TRIGGER WARNING: Details here also appear in the post, “Dear Abuser.” The following account may be triggering for abuse survivors. To any readers who’ve not experienced abuse, real details of abuse cannot be watered down or glossed over. Truth telling is paramount to understanding and preventing abuse. Filing down real, gritty details allows others to rationalize what isn’t rational. It allows them to Photoshop truth. It allows them to think, “It wasn’t really that bad. ［Fill in name] just made one mistake. But he/she is not a real predator.” Photoshopping truth is dangerous. Distortions dim reality, put others in harm, and allow abusers to continue abusing. Where sexual abuse is occurs in families, churches, and schools, the lie is preferred over truth. Communities take to blaming the victim for the abuser’s actions. This is unacceptable. Speaking truth is NEVER wrong. Committing serious felony crimes is ALWAYS wrong. Covering for felons, hiding the truth, and obstructing justice are ALWAYS wrong. Such people, sometimes unwittingly, make themselves enablers of abuse. Remember, enablers of crime are also criminals.
Over a thousand years before the birth of Christ there was a Pharaoh living in Egypt. This Pharaoh was insecure in power and position.
He worried that a particular people in his land, The Israelites, had grown “more and mightier” than the Egyptians. He feared, in their new strength, they might rise up and dethrone him. He felt threatened.
So Pharaoh conspired against them. He told his people to “deal wisely” with the Israelites, get them out of the land. He didn’t know these people, but he was motivated by fear and jealousy. He overpowered them, enslaved them, and belabored them with tribulation.
Yet, the more Pharaoh’s people harmed the Israelites, the scripture says, the more they “multiplied and grew.” Then, Pharaoh conspired to kill their children.
The Israelites endured, but they also suffered. In great grief, they cried out to God. Hod was listening. He heard them heard their cries, knew their sorrow. He delivered the Israelites from their abusers’ hands, and he set them on a mountain, Canaan.
Survivors, if you’re living in your own Egypt, if you’re in a community enabling abusers and silencing abuse, and if your soul is crying out, know that God hears you. You can leave Egypt.
Your voice is more powerful than you realize. You may feel like Moses did. He worried over what words to say, he worried his words wouldn’t be received, and he worried he wouldn’t be believed. God answered Moses, quelled his concern. God said, “I will be with thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt say” (Exodus 4:12).
Below is my account. Yes, the exodus was difficult. But God delivered me as He did the Israelites. It took me years to speak. I didn’t feel worthy. Who am I to speak the truth?
Alone? No one. With God? One mighty voice.
God delivered me. Now I sit on Canaan, and the view is bright. It’s been a long climb, but I’ve had help. Here is the link to the National Sexual Assault Hotline. I found a principal support here. Losing my community was the toughest part of my journey.
I mourned losing life-long friends, but God knew I needed safety and authentic support. He put me in touch with a new community, a patient community who helped me climb my own mountain. They made me aware of options and let me make my own decisions. They can help you, too.
I grew up with my abuser, had known him my entire life. Our families had close ties. Our parents were friends, and our parents’ parents knew each other. My mother once lived with his mom and both of his grandmothers. My aunt once lived with him. His sister once lived with my aunt.
He was a friend. Three and a half years older than me, he was in my older cousin’s circle. He was always around. I looked up to this guy, admiring him for his outgoing, funny personality. At around age 11, I had a typical kid’s crush on this guy who, in my eyes, was a golden, good guy.
At age 13, I outgrew both my childhood crush on this guy right along with my crush on Joey McIntyre from New Kids on the Block. These were rites of childhood that passed along with the normal stages of development.
We attended the same church. The guy started dating another older friend of mine. There was NEVER any “relationship” other than friend.
There was never any inappropriate communications, any other strange behaviors, anything to raise red flags. Nothing indicated this “friend” was dangerous, untrustworthy, unsafe.
Since around age nine I kept a diary. Several diaries, actually. The first? A Charlotte’s Web hardcover mostly filled with pages of BFF’s names. Next was a “My Dreams” purple and aqua hardcover, dotted with silver shooting stars. Only the pages of that diary–a diary detailing my teenage years–don’t detail dreams. They recount the real life nightmares of a teenage girl.
My heart breaks for that sad, tormented seventeen-year-old girl, a girl who struggled to understand why her “friend” would repeatedly hurt her.
The First (Known) Incident
May 12, 1996. I’d just turned 17. Three friends and I made plans ride to ride together to attend a weekend-long church revival. Four people total. Four people who’d grown up in the same church together. Four people whose parents and grandparents all knew each other. My perpetrator and one of the other girls had been dating since my braces-wearing middle school years. Both were in their early 20s.* Dangerous situation? Didn’t seem so.
[*I had turned 17 almost two months to the day before the event. They guy turned 20 a few weeks later. His girlfriend was in her 20s. He was nearly three years older than me.]
We met at my perpetrator’s girlfriend’s home. Just before we were to leave, the girlfriend backed out of the trip. She was sick. Our destination was a short two hours away, so it was no big deal. Three of us rode up together. Nothing (to my knowledge) was amiss.
The weekend was fun. We enjoyed catching up with our long-distance friends. We socialized with our groups of friends. Boys and girls stayed in separate locations at the event, we attended church services, and we got in the car on the Mother’s Day afternoon to return home.
The third friend’s mom had come up for the day. Out of convenience, she decided to go back with her mom. Just two of the intended four would return home together. It wasn’t weird to ride alone with this friend, though. Again, I’d always been around this friend. He and his family had frequently stayed overnight at my home, at my aunt’s home, in my family’s cabin at our church’s campground (where we visited every summer). Never had this guy seemed untrustworthy. He was such a nice guy, and everyone seemed to love him.
My parents trusted this guy, this guy’s girlfriend trusted him, and I trusted him.
Before driving off, we chatted with people. No one said, “Hey, you shouldn’t ride alone with him.” The whole church trusted him, carpooling to church events was the norm, and I had ridden in a car with this guy many times without issue.
These weekends were packed with worship, fellowship, and food. my girlfriends and I would stay up nearly all night giggling together in our sleeping bags. We didn’t get much sleep. We knew we could usually catch up on sleep on the car ride home.
That Mother’s Day, as we pulled out of the church parking lot, this trusted family friend said, “Just go to sleep.” I got my pillow ready for a good two-hour nap. Within minutes, I passed out. Ugly sleep. Open-mouthed snoring. Drool on pillow.
I am not sure when I woke up, but it was sometime after feeling some sensation on my chest. I was disoriented. Maybe I was dreaming? Where was I? Was someone touching me? I wasn’t sure what was happening.
As I became more aware, I felt panicked. My chest tightened. My eyes were still tightly closed, but I could tell that the car was still in motion. I considered possible scenarios. Had we stopped for gas? Had someone else jumped in the car? I was afraid. And I froze.
My trusted friend wouldn’t be touching me, so it seemed more plausible that I’d been kidnapped. That may sound ridiculous, but that is how much I trusted him.
Then, I had another panicked thought. If this was the friend, then, obviously, he was delusional to be groping my breasts while driving. If he was delusional, what wouldn’t he do? If I yelled or screamed, if he panicked and felt cornered, would he wreck the car with both of us in it? Rationally, I thought that even though I had known this guy my whole life, I really hadn’t known this guy at all. He continued lightly cupping and then harder squeezing. I stayed still and kept my eyes closed.
I couldn’t be certain what he would or would not do if directly confronted mid-act while he was driving a car 70+ mph. I remained calm. I started praying. I prayed it wasn’t my friend wasn’t doing this. I prayed for whoever it was to stop.
He didn’t. He would periodically nudge my arm with his elbow, presumably to see if I was still asleep. In retrospect, this act alone–the act of checking to see if someone was still sleeping in order to continue harming her, of repeatedly checking to see if she was still asleep–shows this was premeditated, predatory behavior knowingly committed without consent. It was orchestrated. Planned. Choreographed. He knew exactly what he was doing.
He didn’t stop until just before we pulled up to his girlfriend’s house. He shook my arm more forcefully, and I “woke up.” He quickly jumped out of the car, acted like nothing had happened, and then left me sitting alone in my car.
I was in shock. What do you do after something like that, after a trusted life-long friend handles and dehumanizes you? What do you do when you can’t even make sense of what happened? Who do you tell? Your friend who is also his girlfriend? Your parents who are close friends with his parents? Who would believe the truth when it happened to you, and you don’t even want to believe the truth?
I drove and my brain began rapidly firing. What had just happened? I thought this was a good guy. But I also knew what had happened was wrong, very wrong. Had I just been victimized? I didn’t know. We didn’t learn about this stuff in school.
I supposed, hoped, that this was a one-time mistake, something I would hear many people defending this guy say years later. Talking or telling anyone would ruin too many lives, hurt too many people. I reasoned that I was more emotionally and mentally stable than many around me.
I also reasoned that telling someone meant I would be put on trial. Here, I reasoned correctly. Because no one would want to believe this guy would do this, no one would believe he did. Or, at least, many did not believe. I also reasoned that such a character trial where I had to face an inquisition, repeatedly answer the same questions, and be put in a defensive position would be too exhausting. I thought I was better off dealing with it alone, privately. It was just best to pray about it–keep it between God and me. I kept quiet, kept telling myself it was just a one-time thing.
The Common Scheme: a Pattern of Abuse
Unfortunately, May of 1996 was only the first known incident. An older, wiser, and more educated me realizes my perpetrator partook in a pattern of the same type of abuse against me that constituted what the law calls “a common scheme.” Field experts in sex crimes analyze such patterns to build criminal profiles. It was “choreographed.” Planned. It was no accident.
After the first incident, I was still in the same social group with my abuser. If it was a “one-time mistake” of some “young and stupid” guy (what he would later claim in defense), why should I fear, right? But I did fear. I was more cautious. I avoided being alone around him, and I was always on guard. Even then, my abuser found ways to catch me off-guard.
Once, he caught me in a stairwell at my aunt’s home. Another time he came up behind me when other people were present in my aunt’s kitchen and whispered bizarre comments in my ear. He would say things like, “You know I love you. You know I would never hurt you.”
I was in denial.
I would nod and walk away. These comments made me feel guilty and dirty. This was when my tender conscience picked up and carried the enormous weight of his deeds, a weight I have carried since. Only, I also started questioning just how much he had done. He had targeted me while I was sleeping. We had slept under the same roof many times. His bizarre comments made me wonder just what else he had done.
I also didn’t understand the emotional game he was playing. Grooming. His saying he would never hurt me and that he loved me–he was letting me know that he didn’t mean to hurt me, so if I told anyone, I would be the one doing the hurting. I would hurt everyone. I felt responsible for deeds I hadn’t done. Guilty of acts to which I hadn’t consented. Ashamed for touches I didn’t want.
I’ve worked with many abused children in my experience as an educator, and I now understand this grooming to buy silence is common. But at the time I was barely seventeen. One year older than my son is now. I only knew I ashamed. Embarrassed. Humiliated. Terrified by not knowing how others would respond if they learned what he was doing.
Avoiding my abuser completely would mean avoiding my best friends, my church, my family, my aunt’s home. It was my aunt who took me to church–her home was my second home. I would have had to avoid even my own home where his family often stayed when his dad had work in our area.
As shown in the diary excerpts above, he would act so nice and innocent, then simultaneously torment me around other people. I shudder reading my seventeen-year-old diary entries. I was tormented and confused. I wanted him to stop, but was embarrassed because I didn’t really know what all he’d done. I wanted everything to go back to how it had been before. But then he’d do and say things to watch me squirm.
For example, one night a group of church people were eating at Outback Steakhouse and he publicly remarked how I was such a “heavy sleeper.” He would watch across the table to see how I’d react. It was cat-and-mouse behavior. His motive was control. It was, in his own words, “horrendous.” It was definitely wrong.
He was ever-present in all of the places I had known as safe. He had so much access, I now realize. I still don’t know what all he did. But when I look back at my diary entries, it is clear I suspected he’d done more. He knew I’d never know, and his behavior showed he like gloating.
I became a recluse. I withdrew from friends and family. It was abuse. I’ve had people who weren’t witness to all of this try to gaslight the truth. Overwrite with their own imagined narrative. No.
Here’s a definition for sexual abuse:
“Sexual abuse, also referred to as molestation, is usually undesired sexual behavior by one person upon another. When force is immediate, of short duration, or infrequent, it is called sexual assault. The offender is referred to as a sexual abuser or (often pejoratively) molester.”
This wasn’t immediate force of short duration. It was choreographed, ongoing tormenting. It was abuse. It felt like a stain, like anyone who looked at me could see the abuse on me. I began to dress in increasingly baggy clothes, and I rarely removed my two-sizes-too-big coat even in warm weather.
The year following that summer was my senior year of high school. I was voted “Most Courteous” by my high school peers. In the yearbook picture, there I am, enshrouded in the giant coat. I had lost control of my own body, and it felt gross. Tainted.
Social relationships became tougher to maintain. I worried if others were too close they’d figure out how horrible I was. I began “courting” someone a few months after the first incident. “Courting” was very old school, hanging out in large groups, talking, and, maybe, holding hands. This friend and I were so old-fashioned, the relationship mostly consisted of a series of letters between friends. I was incredibly shy around the opposite gender, and, frankly, quite prudish.
[*Correction for the following paragraph: Just weeks before my high school graduation confirmed by the referenced couple’s marriage records. Someone trying to justify this guy’s actions once said my diary dates were “off,” and I was befuddled at what she meant. Had a laughable “aha” moment afterward. She did not understand how I kept up with my diary (she couldn’t see the whole diary). Very similar to how I blog on this site, my diary was episodic / periodic. Any one day’s entry was a summary of three or four months’ important episodes or events. Entries (in a silly, immature teenage voice) usually began with, “Wow. It’s been awhile…so much has happened since last I wrote…let me catch up.” My voice and handwriting both matured through the years of documentation. So recalling here, initially without the benefit of the diary or any other “refreshers” (e.g., marriage records to pinpoint the couple’s wedding date), I was recalling peripheral memories of the event around the very vivid central memories of molestation. Chronological memory (recalling exact dates) is peripheral and fades. For example, Halloween may have been just a few weeks ago, but I’d have to look at a calendar to see what day of the week it fell on because that memory is peripheral (although, in the case of recalling the below event, the marriage record confirming dates very proximate to my un-refreshed memory shows my peripheral memory pretty sharp, too). Emotional memory, where an event is tied to strong negative or positive emotion, is central, not peripheral. These memories do NOT fade. God designed the human brain so that such events excite neuron-chemical activity centers in the brain for special encoding. These memories are stored differently and are recalled with special clarity.]
About a month after my high school graduation,* some church friends had a wedding. A large church youth group traveled in a caravan along the seven-hour trip. We would attend the wedding, go to a theme park, and worship together in church services. The young guy to whom I’d been writing was going to be there. It should have been a fun weekend with friends.
It also should have been safe. It was a church trip. There were lots of people riding together. No two people would be alone in a car at any point. It was rational to think I’d be safe. But I wasn’t.
I acted cautiously. For the first part of the seven-hour trip up, I was alone in the backseat, another female friend was riding in the passenger’s seat, and my abuser drove. I was careful to not sit too close to him, but I also couldn’t fathom this guy would be risky enough to molest me with others present. The guy was driving on I-95. He couldn’t possibly harm me while I was in the backseat, I thought.
I thought wrong. I was on the far side of the car. I tilted my head toward the window and closed my eyes. I was shocked–completely shocked–when I felt this guy’s hand moving up my thigh. Again, I froze. He was driving. There was no where to go. My friend was in the front seat. Was he touching her, too? I was afraid. But I was also angry.
Boiling water angry. I could not believe this was happening again. I was disgusted. I wanted him to finish his business and be done with me. I felt like used property. But he didn’t stop. It wasn’t about gratification. Arousal. It was about control. This is an important distinction.
This guy was Jekyll and Hyde. He was still regularly and actively participating in church all along, so I had convinced myself that he was really a good guy. I had rationalized the irrational grooming and psychological tormenting, and I had minimized the hints he’d made about “all” the times I was sleeping (but all of the internal conflict I experienced was sadly documented in my teenage diary).
I was being paranoid, I told myself. This was a good guy, a friend. And he wouldn’t hurt me again. I was wrong. He would hurt me again. And again. He felt no remorse about hurting me.
It was calculated behavior. Predatory behavior. I was in Virginia visiting with friends and talking to a guy I liked. Innocent fun. Yet, while at the theme park and at church, my abuser found several occasions to get close to me and whisper more bizarre stuff, “I know this guy likes you. You really like this guy, huh?” This was no romantic encounter. It was sick.
I would quickly move away, avoid him. This was a dark soul. Dangerous. It was as if he was letting me know that I was going to be punished for spending time with and “talking” to someone else. He later said “he needed to be loved.” No. He needed to feel in control.
He deliberated these actions. He was emotionally blackmailing me with the truth. I was terrified of what he might say to this guy, to my other friends, to anyone. He held enormous power, and he loved it. He knew he could destroy my reputation, for no one would believe the truth. My word against his.
Despite that, I had a greater fear. I worried he might be hurting my other friends, too. This was a rational fear given my experiences. Saturday night of that weekend, I asked my friend, the friend who had been riding in the car during his molestation of me, if he’d done anything “weird” to her. This was a partial disclosure. It wasn’t to protect myself. It wasn’t for attention. It was to protect my friend.
Her reaction was confusion. It quickly became apparent that my friend thought I was imagining things. Looking back, I guess I can understand that. I would have felt the same way had the situation been reversed.
And it well could have been reversed. Somehow, I drew the unlucky lottery ticket. Had I not been the one the receiving end of unwanted, non-consensual contact, I might not have believed it. This wasn’t the quiet dude in the corner. This was our funny, outgoing friend, the friend everyone enjoyed being around.
Even though my girl friend thought I was overreacting, even though she didn’t understand, I didn’t care. I made it clear that something “weird” was going on, and that I did not want to ride in the car with this guy on the way home.
When we began the trip home I was not riding in this guy’s car. I made sure that whatever car he was in, I got into another one. The ride home was seven hours. Again, we’d been up late nights–normal behavior for teenagers. Surely, I was safe to rest in a car when he wasn’t even in it. I went to sleep.
When I woke up, he was not only in my car, but in the back seat with me. Unbelievable? One would think so. His moves were not accidental, happenstance, crimes of opportunity.
Again, I was angry. Livid. I struggled for seven hours through fight, flight, and freeze responses to survive what was a trip through Hell. This was no fast-food grab-and-go. This was touching any part of me his hands could reach. Continuously. Brazenly. With others right there.
Here’s what I really couldn’t understand. Not only had my friend not believed me, she so utterly disregarded my disclosed apprehension towards this guy that she didn’t blink twice at the fact that he had concocted some bologna about being too tired to drive the other vehicle so that he could switch seats with another person and climb into the backseat of the vehicle where I was already asleep. Who would think that was normal? Since then, I realize “normal” is subjective. People believe what they want to believe.
After I woke up to this guy’s hands again molesting, I abruptly sat up (fight response). The guy acted in a daring manner, daring me to say something. He said that I could “stretch out my legs” across his lap if I was tired. I said, “No.”
I made something up about feeling carsick (flight response), and said I needed to ride in the front. Again, I should have been safe. I wasn’t. A short while later, miracle of miracles, he had a sudden burst of energy and wanted to drive.
Then, I said I needed to stop for the restroom. I moved to the back behind the driver’s seat so he wouldn’t be able to reach me–yes, it was really was this absurd.
To this day, I struggle to accept that the others who were on that trip did not know what he was doing. Either they knew and were so shocked that they pretended not to see it (and later felt too guilty and ashamed to say anything). Or, they were compliant–complicit. They knew, saw, and stayed silent to protect their “buddy” (the “good guy,” a little young and foolish, who’d just made a “little mistake”).
Full disclosure of truth? It still angers me occasionally (mostly when I think of how many other victims likely exist) to think other “friends” may have aided him, enabled him. But I remind myself that only one person is responsible for my abuser’s actions. My abuser. He used the others for his own selfish desires just as he used me. He didn’t care about how his actions affected any of us.
His knowing I did not want him touching me did not deter him, and he knew my “friends” were more loyal to him. He exploited that–they would protect him, not me. He controlled them, and he used them to continue abusing me.
After I became a complete shut-in, quit attending classes (jeopardizing a full scholarship), and was diagnosed with severe depression and agoraphobia, I disclosed the abuse to my parents. They issued an ultimatum. I had to either confront my abuser or they would.
Culture of Acceptance
Even now, years later, so-called “friends” protect my abuser. Enable him. A good friend, former colleague, and fellow sexual assault survivor (not a club anyone wants to join) shares a mutual “friend” from my church through social media. One day, she saw her friend “liked” a picture of some guy from my church holding his child–a child who shared my first name. She asked me about the picture–was this the guy who’d assaulted me?
“90-something ‘likes’,” she said. “Wow. They all know, and they just don’t care. They act like this is normal or something. That’s disturbing.” She saw it was a complete community devaluation of me as a human, “I would question whether any of these people were ever your friends.”
She was right. No, it wasn’t “normal.” These 90-something people (more) who “didn’t want to take sides” not only normalized disturbing behavior. They made feel every bit as worthless as my abuser did.
A “friend” asked why was I “doing this” now? Why I was telling the truth?
First, why shouldn’t I tell the truth? Why should everyone else be able to talk about what they think happened while I was forced keep silent about what actually happened? That’s some twisted thinking.
Worse? Why shouldn’t I find it disturbing that this guy, within the last five years, publicly exhumed the metaphorical corpse when he blessed his child with my first name?
Better yet, why did she and all of my other friends fail to speak up about the implications of that strange and disturbing behavior? Why would she act surprised that this would bother me? Act surprised that I find this evidence the guy is still sick?
My mind is too rational, too logical to understand this warped thinking.
I didn’t tell this friend everything. but I did trust her with what I did tell her. I trusted I could tell her something–anything–and have her support. I thought, for twenty years, that I did have her support. After all, the perpetrator admitted to her that he “inappropriately touched” me.
She argues he isn’t a “real” predator, but can’t explain why. She says she’s certain there are no other victims, but then admits she can’t really know. She says, because I was seventeen, it wasn’t “real” abuse. She ignores that he targeted me multiple times during my sleep. She ignores that it was only three times when I woke up. She ignores there were many more times where he had access to abuse me while I slept, ignores that his comments to me make it likely he did more.
She presumes to be the authority on truth when she wasn’t there. He said he did it. He told my mom he did it. I say he did it. He wrote a letter admitting he did it. He said he was “sure” I no longer thought “highly” of him, that he knew I “gritted” my teeth around him. She ignores all of this.
She still focuses, not on this guy’s unexplainable, criminal behaviors, but on my objection to his continued unexplainable behaviors..
With friends like these, who needs enemies? This conversation is exactly why I didn’t report so many years ago. Exactly why I didn’t want anyone to know. Exactly why I kept enduring more tormenting from this guy, silently being the good girl, keeping up the façade to keep them happy. I feared the truth coming out.
I had to tell the entire account so many times back then–to doctors (my parents took me to a crime victims specialist for trauma counseling), to my college, to my parents, to my other family, to adults in our church. And it’s all documented in my diary (more telling is that my accounts, written daily without foresight of the future, shows my confusion and struggle in the moment). The truth was never of issue. Hiding the truth, keeping everyone in my church from knowing, resuming a life with some normalcy–this was the issue.
I read somewhere “the things that used to be red flags are now deal breakers.” Deal breakers. I’ve learned, I don’t have to accept the unacceptable. I can say, “No.”
I don’t worry about what so-called friends will say when I tell the truth. Anyone who shames you for telling the truth is no friend. Anyone who protects an abuser, demands your silence (explicitly or impliedly), and silently watches while your abuser acts deliberately to exhume buried pain is either a complicit coward or deliriously distorted. Or worse, also calculated and cunning, as many gaslighters are.
Such people aren’t only dangerous to you, they are dangerous to society. They are part of the “culture of acceptance,” who use latent gender-stereotypes to distort truth, shift blame, and excuse the culpable.
The bottom line is, as long as the truth was hidden, I was the one living in fear. No more. Only those who have something to hide fear truth. I am no longer hiding. I am no longer afraid–at least not for myself. Knowing what I know, I do fear for others. And that’s why I will make sure the truth stays in the light.
The Community Culture: Christian Legalism
First, no community is immune to sexual abuse. It exists everywhere. Everywhere–families, schools, churches. Yet, society has a problem confronting sexual abuse and holding abusers accountable for their actions.
Why wouldn’t abusers molest and rape when they are likely to get away with it? Until society ensures the consequences of committing sexual violence outweigh the reward, abusers will continue abusing.
Isn’t that the very premise of Christian salvation? Choices have consequences. Rewards for righteousness in Heaven? Consequences for sin in Hell?
Some cultures, especially authoritarian, patriarchal settings, are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse. They unwittingly become safe havens for abusers. Most vulnerable are communities that commonly suppress dialogue or employ shame tactics to compel compliant behavior. Boz Tchividjian, Billy Graham’s grandson, recognized this in his work as a criminal prosecutor. He now works with communities to change the culture, keep God’s innocent sheep safe from “wolves,” and make churches safer for survivors of abuse. (Read more here.)
My church community was not an evil, overly authoritarian community. I grew up in a holiness Christian community. Our church wasn’t a building–it was a family.
It’s important to understand this. This is NOT about church bashing or demonizing good, sincere people. The two key founders of this church spoke out against corrupt, immoral church leaders in their Methodist Church during the late 1800s. One of these key founders was a woman. This woman braved public ridicule to speak out, even when threatened with imprisonment.
This is a church with Bible-based doctrine. Women and men share in leadership positions, something not allowed in many denominations. Within this church are some of the kindest, most devoted souls one could ever hope to find if he or she searched the world over. Attend a service and you’ll see smiling faces and hear people preach who’ve memorized entire chapters of the Bible. You will be moved by the soulful, spirit-filled acapella hymns. You’ll feel un-feigned love.
Still, even this beautiful church feared honest, open dialogue. This complicated both my disclosing my abuse and my finding support from my community. Many folks preached outward holiness was a sign of inward purity, inward devotion to Christ. Pulpit preachers said plenty about “sin,” especially modest living, and abstinence from “things of the world.” From a young age, we were taught to present our bodies as “living sacrifices” at an altar that we might receive grace and salvation. Such talk was mostly general. It certainly didn’t get into uncomfortable topics like addiction, sincere doubt, mental illness, or sexuality.
Our church discipline did not mention sexual sins, sexual abuse, reporting methods for child abuse in general, nor any procedures for protecting or ministering to the abused. It was as if such sins, such crimes, didn’t even exist. I asked about this at some point. I was told that the church didn’t meddle in individual matters. Yet, I read the discipline again. That wasn’t right. The church did have requirements for individual matters beyond doctrine. There were explicit rules for holy living, rules that weren’t “doctrinal,” but labeled “traditions.” In order to be a true church member, individuals had to follow these rules, many which were directed towards females. For example, one explicit rule prohibited women from wearing jewelry, specifically, wedding rings.
Growing up, I never questioned such “traditions.” Most women of my family were from the “strictest” segments of the church. When some congregations gave up the old traditions, allowing the wearing of pants or cutting of hair, my great-grandmother, grandmother, and aunts kept them. My mother once kept them. They didn’t wear makeup, they wore long skirts, and they kept their hair long, uncut.
These women weren’t proud. They were sincerely sacrificing, for they believed such outward sacrifice was expected of them. When I made the decision for myself to attend my mother’s family church, I obediently followed many of the traditions that my grandmother and aunts kept. Yet, different congregations had different rules. I remember always feeling confused by what was and what wasn’t allowed. Was it okay to wear pants? Was it not okay to paint my nails, even if I was using clear or light pink polish? I remember once painting my nails a nude color and being shamed for it, and then seeing someone from a “strict” family wearing a deeper shade of pink and being angry. Why was this girl allowed to wear that color, when I was shamed for wearing a lighter, sheer color?
Movies on monitors and computers were okay, but movies in a theater or on television were out. Bikinis for some girls were okay, but bare legs in church were out. Range Rovers and Cadillacs were okay, but red cars were out. Multi-million dollar mansions were okay, but wrist-watches were out. Louis Vuitton purses and $200 dresses were okay, but wedding bands were out. It sounds ridiculous now, but it was confusing. People would ask me about my church. I could explain the doctrine, pinpointing supporting Biblical text. Then, people would ask me about all of these written and unwritten rules. Those I couldn’t explain. They just didn’t make sense.
After disclosing my abuse, in the absence of any church support, I left this community. My therapist told me it was an unhealthy place for me and that under no circumstance should I be around my abuser, a sentiment echoed by every mental health professional with whom I’ve spoken since. Yet, two years later I returned. I was at peace in the other areas of my life, and I desired spiritual peace.
Two years after that, I was approached by church board members for the first time in my life. Because all members share in church positions, I had been asked to preach at an upcoming service. Church leaders wanted to confirm I was not and would not be wearing a wedding band while preaching. I was told that someone had reported that they “thought” I occasionally wore a band. The wedding band was a non-issue to me as I hadn’t worn one for years, not since I returned to my church (my husband, who did not grow up in our church, did wear a band). I had been married with a ring during my time away from the church, but I had given it up. I didn’t even know where the ring was, for my mother had it at her home. But fire burns where there’s wood. Gossip.
I’d seen “church” girls wearing make-up and jewelry growing up, and then show up to Sunday service clean-faced. Seen prom pictures. I hadn’t, even where it cost me quizzical judgment from in-laws. Why was I being questioned when those girls never were?
Just like the time I wore sheer, nude nail polish, here I was being shamed again, but this time for something I hadn’t even done. It didn’t matter. It was clear that the microscope was focused more closely on me than other girls. It was also clear that, although the discipline stated the wearing of rings was about “tradition,” it wasn’t. As applied in this case, it was legalism. It was Pharisee-like behavior; it was a rule directed only at females and some females more than others; it was spiritually insincere, and it was just plain wrong.
That day what was communicated to me was no matter how devoted I was to the Bible, I was flawed. Impaired. Worthless. Untrustworthy. Shameful. They implied the wearing of a wedding band was a more serious offense than having one congregant commit felony sexual assault against another congregant on multiple occasions for hours at a time. One member’s (wrongly) “thinking” that I occasionally wore a band was enough to move church leaders to communicate with me, but my being sexually abused during church events by a fellow church congregant was not? Upholding the “tradition” of not wearing jewelry was more important than keeping members safe from what was clearly a sin, but also a serious crime?
Despite the legalism of some, there were (and are) many good, sincere people in my church. Yet, for all the ground-shaking pulpit preaching about truth, righteousness, and sin, many of these good, sincere church folks lack grit to confront real sin head-on. It was mystifying to me. How could they preach with such power, but cower to dialogue? Why did confronting real issues make them squeamish? I’ve since learned that many faith communities have this issue.
I’ve also learned many faith communities struggle with getting real. What’s at play is a powerful psychological phenomenon called Groupthink. In many faith communities, some of the seemingly most sincere individuals fear group judgment more than God’s. Their fear of challenging the collective keeps them from individually acting on their own faith. Preaching about outward, legalistic rules is easy. Confronting real, dirty sin isn’t. It takes more than sincerity; it takes spiritual strength, courage, and action faith.
Too often, good people fear getting close to truth, the real issues like sexual abuse, because they fear the “stain” of abuse might rub off on them, too. Talking about the truth makes them itchy and uncomfortable. Whenever I spoke to church folk about any topic remotely resembling abuse, I was met with a changing of subjects, uncomfortable shifting of postures, avoidance, aversion of eyes, and deep, heavy sighs.
Disclosing my abuse against this backdrop was especially complicated. The good people’s squeamish responses toward what was done to me, not by me, coupled with their sudden muteness on this particular type of sin created shame in me. It was like being in an ER with a life-threatening emergency and having the doctor say he couldn’t treat your particular malady because the sight of your blood made him sick.
For years, I have struggled with being at church, bouncing between a stubborn resistance against my abuser’s cutting me off from what was also my church, and between wanting rest, peace, and safety. For years, this culture of silence about the real issues of life, the heavy stuff, forced me to choose between safety and salvation. I felt my church would only allow me to be a participant if I blindly accepted my abuser’s presence, consented to keep things comfortably silent, and agreed not to make a fuss regarding any future harm. I remained silent and obedient for too long.
You’ll know if your community is one of silence and fear by the way others react when you tell the…deep breath…dirty word here…truth. Remember how you were taught to hold truth in high esteem? How honesty was a good character trait? How you were to tell the truth as a matter of ethics and morality, and yes, spirituality? Well, silence and fear find truth dishonorable, shameful. If you tell the truth and then have fellow community members come unhinged, you’ll know. If people see sexual abuse as a “personal” problem and not a public problem, you’ll know. Silence and fear dominate the culture.
I disclosed my abuse at the turn of the 21st century, but my world seemed closer to that of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Why would any woman in such a culture disclose sexual abuse when custom guaranteed she would be punished? Where the common response to disclosure wasn’t support or protection, but a lifetime sentence upon a pedestal of shame so that others, in their feigned moral or spiritual superiority, could judge her?
Fortunately, I was able to see the absurdity of destructive legalism. Legalism is NOT holiness. In The Bible, the legalists of Jesus’ day put him on the cross. The legalists condemned and publicly shamed him. The legalists were angry that Jesus didn’t ascribe to the Pharisees’ hand-washing rituals. And Jesus set them straight. He called out those who carefully washed the outside of the dish but left the inside dirty. Legalism values the external over the inner spirit, it promotes pride and self-glory, and it is a dangerous sin. It’s used to separate the superiors from the inferiors.
How can you spot legalism? Where “rules” outside of doctrine exist and there are technical “loopholes” used to get around “rules” (e.g., watching movies on a monitor versus watching them on a television), there is legalism.
Now, I wear a small wedding band. I’m not ashamed. I’m living authentically. I’m not wearing it in rebellion. God hasn’t put it on my heart that a wedding band is impure or worldly. I wasn’t wearing one in order to fulfill man’s expectations, not God’s. God has put it on my heart that living in grossly gluttonous ways is unholy, worldly. God has put it on my heart to forgo the fancy phones, big screen televisions, immodest clothing, enormous homes, “luxury” cars. He’s called me to live modestly, without these outward “status” symbols. That may not be another person’s call, but that’s mine.
My husband gifted me my modest anniversary ring after I broke my silence about my abuse. It’s simple, without a flashy, big diamond. It serves to remind me that Jesus cares more about how I treat my neighbor than whether or not I follow some silly, legalistic tradition or rule. Performing a rule absent sincerity of heart, and then promoting oneself over others who don’t follow the rule, is wrong–it’s sin.
The rule is a tool of sin to pridefully maintain one’s spiritual superiority over one’s brother. One’s spiritual devotion to God should be buried within the heart. Spiritual devotion is not worn on the finger in the place of a ring, nor is it paraded on the wrist in the place of a watch.
Some churches would have you believe sexual abuse should be buried in the heart. They would tell you that such “burying” of abuse is humility. They would say it is a “personal” matter that should be handled “privately.” Beware. That is abuse of the scripture, and it is wrong. There are churches (more likely misguided members) who employ spiritual abuse to cover up sexual abuse within its congregation. You can watch the film Spotlight or the documentary The Keepers to see how dangerous this is.
Operating under Groupthink, these actors protect the organization over the innocent. Likewise, they enable the abuser to harm others, and they obstruct justice. Spiritual abuse makes a mockery of salvation. It’s wrong Biblically (read “What Does the Bible Say About Sexual Assault?“), and it is criminal. Any religious organization using scripture to justify silencing abuse should read this: “The ‘Licentiousness’ in Religious Organizations and Why it is Not Protected under Religious Liberty Constitutional Provisions.”
A sincere spirit will shine from the inside out.
Can people follow traditions and be sincere? Can women not wear wedding rings or jewelry, not cut their hair, wear only long skirts and be genuine? Yes. Absolutely. Genuine acts of holy devotion are born out of the inner spirit. Acts committed to satisfy Groupthink are not. Devotion to man or a man-made organization is idolatry. Ironically, it’s the sin many legalists claim they are trying to avoid. Legalistic, fake devotion, allows for easy duplicity, and it is especially dangerous when paraded as the sole standard of holiness minus circumspect regard for cleaning the inside of the cup from abuse, hatred, lying, gossiping, envying, and, perhaps worst of all, apathy for one’s neighbors.
Fifteen Years Later: Still a Threat
Around the 15th anniversary of confronting my abuser, he proved he was still a threat. In 1997, I confronted my abuser and he said he didn’t know if I even knew he’d been molesting me in my sleep. He asked me how much I knew. I said I knew it happened “at least twice.” I meant two car trips. It was really more than “two incidents.” But before I could clarify, he hurriedly said he only acted twice. I was disappointed. I knew he was this was a lie, but I wanted to believe he was sorry. I wanted to forgive him. I listened to my community who assured me they “prayed” with him, that he was sorry, and that it was a “one-time mistake.” (I didn’t even attempt to correct that incorrect claim.)
I had lived my life with only momentary flashbacks–occasional, recurring nightmares of being trapped and having my abuser’s hand hovering over me. My sleep would forever be disturbed, but otherwise, the remnants were reduced to cringing whenever someone accidentally brushed against me in a crowded space, my husband’s dealing with my sudden anger over any slight, unexpected physical contact, my giving side hugs as to avoid direct bodily contact with others, and my difficulties getting close to, opening up with, or trusting other people.
There was much more positive in my life than negative, though I was in the what was, personally, the toughest year of my adult life. I was a successful, but busy, teacher; I was finishing my Masters, and I had recently had my third child. I was actively working in church, teaching Sunday School, and I was spiritually strong despite some family upheaval. My abuser had absolutely no hold over me.
I hardly gave a passing thought to the above incidents. That was the past. I had forgiven. Moved on.
Then, one afternoon I got a card in the mail. A birth announcement. From my abuser. I opened the card and read the infant’s name. In bold letters was my first name. I felt a sweeping uneasiness.
Coincidence? Considering he said he’d “give his life” to erase “[my first name’s] memory of what happened,” that he knew I no longer “thought highly” of him, and that he recognized I “gritted” my teeth around him, it’d be hard to rationally believe so. It is not “normal” by the majority ‘s subjective standard. It is not “normal” by the objective, reasonable man standard. A truly remorseful, sorry person would avoid doing anything that might resurrect a victim’s pain.
Being a parent of three children, I know choosing your child’s name is no light task. My husband and I discussed, deliberated, and carefully chose our children’s first and middle names. Some names I liked were ruled out because former students or random movie characters had shared the moniker. A name is important. It is tethered to a person’s identity.
That’s why I cannot fathom any good explanation for my abuser bestowing his victim’s name upon his child. And I am pretty open-minded to multiple perspectives. No angle justifies this choice. No perspective makes sense.
My abuser either lacks empathy and fails to understand the seriousness of his crimes (plural), or he purposefully did this as another calculated move to control me and secure my silence. More likely, the latter. Either way, the bold act of victimizing his own child by playing him as a pawn without regard for how that might one day harm that child shows this guy is a threat to me and my children (for the sole reason that they belong to me). Holding those who abuse others accountable for their actions is the only way to end the abuse, ensure safety for the abused and others, deter more abuse, and (this is important) help the abuser.
Back in Control: Reclaiming My Voice & My Peace
I shouldn’t have to had to be the one publicly speaking out against my abuser’s string of harmful choices. Where were the voices of my “friends”?
Why didn’t they say, “This is unacceptable for this guy to be allowed to publicly drag our friend through this. Again.”? Why didn’t they say, “No way should this guy be volunteering around our friend’s children in Bible School”? Why didn’t anyone speak on behalf of his child earlier, suggest other names?
Why were so man good people, so many friends, silent? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
This past summer I attended a Human Rights Global Leadership Summit at The Hague. While there, one keynote speaker from the Women’s African Leadership Group spoke about her past sexual abuse at the hands of a trusted teacher. I was there as an educator guide for a group of students, and I had no idea that this keynote speaker would be talking about sexual abuse.
At first, I was uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure I would be able to stay in the room and listen to her. Then, I began videoing her speech. On the video, around three minutes in, I am heard sniffing back sobs as this young woman says this: “They [our abusers] use our silence to kill us and say that we enjoyed it.” I knew the Zora Neale Hurston quote from Their Eyes Were Watching God, I’d even read the quote with students before. But something about hearing this woman say it while telling us her experience rocked me. It was as if I was understanding it for the first time.
Hearing this young, strong woman speak, I saw she was braver than me. Wiser than me. And she was right. There she was talking about being abused without crying. Without shame. I realized then that peace isn’t possible when the truth is hijacked from you. I had to break my silence. I had to regain control over truth in my own abuse, and I had to be a brave survivor free from shame. I didn’t ask to be abused, I didn’t consent to being abused, and I didn’t deserve to be abused.
When I reclaimed the truth my abuser had stolen, I left Egypt. I entered light.
It was real. It was wrong. It happened. It was predatory abuse. It sucks. And it wasn’t my fault. I have no reason to be ashamed, guilty, or silent about it. It is something that happened to me, but it is not me. It doesn’t define me. I am so much more. I am a child of God. I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, an advocate, a researcher, a writer, a creator, a student, a teacher, a mentor, a coach, a friend, a survivor. In me is beauty from ashes. I am a strong, reasonably-minded, able woman. I am a fierce warrior for light.
If you are reading this, and if you are struggling with your own disclosure or recovery, please know that you, too, are valuable. Your abuse happened to you, but it is not you. That’s an important distinction. If your burden ever feels too heavy to bear, know other Lesser Lights will help carry the weight for you. It is not yours alone. When you’re feeling weak, the other Lesser Lights will help lift you up so that you, too, can leave Egypt. If you need us, know we’re here to help you find Canaan.
Your life has volumes of pages yet to be filled. Remember that you, beautiful you, are the author of your book. You are a phoenix, and from these ashes, you will rise. I wish you peace on your journey.