Jayne Stewart (England)

“Can I forgive him for something he denies?”

Jayne and her brother were sexually abused by their father for many years. He denies that the abuse ever happened. As an adult, Jayne cut off all contact with her father, but in 1998 she decided to get back in touch with him and has continued to dialogue despite irreconcilable differences. Tragically, in 1999, Jayne’s brother committed suicide.

I was sexually abused by my father from when I was three until I was 12. I only survived the abuse by disassociating – my body stayed present but my conscious mind split off and ‘forgot’. But when my son was three, I began to recover my memories and in the end decided to confront my father. He denied the abuse and continues to do so. I survived the remembering, by splitting in a different way – I stopped all contact with my father.

At least that is the situation from my perspective; from my father’s perspective it looks very different. Out of the blue comes a false accusation of childhood sexual abuse, first from his daughter and then from his son. They cut off from him completely and deny him access to his grandchildren. He is reported to social services and questioned by the police. His son sends vindictive letters to him, his second wife and to members of his local community. He is afraid that he may lose his job, his second family and his place as a respected member of church and community. His son commits suicide and he is blamed and not allowed to go to the funeral.

Reconnecting with my father has not been an easy journey. For a long time I focused on my rage. I wanted revenge, to punish, even to kill. I made my father wholly bad, and ‘other’. But I wasn’t able to cut myself off totally. I began to grieve that this abuse was done to me not by a stranger, but by someone who also loved me, and I loved him.

I first decided to get back in touch with my father after a 5Rhythms Dance Workshop at which I realized I was trapped by the past and unable to move beyond feeling a powerless victim. That first meeting was a very positive experience. I told my father I had not changed what I believed, only what I was choosing to do with it. I was no longer a helpless victim, I made choices, I set boundaries and I spoke directly about my experience of the abuse, all things which were not possible as a child.

I invited my father to speak from within his belief system and asked him to allow me to do the same. I told him I knew that not all of what happened between us when I was a child was bad and that I also wanted to acknowledge the good bits. I suggested going for a walk and he agreed. Walking, we began to explore ways of communicating across our irreconcilable differences and have been doing so ever since.

Over the last eight years, fighting to establish the truth of what happened between us in the past has become less important to me than what happens now and in the future. At first when I started speaking out about my abuse, it was very important to me to be believed. Now I am less concerned about establishing my truth and more interested in how to relate positively across our irreconcilable differences. I spent a long time hating my father; now I am finding more creative ways to relate to him beyond the victim/perpetrator polarity. Making the shift beyond feeling a helpless victim of an unchangeable abuser is an awesome experience and has been personally healing both psychologically and spiritually.

In addition, when I am aware that this most private of oppressions between father and daughter is also part of a much bigger picture and that all of these issues relate not only to sexual abuse but also to all of the abuses that we perpetrate in the world, I feel less alone and more inspired to create something meaningful from my traumatic experiences that will also be healing for the world. I hope that together we can find new ways of resolving our conflicts that do not perpetuate cycles of revenge and violence, whether those conflicts are with our friends and family or carried out in our names by our political leaders or in the names of our spiritual traditions.

It is not an easy step to go beyond the polarity of victim and perpetrator; we tend to act as if the innocent and the guilty are totally separate. But victim and perpetrator, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, co-exist within each of us. My father was a good son to my grandmother, he is a well-respected member of his local community and he was both a good and an abusive father. Suicide bombers may also be good sons and fathers and well-respected members of their local communities.

Forgiveness is an interesting concept in relation to my father. I think forgiving is an ongoing process, which comes and goes and develops over time, rather than something that can be achieved once and for all. He says he has forgiven me for all the upset I have caused him by my ‘false accusation’. Can I forgive him for something he denies? The answer is both No and Yes. What my father did to me and to my brother is unforgivable, but I no longer need him to admit it or to pay for it in some way. I have reached a new place, a place beyond my painful history and towards a more sustainable future both for myself in my personal relationships and, I hope, for the world.

This story is not told in my own name; originally that decision was made for legal reasons. This is a charged issue: childhood sexual abuse is still such a taboo subject, and there is often a strong prohibition against telling anyone. Many of us keep silent for years, as the high-profile celebrity cases in the UK demonstrated. So whilst the abused child part of me feels relieved not to be identified, the writer/warrior/activist part feels aggrieved not to be able to stand proudly behind her words and actions.

Recently, however, a new thread is emerging: choosing not to use my own name in order to protect family members, including my father. Considering the impact my actions may have on others is one way I can bring in what was missing during the abuse, and is something we need to practise globally if we are to survive.