The day that America celebrates when it declared its independence from Great Britain (1776), from the womb that birthed and fashioned her, is as good day as any to talk about how I became a survivor. The English word survivor derives from the Latin supervivere where the prefixed preposition super means above or beyond, and the infinitive vivere means to live. I can live above and beyond my experience of child sexual abuse. I don’t have to tip toe around it or allow it to measure my steps. As Maya Angelou (a survivor) wisely stated, "I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it." I lived through it, and I can live above and beyond its potentially debilitating tentacles. But I did not always know that I could be a survivor. I did not always know that I could say those words out loud without being derided by the experience of my abuse. I did not know how it would make me feel.
In, I think, my third year at Howard Divinity School, I was one of about seven students chosen (by application) to be a Ford-Field Based Fellowship recipient. This fellowship allowed students to fulfill the field placement requirement of the M.Div. in the then nontraditional setting of a nonprofit organization. I chose Sojourners. Just as significant, if not more, the fellowship presented each student with the privilege of attending six or seven free counseling sessions with a professional counselor. (I simultaneously enrolled in my pastoral counseling practicum course through which I served as a student chaplain intern at the Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C.). We were excited about the opportunity to sit down with a counselor, but many were also apprehensive. I don’t think any of us had done so before. And I think the black community as a whole, and particular the religious/clergy community, frowned(s) upon the possibility of healing through a professional counselor. And black churches (and others) were likely to stigmatize persons who frequent clinical psychologists and/or psychologists despite the dire need because the church is supposed to be the panacea for all God’s children’s problems (even while it struggles to swim in a sea of problems of its own; living in denial as life’s undercurrents pull people under).
My first session with Dr. W was nothing less than miraculous and cleansing. We shook hands and introduced ourselves. She told me she believed in maintaining strict professional boundaries and confidentiality; that, for example, she would never just show up at my church (if I remember correctly). That set me at ease. I tend to believe that her very next words to me were “I am a survivor.” I had likely shared more about me than I can recall. But what takes center stage in my memory are her words to me, “I am a survivor.” When she spoke those words, I broke down in uncontrollable sobbing. How did she know to say those words to ME? How did she know that we were connected by a similar, sordid past? I do not know the answer to this day. She shared as much as was professionally appropriate of her past. And then we began to talk more about mine.
Those words, “I am a survivor” acted like a telescope aimed directly at the stain on my soul. I could not hide; I could not run. I could only sit and weep, like David when Nathan the prophet told him “thou art the man.” Those words, “I am a survivor,” revealed as much about me as they did about her. Before I could speak out and voice those words for myself and about me, they belonged to others and their circumstances. I admired other women who could tell their stories of rape, molestation, incest and/or abuse and declare that they had survived. But all I could do was silently and dispassionately listen, without any visible hint that we had anything in common, lest others know and I'd say “amen.” But now I had been called out and exposed. And I could not hide because she knew; she knew first-hand, empirically, not just scientifically or theoretically. She knew about me. And I am thankful that she loved me, as a human being, to call me out. And I am thankful that she knew; she had the professional and divine wisdom to know when and how to call me out. I don’t remember how long I wept. And I don’t recall stopping. I do remember that while Dr. W kept her professional composure and strength of posture, I had little doubt that she did not empathize. I was just coming to terms with my survival. She had begun to do so long ago. I didn’t know it then, but as we heal and grow and share, the less power the experience has over us. We will neither deny it nor will we cry every time we remember; neither posture allows us to help others.
Another significant realization that came out of our sessions was the consciousness that I needed to find a part of me that had been stunted; that did not flourish as I grew. Dr. W asked me, “Who is going to take care of Mitzi”? Following typical Christian rhetoric and teary-souled and -eyed, I childishly and rotely answered, “God is.” Dr. W (who was also a pastor) confidently and compassionately replied, “No, Mitzi is going to take care of Mitzi.” When I was a child, she explained, I could not defend or speak up for myself, but as an adult I am fully capable of taking care of myself. This does not mean I do not rely on God for strength, sustenance, faith, hope, etc. But it means I recognize that God has gifted me with what I need to take care of me. When God released Adam and Eve from the womb of mother earth and gave them instructions to care for the adamah (ground/soil) from which they were taken, that guardianship implied a measure of independence and God’s confidence in their ability to do something for themselves and outside of themselves; to be a part of their own survival and thriving.
In Part 5, I will discuss virginity and scars.