Recently, my former bishop asked why I need to keep telling my story. His office has already done a lot to support my healing. He made sure my former church had windows in the office doors; he beefed up the diocese’s online resources on sexual misconduct; and he now asks all parishes to post a quarterly “how to report” notice. And of course, he secured the resources I needed for medical treatment and therapy. For these gifts, I am grateful, and I wish I could say they had healed me. They have certainly helped. I wanted the church to be safer, and it is. I needed medical treatment, and the church’s funds made that possible. I am healthier, stronger, and more whole than I have ever been, and I owe my healing at least partly to the bishop’s efforts.
And yet, that doesn’t change my need to tell my story. When we experience trauma, that is how some of us heal. We tell our stories again and again, to many people, in many ways.
What happens when we tell our stories?
We free ourselves from traumatic memories. Writer Penelope Trunk was a block away from the World Trade Center when the towers fell. Stepping outside her building, she nearly suffocated in dust, debris, and the crush of the crowd. In the moment, she writes, “You have to turn off all your emotions to get yourself through it. After the fact, in order to stop having nightmares and panic attacks, you have to experience the emotions you missed.” She told her story again and again, so often that her family got sick of hearing it. But she knew she needed to keep telling it.
We reach an understanding we can live with. Over time, Trunk learned to reframe the experience. In the early weeks, she kicked herself for staying at the scene too long, for standing too close to the falling tower, for not trying to help others. But by telling her story again and again, she learned to focus on the good luck of surviving and the blessing of living through a moment “where I thought I was going to die and saw exactly what I cared about in my life.”
We shed the shame that was never ours to begin with. In healing from clergy sexual misconduct, survivor “K” chronicles her journey from shame to strength. Last August, she wrote in remorse, “I feel terrible that I ended his career.” Five months and several thousand words later, she could write, “What happened was a conscious decision by a man who knew the rules and broke them anyway and used me for his own purposes when I was in a fragile state.”
We defend ourselves against harmful lies. I made an effort to do this here. Erik Campano did it here. It’s unlikely either of us changed a single mind by laying out the facts. Communal myths tend to inoculate people against the truth. But for me, and for Erik, telling our stories lightened the sense of injustice.
We connect. At my former church, I kept people at a distance to protect my dangerous secret. After I left, I was too traumatized to trust even my family. At my new church, it was months before I felt safe talking to anyone. In isolation, my fears grew enormous and I slid into a dangerous mental illness. Only by telling my story — first to the women in my treatment group, then to a trusted soul at my new church — did I begin to heal. Humans are communal creatures. Force us into isolation, including the isolation of forced silence, and we will wither and die.
We give courage to other survivors. It was Jan Tuin’s story that helped me put a name to my experience. Samantha Nelson’s story helped me find my voice as a survivor. These two brave women let me know that I wasn’t alone, and that I wasn’t to blame for my pastor’s behavior. Now, when I tell my story, I help other survivors see that they aren’t alone. A few have contacted me through my blog, and now we give courage to each other.
We claim our voices. Last spring, I attended the Sexual Ethics training for clergy in my region. When I introduced myself, I said, “I’m Catherine Thiemann. I’m a survivor of a breach of sexual boundaries in a church setting, and I’m here because I feel called to work for safer churches.” This was the first time I had ever stood up publicly as a survivor. Two days later, I did the same in a three-day training for church leaders from all over the country. Two days after that, I started this blog. I now have a voice, and that has helped me restore my sense of self.
We “bring to light the things now hidden in darkness” (1 Corinthians 4:5). When a minister crosses sexual boundaries, the church needs to know. This is true even if the offense wasn’t physical, and even if only one victim complains. Mark Laaser, founder of Faithful and True, told me, “The congregation absolutely needs to be told. That’s a moral imperative. Otherwise you’re screwing with their minds.” Marie Fortune made this truth the central point of her November 2012 lecture at Vanderbilt Divinity School, “Wolves in Shepherds’ Clothing.” When the church remains silent, the victim carries this moral burden forward. We tell our stories to bring the hidden things to light.
We answer the question, “Who am I now?” Trauma reshapes us irreversibly. Anyone who thinks we can “bring this whole episode to a close” just doesn’t get it: after trauma, there is no going back to normal. Because of my experience, I will never again be welcome in the congregation I once loved. I will never again be able to give full trust to a minister. I will never again belong to the church that baptized me. Even the trivial things are different: because the abuse triggered an eating disorder, I had to give up running, so I will never again be a runner. So, who am I now? Along with the losses, what have I gained? How is my life better today because of what I experienced? By telling my story, over and over, I uncover my new self.
In four years of telling my story, I’ve done a lot of healing. Recently, I had begun to wonder if I might be coming to an end of my need to talk about my experience. I’ve made sense of the most painful memories that involve my former pastor. I’ve finished grieving the shattered friendships. I understand the community dynamics that fueled my ostracism. I’ve found my voice through writing. I’m beginning to understand why institutions silence whistleblowers — and I had even begun to feel that the church was honoring my voice. I thought the institutional silencing was behind me.
Now, hearing from my bishop, I feel the hand of silence closing in around my mouth again. I’m not afraid what the church might do; I am afraid that I’ll absorb their fears and begin to stifle my own voice. So I push against silence in the only way I know how: with TRUTH, OUT LOUD. If my new fear awakens settled memories, I’ll tell those stories again. If the hand of silence tightens, I’ll fight against it harder. I’ll speak the truth louder.
I understand my bishop’s fear. When I tell my story, there’s a chance my readers will figure out who I’m talking about. I do my best to prevent that by masking the names and details. After all, we all make mistakes, and we all deserve a chance to learn our lesson and start again. But we need to understand: even when we start again, we leave a trail behind us. If we’ve given someone a painful story to tell, we have to let them tell it.
Telling my story has blessed me beyond all imagination. And so, I wish for my former pastor, and for all who carry the burden of a painful secret, the freedom to tell their stories — and the gift of unconditional love and support from the communities into which they speak.