Facing Evil

grievingLike many of you, the shootings in Newtown, CT have stirred lots of feelings… horror, anger, deep grief. I’ve thought of my niece who teaches in a school. I’ve thought of my great nephew who is almost six and proudly in kindergarten. I’ve thought about Christmas presents that will never be given and stockings that will never be explored. I’ve thought about my friends who have buried their children, for no matter the age of the child it is always an unnatural act. I’ve been angry at how easy it is to get a gun and how hard it is to get help for mental illness.

And I’ve thought about evil.

As I write, we know little of the shooter and so I cannot say he is evil, as easy as that would be to do. We do not know if wires were short-circuited in his brain or demons lay undiagnosed. We just do not know yet, if we will ever know. But I thought about evil because that is my point of connection.

While my blogs are usually personal reflections this one is more personal than most. Many things have conspired in service of my knowing that it was time to speak.

He was the proverbial stranger. I don’t really know how we met. I only remember where he lived because for many years and by whatever methods, I was a regular visitor to his house of horrors. From childhood well into adolescence he abused me in every way imaginable and in some ways that were truly unimaginable to me.

I don’t toss around the word evil casually but in this case the label fits. How else can you describe someone whose joy is inflicting pain and provoking terror in very small children? In anyone?

Shame and humiliation and rape and pain were his weapons of choice. But also guns and knives. I know what it is to have a gun at my head and why I didn’t die, I’ll never know.

I don’t know how I survived physically, let alone emotionally or spiritually. I don’t know why I was given a chance that those children in Newtown were not. I don’t even know if why is a terribly valid question.

One of the things that I do know is that in the midst of the profoundly dangerous hours in his basement I also had many safe places in my life.

Spirit was safe for me. Both at home and at church I was told stories of a God who loved me. The fact is, no child was ever welcomed into the world with more gladness, the rejoicing both of my mother who had prayed long and hard for a little girl and of a neighborhood who’d seen only the birth of boys for many years. I was the kid who broke the string.

Both at home and at church I was told of a God who loved me, no matter what. No one ever used fear or intimidation as messengers of the gospel, as if such a thing could be possible. If they had… if I had somehow gotten a fear inducing God mixed up with a fear inducing abuser, I don’t know what would have become of me.

But it didn’t. And I survived. I survived with enough intactness to do things like school and career, to develop deep and intimate friendships. To laugh. To appreciate and join in my family’s propensity for puns. I don’t take such things lightly. And I survived with enough courage to do the grueling work of healing.

I sometimes tell clients that stubbornness can be a virtue and in this case, it has been for me. Somehow my stubborn self found a way through the horror and walled it off from the rest of my life so that I could indeed be a silly sixth grader or be giddy about my date to the prom. As an adult, my stubborn self kept me going even when I had every excuse for stopping my healing. When money was tight my stubborn self made sure money for therapy came first. When no cell in my body wanted to walk into the therapist’s office because I knew what I would have to confront when there, my stubborn self pushed me out of the car and through her door.

There is much work that needs be done in secret and that is how it should be and how it needs to be. But there comes a time when keeping the secret means colluding with our abusers, holding onto the shame they so freely passed on to us. Sometimes we survive and we heal, and those of us who have been granted both of those graces owe a responsibility to use our voices in whatever way is right for us.

From time to time I am reminded – or have to be reminded – that the light is more powerful than the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. It’s a hard word to write right now, knowing that the darkness has indeed snuffed out the light of so many. But we who survive, be it surviving the dangers of our own particular worlds or simply surviving on this planet while others are killed, we who survive are entrusted with the responsibility of carrying their light forward.

Over the last twenty years, every decision I have made about my work has been made in the context of my survival. The fact of my life is a gift and I am bound to be good steward of that gift.

While it is more dramatically true for some, in reality it’s true for all of us. Are we good stewards of the lives we have been given?

We have been entrusted with the light, and by our lives we reflect its shining or contribute to darkness. The light is in the causes for which we stand and for which we work, even when they are neither easy nor expedient. It is in the hundred odd choices we have each day as to whether or not we will walk with kindness, love mercy and do justice.

I cannot bring those children back. I can do what is mine to do to help create a world where other children are not targets, where division is not celebrated and violence is not glorified.

At my church this morning, in addition to the chaos of a services altered at the last minute we were were faced with a power outage in the sanctuary. No organ, no sound system and no lights. As the guitar choir played the prelude and the choir gathered for the processional, suddenly the lights came on and we all caught our breath. And so it is.

Darkness makes an appearance, so impudent to come breaking into this season of light. We mourn and grieve and shake our fists at the heaven for the profound wrongness of it all. But sooner or later we who survive come around, we must come around to remembering the light that shines even in this darkness.

May we who live commit ourselves to being light and to shining light and to creating spaces for light in this world, even in this world that sometimes falls into the deep darkness.

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Penn State, part two

In an earlier post I commented on how the Penn State sexual abuse scandal had revealed that there’s still a lot of misinformation when it comes to child sexual abuse.

After writing that column, syndicated columnist Cal Thomas came out with a piece in which he declared that this was all the fault of the freewheeling 60’s (and Dr. Spock.)

Here’s my rebuttal, which was published in the Winston-Salem Journal:

Cal Thomas is Wrong

Reflections from Penn State

Like some of you, I’ve been following the breaking story from Penn State. A former assistant football coach has been charged with sexually abusing at least eight boys (the number is almost certain to rise). Some of the incidents were discovered but various authorities never followed through. As a result Sandusky was allowed to continue abusing boys.

As I’ve followed not only the reporting on the case but also the discussion that has gone along with it, I’ve realized that there is still an awful lot of misinformation about child sexual abuse. Let me respond to things I have read first.

“The parents didn’t report it for ten years, so it couldn’t have been that bad.” Child sexual abuse flourishes in a context of secrecy and shame. Often that shame is encouraged by the abuser.  Although it has gotten much, much better, children still often do not tell. They are led to believe that no one will believe them. (This is especially true if the abuser is someone with high standing in the community, such as a coach or minister.) Or people will know how bad they are.

“Children who were abused grow up to be abusers themselves.” It is true that many abusers were themselves abused as a child. But the reverse is not true. Most victims do not grow up to abuse.

“Joe Paterno wasn’t told about the rape (witnessed by the graduate assistant). He was only told there was fondling.” Really? As if that makes a difference? Abuse is abuse.

One of the things that has jumped out at me is that knowing that Sandusky had a serious allegation of sexual abuse in his history, Paterno and others did not question his charity work with troubled boys. This is, in fact, a classic operating style of a pedophile. They put themselves in positions in which they have lots of contact with children. They then befriend the kids who are especially vulnerable – the ones that have a troubled background or who don’t quite fit in. The extra attention makes the child feel special but also opens the door for the abuse to unfold.

I have heard people argue that Paterno did his duty in reporting the incident, and as a non-witness, he had no say in seeing the final report. But if I know that someone has been accused of abuse and I know that someone is working in an organization that puts them around children, I am going to do whatever it takes to find out the results of that abuse investigation. It is not enough to say, “Don’t bring that around here.” (Sandusky was barred from bringing children to the Penn State athletic facilities.)

I believe Joe Paterno was rightfully fired, not because he is a bad man. But because he found it easier to ignore red flags than to confront them. I commend the Board of trustees for making the statement that even a multi-million dollar football program is not worth the life of one child.

I once confronted a friend about a choice he’d made with his own children. It wasn’t abuse and he is truly a great dad. But it seemed to me that the kid had been put in a situation with potential (however slight) for harm, a situation that did not seem wise to me. We had a pretty heated exchange; in fact, the most heated exchange we’ve ever had. Being basically conflict avoidant, it was tremendously difficult for me to say anything. He told me it was none of my business. I replied that the safety of children was everyone’s business.

When I graduated from high school, our speaker reflected upon the “rights and responsibilities” that came with our diplomas. Part of the responsibilities of being an adult is that sometimes we have to do the hard things. We have to make the tough calls. We have to have the hard conversations that we’d rather not have. We have to ask the questions that we’d rather not hear the answers to. We have to be willing to risk friendships and reputations because those things are not as important as doing what we can to see that a child is not harmed.

I am both sorry and sad that Joe Paterno’s career has come to this kind of end. I am sorry and sad that in his eighties he is having to face the realization that he should have done more. But I am even sorrier that he did not use his considerable power and influence to stop a pedophile from continuing to abuse. People who are upset this morning with the firing are protesting that he is just the fall guy. But the reality is that with great power comes great responsibility. And sometimes, with great responsibility comes great consequences.