Last night in my women’s group, “Celeste” talked about her 12-step work. Now in Step Four, she is writing an Inventory of Resentments. In the first column: whom does she still resent? In columns two and three: what did they do, and how did it impact her? Finally, in the fourth column, what role did she play in the harm she experienced?
Celeste paused and looked down at her feet. She sighed. Then she lifted her gaze. “I’ve never told you this,” she began, “but I was molested by a teacher when I was 14.” Celeste’s mother had one discussion with the school, but she refused to discuss it at home. To deal with the pain and shame, Celeste sought religion. She started attending her best friend’s church, and she met with a minister to confess her sins. When she “confessed” that her teacher had been sexual with her, the minister said the words, “I forgive you.”
“I forgive YOU??” Maybe thirty years ago, clergy weren’t mandated reporters of abuse. But today, if that minister didn’t tell authorities that a teacher had sexually abused a girl in his care, he would be criminally liable. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way in three decades, and so has Celeste. Even though her 80-year-old mother still calls the abuse “the event that you refer to as ‘molestation,’ ” Celeste is able to put the shame where it belongs. In her Inventory of Resentments, Celeste can write her teacher’s name, describe the event, and rage all over the page if she wants. But in the fourth column? “I’m leaving it blank,” she says. “I know I had no role in that event.”
This morning, writer/survivor Kerri (of the Kerri Chronicles) reposted a remarkable essay called “shameless“ by an author who blogs as slhouchin. The essay opens: “If I began telling you a story about how I was mugged, robbed, had my identity or car stolen, I would not worry about you judging me. The weight of blame would sit on the shoulders of the criminals. If I told you how my friend’s elderly relative was murdered after she answered the door to a salesman, you would not tell me how she was to blame for opening the door… But if I were to tell you how I am a survivor of sexual assault, I would be fearful.”
Like SLHouchin, I am still fearful today when I talk about clergy sexual misconduct. I am afraid that if I tell my story to anyone who doesn’t fully understand how it can happen even to strong women and men or how it impacts our lives (and 99.9% of the human population don’t understand these things), my listeners might think that I invited the abuse, or that I over-reacted, or that I made the whole thing up. In other words, that I’m a slut, a nut, or a liar. I’m not afraid of the church’s attempts to silence me — in fact that makes me want to tell my truth even louder. But when I tell my story today, I’m telling it to people who are important in my life now. I don’t want to lose community again. That risk is always present, and it makes me afraid. Every time I tell my story, I have to push past that fear.
SLHouchin writes, “I am conditioned to tell my story with an apology, with shame, with accountability for my part in his violence.” But she says, “I am not ashamed for surviving. I am not ashamed for calming down, letting him finish, and smiling as he got into his car” or for “the last words I said to him ‘We’re cool.'” She continues, “I do have real shame in my life for the pain that I have caused other people. I have shame for my mean girl phase in high school. I am ashamed for the times in my life where I held my tongue instead of speaking the truth. I am ashamed that I do not speak this truth louder.”
My brave friend Fernando is now speaking out about a rape that he endured a few months ago. I use Fernando’s real name to honor his courage. Like me, he is speaking openly. Unlike me, he is telling his story fearlessly. He has a large following on social media, and he is using this platform to stand up publicly as a survivor, to raise awareness about sexual assault, and to give courage to other victims and survivors. Like SLHouchin, Fernando refuses to bear the shame that we sometimes place on the shoulders of rape survivors. Like Celeste, Fernando knows he played no role in his own violation.
SLHouchin tells about a Canadian teen who tragically took her own life after surviving a brutal rape and social bullying. “At 15, I felt the guilt too,” she writes. “I thought of taking my own life.” For most of her adult life, Houchin kept silent for reasons similar to mine. But now, she says, “Survivors dying by their own hand makes my silence so utterly selfish.”
And that is why I write and speak. My voice (by which I mean “my courage”) is small yet, but it is growing. Every time I tell my story, every time I identify openly as a survivor of clergy sexual misconduct, my voice grows a little stronger. I couldn’t have done this three and a half years ago — I needed to heal before I could risk being ostracized again. But now I’m ready. I’m grateful to all my survivor friends, whether they were children or adults when they were victimized, whether their abuse involved physical force or sick-sweet persuasion, and whether they have told a thousand people or just one. You all give me courage. I hope I can give a little back to you.