Things We Haven’t Said

  I am honored to have contributed a writing to this brave anthology of poems, essays and articles written by survivors – Things We Haven’t Said.  Like all the other authors in the book, I hope what I have written will reach someone who needs it, and help protect our children.

For as long as I can remember, our collective silence has protected abusers and put children at risk.  The stories in this book protect children and put abusers at risk.  Abusers have relied forever on our innocence, our trustfulness, our fear, and most of all our silence in order to abuse our children right under our noses, in our own homes, churches and schools.

I feel I am living in an historic time…a tipping point, when power and privilege are being dismantled and where the secrets of how the powerful have abused the vulnerable are being exposed.

This week, I was invited to speak to a mom’s group that wanted to learn more about protecting children from sexual abuse.  Nearly 20 women shared ideas, stories and strategies for over an hour.  It was truly an amazing experience, and one I can’t imagine happening just 10 years ago.

Survivors are speaking and society is listening, understanding, and taking action.  And it’s just the beginning!

Small Circles

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I had an experience last April that I haven’t talked about yet. My friend, Moira Finley, has this amazing idea that churches should find a place to name and honor the strength of survivors of sexual abuse and assault. At first read, this would seem like a no brainer. Churches are supposed to welcome people, you know, like Jesus did. Many churches work very hard to be inclusive of everyone and make that incredibly difficult balance work. Some churches want to include everyone, but get hung up on one particular group, like welcoming offenders of sexual assault, but not making a whole lot of space for survivors. Other churches have a whole lot of talk about welcoming people, but once you look beyond their welcome mat, it is easy to see they only want people who look and love like they do, which is a nice way of saying they only want people who believe in their particular brand of hate.

Moira has this idea, revolutionary as it is, that churches can welcome and hold space for survivors of sexual assault and rape. She created this amazing liturgy which you can find at breakthesilencesunday.org. You can also read her blog and wait for the 2017 resources, which will be written soon.

My seminary, Eden Theological Seminary, held what I think was the very first Break The Silence Sunday service. It was held on a Thursday. I was fortunate enough to go. I wanted to go in part because I was so proud of the work they were doing in including survivors in this revolutionary way. I wanted to be a part of that. I also wanted to go to make sure they were handling the concerns of survivors and educating new pastors about survivors in a respectful way. They did great, if you were wondering.


break-the-silence-sunday

At the service, I wore this button for the first, and only time. I have it on my purse every day and sometimes I think people see it, and sometimes I want them to see it. Sometimes I don’t think people see it, and sometimes I don’t want them to see it.

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Whether I want people to see the button or not, and whether I want people to know I’m a survivor or not, I am. I can’t, and won’t deny it. Sometimes I tell the story and remove it from myself. I let people infer whatever details they want, or don’t want, to know. If asked, I’ll say more. Usually when I separate what I survived from my self, I am disappointed in what I’ve said. It is part of my story, not all of it of course, but it is a large part of who I am.

For myself and most of the survivors I know, this election period has been intense. It has been a soul crushing reminder of exactly why not everyone tells their stories of rape and abuse. Society as a whole does not want to know. It is too painful, too scandalous, too real, too raw, too much.

People are angry. Angry at survivors for speaking. Survivors are angry. Angry for being reminded again that we are just supposed to take it. We are supposed to let anyone who wants to abuse us and just smile and keep taking whatever shit anyone throws at us.

Well, that plan isn’t working so well. Survivors are talking. Jennifer’s last post spoke to that. It spoke of the anger and how many people are people are tired of taking the abuse. Survivors are done. We are tired. We are hoarse from silencing our screams. But we have successfully been unable to answer the question of now what. We’re done. We’re tired. But now what?

We have seen in the news some of the now what’s even if we couldn’t quite identify them. Women are sharing their stories. Twitter exploded with stories of how women are raped and abused, groped, fondled, harassed, cat called, dismissed.

Survivors are doing their part. We are speaking up. We are also doing our very best to live in a world that doesn’t want to hear us. Advocates are doing their part. They are listening and giving survivors a place to speak. They are educating young people, and old, what can be done to stop rape. Men are speaking about the toxic masculinity that crushes us all.

Conversations are being had. Some people are listening. Some are not. I don’t think that the world is worse than it used to be. I think we have access to far more information that anyone ever imagined.

I do not know what now. I do not think there will be one event we can point to and say this is the now what. Each day, we all make a choice as to what will be the now what. I hope we are on the gaining edge in which we can end rape, hate, violence, and all the other things so many of us are fighting to stop. It must change. The world just cannot take the cries of agony from so many.

So, I leave you with old words presented in a new way. It may not seem like it, but the world has already changed. Let’s keep it swinging in the direction of change, even if it is just in small circles.

A Million Stories

Six days ago, Kelly Oxford, a nationally known author and public figure tweeted the story of the first time she was sexually assaulted and invited others to do the same. Kelly was 12 years old when a man on a city bus grabbed her between the legs and smiled at her. Since last week, she has received over a million tweets of similar stories from women. At times, more than 50 per minute.

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“Groped, penetrated, rubbed against, masturbated on, stalked, raped and forcibly kissed…” wrote NPR on Tuesday. This is the reality nearly every woman experiences – not just once, but time and time over in her lifetime. Thank God, it has become a national conversation. Because honestly, even women don’t talk about it between themselves. We had given up hope that it would ever change and had accepted that being assaulted repeatedly was our lot in life. Society didn’t even consider it sexual assault ( which, by the way is defined by the justice department as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.”) At least now, with all the talk, there is hope for change.

Change depends, however, on where men take it from here.

One story told of a girl who took the metro to school starting at 12. She quickly learned not to get on any train that was either completely empty or completely full. If it was empty, and a man got on at the next stop, he would invariably expose himself to her. If it were completely full, she would arrive at school with semen on her backside from being masturbated on.

A million similar stories were told. Sometimes more than 50 per minute.

I remember the first time for me. I was also twelve. The middle school I attended had a long and boring lunch line, but it was made more enjoyable by joking around with the two bus drivers who delivered the meals from the high school, where they were made, to our school. I looked forward to talking to them each day as they stood in the kitchen and we all inched by in a line. Then, one day I left school early on a pass for a dentist appointment. The school seemed empty. Teachers and students were in class and administrators were in their offices. As I walked down the hall, I ran into one of the lunch drivers, and he walked me out. As we came to the airlock doors, he held one open for me. But as I passed through, so did he. He pressed against me and kissed me on the mouth. I wasn’t even sure it really happened. I just kept walking. The next day, I told the school counselor and he said he would speak to the principal about it. Later, he reported, “I told him I thought there had been an incident of the driver kissing a girl at our school. I didn’t give him your name. He said, ‘well I can only think of one person that could be – Jennifer Carmer – she flirts with them all the time.’” Yah, 12 year old me was flirting with 60 year old men.

Age 18 – I was a freshman in college, working as a front desk clerk at a large hotel. One day, the owner of the hotel came downstairs to the front desk, leaned over the desk and started staring at me. After 15-20 seconds of his silent gaze, I became very uncomfortable and said, “Ted, is there something I can do for you?” “Honey, there’s a LOT you could do for me, you’d better rephrase that question”. Thank God the phone rang. When I finished with the call, he had disappeared.

Age 22, I went out to supper with a group of co-workers at my first “real” job. We loosened up and started laughing with each other. The co-worker sitting next to me laughed at a joke I told and as he did he put his hand on my thigh. He left it there as he told me a joke of his own. I told my boyfriend about it when I got home, and he asked me why I didn’t tell the guy to take his hand off me, and I said, I didn’t actually realize I could. I thought I would get in trouble or at least cause a scene if I did.

Age 54 – just a few months ago, I had a conversation with a friend who has been in human resources for over 20 years. I asked her what her take on tattoos in the workplace was and her response shocked me. She said, we generally don’t recommend them because a tattoo on a woman can be sexually stimulating to some men. I said, “well that’s his problem if he gets stimulated by a tattoo,” to which she replied, “yes, but as we all know, it can easily become her problem too.”

A million women tweeted similar stories this week. Sometimes more than 50 per minute.

My son came to me this summer and said he was confused and conflicted. A man he worked with had been accused of raping a young woman at a college party. She had too much to drink and went upstairs to lie down. He was accused of following her and raping her while she was unconscious. My son didn’t know what to believe because he thought he knew this man and didn’t understand how it could be true that anyone – let alone his acquaintance – could do such a thing. I told him that unfortunately, some men look upon an incapacitated or vulnerable female the way the rest of us look at a $20 bill found in an empty parking lot.

A million stories. Sometimes more than 50 per minute.

Rape culture will not end from us talking to our daughters. Rape culture will end when we start talking to our sons. The ball is in your court men. It’s time for good men to speak out. It’s time for parents to talk to their sons about sexual assault.

Triggers Sometimes Do Die Down

Six years ago, I asked Marie Fortune of Faith Trust Institute if I would ever be able to experience a change in ministers at my church without it triggering me.  I had asked similar questions of others before.  It’s my biggest trigger – causing flashbacks and anxiety attacks.  I was abused by a minister who was transferred to my church just after losing a minister who had been a lifesaving pastor to me.  Everyone else I had asked about triggers over the years had either not answered, or questioned me on why it was so important.  Marie answered very honestly, “Probably not.  You know things others don’t.  But they will get less powerful.”

My reactions were put to the test this summer when the pastor at our church made a surprise announcement that he would be leaving in a month. Until that moment, I thought I had found the perfect setup to allow me to worship with minimal triggers.  Services were held in a school cafeteria, not a church sanctuary (another big trigger for me), the minister was younger than me and we communicated a lot through email (which felt much safer than a pastor’s study).  I had begun to feel very safe at church.  We frequently volunteered as greeters and looked forward to attending.

The week after the announcement, my husband and I went to service.  I could feel the anxiety building as we drove there, and my mind was busy with rapid-fire thoughts and I lost my sense of safety.  I used techniques I had learned from therapy, such as grounding and staying present and I began to feel centered again, so I decided to go ahead and attend that day.  Most importantly, though, I promised myself I would take care of myself and put my needs above things like politeness or protocol.

For most of the service, I stayed centered and did quite well.  It was near the end of the service when we lined up for communion that looked back, saw the minister who was leaving at the back of the church and remembered falling apart when I was 14 at the minister’s final service.  It was then that I started to cry and I knew I needed to take care of me.  I turned to Dave and said, “we need to leave now,” and he didn’t hesitate.  The moment I was outside the building I knew that Marie was right.  I couldn’t forget what I know that others don’t, but it had gotten less powerful because I had gotten better at taking care of myself.

Over the following weeks, I sometimes chose not to attend, sometimes attended and snuck out the back before the end.  I gave myself permission to stop volunteering as a greeter for a while so I didn’t feel obligated.

I don’t know if triggers can get less powerful for everyone.  I pray that they can because every survivor knows how debilitating they can be.  But I want others to know that it can happen and it has happened for me this time.

In Remembrance of Tim

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My uncle has died. Tim Lawrence, date of birth June 5, 1968; date of death January 8, 2016. Length of life: much, much too short.

This post will be honest, potentially shocking, and I hope, not harmful to any survivors who will read it. It may be triggering, as all posts on this blog have the potential to be.

Writing about someone’s death is always difficult. I have not known what to say about Tim. And there are things I know I am not supposed to say. Things confided to me by him that shattered my heart when I learned them. He knew about my blog, and he said that he wanted to read it, but it was just too hard.

“One of the horrifying things I discovered as I grew more and more comfortable sharing my history was that an unfortunately large number of people also had similar experiences. It is a brotherhood and sisterhood that no one wants to belong to but which has an uncountable number of members.” Callen Harty, Empty Playground: A Survivor’s Story.

Then this morning, in my Instagram feed, this amazing painting showed up. I immediately liked the painting, but then I read the caption. The caption said, “Ladies and gentlemen: My new friend Tim. This one is mine and named Tim in honor of a friend gone from this earth too soon.” (Quote and painting used with permission.)

Tim Painting

I knew it was time to write about Tim. The painting was done by my friend, Stacey Oldfield. I have known Stacey for as long as I can remember. When we were little, there was almost an alarming resemblance between us. Tim lived in my grandparents’ house two doors down from my house and Stacey lived across the street from my grandparents. So, she too, probably has known my uncle for as long as she can remember.

When I was first born, apparently, we did not live down the street from my grandparents. Tim used to love to tell the story of being able to ride his bike to my parents’ house to see me after I was born He was so proud of that. He was proud that he got to see me, his first niece, and he was proud of the independence he had riding his bike all that way. It was probably no more than 10 blocks, but it was a big deal for him in many ways.

Tim grew up in a house filled with pain. It was a house of smoke and mirrors. What people on the outside saw was either a trick or something disproportionate to the reality hidden behind the front door.

And that is exactly what the ringleaders, my father and grandparents, wanted people to see. Everyone in those two houses were conditioned to be quiet, to hide pain, and to make everything look like it was okay. I do not know for certain that my grandparents were child molesters. I do know that they encouraged silence and always stood with my father.

All of the kids raised between those two houses are talented. We are smart, we are funny, we are creative, and we can keep secrets. We were a child molester’s dream.

Until we were unable to keep the secrets anymore. Then we became the child molester’s nightmare.

Tim suffered from depression, anxiety, drug addiction, alcohol addiction, and unresolved trauma. And yet, he always tried so hard to be positive. He tried to let the people he loved know that he loved them. He wasn’t perfect, but he was kind and thoughtful, even if he sometimes lacked follow through.

He struggled so hard to overcome the messages of worthlessness he received from far too many people. I don’t know the kind of things my father might have said to him in person, but I know what my father said behind Tim’s back. Since my father didn’t shy away from telling people what he thought of them, I can only begin to imagine the types of hurtful, horrible things my father said to Tim’s face.

Tim tried to outlive the pain and shame that were laid at his feet. Those things never belonged to him, but were put on him by someone else. He couldn’t shake the terror, the fear, the desperation of trying to keep someone else’s secret.

And he wasn’t alone in that, but the isolation was too much. It is hard to name our darkest shame because we fear no one will believe us. We struggle to name the unthinkable, and all the while, we’re struggling against the voices in our head that tell us we’re just a piece of shit no one cares about and won’t listen to anyway. It is an astronomically hard battle.

And some of us never win it.

Tim fought as hard as he could to overcome all that held him back, but it was too much for him. I hope in death he is released from the hell he lived through on earth. I hope he is calm and at peace. Even more than that, though, I hope he is free.

The Man Who Raped Me Has Died

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“He’s dead.”

I had been waiting to hear those words for many years.  I knew that as soon as those words were true, the world would be a safer place.

I was raped as a teenager by a man my family and I trusted…our pastor.   I was not the only person raped by him.  There were many of us, but only two of us came forward and accused him.  We were not successful in convicting him, neither one of us.  In fact, some of our friends came to his defense.  But I know what happened to me, and she knows what happened to her, and we know what happened to each other.

When she called me and told me, “he’s dead,” we breathed a sigh together.  “He can’t hurt anyone else.”  When you are raped by a Master Abuser, sometimes that’s all the justice you have – a sigh of relief with a fellow survivor.

I shared the news later that day with a small circle of close friends and fellow survivors of sexual abuse, and the responses I received were comforting.  I needed to let others hear me say that I celebrate his absence from the planet, and let it be okay.  One friend wrote back, “Oh Jennifer. I am still waiting. I can’t imagine how it feels. It makes me beyond distraught to know the man who raped me over 2 year’s time is still in the community in which I live. I know I was not the only one he abused. Big hugs to you and thank you for sharing”  Another replied, “I remember that feeling when my uncle died, and I look forward to the day my father dies, as the world will become safer that day, too. If you’re happy, that’s great. If you feel sad, that’s OK. If you feel a lot of different things, that’s OK. But the world is a better place, and you’re an amazing person. Both of those are worth celebrating.”

Afterward, it made me think how great it would be if there were somthing more – a sanctuary, a forum, maybe even a spiritual service for survivors to grieve honestly and openly when an abuser dies.  A place where survivors can say the truth – that they are relieved as well as saddened that only death could stop him.  I feel blessed that I have surrounded myself with people who can listen to these hard truths.  I feel honored that I can be those ears for their truths too.

I have done some public speaking about both my experience living and growing up one-handed as well as my experience as a survivor of sexual abuse.  The former is a much more popular topic.  I get asked to repeat the one-handed stories far more often than the survivor stories.  One subject is always considered uplifting and inspirational.  The other is often received as dwelling in the past, or too depressing/upsetting.  The truth is, speaking about surviving sexual abuse is not speaking about the past.  It’s speaking about your entire life.  Because every day after, we are surviving…even the day our rapist dies.

Work In Progress

I know I am a work in progress, I do.  I see that I’ve come a long way, I do.  But I still get frustrated with myself when familiar scenarios replay.

I was standing next to him.  He was seated at the table. The meeting was about to begin, and I was talking to someone nearby when I felt his hand grasp my right calf and give it a little squeeze.  I froze.  What the fuck just happened?  I finished my conversation quickly, moved away and found a seat.

In 1987, I watched the movie “Nuts,” starring Barbara Streisand.  In it, there is a brief dialog that comes to my mind frequently.  A patient says to her therapist, “the thing is…I know there are normal people out there…I’m just not sure what they do.”

What do normal people do when someone you are acquainted with fondles your calf just before a  business meeting?  Does this happen to normal people?  What the fuck just happened? 

I kept this story to myself for several days.  I began to question what I did to invite this.  And, I hated myself for asking that question.  Me.  Survivor.  Advocate.  I tell people “it’s not your fault and you are not alone.”  I wasn’t listening to my own message.

Finally, I shared what happened with my tribe…a friend who also attends these meetings, my husband, Jackie, and then another friend, and another.  To a person, they understood me, believed me, and supported me.  They encouraged me to take back my power and confront him.  And it was through them, that I remembered how important it is to speak  my truth.  The few days I spent silently pondering what had happened, inside my own head, were the worst days in recent memory.  When I shared what had happened, they reminded me of who I am, and they reminded me that I did not ask for or invite this awful act.

My tribe also reminded me that it was okay that I did not react in the moment, and that there was no statute of limitations on confronting him.  With their encouragement, I wrote him the following letter:

A few weeks ago at the meeting, you reached out, took hold of my calf, and gave it a squeeze.  Although I did not react at first, I want you to know three things, so I am writing you this letter.

1) I did not enjoy it  

2) It was completely inappropriate for you to touch me this way, and

3) As a result, do not touch me again for any reason

Jennifer

We are all work in progress.  It’s never too late to start speaking about what happened/happens to us.  No incident is too small or insignificant.  If it made you uncomfortable, it matters.  If you know there are normal people out there, but you’re not sure what they do, your tribe will help you remember who you are.

Unexpected Sighting

Let me preface this by saying I’m sorry. I’m not writing this to scare you, but it is my guess it will. I shouldn’t have to write this post, and you shouldn’t have to worry about it.

But I have to write it and you now have to worry, if you weren’t already worried.

My friend recently went to a movie. It was one of those movies geared toward kids, with some humor thrown in for the adults who need to go with them. Just because the movie was geared toward kids doesn’t mean adults can’t go and enjoy it, but sometimes, there is something more sinister going on.

My friend is a survivor of sexual abuse. As she was getting her tickets, she thought she saw a man who looked like her abuser. She shook it off because she thought it was unlikely that her abuser would be at this particular movie; a kids’ movie. She and her boyfriend found their seats and a few minutes later, someone sat down behind them. She got that feeling-that creepy, something isn’t right feeling. She glanced over her shoulder, and there was her abuser. He was with his wife and step-daughter. At least he wasn’t there just by himself, but he was still there.

My friend got up and walked out of the theater. Her boyfriend, not knowing what was going on, followed. She told him who was sitting behind her and then they talked about whether or not they should stay.

She ultimately decided to stay. They watched the movie, and then on the way out, she went to the bathroom. Her abuser’s wife and step-daughter were in the bathroom. If they recognized her, they didn’t say anything.

I absolutely could not have stayed in the theater. This isn’t about judging my friend for her choice. I would like to think I would have had enough courage to announce to the crowded theater of kids and parents that there was a convicted sex offender in their midst. I’m not sure I could have done that.

I don’t want you to never take your child to a movie again. Or a park, or, church, or school, camp, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, daycare… I hope you get my point that predators are EVERYWHERE. We cannot assume that they are cowering in the shadows. They are bold and brash and looking for an opportunity to abuse kids.

The very best we can do for our kids is talk to them about staying safe. Teach them about safe touch. Teach them to say no. Tell them they can tell you anything and you will believe them and do everything you can to keep them safe. Teach them that secrets aren’t something to keep and that even if someone touches them inappropriately and threatens to hurt you, that it’s just a threat to keep them quiet. Tell them how much you love them and how important they are. Go with them to movies, and the bathroom.

You cannot keep your kids home so they never experience danger. That kind of defeats the point of having them and wanting them to be independent people.

Above all, teach them to be smart and pay attention. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Tell them it is okay to say that something doesn’t feel right and to get out of that situation.

Sex offenders are everywhere. Kids are everywhere. Even if they are never abused, and I hope beyond hope that they aren’t, they will encounter them. Give them the tools to keep themselves safe. This is the only way we can stop the epidemic of sexual abuse.

This story was used with permission of my friend. No one has been named to protect her privacy. If it weren’t for that, please know I would have named the abuser.

What I Learned from JC Browne

image Last week, my best friend passed away.  We knew each other for about nine years.  We played golf together, drank wine together, traveled together, and spent countless hours chatting about life.  I know that he felt he benefitted from knowing me.  He saw the very best in me.  And, in the nine years I knew him, he had the most profound impact on me that anyone ever has.  What follows is a very long tribute to his influence in my life.  These are the lessons I learned from JC Browne:

1. Stop trying to be normal.  I was born one-handed, and I spent most of my life angry about that.  Angry at how I was treated, angry that I couldn’t just blend in, angry at people making a big deal about it.  At times, my anger served me well, and was justified.  Angry was not all I was, but it was always there.  Most people who knew would not have known I harbored this anger.  When JC and I developed a close friendship, I felt comfortable expressing it to him, and he listened and he heard.  One day, he asked me why I wore a prosthesis.  I replied, “so that I don’t have to be seen as handicapped.”  He replied, “that’s interesting, because I’ve played golf with you when you were not wearing it, and I have seen how able-bodied you are, how you hold things in your arm, and how natural you look…and I have seen you at work when you were wearing your prosthesis and how unnaturally you move and how handicapped you are.”  Six months later, after processing what he said, I took off my prosthesis and have not worn it since.  March 23rd, 2009.  I was 47.

That was only half the battle.  He helped me with the other half too.  Once I stopped wearing the prosthesis, the comments started coming in again – the ones about how incredible it was that I could do things one-handed.  I heard these compliments as patronizing.  “Why can’t people just appreciate me for who I am?” I said angrily to JC one day. “Why do they always have to point out my disability?”  JC had finally heard enough.  “You just don’t get it do you??  You’re never going to be normal.  Stop trying to be normal.  You’re going to have to settle for extraordinary!”  It took almost 50 years for me to see that no one was putting me down.  I was putting me down.  They were trying to tell me that I could do things well with one hand, that they struggled to do with two.  Thanks to JC, I will live the rest of my life settling for extraordinary.
2. Seek justice. When I told JC that I had been sexually abused by my own pastor when I was a teenager, and that the church had done nothing to the perpetrator, nothing to protect future victims, and next to nothing to acknowledge the report I had made several years earlier, he had a different reaction than anyone else. He did not think I needed additional counseling, or a support group, or forgiveness, or sympathy. He thought I needed justice, and he was willing to walk with me down the path required to get it. He cheered me on as I brought a second complaint, he connected me with a female bishop in the church, whom he knew would not file my letter away again, and he connected me with an expert in clergy sexual abuse. Today, my abuser still enjoys a full retirement pension, and has never been convicted, but through my hard work and JC’s support, I have found a measure of justice. One of the connections JC initiated for me led to me finding and befriending a fellow survivor of my abuser, and learning that my failed first attempt to report him had become a priceless source of strength for her when she bought charges against him later. I have since become a CASA volunteer as another way of advocating for children in the Injustice system, and Jackie and I have founded LearningHope.org, a resource for survivors of sexual abuse. It only took a spark.

3. Understanding manipulation as abuse.  I have an undergraduate minor in psychology, I have read dozens of self-help books, I’ve benefitted immensely from therapy, but I continued to define manipulative behaviors in my ex-husband as “personality traits”.  Society taught me to do this.  We use words like “he’s a jerk,” or “what’s her problem.”  It’s not cool in many settings to name manipulation what it is – abuse.  I, like many people, think of emotional abuse as aggressive, hurtful statements, or blatant control.

I had been divorced more than six months, when JC, his wife Mary, and I were eating out in Branson, MO.  It was a restaurant I recommended for their great BBQ and I had been there several times.  As we were perusing the menu, JC and Mary asked “how are the ribs here.”  I replied I didn’t know because I had never had ribs.  “You’ve never had ribs?!?” they said in unison.  “But you love BBQ.  Why have you never had ribs?”  “Because George was morally opposed to them.  He thought they were bad for you and a waste of money,” I answered.  JC would not let that go unchallenged.  Through a series of gentle, but persistent questions, he allowed me to hear myself say that if I had ever wanted to order ribs, George would not have told me I couldn’t order them, but his ensuing behavior and comments would have made the choice not worth the pain.  “It’s the same thing as not letting you,” JC and Mary helped me see.  I never made excuses for manipulation again.  And I began to understand that emotional abuse should be defined by what it accomplishes, not how it is accomplished.

4. It’s possible to completely understand and yet completely disagree with another paradigm.

One of JC’s most interesting careers was an intake officer at a boys camp in northern California.  It was his job to assess within a few hours what emotional/cognitive level a new boy at the camp was functioning at and how best to serve him.  He was taught and utilized an assessment model that focused on the subject’s ability to perceive both good and bad in a situation at the same time.  Those predicted to be the most successful, were the ones who could see the gray areas of a situation and could understand opinions and ideas that were different than their own.  JC was so impressed by this that he honed his own skill at seeing things from other people’s perspectives.  He helped me move from seeing people I encountered at work, socially, and in family as either completely “good” or “bad.”  Now, whenever I feel myself objectifying others in my life, and the inherent frustration from doing so, I know I am slipping back into black and white thinking and I work to see both sides.  JC would be proud.

I never mastered the art of understanding someone’s opinion that is completely contrary to my own, though.  I will miss JC’s explanations without judgement.

5. “I’m sorry” can be sincere without accepting blame.  Before I met JC, my paradigm said apologizing was synonymous with taking blame for someone else’s pain.  It was part of my two-dimensional, black or white thinking.  Over the 9 years I knew JC, we discussed many painful things openly.  From time to time, he would say something that I was not ready to hear; and at the time, I perceived it as mean, or hurtful.  Whenever, I would express to him that I felt hurt from what he said, he would say, “I’m sorry,” and I assumed he was admitting he was wrong.  One day, I was telling him how another person had hurt me and he replied, “I’m sorry,” which struck me as really odd because he wasn’t to blame for any of it.  “I know,” he said, “but I am still sorry you are hurting and you needed to hear it.”  He went on to explain, “I apologize a lot without deciding who is to blame.  It doesn’t matter who is to blame.  It matters that you’re hurting.”  Words feel inadequate to explain how powerful that revelation was – to see that I had the blessing of a friend who didn’t care who was right or wrong, who could offer a sincere apology simply to lessen my load, without diminishing himself.

6. The best test of theology is the third-world test.  At one point in my theological journey, I was really into the Law of Attraction.  It’s a theology that says the universe is a cosmic vending machine, that conspires to provide you with whatever you ask for.  Expect pain and betrayal and the universe gives you pain and betrayal.  Expect wealth and happiness and the universe conspires to bring it to you.  I proudly shared my new-found “Answer” with JC during one of our coffee chats.  He said he thought that kind of theology had some good points, but he didn’t think it could pass his third-world theology check.  I had never heard of such a thing.  It’s very simple, if a theology is universal, it should not only make sense in our privileged, first-world lives, it should also hold hope and meaning for someone starving on the other side of the globe.  He said he couldn’t quite see telling someone born into a life of famine, that they should just expect food and clean water and the universe would provide, or that they were starving in the first place because their people had not attracted food and water.  It was my first introduction to Social Justice theology – a theology that does pass the third-world test, one that helps me see that I am privileged, not persecuted.

JC was the most well-versed Biblical scholar I ever met.  He knew EVERY story in the Bible, and he knew them in a way I had not  been exposed to before – that of Progressive Christianity.  He, along with Mary Browne and Doyle Burbank-Williams introduced me to so many new Biblical concepts that made sense to me, that my Christianity was transformed.

Last year, JC officiated the wedding ceremony for Dave and me.  On JC’s 73rd birthday, earlier this year, I called him — not only to wish him a happy birthday, but to tell him that I could not have been the person I am today if I had not met him.  I’m a better person because I knew him.  Rest in peace my dear, dear friend.  Rest in peace.

Expanding The Semicolon ; Movement

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The Semicolon Project began in the spring of 2013, when Project Semicolon Founder, Amy Bleuel wanted to honor her father whom she lost to suicide.  I just heard about it a few weeks ago, and it hasn’t left my mind since.  Although the original movement was created to honor one person, it has grown into an organization to raise awareness and lower stigmatism about mental illness.  It resonates on a different level with me.  It helps me understand part of my healing journey out of a history of sexual abuse.

Even though I was getting better, I used to struggle with the reoccurrence of pain, depression and anxiety with triggering events.  I wanted to conquer it once and for all.  I wanted to be done with it.  I don’t think that’s too much to ask.  Please…just make it stop.  Shouldn’t the end goal of healing be freedom from pain, depression, and anxiety?

I was raped by my own pastor at the age of 15.  Years into real progress of healing, I was surprised when a change of pastors in my church sent me reeling into weeks of flashbacks, and uncontrollable anxiety.  During that time I had an opportunity to be speak privately with Marie Fortune.  Marie is the founder of Faith Trust Institute, a respected national educational organization that provides training on clergy sexual abuse.  I took the opportunity to ask Marie if I would ever heal to the point that getting a new pastor would no longer traumatize me.  Marie answered honestly.  “No.  Because Jennifer, you know things other people don’t know, or choose not to know.”  And then she added, “but it might get less severe.”  I have forever been so thankful that Marie was honest with me that day, and that she explained why.  And she was right.  As a result, I no longer panic when it happens, and it has become less severe, and I have learned to trust that it will eventually subside.

So when I read about the semicolon project, I really connected with the metaphor.  In grammar, the author uses the semicolon to ask the reader to pause – but not permanently stop here – because there’s another complete sentence coming just ahead.

When Jackie and I created LearningHope.org, we gave the name a lot of thought.  We tossed around several ideas before realizing that learning hope is what we have both done throughout our healing.  We have learned to pause here and absorb what we’re going through but not to stay – because we know more healing is just ahead.  Healing is not freedom from pain, depression and anxiety, but the solid hope that we are bigger and stronger than the pain.

We have also learned that sharing our stories has bound us together and makes us stronger, which in turn makes the pain, depression and anxiety weaker.  We have dedicated LeaningHope.org to encouraging others to share their stories with us; please consider sharing yours.

See what I did there?  😉

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