In the 1944 thriller-mystery film Gaslight, Charles Boyer’s character tries to convince Ingrid Bergman’s character that she has gone insane. His best-known technique, and the one from which the film gets its name: gaslighting. Boyer secretly dims the gas lights in their home. When Bergman comments that the lights are flickering, he tells her that she’s crazy. She comes to believe it.
Psychoanalyst and author Robin Stern defines gaslighting as “the systematic attempt by one person to erode another’s reality. This is done by telling them that what they are experiencing isn’t so.” Gaslighting usually takes place within a romantic relationship, she says, but it can also happen between friends, family members, and work colleagues. All it requires is “a gaslighter, who needs to be right in order to preserve his own sense of self and his sense of having power; and a gaslightee, who allows the gaslighter to define her sense of reality.” (You can find this passage on page three of Stern’s book The Gaslight Effect.)
I want to make it clear that the church did not gaslight me. On the contrary: by acknowledging my former pastor’s violation in writing, the bishop concretely affirmed my experience. But now that seems to be unraveling. On this blog and elsewhere, I have used the term “sexual misconduct” to describe my former pastor’s actions. The bishop’s attorney now says, “It would be incorrect to imply that __________ ever concluded there had been clergy sexual misconduct.” Is the church attempting to gaslight me after the fact?
A year and a half after the bishop closed my case, I sent him a letter with thanks for his helpful actions, and I suggested ways that his process could offer better support to people like me. Among my bishop’s most helpful actions: the letter that he handed me on March 15, 2010. Although it focused only on the words my former pastor spoke on a single day (which I have described here), and it ignored the earlier behavior that I now see as red flags, the bishop’s letter affirmed that a member of the clergy had harmed me by violating my boundaries. Although the bishop didn’t ask me to keep that letter confidential, I have always considered those words to be holy ground. I won’t share the letter, not even here, not even to show why I was so sure that the bishop had labelled my former pastor’s behavior as “sexual misconduct.” The bishop may now disagree with that term, but we both know what was in the letter.
In Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman describes what often happens after “traumatic events of human design.” After a human-originated trauma, bystanders cannot remain neutral. They have to choose whether to stand with the victim or the perpetrator. The victim demands compassion and empathy; the perpetrator demands only that bystanders go on with their lives. “Silence and secrecy are the perpetrator’s first line of defense,” says Herman. “If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure that no one listens. … After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it on herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on.” Is my church now saying, “It never happened”?
I’m about to describe an out-of-print book by Judith Rowland titled “Rape: The Ultimate Violation.” Because the church is sensitive to how I describe my experience, I want to be perfectly clear: my former pastor did not physically harm me in any way. He never violated my physical boundaries, not even once. But Rowland’s work is still relevant to this discussion. In her book, she describes the symptoms of “rape trauma syndrome” (sleeplessness, weight changes, nightmares, isolation, fearfulness, poor job performance, etc). Even in the absence of physical evidence of rape, courts have begun to see these symptoms as evidence that “something happened.”
Could there also be “clergy sexual misconduct trauma syndrome”? The Hope of Survivors lists the consequences of abuse as “fear, grief, anger, anxiety, shame, guilt, low self-esteem (self-respect), self-abuse, suicide, eating disorders (anorexia or bulimia) depression, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and a host of physical illnesses and symptoms, damaged ability to relate to others and to God, trust issues, etc.” Even without a physical violation, I suffered most of the symptoms on this list. Is that not evidence that serious harm happened? If no violation occurred, why would I still be so focused on this issue? If my former pastor hadn’t nearly stolen my soul, why would I spend my time thinking and writing about such a painful subject? Honestly, I don’t want to be doing this work. I want to be traveling, gardening, painting, enjoying my family, and writing about happier things. I want to feel comfortable sharing my writing with my family and friends, but because people are so uncomfortable with this subject, I can’t share this blog with most of the people I know. I don’t do this work for fun; I don’t do it for revenge (my God, life is too short for revenge!) I do it to heal myself, to heal others, and because I can’t ignore the call of God.
When the church refuses to acknowledge the violation, one of two things may happen. The victim may come to doubt her own experience — or she may start fighting like hell. She may refuse to be gaslighted. She may insist on holding to her truth.
My bishop is now offering to set the record straight publicly. If he does, I hope he tells the whole story. I would like to know: if it wasn’t clergy sexual misconduct, then what was it that nearly destroyed my health, my marriage, and my faith?