My brother Tedd is a compassionate man. An ordained Christian minister, he takes his faith seriously and works hard to be a force for good in the world. He has a special interest in helping those living through trying times. He and a friend do grief counseling with people whose spouses have died. He also has an active music ministry, booking concerts and sharing his story of personal struggle and growth with church congregations.
Were someone to approach my brother after one of these concerts and ask him to pray with them about the wounds they carry from childhood abuse, he would be glad for the chance to offer comfort. He would not ask the person if they are sure the abuse really happened.
But when the confessor is a sibling and the abuser is our father, my brother has asked more than once: How do you know?
Most of us don’t realize how devastating that kind of skepticism can be. We haven’t learned that abuse victims often expect not to be believed when they disclose their abuse, which makes speaking up especially risky. The abused tend to doubt their own credibility. Maybe I made the whole thing up. Jennifer Freyd and Pamela Birrell write that children abused by parents often blame themselves, harboring great shame. “With repeated betrayal, the shame becomes chronic.” It “makes us feel crazy at times and silences us.”
That crushing, silencing shame is something my sibs and I are familiar with. It’s difficult to shake the feeling that we somehow provoked our father to mistreat us. When he angrily pulled me out of my chair and hoisted me up to the mirror, insisting I see what a bad girl looked like, I was sure I’d brought it on myself.
Tedd’s less than sympathetic reaction to the mention of our father’s abusive behaviors makes him seem indifferent to the ways we’ve suffered. Which makes me wonder what’s really going on.
It’s possible my brother’s repeated questioning–how do you know?– is a kind of willed forgetting. Freyed and Birrell call it betrayal blindness. “We remain blind to betrayal in order to protect ourselves,” they write. Violating a child’s physical, emotional or sexual safety is the greatest act of betrayal a parent can commit. The child depends on the parent for her very survival, so how can she protest? She can’t. Instead, she hides the abuse from herself and others. She pretends, ignores, forgets. Because “forgetting and unawareness help the abuse victim survive.”
As I wrote in a previous post, at one time in his life Tedd believed that he, too, had been sexually abused by our father. He has since changed his mind, following a pattern of disclosure and retraction identified by clinical research. For many people, the possibility of abuse is too monstrous or terrifying to entertain for long. So they take it back. When a brother or sister dredges it up again, they deflect it.
Are you sure? How do you know?
Because he is not an unkind or uncaring man, my brother is willing to concede that others of us could have been abused. He doesn’t deny our reality. But lately he has taken to defending our father’s behavior. Making excuses for him. He tells me he can understand what drove our father to prey on his family and his patients sexually. Living for years with a sickly, bedridden wife the way our father did with Tedd’s mother would give any man large sexual appetites, my brother explained to me. He’d felt some of that himself during his wife’s protracted battle with cancer.
It’s hard to believe my brother would willingly identify with his abuser. That is, until you consider the other options. Like admitting our father threw him under the bus. Like bumping up against his own rage.
After reading what I wrote about our father in my memoir, Tedd brought up forgiveness. Our father helped a lot of people during his life, my brother insisted. Had my therapist encouraged me to consider that and forgive our father for the wrong he did to our family? I explained that what therapy taught me about forgiveness was how to begin to forgive myself. To surrender the self-blame and shame. That’s not the sort of forgiveness my brother was driving at, though. He wanted me to turn my burden over to God and find the freedom he believed would come from granting our father pardon.
No doubt about it, forgiveness can be powerful medicine. But if you don’t first acknowledge the truth of what a person has done, how can you meaningfully forgive him for it? How can any measure of real freedom flow from refusing to face what happened to you and how you really feel about it?
In The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists, Eleanor Payson writes that often we would rather believe we are to blame for the painful parenting we received than “look directly into our feelings of hurt and anger.” Furthermore, “we have multiple messages from society and religious teachings that tell us the only way to release these feelings is through forgiveness.”
“Genuine forgiveness does not deny anger but faces it head-on,” Alice Miller writes in For Your Own Good.
Blanket statements of forgiveness that suppress or circumvent our real feelings are not the starting point for healing. Instead, Payson continues, “all healing must start with awareness and the retrieval of our authentic thoughts and feelings.” In Where to Draw the Line, Anne Katherine describes the freeing encounter with genuine emotions this way: “Expressing our true feeling about a true incident lightens and enlightens. All the energy tied up in keeping the anger contained is released. After we’ve been angry in a healthy way, we have more energy.”
“Only the truth will shift a feeling,” Katherine writes.
“Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” Jesus Christ promised his followers.
I am not a religious person. But I claim that promise for my siblings and me. When we elect not to forget, not to blind ourselves, but keep charting our way through the minefield of our own explosive feelings, we’re making ourselves free. We’re navigating toward lasting forgiveness.