Guest Posts

Happy Halloween!

halloween

Guest post by ObstacleChick

Halloween is one of those holidays that is tremendously fun for kids, but most of us are probably unaware of the origins of the holiday. The ancient Celts (inhabitants of the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Northern France) celebrated the festival Samhain on October 31 whereby people would light bonfires and wear costumes, typically animal skins and heads, to ward off ghosts. November 1 marked the new year for the Celts, conveying the end of harvest and the entrance into the cold, dark months of winter which were associated with death. The Celts believed that on October 31, the boundaries between the living and dead were blurred so that ghosts would come to earth and wreak havoc. While people tossed crops and animals into the bonfires as sacrifices to the Celtic gods, Druid priests would tell fortunes and make prophecies about the year to come. At the end of the night, people would relight their hearth fires from the bonfire in order to bring protection for the new year.

As the Romans expanded their empire into the Celtic territories, they brought two festivals with them which were incorporated into the Celtic Samhain. Feralia in late October was the Romans’ holiday to commemorate the dead. The second was a festival honoring Pomona, the goddess of fruits and trees (hence, the practice of bobbing for apples on Halloween). In 609, Pope Boniface IV created All Martyrs Day in May, and later Pope Gregory III moved the festival to November 1 and included all saints and all martyrs in the festival named All Saints Day. In 1000, the church made November 2 All Souls Day to honor the dead. All Souls Day was celebrated with costumes and bonfires similarly to Samhain, and All Saints Day was colloquially called All-Hallowmas with the night before (the traditional Samhain day) called All-Hallows-Eve (later shortened to Halloween).

The celebration of Halloween made its way to the colonies with the British and Irish immigrants. While the Puritans were rigid and prudish and did not allow much celebration of Halloween in New England, Halloween was celebrated in the Mid-Atlantic and the Southern colonies. As immigration from Ireland increased in the 19th century, further celebration of Halloween spread throughout the United States. From 1920, the celebration became a community event with special emphasis on fun for children. Today, there are parties for adults and for children, plus trick-or-treating, trunk-or-treat celebrations, and fun for kids at shopping malls. Many people of all ages enjoy dressing up in costume and having a good time together. In fact, my 16-year-old son recently said he misses the fun that he had as a kid on Halloween.

My brother is 12 years younger than I, born to parents who were almost 39 and 41 at his birth. My mom and step-dad worked full-time and had little interest in doing anything extra for their son outside of basic care. They would take him to the park sometimes on the weekends, but that was about it. He was expected to play on his own until he was old enough to play outside with neighborhood kids. We lived in a rural area where everyone owned a minimum of one acre of property, so houses were not very close together. Trick-or-treating consisted of parents driving their kids from one house to the next – the kids would hop out of the car, run up to the door for candy, then run back to the car to drive to the next house. I remember my mom taking me out to trick-or-treat a few times when I was a kid, but when our church started having a Halloween party for kids, she took me to that instead. During the 1970s and 1980s there were huge scares about razor blades and needles being put into candy, and hospitals would offer to x-ray the candy for safety. Everyone was warned to throw away homemade treats because they might be poisoned or filled with broken glass or razor blades. I remember one year my mom wanted me to throw away a wrapped Rice Krispies treat from elderly Mrs. Massey up the street – like Mrs. Massey was going to harm children with broken glass.

By the time my brother came along and wanted to trick-or-treat, my mom and stepdad had no interest in taking my brother trick-or-treating and they refused to do so. Not yet having a driver’s license, I dressed my brother up the best I could and walked the neighborhood with him so he could trick-or-treat. I’m not sure what he did when I went to college, but I suppose he went out with friends. At some point when I was in my 20s, my mom started saying that she thought that Halloween was a Satanic holiday and that Christians really should not celebrate a holiday that glorifies death, Satan and demons. Being in my 20s and no longer an Evangelical Christian, I told her she was crazy, which went over quite well (NOT!), but we disagreed about a lot of things such as homosexuality, abortion, and the role of religion in public discourse.

Now in his mid-30s, my brother has become increasingly religiously devout in the past couple of years. While he does not belong to a church (mainly because he can’t find one with which he agrees), he prays every day, teaches his sons his version of Christianity, and is part of a Skype/online men’s prayer group. Recently, he started frequently posting Bible verses along with quotes and articles from Christian ministers. He prefers content dealing with sin, the mightiness of God, and the consequences of sin. His politics are quite right-wing Trump-supporting, flavored with a hefty dose of fear of “Luciferism,” Communism, Atheists, Demons, Satanism, and Pro-Choice Feminist “Jezebels.” He posts articles from Charisma magazine, which is a far-right Christian fear-mongering site. Sometimes I’ll read an article he posts, laugh out loud, give a good eye-roll, then become sad that he believes these things.

A couple of weeks ago, he posted a Charisma Magazine article regarding Halloween. The author goes into great detail citing supporting verses about why Christians should not celebrate Halloween under any circumstances. Instead, they should proselytize their neighbors who come to their door to trick-or-treat. So neighborhood parents bring their little kids to this author’s house for candy and instead they get an earful about JESUS. Nice. Way to destroy the fun for the kids.

My husband who was raised nominally Catholic (meaning, his family went to church on Christmas and Easter), and who doesn’t know a lot about fundamentalist evangelical Christianity, read this article. He commented that the author cited verses to support her point of view, sometimes just snippets of a verse, each one taken completely out of context. He asked if it was customary for Christians to use verse references in that way. I explained that the practice is so common that it has a name — proof texting — which is why it is so easy for Christians to utilize verses or parts of verses to support just about any argument that they like or don’t like. He then stated that he felt bad for our nephews because they aren’t allowed to celebrate a fun children’s holiday because their dad thinks that Halloween is Satanic.

My brother posted the little meme above regarding verses in the Pentateuch that “prove” that God doesn’t like it when we dress up like witches, wizards, vampires, and ghosts. Personally, I thought that the vampire reference was a stretch as the verse refers to those who consume blood, and frankly, there are many cultures that do eat blood (blood pudding, black pudding, black sausage, blood tofu, blood soups, to name a few). Interestingly, there are over 600 rules for the Jews in the Pentateuch, yet Christians typically will say that Jesus came to fulfill the law and therefore we do not have to follow the laws. But when it is convenient Christians will call back certain laws from the Pentateuch that suit their purposes. I also find it amazing that Christians believe in ghosts, demons, and Satan as if they are REAL LIVE beings, but that is another topic entirely. Maybe I am able to celebrate Halloween without fear because I do not believe in the existence of supernatural beings.

Personally, I can picture young Jesus dressed up in a centurion’s costume trick-or-treating around Nazareth for dried dates with his pals. He probably would have told Evangelical Christians to lighten up and let the kids have a little fun. But that’s just me being a sacrilegious atheist. May you all have an enjoyable and safe Halloween!

Everybody But the Church Understands

rape is never the victims fault

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

Not so long ago, rape was seen merely as a “sex crime.” I say “merely” because its “sexual” designation made it, at best, less worthy of attention or, worse, something the victim brought on herself. (Rape was also, for all intents and purposes, defined as something done to a woman by a man.) Thus, it could be seen as something that happened because a woman was out at the wrong time or wearing the wrong clothes — not a way in which one human being violated another.

But then a shift occurred. As someone who is not a criminologist or a scholar in any related field, I can’t tell you what caused the changed. What I know, however, is its result: policy makers and law enforcement officials are, increasingly, treating rape as a violent crime. While there are still police officers and departments, as well as public officials, who treat victims with condescension or even hostility, increasing numbers are doing what they can to give rape victims the same sort of attention and avenues of redress afforded people who have been mugged or suffered other random assaults — which, of course, is what they deserve.

Thankfully, I see a similar sort of change in the winds for people who have been sexually molested by priests or other authority figures, including employers, teachers and directors. One result is that more of us are coming forward, whether in the days or weeks after the incidents — or even decades later, as I finally did.

This is not to say, of course, that coming forward is easy or without repercussions: why do you think I’m writing under a nom de plume? But the fact that I, and others, have been able to speak up, in whatever ways and to whomever (I’ve told a few good friends as well as a therapist and social worker) shows that at least some people have a different, and more accurate, perception of sexual harassment, molestation, abuse and assault from the ones they had just a few years ago. And, of course, people who hadn’t been paying attention are now focused on the issue.

The change I see is this: people are starting to understand that when a priest takes advantage of an altar boy who doesn’t yet know the names of the parts of his body the priest is touching — or a director demands sex of an aspiring actress — or a coach or trainer forces him- or herself on an athlete whose life plans depend on staying on the team and keeping a scholarship — it’s no more a mere “sex crime” than the attack of a waitress on her way home from the lobster shift — a work shift that covers the late evening and early morning hours — or forced intimacy by a spouse, shift  partner or paramour. Instead, the abuses I’ve described are abuses of power imbalances — and, perhaps even more important, abuses of trust.

That last point cannot be overstated. People usually enter marriages trusting each other. Employees go to their jobs trusting that their supervisors or employers will treat them with personal and professional respect. And, every day, parents entrust their kids with — and teach their kids to trust — teachers and coaches.

And priests. In communities like the one in which I grew up, priests were trusted more than anybody else. That is one reason why abuse and molestation from them is so traumatic and alienating: The faith parents and other adults have, and teach their children to have, in their priests—whom they see as representatives of God — makes it difficult, if not impossible, for kids to speak up, even if they have the language to do so.

That implicit, unquestioned trust in priests makes abuse from them all the more egregious: violating that trust is worse than almost anything else that can be done to a vulnerable child — or, for that matter, to adults who lack the confidence to speak with other kinds of professionals. Very often, people like the ones with whom I grew up could confide in almost no one else, and they and their kids don’t have much else in their lives besides work, school, family and the church.

People are outraged over sexual abuse from priests, as well as other authority figures, because they’ve come to understand what I’ve described. My closest friend, the widow of a blue-collar worker, “gets it.” So does another friend who grew up without religion and says she never experienced abuse from anybody. So does a male friend who has practically no formal education.

Lots of other people get it, too. Sometimes it seems everybody does — except for Church officials. Rather than seeing sexual abuse by priests as an exploitation of trust and power, the church blames other things. Like the Sexual Revolution — never mind that victims have been reporting abuse they incurred decades before the SR supposedly corrupted us. Or homosexuality — forgetting that nearly all men (including priests) who sexually molest boys never have any sort of sexual experience with adult men, or any desire for it.

That last fact about the proclivities of pedophiles is something that I knew even before I had the language for it — or for my own body or desires, for that matter. I suspect most people these days understand as much, even if they’ve never read the research that corroborates it.

I understand. They understand. Everyone, it seems, understands — except for church officials — that priests preying on vulnerable young people is, more than anything, an abuse of trust. Perhaps it’s just not in their interest to understand. In the meantime, if not the sexual revolution or gays, they’ll find something or someone else — including the victims themselves — to blame.

This Week With Christians on Social Media

social media

Guest post by ObstacleChick

Here are some fun religious quotes I found this week from my acquaintances on social media.

“When it’s not in God’s time, you can’t force it. When it is God’s time, you can’t stop it.”

OC: I recall that the Bible says that with God, a day is as 1,000 years and 1,000 years is as a day. I’m supposed to hang around for 1,000 years to see which it is? Wouldn’t it make sense if I took some action on my own?

“We must stop compromising the word of God to appease men, and begin guarding what was entrusted to us. Which is the absolute and infallible truth of God. – Adam Cappa”

OC: Because it’s just SOOOOOOO clear in the Bible what is the infallible truth of God.

“Be patient, everything is coming together – God”

OC: Another exhortation for me to hang around for a day or 1,000 years or whatever . . .

“Dear Jesus, help me to surrender my anxiety today, to quiet my mind and stop striving, so that I may see that You are God. Thank You!”

OC: Because seeing God is way better than seeing a therapist and taking Prozac.

“Trust Jesus when everybody seems to be getting a miracle but you. When you feel forsaken and yet remain faithful, you are the miracle. — Beth Moore, The Quest”

OC: Yet another exhortation to do more Jesusing for a day or 1,000 years instead of actually making a plan and taking action.

“If you want God to close and open the doors, let go of the door knob. — TobyMac”

OC: I’m seeing a trend among these quotes . . . sit back and don’t do jack.

“He turns coal into diamonds, sand into pearls, worms into butterflies. He can turn your life around too. — TobyMac”

OC: Translation: we humans are lesser, yuckier things that need Jesus to make us into something better.

“One day there will be no going back to life as usual. One day there will be no more night and no more dying of any kind. The sea and the grave, death and Hades will have given up their dead and the righteous Judge will have assigned final destinies (Rev. 20:11-15). When that eternal day comes I suspect we who were saved from our sins by the blood of Christ will ponder this life and wonder how we ever really called it ‘being alive.’ — Beth Moore, The Quest”

OC: What she really wants to say is that all the SAVED will be partying it up in heaven and saying na-na-na-na-boo-boo to all the unsaved who are suffering eternal torture in HELL for not believing the correct doctrines.

“There is power in the name of Jesus to break every chain that binds you!”

OC: Or you could just hit the weight room a little more often. . .

“Stop listening to every dysfunctional thought and tell your mind to align with the word of God.”

OC: Because there isn’t anything dysfunctional in the Bible, the Word of God, no-sir-ee Bob!

His Hunger for the Church

st peters

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

More years ago than I care to admit, I read Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory. Not long afterward, I went through a period when I hated the book because people (or, more precisely, people whose opinions I detested) embraced it. I was young enough, chronologically and emotionally, to get away with things like that.

I’ll confess that, today, at least one of his notions resonates with me, an unrepentant liberal. He exposed the contradictions of Affirmative Action, at least as it was practiced in the late 1970s and early 1980s — and, to a large extent, as it’s still practiced today. He described the ways in which he benefited because, as he says, of his surname. But by the dint of having earned a bachelor’s degree from Stanford and continued his studies at Columbia and Berkeley, he had more in common with his fellow scholars — most of whom were white and at least upper middle-class — than with the poor Mexican-Americans among whom he grew up.

He thus became the darling of William F. Buckley and characters even more odious because there’s nothing they love more than someone who shares their attitudes and whose skin is darker than theirs. It allows them to say, “See, I told you so!” But another part of Rodriguez’s biography has endeared him to me at least as much. And it resonated with me at least as much.

That part of his story is his, and his family’s, relationship with the Roman Catholic faith in which he was raised. At the time the book was published, he still considered himself a member of the church, although, as he says, the modern adaptations of it — prayers in English instead of Latin and folksy guitar music instead of Bach compositions — were at least somewhat alien to him.

Still, he said, he continued his affiliation with the church — in the face of friends and colleagues who chided him for showing up late to Sunday brunch because he’d been to mass — because, in spite of all of its changes, it provided a “liturgy” (which I take as a churchy way of saying “narrative”) to his life. That, and what he feels the church gave his Mexican parents.

Of all the institutions in their lives, only the Catholic Church has seemed aware of the fact that my mother and father are thinkers — persons aware of the experience of their lives. Other institutions — the nation’s political parties, the industries of mass entertainment and communication, the companies that employed them—have all treated them with condescension. In ceremonies of public worship, they have been moved, assured that their lives, from waking to eating, from birth until death, all moments — possess great significance. (pp.90-91)

That, to me, sounds like another “Mother Teresa” argument: Whatever abuses she, or any other representative of the church, or the Church itself — committed on the poor, the sick, the weak — or others in any way vulnerable — is justified by the “good” they or the Church did. That the church itself has been so complicit in conscripting young men (like his father’s forebears) to conquer lands (like the ones in which his parents and he grew up), slaughter the natives of said lands, and to enslave captives brought to those lands — all the while providing said conscripts a standard of living not much better than the natives who were sent to slaughter — seems to have escaped the notice of a supposedly educated man like Rodriguez.

Even if, as he wrote, the Church was aware of people like his parents as thinkers — which I don’t doubt they were—he still gives the institution far too much credit. If you are starving, the person who gives you anything to eat, even if it’s stale or tainted, can seem like a savior or hero. Really, it’s no different from the appeal of any number of despots from Julius Caesar to Mao had for proles and peasants — or that drug dealers have for young people who see no way out of the ghetto or, more important, the moment in which they are living.

One can be forgiven for idolizing a person or institution that seemed to offer charity and solace to one’s poor parents and family. One can even be forgiven for venerating such a person or institution when he, she or it offered a place, however servile, within a world that isolates, rejects and alienates people who are poor, weak or foreign. But if such a person acquires an education, formally or otherwise, that person will see, in time, that the person or institution who took him or her “seriously” or “protected” him or her from bullies or other dangers — or simply provided a meal, room or job—may have had other purposes for such seeming acts of charity. Those acts may have been attempts to recruit the recipient for something, or simply to buy his or her silence.

The latter seems to have had an effect on Rodriguez. While he says he dislikes the “modern” church, he doesn’t dislike it enough to leave it — even after coming out as gay, as he did a decade after Hunger of Memory was published. That, as a gay man, he can still cling to a religion that so blatantly opposes non-heterosexual love — no matter that the Pope says, “Who am I to judge?”— is, at least to me, a mystery even beyond that of the faith itself.

It might just be that he’s been so rewarded within the community of the Church, and by secular as well as religious conservatives, for his apologetics. The conservatives have rewarded him with grants to write, speaking engagements and other things that have allowed him to sustain his life since he left his PhD studies — because he realized he was benefiting from his surname. As for the church — well, I guess it’s what’s made him the commodity he’s become: a gay Hispanic Catholic conservative. Where would he, his talents notwithstanding, be without it?

Perhaps he would have hunger — and his memory would be different.

“But He’s a Good Person”

brett kavanaugh

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

During his Senate confirmation hearings, Brett Kavanaugh testified about the good and great things he’s done throughout his life: He has “mentored” many female students; 21 of the 25 clerks he hired while a US attorney were women. Why, he even coaches his daughters’ basketball team!

I have no reason to doubt that he has done whatever he can to offer women opportunities in the law, politics, academia and other areas. I also am willing to believe him when he says he is committed to equality or even when he says he’s tried to live an “exemplary” life.

I would also believe such statements from any number of other men. Moreover, I have known many other men who, throughout their lives, gave of their time and resources to help women, as well as men and children, in any number of ways. In fact, I know of one in particular who gave over his life to helping and guiding other people.

He was a priest in the parish where I grew up. Nearly everyone sang his praises: He was a fixture, not only in the parish, but in the community as a whole.

It seems that at that time, a priest stayed in a parish longer than he stays now: Some priests spent most or all of their careers in the same place, hearing the first confessions, offering the First Holy Communion and confirming young parishioners — and their children — and grandchildren. You would also see them on playgrounds, in nursing homes or walking the streets of the neighborhood. They visited the old and sick, sometimes giving of their meager means to help.

Also, in neighborhoods like the one in which I spent my childhood, priests were the de facto therapists and social workers. Most of the men were blue-collar workers and the women homemakers; many were immigrants and few had more than a high-school education. That meant they couldn’t afford, or didn’t know how to access, therapists, and even if they could or did, they never would trust them, or for that matter, social workers, in the same way they would confide in a priest.

The particular priest I’m thinking of right now did such things, and more.

And he sexually molested me.

Now, anyone who doesn’t know that probably knows only what a “good and Godly” man he was to them. Were I to tell them, then or now, what Father did to me, it probably wouldn’t change their perceptions of him. In fact, some would turn on me — or, for that matter, anyone else who might say that he did to them what he did to me.

(I, of course, have no way of knowing whether he abused any other kids — or assaulted any adults. But, given what we’ve seen, it isn’t hard to imagine, for me anyway, that he did: Sexual predators rarely, if ever, prey on only one person.)

So, even though I thoroughly sympathize with — and believe — Christine Blasey Ford, I understand why other women signed a letter of support for Judge Kavanaugh. Most were his high school friends or classmates and said, in essence, that the young man they knew “would never do anything like that.”

That is how most sexual predators are able to go undetected for decades.  If someone treats you well, you are less likely to think he or she is capable of harming another human being. That is especially true if that someone has some sort of standing in the community — whether through family or professional connections, academic or professional accomplishments or as a spiritual leader.

Brett Kavanaugh may well have been someone who “has always treated women with decency and respect,” as the letter relates. He may also be the rigorous scholar, conscientious teacher, caring mentor, impartial jurist, loving father — and champion of women’s equality – that he proclaimed himself to be.

That is, he might be all of those things — to people not named Christine Blasey Ford. Or Deborah Ramirez. Just as the priest in my parish was a godly, saintly man to many people in my community — but not to me. Or, perhaps to some other kids or, for that matter, adults who have not yet spoken up.

It’s difficult to understand the complexities of the human mind – what makes people “tick,” what goes on inside them. As a result, none of us ever knows what evil lurks in the depths of those we think we know – even those who are “good people.”

This Week With Christians on Social Media

social media

Guest post by ObstacleChick

Here is a sampling of some of the posts I have seen this week from Christians on social media. Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments!

“If God could close the lions’ mouth for Daniel, part the red sea for Moses, make the sun stand still for Joshua, open the prison for Peter, put a baby in Sarah’s arm and raise Lazarus from the dead, then He can certainly take care of you. Have faith in Him.”

OC: You do realize those are myths, right?

“God is still trying to write your story. Quit trying to steal the pen.”

OC: Yeah, because I totally want an invisible deity to make decisions for me.

“God has a reason for allowing things to happen. We may never understand His wisdom, but we simply have to trust His will.”

OC: I don’t have to.

“The motto ‘Be yourself’ has become Satan’s counterfeit to God’s ‘Be holy as I am holy’.”

OC: If by “holy,” you mean that I get mad and order my followers to kill all the people in a land I don’t like and steal their virgins as wives, or to smash infants against rocks because I don’t like the people in that land, or that I send she-bears to kill some children who taunted my favorite prophet, I think I would rather pass on holiness and be myself. I don’t do those things.

“God will put you in positions you didn’t even apply for.”

OC: God, the original abuser, leading clergy by example.

“I have learned that spiritual discontentment is a gift from God. When God is leading you somewhere different or changing you…He puts this thing in our hearts that force us to get quiet before Him so that we can hear the next steps. It makes you want to do whatever it takes to get to that next place as He is moving & stirring your heart. It makes you adjust locations, friendships, relationships, jobs & churches. Don’t be scared of this tugging because God is LEADING your life. You’re in the most beautifully uncomfortable place. Flow with Him. – Heather Lindsey”

OC: Or it could just be heartburn and you need to take some Alka-Seltzer.

“I want to take time today to thank God for all that He has done for me. He sent the rain for dry thirsty land. He sent the grain to feed hungry man. He sent the birds to sing in the tree. But when he sent JESUS he sent him for ME.”

OC: Because I need me some JESUS in my life!

“In a world where right is wrong and wrong is right, we can run to the Bible whenever we’re unsure what to think or do.”

OC: Because the Bible is so incredibly clear in its message and has no contradictions whatsoever.

“Faith means obeying God, even when all my questions aren’t answered.”

OC: Because nothing makes more sense than going into a situation without having answers, facts, or data.

“Life is fragile, handle with prayer.”

OC: Because handling with care is inferior to handling with prayer.

Off My Knees: A Victim Remembers

colin kaepernick

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

Two years ago, Colin Kaepernick did something that garnered far more attention than any game he played or pass he threw.

Those who disapproved of his gesture said he “refused to stand” during the National Anthem. On the other hand, those who approved, or simply supported his right to do so, said he “knelt” or “took to his knee.”

My response? “Well, at least he was on only one knee.”

From that position, he could leap up and run, if he needed to. Even though he’s a professional athlete, if he were on both knees, he’d have a hard time springing up and darting away.

That, of course, begs the question of why he would need to do such a thing. As an NFL quarterback who was, arguably, one of the best at his position for a couple of years, he almost certainly has the strength to fight off a would-be attacker, as well as the speed to run—and the reflexes to do either, or both.

Still, I was relieved not to see him on both knees for the same reason that, to this day, I cannot bear to see people in such a prone position — and why I never kneel.

The last time (that I recall, anyway) I knelt for any period of time was also the last time I had to see someone I love kneeling.

Even though she had to genuflect for only a moment, and I knelt only for a few more, I could barely keep myself from screaming. I couldn’t keep myself from crying the rest of that day.

It was an unusually hot day for May and, in spite of the air conditioning, everything seemed to be happening in the kind of haze that precedes storms and terrible, violent acts.

On the side of the aisle opposite from where I sat, a line of boys stood in their dark suits, almost none of which fit. On the side nearest me were a line of girls in loose white dresses that, on some, looked like oversized doll costumes.

They took one step down the aisle and stopped—except for the boy and girl at the front. It took them three or four steps to reach the altar. The boy, and the girl, knelt. The scream started to roil inside me.

The boy and girl turned their heads up. The priest mouthed the words. Even though I couldn’t hear him, I knew what they were: “Body of Christ.”

The boy whispered, “Amen,” and the priest placed a small round wafer in his mouth. He repeated this ritual with the girl. Then with the next boy and girl who came to the altar, and the ones after.

Some people made the sign of the cross for each kid receiving his or first communion. Others held their hands as in prayer. I cupped my hands in my best imitation of Durer’s sculpture—over my mouth. It was all I could do to keep the howl, the curses, I’d held from my childhood to that moment in my middle age.

Then she and another boy knelt in front of the priest. I nearly bolted out of that church. The reason I didn’t:  My family, her family and all of their friends would be upset and demanded an explanation I couldn’t give them.

Truth is, even if I could’ve given it, I wouldn’t have. The words would not come until a few days later, after we had all gone back to our homes, some of us far away.

At that moment, I was never as afraid for anyone’s safety as I was for that girl — my niece — and the boy, whom I never knew, kneeling next to her. I had never seen the priest, either, before that day, and would never see him again. But I simply could not bear to see my niece, or that boy, kneeling — vulnerable — in front of him.

Even though her face wasn’t between his knees.

She and the boy rose to their feet, crossed themselves and walked back to the pews. Even though the priest did nothing to harm her — or him — I felt as if I had failed . . . to protect them . . . to save them . . . to protect and save myself.

After the mass, we all went to my brother’s house. Spreads of salads, sandwiches, chicken wings and breasts, burgers and other foods filled the tables and counters.  I excused myself to go “to the bathroom” but snuck out the back door and across the yard into the woods, where I let out a long, howling wail and cursed out someone I hadn’t seen, or even thought about, since I was a child. Like my niece. Like that boy.

A few days later, my then-partner was talking about a wedding we would attend a few weeks later. In a church, of course. My partner — an atheist — noticed anger and bile rising through my face when she mentioned “church.”

“Hypocrites and pedophiles,” I grunted.

“What are you talking about?”

Then, as if — for lack of a better word — possessed, I sprang to my feet, stared past her, past everything and everyone and hissed, “Get your fucking hands off me, you motherfucker. God let you do it to me. But this time, I won’t.”

At least she knew I wasn’t talking to her — and that I wouldn’t attack her — which is probably the one and only time I can recall that she seemed not to know what to do.

Or maybe she did. Nothing. She did nothing. And I talked, for the first time, about the way a priest in my parish got me to kneel — between his legs.

I’ve talked about it only with a few other people since then. But I still haven’t gotten down on my knees — not for God, country or anything else.

Why We Didn’t Tell

help sexual abuse

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

They’re never gonna believe me.

Nearly all of us have told ourselves that, for one thing or another, at one time or another. Some of us, though, echo that refrain in our minds any time we have to tell someone — especially if that person is particularly close or an authority figure — a difficult, unpleasant or painful truth. Or even a mundane fact.

No matter how truthful or authoritative we may be, we will have our credibility challenged by someone, on some issue. For a well-adjusted adult, this is not a problem: Such a person has confidence that with the facts and reason on his or her side, others will realize that he or she had no reason to lie, misrepresent or cover-up.

Some of us, though, expect to have our veracity challenged at every turn. That can make us into angry, defensive people — in other words, grown-up versions of children who are acting out. Or it can turn us into people who don’t speak up, who don’t advocate for ourselves — or, worse, who doubt what our eyes, ears, skin and minds tell us.

I know of at least one way that happens. A friend and I were talking about it recently.

We have this in common: sexual abuse at an early age. She, by the mayor of the town in which she grew up — who just happened to be her father. And I, by a father — of my church.

The real difference between her story and mine, though, is this: She told someone. I didn’t.

The person she told — her mother — beat her and washed her mouth out with soap for “lying.”

Me? I knew that something like that would happen if I said “Father did this to me.” That is, if I could have: I didn’t even have the words to tell about it.

The results for both of us were similar: shame and self-doubt that led to self-censorship and self-abuse of one kind and another. Not to mention relationships with abusive people.

Her father is long gone. So is any relationship with her mother. She tells me she doesn’t even have contact information for her: She heard that her mother moved, somewhere, some years ago.

The priest who abused me is also gone, long gone. I never got to confront him. And, although I know where my parents and siblings are — I speak to all except one sibling regularly — I have never told them about my abuse. Once, not long ago, I was talking with the sibling to whom I am closest about something involving my parents. “You know, even though I’ve ‘come out’ (about my gender identity and sexuality) and they know about my work, I have never really shared anything with them.”

A pause. “Yeah, I know what you mean.”

“Aside from the night I ‘came out’ to Mom, I’ve never told her or him (my father) anything really personal, anything intimate about myself.”

“They’re not the kind of people you can go to with a problem,” he sighed. “And, you know, you could come in soaking wet and they still wouldn’t believe you if you told them it’s raining.”

I don’t know whether my brother had an experience like mine, with that priest or some other authority figure. I can’t help but think, though, that somewhere along the way — perhaps early in his life — he had some experience he couldn’t, or wouldn’t talk about with my parents, or anyone else.

They’re never gonna believe me.

Although he’s accomplished a lot professionally, he’s confessed to me that sometimes he doesn’t speak up when he should, or at least when it might help in getting to the bottom of something. “It’s just not worth the trouble when you know you’re not going to be taken seriously,” for bringing a situation to the attention of a supervisor or official.

Or, worse: They’ll blame me for it.

That’s what happened to my friend after her mother took out her fury on her. Well, my friend wasn’t exactly blamed for her father raping her — remember, her mother was still in denial about it. Or was she? In her eyes, her daughter was “always up to no good.”

Her treatment, and mine, led to another eerie parallel in our lives that seems all but inevitable: It took us far too long to get the help we needed to deal with our abusive relationships and other difficulties because we didn’t think we would be believed, or at least taken seriously. Worse, we expected blame for our situations.

They’re never gonna believe me.

And they’ll blame me.

About all I know how to do now is to be the person who believes, and doesn’t blame —  my friend, or Christine Blasey Ford, or Andrea Constand. And, perhaps, one day, my brother—and others who have yet to tell their stories.

Who is to Blame?

fault and blameGuest Post by Stephanie

There was a time in my life when I was far from a feminist. No surprise there, when I went to a church where women were not allowed to preach and were taught about submission in marriage. I distinctly remember being on a youth group trip and being told I couldn’t wear a tank top or two-piece bathing suit. I was chastised for talking to a boy without direct adult supervision. Sexual assault wasn’t even on my radar. That happened to other women, out there somewhere.

It seemed as though women had no voice. Wanted a leadership position? Nope, that’s for men; women are to be silent. Want to ask out a man? Nope, that’s not proper. Dare to show some skin? You got what was coming to you. Have to protect your virtue; your body belongs to your future husband! Abortion? Completely out of the question. Even birth control was sketchy — why would you reject God’s blessings? Every woman wants to be a mother! The message was clear, we know what’s best for you.

I started to actually listen to women. I learned that sexual assault is, tragically, not uncommon. I could fill this entire piece with stories of women I’ve known who have endured such abuse. The friend who was assaulted at a party and never reported. The woman who was raped at a music festival as a young girl and never reported. The woman who endured years of physical and sexual assault at the hands of her husband.

The story that sticks with me is one that is personal to me. I knew a rapist. He was a co-worker. I also knew the woman he assaulted. At the time I was working in an assisted living facility, mainly memory care with residents with advanced forms of dementia. I assisted them with dressing, eating, all the activities of daily living, trying in my own way to give them some quality of life, as were most of the other employees. There was one resident with advanced dementia, I’ll call her “Mary.” She had trouble communicating but was usually happy and compliant. One night the male co-worker was working alone on one particular unit where “Mary” lived. Shift goes on as usual, then suddenly everyone starts shifting around. I’m puzzled. I see the male co-worker sitting in a conference room by himself. He doesn’t say anything. His head is down. I think it’s strange but I don’t question it too much. Then the next day comes and the truth comes out.

A co-worker pulls up a news article. In the headline: “sexual assault,” his face prominently featured. I didn’t process what I was reading. When it sank in that the male co-worker sexually abused a resident, whom I later found out was “Mary,” I felt sick. It’s hard to describe a visceral reaction like that. I drove home while my mind raced and I cried. How could someone who didn’t even seem dangerous hurt a sweet, vulnerable old lady? How could I trust the men around me knowing one was a rapist and I couldn’t even see it? Knowing that women aren’t even safe in a long-term care facility, I was devastated. Old age doesn’t protect from sexual assault. He got sentenced after a year and a half. How much time? Fifteen months.

My heart breaks. They ask why don’t women report? Dr. Ford was not believed and threatened. The president laughs about sexual assault and call dozens of women “false accusers,” and calls this a “dangerous time for men.” There are people in this country who don’t even care if Kavanaugh were guilty, they still wanted him in the Supreme Court. If the co-worker wasn’t caught in the act I fear he would still be free. He chose a woman who didn’t have the cognitive ability to report her abuse. Women are told over and over and over that they brought it upon themselves. The church wants women to be silent, never assert an opinion. Your body doesn’t belong to you. Trust us, we know what’s best. When we’re living in a world where women can’t even go to a woman’s health appointment without being told by other people what they should or shouldn’t do with their own bodies. Oh, and if you’re a man who has experienced abuse, you run up against toxic ideas about masculinity. You should have been strong enough to stop it, don’t be like a woman.

With these attitudes, is it really any surprise that women are blamed? Women need to be anything but silent. Be angry. Be angry every time a sexual abuser is let off lightly or not held to account at all. Be angry every time those in power try to take away a woman’s right to control her own body. Be angry every time the church places blame on the abused and pardons an abuser. I’m past the point of feeling ashamed if I get called “uppity” “bitter” or a “feminazi.” If standing up against abuse and destructive social attitudes and promoting women’s right to live with dignity and respect makes me a “feminazi” then I’m damn proud of it!

Ask yourself once again: “who is to blame?”

Abuse and Alienation: In The Church, Away From Yourself

alienation

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

In a previous essay, I wrote about the conservative blue-collar community in which I was raised. Although it was in one of the world’s major cities, it very closely resembled, in many ways, a small town or village.

For one thing, everyone knew everyone else—or so it seemed. Also, nearly all of us were living at the same social and economic level, and our parents and grandparents had similar backgrounds. Most of them even came from the same places: the grandparents, and in some cases the parents, of just about every kid I knew, were immigrants. They came, not only from the same country, but from a group of towns and villages within a circle of 100 kilometers or so.

That meant we shared the same culture and, if we didn’t speak English at home, we spoke the same language—actually, the same dialect. In my earlier essay, I mentioned that nearly everyone had the same attitude about the Vietnam War, which claimed young men from my neighborhood. Well, there also wasn’t much diversity of opinion when it came to other issues of the day, as well as political figures and other famous people. Even someone like my uncle, who regarded Martin Luther King Jr. as a hero, believed—like most of my family and neighbors—that “Hanoi” Jane Fonda was a traitor or worse.

One more way in which my community resembled a small town in the South or Midwest (or even in the more rural areas of my Northeastern home state) is that on Sunday, nearly everyone went to the same church. While the churches in those far-flung villages and hamlets were, as often as not, Baptist or Presbyterian or of some other mainstream Protestant denomination, ours was Roman Catholic. But the effect it had on us was not unlike that of those small-town denominations on their congregants.

For one thing, going to the same church inculcated us with attitudes and values that some of us still hold to this day. (So, for that matter, did attending the Catholic school I attended along with many of my peers.) Perhaps even more important — at least for a child, especially the sort of child I was — it gave me a sense of belonging that I could find nowhere else. I made some of my first friends in the church, and being an altar boy was really the first experience I had of male camaraderie: not only did we practice and prepare together for the masses, weddings, funerals and other ceremonies in which we served, we also went on picnics and other outings, including ball games, together. It was, I just recently realized, my first attempt — however doomed it was to fail — to forge some kind of male identity.

You see, in the neighborhood in which I grew up, there weren’t many other ways to meet your peers while engaging in positive (or, at least, socially approved and legal) ways besides church. For that matter, it was difficult for people a bit older than myself to meet potential dates or get any sort of guidance about life without going to church, or someone connected with the church. And for adults, there weren’t many other things to do after a day or week of work, paid or unpaid, besides going to the church—or a bar.

That means, in such an environment, that if you are not part of the church, you are not part of the life of your community. It means that you will probably have few or no friends, and may find yourself alienated from family members. Ironically, not having the relationships most people take for granted — or, purely and simply, people to talk to — is just as detrimental to someone who is different and who is bound to leave one day as it is for someone who could, and wants to, be wholly integrated and raise his or her children in such a place.

I came to understand the way alienation — caused by sexual abuse from a priest — affected my own development as a transgender woman only recently, when by chance I found myself talking, for the first time, about my abuse with other survivors—and hearing their stories. One is a gay man from an insular community deep in the center of America. He told me that because he couldn’t talk about the attacks he endured from his parish priest, he essentially couldn’t talk — or learn — about his mind or body. He therefore couldn’t understand, until many years later, why his body reacted as it did even though, as he said, he didn’t feel any sexual attraction to the priest. And it took him even longer to know that there was no contradiction between feeling repulsed by that priest and being attracted to men. Why, even his first therapist told him that because he didn’t enjoy (or consciously elicit) what that priest did to him, he couldn’t possibly be gay.

It took him two more therapists and a failed marriage to understand, finally, that he is gay. Not coincidentally, he came to terms with it only after he was able to talk about his experience with that priest with someone who understood.

As you can imagine, I cried while listening to him. I finally started to clarify, for myself, my own gender identity and take steps to live by it after I told someone about my abuse. Until then, I couldn’t make any sense of how my body responded, involuntarily, to his, and how it — or his actions — had nothing to do with whether I was a girl or boy, or gay or straight, or anything else. Until then, I’d gone through my life trying to live as a gay man — something unsatisfying to me — or asserting a kind of masculinity some would call toxic but which, deep down, wasn’t any more mine than a same-sex attraction to men.

Of course, in the place and time in which I grew up — and in the world in which I’ve lived until recently — sex and gender identity issues weren’t discussed as openly, much less understood as broadly, as they are now. But even by the standards of my schools, communities, workplaces and other environments, I did not talk freely (actually, at all) about my own identity or inclinations. Because the priest who abused me swore me to silence — and because I knew that even if I could talk about it, I wouldn’t, because I would probably be disbelieved or blamed — I learned that talking about such things was not merely taboo: it could end my life. Or so it seemed.

So I kept quiet and, probably as a result, had a roof over my head, food in my mouth and the opportunity and means to an education. But I lived in isolation from all of those people who could talk with their friends, families and others about the issues that, as it turns out, almost everyone faces at some time or another. They learned what it was like to meet people, to form bonds and to support, and be supported, emotionally. Or, through interacting with other people, they realized how and why they were different and figured out what they needed to do before embarking on courses of study, careers, marriages and other relationships — including relationships with themselves — that were bound to fail.

In brief, when your church is the center of your community’s social life — whether in a rural village or an urban enclave — being alienated from it (even when you’re still participating in it) makes it much more difficult to define yourself, whether by or against or outside of it. For people like me and the gay man I’ve mentioned — and, I’m sure, many others who grew up in church-centered communities — that is what is so damaging about being abused by priests or other authority figures — or, more precisely, being sworn to silence and secrecy about it.

How Evangelical Zealotry Harms People Psychologically

not in the bible

Guest Post by ObstacleChick

“I don’t have a lot of friends because I’m too busy trying to be holy.” — Sam, age 9

My brother and I share a biological mother, but we were not raised by the same people or in the same ways. I lived primarily with my grandparents, whose number one message was that my education should come first and that I should never be dependent on anyone else (particularly a man) for my financial stability. My brother was raised by my mom and stepdad with very little hands-on parenting. Where I was educated at an Evangelical Christian school with slightly above-average academics, he was expelled from that school in third grade for misbehavior and spent the rest of his education at an academically poor public school. Where I studied and was determined to be the top student in my class, he did as little work as possible to pass classes. I got a scholarship to a top-20 ranked secular university, and he never pursued education past high school. Our mom still retained some secular influences and ideas when I was young, but she had become more immersed in Evangelical Christianity by the time my brother came along. Where I have traveled the world, he has barely traveled within the United States. Whereas I moved 1,000 miles away from a somewhat rural suburb of Nashville to the New York City metropolitan area, my brother moved further from Nashville to an even more rural community. My progressive political leanings are counterbalanced by my brother’s extremely conservative political leanings. We’re both Generation X, though I am 12 years older.

Don’t get me wrong, my brother is an intelligent man. Like my grandma, my mom, and me, my brother loves to read. During adulthood, my mom and brother would trade books on religion and right-wing politics and would have discussions about them. Because I live 1,000 miles away, fortunately I did not get involved in all that. But their little conservative book club served to indoctrinate them further into their right-wing conservative religion and politics as they created their own personal echo chamber. When I did visit them, it was very difficult for me to stay away from incendiary issues, but I became adept at diverting the conversation to different topics. When my mom died, my brother mourned the loss of our mom’s “spiritual wisdom and guidance”, something I had no use for but never could articulate to him. My mom already suspected my apostasy, but she never knew the full extent of it. My brother doesn’t ask, and I’m glad because neither of us wants to face the idea that he would probably cut me (and my husband and kids) off from himself, his wife, and his two sons.

My nephews are 11 and 9 (almost 10). Though my brother is devout, his family does not attend church, mainly because he can’t find a local church with which he agrees. He does a lot of reading (A.W. Tozer is his current favorite), and he has joined an online/Skype men’s Bible study and prayer group. Every night, my brother teaches his sons and prays with them before bed. My older nephew doesn’t talk about religion much (he doesn’t talk about much except for music), but his younger, outgoing, vivacious brother does talk about it. Recently, he told my daughter that he thought other religions were bad and false and that a lot of people were led by evil spirits. He said that he knows a lot more about spirits than most adults because his dad was teaching him about them. My daughter asked him why other religions were bad, and he said it was because those religions did not promote God but were instead led by evil, deceptive spirits. She was afraid to ask him if he thought that people who followed those other religions were bad. But she did tell him that she thought there were a lot of good people in the world regardless of what religions they followed.

I suppose it should be no surprise that Sam told my son and daughter that he didn’t have a lot of friends because he was too busy trying to be holy. The definition of holy is as follows: specially recognized as or declared sacred by religious use or authority; consecrated; dedicated or devoted to the service of God, the church, or religion; saintly; godly; pious; devout. My brother is indoctrinating his sons to dedicate themselves to the service of his interpretation of the Christian God. I would love to be snarky and ask him what his interpretation of God is. On social media he posts a lot of Bible verses about the mighty God who repeatedly smote humans or ordered the smiting of humans, the judgmental God who gave his people 600+ rules to follow, the God who is righteous and will send sinners to hell, the God to whom we must submit our will. He likes verses with rules for separating oneself from the world, following rules, or remaining holy and chaste. He also posts a lot of articles touting the evils of the “Godless, communist, Luciferian left” (I seriously did not know that “Luciferian” was a thing). He recently posted a Christian article about remaining “pure” in a culture saturated with sexual imagery. (I am currently reading the book Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free by Linda Kay Klein, so I was particularly interested in seeing what the recommendations were in the article — basically your typical admonition regarding heterosexual sex within the confines of marriage as one would expect). I don’t get the impression that my sister-in-law is as devout as my brother is, and often she will try to soften or explain away some of his most fervent comments. She just started taking college courses as she wants to pursue a degree in nursing, and I wonder how exposure to outside non-religious ideas will affect her thinking. From time to time, I see that my brother “corrects” or “instructs” some of her social media posts by commenting with a relevant Bible verse, and I wonder what she thinks about that.

As my brother has grown more devout and I see how he is instructing his sons, I have been having a lot of memories regarding my own Fundamentalist upbringing. I rarely ever talked about it with my husband. He was a “Christmas and Easter” Catholic, so he was never indoctrinated with teachings about sin and hell or taught misogynistic or anti-LGBTQ ideas. During our early years of dating and marriage, we tried out some Catholic and progressive Christian churches because that’s what one does. We attended a Congregational United Church of Christ while our children were little, and this church was progressive, LGBTQ-affirming, and socially active. My husband liked the kind Jesus, the Christianity that teaches love and caring for others, the Christianity that encourages us to care for the less fortunate. We both lost our belief around the same time for different reasons, and we stopped going to church when our kids were about 7 and 5 years old, so our kids know very little about Christianity specifically or religions in general. We teach then humanistic principles.

As my brother has grown more devout and openly posts ultra-conservative articles and daily Bible verses on social media, and as we are having more contact with his family now that my daughter has enrolled in a university near where I grew up and where my brother lives, I’ve started sharing my upbringing with my family. In the beginning, I was sharing mostly with my daughter to make sure she understands the Bible Belt and our family members’ beliefs in general. Occasionally, I would share something with my husband or with the entire family. Every story I tell is met with looks of “WTF” on their faces accompanied by a few seconds of silence. It isn’t easy to leave my husband and daughter speechless, and I have been doing that frequently in the past couple of years. My husband is the most stunned as he lived with me for over 20 years without being aware of a lot of the psychologically damaging doctrines I was taught. He had no idea about the deep-seated fear of hell that cropped up unbidden for a decade after I had stopped believing in the Christian god and all associated aspects. He had no idea of twinges of fear and doubt that perhaps I was single-handedly responsible for damning my children to eternity in hell for not making sure they “got saved.” He had no idea that I was taught and rejected complementarianism. He had no idea that I had to learn about evolution on my own because the Christian school would not teach it and in fact taught ridiculous counterarguments. He had no idea of the cognitive dissonance I encountered repeatedly in college courses where indirectly or directly I learned that inerrancy of the Bible is patently false. He had no idea that the school and church I grew up in were teaching eschatology that scared the living daylights out of me. He had no idea that for several years, I struggled with reconciling lessons I learned in history and science that repeatedly showed that the doctrines I had been taught were false, yet I was fearful that I was being deceived by Satan and might be bound for eternity in hell.

Bruce has written about how Fundamentalist Christianity is psychologically damaging, and I can attest that it is. Please read the series, Do Evangelical Beliefs Cause Psychological Damage?) I didn’t realize that it was damaging, and I certainly did not understand the extent. I just know that I struggled through my teens and twenties with doubts, fears, self-esteem issues, and cognitive dissonance. Even when I was deeply embedded in the bubble – church and Christian school – I was inundated with doubts and fears. I actively advanced outside the rules of fundamentalist religion, each step deliberate but accompanied by the fear that I was doing something eternally damning. I chose each step, and I chose to deal with the eternal consequences. But each step required agonized examination and a great bit of courage. It took two decades for me to step away from Christianity entirely and nearly another decade to label myself “atheist”, “feminist”, “pro-choice”, and “liberal” without flinching from the negative programming surrounding those words.

So when I see my own brother indoctrinating my nephews with these dogmas, I become more and more concerned. When I hear my nephew saying that he doesn’t have a lot of friends because he is too busy being holy, it makes me sad and angry. Maybe these boys can grow away from these teachings as I did. I surely hope so. I hope that our limited influence can help these boys as they grow up.

Note:

I’m pretty sure that my husband believed in this Jesus:

Video Link

Lyrics

Jesus was way cool
Everybody liked Jesus
Everybody wanted to hang out with him
Anything he wanted to do, he did
He turned water into wine
And if he wanted to
He could have turned wheat into marijuana
Or sugar into cocaine
Or vitamin pills into amphetamines

He walked on the water
And swam on the land
He would tell these stories
And people would listen
He was really cool

If you were blind or lame
You just went to Jesus
And he would put his hands on you
And you would be healed
That’s so cool

He could’ve played guitar better than Hendrix
He could’ve told the future
He could’ve baked the most delicious cake in the world
He could’ve scored more goals than Wayne Gretzky
He could’ve danced better than Barishnikov
Jesus could have been funnier than any comedian you can think of
Jesus was way cool

He told people to eat his body and drink his blood
That’s so cool
Jesus was so cool
But then some people got jealous of how cool he was
So they killed him
But then he rose from the dead
He rose from the dead, danced around
Then went up to heaven
I mean, that’s so cool
Jesus was way cool

No wonder there are so many Christians

The Far Reaches of Sexual Abuse

i believe you

Guest post by ObstacleChick

Awareness of sexual abuse seems to be at an all-time high. Whether the stories are from the entertainment industry, religion, politics, or your neighbor next door, it seems that more and more people are telling their stories. For some people, this is the first time they have felt safe to tell their stories. It is not uncommon for people to have tried to bury their stories deep within themselves for years, decades even. Now some people are ready to open up, and it seems that sexual abuse has lain just below the surface for decades, centuries, millennia perhaps, and now it is erupting to the surface. So many of my friends are coming out with their stories, and even if they are not ready to tell the whole story, they are saying “something happened and it traumatized me.” “Hear me.” “Believe me.”

This is not my story, but it is my mom’s story, and I believe that I owe it to her to tell it.

My mom died from metastatic breast cancer in November, 2014, at the age of 71. A couple of years before she died, she told my brother, my sister-in-law and me that she had been sexually abused when she was 5 years old. She said she had told only one other person – my stepfather, who had also been sexually abused as a child. That means she waited over 30 years to tell someone (my stepdad) and over 60 years to tell anyone else. We were stunned, but a lot of things about my mom and how she raised me made a lot more sense after this revelation. (I asked my mom why she waited until after her uncle’s death to tell us, and she said she was afraid I would call the uncle and rip him a new orifice; she was not wrong in her assessment).

My mom’s abuser was her 14-year-old uncle. While my mom said he never penetrated her, he forced her to touch him and he touched her. She didn’t go into detail about the experience – I suppose that even 60 plus years later she didn’t wish to relive it. He threatened her that if she ever told anyone, everyone would think she was a bad, dirty, filthy girl. He told her that people would think she was a liar. He also warned her that if she told her parents that her daddy would kill him and that it would be my mom’s fault if her daddy went to jail. As a 5-year-old, those were scary reasons that sealed her silence. She told us that she didn’t understand what was happening but instinctively she knew that it was bad.

Growing up, my mom buried herself in books, in schoolwork, and in learning. Books were her escape from reality. I remember my mom habitually reading 2 books of fiction and one book of nonfiction at any given time, and I was amazed that she could keep them all straight. As a voracious reader myself, I can only handle either one book of fiction and one of nonfiction, or two works of nonfiction. As a high school student, my mom excelled and was one of the few female students put into advanced science and math classes. In the late 1950s and early 1960s there was a push to pursue excellence in mathematics and sciences in order to compete with the Soviet Union’s advances in those fields, particularly in regard to the space program. My mom tied with another student for salutatorian in her graduating class of about 300 students, so the school gave both students a test to determine the salutatorian. As my mom was painfully shy and terrified to give a speech at commencement, she purposely answered questions wrong so she would not become salutatorian. I asked her why she didn’t tell her guidance counselor that she did not want to give a speech instead of going through the testing, and she said she never thought of that as she always tried to do what was expected of her. My mom’s parents had not graduated from high school, though her dad had completed refrigeration training courses through the G.I. Bill and her mom got her GED just because she wanted to. My mom’s guidance counselor suggested that my mom should go to college, so as a good girl, my mom did what she was told and enrolled in Middle Tennessee State University. She completed 5 semesters before dropping out and getting married.

Everyone always remarked about my mom’s intelligence but how quiet and sweet she was. As a teenager, my mom developed ulcers. She was terrified of going out in public, especially in any situations in which she might be alone. She told me that it was torture for her to walk past the college dining hall because she had to walk past all the windows where people looking out might see her. As she grew older and needed to work, she became better at managing her extreme shyness and fear of people, of being seen, but she never outgrew it completely. When I was planning my wedding, I told my mom that I did not believe in having someone “give me away” as I was capable of making my own decisions and did not want to promote an archaic system whereby women had to be “given away” in marriage. She thought I should not buck tradition and suggested that I should ask my uncle to walk me down the aisle. Knowing her shyness, I told her that if anyone should walk me down the aisle, it should be her. She didn’t bring up my walk down the aisle again, and I happily strolled alone as a symbol of my autonomy as a human being.

Unlike the parents of most of my friends at the time, my mom taught me about sex at a very early age. For as long as I can remember, she told me to fight, run away, and tell a trusted adult if anyone ever tried to touch me in my “private” areas. We even had an identification code for which adults she trusted and which ones she didn’t; if she referred to someone as Mr. Will or Ms. Betty, those were trusted adults, but if she referred to them as Mr. or Mrs. Smith, then they were not on the approved list. My mom explained sex to me with all the appropriate body part names and where they were located when I was 6 or 7 years old. She told me that I should not tell the other kids because their parents should tell them. I was repulsed by what she was telling me, but I knew that it must be true because I had witnessed dogs copulating. After my mom told us about her sexual abuse, suddenly it made sense why she had taught me about sex with the correct terms for body parts when I was as young as I was. I don’t know if she had similar conversations with my brother, but she may have.

Other things about my mom made more sense as well, like how she seemed to be afraid of so many things. She was easily startled by sudden or loud noises. She was terrified to walk anywhere alone. Her doctor prescribed antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication, both of which helped take the edge off her irritability. My mom was in poor health most of her life, suffering from arthritis since she was in her mid-twenties in addition to a plethora of other ailments as she aged. My mom would not allow me to play sports or go too many places with friends, though there were 3 families at church with girls my age whom she trusted. She had two failed marriages, the first that lasted only a year and the second to my father, lasting only 4 years due to his emotional and psychological abuse. (In his next relationship he fathered 6 more children, and his abuse escalated from verbal to physical and sexual. None of his children has contact with him today). When my mom married my step-dad, she became the bully who verbally abused my step-father for the 25 years they were married until he passed away. My mom used books, food, religion, interest in politics, and craft and jewelry making as ways to derive enjoyment (and probably escape) during her life.

The only time my mom talked with me about the abuse was when she told us. She said that she had forgiven her uncle (I have not, but as he has passed away, I suppose the issue is moot). He was a retired chief master sergeant in the US Air Force, and he and his wife lived in Destin, Florida, near Eglin Air Force Base which was his last posting. The uncle and aunt used to visit his mother, my great-grandmother who lived with us, while she was still alive. I did not like this uncle, and I don’t know if I had picked up on cues from my mom or if I just did not like him generally. I asked my mom why she allowed this uncle around me when I was a child, and she said she knew that she was always watching and she observed that I did not like him and would not get too close to him. That is true — as a child I thought he was a jerk.

My mom coped the best she could. Who am I — someone who has never suffered from sexual abuse — to determine whether she handled things the right way or not? Each person handles it with whatever coping mechanisms he or she has. Would my mom’s life have been different had she not been sexually abused? I have no doubt that it could have been quite different.