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!