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The books we respond to most powerfully are those that arouse an echo in our own experience, a “Hey, I know about that!” moment. Holy Ghost Girl does that for me. Like Ms. Johnson’s mother Carolyn, I, too, found myself caught up in a relationship with a married “Man of God” at one point in my life.

It’s easy to condemn that relationship–and it should be condemned. Man of God or not, no man or woman has the emotional bandwidth to sustain two mutually exclusive committed relationships at the same time and lead a congregation. The simple, short answer is that Carolyn should have left the tent evangelism circuit, just as I should have left my job and filed sex abuse charges. It sounds simple, clean, and neat.

It’s not. The forces that shape women in fundamentalist denominations can make it incredibly difficult if not impossible to “just say ‘no.'” As a woman who has been there, let me give you a few of them, and explain how they work.

Soul-winning is a core value. When David Terrell taps Carolyn to join up with his crusade as his organist, in fundamentalist terms he plucks her from a shameful, failed obscurity (she has “wandered from the fold,” failed at her “life of sin,” and is now back home with no marketable skills) and offered her not only absolution but a prominent, visible position at the very heart of his ministry. As part of a team that has as its sole stated motive the winning of souls, Carolyn has become a fundamentalist star, a woman who has dedicated her life and talent to what everyone in her social network would see as the service of God, and the winning of souls.

To “leave the ministry” is more than just a career change for women in that position. It is seen as an apostasy, a forsaking of the “narrow, hard path” about which we fundamentalist children hear so much for the “broad, easy path” that leads to perdition. When someone does that, people want to know why. It would have been difficult for Carolyn to leave without having her relationship with Terrell exposed. And then, like now, that exposure might embarrass him, but it would destroy her.

Fundamentalist ministers stand in the place of God to church members. We speak of men (and there’s a reason for that term) being “called” to the ministry. The belief is not that men choose theology for reasons that may or may not bear examination, but that God Himself reaches down and taps them on their shoulders and says, “You’re my boy.” All anecdotal and historical evidence to the contrary, fundamentalist congregations still have a very difficult time believing that their pastors might abuse the power their positions confer upon them.

For one thing, acknowledging an abusive minister calls the entire “called by God” meme into question. This, in turn, calls the whole “sacredness of doctrine” meme into question as well. Instead of sitting peacefully in their seats, nodding and murmuring (or shouting) the occasional “amen,” congregations find themselves in the difficult and embarrassing position of  having to chastise the man they have chosen to lead them.

Many–I believe nearly all–churches prefer to take the less embarrassing path. Here’s how it goes:

First, the woman or child involved is discredited. She “misunderstood.” She “took something out of context.” She “led him on.” She’s “bitter.” She’s a “troublemaker.” She “needs help.” In cases like mine, where the minister in question was also my immediate superior, there was no room for euphemism. When I timidly asked a dear friend and fellow employee about what might happen if one filed a case for sexual harrassment she was blunt: “The secretary gets fired. The minister gets transferred if there’s an affair,” she said. “If you file a sexual harassment suit you might win the lawsuit, but you’ll lose your job, and you’ll be disfellowshipped. The brethren just won’t stand for that.”

Though it’s the consequence with the least legal ramifications, the last result of bringing a suit was emotionally and socially the worst. In our particular church it was believed that once one had been been given the “good news” of our particular brand of christianity, one could not leave the church and still reach heaven. It was called “living up to the light we knew.” What this meant was that, in that time, place, and denomination, filing a suit for sexual harassment would have meant giving up my chance of heaven, if I was so unfortunate as to die before enough time had lapsed to make repentence credible and rebaptism possible. In earthly terms, I would never work for the church again. In my case I ultimately found another job and moved on. For women like Carolyn, whose whole identity is tied up in her ministry, moving on is more difficult.

And there is also the paradoxical fact that because fundamentalist ministers “stand in the place of God,” refusing them a request is equivalent to refusing God’s request.  It doesn’t matter if the request is inappropriate–after all, didn’t Abraham get kudos because he was willing to go so far as to kill his own child? And didn’t God tell one of the minor prophets that he was supposed to marry a whore? God works in mysterious ways; in the scheme of a request–or demand–for sexual favors can seem pretty minor in the beginning–particularly when “no” isn’t a realistic option.

If the woman cannot be discredited, she must be silenced. Women are silenced in many ways. The threat of disfellowshipping did it for me until I got strong enough to leave, and wise enough to understand what had happened. Others are ostracized.Friends simply no longer call. If they meet by chance they engage in only the most superficial conversations. The minister is simultaneously showered with affection and support. Add to that the simple fact that ministers have a lot to say about what is printed in church periodicals and circulars, and everything to say about what message the Lord chooses them to deliver from the pulpit, and the woman often falls silent under the sheer weight of public opinion. What makes all this so deadly is that no matter what the minister may have done, and no matter how justified the woman’s suit may be, she is at a critical disadvantage. And no matter how deeply the rejection of those who have formed her social and support system corrodes her soul, a woman who is also a true believer cannot leave.

If the woman cannot be silenced, and if the minister’s behavior has become egregious, the solution is to shift or spread the blame. The woman herself is accused of “leading him on.” She is accused of being an “accuser of the brethren”–which is code for Satan. If it’s hard for some to swallow that explanation, blame is simply spread around–to the devil first (“The devil’s working hard”) then to all of us (“all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”), then to the fact that we are “living in the last days” (The Lord says that even some of the brightest lights will go out) and ultimately the guilt can become global (“We live in a wicked world. It’s all part of the fallen condition of the world.”) Once it’s spread that far, it’s easy to forget that Pastor X believed that he had a right to sleep with Ms. Y even though she wasn’t crazy about the idea because…well, because he wanted to, and because his wife didn’t understand him, and because the rules about pastors and divorce and adultery are too strict anyway, and because she had a great butt.

And then what happens? Some of us leave. We find other jobs. We find other churches. We find other faces for Divinity. Some of us stay, and if we stay we will either shut up about what happened or, if we are very brave, and believe deeply men who profess to speak for God can and should be held to a higher standard than the rest of us, we pursue our case, not because we’re going to get anything out of it (by that time most of us have realized that the financial, emotional, social and spiritual costs of this path are going to beggar us), but because we hope that in raising our voices we will remind other ministers that with great power comes great responsibility.

And if we do, we learn that we are “angry,” “vindictive,” “shrill,” “carrying things too far,” “insisting on our pound of flesh,” “being unchristian,” “giving the Lord’s Work a black eye.” We are reminded that we are to forgive those who sin against us, that no one held a gun to our heads while we were in those seedy hotel rooms, those back seats,those back rooms among the cleaning supplies, plungers, and discarded Morning Watch books, or god help us, on those desks. We know that. Most of us spend a lot of time wondering if we do share responsibility for the destruction of our own lives. We wonder if we did dress inappropriately. We wonder if we inadvertently sent a “come-hither” message. We wonder how it happened that we started out serving God, and ended up servicing a minister.

We don’t know, because abusive ministers are smart. They don’t pick the strong, happy, emotionally healthy women as their victims. They pick those of us who have failed. who know shame, who have bad reputations, who believe we are damned, who have grown up being victimized by other men of God. They pick those of us who believe we are nothing, and are so pathetically grateful to discover that we are something after all that it takes us far, far too long to discover that we were never nothing, and that what we have become is killing our souls. They pick those of us like that, and then they use the power of their “God-given” positions to use us. And because we have grown up in a system that has taught us that we are nothing, that we have no right to determine what happens to our own bodies, that we bear all of the responsibility and none of the power in sexual matters, we let them. And we wonder if it’s our fault.

Why does it take Carolyn so long to realize that David Terrell is not going to “do right by her?” The mystery is that she is able to know it at all. I hope she’s doing well.

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Reading and reviewing Sybil Exposed, by Debbie Nathan, has gotten me thinking about a passage in my life when my family was grappling with the question of reality and what constitutes it. I was in my late twenties when, through one of the flukes which proves that truth really is stranger than fiction, my sisters, my brother, and I all learned that our past had been essentially a construct. The people who told us this were the people who had done the constructing, so there was no chance of misunderstanding or misinterpretation. They acknowledged what they had done quite openly.

Saying it like that sounds clean and logical, like unmaking a past and remaking another one was a simple thing. The reality was that it was devastating. Until I went through that experience, I don’t think I ever really understood the degree to which the past shapes us–and how important knowing and understanding that past can be. Nor had I ever considered how frightening it can be to have what one has been raised to believe is truth revealed to be false.

The question of recovered memory and how much credibility it has lay at the heart of our experience–as it should have. Recovered memories may indeed be fragments of the past that have been, in the words of a friend of mine, “misfiled,” and come to light in the course of responsible therapy–or even everyday life. And then there are “recovered” memories, which can be created or stimulated by improper therapy, leading questions, or pressure.

The very nature of the abusive relationship complicates the issue further. As my own counselor explained, “Child abuse can only survive in an atmosphere of secrecy.” The successful abuser is very, very good at looking very, very good. He or she often goes to extreme lengths to discredit victims–often doing so even before the victims speak. It’s a survival mechanism. Often they don’t even have to work very hard at it–abusers choose the vulnerable–my uncle repeatedly moved indigent women with small children into his home. When the women reported the abuse–and some did–they were discredited. After all, they had moved in voluntarily, hadn’t they? They had substance abuse issues, didn’t they? They left their children with him, didn’t they? The sad truth is that some did. Maybe they weren’t good mothers–and that made them perfect for my uncle. And when those reports came in he had only to present his good friend the sheriff as a character reference. Those children never had a chance. In cases like that it’s easy to see why the pendulum swung so  far the other way, with child advocates insisting that no report of abuse, however fantastical or unlikely, should ever be questioned. Successful abusers are exactly those people “who would never do a thing like that.” Often they talk loudly about what they would do to anyone who “hurts a kid.” The successful abuser has learned to call what he or she does by another name–it’s “discipline.” It’s “a game.” Or, all gods help us, making a child “fit for heaven,” or it’s “love.”

It comes back to one central question, “Whom do we believe?” That question alone is incredibly complex, because abusers aren’t the only ones who learn to call the abuse by another name. So do their victims. In my own family, we children would sometimes talk about the scary, hurting, shaming stuff, but we’d always finish up with, “But they loved us,” as if somehow that made all the bad stuff all right. And when we started to hear stories about sex abuse we were very resistant to the idea. In my own case, I can say that in part my resistance was because of my own memories. If I acknowledged that my father was a child molester, then I had to at least look at my own experience in that light, and doing that meant that I would have to act. The very idea of acting was terrifying–my dad was very, very good at looking very, very good. He had amazing personal presence, and had an absolute gift for using shame and guilt to silence dissent. And he loved us. Broken as he was, I never doubted that. He absolutely loved us. Acting would mean hurting him, and losing the one structure upon which I had been told I could depend, my family, or at least a large part of it. The victims of abuse can be the loudest is defense of their abusers.

And so it comes back to the central question–credibility. And that’s terrifying for a anyone confronting the question of abuse. The simple fact is that the people closest to the situation, those people who “should know,” often don’t, precisely because they have been living in a distorted universe for so very long. Having that universe shattered was probably the most terrifying experience of my life. It left me vulnerable in unimaginable ways. My mind filled with fog. I forgot faces. I had no idea what was true, and what was false. I forgot huge parts of my history, and those I remembered I wondered if I had “made up.” Fortunately, I had been a journal writer for years, so I had them for reference.

But all of that did nothing to address the central issue of  how to understand my family. And I wasn’t alone.  At the time I was dealing with the worst of this I lived close to my eldest sister, and so we were able to help each other–sharing memories, offering support, and for a while, when things were the worst, living in the loft of her condo. Given what was happening in our heads, the one thing we knew beyond the shadow of a doubt was that neither of us trusted our memories. My sister had taken journalism in college, and for a while worked as a reporter. It sounds funny to say that journalistic ethics saved the day for us, but they did. When our own sense of the past and our own memories became suspect, when we were first grappling with the idea that no one could be deemed above answering a question, we fell back on the journalistic principle of two independent sources. We decided that, while we wouldn’t necessarily discount a claim that had less, we would only act upon claims for which we had two independent sources, or which the abuser acknowledged. There were a surprising number of them, largely, I suspect, because in many cases abuse had been inflicted under the name of something else. The issue was less what had happened than it was whether or not it was harmful. Those claims were the ones upon which we based our new picture of our family.

The other stories, the ones that we only got from one source, we evaluated based on our new family picture. Did the story fit into the pattern we had? How consistent was the story? Did it stay the same over time, or did it become bigger and better–or worse? Did the story seem to fit what we were coming to understand were our facts, or did it seem to advance an agenda? Did it fit with the provable facts of our lives–where and how we lived at a given point in time? How was the story presented, as a long-term memory, or a recovered memory? Most of all, did the actions of the people in the story ring true with their actions in the rest of their lives? In the end, while we might decide that a story seemed likely, even though there was only one source for it, we never based our actions on a story for which we had less than two sources.

In my own case, that means that even though I have some pretty bad memories, I stop short of saying that my dad molested me not because I doubt my memories, but because I am the only person who remembers the instances in question, and because at the time I was very young. I think it’s quite likely, given the family history and the patterns of behavior that that’s exactly what was happening, but there must always be room for doubt not of what I remember, but of why my dad was doing what he was doing. So did my dad molest me? I don’t know. I think it’s possible, maybe even likely. But I cannot be certain.

Those external guidelines helped us to find our way at a time when we were absolutely lost. Having a counselor who was less interested in spectacular claims than he was in helping us understand our new reality was key. And ultimately, realizing that we would never have answers to every question was vital. In the end, healing meant knowing what we could, understanding what we could, and making peace with the ambiguities.

 

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