BLOG: Sexual Abuse…What Place for Forgiveness?

A remarkable woman came into my office last year. As director of The Forgiveness Project — a UK-based organization which explores forgiveness through real-life stories — I have met a lot of remarkable people, but Susan’s story touched me more than most. (“Susan” is not the woman’s real name, but is being used in this post for the purpose of anonymity.)

As a child, Susan had repeatedly been raped by a member of her family. Such trauma in young people produces an enormous rupture, dislodging any sense of self and relationships with others. It came close to destroying Susan and her quest to make sense of what happened has at times been unbearable, not just for her but for those closest to her as well. Yet her trauma hasn’t destroyed her, and, even more extraordinarily, it seems to have shaped her into the deeply humane and engaging 33-year old wife, mother, colleague and friend she is today.

Susan explained to me why she chose to go on a journey of understanding rather than hatred. It’s all about reconciliation — which doesn’t necessarily mean reconciling with the perpetrator; first and foremost it means reconciling with yourself. In other words, making peace with the event is what allows people to live with a catastrophe, and find resolution.

I recently heard Jay Beachus, a counselling psychologist from the organisation Escaping Victimhood, speak about post-traumatic stress (PTS). Listening to Beachus, it suddenly made perfect sense why Susan might respond in a way that appears to go against our more natural instincts for pay-back and revenge. Beachus described how PTS can be unshakable and untreatable, endure for years and even decades, unless or until “the mind finds resolution, at which point the effects of the trauma will start to melt away.”

This was not a lecture on forgiveness — far from it — and yet from my work with victims I know that many are able conquer PTS by simply choosing a path of forgiveness — ultimately a path of survival and self-healing. Whether you call it forgiveness, or understanding, or acceptance, the result is that the mind finds some kind of resolution and ultimately therefore restores.

Another woman — with a similar experience of rape — summed it up like this:

While I have suffered violent trauma at the hands of others, as I’ve got older I’ve realised that although not welcome in my life they have been ‘gifts’ that have moulded me and taught me, broken me and opened me up to life.

People usually assume forgiveness is about absolution or about excusing a heinous act. It is also often viewed either as a weakness or as some superhuman strength. In my opinion forgiveness is none of these things. From meeting many forgiving people over the years, my conclusion is that forgiveness is difficult, costly and painful, but potentially transformative. It is a problem-solving, coping strategy that first and foremost we do for ourselves.

Susan explained:

I have had to learn to forgive and by that I mean, forgive myself for not telling anyone, for not saying No, for not getting help. I have had to learn not to hate myself, my body and my history for not giving me the tools to stand firm.

To the person who so gravely wounded her, she feels “overwhelming compassion”. It’s hard to understand how, until she explains, “to wound someone like I was wounded can only be done by someone who hates themselves and who is suffering deeply. He has great wounds himself.” In other words, hurt people hurt people.

Susan, like many of the forgiving victims I’ve met, has come to the conclusion that “this feeling of forgiveness is not a one off constant feeling. It is a process, lived and consciously undertaken each day. Ultimately it is an active and conscious choice.” And this active choice is not only about preserving herself, because Susan’s underlying aim is to promote understanding so that people who have harmed others “see that not only are we, their victims, human, but that they are too.”

In the prison workshops The Forgiveness Project runs in several UK prisons — where sharing stories helps develop victim empathy and helps those who have hurt others understand the consequences of their actions — I invited Susan to speak at our very first workshop for sex offenders. To many this might seem like the last place to expose a woman who has suffered severe sexual abuse as a child, but Susan had asked to share her story in places where it would have most impact.

In the event, these prisoners were astonished at her bravery and at her willingness to face a room full of men like them; for some, I believe, it was the first time they understood the extent of the suffering of their victims. Afterwards Susan told me that she too had personally found the workshop enormously healing.

Ironically in that space of brokenness and desperation, there seemed to be a real possibility of connection and open heartedness.

Note: “Susan” is not the woman’s real name, but is being used in this post for the purpose of anonymity.

2 Comments on "BLOG: Sexual Abuse…What Place for Forgiveness?"

  1. Carla Murray says:

    As a childhood survivor of severe satanic abuse, which includes sexual abuse, rape, torture and horrors I cannot mention here, I’ve probably thought more about forgiveness than most. I’ve been in therapy for a very long time dealing with severe anorexia and PTSD, coming to terms with what was done to me, and ultimately learning to let go and forgive, in my own way. The abuse devastated me, yet also turned me into the woman I am today. I was trained by a psychologist and now lead a free support group in my church for women in pain and also write for a trauma magazine, donating my articles to help others who are suffering still. Had this never happened to me, I could not do these things, would not have the depth of compassion I have, nor the emotional understanding I’ve gotten through my journey of healing. I found this article, because I’m in the process of researching and writing an article on forgiveness in hopes that it can help others. Being a writer, I wrote a prose about what forgiveness means to me and I wanted to share it with you. Here it is:

    THAT THING CALLED FORGIVENESS

    Einstein said that sometimes the solution to a problem is found on another plain. I know that he was talking about physics, but I have come to realize I have done this with that thing called forgiveness. If someone were to ask me if I forgave my perpetrators of 21 years, I would tell you that I have simply let go and kept walking.

    Walking roads and alleys that were sometimes dark and sometimes light, but mostly grey. Sometimes stormy and clouded, sometimes flooding me with rain and almost drowning me, but there were times they were bright and wonderful too.

    I have tried to do what Einstein said by moving over and looking back. Back at 45 years of a broken life, devastated, heartbreaking and realizing I have lost everything in this world that I truly loved, yet in the end I have been richly blessed.

    I think forgiveness is nothing more than a process of letting go, maybe without even realizing it, as it can be a very long journey indeed. For me I simply lay it at the cross over and over, and this is my process of letting go.

    I cannot hold forgiveness in the palm of my hand, as it is not concrete and tangible, but I have learned to feel content with what I do.

    In the end, I know that God understands more than anyone, and for me, that is all that counts.

    Thank you for letting me share.

  2. Tanya says:

    Namaste,

    I am Tanya Byrd, Co founder and Director of the Milwaukee Summer of Peace 365.
    I learned of your amazing project through Arno Michaels of Life After Hate.I am an African American woman and I am proud to call Arno my brother.
    My organization is the platform that provided Arno with his start of outreach to Milwaukee’s inner city youth and teens.
    I am extremely interested in joining Arno in Minneapolis of August 11th and meeting you all.
    I have a triumphant story to share of the journey from shame and hate…to the oasis of compassion and forgiveness.
    My sisters and I were repeatedly abused and raped by several men in my mother’s life. It has taken me 20 years to find a place of forgiveness. Forgiving my mother and the perpetrators. Most importantly for forgiving my self and dismantling my core of self-hatred.
    I am currently writing a short novel telling my story by way of free association, illustration and poetic devices. It will be accompanied by a Forgiveness Journal workbook.
    Please let me know if I am welcome to attend your August event and speak briefly…5 minutes about by organization and forgiveness experience.
    Also, I think my story of child sexual abuse and sexual assault and domestic violence as an adult would be an important addition to your catalog of stories.
    I am a great and engaging speaker and I would love to be involved in your project.

    Please let me know your thoughts.

    Best to you,
    Tanya Byrd
    414-326-0507

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