Tag Archives: rape

God-forgiveness-vulnerability

Atonement

I am not particularly political, but my car radio lured me into listening to parts of the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination hearings.

I heard Kavanaugh boast about coaching his daughters’ basketball teams and his Jesuit education. Ward Cleaver came to mind as I listened to his self-portrayal. Perhaps I even rolled my eyes once or twice. I understand presenting oneself in the best possible light, but no one is that good, I thought.God-forgiveness-vulnerabilityOne day, I heard that the girls’ basketball team he coaches came to the hearings—in their Catholic school uniforms. Really? What is he trying to prove? I wondered.

And then came the allegation about a sexual assault incident from his high school days.

And I began to wonder if he had overplayed his hand. Was that perfect father portrayal really just a charm offensive?God-forgiveness-vulnerabilityLast year’s disclosures by women who had been sexually assaulted made me think of the men who had not yet been named, those men who knew their histories and were now squirming as they waited for the shoe to drop.

I have to admit that I took a great deal of delight in knowing that those men who once dominated were now vulnerable, having no idea if or when a voice from their troubled past would intrude into their idyllic present.

Is Brett Kavanaugh one of those men? Was all that blarney about being so good just a smoke screen in anticipation of someone stepping forward to reveal his past?

And here is where I run into a dilemma. I am not the same person I was when I was seventeen or even twenty-seven. I made mistakes, and I own that. I sought help to deal with the issues that plagued my young life and have learned from my mistakes. I have atoned for the sins of my youth through prayer and service, and I don’t want to be judged by mistakes I made out of my brokenness and ignorance.God-forgiveness-vulnerabilityI wonder if Judge Kavanaugh has taken responsibility for the mistakes of his youth.

And I wonder what he would do if one of the girls on the team he coaches or if one of his daughters was sexually assaulted.

Would Judge Kavanaugh take the view that “boys will be boys” and minimize the damage done to the girl?  Would he counsel the girl to shake it off, as if it were a basketball foul?

Would he advise the boy to deny all accusations? Or would he counsel the boy to take responsibility for his actions, knowing that dark deeds that are locked away can be uncovered at any time, and that a life built on secrets can easily implode.

The man who assaulted me apologized a few weeks later. Two little words—I’m sorry—and he walked away free and clear. I was left with damage that took years to heal, and only now can I see that for all the harm he caused me, at least he owned it.God-forgiveness-vulnerability

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God-forgiveness-vulnerability

Return to God

Return to me with your whole heart—Joel 2:12

One theme that emerged during my recent retreat was home, as in coming home or being at home.

I had brought last year’s journals with me, and one entry reflected a conversation with a friend who had been going through a rough time but was starting to feel like himself again. He said he had started to feel like he was inhabiting his body again and that he was looking out through his own eyes.

It was as if he was coming home to himself.

I resonated.

For so long, I have felt out of sorts. Great loss and grief can do that. So the idea of coming home to myself is appealing. I want to live in my body and to look at the world through my own eyes.

Another coming home is the actual coming home to the place where I was born and grew up, which is what I did five years ago. Living near my family is a blessing for which I thank God every day.God-forgiveness-vulnerabilityA third coming home is returning to God, and in the midst of Lent, I find myself thinking of what it means to come home to God.

Lent invites me to turn away from what separates me from God and turn toward God.

Recently, several people have come to me with questions about prayer or about nonprofit management. After each of these conversations, I am left with a clearer understanding that (1) I have a depth of experience in these two areas, and (2) my experience can be helpful to others.

Sometimes, though, my experience leads me to insights that might be uncomfortable or challenging to those asking for my help.

A young woman came to talk with me about the anger she carries toward the man who raped her. “How can you suggest I forgive him?” she asked with an edge to her voice.

“Your anger does not affect him; it affects you,” I offered. “He doesn’t even know that you are angry; he has moved on.” Not forgiving him does not hurt him in the least; but holding onto her anger keeps her in bondage.God-forgiveness-vulnerabilityI think she both wanted to hear that message and did not want to hear it. Forgiveness can be so difficult, and radical forgiveness—forgiveness for some horrible act—can seem impossible.

I know because I, too, hold onto some anger for past hurts. I want to forgive, even the people who hurt me the worst, who left the deepest scars; it is difficult. I pray for the grace to let go, and I look to Jesus’ example for inspiration. At the moment of his death, he forgave those who put him to death.God-forgiveness-vulnerabilityComing home to God, for me, means being true to my history and experiences. It means speaking of radical forgiveness and believing in it.

I want to return to God with my whole heart—and with my heart made whole.

 

justice-vulnerability-rape

Please don’t judge me

The fact that women are vulnerable is not new to me.

My dad was a cop, and when I started driving, he gave me the usual safe-driving talk. He also told me never to stop for a cop at night but to slow down, put on my blinker and drive to a gas station or other public place. He knew what some cops did to single women drivers in the dark of night.

I was forewarned that some men abused power, and I needed to be vigilant.justice-vulnerability-rapeMy supervisor at a temp job right out of college was a man in his late fifties. He often made suggestive comments to me, which was creepy, and after multiple pleas for him to stop, I went to his supervisor. “He is harmless; just ignore him,” was his advice.

I did not stay long in that job because I did not feel safe; I had no power or protection.justice-vulnerability-rapeEvery day now it seems that another powerful man is being called out for his dark deeds.

Please don’t judge me, but I am taking a fair amount of pleasure in watching these men being publicly outed—and imagining other men worrying if they will be next. Men who believed their power and/or wealth could protect them are now having to face the fact that they are as vulnerable as the women they abused.

It feels like justice has finally found its way to our world, and I am delighted to welcome her.

I was raped by a man who had power. His advice? “Don’t bother to tell anyone because no one will believe you.” I knew he was right and so I kept quiet. Why subject myself to a process that was not going to bring me justice.

In the intervening years, I have wondered if he has raped again, and how many times. When there are no consequences for bad behavior, people tend to continue behaving badly.

The guy who raped me apologized a few weeks later (we worked together). I am pretty sure that the hatred in my eyes told him he was not forgiven. As if a few words of contrition could erase the damage he did to me—the damage it took years to repair.

I remember thinking this must be his M.O.—rape and then apologize. As if that let him off the hook.

Now, all these years later, I wonder if he is wondering if I and the others he raped will call for accountability. Is he worried his life will be shattered by his dark deeds? Just imagining him squirm brings me pleasure.

The sweetness of it—that taste of justice.

Are we finally developing into a country where women matter? Will women no longer feel that we have to ignore or “get over” situations that feel unsafe? Do we now have credibility? Is the atmosphere changing so much that no abuser is beyond accountability?

This a form of climate change I can live with!

 

 

 

Moving beyond trauma

In the mid-1980’s, I participated in a clinical trial conducted by the Women’s Hospital in Philadelphia; the goal was to see if the treatment used with Vietnam Veterans to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) would be effective for women who were survivors of sexual assault.

I was recently reminded of this clinical trial when I was cleaning out my file cabinet and found four dog-eared index cards.

Each three-by-five card had a heading, written in someone else’s cursive.

  1. Preparing for a stressor
  2. Confronting and handling a stressor
  3. Coping with feelings of being overwhelmed
  4. Reinforcing self-statements

Beneath each heading, in my own writing, are prompts and personal messages.

I don’t remember much about the program—how many weeks or months it lasted, if sessions were once or twice a week—but I do remember driving to North Philadelphia and meeting one-to-one with a therapist.

Reading these messages that I had written to my younger self, I realized that I have internalized many of the practices I was taught in this program.

The treatment focused on modifying behaviors, and one exercise I have practiced over the years is interrupting negative thoughts. The idea is to notice when my thoughts are spiraling downward and I am starting to feel overwhelmed; then I shout STOP.stop sign

It does not matter if I shout out loud or in just in my mind, the shouting interrupts the negative thought process and gives me a chance to change direction and regain control. For me, this has been an effective thought-changing process that has helped steer me away from negativity.

On the first card, under the heading Preparing for a stressor, I wrote three questions:

  1. What is it I have to do?
  2. What am I afraid of?
  3. What is the likelihood of anything bad happening?

Beneath those questions, I instructed myself to “get beyond my feelings to do the work that has to be done.” And then I affirmed myself: “I’ve made a lot of progress; I’ve come this far; I can keep going.”

Some of the notes to myself on the other cards include:

“Other people can do this; so can I.”

“Focus on plan of action.”

“There are people involved whom I can trust.”

“It will be over soon.”

“The anxiety (fear) will slow me down but I will not be incapacitated by it.”

The fourth card is a list of affirmations, including:

“Nothing succeeds like success.”

“Good job—pat yourself on the back.”

I don’t know the outcome of that clinical trial, but for me, the treatment was helpful, and over the years, I can see how I have built on what I learned. For example, after accomplishing a task that is particularly stressful, I now say, “Bask in the glow of success” which, to me, is a step beyond patting myself on the back.

I know that my faith was primarily what got me through that trauma, and the clinical trial at Women’s Hospital was a gift. I am grateful.

 

 

 

 

Hidden Girl

During Mass one day on retreat, the priest prayed for the kidnapped girls in Nigeria; afterward, I remembered a girl named Michelle.

Michelle was born to a single mother and until she was two years old, her life was fairly typical. She crawled, walked and went to the doctor for check-ups.

When Michelle was two years old, though, her mother’s new boyfriend moved in with them, and Michelle was not seen again for the next eleven years. She did not go to school or the doctor or, well, anywhere; she was kept locked in a closet.

Her mother went on to have two more children with this new boyfriend, and those children crawled, walked and went to the doctor for check-ups, too. They went to school and their lives seemed like other children’s lives, except that they carried the secret of their sister.

It is difficult to imagine that no one who knew of Michelle’s existence before the new boyfriend’s appearance did not ask about her or report that Michelle seemed to have disappeared. Perhaps her mother made up a convincing story about Michelle and no one questioned it. But her brother and sister knew and eventually one of them told a teacher and Michelle was rescued from the closet. By then, she was deeply scarred—emotionally and physically.

She was severely malnourished and looked more like a seven-year-old than a thirteen-year-old. Her body jerked and twitched as she adjusted to moving in open spaces. Her eyes were vacant and she was incapable of dialogue. One thing that animated her was food, and she made a beeline for anything edible within ten feet. Clearly she had been starved in every possible way.

To make matters worse, her mother’s boyfriend had beat and raped Michelle repeatedly over the years, and her tiny body bore the marks of that abuse. Sometimes she would drift back to an earlier time with a memory and a mantra: “Get off me,” the only three words I ever heard her string together. Once the memory surfaced, she would get stuck as if in a trance, “Get off me, get off me, get off me,” she would say over and over.

At a hearing to sever her mother’s parental rights, Michelle’s mom demanded to have her daughter back, claiming that Michelle was hers and she could do whatever she wanted with her. Fortunately, the court did not agree and Michelle was placed in a group home for people with developmental disabilities.

Neither Michelle’s mother nor her mother’s boyfriend was charged with any crime.

It is estimated that one in five girls in this country is sexually abused and that three-quarters of them are abused by someone they know. Michelle’s story may be extreme, but it is not unique.

So while it is good to pray for the kidnapped girls in Nigeria, we don’t have to look that far away to find girls trapped, imprisoned and abused, girls living nearby who also need our prayers.

 

What I Learned from Reading The Kite Runner

I love “aha” moments, those flashes of insight when a deeper truth is revealed through some random event.

A number of years ago, I had one of those moments while reading The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. If you haven’t read it, here is a spoiler alert: I am about to reveal a pivotal scene in the story, so stop right here if you plan to read the book (and I highly recommend it).

The story is about two boys growing up in Kabul. One scene involves the narrator as a boy, witnessing his friend being set upon by a gang of boys and raped. The narrator watches in horror, but neither tries to stop it nor runs for help.

His inaction leaves him with a deep sense of guilt, and that guilt has a powerful impact on the rest of the narrator’s life.

Aha!

Like the narrator, I, too, was present when my childhood companion was raped. She was just weeks shy of her thirteenth birthday. The rapist ordered me to stay still, and I obeyed. After he raped her, he warned us not to tell anyone. I offered her comfort and then moved us along to a safer place, fearful he would return. I never told anyone what happened and we did not speak of it for more than twenty years.

Then she came to me with a request. She was in therapy and her therapist suggested that something had happened to her when she was young which had altered the path of her life. She had no memory of anything happening, only a sense that I would know.

I knew, and I told her.

Another twenty years passed and then I read The Kite Runner.

New thought: what if being present during a rape forty years earlier had had a profound effect on me? What if my feelings were as buried as her memories had been? What if I felt guilty for not running for help? Could that incident explain some of the beliefs I held about myself? And some of the choices I had made in my life? Had my life path also been impacted by that incident? Had her trauma been my trauma as well?

I had to talk to her.

By then, we lived on opposite sides of the country and by the time I got around to visiting her, she had cancer. She asked if we could wait until she was finished with her treatments to talk about it. What choice did I have but to agree to her request.

She died before her treatment was finished, and we never talked about it.

If this were a novel, there would be some kind of tidy resolution, but it is not a novel and I am left with my questions.

I am also left with gratitude that The Kite Runner has unearthed this buried event from my past. Bringing it to light has helped me to see myself from a different perspective.