The Common Good
July-August 1995

Companions of Comfort

by Linda Crockett | July-August 1995

Healing for survivors of sexual abuse and war

"The heart of war is rape."

I was in El Salvador on a Project Via Crucis delegation when I first heard these words in 1989. They were shared with me by a friend as assurance that I was not going crazy.

I was frustrated and frightened. The nightmares, headaches, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, and intrusive memory fragments of rape and childhood sexual abuse that I began to experience after my first trip to El Salvador two years before were becoming progressively worse. Thoughts about my mother's suicide a long time ago were on my mind with increasing frequency.

At the same time, I was working hard to help build the Project Via Crucis solidarity network, as well as hold down a full-time job and raise two teen-age sons. I was angry with myself for not having better control over what was happening inside of me. I wanted to direct my energy to the Salvadoran struggle-not focus on my own pain.

Although I did not yet comprehend it, my entry into accompaniment of the Salvadoran poor in the context of war had triggered an activation of the interior conflictive zones that are the inheritance of every untreated survivor of childhood sexual abuse. A child who is sexually abused learns to survive in a war zone. Unprotected, she is subject to psychological, physical, and spiritual destruction-particularly when the abuse occurs within the context of her family.

In 1989, I had conscious memory of being raped when I was 12 by an acquaintance, and of being molested during the course of an entire summer when I was 5 by an older teen-age cousin and two of his friends. I never talked about these experiences, minimizing their significance and impact. I was unaware that other, more profoundly painful memories of sexual abuse at the hands of my mother lay deeply buried behind the walls I built as a child in order to survive.

I did know that something deep inside me was badly broken. It seemed that if I just concentrated on the work in El Salvador, somehow I could keep from facing the pain that kept surfacing. I journaled each night, reflecting on what it means to see God through the eyes of the poor, sometimes working through political analysis as I followed the trail of blood and tears from El Salvador to Washington, D.C.

Suddenly, as though my mind had disconnected from my hand, I would be writing about being badly hurt as a child, with no one to help or comfort me; wishing I could be invisible; wrapping myself in an imaginary world to escape from the reality in which our family lived. I wrote about how it felt when my father stopped holding me or touching me after discovering that my cousin had molested me, withdrawing as though I had suddenly become unclean. I was disturbed and ashamed when I found myself writing about these things in my journal. I believed they had no place there.

I did not yet understand that the God who accompanies the poor is also the God of raped children.

ONE DAY, I VISITED a Salvadoran community of people who were displaced by the war. They struggled to survive on a scrap of land at the edge of a conflict zone. Many of them were living under shelters of plastic and tin.

The Salvadoran armed forces had come to the community one day, rounded up all of the people, and interrogated them, accusing them of being part of the FMLN. After a few days of occupation and harassment, the military finally left-taking with them all of the food and the few tools the community had. They also took some prisoners, one of whom was an old woman.

She was imprisoned and badly tortured for several months. The military eventually released and returned her to the community as a living reminder of their power-the trauma of the torture had seriously damaged her mind. She could no longer function. She was filled with guilt and pain, because under torture she had made false confessions, agreeing that she and everyone else her torturers named in the community were connected to the FMLN.

The woman could not sleep at night; she stumbled from shelter to shelter, begging forgiveness from each family she might have betrayed. I asked the people, What did you do? What happened to this woman?

I will never forget the answer given by one of the community leaders. A lay catechist in a worn and faded shirt-a humble man full of faith-replied, "We healed her. It cost us a lot, but we healed her."

He said they knew she needed to be listened to, and they knew she needed to be held. They organized themselves so that someone was with her 24 hours a day. She was never left alone. They talked to her, encouraging her to spill out the pain, the rage, the grief. They held her like a child and let her cry. Eventually, she recovered from her trauma.

Her healing was costly for the community. Their survival depended upon the labor of each person in the fields where a meager crop grew. Every day that someone sat with the woman was a day of lost labor, which meant less food. And they had no assurance that the time they were investing in her healing would yield fruit and restore her to them. But they did it-with love, patience, and faith in a God who walks with those who have no one else to depend on, and who cry out for justice.

The people in communities like this in El Salvador gave me the courage and the context in which to begin to remember and heal from my own traumas of rape and childhood sexual abuse. In El Salvador, I began making the connections between the violence of war and of rape.

IN ORDER TO DROP a bomb on a community, for example, the military must objectify the target, finding a way to make the children, women, and men who will be killed less than human. In El Salvador, people were dehumanized by being labeled as communist or subversive. To sexually abuse a child or to rape an adult requires the same mental process-the perpetrator must find a way to dehumanize the victim.

An essential component for war and incest is justification. Presidents justify their wars. Parents who abuse their children find ways to justify their acts to themselves, while denying the harm and often the reality to the rest of the world. Usually, the reality is denied even within the family. Incest and low-intensity conflict share much common ground-they both thrive on lies, secrecy, and silence. At the center of each lies an abuse of power.

Part of the solidarity movement's work has been to expose the torture, the repression, and the slaughter of civilians in Central America that was paid for with U.S. tax dollars-to name and challenge our corporate abuse of power. In various ways we defend human rights and expose violations to the light of international publicity.

But within the context of a family, a child has virtually no human rights. There is no Amnesty International to take statements from children and denounce what is done to them under the pretext of parental authority. Unlike political prisoners who are tortured by sadistic strangers, a victim of incest is tortured by the very person she depends on for love, nurture, security, and life itself.

Therapists working with Vietnam War veterans who are experiencing flashbacks and a host of other psychological problems years after the war have begun to recognize the similarities between the effects of the trauma of war and the trauma of sexual abuse. When the violator of a child is a parent, the trauma absorbed is similar to torture within the context of long-term captivity.

Survivors of sexual abuse often suffer from post-traumatic stress. Defenses used by the child to survive-dissociation, numbing of emotions, repression of memories-can't be turned off when the abuse stops. What was once essential for survival becomes detrimental to life and health in adult years.

The validity of repressed traumatic memories lately has been a point of public controversy. On television and in national magazines, people debate whether to believe the memories of adult survivors of sexual abuse. Despite decades of research documenting repression of memories as a common response to the trauma of sexual abuse, and studies in which even conservative conclusions are that as many as one in four women in this country are molested before the age of 18, the small percentage of survivors' memories that are false are held up as examples of the unreliability of most traumatic memories.

This kind of distortion was perpetrated by much of the mainstream media during the '80s in regard to Central America. For example, it was clear to those of us who worked in El Salvador that the armed forces, and the death squads under their control, were the major violators of human rights and responsible for most of the civilian deaths. Yet to fit into the ideology of the Soviet Communist threat in Central America, it was necessary for the government-and the media-to portray acts of abuse of power by the FMLN as being in the same category as the systematic destruction of the poor by the Salvadoran military.

Similarly, to talk about incest, particularly when it occurred within an outwardly respectable middle-class family, threatens the ideology of family. This provokes a powerful reaction from various forces who prefer to maintain an idealized portrait of the American family.

True, there are instances of memories of abuse being invalid-an example is the highly publicized case of the young man who accused a Catholic Cardinal of molesting him while he was a seminary student, then recanted. But to hold up this incident and a few others and use them to question the validity of all memories of abuse is to ignore the evidence and distort reality. Worse, it has the chilling effect of making it even harder for survivors of trauma to heal. As a society, we are no more willing to take the side of adult survivors of abuse than we are to take the side of the poor in Central America and our city streets, or to take the side of children.

I am saddened, but not surprised, at the current backlash against abuse survivors. But I worry how most people who are struggling to heal from abuse will survive in a culture that is so hostile to hearing about their experience. If a survivor has no political context, no way of knowing that this backlash against her is part of a broad cultural and political defense mechanism, she is likely eventually to deny her own history-and holders of power will rewrite it for her, just as they rewrote the story of 500 years of exploitation in Central America to be a tale of achievement and glory for Europe and the United States.

WITHOUT A STRONG model of hope in the face of intolerable suffering, I would not have survived the re-emergence of painful memories. El Salvador opened me to my own pain and also gave me what I needed to face my suffering and heal.

In Salvadoran communities I learned about protesting injustice and defending human rights. I learned the importance of knowing my own history. And I learned how to ask for accompaniment when I need it. I found a skilled therapist, and I asked members of my community to be with me in my pain as I struggled to heal.

As I have walked in the wilderness of healing these past few years, I have become convinced that there are many of us within the North American solidarity communities who need to make our own healing and liberation as much a priority as the struggle for justice in Central America. Sexual abuse survivors within our human rights networks have not yet dared to name their own experience as a fundamental violation of their human rights. People who are gay or lesbian feel compelled to hide their orientation, some fearing that their effectiveness in the church-based solidarity movements will be compromised. Others struggle alone with addictions, dysfunctional relationships, and broken dreams.

We are skilled in advocating for others, in listening to Central American testimonies, but we have little precedent for sharing our own suffering. If we do recognize our need for healing, we often have to find shelter and safe space outside of the activist networks we have dedicated years of our lives to building. When faith-based solidarity groups gather, the orientation is usually prophetic. Seldom are we therapeutic. Rare is the solidarity community that knows how to heal its broken members, no matter what the cost.

We will not realize wholeness on a personal or collective level until we are able to share our brokenness, allowing our wounds to be seen and healed by others. The traditional perspective is that communities are either prophetic/ activist or therapeutic/reflective. I believe that communities forged in the fires of the solidarity and resistance struggles of Central America (and other justice struggles) have the capacity to be both. But there must be intentional effort to do so; it will be hard work.

Like the Salvadoran community that healed the woman who was tortured, we must be willing to bear the cost and to risk failure. Make no mistake-there is great personal cost and risk for any person who enters into healing and for any community who offers accompaniment and refuge to its wounded. Liberation has a high price. But no one should have to walk in this wilderness alone.

Most of all, healing should not lead us away from the struggles for justice in which we are engaged. On the contrary, our willingness to become vulnerable, to articulate our suffering and work for our own liberation, will open the door for us to advance into a deeper and more mutual level of solidarity with other people.

May the God of Life accompany us as we walk this holy ground with each other.

LINDA CROCKETT, a founding member of Project Via Crucis in Pennsylvania, is a writer and speaker. She is working on a book about the personal and political issues involved with healing from sexual abuse, and she corresponds with other survivors of trauma about their experiences.

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