Last month I wrote about forgiveness after abuse. In keeping with that train of thought, I’d like to write about the apology many survivors of all types of abuse never receive. Would that apology make a difference? Would it somehow provide closure? Or would it simply reignite anger and hurt and seem insincere or not enough? Most of us will never know because abusers notoriously don’t admit to what they’ve done and fail to recognize the damage they have caused. They often go on and abuse other people, other children, at an alarming rate. Waiting for an apology, while deserved more than anything, can be torture in itself.
A while ago I learned that someone that abused me as a child passed away. I didn’t find out until months after the fact. I questioned family (those still in my life) and they said they knew nothing about it. I’m not sure what emotion I expected to have when I discovered this news. Relief, maybe. Some kind of joy because he could no longer harm children? Perhaps. But what I felt instead was anger bordering on rage.
I was angry that nobody told me he passed away. I was angry that he never faced jail time or true judicial consequences of any sort for what he did to me. I was angry that he continued to work in churches around children as a leader, as a pastor, long after he pled guilty and walked off with a misdemeanor. I was angry he wasn’t on any of the sex offender registries. And sure, I was angry for everything he did to me. But most of all? I was angry he never once apologized.
There is something especially sinister about an abuser that is a leader of any kind, even more so if that role of leadership is in a church. The power bestowed upon him is meant to be there so he can lead and serve as an effective leader, not manipulate and destroy. There are plenty examples of good leaders and those that are prime examples of great communicators in various roles from president to icons of social change. These people are who I looked to over the years when my past experience had me wondering if all power is corrupt and harmful.
To say that my early experience of abuse at the hands of a pastor did not affect my relationship with religion would be a lie. Of course it did. He took a young girl that was active at church and made her question everything she knew and had been taught about God. He often used God in his manipulations by telling me how God would approve, how God would want me to obey, and how God wouldn’t want me to hurt my Mom by telling her what was happening. This led me to be angry with God and wonder if He existed at all. Since then, it has been impossible for me to look at religion without that lense of survivor skepticism.
What he took from me was more than my religion, more than my innocence, and more than my childhood. He took the years and decades that followed. What happened to me as a child affected who I was throughout most of my young adult life. It impacted relationships and torpedoed my confidence and self-esteem. It wrecked my ability to trust and nearly destroyed my family. It gave me sleep problems and nightmares, depression and anxiety, flashbacks and other symptoms of PTSD. It was like poison fed to the roots of a tree- there was no branch or leaf unaffected by his actions.
To say that I was angry when he passed is not easy for me to admit. I can deal with most emotions effectively, but anger itself makes me uncomfortable. I am not an aggressive person and have come a very long way in healing after this trauma. But as women we are often taught that anger is bad, wrong, and unhealthy. Hopefully in the future the narrative will change to teaching our children and women that anger is a normal and often powerful emotion that must be expressed in a healthy way instead of muffled. It is this denial and suppression of anger that makes it so unhealthy, not the emotion itself.
So there I was, completely utterly and unequivocally angry. There was no denying it or suppressing it. It was there. I was so angry I cried. I was so angry I yelled. And underneath all of that anger, when it finally dissolved, was sadness for the apology I never got and will never get. Sadness for that trusting little girl that loved God and loved her preacher. Sadness for the many many following years where I battled to survive what had been done to that little girl.
In the end, the feeling that embraced me was acceptance. I know that an apology from that man would have never been enough. It wouldn’t have changed anything and it most definitely wouldn’t have given me closure. There was no way he could erase what he had done with words or understand the damage he had caused. So I learned to do what many survivors of abuse learn to do- I gave the apology to myself. Not because I was ever at fault, but because I wasn’t and neither were you. I accepted that apology I gave to myself. Eventually, maybe, I will learn to accept the apology I never got.
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“Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.” - Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar