Forgiving our abusers: is it insane?

The blog Zen Habits posted a list of tips for loving our enemies the other day. Actually, it was “loving thy enemy,” which prompted a little discussion in the comments about why it should be “thine” (apparently it’s the difference between “a” and “an”) and prompted me just now to realize what sometimes bothers me about that site: it’s generally phrased as “here’s what you should do,” not “here’s what I do.” The tips are things that the blogger has been doing, but they’re written out in a way that’s prescriptive, rather than descriptive.

It chafes me a little because I’m used to people speaking from their own experiences, because we rarely know what our audiences are already doing, whether what has worked for us will work for them, or whether they’re way ahead of us in some areas. And I think that writing that way cheats us out of sharing a lot of our own experiences. Writing from my own perspective gives me a chance to learn more and process more of them as I go, and to learn that just sharing my life can benefit others. And personally, it helps me get off of the codependent soapbox that I love so much, from which I think that I have to fix everyone’s problems, say everything perfectly, anticipate their objections and knock those out of the ballpark too, and just generally take everyone’s inventories and tell them what to do instead.

So, there were some interesting - and I think very common - objections to the idea of loving our enemies. One person insisted that resentment was good for us and that it’s a “poison that exfoliates our soul”, which didn’t make a lick of sense to me - although the idea of clinging to my resentments sure did. Another shared her experiences with an extremely abusive family, with a sister who is undergoing brain surgery as an eventual result of the addictions caused by that abuse, and with her own ongoing rage around these things. She said, “What if as a result of how you were raised their actions continue to torment you, your siblings as well as themselves?” and shared the pain of her ongoing anger “simmering below the surface” as it ate away at her. I wrote the following reply in comments and wanted to share it here.

My family was very abusive too. I think that most families are, although some of us might call it dysfunctional or crazy or some other word. It’s hard for a lot of people to say that people they loved, who loved them, were abusive; we often think that abuse is just this horrible thing where people hurt us intentionally. But I know from experience that abuse is just people repeating harmful patterns that they grew up with, often unintentionally and with no awareness.

My father’s mother is currently a right-wing fundamentalist of the Very Crazy variety, the kind of person who can’t hear other people’s experiences because her defenses have hardened so much over the years - a form of borderline personality disorder. I don’t know what religion she practiced when her children were young, but I can see that she has been part of abusive cults or cult-like groups for many years in the marks it has left on them. Some of her children never speak, some have strings of abusive relationships, some have fled the state and rarely return to their family of origin, some have no boundaries at all.

My father is a particular example of the lack of boundaries. The man has no concept of what a boundary is. Not one! He sexually abused me for many many years, from infancy on, and continued covert sexual abuse into my adult life. He and my mother both had tremendous anger issues and control issues from their own abusive childhoods, and - while they plainly loved me, and provided many good things for all us kids - could be extremely abusive and rageful around things like lying or low grades.

My father also ritually abused me. My foggiest memories of this involve what I think of as “straightforward” experiences of ritual abuse, the kind with animal torture and groups of people doing bad things and people messing with children’s heads in order to traumatize them further. It also involved helping or letting his mother essentially prostitute me out, and doing that himself with his friends or colleagues. Much of it translated as a kind of medical abuse, because much of it happened in his lab at UC Davis. (He no longer works there; he was eventually fired, even with tenure, for his decades of sexually harassing his female students. There are some victories!)

Funnily enough, for a long time I was much angrier at my mother. I could accept that I had been abused in all these ways by my father, but what really ate me up at first was the fear and shame and pain and rage of the everyday emotional abuse. When I was growing up, my father was my favorite parent because he was the one who could more easily express love and joy with us; my mother was emotionally suffocated both by her relationship with him and from her childhood, and I resented her rage. Plus, she was always around; my father’s much rarer presence seemed like a treat. (This dynamic often leaves children more vulnerable to sexual abuse, because they are so hungry for any kind of attention that the abuse can almost seem desirable - at the time.)

Now my mother is the only one I have a relationship with, because she is the one who was willing to respect the boundaries I learned to set with her. She has actually worked on her side of the street so that we could grow toward having a healthy relationship.

My father, by contrast…. Four years ago, after some months of working on some of these issues in various 12-step programs, I came to realize that it was not working for me to have any contact with him. It was extremely triggering for days or weeks beforehand and it left me open to more of his abuse. I told him that I needed to have no contact with him for a while, gave him some examples (at his request) of ways that he did not respect my boundaries in my adult life, told him that it was a matter of rebuilding trust, not just something where he could promise to stop and immediately have contact again, and asked him to let me be the one to tell him if I changed my mind. Hilariously - and this is one of the things I love about abusers, they are so clear about how abusive they are once we learn to recognize it - he immediately responded by contacting me to invite me out to brunch, and has spent the past four years repeatedly contacting me through mail, email, and the phone to try to get me to talk to him, whether by invitation or threat from him.

I don’t know if my siblings were sexually or ritually abused, although I strongly suspect it. (I also suspect that, like me, they would have repressed these experiences and might not know enough about what the effects of sexual or ritual abuse look like to discover it.) It’s not generally the case that an abuser can pick and choose who they act out on, although they might think it’s them and not their background of abuse that’s making the decisions. The effects of my parents’ abuse on me and my siblings, as far as it’s visible to me, includes: a lot of dissociation, to the point of none of us having had concrete memories of much of our pre-teen childhoods; serious control issues; a lot of silence, denial, and repressed emotions, particularly from my brother; addictive behaviors and/or partnerships with people who have addictions; rage and fear and shame. I spent many years acting out sexually, around food, around work, and generally living in a way that hurt me, in order to check out from and reenact the chaos of my childhood without really being aware of it.

All of which is to say that I understand the experience of being abused and having it ruin or threaten our adult lives, and I know how hard it is for people to get into recovery even to save their own lives. And I understand the experience of being enraged at the abusers for their original and continuing abuse, and feeling like there is no other reasonable reaction to it.

When I first started working 12-step programs, I heard people talk about forgiving their abusers, and I heard people react to that with fear and anger. There is even a pamphlet in Survivors of Incest Anonymous called something like “Must We Forgive?” I was grateful for the boundaries that people learned in program, that let them express their fear and anger while understanding that it had nothing to do with the person who forgave their abusers.

At first I heard sayings about resentment, like that it was like swallowing poison and waiting for the rat to die, with a lot of detachment and skepticism. I didn’t understand what it would be like to forgive, but I knew that I wasn’t anywhere near that yet. It sometimes seemed to me that my forgiveness must necessarily be contingent upon them changing their behavior, begging my forgiveness, something like that. Something sweeping and dramatic and equal to the level of emotion that I felt, to the level of drama and pain that they had created. How could one tiny person (as I saw myself) forgive, or even want to forgive, such unimaginable and monstrous acts?

Eventually I came to the fourth step, which for me in part involved writing about alllllll of my resentments. All the things that pissed me off, everything I hated, all the stuff I raged about. And all my fears. And then, to look at my side of the street. Everyone who helped me, fortunately, was perfectly clear that we do not have a part in childhood abuse. We can never say “Well, sure he raped me, but I enjoyed it” or “Well, they may have screamed at me for hours, but I DID get bad grades.” In adulthood, we can say that our part in an abusive relationship might at least be that we had not yet left, but in childhood we did not even have that.

But a strange thing happened as I catalogued and explored these feelings. I had never before really given myself permission to feel angry. In my family, it wasn’t safe to feel sadness or fear - nobody expressed these things. There was no support for them. And I grew up with the subconscious fear that if I did feel my fear or my sadness, those feelings would overwhelm and drown me. We were allowed to feel happy, in fact we were supposed to. We were not supposed to feel anger, but it was at least modeled for us and we all expressed our anger in various ways much of the time, and were usually punished for it. Now, for the first time, I was giving myself permission to feel that anger - to write about every way anyone had “done me wrong,” without considering yet whether it was “justifiable” or whether I had a part in it or what I had done wrong myself. Just to be angry about the injustices and harms I had experienced, for once, to affirm to myself that I did not deserve this pain.

I went on, after many amazingly detailed pages of resentments, to write about the few fears I could then identify. I was afraid (ironically?) of writing about them, but I eventually did it. I found that rather than being plunged into terror, as I had feared, I felt liberated and enlightened by this writing. I learned a lot about what my fears meant to me and where they came from and what they affected in my life. And I learned that I did not have to keep carrying them.

More importantly, I realized that all of my anger came from fear. There was not a single resentment on that list that was not, somehow, the defensive face of fear at heart. I had just been clinging to anger because it felt safer than feeling afraid.

Even more importantly, I finally understood on a gut level why people in program were saying things like “My resentment is a threat to my sobriety.” Anger can be positive if we move through it and let it motivate us to set boundaries and understand new things about ourselves. But over the long term, this anger and rage and hatred and resentment - all essentially the same thing - were eating me up inside. (More....)

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