Embodied Heart, Surviving & Thriving

Resolving Expectations of Compassion Toward Abuse Perpetrators

A fellow blogger, Alexis Rose, shared an excellent post about her feelings on the word forgiveness.  As I read her post as well as the replies, I felt like the veil finally lifted on what I felt I had been accused of lacking in relation to my abusers by the various people with whom I’ve shared my story. It wasn’t forgiveness as no request had made to do so. Rather, it was compassion. Those of us who have been subjected to the most heinous acts humans can perpetrate are expected to feel empathy and to practice understanding for those who harmed us. In today’s #EmbodiedHeart and #SurvivingnThriving post, I will explore why this expectation may exist and outline best practices in responsiveness for those who wish to support trauma survivors in relation to this topic.

*Please note that I do dichotomize the condition of survivors and perpetrators in this post. I am aware that an individual could fall into both categories; I will not be fully addressing that complication.

But They Had a Rough Life Too…

To me, the function of pushing compassion towards abusers on trauma survivors is that it serves to dismiss any grappling with grief, pain, horror and estrangement by the commenter. If victims and perpetrators can reconcile, what need is there to fully acknowledge the awfulness of the actions and the destruction they cause for their victims? Within this mindset, the discomfort can be wrapped up quickly to move on to a world with less injustice.

As strange as it may sound, those who view abusers with complete hatred and malice—for instance, those who hope they get raped in prison—are simply the other side of the same coin. If the abuser is either monster or another form of victim, we are spared the gut-wrenching realization that all of us have the potential for evil within us as well as the difficult work of having to make meaning out of the actions of those who succumb to it.

Sex offenders (and, to a lesser extent, parents who physically abuse their children) are one of the few true pariahs of our society. The main impulse people seem to have towards them is that they should be banned from everywhere and imprisoned for life, if not outright killed. The hypocrisy, though, is mountainous when it comes to survivors, who are expected to be the ones to redeem them through their acts of forgiveness and compassion. I see value in restorative justice models; however, it is not my job as a survivor to fix the system or the situation for those who violated my being. I view it as an act of cowardess to extend an expectation of reconciliation to those who have been most wronged while absolving one’s self of any need to struggle with issues of evil or to create pathways to restoration. I suspect many such expectations are coated with a little bit of soot-shame: sure, it was the perpetrator’s fault, but isn’t the victim a little defective as well? And, if so, I (speaking here as if I were a non-sexually abused human) can leave the whole messy bunch to figure it out amongst themselves.

The current movement to rehabilitate the men rooted out by #metoo will, I suspect, fall victim to the “fix it yourself” crowd. If such an ill-conceived project as Charlie Roses’ talk show occurs, I fully anticipate a woman who has been sexually harassed in the past will be paraded out to make nice with her former boss or co-worker. I do not have any answers for the place at which the fallen (mostly) men who harm others sexually should arrive, and it isn’t my calling in this lifetime to grapple with this burden. Every time someone tells a survivor they should forgive their perpetrator, or wonders to the survivor what awful things must have happened to the perpetrator to lead them to their behaviors, they thrust some of the most challenging moral questions a person may face: Why do some people defile others? Does evil deserve compassion? Is everyone able to be redeemed socially, and, if so, how do we make it happen? at the people least deserving of pondering them.

To take this one step further, I think again about calling. If there is any justice in this world, I feel there needs to be a 50-1 network of supporters of trauma survivors to supporters of perpetrators. I do genuinely believe some people’s mission in life is to work with perpetrators and I support them in their efforts. At the same time, numbers and substance matter. I was deeply disappointed earlier this year when I learned a Pagan conference I wanted to attend regularly welcomes sex offenders and holds specific meetings for them, while paying little attention to the needs of trauma survivors. I am not saying these programs shouldn’t happen, but the fact that one group’s needs were clearly more valued than another’s turned me off to the whole enterprise. Trauma survivors themselves are not overrun with resources and educated supporters, that much I can ensure you.

Best Practices in Supporting Trauma Survivors in Regards to Abusers

I cannot recall another blog I’ve written where I’ve spoken to those who might be support people to trauma survivors; nearly all of my work is directed at trauma survivors themselves. If you read a hint of anger in this post, it’s there. I’ve been hurt far more than I’ve been helped by others when I share my story. The ones who get it, though, are invaluable.

  1. If you feel compelled to mention forgiveness or compassion for an abuser to a survivor, ask yourself the following questions: Have you yourself volunteered or worked with perpetrators of violent crime? Have you supported restorative justice efforts? How many sex offenders or parents who have had their children removed from them do you care for in your daily life? Perhaps you can exercise your compassion muscle towards the individuals you so strongly feel are in need of it directly, rather than expecting the victim of a crime to do the work for you. We are not your tools of healing; it is up to you to create the changes you think society needs.
  2. Respect the survivor’s boundaries. Do not act as an intermediary between the survivor and the abuser unless it is at the survivor’s request and with their permission. Even then, examine your motives and be prepared to set your own boundaries if you feel compelled to do so. I was betrayed by an individual who knew both my parents and me after I started to come to terms with the abuse. This person gave away my new address to my parents which resulted in them stalking me and me having to go to the police. We don’t need heroes like this; those who know when to say “I’m not comfortable talking to so-and-so for you” may do much more to help us heal.
  3. Know that healing is a process. Part of the recovery from childhood abuse often involves long periods of depression and anger. Feelings of helplessness and hopeless may crop up in you. To some extent, these may be projections onto you by the survivor as they relive and digest their experience. As weird as it sounds, it could be a sign that they really trust you, enough to let you see them “messy.” It is completely understandable that you will need your own support system during this time. With attention to confidentiality, it is vital for you to have others to whom you can turn to help you through your reactions and emotions. We cannot heal ourselves and you at the same time; you doing your own inner work is one of the most compassionate acts you can undertake.

Cultivating compassion towards an abuser is largely irrelevant to the work of being a supporter of a trauma survivor. People may be able to operate in both spheres (one of my most helpful therapists did so), but these types of callings are exceedingly rare. If you are someone who wishes to help trauma survivors, expect them to raise their own questions of forgiveness and reconciliation, and offer them the unfailing belief that they are capable to navigating these waters themselves with you as a steady hand to their shoulder. Do not, under any circumstances, believe yourself more able to paddle through these silt-filled bogs yourself. If you instead believe it is your task in life to support the rehabilitation of those who have harmed others, have at it.

I have varying degrees of compassion for those who harmed me most. As my spiritual journey has evolved, my feelings have grown as an outcropping of the inner work I’ve done, not as an intentional shift in direction. To trauma survivors, my main message is that self-compassion is vital to healing (ironically, it is also the topic on which my free Goddess Spirituality circle this summer will focus). The ways in which you work out your feelings towards those who harmed you are sacred waters; the only people with you there should be those you invite.

Embodied Heart

#MeToo As an Incest Survivor

For today’s #EmbodiedHeart post, I want to share a personal reflection on recent events related to bombshell after bombshell of accusations of sexual impropriety. I rarely comment on things in the news but I’ve been hit hard by both the hope of a tidal wave of change in this arena as well as the lingering doubts about whether anything will change for those of us who suffer abuse at the hands of family members rather than famous people.

As I’ve read numerous stories of women standing in their truth and being taken seriously, as well as some of the accused realizing the gig is up and admitting to their behaviors, I find myself simultaneously triggered and grounded. Triggered in bearing witness to accounts of the myriad of men who chose to exploit their power, often at the expense of those who were vulnerable and young. Grounded in a growing chorus of righteously angry people who are no longer willing to demand we apply the stringent expectations of a court of law in proclaiming that the person is “innocent until proven guilty” but instead allows a well-corroborated story to stand on its own and recognizes the courage it takes for women to find their voice.

I am an incest survivor, one who experienced sexual abuse at the hands of biological relatives. Yet, decades on with so much suffering and difficulty in everyday life, I doubt my story constantly. My recollection of what transpired in my childhood was implicit until I reached adulthood. A series of events unfolded, including my estrangement from my family, after which all the horrific details began to make themselves known to me. My family denied everything.

I doubt myself not because I doubt myself, but because I have no confession. If my family members admitted to their actions, I would have a sense of closure. Without that, I feel perpetually in a “as if” state, knowing what I know but unable to move on. I feel accused rather than being the accuser. That’s it, I feel as though my family members, those who destroyed so much in my life, get to stand in judgment of me for being a “bad daughter.” As I’ve shared previously, my mother could look at me after crying for days and tell me she was always happy. How does one define reality with a person like that? Someone who cannot see despite having perfect vision. All this time and distance, and I still can’t fully shake their grip on what is absolute and what is right. A tiny part of me wants to pursue a court case simply for the verdict. If it went in my favor, perhaps I could hold on to that as truth.

The larger controversy about delayed memory also weighs heavily on me. I was once on an interview only to have the individuals conducting it mock people like me because of this issue. My paranoia said one of my references had tipped them off as to my struggles while my spiritual being was washing with waves of gratitude for being granted the foreknowledge that allowed me to dodge the bullet of working with such heartless people. Needless to say, I declined the job offer.

I find it highly ironic that people with limited connection to their abusers are finding acceptance and are being believed, while those of us who have been betrayed in the most intimate of relationships are still by and large questioned on every front. My hope is that this is truly a tsunami, not a tidal wave. That what has started with the famous and the infamous, the wealthy and privileged, can grow to such heights and carry such intensity that all the walls of denial and basements of buried secrets are flooded and thrown asunder. That the resulting disorder and disarray can serve as a catalyst to finally hear and see the truth of the terror that strikes not only the choir boy and the swim team member and the actress, but also child after child in the privacy of their own homes.