Where Was God? The Spiritual Questions of Sexually Abused Children, Part 4
The Infection of Evil / How can I do the good?
The power unleashed in childhood sexual violence is both terrifying and infectious. Sexual abuse is in part a crime of seduction. Through inappropriate sexual manipulation, the victim is seduced into becoming a participant. The child believes that the mysterious force causing the abuse is inside him/her. Underneath this false shame, there may be a deep sense of being stained by evil. The loss of innocence, through in no way the fault of the victim, is no less a loss.
The infection comes also from a desperate need to somehow get back from the abuser what was stolen. Isolated in ongoing trauma, children may cling emotionally to their abusers as the only ones that seem to stand between them and the nothingness and evil that they fear. Opened up to a force that should be connected to intimacy, an abused child may form a dismal, intimate bond with the perpetrator. As abuse continues, the dissociation of the child from her/his true feelings strengthens and the ability to resist any harm weakens. The bonding with the abuser and people like the abuser becomes more complete. I know a director of a domestic violence crisis center who says that, in her years of experience, well over 95 percent of women in her care have had a history of childhood sexual abuse.
Established deep in the neural pathways of the brain, thoughts of abuse take on a life of their own. Recurrent obsessive thoughts of violence are not unusual. The passions are rewired and associated with situations of abuse.
Another sign of the infectious nature of the evil of abuse is the way in which survivors continue to act in self-harming ways long after the childhood abuse is over. The reasons for the prevalence of behaviors like self-mutilation among sexual abuse survivors are many. A need to relieve the inner pain with other intense feelings, a way to express suppressed rage, and an obsessive need for re-enactment of what is repressed are among them.
It is vital that survivors of abuse understand that all of these behaviors stem from the abuse and functioned as survival tools. The blame for the arising of these behaviors does not lie with the victim. These behaviors do not, as victims are often told, come from any innate sexual perversion or desire in the victim to be hurt. It is clear that no one of one’s own free will wants to be hurt, especially sexually. As they attempt to stop these behaviors as adults, they often find that it is not in their ability to do so.
Although some survivors of abuse try to be bad to show their pain outwardly, most try very hard to be very good. And in most areas of life, they are. They are honor roll students, super athletes, civic helpers, and over-achievers. But in some behaviors, usually those on their own behalf, they find themselves like St. Paul willing the good but doing the bad. (Rom 7;18-19) In fact, their ability to want the good for themselves is impaired. Underneath the lies and false self-blame, they know that there is no goodness that is not vulnerable, nor virtue that cannot be defeated in the face of certain forces. They have lost faith in human moral goodness as a function of will.
The struggle with the infection of evil can produce a quest for healing that is of a spiritual nature. How can personal integrity be restored?
 For more on this phenomenon, see Bass and Davis, The Courage to Heal, 219-220.
This post is adapted from the article I wrote for the Sewanee Theological Review:
“Where Was God? The Spiritual Questions of Sexually Abused Children” Sewanee Theological Review 48:1 (Christmas 2004): 87-108.