This article originally was published in The Lutheran magazine.
Recent revelations about abuse in the Duggar family, known for TLC’s “19 Kids and Counting,” and the ensuing public discourse has motivated me to write about my experience as an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse.
With the help of many years of therapy, particularly Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and the tender companionship of a husband who both gave me space and held me close when I tried to run or self-harm, I am where I am. Supportive friends, survivor networks and most certainly the grace of God also have made me strong. I’m a survivor. I haven’t had nightmares or flashbacks in nine years.
Still, the Duggar story both triggered a lot of feelings and made me profoundly numb to emotion. Then there are those who cause further emotional and spiritual harm to incest victims by insisting on the need for forgiveness.
Between the ages of 8 and 16, I was molested frequently by a family member who lived nearby. The setting was rural and remote. There were no neighbors to run to for help. If there had been the opportunity to break the silence, I likely wouldn’t have taken it. He threatened me. I was ashamed.
When I finally told a few people, 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 expressed remorse and told me I needed to forgive him. Coming from a churchgoing family, I felt the burden to forgive. I believed unforgiveness was sinful. So I tried, even praying with the few people I had told, asking that I might more sincerely forgive.
But I eventually realized that forgiveness lifted the burden of responsibility off the man who had molested me. 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 anymore because of that forgiveness, the only one left to blame for the horrible way I felt was myself.
From adolescence through my early 40s, I wanted to commit suicide but thought I would go to hell.
When I discovered I wasn’t his only victim, I finally broke the silence with my hometown family. In doing so, I found that many of the people I was trying to protect already knew. Some told me to “get over it.”
I don’t go back home anymore. There are family members there whom I love and who have nothing to do with this. But it’s difficult to tell who sides with my abuser and who just doesn’t know what to say to me.
The echoes 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. But I choose to remain in safe supportive places now.
Wrestling with theodicy
I’ve been an ELCA pastor for more than 20 years. Theodicy (the question of why God allows evil) and I are old wrestling partners. I don’t want my words to unintentionally cause harm to those who are struggling. I no longer believe suicide leads to hell, though part of me is glad I once believed that because I’m still here.
I don’t trust anyone who thinks they are holier than someone else. There are far too many evil things that many Christians keep hidden behind a facade of “moral superiority.” I detest the phrase “Everything happens for a reason.” The reason might just be selfishness, pride, greed, envy, licentiousness, sloth, lust or just stupid choices. God isn’t trying to teach little rape victims a lesson.
The 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. 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 another driver hits your car, you expect restitution. If your house gets broken into, you don’t inquire whether the robber is repentant. You call the police. Yet, if your daughter gets “broken into,” she should forgive?
We simply don’t know the harm we inadvertently inflict when insisting on human forgiveness.
Abuse leaves many layers of damage. Do whatever it takes to heal, layer by layer. If you want to forgive, that’s fine if this is helpful for your journey. If it keeps you from eating yourself up with rage or bottling up all the emotions – do it. But don’t ever mistake forgiveness for taking the burden of the crime off the offender and placing it on yourself. And don’t ever do it because your abuser or anyone else demands it of you.
Anger and love
Whenever someone hears my story and expresses anger at my abuser and love for me, I experience healing.
Christian survivors of childhood abuse have often, in the name of forgiveness, held back their anger, turned it inward or misdirected it. They need to be reminded that this crime wasn’t their fault. To heal, it’s absolutely necessary to get angry at the right person – but not get stuck in the anger.
We also need to be fully known. Shame of childhood sexual abuse 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’ve grown my group of trusted confidants. They grieve with me over the little girl no one helped. They rejoice with me in the strength and security of the woman I am now. We share each other’s sorrows and joys. It’s true community.
It’s a gift to discover true community through risking being genuine with others. And in finding true community, it’s possible to find truer healing of spirits, lives, relationships and more. Coming around full circle – isn’t this the gift we seek in forgiveness?