Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Part 3 of My Coming Out: The Guilt and the Myth of Accountability


It would be a while before I would give myself permission to despise, hate, or be angry with my grandfather for molesting me. I had assumed much of the blame and guilt. If he were good (a deacon who sat on the front row of the church every Sunday), I must have been bad. Five or six years after I broke my silence with my mother, I would connect with someone that I could safely talk to about my abuse.  As a master’s student I providentially encountered an instructor who was also a counselor (whose identity I will protect). I think I first sent her a note about my predicament before speaking with her on the phone. (Interestingly, I have had several female students confide in me in papers they wrote in my classes or in my office that they had been sexually abused.) I told the instructor I needed to talk to her. I explained to her that I could not afford her normal fee. I had no job at the time. She agreed to meet with me at her home office for a reduced fee. When I met with this counselor-instructor, I began to share my story of molestation with her. I revealed details I never believed I could release into the atmosphere lest they overpower and sully me more:  How my grandfather would sit me on his lap and make me take a nap. How he would send my two older siblings to the store.
The counselor would prudently interrupt my story with perceptive questions forcing me to think and recall more than I may have wanted to but no more than was necessary to awake “sleeping dogs” or to focus the projector’s lens that was my memory. She asked me how old I was at the time.  I responded that I was TWELVE years old.  Then she asked me a pivotal question. It was a simple question, but one I had never thought to ask myself: “Where was your younger sister?” I replied without blinking or much thought that she had not been born yet. But those words echoed in my mind and arrested my soul.  She had not been born yet. I am eight years older than my younger sister. (By the way, I love my younger sister for telling me that she is not comfortable with me telling my story because, among other reasons, it hurts her to think about what happened to me. But she wants me to tell it anyway because that’s what I need.) In high school I was good at math. If my younger sister had not yet been born, I could not have been TWELVE years old when my grandfather molested me.  In fact my grandfather died in 1968 when I was eleven years old.
My “Aha Moment” occurred when I realized that I could not have been more than eight years old when my grandfather changed my personality, my inaction with others, my voice, and my life.  Why had I been so sure that I was TWELVE years old when my grandfather molested me? Many people believe(d) that twelve years is (was) the age of accountability; that we bear responsibility for anything we do at and beyond the age of twelve.  And this accountability includes anything bad that is done to us, especially sexually; the child who has reached the age of accountability must have invited or motivated the attention/action of her abuser. Some parents (and religious traditions) have believed and taught that twelve years is the age of accountability because the Scriptures record that Jesus was twelve years old when he entered the Temple and conversed with the elders (Luke 2:41-52). Traditionally, Jews celebrate a boy’s bar-mitzvah (literally: son of commandment), his coming of age, when he turns thirteen and a girl’s bat-mitzvah (literally: daughter of commandment) when she reaches twelve. It is a crossing of the boundary between childhood and adulthood. In the Catholic tradition, a child’s “confirmation” takes place at the age of twelve. So as an adult the guilt I carried about my molestation (believing my grandfather was a good respectable member of the community and church) and the superficial teaching about a child’s age of accountability convinced me that I was twelve years old when my grandfather treated me like an adult. [My goal is not to belittle any ritual tradition but to point out impact.]
I would no longer be the child or adult I would have been had the abuse not happened.  My older sister accused me as a teenager and young adult of being afraid of people. I had a deep shyness or fear of people and especially of men. I was preoccupied with what people thought of me but simultaneously very independent. Every man only wanted one thing—I would never say that out loud but that thought unconsciously tainted my interactions.  When a child is abused, her personality changes and she bears a tattoo on her soul that can fade when properly attended to but a residue of which will remain throughout her life. Pain decreases, behavior changes, but memory remains intact. Some do not survive the wound. Others are so scarred and crippled that they just hobble through life, haunted by their abuse; the wound remains open and pus-filled polluting the mind, body, and soul.
I had read some self-help books like Healing the Child Within, which told me that the person I wanted to be is the person I am deep down. I just needed to recovery her. In many cases the self-help books are the “rocks that cry out.” Many will never get the help they so badly need to heal. This dearth of help is partly due to denial, ignorance, and/or a lack of priority when it comes to sexuality and sexual abuse in churches, among religious folk and in society in general. Sexual abuse rarely happens among Christians because we are “new (and improved) creatures” like new American cars that will never again guzzle gas. Sexual abuse does not happen as often as people say, or that is not the worse thing that can happen to a woman (or child). In the 1983 “Dirty Harry” movie Sudden Impact a woman who was gang raped set out to take homicidal revenge on each of her abusers. One man blurted out just before she riddled him with bullets, “It wasn’t that bad was it…some women are giving it away for free.”  Ignorance and misogyny are like an ingrown hair that eventually rears its ugly shaft and wonders why everybody is so upset.
The opportunity to sit down with an experienced and professional counselor allowed me to begin to unpack my guilt and to revisit my story. A huge burden was lifted from my soul that day. That one session made a world of difference. Despite the breakthrough, it would be a year before I would resume my therapeutic journey. The counselor, for whom I am eternally thankful, lost my trust when she broke her agreement with me and decided she would charge me her regular fee.  I don’t know what motivated her to break her word and my trust, but I do know that too often we let the opportunity to make an extra buck unseat our charity and derail our purpose dragging the name of God through the proverbial mud of our discontent and unfaithfulness. Many people are hurting and need trained, skilled, professional and trust worthy counselors to help discover the road to recovery. Why isn’t the church a safe place to share our stories, to be listened to without judgment and without being inundated with proof texts void of context and with religious talking points? There is a dearth in the land. I would eventually, in the same place, find a professional counselor brimming with the integrity of Vashti, the timeliness of Esther, and the wisdom of Sheba.  I will discuss this in Part 4: “I’m a Survivor” ~ God is a wonderful counselor and she is divine!

13 comments:

PamBG said...

Thank you for telling your stories. I have no words that seem sufficient but I want to communicate that your stories are being read with respect. I wish these things did not happen to you or to any girl or young woman and the truth will set us all free even in being painful. Thanks for having the courage to tell the truth.

WomanistNTProf said...

You are welcome. Thanks for reading and for your kind words, Pam.

Mary Dawson said...

Mitzi...
Thank you for your courage to share your experience, strength and hope with so many.

I completely agree that the church, which should be a safe place, is most often the last place you would share anything so personal and painful. I experienced this when my son was struggling with addiction and alcoholism. I went to my pastor for help and he told me how sorry he was that we were going though this, but that it was because my husband and I "hadn't done an adequate job of passing our faith on to our children." I was crushed! But by God's grace, an older woman invited me to a 12 Step Group for families and friends of alcoholics. There I found the anonymity, safety and support to share my heart and find healing. I will celebrate my 25th year of trudging the Steps this August.

God bless you. Keep on speaking your Truth. The world needs to hear it.

Blessings, Mary

WomanistNTProf said...

wow Mary, I would have been crushed too. So sorry you had that experience with the church but so glad you found help somewhere. Thanks for your encouragement and for reading. Blessings to you too

Morven said...

"A tattoo on her soul" is a powerful visual. Thank you for sharing your story. This chapter, especially the section about the age of accountabiliy and your epiphany of how young you actually had been, shows how easily children can be persuaded to believe deception. Thank you for sharing.

Linda said...

Thank you for sharing your story. I think if the church is to find its voice in our world it must learn how to truly be the safe place you and many of us call it to be. As a pastor I have tried to do that work but have found that often when we open those doors it is so scary for some that they will eliminate those who open the doors. That not only makes it risky for the pastor but puts the wounded in danger of being revictimised by the church that now has become unsafe.

WomanistNTProf said...

Linda, Thank you. What really disturbed me recently was what I found what can happen in other places for example with Landmark Education (check it out on the web). A friend who had been attending invited me to an introductory session on the last night of his communication forum with them. What I found it to be is a large group counseling session where people who do not know one another come together and share their stories and a "coach" coaches them through. The disturbing part is that the leader is just another person usually who has gone through the forums like they have -- they are not pastors, trained counselors or anything of the sort and people trust them.Also, the lack of integrity; they tell people they are an accredited school, at least they told us this that night and they are NOT. They charge people $500 or more per weekend session, which lasts from 9 am to 11 pm at night hammering people on their issues while they are extremely tired. They use principles that we could find in many self-help books and in the bible. What it shows is that people are desperate to be heard and to make changes in their lives that will help them live more fulfilling lives. We must do something differently, even if it means holding these type sessions with trained professionals and requiring church members to sign confidentiality agreements if they should attend.

linda said...

I am open to working on ideas i am a UCC pastor and do pastoral counseling as well as Reiki. It is an area that is near and dear to my heart as I have my own story.

WomanistNTProf said...

great Linda. Would like to hear your story sometime.

Rev. Irie Lynne Session said...

Thank you Dr. Smith for your vulnerability and transparency and for allowing God to work through you to open the floodgates of the reservoir of tears laying dormant within me.

I've had years of therapy, individual and group. I am what would be considered a "successful" African-American woman,who is also a pastor, community advocate and single mother, in the process of writing my dissertation and yet, the "residue of sexual abuse" still stains my soul. The effects of sexual abuse are akin to "soul murder" and resurrection, while it is possible, may take a lifetime. In fact, that is the nature of my dissertation. Thank you my precious sister for touching that space in me that let me know I'm still alive and a work in progress.

Irie

WomanistNTProf said...

Reading your response and hearing a little of your experience has also brought tears to my soul and flooding my eyes. Glory be to God, we progress together, Sis. Rev. Session.

Chris Cahill said...

Dear sisters in Christ,
I have not left comments on any of these posts or comments thus far, not because I have not read them, but because as I do I sit in stunned silence, grief, and sorrow that these are your stories and your lives. I truly do not know what to say either to you or to our gracious God, but I trust that the Holy Spirit has been hearing your cries and the now-added cry of my own heart on your behalf, and has been bringing you healing. I continue to grieve for your griefs, and rejoice for your healings.

WomanistNTProf said...

thank you Chris. Your grieving and rejoicing with us means a lot