Developing Self-Forgiveness and Self-Compassion as a Survivor of Child Sexual Abuse
"Tell someone you were sexually abused as a child and soon the word 'forgiveness' pops up. 'Have you forgiven your abusers?' the curious predictably ask. Why does this concern, I wonder, supersede others?"
Tell someone you were sexually abused as a child and soon the word “forgiveness” pops up. “Have you forgiven your abusers?” the curious predictably ask. Why does this concern, I wonder, supersede others?
Have I forgiven my abusers? When my memories began pushing through the hard crust of consciousness after being buried from age 13 to 38, forgiveness was not what came to mind. Survival was.
Soon I was voicing my memories of sexual abuse in therapy and in journaling, but I was careful to not say more with family and friends than what they seemed ready to hear. But no one other than therapists asked me what happened, or if I wanted to talk about the abuse. As I wrote in my memoir, Being Mean––A Memoir of Sexual Abuse and Survival, “perhaps awkwardness, embarrassment, denial, or desires to be sensitive effectively prevent others from asking about the most deeply disturbing experiences of anyone they care for and love.” Obviously, that happens. But then there is the question: What if our culture doesn’t really want to know about child sex abuse, or any type of abuse and, furthermore, doesn’t care about teaching us how to have a connection around having frank conversations about abuse? Why is the question of forgiveness more palatable?
I have had readers share that the child sexual abuse stories in my book are difficult to read, as they should be, but does that mean I shouldn’t tell those stories? When James Safechuck and Wade Robson tell their stories of child sexual abuse by Michael Jackson in the documentary Leaving Neverland, although impactful, some viewers questioned if certain details were really necessary. Likewise, in the film The Tale, critics again questioned the necessity of the explicit scenes in this true story of a young girl sexually abused by a male and a female coach. I wonder, how else will we learn how child abuse happens and continues to be so prevalent if we don’t describe it in detail, so we come to recognize and stop it and hopefully guide perpetrators toward help? What if we talked about perpetrators, what they do and the harm they cause, rather than talking about whether or not survivors have forgiven their abusers?
Although it was not my fault when the sexual abuse happened, my ability to trust others, and to trust myself, became irrevocably damaged. For two decades I criticized myself for who I was: an over-sexualized risk-taker who created chaos with an ambivalence toward safety or survival. I could barely control my feelings on top of a barrage of flashbacks that often left me aroused and confused in their wake: being in a camper with my dad, in his 18-wheeler sleeper, or together in my bed at home. As a child I had come to sense something was not right, but I didn’t yet know how to know what wasn’t right.
In an interview with Oprah after the film, James Safechuck said, “Forgiveness isn’t a line you cross. It’s a journey you take.” That makes sense to me. I have worked hard at forgiveness, but it was for forgiving myself and not blaming myself for what happened with my dad. I also had to let go of this unbearable weight of shame that resulted from my mother’s anger at me for my father’s inappropriate and damaging affections. Forgiving myself led to self-compassion, and these, I believe, helped me more than achieving forgiveness for my abusers.
I’ve let go of the F-word, Forgiveness, and I’ve embraced the C-word, Compassion. Developing compassion, for my parents and for myself, has been a healthier choice for me. My mom and dad each had their own struggles and stories. That’s not to say they weren’t responsible for what happened to me; they were. I continue to grapple with memories and struggle to see my dad for who he was and my mom for what she allowed. I believe they were both prisoners of their own realities. Gradually I have come to feel compassion for them for what I believe they endured for self-preservation. But self-compassion and self-forgiveness are what helped me the most, gradually allowing my heart to grow stronger and more open.