TW: child sexual abuse; spiritual abuse
“I had a nightmare,” my father-in-law says, his voice hoarse and weak after a stem cell transplant for lymphoma. “That Rod climbed through the window of my hospital room and attacked me.”
He and my husband are chatting on Skype, something they never used to do until his father got sick. In any other context, it might look like redemption: a son and father healing a rift. But already, I am suppressing an urge to yank the laptop from my husband’s hands.
Rod was a felon my husband’s parents invited into their home for a faith-based Restorative Justice program. A felon who manipulated my husband into playing the “wee wee game” with him in the bathtub, amongst other things. The “wee wee game” is exactly what it sounds like: genital fondling.
My husband combs his fingers through this curls, a tic he acquired ever since he landed in the hospital for severe dissociation from acute stress and PTSD. His symptoms were so severe that a colleague found him at his desk late at night, picking up a pen and putting it down, picking up a pen and putting it down. In my husband’s mind, he was trying to figure out how to stop the compulsive motion and break out of the feedback loop. It’s a good thing he didn’t, because he might have gotten into his car and attempted to drive home.
He spent the night in the ER getting a spinal tap, MRI, CAT scan, and blood tests. They tested for drugs, for STDs, for meningitis.
Later, in an isolation unit at St. Mark’s Hospital, while we awaited the meningitis culture results, he said, “I love this place. This is the happiest I have been in a long time.”
He loved that room because the outside world could not climb in through the windows. He felt safe for the first time in a long time.
“Why did you put that photo on Facebook?” My father-in-law asks.
“My cover photo?”
They mean this one:
It’s a hand notation about Rod’s case in the “Big Book” in the Story County Courthouse in Iowa. My husband posted it because these notes show that after Rod’s suspended sentence, the Restorative Justice program was supposed to be supervising him. They neglected their duty, and my husband has been fighting for accountability in RJ programs to prevent what happened to him happening to any other children.
“People are going to think you are letting it define you,” my father-in-law says. “You don’t want to give Rod that satisfaction.”
He doesn’t even hear what he is doing, I think. He is trying to transfer his nightmare–his shame, his guilt, his responsibility–to my husband. He is telling him: You are hurting me by telling your story. People will think you are messed up inside. He cannot let my husband be damaged, because then he might be accountable for something. So long as my husband is not “screwed up,” his father can live free of guilt.
It’s the same manipulation he has used since my husband was a child.
After the “wee wee game,” my husband told his mother what happened. She and my father-in-law responded with a “forgiveness ceremony” in the backyard, in which they formally forgave Rod for his crime. They thought it was the “Christian” thing to do.
But for my husband, it was a worse trauma than the abuse.
Worse than the abuse.
Believe it or not, his parents kept the offender in their home after this incident. Only later, when he stole a television, did he get the boot. My husband got the message loud and clear: The television was more important than him.
My husband’s family is not fundamentalist Christian. His mother is Catholic; his father has tried on many faiths and settled on a Unitarian church. And yet, their incessant pathologizing of my husband’s pain & attempts at healing looks exactly like the fundamentalist cult to which the Duggars belong.
Over the past few days, I have witnessed many people on Facebook decrying the Duggars for failing to report sexual abuse and for relying on counseling that blames the victim and forces forgiveness.
And yet, many of these same people have shared memes like this one:
Imagine how it feels to be my husband–whose primary trauma was the forgiveness ceremony in his backyard–and scroll past a meme like the one above.
Now imagine how it feels for the people who were most responsible for your protection and care to send the same message, over and over: your offender didn’t hurt you; you are hurting you.
This is abuse.
This is abuse.
This is abuse.
If you think I am exaggerating, take a moment to scroll back up and look long and hard at #3 on that Institute of Basic Life Principles “counseling” tract.
#3. What parts do we damage with bitterness and guilt?
Telling survivors to stop hurting your perpetrator by expressing your pain, as in the above meme, is a manipulation tactic designed to silence survivors. It’s a tactic to make everyone more cozy and comfortable, free of exposure to ugly truths.
It is, in effect, a double bind: You MUST heal, but you MUST refrain from doing the one thing that might help you heal, which is telling your story.
My husband’s parents are the masters of the double bind.
When my husband tried antidepressants and started to feel better, his father said, “I hear those pills are bad for you. Why can’t you just meditate?”
It was the exact same thing he did to him as a child: bullying him into a spiritual solution, as if the problem were him, not the changes to his brain from PTSD and depression, but him. If only my husband would be more spiritual. If only he would forgive like a good little Christian, he would be healed.
Later, my father-in-law went to a minister and complained about my husband dredging up the past. The minister called it “abuse” for my husband to hold his parents accountable. My father-in-law, feeling validated and victorious, called and accused my husband of becoming an “abuser” by not simply getting over it.
Holding someone accountable is abuse? But exposing your child to a molester and dragging him into an unwanted forgiveness ceremony is not abuse? That is some master manipulation right there, straight from mainstream Christianity.
To my father-in-law, I would like to say: I had a nightmare, too. That my husband would never want to leave that isolation unit for fear of what might attack him on the outside. That he would prefer to live forever in that bubble because in there, your nightmares could not reach him. Even if it meant I couldn’t, too.