In response to Elizabeth Switaj’s piece on forgiveness culture, a story of abuse and survival.
ou’re my daughter. I can do what I want.”
Yom Kippur is the time of year in the Jewish tradition that one focuses with intent on matters of redemption and forgiveness. We look deeply into ourselves through the mirror of the past year, making a frank appraisal of our thoughts and our conduct towards our friends and family, our communities, ourselves. Whenever possible, we are to approach those who we may have harmed, and offer up apology and request for forgiveness from the injured parties. We are to allow ourselves to be open to those who approach us with a willing spirit, asking the same of us. Over the years I have been an exuberant participant in the rituals related to Selichot, the penitential prayer period. It feels right to tell someone I am sorry for any hurt I may have inflicted, intentionally or unintentionally, and to grant forgiveness to those who apologize for their own transgressions. In some instances it has been difficult, but never has there been any regret for apology or forgiveness. It lightens the load of living, it really does.
There is one exceptional challenge in this process for me. Every year I run up against it, and though I see it from a different angle each time, it remains impervious to this redemptive process. I have made my usual attempts to find it in my heart, for myself as much as the other, to forgive egregious transgressions. I have also gone at it from the other side, bringing into the light some of the issues and asking for the opportunity to work together through some aspects of it, but I have met with the strongest denial and resistance. In other words, I have asked to be offered an opportunity to resolve bad feelings and be offered apology for transgression against me, and I have attempted to freely give forgiveness in the absence of such an offering. I pirouette and do running jumps and backward flips and I remain where I stand.
I am a sexual abuse survivor. The perpetrator was my mother. Until very recently, I shared this truth with precious few. I have since shared the truth with a handful of friends. Only recently have I begun to realize that I harm not only myself by keeping my truth the world’s best-kept secret. It denies others the possibility of understanding that yes, there are mothers who sexually abuse their children. It does harm to other women (and men) who feel they are truly the only person on earth who has survived this particular abuse, that there is nowhere to turn, no one who can understand their experience. There is a fair amount in the literature that reflects belief about the destruction wrought due to sexual abuse by one’s own mother. The shattering of innocence by the primary nurturer, the one who we ought to be able to run to when we are hurt, or scared, or in danger, is seen as emotionally devastating for the survivor. But few seem to have actually met any of us. There is a belief that it is rare, that the maternal impulse is that strong. Perhaps it is. But I suspect it is not as rare as we wish to believe.
I have a love for life that is immeasurable. I am still here because of it, and I say with no posturing that there have been times that I have wondered if I should even bother living with the memories, the scars layered on my emotional terrain thick and rough-edged. I’ve come to understand that what happened to me was not my fault, I had no power to control it, and that it doesn’t have to dictate my every move. But there is the layer below the intellectualizing where I live with the visceral knowledge of the devastation left behind. I no longer swim in its waters daily. I have survived and thrived in numerous ways. But the body doesn’t lie. It has taken a systematic approach to reclaiming my body, its feelings and functions, without shame or anger towards it. I have had some success in exploring this new path, and I have become ferocious in defense of my sensuous nature and I am a champion of anyone else walking a path of such self-discovery.
The above image is the creation of Eric Abernethy, nature and wildlife photographer. Part of his “mirror” series, I use it with his permission. I see in it a reflection of where I have been when immersed in sensory experience. Many abuse survivors report having a lack of feeling during sex, of an inability to respond. Even when receiving otherwise safe and nurturing touch, sensation is distorted or absent. In my consenting relationships, I’ve never lost the ability to respond, to sense, to feel. What I’ve had was a hatred for my body and its ability to feel. I’ve engaged in some strange mental wanderings to survive it, swimming deep at times.
There is some wreckage at the bottom of the lake. There are gems down there, too. I did not know this for a long time. Soon I will tell you more about what I found along the way. It is terrifying to put this out there for others to see, but I intuitively know that it’s the only way for me to move forward.
Read Part Two of Deborah’s story.