequent injuries. "My mother was very cunning."

The family was on welfare, but when social service workers paid their visits, the children were "always pushed out of the house and not allowed to come home," Milligan said.

Dr. Carole Jenny, a pediatrician and director of the Child Protection Program at Hasbrow Children's Hospital in Providence, R.I., said sexual abuse by mothers is "really hard to diagnose -- most of the time it's not witnessed."

"Most kids have normal exams, and most parents give a credible history," she said. "Most prepubescent boys and girls don't have any lasting physical findings. Abrasions and redness disappear within 24 hours of the event."

For young children, like Milligan, who eventually called an older married sister to intervene, getting help is difficult.

"I was sneaking money and stealing coins and running down to the pay phone and begging, 'Please come and save us,'" he said. "She eventually did but was reluctant because she was afraid."

After a court battle -- his mother unsuccessfully sought custody -- Milligan lived for a time with his sister, immersing himself in books and trying to catch up.

He had missed so much school that he could only read at a third-grade level.

"I could tell time and tie my shoes, but I struggled through my first book, Dr. Seuss' 'Green Eggs and Ham,'" he said. "I read the whole summer and pored though every book I checked out of the library. By seventh grade I barely passed, but I never quit. I kept trying and trying."

Panic Attacks and Intimacy Issues

But the abuse took its toll. Until he was 16, Milligan had panic attacks and wet his bed, seeing countless child psychologists and therapists.

But by the time he was asked to leave his sister's at 16, he was an A student and involved in athletics.

Though he drifted out of foster homes and shelter with friends and priests, Milligan eventually went on to college and later graduate school.

"To this day the one question people ask is why I survived," he said. "I don't know, maybe there was something bigger and better than all of us and I tapped in to it. But I remind people it doesn't come without its problems."

As an adult, Milligan now needs medication to sleep and still has chronic nightmares, as well as anxiety attacks. "I find myself carrying around a paper bag, but I've managed to avoid the pitfalls of any addictions," he said.

Some men who are abused by their mothers become hypersexual or addicted to pornography, others avoid contact altogether.

Milligan, too, struggles with intimacy in relationships. His first marriage ended in divorce, but he has since remarried. "She is a wonderful woman and working with me in therapy."

Milligan's "happy ending" was watching his son from the first marriage -- "the sweetest, most gentle young man" -- recently graduate summa cum laude from college.

"If there is any indication of success, it's not me or the fact that I graduated from college or writing a professional position," he said. "It's my son -- he has never known violence, only love."

But his own attitude has also fueled Milligan's recovery. "I wanted to focus on the possibility of change and perseverance," he said. "I honestly don't know why I chose to read instead of doing drugs."

With good treatment, many male victims like Milligan do survive, according to Nancy Cotterman, director of the Broward County Sexual Abuse Treatment Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"I don't think they ever forget, but there are many who become empowered adolescents and adults."

What's lacking, say experts, is public awareness of mother-son abuse.

"We have the laws we need, the professionals in every profession and a tremendous network of highly trained and capable individuals in the U.S. to respond to sexual abuse," said NCAC's Newlin. "The greatest challenge is that it is such an ugly subject that most people have a hard time wanting to pay attention to it"

For free, confidential, 24/7, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE or go to the online hotline.

For more information go to the National Children's Advocacy Center .

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