Many people struggle with healing from an abusive childhood, and when the abuser was a parent, the healing process can be particularly complicated. Everyone has a unique story and the impact on individuals is affected by many different factors. The severity, frequency, and tactics of the abuse, and emotional strain on the victim all impact the degree to which people are able to cope with and recover from past trauma. One area of struggle can revolve around the concept of forgiving your abuser.
Forgiveness is often one our culture’s go-to prescriptions when it comes to dealing with painful incidents that continue to impact our current lives. These prescriptions may come in the form of religious instructions, moral obligations, and the promise of healing. While forgiveness may be an important and helpful step in the recovery process, it is important to understand who it is being done for and why. Otherwise forgiveness itself becomes confusing, complicated, or even meaningless.
At one time in my career I was working as a hospice social worker. Most of my patients were very elderly, and the majority of them had supportive and loving families who had the comfort and peace of the patient as their priority. However, occasionally I worked with families where there was significant emotional strain in the relationship between the dying parent and the adult son or daughter, sometimes due to past abuse by the parent. Needless to say the issues each family was dealing with were unique and there were long and fraught histories involved. I had some family members who spoke to me about their own process of forgiveness and how it helped them to heal and find their own peace, and I had other families who had no interest in a dramatic reconciliation at the deathbed. They were tired of being judged for keeping their distance from a formerly abusive parent, and their own healing was better served by strong boundaries and detachment. Our society loves a Hollywood ending, and popular culture is littered with depictions of those reconciliations.
When I am working with clients to process and heal from childhood abuse, we discuss forgiveness and what it means for their individual recovery process. Some of the things we have to figure out through that process include knowing who the forgiveness is for (the victim, the abuser, or someone else), how it will or will not facilitate their healing process, and why it is being given. The answers to those questions help people come to an honest conclusion about whether they want to forgive their abuser, whether it will help at all, and the intentions behind that forgiveness. I don’t ever tell people that they need to or have to forgive their abuser in order to heal and recover from an abusive childhood. If people feel forced to take the moral high ground by offering forgiveness to someone who may or may not even be in their life anymore, they may continue to struggle to recover because it feels insincere and obligatory. However, if that forgiveness is offered for the right reasons and at the right time, it can be an important step towards releasing the control trauma can have over their life and emotional wellness. The “right reasons and right time” are not for me to decide. Those decisions need to be made by the individual who is healing from that trauma.
As friends, families, communities, and caregivers, we can place value on forgiveness without making it into an obligation for people who have been abused. Coping with the emotional labor of processing the abuse inflicted by a parent who is supposed to love and care for you is difficult enough without having social pressure to rush the process and bring it to a convenient and neat conclusion. Allowing abuse survivors to direct their own recovery and determine why, when, how, and if forgiveness is a part of their healing journey is a more supportive and intentional way to promote recovery.
This past Friday, Olympic Gold medalist Aly Raisman delivered a powerful victim impact statement at the sentencing portion of convicted sexual abuser Larry Nassar, former doctor to the USA Gymnastics team. Nassar pled guilty to 7 counts of sexually abusing minors, but he has been accused by over 150 athletes of manipulating his position as their doctor by sexually abusing them under the guise of providing medical treatment. The depth and scope of his abusive practices are horrific, but as with many of the abusers who have been exposed over the past year and half, he had a network of people behind him helping to cover up his abuses and discredit or silence his accusers. Raisman made clear in her statement that victims everywhere are fed up with being silenced and dismissed by saying “You do realize now the women you so heartlessly abused over such a long period of time are now a force, and you are nothing.”
I have spent much of my career working with survivors of sexual abuse, both as a victim advocate and as a therapist. The criminal justice system has long been a source of frustration for me and my clients, both because of its re-victimization of survivors who do come forward, and the difficulty that victims have with receiving any kind of justice at all. Specifically, I find myself infuriated when cases are dismissed outright because “there is no evidence”. The message this sends to everyone is that a victim’s testimony is not evidence. It is only when dozens and dozens of women come forward with the same stories that their word can be trusted and used in a court of law. It takes a powerful army of survivors to put away 1 single abuser. This is the broken system that victims are forced to contend with if they want any measure of justice for the crimes against them. We don’t do this with other types of crimes.
Raisman spoke forcefully against her abuser in court, questioning the system that allowed his abuse to continue for years and calling him out directly for being a manipulative predator of the worst kind. It can be difficult for a survivor to see Raisman, who is a successful, high profile woman, speak out in court and think “I couldn’t do that, she has more security, money, and support than I do; I have too much to lose by speaking out”. Yet one of the first things Raisman acknowledged when she began to speak was that she was scared, and she didn’t want to come to deliver her victim impact statement. Even strong, powerful women can feel scared and small when facing the prospect of speaking out against an abuser. No one is protected from criticism when speaking out about their own abuse, because our culture has ingrained an atmosphere of victim blaming and doubt into our collective response to crimes of sexual abuse. I have personally borne witness to enough horror stories of how victims have been treated to know that we have a serious, serious problem. Policies have gotten better over the past 40 years or so, but in practice, much of the shame and blame continues.
Sexual abuse survivors need first and foremost to feel safe again, which means being believed and supported when they come forward. When their experiences are minimized and dismissed, or when they are blamed for the actions of their abusers, the healing process is damaged and it may take years or decades before they are able to seek help again. Healing after sexual trauma is possible, but we can all contribute to making this process more accessible to survivors by believing and supporting victims and taking their claims seriously. However, until the criminal justice system undergoes reforms that will enable more victims to confront their abusers in court, countless victims will go without justice and countless abusers will remain free to continue to perpetuate their crimes. The problem of sexual abuse, harassment, and exploitation continues daily. Anyone who cares about this issue must continue to speak out in support of survivors and demand changes in the systems that perpetuate the abuse if real change is to be made.
If you have been a victim of abuse, please know that while your circumstances may be unique to your particular experience, there is a lot of support available to survivors these days. It is important to know who, in your personal network of people, you may be able to trust and confide in for support. Yet even if you do not have a supportive group of family or friends around you, you can find support by reaching out for help from your community and from online resources. Finding an individual therapist or support group is one way to start the healing process. However, there are also many other online resources and forums where you can receive information and support if you are not ready to seek support in person or if you have difficulty finding resources in your area. If you have not been victimized, but know someone who has, you can be a supportive presence to them by believing them, listening, and providing reassurance that that abuse was not their fault, and that you are willing to stand by them as they heal and seek help in whatever form they need. Do not try to force the person to go to the police if they are not ready or do not want to report. As discussed, the criminal justice system sometimes serves to re-victimize and cause more pain to survivors. However, if a survivor does want to report, you can encourage and support them through that process, or help them to find a victim advocate. For more information about support and resources, visit www.rainn.org, or call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.