I’m 52 years old and I’m from Mennonite background. I was adopted into a conservative Mennonite family when I was 6 months old to be my father’s sex slave and to be my mother’s caretaker when she got old. The abuse started when I was two, and it lasted until I was twenty and got out of the house. It was father, mother, grandfathers, and my dad also gave me away when I was an adolescent and early teens to his friends as a sexual plaything. So it’s a really dark story in terms of what actually happened. My story is not unique in that regard. It’s alarmingly common.
There’s a theoretical construct called betrayal trauma, which describes abuse situations that happen between people that are either supposed to be taking care of you or your in a loving relationship with. So you’re sort of left with a philosophical choice. Maintain the attachment, or detach and remember what happened. I remembered very little, other than having a sense that something was terribly wrong and I was in danger. I didn’t have any active memories of being abused. When I was twenty, I met somebody else who had been profoundly abused and she told me her story, and it probably unzipped the unconscious as it were. I started to have memories at night, so I would wake up in the morning mutilative or suicidal and I didn’t know why. I was a psych major, so I actually thought I was having a schizophrenic break. I managed to find my way to therapy during my senior year of college.
God made essentially no sense to me. My earliest inclinations about God were that he comes to me and takes out my hard drive, and he steps on me and crushes me as he walks away. A big portion of who we are is sexual orientation and identity, and as far as I can tell it was just erased out of me. In high school I remember a lot of profound confusion about sexuality. A friend told me many years later that she knew there was something about me that was profoundly broken, but she couldn’t figure out why. There was something about me that seemed unsettled, wounded. My eighth grade teacher said she knew that something was wrong, but again there was no visible data for her to respond to.
Therapy was terrible the first couple years. I basically went to work, I went to therapy, and most of the rest of my days and nights I was in the fetal position on the couch with the TV on. I proceeded to have flashbacks regularly for the next 25 years. I don’t have very many now. I do have them occasionally, but they don’t rule my life like they did before.
Christianity eventually made sense to me because it was willing to name sin and evil as being a separate entity to goodness. And it had, unlike any of the other world religions I ever read about, a God who was willing to put on human flesh, and ultimately to live a poor life, to be a baby. All the helplessness and vulnerability that the human condition provides, he was willing to take all of that on, and ultimately was brutalized and killed for something he didn’t do. That has power for me. I am an abuse survivor. I didn’t deserve anything that was done to me, nor did I welcome it or seek it. So ultimately for me Jesus Christ made a hell of a lot more sense than anything else.
Just before I went to Cambodia for two years I met somebody else in the STAR program who runs a small clinical practice in Pennsylvania among old order Mennonites and Amish, and he invited me to come and do a couple circles in which my story was the focal point and then people could ask questions, make comments, share their own stuff. And it was profound. He says the community was permanently changed because of those evenings. So the further in I got to being in Cambodia, the more I began to question. If I could walk into a room here and we could have meaningful conversations about abuse, trauma, God, that’s profoundly satisfying given the journey I’ve been on.
My dad died about 20 years ago. Someone at that time went to my parents on my behalf, and both my parents vehemently denied that they had abused me. Their trump card has always been “well don’t you know we took this waif off the street. She would have been in a children’s home.” My sister calls my parents the best Mennonite stock in Lancaster County.
What most Mennonites say and what most Christians say when you tell them your story is, “are you at peace with your family?” But it’s not my job to hold him responsible. Nor is it my job to heal a rift that they caused. What he did was vile and evil. If he asked for forgiveness in the last breath before he died, that’s between him and God. But for the Christians who have had the most involvement in my story, they have shown me compassion, rather than demanding that I go off and try to unnaturally create some form of reconciliation with my parents who had no interest in making these wrongs right. There has been an understanding that a suffering savior’s wounds can meet my own, and in that there can be transformation.
When anybody looks terrified when you say the word “accountability” in the context of the church, something is terribly wrong. In general, it still seems the case that Mennonites and a lot of other Christians are more comfortable with the perpetrator than they are with the victim. And that is so not ok. There has been silence for generations. If we are silent with our children, our children will be silent adults. And that means more abuse. Often, the church has no idea what the fuck to do with generational violence and silence guarantees the sin and suffering will continue.
Early on, I would try to tell people, and I would go into a flashback. I had someone once say “well you know my dad left our family when I was five, and that was really hurtful, and that must be about the same as what you experienced.” And “you know your dad preached sermons in our church, and he’s really well respected as an armchair theologian in this Mennonite community, are you really sure about your memories?” But I have had other people who’ve said things like, “well that settles it for me. If you can believe in God, then I can believe in God.”
One of the things that gives me a lot of hope is when people come up to me after I share my story to ask a question, or to make a comment, or share part of their own. If telling my story can bring good in other people’s lives, I don’t know what else there is to live for. So when I share in those contexts and get those responses, something good is happening.
Geodes and crystals, these things are formed under pressure and take many many years, and so there’s something about that beauty under great pressure and across time. Similarly, even in the face of the great pressure of childhood sexual abuse, healing can occur and resiliency is possible and that is beautiful.