Note: Part one of my husband’s story appears here: I had a nightmare: on the Duggars, Christianity, and abuse.
My mother-in-law touched down in Salt Lake City like a tornado twelve hours after I called–reluctantly–to inform her that her son is in the hospital with a mysterious illness.
“It could be meningitis,” I told her, though deep down I knew the culture would come back negative.
That morning, when I woke up to an empty pillow on my husband’s side of the bed and a voice mail from an ER in a suburb forty minutes away, I dry heaved before I hit play, envisioning a morgue drawer sliding open and me saying, “Yes, that’s him.” I was certain he had careened off the road or crashed his Honda FIT into an electrical pole.
For two weeks, he had succumbed to mysterious “spells,” crossing his arms over his chest and shaking his head “no”–not in response to questions, but as if some gear crank deep inside him had been wound. He twisted up his mouth as if trying to wrap his lips around an elusive alphabet. We agreed we needed to get him to a doctor, but then he would revert to his old self, and we pretended everything was “normal.” I think we both knew he was on the verge of a breakdown, and we didn’t want to face it.
We also knew his childhood abuse was to blame. Hence, my reluctant phone call.
“I want to help,” my mother-in-law said, and she booked the first flight from Iowa. In two days, she has destroyed our cookware, scratched the glass stove top repeatedly, demanded late-evening shopping trips to Whole Foods for her special quinoa, and called the extended family to complain about me in the third person while I watch. Hence, tornado.
Now, she is standing in my kitchen at 6:00 in the morning defending Rod, the man who molested my husband as a child, a felon the family took in for a faith-based rehabilitation program.
I picked the fight. Maybe I’m out of line, but I seized this moment to warn my mother-in-law that she is at risk of losing her son forever. He will go no contact if he has to, and I will support him 100%.
“Would you rather be right,” I say, “or would you rather have a relationship with your son?”
She heaves a sigh. “But you can only do evil if you intend it,” she says, whining in her Alabama drawl. I have heard this argument before, when my husband quoted her with disgust.
It’s her trump card: her Catholic faith, in which the morality of an action is judged by its objective, intention, and circumstances. In her mind, it was fine to use my husband as a pawn because the object was Rod’s recovery. If babysitting her little boy helped Rod become a better man, then so be it–never mind a psychiatric profile indicating Rod should not be left alone with any child, let alone her child.
To her, intention works like voodoo magic. If you don’t intend to hurt people, they are not really hurt. On the flip side, if someone hurts her, it is proof positive of evil intent–like when my husband demands she take responsibility for his abuse, and she guilt trips him by saying he wants his own mother thrown in prison.
It’s narcissism fueled by faith: Her pain is the only pain in the world because she is doing God’s work.
Of course, she is twisting doctrine to suit her argument. Read the Catholic Catechism, and you will see that she is wrong. As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “An evil action cannot be justified by reference to a good intention.” And some actions are so inherently evil that they are irredeemable. Like forcing your son to stay in close quarters with the man who molested him.
In her mind, though, she wasn’t forcing her son to continue contact with his molester. She was rehabilitating Rod. And around and around her logic goes.
I slam my coffee mug on the granite counter to stop myself from hurling it at her.
“You are destroying your son,” I scream, doubled over from the force of my rage. “Every single time you defend Rod, you chip away at him a little more.”
My husband, playing his bass in the isolation unit at St. Mark’s Hospital. Music has become his primary coping strategy, and for reasons that might be obvious, he calls his one-man band Satan’s Bestie.
It’s not that I want to paint sex offenders and abusers as “monsters.” If anything, that kind of black-and-white thinking prevents us from detecting abuse right under our noses. If we are only looking for “monsters,” we overlook the beloved brother, family friend, trusted teacher, or minister.
Nobody does bad things all the time. Rod was charming, my husband says. My mother-in-law, for all the chaos she creates, can be incredibly generous with her money and time, helping us out with medical bills or volunteering for hospice.
But this concept of offender intentions trumping victim damage is a rationalization with only one purpose: silencing survivors. How dare you speak up about damage, when you know I never intended to hurt you? It infantilizes abusers like my mother-in-law, allowing them to toddle through their worlds blissfully unaware of the damage in their wake.
Funny, though, my mother-in-law is so quick to acknowledge Rod’s damage from abuse. Yanked from his family by Child Protective Services for malnourishment, he suffered a lot of pain. I don’t deny it. I have read the case file, and his story is sickening and sad.
However, my husband suffered the exact same neglect. His pediatrician threatened to call CPS at one point because of malnourishment. Failure to thrive, he called it. To hear my mother-in-law tell it, though, she didn’t intend to starve him. My husband simply “refused” to eat. She would try to stick a spoon in his tiny mouth, and he would squirm and look away. He was “distracted,” she says.
In other words: he brought malnourishment on himself.
Ah, but my husband wasn’t distracted. He was a pint-sized security guard, tense and ready to repel all threats. His mother trained him for his relentless patrol by banging his little baby head against a door frame while ranting about changing diapers and cleaning the house. She became a mother because that’s what good Christian women do, and she took it out on him. More than once, she stomped around the house hoisting my husband aloft as she raged. His father witnessed it and did nothing.
But she didn’t intend any harm, so her son’s suffering–his damage–is imaginary. She will be the first to tell you that childbirth transformed her, that her baby was a miracle, and she was doing God’s work by becoming a mother.
My husband as a member of the police explorers, which he loved because the world of law enforcement felt safe to him and tapped into the skills he developed to help him survive. He is not alone in this. Check out Good Cop, Bad Daughter by Karen Lynch, for another story of a survivor who found police work a natural fit for her adaptations to a chaotic childhood.
Rod, on the other hand: his damage is real. Acknowledging his damage absolves him of any wrongdoing–and by extension, absolves my mother-in-law. See how it works: The child molester wasn’t really a child molester but a wounded survivor, so my husband wasn’t really harmed by the “wee wee game,” and his mother isn’t really at fault for keeping Rod around … You see the twisted logic.
In short: My mother-in-law has sympathy for abusers because she is one. Let a fellow abuser off the hook, and she’s off the hook.
I call it vicarious exoneration, something I have watched unfold in the Duggar story as well.
Pay close attention to the wording in Josh Duggar’s statement: “I understood that if I continued down this wrong road that I would end up ruining my life.”
Notice he doesn’t say, “I would end up ruining my victims’ lives.” It is all about his redemption, his pain. He didn’t learn that attitude in a vacuum. This is the Christian redemption story all over again, emphasis on rehabilitating the offender, not the victims. Never mind how Josh’s sisters might have felt during the time period his offenses went unreported. If the goal was to rehabilitate Josh, the family was doing God’s work.
“At least he took the actions to change his life around! Obviously Josh is living a good life. A wonderful family, a beautiful wife, and 4 children. Everyone will make mistakes in life but at least Josh admitted it! Most people would never even tell anyone until things got out of hand.”
Notice the entire focus is on Josh and his “rehabilitation.” Not one word about the victims.
I admit that intention — in criminal law, “mens rea”–gets trickier with underage offenders like Josh Duggar. However, regardless of what one thinks about Josh’s culpability, his parents had no excuse for continuing to expose their daughters to a brother who groped them in their sleep, and that’s where “vicarious exoneration” comes into play again. Michelle and Jim Bob “did nothing wrong” because their intentions were good: helping their son overcome his sin. And look! He did! So no harm, no foul.
Psst, don’t imagine the terror of bedtime in that house. Forget about it, because Josh is redeemed.
I watch my mother-in-law’s eyelid twitch as she processes my warning that she is destroying her son. Maybe if she hears it from me, I think, the light bulb will finally flicker on. But her phone chimes, reminding her it’s time to pray for someone in her church’s “prayer chain,” and she obeys, retreating to the bedroom for privacy. Once again, she is calling on a higher power to heal a stranger instead of doing the one thing that is in her power to heal her own son. Once again, her intentions are so, so good.