On Forgiveness and Childhood Sex Abuse – Not What You’d Expect a Pastor to Say
The revealing of the Duggar family abuse story in the past weeks, and the ensuing public discourse has motivated me to put some things in writing. Perhaps the words are therapeutic only to me. Perhaps they can be helpful to others.
I am an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse.
With the help of many years of therapy, particularly EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) – and with the tender companionship of a loving husband who gave me space when I needed it but would not let me go when I tried to run or self-harm – I am where I am. I am strong. I am a survivor. I am just over 50 now. I have not had nightmares or flashbacks in a full 9 years.
Still, this Duggar story has me going back and forth between feeling lots of emotions, and feeling profoundly numb to emotion. Triggered. My primary emotion is anger toward those who would blame the victims of sexual abuse, particularly child victims. It is directed most specifically toward those who cause further emotional and spiritual harm in the name of religion by suggesting that the victims need to forgive.
Here’s where I am coming from.
From the years between the age of 8 and 16, a family member who lived nearby took every opportunity he could to get me alone and molest me. The setting was rural and remote. There were no neighbors to run to. Even if I had opportunity to break the silence, I likely would not have taken it. During the years of my childhood abuse, in the midst of the abuse, I never told anyone about it. My abuser threatened to burn down our house, or kill my pets or harm other family members if I did. He was an elder in his church and “shot pool” with the local sheriff. I thought, “Who would believe me anyway?” He also convinced me it was in my best interest not to ruin his reputation. (Believe me, it was years before I realized how ludicrous that actually sounds to healthy people who are not in abusive systems.)
In the time after, I told a few people, but I minimized the abuse and the damage. I had no idea, then, that the impact of the abuse would follow me around like a hungry dog for so many years.
Each time my abuser was finished with me, he would also express remorse and tell me I needed to forgive him. Coming from a “good churchgoing family” I felt the burden to forgive -I believed that unforgiveness was sinful. So I tried to forgive. I prayed with a few people I revealed myself to, that I might more sincerely forgive.
Through forgiveness, in my own mind, I lifted the burden of responsibility off the man who molested me all those many times over all those many years. Yet I still carried the nightmares, flashbacks, body image issues, the self-loathing and shame of one who had been abused. Since I couldn’t blame him any more (because – forgiveness) then the only one left to blame for the horrible way I felt, was myself. I wanted to committed suicide – except I thought I would go to hell. But I really wanted to – more times than I can remember – from adolescence through my early 40’s. And when I found out that he was molesting other children and my silence helped contribute to that – I wanted to even more.
In later years, when I found out that I was not his only victim, I broke the silence for real – with my whole family, especially those with children and grandchildren he had access to. In doing so, I found out many of the people I was trying to protect already knew. Most of the ones who knew told me to “get over it.” I will never be able to go safely back to my home state because even though there are family members there whom I love and who have nothing to do with this, it’s difficult to tell who sides with my abuser and who just doesn’t know what to say to me. The echo of his threats have hung over me my whole life and still do. The most difficult decision of my life was to not attend my mother’s funeral. I loved her dearly and miss her still.
I choose to remain in safe supportive places. As I wrote above, through lots of years of therapy, and EMDR, the love of my husband, supportive friends, survivor networks, and most certainly, the grace of God – I am where I am. I am strong. I am a survivor.
I have been an ELCA clergy person for the past 23 years. Theodicy and I are old wrestling partners. I am personally becoming more and more theologically progressive each year. I try to take care with my words, that they don’t unintentionally cause harm to those already struggling. I no longer believe suicide leads to hell – though there’s a part of me that’s kind of glad I used to – because I’m still here! I don’t trust anyone who thinks they are holier than someone else. I think there are far too many evil things that many Christians hide behind a façade of “moral superiority.” I detest the phrase “everything happens for a reason.” That reason might just be selfishness, pride, greed, envy, licentiousness, sloth, lust or just stupid choices. God is not trying to teach little rape victims a lesson.
Church has to be careful about how it uses words. Forgiveness is a tricky word. Built into the Lord ’s Prayer, It’s an unavoidable mandate of Jesus and yet most Christians, if we are honest, have some definite double standards when it comes to who and what needs to be forgiven or not… If a Christian driver gets hit by someone else, they are going to get insurance information, hope the other gets a ticket, and maybe sue. Similarly, I don’t see Christians clambering to insist that robbery victims forgive. If your house gets broken into, you don’t inquire whether the robber is repentant. You call the police. If your house gets broken into and you are in a “Stand Your Ground” state, you even get to shoot first and ask questions later. Yet, if your Christian daughter gets “broken into,” she should forgive?
Regarding forgiveness, I tend to believe that if someone is further harming someone who is lifted up in the Magnificat, or Beatitudes – or the many other places in the Bible where the low and hurting are lifted up for the sake of compassion and justice – that person is committing an offense not just against an individual, but against God. (Joseph: “Am I in the place of God?”) I do believe one day we will all stand before God, accountable for our actions. I also believe God’s grace and love are bigger than any of us can grasp. I’m ok that this appears to be contradictory.
I also wonder what Jesus was thinking about in particular when he said “it would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” (Luke 17:2) I am so happy NRSV chose “stumble” over “sin.” It has helped to think that there were some things that people did to little children that made Jesus angry enough to come up with that imagery.
If someone asks me about forgiveness, I will say that if someone wants to forgive, that’s fine if that’s helpful for your journey. If it keeps you from eating yourself up with rage, do it. If it helps you keep from holding on to and bottling up all the emotions – feel free. But do not ever mistake forgiveness, for taking the burden of the sin (ok, let’s call it what it is – crime) off the offender and placing it on yourself. Do not ever do it because your abuser or anyone else demands it of you! There are ways to relieve the weight of the emotional burden that can genuinely lift off that weight. EMDR worked for me*. The abuse has left many layers of damage. Do whatever it takes to heal, layer by layer.
I reveal my past in places and ways that I choose carefully. Rarely, I will open up to a large group. When I have, it has led the way to LOTS of others coming forward, incest survivor groups and lots of healing. However, in the same settings, the revelations have caused lots of consternation among those who think secrets are best kept as secrets.
I have opened up on occasion with clergy colleagues in small groups or one to one. I believe the “forgiveness” issue is one which we often simply don’t know the harm we might inadvertently inflict. Before I am free to risk my personal story, I need some assurance that I am sharing with someone who understands this as a crime in which the victim has absolutely no culpability. The Dugger situation has opened the door to asking my colleagues’ thoughts. Surprisingly, I recently had a very thoughtful conversation about it with a prayer group of colleagues more conservative than I. It was a conversation I ordinarily would not have risked. But we have developed trust over time. This day, we talked frankly about unintended consequences of our words meant to build up. They grieved with me over the little girl no one helped. They rejoiced with me in the strength and security of the woman I am now.
It is a gift to discover true community through risking being genuine with others. And in finding true community, it is possible to find truer healing – of spirits, lives, relationships and more. Coming around full circle, isn’t this the gift we seek in forgiveness?
*Resources (In my experience)
I mentioned that EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) was helpful. It has been a therapeutic resource for only about the last 20 years, but has become quite widely known for its effectiveness in treating PTSD. Go to EMDR.org for more information or to find a trained person in your area.
Survivor Groups have been helpful at various points along my journey. Some more than others.
Telling my story. Personally, I healed a little bit every time someone heard my story and expressed anger at my abuser. It wasn’t about looking for sympathy for me. It was because I was completely unable to express that anger at him myself (because – forgiveness) and had to literally learn that anger is an appropriate emotion to feel – even for a Christian – even for a Christian woman. In order to heal, it was absolutely necessary to get angry at the right person, but not get stuck in the anger. It was also about needing to be fully known. Know that the shame stays with a person a long time. Deep within them, survivors have a place in their being that says “if you knew all about me, there’s no way you could love or even like me.” Ask my husband how many times, early in our relationship, I tried to run away. I love that man!
Traditional therapy – is not something that ever really worked for me, though I tried numerous therapists /approaches. Frankly, it was kind of like opening up old wounds for 50 minutes asking me how I felt about it, and then letting me figure out what to do with open wounds in between appointments. Learn about “triggers.” Clergy are not, by virtue of ordination trained for this! (Some might be – check.) If yours is a good listener he/she might fall into the “telling my story” category of safe people. Trust your gut.
Davis, Laura. The Courage to Heal Workbook: For Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1990. Print.
Graber, Ken. Ghosts in the Bedroom: A Guide for Partners of Incest Survivors. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1991. Print.