Tag Archives: rape

We are only as sick as our secrets

Secrets have been on my mind for the past year, ever since my mother revealed a secret she had been keeping for almost fifty years—which sparked my own awareness of a secret I had been keeping even longer.

Secret-shame-vulnerability

Since then, I seem to be very aware of others’ secrets and how often people shade the truth or tell half-truths to frame things in a different light.

For example, I recently attended a talk about Etty Hillesum, a woman who lived in Amsterdam during World War II. The speaker talked of Etty’s affair with her professor but failed to mention that Etty had had an abortion. I wondered why. Etty wrote about the abortion; it was not a secret, yet this person recalling Etty’s life left out this detail.

Was she trying to protect Etty by not talking about the abortion? Did she have feelings of shame around abortion that led her to omit it? This presentation was at a Catholic retreat center, and I wondered if the setting and the audience prompted this omission. But why did she include the details of the affair? It was all a mystery to me.  

Secret-shame-vulnerability

Secrets abound in the British detective tv shows I watch. Often, some secret is being kept which is key to solving the mystery.  “Why didn’t you tell us?” the detective asks in exasperation when the secret finally comes out. The detective doesn’t care that the grandfather had a child with the maid or that the mother had a wild past or that the children have squandered their inheritance. The detective just wants the facts and not an edited version of history.

It seems that we can be our own worst judges when it comes to our secrets, believing that the worst will happen if our secrets are revealed.

The truth is that we are the same people we were before our secrets were revealed, and those who love us will continue to love us once they know our secrets.

People may be surprised or even shocked to learn of some traumatic event in our past. They may have to adjust their image of us. They may review the relationship in light of new information, but if they really love us, they will get over their shock and adjust their image. They will remember that we are the same person we were before they knew our secrets.

I have always been open about being a rape survivor, but not everyone in my life knows about it, mostly because it does not come up in everyday conversation and because I have moved around a lot. The “getting to know you” phase of new friendships don’t usually include talk of rape or other traumas, so while my history is not a secret for me, it usually doesn’t come up until a relationship is established.

My goal is to have nothing to fear, nothing to prove and nothing to hide. I desire to live transparently, holding nothing back and keeping no secrets.

Secret-shame-vulnerability

Shh, it’s a secret

Just days before my mother died last year, she revealed a secret to me, a secret she had kept for almost fifty years, a secret that flipped a light switch in my brain. Suddenly, I could look at events from fifty years ago and see them in a different light.

secret-truth-vulnerability

The clarity was almost blinding, and I wanted to explore the implications of what I had learned, but my mother was dying, and I needed to pay attention to what was happening right in front of me instead of examining events from the past. So, I tucked her secret away.

And then one day last fall, her secret came rushing back to me like a tidal wave.

I was overwhelmed with a truth I had never even considered, a truth that explained my father’s attitude toward me after I got divorced. I realized that my life could have gone in an entirely different direction had I known then what my mother had revealed before her death.

I was hurt and angry.

Moreover, my mother’s secret dislodged a secret that I had been keeping for more than fifty years, a secret I was not consciously aware I was keeping.

Suddenly, disparate pieces of my early twenties fell into place like cogs on a gear. I had great clarity about my early life and things that had happened to me that had shaped the rest of my life.

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At family gatherings, my younger brother liked to point to my mother and then to me and say, “Tree, apple.”

My mother was great at denial and at keeping secrets. She denied anything bad that happened to her and would not risk disclosing an unattractive (or downright ugly) truth about someone, in case it might be embarrassing (or possibly illegal). She protected people who were not worthy of protection, and she taught me to do the same.

Like my mother, I am a great secret keeper, a steel trap for people’s confidences, and I have held sacred the secrets people have shared with me over the years.

What I know about secrets, though, is that the shame attached to them can turn something innocent into something sinister, and I know how shame can paralyze.  

A few years ago, when I finally said the name of the man who raped me, I realized I had been protecting him by not saying his name; I was keeping it secret.

Saying his name—revealing the secret—broke the power of shame over me.

Back to the tree…apple scenario.

I have spent my adult life trying to unlearn my mother’s lessons, trying to be more honest and forthcoming. I have gone to ACOA meetings and worked the steps. I know that we are only as sick as our secrets, and I have tried to live transparently, without secrets.

And yet now I am faced with two new secrets from my past.

But those events are no longer buried, and I have begun talking about what happened to me.

Weather the storm

When I woke up the other morning, three words were on my mind: Weather the storm.

What storm? I feel like my life is serene right now, so I had no idea what the message meant.

I had spent the previous day helping my sister with her two new grandbabies. I have no grandchildren of my own, so I was delighted when she asked for my help. Holding babies is one of my favorite things to do. I love the way they snuggle in and fall asleep, trusting that they are safe.

Every time I hold an infant, I feel invited to reflect on my own level of trust. I wonder if I could relax enough to fall asleep in someone’s arms.

At the end of the day with my sister and her grandchildren, I felt content and happy, filled with gratitude and joy.

So why did I wake up the next morning thinking weather the storm?

Then I remembered this week’s Ignite the Fire session, where we reflected on our call and the hero’s journey. We talked of the language of possibility and what keeps us hemmed in. We journaled about what internal scripts keep our worlds small. We considered what we need to lay down to make room for something bigger.

Martina said that if we are heroes, we will be admired and opposed. We will face fear, vulnerability and adversity—and know that it is part of the journey. She said that when our hearts are hammering, we are hearing our call.

That reminded me of when I was the Survivor Speaker at a fund raiser last summer for our local domestic abuse/sexual assault resource center. My heart was pounding, and my knees were weak. I felt exposed and vulnerable, and I wanted to run away. But I didn’t. I told my story, even though I was scared.

I am scheduled to share my story again, and I am probably feeling anxiety, vulnerability and fear—although I tend to minimize the emotions connected with sharing my story, downplaying how difficult it is for me. Perhaps what I need to lay down is my self-identity as someone who is strong and self-sufficient. Letting go of that self-identity would produce an internal storm as disquieting as a tornado; maybe that is what weather the storm means. Letting go of seeing myself as capable and in control of my emotions would allow me to lean into vulnerability and possibility.

Spending the day with my sister and her grandchildren was an invitation to ponder possibility and vulnerability. At one point, my sister and I each held a baby, and the two children faced one another. The four-month old looked at his two-month-old cousin and started to laugh. It was as if he just noticed there was another baby in the room, and that tickled him. We laughed along, tickled that he had noticed his cousin. Everything is new for these two babies; everything is possible. I want to be that open.

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Reinventing myself

An entry on my affirmation calendar read, I enjoy reinventing myself. It’s like giving my identity a makeover!

When I moved back to Michigan almost nine years ago, I had planned to use my Polish name instead of the English translation—Magdalena instead of Madeline, or Magda for short. I had recently been to Poland and everyone there called me either Magdalena or Magda, and I liked it.

My grandfather used to call me Magdusha—a twist on my Polish name and a term of endearment. I liked that, too.

But I was deep in grief when I moved here, and I forgot to introduce myself as Magdalena or Magda, and before I knew it, everyone called me by my English name.

A few years later, though, I started taking Polish classes at a nearby Polish church, and there I was known by my Polish name. Happy day!

This calendar affirmation took me back to that desire to reinvent myself more in line with my Polish heritage. As I reflected on that identity, though, another reinvention occurred to me—to be reinvented in the image God holds for me.

Isaiah 62:3 came to mind: You shall be a glorious crown in the hand of the Lord, a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

I remember the first time I read these words as a young adult and felt they were being spoken to me and about me. The image of myself in the hand of God, something bejeweled and beautiful, sparkling diamonds and deep green emeralds. That was how God saw me—as something to behold, someone who took one’s breath away.

Living as if I see myself as a crown or diadem is a stretch. I have usually seen myself more as a dull pewter, so adapting a shinier persona calls for a shift in my thinking.

Perhaps being connected to my Polish heritage is part of that new image because when I am connected to my ancestors, I have a wider and deeper understanding of who I am and where I came from—and a different way of knowing myself.

Perhaps leaning into the image of myself as being held in God’s hand is also key, because that image leads me to live in trust rather than fear. God has me, I tell myself.

Not having a job has reinvented me into a woman with time and freedom to structure my days as I please, to do the things I want and not do those I don’t.

The passing years are reinventing me into an elder, and aging has its own reinvention process.

Speaking publicly about my abuse history has shown me a courage I did not know I possessed—add that to the mix.

These past six months, I have been on sabbatical, resting, reading, writing—and pondering who I will be and how I will live this next chapter of my life.

Reinvented, sparkly as diamonds on a tiara—I want to be brilliant.

God-reinventing-affirmation

Let’s talk

I was the Survivor Speaker at a recent fundraiser for Turning Point, our local domestic abuse/sexual assault resource center. It was the first time I publicly shared my story of being a sexual assault survivor, and I was nervous.

After many years of public speaking in my nonprofit work, my jitters surprised me. Usually, I have a healthy adrenaline rush before I speak, but I am not usually nervous. I think of public speaking as one of my best gifts for nonprofit work.

That night, though, my knees were shaking.

Perhaps I was nervous because the story is so personal, and this was the first time I was sharing it. Also, I am feeling somewhat vulnerable because of the recent changes in my life.

But there I was in front of more than 400 people, talking about how my life was changed forever because of what happened to me on one Friday night.

As I walked back to my seat, I heard the emcee say, “Let’s keep that standing ovation for Madeline going,” and I looked around and saw that, yes, people were all standing and clapping. I was overwhelmed.

One of the women at my table thanked me for having the courage to tell my story; she, too is a survivor. Several people approached me afterward and thanked me.

One line in my talk is, “I talk about being a rape survivor because I want other survivors to know they are not alone and that there is help.”

Rape-hope-healing

A few days later, I told a friend about the talk, and she shared a story of someone she knows who is a survivor. “We don’t talk about it,” she said.

That is the thing—we don’t talk about it. Like other taboo subjects—domestic abuse, incest, suicide, mental health, etc., rape does not come up in polite conversation. We just don’t talk about it.

Rape-hope-healing

It is estimated that one in six women in the U.S. is a victim of sexual assault.

My first six years in Michigan, I facilitated an annual morning of reflection for a group of post-college volunteers. Each year, eight to fourteen young adults would gather, and each year, at least one of the women would confide that she had been raped.

At a recent writers’ retreat, we were encouraged to write an article for a magazine oriented toward young adults—about a topic where they could affect change. I thought of suggesting a gathering of young women and have them count off, one to six. Even in a group of twelve, it is likely that two have been assaulted. The visual of that might be alarming enough for more conversation. Awareness and conversation are two steppingstones to change.

At the end of my talk, I encouraged the audience to pay attention to the people in their lives and if they notice a change—weight loss, increased anxiety, mood swings, etc.—to show their concern and ask what is happening. “Listen and believe what you hear,” I concluded.

Seeking justice

A large plastic bin has been sitting in my garage since I moved here eight years ago, and I finally got around to cleaning it out. At the bottom was a scrap of paper with a quote from Helen Keller.

God--justice-rape

I have been pondering where I might “soar” as I contemplate the next chapter of my life, or as one friend put it, my “last act.” Yes, I am in the third third of my life and it is time for me to consider my last act.

What shape this chapter will take is still a mystery; it is a mystery I want to explore.

One “scene” (to stay with the play metaphor) is speaking out about being a rape survivor, and particularly being someone who was raped by a man in law enforcement.

I want to reach out to others who have been sexually assaulted by law enforcement officials to let them know they are not alone—and that there is help, hope and healing. Prosecution may not be a realistic expectation or option but moving from victim to survivor is.

One of the presenters in my Internship in Ignatian Spirituality course said, “Justice is what love looks like in public,” which got me thinking more about justice.

Upon hearing my story of being a rape survivor, several people have asked me about justice—or rather the lack of justice because the man who raped me never faced prosecution.

I have to confess that when the #MeToo movement started, I felt that justice had finally come, because I imagined the man who raped me having to wonder if anyone would say his name. It is a bit perverse (and perhaps not very Christian), but I got a little thrill from thinking that his foundation may have been shaken by wondering if he would have to face his past actions.

Another law enforcement person put it this way to me: “He has to wonder if someone is gunning for him.”

But now I am thinking about justice a bit differently. I have come to a deeper understanding and acceptance of the fact that people do cruel things out of their own brokenness. I am not excusing cruelty; I am allowing for redemption.

Reflecting on my friendship with a woman who committed a heinous crime because of her mental illness has helped me deepen my understanding of justice.

I did not know this woman before the crime, but afterward, once she decided to take her prescribed medicine, she was a different person. Instead of hurting, she began helping and instead of ranting, she began listening. She developed compassion, and she became someone who used her abilities and talents in service of others.

Where once she was intent on destroying, she became committed to building up. Her transformation helped me see how someone can grow into the person God sees, how love can restore wholeness.

That looks like justice to me.

Claim your treasure

Every Monday, I look forward to an email in my inbox from Shola Richards with a message about positivity. Confronting fears was the theme of last Monday’s email, and the message spoke directly to me, especially the opening quote:

“Inside the cave you fear, lies the treasure you seek.”

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I have a fear of caves, so the very idea of stepping into the darkness of a cave made me shutter. But the idea that the treasure I seek is hidden within made sense to me.

“The only way past the pain is through the pain,” came to mind as I pondered entering a dark, fearful place like a cave.

What I fear won’t go away on its own; I need to confront it and move through it. I need to step into what seems ominous and threatening. The only way to find the treasure is to enter the cave.

I had an insight into this truth a few weeks ago. I was talking with someone about being a rape survivor, and I said the name of the man who raped me.

Two things happened almost immediately.

The first was that I had not realized that fear had me in its grip, but as soon as I said his name, the fear dissipated and was replaced with a sense of power. Instead of standing outside the cave, fearing the darkness, just saying his name sparked a light.

The second was something from the Harry Potter books. The main adversary in the series is an evil character commonly known as “He who must not be named.”  In that instant of speaking the name of the man who raped me, I realized how much power I had been giving him all these years just by protecting his name.

Why had I been protecting him? Why had I not spoken his name? As in the Harry Potter series, once Lord Voldemort is named, his power is diminished. Fear is replaced by freedom.

When I relayed these events to a friend, she quoted scripture, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:38).

Fear can be crippling. It can keep us stuck in darkness, giving up our power and limiting our potential.

Naming our fears can break the spell, and we can reclaim our power and our freedom.

I invite you to step inside the cave and claim your treasure.

Written on my heart

God-compassion-forgiveness

I recently signed up to be an advocacy speaker for our local domestic abuse shelter, sharing my story of being a survivor of sexual assault and the help I got after I was raped.

While pondering my own story, another story I hold came to mind—of a woman I befriended after she had committed a heinous crime in my community. I recently came across a bundle of her letters and realized I carry a part of her story that no one else knows.

This woman had a mental illness and heard voices inside her head. One day, she obeyed the voices that had been telling her to do something shocking, something that would make people take notice. Her actions made no rational sense, but the mental illness jumbled rational thought.

In the weeks and months following the crime, I prayed for the victims of her crime, their families and our community; and I prayed for her.

God placed this woman in my heart, and I kept seeing her as God’s daughter, a woman God still loved despite what she had done. I did not excuse what she had done, and I understood the anger of my community toward her because I, too, felt that anger. Yet God kept inviting me to look beyond what she had done to see the woman who was ill and in need of compassion. God wrote her name on my heart and asked me to see her with the eyes of my heart (Ephesians 1:18).

Eventually, I got to know this woman, and we became friends. Although I have not seen her for a long time, I still carry her in my heart.

She is not the only person God has placed on my heart, and over the years God has invited me to look at people and situations through God’s eyes, to see beyond the external facts to a deeper truth.

It can be a great challenge for me to look beyond what people do—the pain they inflict and the damage they cause—to see them as God sees them. It helps to think of my own actions that have hurt others and my desire for God to see beyond what I do, my hope that God still sees me as a beloved daughter.

On my own, I would get stuck in anger or fear; it is only possible for me to be compassionate because of the grace God gives me.

God-compassion-forgiveness

Reading Chapter 31 of Jeremiah, I wondered what God is writing in my heart now. Where is God inviting me to look beneath or beyond actions to see the need for understanding and compassion?

What is God writing on your heart?

Should I stay or should I go?

A reflection in my daily prayer book on Mark 1:18 (“Then they abandoned their nets and followed him,”) pointed out how Jesus called some people to leave everything behind and follow him. But at other times, Jesus turns people away, telling them instead to stay where they are and show themselves to the priests (Mark 1:44).

As I pondered these scriptures and Jesus’ invitations, the words from Should I Stay or Should I Go? by The Clash popped into my mind and cycled there all day.

The invitation of Mark 1:18 has always resonated with me—that idea of dropping everything and following Jesus somewhere else. If I put pushpins on a map and tied a string to indicate dates and places I have lived, it would look like this:

God-healing-trauma

Ok, maybe not that bad, but my resume was once described as a “patchwork quilt.” I took it as a compliment (because I love patchwork quilts) but I am not sure the interviewer meant it that way. Going has been my default setting.

The more I reflected on Mark 1:44, I realized two things:

One is that for most of my life, I found it easier to abandon my nets and leave, rather than risk staying and showing that I had been healed. I didn’t trust my own healing (I’d been known to backslide) nor those to whom I might have said, “Look, I am better.” After people had seen me at my worst, how could they believe I had been healed and was changed?

The second is that I didn’t see a way to show my healing—no council of priests who would check out my story and declare me “clean.” Most of the people Jesus healed showed a marked, physical difference—leprosy and then no leprosy; mute and then speaking; blind and then seeing, etc.

The woman who touched Jesus’ hem and her bleeding stopped (Mark 5:29) is one story where the malady was unseen but even she was probably physically different after she was healed.

All of this led me to reflect on my own healing, which was not a one-and-done event but has been a life-long journey. The healing Jesus performed on me wasn’t physical; I still look pretty much as I always have (except now with gray hair and wrinkles). The healing in me is internal, a healing of my heart, mind and soul. So how do I show that healing?

Someone recently suggested that I could become a “survivor speaker” with our local domestic abuse shelter and tell my story of overcoming the trauma of sexual assault.

I signed up.

I want to share the good news that healing from trauma is possible; that life can be good; and that no matter the difficulties/abuse/trauma one has endured, there is still hope of healing. I am fortunate to have a wonderful support system, people who believe in my healing, and I am deeply grateful.

After years of going, I am now staying and showing myself.  

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Coming home

“That sounds like reading tea leaves,” my spiritual director said. We were talking about discernment and how I discerned God’s will for me in major life decisions. I had just told her the process I had used at twenty-five to decide whether to move to Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, Ohio, or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My decision was made when my car radio play Philadelphia Freedom by Elton John. Not very prayerful, perhaps, but I took it as a sign.

Most of my major life decisions have been made in a similar fashion. When deciding to move to l’Arche, for example, I had wanted to go to l’Arche Toronto, but then a man from Winnipeg randomly appeared and said there was a l’Arche community in Winnipeg. It was a sign.

Or when someone from Midland, Michigan, tracked me down during a time I did not even have a phone and was staying with friends. Their persistence in pursuing me for a job seemed like a sign from God. Off to Midland I went.

When I look back on my life, I look a lot like a leaf blowing in the wind.

But my life also looks like a great adventure that has taken me to places I never would have considered.

Growing up, my future seemed predetermined—after high school, I would work as a secretary for a while, then get married, have babies, be a mom and then a grandmother—all very straight-forward.

But, I stepped off that path early on. I continued working as a secretary at the FBI until I was twenty-seven. Then a new plan formed—I would become an FBI Agent. It made sense; I had worked for the Bureau for eight years and becoming an Agent was a logical move.

Then I was raped, and all plans flew out the window. I spent my thirties bouncing from one job to another and one place to another. Even decisions I made in my forties and fifties were “like reading tea leaves,” once leaving a perfectly good job because of a picture I saw in a newspaper (it was a sign). I can only shake my head!

Now I am learning more about discernment and how to make decisions that are based on what I want and need.

Moving “home” to Michigan seven years ago has felt like I dropped anchor.

I wanted to come home; I needed to come home. Since moving here, I have had offers to move to other places (often to go back to Philadelphia) and I say “no” with confidence. Even if I heard Elton John singing Philadelphia Freedom or the twenty-first century version of that song, I don’t think I would be swayed.

Now the roads I want to travel all start and end here. I can visit other places, and I look forward to the time after the pandemic when that is possible to travel safely, but this is home. This is where I have decided to be.