Bringing Sexual Abuse to Light

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Reflections of Early Childhood”

"New Passage" by Melanie WeidnerIn 2009, a member of our meeting—whom we’ll call “Zoe”—discovered that her family

had a years-long, father-daughter secret of sexual abuse. The family had attended our meeting for the duration of this abuse. When our meeting community found out about the abuse, we wanted to find ways to support all of the parties involved, but we felt ourselves at a loss. How could this happen to such good people? How could we nurture all of the parties without anyone feeling betrayed?

Our meeting found a way to educate ourselves about sexual abuse and to begin to provide such support. As we learned that a number of Lexington Friends are survivors of sexual abuse, we realized that domestic sexual abuse is far more common than many of us had imagined. When Friends Journal solicited articles on the topic of sexuality, we knew that sharing our meeting’s experience with domestic sexual abuse would be helpful to other meetings.

In writing this article collaboratively, we (Melissa and Betsy) draw from different experiences and perspectives regarding sexual abuse and health. Melissa’s interest in the issue goes back to the summer she turned eight, when, on a quiet morning, her teenage brother invited her into his room and raped her. She has dealt intermittently, and in many different ways, with the ramifications of that single act over the ensuing 50-plus years. As a nurse, as a patient, and as a reader, she often recognizes issues and consequences of sexual abuse. Betsy is a sexuality educator who teaches parents how to discuss sexual issues with their children. For most of her adult life, she has been an activist for reproductive health. She values education as the key to empowerment and a healthy life. She has felt led to share with the wider Quaker community her meeting’s process for dealing with domestic sexual abuse.

Lexington Meeting is a mid-sized meeting, a community of about 100 Friends with an average Sunday attendance of 30-35 people. We had never confronted such an issue in our community, and many of us thought of sexual abuse as something far removed from our lives.

When we learned about the abuse in Zoe’s family, our journey of self-education began. Zoe asked for a clearness committee to help her cope with her devastating pain. She told the committee that she felt it was important that the meeting educate itself about domestic sexual abuse. This request was passed on to our Ministry and Worship committee. Being familiar with sexual abuse, both as a nurse and as one who had experienced it, I (Melissa) offered to clerk an ad hoc committee that would develop a process to educate our members about the problem. In order to demonstrate the widespread nature of domestic sexual abuse, we invited Friends to submit anonymous stories about their experiences. Others, we felt sure, would have their own equally heartbreaking stories that would be a powerful demonstration of the prevalence of sexual abuse.

We received several stories to add to Zoe’s and Melissa’s. One member, “Lucretia,” wondered why her three-year-old daughter left her big brother out of her list of people to bless in her bedtime prayer, only to find out that, in her daughter’s words, it was “because he hurt my pee-pee.” The family had to live apart to protect the little one while seeking treatment for both of their children. Another member, “Elise,” shared a poem she had written in high school of the dreaded night-time encounters with her father.

The committee began working with a local social worker experienced in conflict mediation and restorative justice, and we planned reflection sessions that would last several hours each. We asked how we could become more aware of signs of sexual abuse, and how we could respond to it more effectively. While Betsy was not on the planning committee, as a sexuality educator she remained actively interested and supported the process.

Our first session focused on information and a reenactment. Experts from the local rape crisis center and the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association provided a definition of abuse and explained how it happens. They gave statistics about incidence, reporting procedures, counseling, and support. They dispelled myths about sexual abuse and answered our questions. The abuse stories collected from F/friends were published in our monthly meeting’s newsletter and were distributed as a handout at this session.

During this first reflection session, Melissa presented a short, one-woman play based on her childhood experiences. She began by charming us as an innocent eight-year-old girl who showed how her older brother shattered her childhood world by raping her. We watched that tender eight-year-old’s reaction and heard how her parents rebuked her for voicing what happened. The play fast-forwarded to Melissa as a young adult and later, a middle aged woman, showing how this distressing memory impacted her adult life as well. This reenactment made vivid for Friends the pervasive impact of sexual abuse on a real person and Melissa’s concern for the safety of future generations in her brother’s family. It was moving for the group to see this horrific experience played out through a woman’s life. It was made even more powerful by the realization that this Friend was willing to expose such tender parts of herself to help us understand sexual abuse.

The next session was an opportunity for Friends to check in with themselves mentally, emotionally, and spiritually after the information sharing and reenactment of the first session. Many feelings had been stirred up, and our awareness and sensitivity were increased. The third session focused on justice, punishment, forgiveness, and reconciliation. We explored questions like, How do our Quaker values help us hold victims and offenders in the Light? How do we square our values with the established punishments? For instance, the perpetrator of Zoe’s abuse asked two Friends to write letters on his behalf to the judge prior to sentencing. Other Friends had mixed feelings about taking such an action. In explaining his reason for writing a letter, one Friend argued that no person is defined by the worst thing he or she has ever done. We also grappled with other questions:

Does prison do anything to help the perpetrator?

Is restriction of the perpetrator’s freedom a fair punishment?

Are we motivated by the desire for revenge?

What is justice?

What does forgiveness require of us?

How should we deal with the offender if he were to return to the meeting after leaving prison?

When thinking about a perpetrator of sexual abuse, these are extremely challenging issues. Throughout our discussion, we maintained our concern about the safety of the victim.

These sessions were times of profound sharing and learning, deeply moving and emotionally draining. After each, there seemed to be so much more we had not yet touched or adequately addressed. We scheduled a final session where we were able to recognize that we needed even more time to reflect and process what had happened, and it was important for us to let our community move on. Our facilitator assured us we had done good work.

Perhaps it goes without saying that these issues and questions are far from resolved for Lexington Friends. We have opened the door and let in the Light. Those of us who have not experienced sexual abuse realize now that it is all around us. Those who are survivors of abuse know we are not alone. As a meeting, we know that we are in this together, a strong, loving community of Friends, better prepared to support each other.

Afterthoughts

Melissa: Reenactment of a major trauma is not to be undertaken lightly. While it was fun to put myself back into my eight-year-old skin again, I was surprised by the very real fear that little girl felt, knowing (as the historical little girl had not) as I walked across the room that I was about to be forcibly raped. I found it terrifying and shattering to re-experience; immediately afterward, as I continued with the presentation, I was short of breath and emotionally drained. I chose the dramatic presentation because lecturing or reading about such a life-altering experience seems to sterilize it. But I would not have felt safe doing it without the support of my therapist and my meeting community. My first performance was in my therapist’s private office, and we discussed it at length when I finished. While the reenactment was a healing moment for me, I would strongly discourage anyone from doing it without similar support, lined up in advance.

My biggest lesson from the reenactment, and from the reflection sessions in general, was that no single event creates an entire person. Many victims worry that if people know this about them, it will be all they will see. “Sally, the wise and wonderful Friend, a leader in her field,” will become “Poor Sally, I don’t know how she manages from day to day, what can I say to her?” Things that happen to us certainly have a real impact on our values and attitudes, but they do not become our identity. Rather, our identity influences how we understand that moment and integrate it into the rest of our being. A survivor of a traumatic event is first and foremost a person; although she has experienced this horrid event, she still exists outside of that experience. She still has favorite things, likes and dislikes, and talents. Speak to those!

Betsy: The major lesson for me was how common domestic sexual abuse is in families in our meeting, in our community, and in society. Secrecy and shame allow it to continue. The most powerful tool we have to end sexual abuse is revealing it and opening it to the Light. We can do this by sharing our stories, supporting victims in their healing, supporting perpetrators in their healing (if we can, and if we have the opportunity), and easing shame by sharing love, acceptance, and support.

I serve as co-clerk of the Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice committee, which is currently revising our book of discipline. A couple of years ago, we begandrafting a chapter on close relationships, including family relationships. As a result of the events at Lexington Meeting, I asked the committee to include a section on domestic abuse. The following text is currently seasoning and will be considered for approval at our 2013 annual sessions:

Abuse in a home
The exercise of inappropriate power in close relationships can result in physical, psychological, or sexual abuse. In the face of the social isolation often associated with an abusive home, those victimized may feel alone and desperate. Meetings are advised to educate themselves about domestic abuse and to become particularly sensitive to signs of such situations and to be bold in offering assistance. Meetings are encouraged to create communities of trust in which those who are being abused can seek the support of the meeting.

“Wake up.”

Daddy whispered in my ear.

“Come on,”

Daddy, why’re you so near?

“I know a game,”

He said, not quite himself

“That makes me happy.”

We walked past the shelf

Of happy-family snapshots.

“Daddy’s filled with love,”

He wants to give it all to you.”

I thought of a dove.

So clean, so pure.

Something I could never be

After all the things that

Daddy’d done to me.

I dread the night.

I listen for the measured

tread,

When in the dark I know, that

Daddy’s coming to my bed.

Written by a regular attender of our meeting when she was in high school, 1990)

Melissa Levine and Betsy Neale

Melissa LeVine is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. She has been a member of Lexington (Ky.) Meeting for several years. Betsy Neale is also a member of Lexington Meeting and provides sexuality education for parents.

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