The first day of April, the day after Easter. A breezy spring day, clouds speeding across the shining blue sky. Outside our town courthouse, a new flag has joined the Stars & Stripes atop the flagpole on the lawn. On a red ground, six paper-doll cut-out children, all blue except for one red body.
It’s National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
Awareness months and colored ribbons have their drawbacks. They can feel hokey and self-congratulatory, or smack of tokenism for issues that deserve year-round attention. But they can also provide a conversational opening to broach an uncomfortable topic. As my Lenten discipline recedes into the rearview mirror, I can attest that a month of anything is a manageable spiritual practice, while a lifelong resolution can seem overwhelming and self-defeating.
I had all those reactions, positive and negative, as I gazed up at the red and blue flag snapping in the wind. One child was different from the others. It didn’t help me to think about that. I guessed it was a reference to the “1 in 6” statistic, meant to send the message that child abuse is more prevalent than we’d like to believe. The logo was probably a gesture toward normalizing survivors, but my gut reaction was the opposite. It looked like a representation of how abuse victims feel–singled out, conspicuously tainted, separate from the human community. The logo reified this division. Red and blue. Us and them.
I don’t know how you’d put this on a flag, but my version of awareness would be more radical. It would emphasize what survivors have in common–with each other, across different kinds of abuse, and with everyone who breathes in abuse-enabling myths in the air of our culture. We may not all be in a position to identify abused children and find services for them, but we can all ask ourselves: What do I believe–about God, power, knowledge, sexuality–that contributes to the silencing and minimizing of abuse? What might I be telling myself to silence myself?
I didn’t realize I was a child abuse survivor until a few years ago, because the violations weren’t physical (as far as I can remember). My biological mother was physically abusive and controlling to her partner, which took center stage in how I thought about my childhood. I had to encounter abuse in other contexts, as an adult, before I recognized the pattern in my past.
First, vicariously, as an advocate for gay rights, I started to notice how the religious arguments against homosexuality would forcibly rewrite a gay person’s interpretation of his own bodily sensations and affections, trying to brainwash him into feeling pleasure as pain, integrity as brokenness. This is similar to how a sexual abuser teaches a child to dissociate, to disbelieve what her body tells her. As Martha Beck contends in Leaving the Saints, her memoir of incest in the Mormon Church, a religion creates split personalities when it commands adherents to accept demonstrably false facts. Such training primes people to be both abusers and victims.
I was raised by two moms, but the homophobic theology didn’t just offend me as an ally. It felt like it struck deeper. It was like a sword poised to sever me from my awareness of God. And I couldn’t explain why.
When I spoke up about this, I hit an emotional brick wall with some Christian friends. Our study groups were no longer a safe place for honesty, for me at least. Some conversations detoured around me as if I hadn’t spoken. At other times, my boundaries around discussing certain personal matters were ignored, because my feelings were merely human preferences that couldn’t stand in the way of my friend’s obligation to save my soul. We were adults sitting in a room having tea; why was I speechless with terror at my sudden invisibility, why tearfully desperate to wring compassion from a heart gone cold?
Searching for a better way to re-imagine my faith, I obsessively read feminist and pro-LGBT Christian websites. One of these led me to the “escape from Christian patriarchy” blogs such as No Longer Quivering and Love, Joy, Feminism. Though my upbringing included neither Christianity nor a patriarch, I was astounded to find how closely my experience mirrored that of girls raised in a fundamentalist breeder cult, right down to the “prairie muffin” dresses.
The penny dropped when these blogs did a series on emotional incest. I never knew that was a thing. I used to say, “Well, my mother was really really enmeshed and co-dependent with me…and OCD…and she hated it when I got married…and she had a breakdown when I tried to have a baby…and…and…” Now, I was like, “So that’s why I have so much in common with my BFF who just recovered her incest memories!”
The point is, I wouldn’t have been ready to face this truth about my past if I hadn’t been prepared with analogies to other forms of oppression, such as homophobia and spiritual abuse. These common factors gave me a sense of solidarity, overcoming some of the isolation and stigma I relived when I saw the courthouse flag today. I had a political outlet for my anger instead of expending it all in the secret confines of a therapist’s office. This solidarity continues to help me overcome the memories of being stunted, shut away, wasted, consumed.
Should I be telling you this, my readers? Should I embarrass the person who gave me life, whose own life is lonely and empty now because of a thousand choices to turn away from health? All I can say is, I could blog about “child abuse” in the abstract, I could link to a dozen resources run by “out” survivors whom I admire immensely, but I would still be dishonest if I kept silence in a way that implied, I’m one of the blue children on the flag, not that red one. No, I was just a child. This is my story.