Surviving Childhood Sexual Abuse

Editor’s Note: This is the six-part discussion of childhood sexual abuse from the Fall, 2008 issue of Christian Feminism Today inspired by Margaret Shelton Meier’s cantata “…but Joy Comes in the Morning: Choral Music by Margaret S. Meier.” The series includes Margaret Meier’s article about the cantata, a review of the CD by Linda Bieze, a panel discussion, and an additional discussion by each of the three panelists, therapist Sharon Billings, Faith Trust Insitute founder Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune, and psychiatrist Elizabeth S. Bowman.

An Empowering New Cantata Tells the Story

by Margaret Shelton Meier

This is the story of a difficult journey, but one that proved to be very blessed because of those who walked it with me and those whom I met along the way. As God is inseparable from my life and breath, so God’s hand and influence are inseparable from this journey.

When the journey was completed, I reviewed the steps I took along the way, which empowered me to create the most important musical composition I have ever written: a cantata for chorus, soprano soloist, and orchestra, titled A SOCSA Quilt. The word SOCSA is an acronym that I created for Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse; it is not the name of any organization that I am aware of.

I have been asked if my cantata was a way of working through my own sexual abuse. The answer is, “No.” It was written after I had worked through it.

During the days of pain involved in adult healing from my memories of childhood sexual abuse, I could not have brought the balance and overview needed to create this forty-minute composition that moves from fear, pain, isolation, and powerlessness; through courage, connection, and support; to self-affirmation and great joy flowing from a healed heart and sound mind. William Wordsworth once said that poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” That was certainly my experience.

The Composition Process
Although it has taken over a decade to find a way to have my cantata performed and recorded, A SOCSA Quilt was actually written during the five-year period from 1991 to 1996. These years were preceded by five years of my experiencing and dealing with repressed flashbacks of childhood sexual abuse during a time when California had 12-Step groups for sexual abuse survivors available in many cities. In these meetings, I heard the painful stories of dozens of victims, some of the stories beyond any cruelty I could have imagined.

It is sometimes easier for me to weep for others than for myself; and my heart was torn by what these people, some of whom became my friends, had endured. During my own healing process, I one day told Truman Barrett, my counselor, pastor, spiritual director and friend, “There is a scream in me that is so strong it would shatter the world if I let it escape.” His response: “You have a talent that will allow you to do that in a unique way!” The cries of pain in this cantata are my desire to express the cries of the millions who have been damaged by this never-ending “plague.”

As a composer of both instrumental and vocal music, when I cannot find words that are suitable for my thoughts and feelings, I write my own. The words for each “quilt block” are mine. When I compose a piece with text, the words must come first for me. Then the shape of the music follows the shape of the word phrases quite naturally. I have a greater struggle writing poetry than writing music.

The Design of the Composition
Gradually the cantata took shape. The design of a quilt seemed ideal to express a series of scenes or aspects of a single topic. Eight musical movements are the “quilt blocks,” each a unique scene, individual in musical mood and style. These are both separated and held together by a “fabric” of one color (to sustain the quilt metaphor). This “fabric” is a single musical theme with text from the Bible. The biblical text is a commentary upon the previous scene.

Part 1: Horror and Heartache

“We are the Children,” the first quilt block of Part 1, begins with a gentle flute melody repeated by the cellos. Soon it is restated by the clarinets playing seven notes apart, which creates a jarring and discordant sound. The gentle world of the child has been violated. The women sing:

“We are the children
who hide from ourselves.
In our dark only the pain remains.
The terror visits us at night
and leaves questions.”

This is followed by the commentary:

“Let the children come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:14)

The perpetrator appears in quilt blocks two and four, as the full orchestra plays dissonant chords and the men sing,

“If you tell, they won’t believe you.
“If you tell, they’ll think you’re crazy,
and they’ll send you to the crazy house.”

followed again by the commentary:

“Woe to him who causes one of my little ones to stumble.
It would be better for him
if a millstone were tied to his neck
And he were thrown in the sea.” (Mark 9:42)

(I once heard Maya Angelou asked why she only addressed the suffering of women and of African Americans. She said it was not that she did not care about other injustices, but that she had to speak from who she is, and she is an African American woman. Because my experience of and knowledge about sexual violation is that which occurs in “normal,” average, middle-class American families, and more often to girls, I speak from that perspective. However, much of the material in this cantata can be applied to other life traumas.)

Part 1 climaxes with that scream mentioned earlier and the biblical words,

“How can I go on living
When no one hears me?” (Job 6:11)

followed by the commentary—two conflicting messages sung at the same time:

“My God, rescue me. Deliver me from those who are wicked and cruel.” (Psalm 71:4)
“My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1)

Part 2. Healing and Hope

Part 2, “Healing and Hope,“ is a testimony to the faithfulness of God working through the support, encouragement, and affirmation offered by community, friendship, and group process.

While the overwhelming theme of Part 1 is isolation, Part 2 offers the support and shared experience of others as an antidote to isolation. In a way, this invites the listener to be a part of the healing.

The connecting movements of Part 2 have a more vigorous tune, riding with energy upon a repeated chord progression. Their titles are Truth, Love, and Comfort.

The first quilt block of Part 2 is an affirmation in rhythmic speech (sort of “classical rap”) shouted at the perpetrator.

“Take back the blame. I don’t deserve it.
Take it back!
Take back the shame
That’s so unnerved me.
Take it back!
This is my claim:
You are the one responsible.
You’re guilty! Take it back!
Take it Back!” ——-

The second quilt block is a gentle “Lullaby for the Wounded Child” with healing words set in a haiku form.

The penultimate movement of the entire cantata is the most exciting to me, because it rapidly reviews the story and also reprises some of the musical material. It begins,

“Wounded. Weak. Weary.
We are the women
who want to be whole.”

The women find and support each other and sing,

“We work to be strong.
We work to be well.
We work to recover.
We work to leave hell.”

until they are strengthened to declare,

“Now we stand here, hand in hand,
united in witness.”

Next, a spoken “rap” is accompanied by a free flowing soprano soloist just singing “Ah.”

“No longer afraid. I’ve no need to hide.
No longer ashamed.
I face life with pride.
Cherished and loved by our friends; souls of infinite worth,
Lovely at last in our own eyes,
we experience rebirth.”

This rolls directly into the exuberant final chorus, based on verses 5, 11, and 12 of Psalm 30 from which the album title is taken:

“Weeping may last through the night,
But Joy Comes in the Morning.”

Margaret Shelton MeierMargaret Shelton Meier received her Bachelor of Music degree from the Eastman School of Music and is the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in composition from UCLA (in 1983). She has taught at a number of universities in California’s two university systems and is currently a part-time professor at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, CA. Over a period of 30 years she has been director of music in eight churches, representing four denominations.

Dr. Meier’s compositions, which have been performed throughout the United States and in Europe, are in many genres: orchestral works, choral pieces, art songs, chamber music, opera, piano concerto, and piano and organ solos. Prior to this most recent CD, Meier has been professionally recorded on three Vienna Modern Masters and one Raven CD. Additional information is available at her website: Margaret Meier is an active member of EEWC’s Southern California chapter.

Article initially published in Christian Feminism Today Vol. 32, No. 3, Fall (October – December) 2008. © 2008 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus.

Challenging Music of Healing and Hope

Click here to order "...but Joy Comes in the Morning" from (EEWC-CFT receives a portion of the purchase price).

. . . but Joy Comes in the Morning:
Choral Music by Margaret S. Meier

Albany, NY: Albany Records
Troy 1026, released June, 2008.

reviewed by Linda Bieze

Editor’s Note: This article is part of the six-part discussion of childhood sexual abuse from the Fall, 2008 issue of Christian Feminism Today, which began with an article about Margaret Meier’s cantata on healing from childhood sexual abuse.

EEWC member Margaret Shelton Meier is a gifted composer of contemporary choral and instrumental music.  With a Ph.D. in music composition from UCLA, she knows more about counterpoint, harmonization, and orchestration than I can begin to grasp.  But Joy Comes in the Morning collects several choral works by Meier, including “A SOCSA Quilt,” from whose last movement the CD takes its title.  SOCSA is an acronym Meier devised that stands for Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse.

In addition to composing the music for these works, Meier wrote the text of what she calls each “quilt square” of “A SOCSA Quilt.” The squares are “bordered” by biblical texts that unite the whole.

This quilt of text and music is not a warm, cozy listening experience, though.  It is very challenging music and painful text, richly expressing the anger, despair, and, ultimately, courageous healing and hope of survivors of child sexual abuse.

In some ways, the piece reminds me of composer John Corigliano’s Symphony 1, “Of Rage and Remembrance,” written in memory of the friends he had lost to AIDS.  That piece premiered in 1991 and is still performed in concert settings.  Meier’s “Quilt” also could be performed in concerts, but the texts are so raw with emotion that I fear the piece will not be heard often.  Here, for example, are words sung by the women of the chorus, from Part 1: Horror and Heartache:

We are the beautiful, beautiful young girls.
We are the beautiful young, young girls,
Our senses aroused before their time,
Feelings confused.
We feel ashamed. We feel abandoned.
Please, be kind to us.
Take care of us, Please! Please! Please. Please.

The instrumentation throughout the piece is superb—brass, percussion, strings all used to emphasize the emotion of the words.  Chimes introduce the Scripture texts sung in Part 1, and an ascending melody introduces them in Part 2: Healing and Hope.

It is a blessing that the piece ends with healing and hope, after the horrors that victims of child sexual abuse have experienced and that we listeners have now endured with them.

In community, the survivors are able to find strength, Meier seems to be saying—and the final, majestic chorus uses the words of Psalm 30:5 to express that strength— that “Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes in the morning.”       Other selections on the CD are a setting of the Te Deum (“We Praise Thee, O God”) with brass ensemble that would be very suitable for use in a worship service, and settings of poems by Christina Rossetti (“Lifelong”) and Emily Dickinson (“After Great Pain.”).

Linda Bieze is a Midwest representative on the EEWC Council and is EEWC’s current coordinator. Choral music is one of her passions, and she sings weekly with the Sanctuary Choir of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

A Survivor  Shares Her Thoughts on the Cantata

Susan Campbell
Susan Campbell

EEWC member Susan Campbell, who was profiled in the Winter, 2008 issue of Christian Feminism Today (Vol. 32:1), is a columnist and reporter for the Hartford Courant and author of a new book, Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl (Beacon Press, January, 2009).

She is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and has frequently written about her experience and the topic in general.  She believes that breaking the silence is crucial if awareness,  justice, healing, and survivor empowerment are to occur.

Christian Feminism Today asked Susan what she thought of “But Joy Comes in the Morning.”  This was her reply:

“ . .but Joy Comes in the Morning” strikes me as one of the most honest and moving pieces of music I’ve ever heard. I applaud Margaret Shelton Meier in taking this difficult topic and giving it wings. My grandmother used to call this ‘turning bullets into butterflies.’ Meier has done that, masterfully.

“Though some passages may be difficult for survivors to hear—‘We Are the Children Who Hide’ is a tough, tough piece—the story unfolds at ‘Rescue Me’ and moves into victory by ‘God has not given us a spirit of fear.’ Whether you’re a survivor or someone who cares about survivors, this is a beautiful, beautiful piece.”

Review initially published in Christian Feminism Today Vol. 32, No. 3, Fall (October – December) 2008. © 2008 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus.

What We Need to Know about Childhood Sexual Abuse:
A Panel Discussion

 Editor’s Introduction: Christian Feminism Today editor Letha Dawson Scanzoni interviewed three professionals in the fields of mental health and religion to help us understand more about childhood sexual abuse. First, each was asked to answer the same three questions. Then each panelist was asked to answer separate questions geared to her particular area of counseling, research, and general expertise. (Sharon Billings was traveling and no longer had the cantata lyrics at hand so did not answer the first panel question.) Information about the panelists may be found at the end of the panel discussion. This article is part of the six-part discussion of childhood sexual abuse from the Fall, 2008 issue of Christian Feminism Today, which began with an article about Margaret Meier’s cantata about healing from childhood sexual abuse.

Panel Question 1.  Was there anything that particularly struck you in the way the “SOCSA Quilt” lyrics describe stages of  psychological pain and healing from childhood sexual abuse?

Marie FortuneMarie Fortune

First of all, let me give a general response. I rely on sacred music to nourish my soul.  But this is something more.   This music is sacred because it names “the unmentionable sin” in a corporate setting of church.  It does so in the midst of our faith tradition, using scripture to express and enlighten us along this dark and painful path.

In thinking about the lyrics, the notion of “theft” is critical. I have met with so many survivors who want to talk about “what they lost.”  I always ask them to think about what wasstolen from them.  That shifts the conversation to a real agent of harm who took something that was theirs, rather than their experience alone (such as losing their car keys in which there is no agent).

But Part I is the absolutely most important—naming the sin, the “unmentionable sin.”

Then in Part II, Healing and Hope, there is the agency of survivors, which is the most hopeful thing of all in the face of abuse.

Elizabeth Bowman, MDElizabeth Bowman

I was struck with the accuracy and  sophisticated knowledge of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) displayed throughout this work, and of the skillful representation of emotions in the vocal and instrumental music, showing the progression of the abuse and the developmental process of the victim on the path to becoming a survivor.

This cantata was extremely accurate in depicting the threats used by abusers to silence victims, progressing chronologically from threats of death toward younger children to threats of being judged crazy, typically used against adolescents.  I found psychological realism and skillful musical symbolism in the depiction of isolation, terror, confusion, and despair in CSA victims, and the chronological depiction of the move from isolation and fear (wailing solos, energetic scores, and rapid throbbing tympani “heartbeats”), through silence and confusion (vocalizations of distress without words) to anger (energetic group chants), to empathy for the wounded self (soothing lullaby), and the increasing depiction of connection of the survivor to others (upbeat choruses and triumphant tympani) as the survivor moves from remembering trauma to connecting again with life. The therapeutic movements are subtle and realistic.

Nearly all the stages of recovery from CSA are depicted here, in the general order of their occurrence: terror, pain, hiding, guilt, shame, silence, despair, breaking silence, anger and disavowal of the perpetrator’s guilt, self-empathy, grief, tentative hope for healing, stronger connections to others, demands for justice in solidarity with other survivors, self worth, and the restoration of capacity for joy and empathy for others. The capability of the survivor to care for others occurs in the closing lines before the last piece. The performers address the audience, thank them for hearing and believing their story, and tell them not to deny or ignore CSA; it could have happened to them or might be happening next door.

The entire cantata mirrors the stages of trauma therapy: stabilization, remembering and mourning trauma, then reconnection to life, self, and others.

The one selection I found somewhat out of chronological order was the opening piece of section II, “Take it Back!”  This disavowal of the perpetrator’s guilt is necessary in treatment, but usually is not the first piece of work accomplished by survivors. This piece was realistic in portraying rising anger as healing begins.

I was most impressed by the skillful matching of lyrics with musical tone, types of instruments and voices to evoke the emotions of abuse victims and experiences of survivors in therapy.  The symbolism is subtle, but powerful and effective. The  musical form consistently matched the stage of recovery to convey a coherent whole.

Panel Question 2.  Based on your experience of working with persons who have been sexually abused as children, what might be some possible reactions to this cantata?   Do you believe that when performances of this work are announced, a warning might be useful similar to the one that the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD) posts to accompany an online gallery of drawings and paintings by persons who have suffered trauma and whose art expresses “themes of coping, hope, and healing”?  That warning states: Please be aware that the images on the following pages may be disturbing or offensive to some individuals. These images may trigger uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, or memories in people who have experienced trauma.  (ISSTD Gallery of Inspiration)    

Sharon BillingsSharon Billings

One reaction was stated to me by a friend, when we listened together.  She said she had completed that piece of her life and had zero desire to wade through those emotions again. Music being so powerful, she particularly resisted the genre (being a musician herself).

If one attended a performance of this work, she or he could abruptly depart the venue without explanation for self or others.

For those living in a memory-repressed state, convulsive emotional response could ensue (sobbing, agitation, inability to sit still, soft crying throughout, total withdrawal leading to silence, possible depression), catching themselves and their companions completely unaware.  I recall an adult male client who for all his years of parenting developed inner hysteria whenever his children batted about a balloon or climbed into bed with him and his wife.

Yes, I absolutely believe that a carefully worded explanation would need to accompany every advertisement of a performance, both verbally and in print.

Marie FortuneMarie Fortune

I think that there will be strong reactions of grief and anger, of relief and appreciation.  Telling the story and naming the injustice is so important for survivors!

It is very important that survivors be alerted to the contents of the cantata so that they can be fully informed and make a choice about engaging with it. Many survivors have worked hard on their own healing and know their limits. They also know what experiences might be helpful to them. There could be a statement like this: “For your information: If you are a survivor of sexual abuse, be aware that the cantata describes one survivor’s experience from victimization to healing. You may find this difficult or helpful.”

Elizabeth Bowman, MDElizabeth Bowman

When the words can be clearly discerned, this is an emotionally powerful cantata. Unfortunately, understanding the lyrics is a challenge. I first listened to this CD without the words available to read while I was driving my car. I could feel the emotional power, but became bored with being unable to hear what it was about. The CD recording by the Mt. San Antonio College Chamber Singers rendered the lyrics unintelligible. When I was able to listen to it while reading the lyrics from the CD liner, however, I was quite moved and impressed.

CSA survivors are likely to have two reactions to the cantata:

First, from survivors who have healed, a likely response would be relief and satisfaction at having their experiences named and recognized with accurate empathy and an emphasis on recovery and healing.

Second, from unhealed survivors or those early in recovery, reactions of sadness, anger, intense horror or anxiety may occur, with possible panic attacks or flashbacks of trauma during performances or in the ensuing days. Dissociation of memory (amnesia or numbing of emotions) during the performance or nightmares of trauma afterwards are a quite possible outcome for unhealed survivors with posttraumatic stress disorder.

Therefore, I would heartily recommend public performances of this cantata be accompanied by a caveat for those who may find this cantata triggers overwhelming memories and feelings about trauma. Music powerfully evokes emotions. The combined power of the music (especially the tympani) and the realistic lyrics could be a potent trigger for flashbacks of abuse, even for those in long-term recovery.  If the unhealed CSA victim can get through Part I, the triumphant hope of Part II might uplift sagging spirits, infuse hope, and give a glimpse of the road to recovery ahead.

Panel Question 3.  What are some ways we as Christian feminists can help in creating awareness of the issue and aiding in the healing of persons who have been abused?

Sharon BillingsSharon Billings

Inviting people to tell their stories is a first step. Listen, listen, listen—did I say listen? However, the listener must, must, must be a safe container emotionally for the content. This is a tough topic, difficult to conceptualize— even more difficult the closer the relationship is between the two parties and the perpetrator.

Speakers need to repetitively share  details, even though hearers often prefer only the outlines and inwardly shrink from repetitions.  As the audience (listener), that means we need to develop awareness of the stages of our response: from denial through resistance to discomfort, and finally, non-judgmental acceptance. Only then are we a sufficiently safe companion for the sufferer.       While we are still in any of the reactive stages, it is kinder to recuse ourselves.

Once we believe—having waded through our stages of disbelief or judgment—we can then create opportunities for both education and healing: recovery groups, lectures, writing venues, art therapy experiences, and so on.

Our greatest contribution is to accept without requiring the victim to satisfy our curiosities, uncertainties. Every skeptical expression or vocalization on our part is an additional wound to the person speaking.

Marie FortuneMarie Fortune

We need to continue to name the sin in Christian settings and to press churches to open their eyes and their hearts to survivors.

I would love to see the Cantata performed somewhere like the National Cathedral for April Sexual Abuse Awareness Month, for example.  Or some other prominent venue where it could be a part of a public awareness effort.

I am working with a group now called CounterQuo, who are trying to raise public awareness of sexual assault and abuse issues.  I would think they might be interested in cosponsoring something with FaithTrust Institute.

Elizabeth Bowman, MDElizabeth Bowman

We can:

(1)  Educate our pastors privately about childhood sexual abuse in Christian homes and churches.

(2)  Ask our pastors to preach a compassionate sermon on child abuse or domestic violence.

(3)  Ask pastors to mention survivors of childhood abuse, adult domestic violence, and rape in their public prayers for healing.

(4)  Mention CSA survivors ourselves when we pray publicly.

(5)  Lead or invite local experts to lead an adult Sunday School class or series of classes on child abuse in our communities. Discuss theological implications of such abuse in Christian churches and homes.

(6)  Donate to our church libraries books on child abuse and other violence in churches and Christian homes.  Ensure the congregation knows the titles of these donations.

(7)  Form a prayer group in a private home to pray for survivors of child abuse in our congregations, and let the congregation know the group is for anyone— survivors, supporters of survivors, or those interested in learning more about childhood abuse.  Offer social and prayer support to survivors in these prayer groups.

(8)  Ask the church to approve a policy that at least two adults must be present at all times children are engaged with adults in church activities.

(9)  Help establish a church fund for financial assistance to needy church members seeking mental health care for childhood abuse or adult domestic violence.

(10)  Make information about domestic violence shelters available in the women’s restrooms of the church.

(11)  Lead a short-term Bible study on violence and victimization in the Bible.

(12)  Advocate with legislators and secular and religious policy makers for adequate funding of shelters and protection for abused children.

Sharon Billings, M.A. is a marriage and family therapist and spiritual director. She lives in Sacramento, California and is a longtime member and former coordinator of EEWC.

Elizabeth S. Bowman, M.D. is a psychiatrist in private practice in Indianapolis, Consulting Psychiatrist for the Indiana University Epilepsy Clinic, Adjunct Professor of Neurology, and former Professor of Psychiatry at the Indiana University School of medicine. She is the former coeditor of the Journal of Trauma and Dissociation.

Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune is the founder and senior analyst at the FaithTrust Institute in Seattle, Washington (formerly known as The Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence), an international, multifaith training and educational organization. She is a graduate of Yale Divinity School, a minister in the United Church of Christ, an educator, ethicist, theologian, and author of many books on sexual ethics, sexual and domestic violence, and abuse by religious leaders. She has served on task forces on violence against women and domestic violence for the U.S. Justice Department and the Department of Defense. She is also editor of the Journal of Religion and Abuse.

Article initially published in Christian Feminism Today Vol. 32, No. 3, Fall (October – December) 2008. © 2008 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus.

A Further Discussion with Sharon Billings

Sharon responds to further questions from Christian Feminism Today editor Letha Dawson Scanzoni

Scanzoni:  Margaret Meier’s cantata lyrics speak about an abuse victim’s feeling spoiled, ashamed, and abandoned.    How do you help clients who express such feelings to you?

Billings: First, I’m Rogerian—I listen and mirror back the feelings they express until they appear to have completed that recitation. It can recur or re-enter conversation at length.

Second, education. Shame is an external assignment, and we work forward toward present-time internal definitions of self, assigning the shame to the perpetrator—not the victim. Many lies and mistaken beliefs must be confronted, as they are often held in the child’s consciousness, laid down at the time of the perpetration.

With each condition, I attempt (through imagery, metaphor, and relaxation exercises) to link abused persons to healthy truths, plus possibilities in their current lives.

In my experience, for females the hardest to heal is the feeling of being soiled, spoiled, and internally damaged through penetration and ejaculation. This “dirtiness” deeply grieves many, and I work with sensory activities to generate new body sensations, using as many layered sensory stimuli simultaneously as possible. For example: warm bath, candlelight, music, fragrance, maybe chocolate, fruit, some other taste. Some prefer wine.

Another sensory layering focuses on  body strength, thus creating the sense of power to fight back, I recommend variations of the martial arts, etc. with appropriate clothing, an instructor, a mirror to see the self improve, and sounds—both recorded and spoken—to affirm strength. Whatever the venue, embodiment of strength is the goal.

Scanzoni:  What do these survivors long for most?  What are ways that you have found to be helpful in dealing with their pain and meeting their needs for understanding, compassion, and empathy?

Billings:  Saying YES to their self report. Inviting them to say more, indicating I can hear the details if and when they should choose to speak. Agreeing with every nuance of pain they report, acknowledging that “yes,” this is exactly how it would feel in their circumstances. I think I am being redundant, but the point I want to emphasize is that victims long to be heard and believed.

The ultimate reality for which we aim is that they would hear and believe themselves. But they practice that outcome on and in the midst of others. We can think of it as a type of skill building—practice, practice, practice. Hearing themselves into speech. as we can now declare it.

I have to listen longer than they need to talk. I schedule extra or longer sessions, take their phone calls as often as possible, invite them to call and hear my voice on the phone, leaving me any message they choose, thus to feel connected.

They need a new reality. And in the mirror of our eyes, faces, and voice, they can see and hear a new reality and can form a current, compassionate, healthy view of self  to replace the rejection and abhorrence now in residence.

I affirm every feeling they declare as something they are experiencing now.  I provide promise that we can grow from this state of feeling into something different. We use literature, healing autobiographies, to name things that they might not be ready yet for me to introduce—thereby leading their thinking without the risk of my sounding contradictory to what they are now experiencing.

Scanzoni:  Have you led support groups where abuse survivors can feel free to express their honest feelings and where they can know others understand and are not judging them?   What has been your experience in working with such groups.

Billings: Grouping survivors, when they are intact enough to share, is a primary source for support, healing, and strength. Speaking their story to witnesses strengthens their recovery and sense of a functioning self in the present.

But it is sensitive placement, as any abreaction by one person can trigger reactions in others. Survivors need a certain distance from their pain before grouping is positive. Primarily, a group affirms one’s self-report and holds out hope, plus it offers some suggested interventions for periods of challenge.

It is a delicate assignment for the therapist and requests professional maturity.

Scanzoni:  The cantata lyrics show a turning point in which feelings of shame and guilt give way to anger and acknowledgement that it is the offender who is to blame.  Could you please comment on why this step is so empowering for those who have suffered childhood sexual abuse?

Billings: Until we can own our own strength, we are still subject to victimization, sexual and otherwise, both in our memory and in our present life. Anger is empowering, providing energy to change things.

In my work with persons who have been abused, we practice angry feelings and language until we can embrace and use the word NO— fluently. Anger can segue into fighting back, and at some level each victim requires the power to stop the perpetrator in imagery, thus freeing each from the extended impact of the original crime.

Scanzoni: How can religious teachings be either helpful or harmful in counseling persons who have been abused? 

Billings:  The client, not the therapist, must be the one to introduce religious symbols. This will guide the therapist in how they are being applied. The primary struggle is this: “Where was God when I needed protection?”  Who has the answer to that question?

I watch and listen for places where spiritual light is expressed by the speaker and then join that concept, supporting their present meaning. Then I look for tangential concepts that will align with their belief. I think I never presume any meanings for the client—this can be such volatile territory.

When permitted, we search together for spiritual exercises of diverse nature that can supplement the client’s healing.

Primarily, I find in Christendom that religion is often used amiss and causes the client to retreat further, feeling misunderstood. God will open a way if the therapist is sensitive, attuned, and open to versatility.

Sharon Billings, M.A. is a marriage and family therapist and spiritual director. She lives in Sacramento, California.

Article initially published in Christian Feminism Today Vol. 32, No. 3, Fall (October – December) 2008. © 2008 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus.

A Further Discussion with Marie Fortune

Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune responds to further questions from Christian Feminism Today editor Letha Dawson Scanzoni

Scanzoni:  You have worked with sexual offenders, including clergy and others in positions of authority, as well as with victims of abuse.  What do we need to know about these offenders? 

Fortune:  They are complicated.  But the bottom line is that they are persons who either desire or do not hesitate to take advantage of those who are vulnerable in order to exercise control and meet their own needs.  They may be manipulative or violent, crude or subtle—but most often are persons known to the victim, having developed a trusting relationship of some kind that gives them access.  Then they take advantage of this trust and betray it.

Scanzoni:  Usually, we think of sexual offenders as being male. Have you dealt with any incest or other sexually abusive situations where the abusers were female?

Fortune: Yes, a few.  It is statistically less common, but nonetheless, there are female offenders.  With teachers or coaches, it seems to be a matter of using their power position to take advantage of teenage students.  With clergywomen, the situation usually arises with those who have poor boundaries and wander into inappropriate relationships they regard as “mutual,” again disregarding the power differential.

The issues are the same; the harm is the same.

Scanzoni:  In your May 31, 2007 blog post titled, “Don’t forgive us so quickly,” you told of a time when you were called to help with a court-ordered treatment program for 27 incest offenders, most of whom were Christians.  They told you, “Whenever you talk with church people, tell them not to forgive us so quickly.”  You warned Christian congregations to steer clear of cheap grace and also stressed the importance of being part of the “management” of sexual offenders who are released into the community.  Could you elaborate on the points you made in that post?

Fortune: “Forgiveness” is the immediate default response of most Christian congregations when it is disclosed that one among them has offended against someone.  And it is supposedly biblical.

In fact, Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness builds on his understanding of Judaism and ethics which expects repentance from an offender who has caused harm to another.  In Luke 17:1-4, Jesus is clear that repentance is a prerequisite for forgiveness.

Then forgiveness is never about “forgive and forget” for the victim/survivor.  In the midst of justice and healing (see below), the survivor is freed to forgive, to put her/his memories on the shelf for future reference, but then to move on with their lives.

Scanzoni: Much of your work involves training religious leaders and congregations on awareness of domestic and sexual violence and how to recognize and deal with it as persons of faith.  What are some specific religious aspects of the problem that need to be addressed?

Fortune:  The fundamental issue for faith leaders and congregations is to understand that religious texts and teachings will be either a roadblock or a resource that leads to healing for victims and accountability and repentance for perpetrators.

So our task is to preach and teach a message that brings to the fore the resources of our faith in naming the sin, supporting the victim/survivor, and confronting the perpetrator.

Scanzoni  You have written much about clergy ethics and the importance of establishing and maintaining boundaries in relation to parishioners.  Could you tell us more about that?

Fortune:   Healthy boundaries are what free the pastor to be of help to the parishioner and to protect the vulnerability of the parishioner in the process.   This is based on an understanding that the parishioner by definition has less power than the faith leader because of the difference in role.  This acknowledgement of the difference in role is never license for the faith leader to dominate or exploit the parishioner but rather a recognition that they are not peers and that the pastoral relationship, in order to have integrity, requires healthy boundaries— especially in regard to sexuality and intimacy.

At FaithTrust Institute, we keep both justice and healing uppermost in mind. We teach that there are seven aspects of the process that most victim/survivors experience that can support their healing.  These are experiences of justice.

The process involves:

A victim’s chance to tell the story: to name the sin and share their experience.

Someone to “hear” the story:  to believe and acknowledge the harm done and the fact that the victim is not to blame.

A compassionate response to the victim:  i.e. to “suffer with,” to walk with the person rather than try to “problem solve” immediately.

An effort to protect the vulnerable from further harm:  not only the victim, but others as well who may be at risk from this perpetrator.  (This is often a high priority for survivors.)

Accountability for the perpetrator:  the community confronts and calls this person to repent.

Restitution:  some mechanism to insure that a survivor is compensated, if possible, for the material loss she/he may have experienced as a result of victimization.

Vindication:  just as the widow in Luke 18:1-8 receives vindication from the unjust judge, the survivor deserves to be vindicated which literally means “to be set free” from the burden of this experience.

This is what can happen when any of these experiences of justice are made possible for the community around the survivor.  This is our work.

So what I like about the cantata is that the author describes her experience of justice—including writing and performing the cantata so that she comes to a place at the end where she can affirm that “joy comes in the morning.”  But not without effort on her part and the part of the community she lives in.

Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune is the founder and senior analyst at the FaithTrust Institute in Seattle, Washington (formerly known as The Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence), an international, multifaith training and educational organization. She is a graduate of Yale Divinity School, a minister in the United Church of Christ, an educator, ethicist, theologian, and author of many books on sexual ethics, sexual and domestic violence, and abuse by religious leaders. She has served on task forces on violence against women and domestic violence for the U.S. Justice Department and the Department of Defense. She is also editor of the Journal of Religion and Abuse.

Article initially published in Christian Feminism Today Vol. 32, No. 3, Fall (October – December) 2008. © 2008 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus.

A Further Discussion with Elizabeth S. Bowman

Elizabeth Bowman responds to further questions from Christian Feminism Today editor Letha Dawson Scanzoni

Scanzoni:  Could you explain to us what dissociation is and why children who are sexually abused sometimes dissociate?

Bowman:  Dissociation is splitting of conscious awareness that enables the mind to keep emotions, events, and physical sensations out of awareness in a separate part of the mind. Dissociation is the mental escape people take when physical escape from an intolerable situation is not possible.

The trauma theory holds that abused children dissociate to escape intolerable physical or emotional pain from abuse.

The betrayal trauma theory posits that children dissociate knowledge of sexual abuse by parents because of the strong biological need of children to remain close (be psychologically attached) to a caregiver for safety and survival. Knowing that a caregiver is frightening or dangerous creates a bind for the child who needs to approach the caregiver. Amnesia for the abuse leaves the child free to maintain attachment.

The sociocognitive theory, held by some cognitive therapists and by an organization of parents accused of childhood sexual abuse, holds that dissociated memories of child sexual abuse are an artifact of suggestions by naïve therapists to suggestible patients.

Scanzoni:  Why do the memories of childhood sexual abuse sometimes “go underground” and emerge many years later in adulthood?   What are some ways the repressed memories might manifest themselves even before they are recognized?

Bowman: As explained in question one, completely dissociated memories are not available to consciousness while the child is dependent on parents for nurture and survival. After the child is an independent adult, physical and psychological safety motivations for keeping memories dissociated diminish in strength, allowing the person to possibly tolerate their return to consciousness.  Such repressed or dissociated memories often emerge when a strong reminder enables the person to connect consciousness to the neural networks in their brain that store those memories.

One strong reminder is the parent’s experience of their own children at the age the parent was when their own abuse started. Other reminders include: seeing movies or TV shows about incest or rape, becoming sexually active, encountering smells, people, or places reminiscent of the abuse, anniversary reactions of severe abuse, or the death of the abuser of whom they were still unconsciously frightened.

Repressed memories can manifest themselves indirectly in physical sensations of pain, nausea, vomiting, gagging, or other symptoms that represent return of some physical memories of abuse experiences. Other indirect manifestations of sexual abuse memories include strong unexplained fear or disgust reactions to sex or reminders of abuse (smells, sights, sounds, or particular sexual activities), persistent unexplained insomnia or nightmares, persistent physically unexplained sexual disinterest, inability to experience orgasm or painful intercourse, or inability to tolerate the presence of the abuser.

No single symptom exists that is a certain indication of repressed memories of sexual abuse. Usually a combination of symptoms exist.

Scanzoni:  What are some ramifications of memories that are recovered long after the sexually abusive incidents occurred?  (Ramifications for survivors, perpetrators, and families.)

Bowman: Ramifications of recovered sexual abuse for survivors can include intense feelings of horror, terror, physical pain, humiliation, shame, insomnia, anxiety, depression, re-experiences (flashbacks) of the abuse, anger at abusers, deep sadness over the damage to the survivor’s life, sexual dysfunction, disrupted intimacy with partners, and inability (at least initially) to keep a relationship with the perpetrator(s).

Many survivors develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after recovering memories.  Eventually, survivors who are appropriately treated recover and regain joy, peace, and self-esteem. A few can re-unite with family perpetrators, especially in those uncommon cases where the abuser takes responsibility and apologizes.

Ramifications for incestuous perpetrators vary, depending on their reaction and how the survivor handles disclosure of their abuse. Most abusers deny the accuracy of the recovered memories. Some sue the survivor or her/his therapist for slander. Some assault or threaten to kill or smear the reputation of their accuser.  Some extrude the survivor from the family, leading to permanently broken relationships. Some polarize family members as they gather allies in denying the abuse allegation and labeling the survivor as “crazy.”   A few apologize or admit privately to their spouse, the survivor, or family that the abuse occurred. Many minimize it, deny its significance, or rationalize the abuse as their right or as helpful to the survivor.

The survivor’s family of adulthood is often affected financially by the cost of therapy and by the survivor’s diminished ability to work during times of extreme distress. The family may be affected emotionally by the survivor’s disrupted sleep, emotional reactivity, and diminished capability for intimacy.

Members of the family of adulthood may also experience intense anger at perpetrators and want to cut off their relationship with them or keep them from unsupervised contact with the survivor’s children.

Scanzoni:  What are some ways that  you, as a psychiatrist specializing in trauma, treat patients who come into your practice for therapy as they deal with recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse?

Bowman: The primary treatment is psychotherapy, usually individual, but sometimes with couple’s sessions to help spouses or domestic partners with questions and coping.  Psychotherapy for recovered memories of trauma should occur in three stages, beginning with physical, social, and emotional stabilization of the survivor, then exploration of returned memories and their attendant emotions, and finally assistance with reconnecting to life, self, and relationships. Plunging into exploration of trauma before stabilizing the survivor can do more harm than good.

Psychotherapy for recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse is usually lengthy (minimum one year of weekly or twice-weekly sessions, with a typical course of two to three years when treatment is complicated by coexisting mental illnesses or ongoing life stresses).

I also use hypnosis to help survivors build ego strength and to help them temporarily keep recovered memories from continual awareness, to slow the rate of memory recovery, or to control nightmares between therapy sessions.

I don’t recommend using hypnosis for recovering repressed memories; it carries the risk of unwittingly contaminating the memory with subtle suggestion.  I use EMDR (eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing), a therapy technique of bilateral alternating stimulation of the two sides of the brain for speeding processing of trauma memories with less duration of emotional or physical pain.

In persons with significant coexisting depression, severe anxiety, or intolerable insomnia, I use antidepressant medications or short-term sleeping medications.  These techniques work for all trauma work, regardless of whether memories were recovered or continuously available.

One last word about the cantata: Throughout this work, I was impressed with the skillful use of scripture to show progression from anger at being abandoned by God to finally being able to affirm God as a “good object” who reliably comforts survivors.  This realistically represents actual therapy where spirituality must be healed from the devastation of abuse.

Elizabeth S. Bowman, M.D. is a psychiatrist in private practice in Indianapolis, Consulting Psychiatrist for the Indiana University Epilepsy Clinic, Adjunct Professor of Neurology, and former Professor of Psychiatry at the Indiana University School of medicine. She is the former coeditor of the Journal of Trauma and Dissociation.

Article initially published in Christian Feminism Today Vol. 32, No. 3, Fall (October – December) 2008. © 2008 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus.

The Christian Feminism Today website addresses topics of interest to Christian feminists. It features articles, opinion pieces, reviews of books and recordings (audio and video), interviews with Christian women and men who live according to Christian feminist principles and promote gender equality, love, and social justice among all people. We welcome submissions for consideration. Writer's guidelines are here.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.