I’ve hesitated for weeks to write anything about current events out of concern not for myself, but for the amazing ministry I am humbled to lead. I have no wish to be partisan or divisive. Yes, these thoughts are prompted by the accusations about a Supreme Court nominee and the testimony of the accuser and the accused. But these issues go way beyond politics. This blog is clinical and deeply personal and spiritual.
As a sexual trauma survivor and a certified trauma and addiction specialist, I am heartsick. I’m sad, angry, afraid, hurt, discouraged, and nearly hopeless about any resolution for our sorry state. Everything I have learned personally and clinically in the last 25+ years, everything I believe at my core, and everything I have devoted my life to healing is playing out poorly on a national stage.
I find myself in a state not infrequent in the work that I do: While I am rarely surprised, I am regularly shocked, even appalled. Clinically, I see evidence that educated people are still ignorant about sexual trauma. Failure to report a sexual assault or even repeated sexual abuse is the norm, not the exception. In fact, reporting a sexual trauma soon after it occurs is quite rare, even for those who are assaulted as adults. Consider the thousands of aging men who are coming forward now to assert they were sexually abused by a priest many years ago.
A child or teenage victim almost never tells anyone, including parents, and certainly not the police or other authorities. I know this firsthand. I was sexually abused by a dear family friend for over 15 years beginning at the age of five. I never told a soul until I was a 35-year-old wife and mother who was considering suicide. My closest teenage and adult friends, my family, and both my husbands had no idea of my history. The shame, confusion, fear, and discomfort keep victims silent. I could spend pages describing each of those factors and their many distorted faces.
The national conversation makes clear that people don’t understand the nature of memory, especially traumatic memories. I get this is a more complicated topic that perhaps isn’t familiar to those who have been blessed not to experience trauma. I wish articulate experts were peppering the media with neurobiological information about memory and trauma (which is beyond my expertise and ability to explain.) Most people don’t remember the average details of events, especially ones that happened decades ago. The specifics of when? where? what? who? and how? of normal occurrences fade. Neuroscientists explain that during traumatic events, routine details evaporate as the brain encodes the potency of the trauma. It’s typical that snippets of those traumatic details are seared into memory, while surrounding mundane particulars are lost.
Vividly, I remember the night my perpetrator first climbed into my teenage bed after years of grooming and escalating sexual activity. I have a visceral memory of him taking the curlers out of my hair and sliding my nightgown over my head. At the same time, I don’t remember when this happened, though I can pinpoint the bedroom and the house, and thus confine the event to an age range of a few years. I don’t know what brought this out-of-town visitor to my home that particular time or how long he stayed. Yet I know with 100% certainty that he sexually abused me that night. That’s how memory works. I believe my father was asleep in the room next to mine, and one of my brothers was presumably in his room not far down the hall. I’m certain, though, both would say they have no knowledge or memory of this event. For them, the night was average and non-remarkable.
I also know that addressing the trauma changes you. For most of my life I was a tomboy and daredevil, a risk-taker physically. When I realized the truth that I had been sexually abused all those years (and not the promiscuous whore I thought myself to be and had, unsurprisingly become), my appetites changed radically. I became terrified of heights and closed spaces, and I still am. To this day, I flinch when someone approaches me from behind and touches me, even if it’s my husband or others whom I hold dear. Just because someone at an earlier point wasn’t afraid of flying or limited exits doesn’t mean she didn’t develop those dislikes as an adjunct to the processing of trauma. Everything shifts with the unfolding of truth. The body remembers; the body knows.
I wish the media were focusing more on binge drinking. Like the misunderstandings about sexual trauma, I see that the public doesn’t grasp the memory impairment that occurs even if someone isn’t completely blacked out. (And if you black out, you probably don’t remember that you blacked out.) A person who has abused alcohol or drugs can legitimately, vehemently deny he/she behaved in certain ways because the person truly has no memory. The effects of excessive consumption of alcohol, pot, and other substances can be enormous, if insidious. Millions of Americans, not only irresponsible college students, are at risk and in denial. Current events provide fertile soil for teaching about the dangers of substance abuse.
Ignorance of these clinical dynamics re-victimizes millions of still-silent survivors. The vilification of the current most public victim harms those who carry their stories alone. No sane person would choose to step in front of this camera for others to scrutinize the snapshots of her pain. Can we elevate the conversation beyond the two who now occupy center stage? Despite the extraordinarily high stakes, they are merely two broken people who represent millions.
Spiritually, I am trying to hold onto principles that are more important than politics. Power comes from a life of integrity, not a position – and genuine power often doesn’t look like being powerful. It’s an internal center, not an external state. When we mock those who are vulnerable, we degrade ourselves as well as the hurting. When we speak more than we listen, we miss important learning. When we are closed and unteachable, we remain unaware, and in that ignorance, we hurt people profoundly.
As a survivor, a clinician and a person of faith, I believe in truthfulness, humility, ownership, and accountability. I value kindness, respect, compassion, self-control, and basic human decency. I try to lean into saying “I’m sorry” as well as “I’m hurt by what you did.”
Daily, though, I fail to live up to my principles. My brokenness often shows up in a caustic judgmentalism. I admit that flaw is roiling within as I wrestle with God about why people hurt each other so badly and why God doesn’t do more to stop the pain.
Then I hear God’s reminder that people are God’s hands for healing, too. And so I write and invite you to read and consider.
Marnie C. Ferree