The Blame Game

To make my psychology studies relate to my research and career goals, I have been reading books on various aspects of trauma and recovery alongside studying less interesting topics of perception, learning and other topics that arise in an introductory course. Right now I am working my way through Mending the Soul: understanding and healing abuse (by Steven R. Tracy). Honestly, I was a bit hesitant to read it because it is published by Zondervan, a notably Evangelical publishing company. While I would consider myself an evangelical at heart, I have often been disappointed by the response (or lack of response) by Evangelical Christians when it comes to abuse. Indeed, I was told that if I had gone to a more evangelical and experienced pastor with my problems, he would have sent me back to my family to work out the issues within the family. I have heard countless stories of well meaning Christians who tell abuse victims to forgive (basically meaning to move on, forget the past and to never talk about it again) or to work on their anger issues and an unrepentant heart.

It never seizes to amaze me how the victim takes on the blame of their abuse – whether they were told explicitly that it was their fault or not – and how frequently disclosures are met with disbelief and even blaming the victim. I remember being told by family members that what my dad did was bad, but what I did (reporting to children’s aid) was WORSE! And this was said to me by people who would watch the news and hear of sexual predators and proclaim that they should be castrated and in jail for life. As Bruce Cockburn aptly puts it – everyone loves justice done on somebody else.

Within the history of psychiatry, there was a diagnosis called “hysteria” that has now been removed from the diagnosis manual. This diagnosis accounted for symptoms of women such as flashbacks, seemingly irrelevant fears, panic attacks, self-hatred. Sound familiar? Psychiatrists at the time noted that a common factor for women who exhibited these “crazy” symptoms was that they had been sexually traumatized as a child or youth.

Freud took this on and is known for his elaborate case studies and listening at length to people’s problems hoping to uncover the deeper meaning attributed to their thoughts, dreams and behaviours. Freud too found that there was a consistent link between hysteria and sexual abuse. Hearing so many atrocious stories made him unable to handle what he was hearing. So unfortunately, he concluded that these stories that he was hearing must not be true – a sentiment that is way to prevalent even today. Further, he claimed that the real issue at hand was that these women had a secret childhood lust and fantasy for their fathers which led them to create wild stories of indecent acts that never really took place. Once again, the victim is blamed. And the perpetrators are protected.

I’d like to think we’ve come along way since Freud. But my experience, in hearing others’ experiences and in reading this book, I am saddened by how common this remains today, in an educated world and in a world where police checks and screening are so commonly used by any organization dealing with vulnerable populations. We have a wealth of stories and insurance companies breathing down our backs. And still, the victim is blamed and the perpetrator is protected.

I read about a woman who went to her pastor after multiple treatments at hospitals for physical wounds inflicted upon her by her husband. These wounds were VISIBLE. And this woman was told that she has an angry and unrepentant heart and that she needed to go back to her husband, love him, and pray that God would forgive her anger. This was one of many stories.

I’m starting to realize – and it is a sad realization – that my story is far too common. The reactions of my family members are common. The culture of my family is common.

Tracy uses the story of Tamar in Scripture (who was raped by her brother) and his years of pastoral and clinical counseling to highlight primary characteristics of abusive families. This characteristics are shockingly familiar to me. I share Tracy’s list for two reasons. First, I want other victims of sexual abuse/assault within the family to know that they are not alone in their experiences both of the actual abuse and the resulting consequences of their disclosure. Second, to challenge others to listen to the cries of victims and to face the ugly truth that no one wants to admit – that sexual abuse is common and devastating.

  • The needs of individual family members are highly expendable (my note: he explains this further in the chapter. A few examples… the perpetrator’s desire for sexual contact, importance, and control trump the needs of victims to be nurtured, loved and protected… the family’s need to maintain a perception of the “happy family” or a particular status within the community trumps the victims need to be believed.)
  • Reality is very difficult to discern (my note: When you think of a sexual predator who comes to mind? Did you know that sexual violence pervades all levels of society, all ages, gender, religion? I can’t tell you how many times people referred to my family as the perfect example and spoke of what an amazing father I had who was involved in our lives…. and indeed, there are many good and wonderful gifts that my parents gave me and they are amazing people… but this is precisely why reality is so very difficult to discern – when people whom we have come to love and accept and even admire are accused of indecent acts, we find it hard to wrap our head around how this person could commit such heinous crimes – and yet, the alternative – that the accuser is a crazy liar doesn’t seem to fit either!!)
  • The victim is made responsible for solving needs they didn’t create and could never legitimately satisfy
  • The family’s shiny exterior belies a dark inner reality
  • Vulnerable family members are not protected because no one wants to know the truth (my note: Truth hurts. Truth requires action. If you accept that your beloved husband is abusing your beloved child, you cannot simply ignore it and hope everything goes away on its own – something must be done. Well, actually, much needs to be done. But you simply can’t stare the ugliness of abuse in the eye and then walk away. So we shy away from the truth and even deny it, because the action and decisions required in response are just plain to difficult. If you don’t acknowledge it, it never happened, right?)
  • The victim’s response is futile
  • Abusive families are emotionally unstable
  • The victims are shamed, blamed, and demeaned.
  • Members are isolated and lack intimacy
  • A strict code of silence is enacted
  • Abusive families deny and distort proper healthy emotions
  • The wrong ones are protected

(From: Tracy, Steven R. Mending the Soul: Understanding and healing abuse. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan) 2005; pg.70)

  1. September 29, 2012 at 11:00 am

    Thanks for sharing this, there is a lot for folks to think about when it comes to understanding why it’s almost easier to just blame ourselves, as opposed to weeding through all of this, especially as a young person! It takes time to develop a proper outlook,

  2. October 2, 2012 at 9:37 am

    Hi Elizabeth,

    I found your article via September’s Blog Carnival. To be upfront, after reading your goal was to educate Christians, I almost skipped it because a great portion of my abuse is linked to religion (Christians themselves, the church, etc.) and I didn’t know if continuing might be triggering, yet I was curious as to what your message was. I’m glad I kept reading.

    In my experience, it is so true that many Christians cannot and will not work past their denial while more children are being abused. I felt my heart in my throat reading about what you would have been faced with had you confided in your pastor. I can tell you that, personally, I know that is exactly what happens. Suddenly, instead of compassion and caring, judgment and scripture is piled on, making the victim out to be the sinner, the one who is ruining the perfect family. It’s a horrific re-traumatizing way to treat a child, let alone anyone that’s been/being abused.

    Thank you for writing your article. I hope, Christians or non-Christians, will read it and make an effort to look past the “perfect family” myth and finally decide to save children.


  3. October 3, 2012 at 10:59 pm

    Hi Luka – thanks so much for your message! It is wonderful to hear feedback on what I’ve written. I am so sorry that Christians and the church generally have been part of deep wounding. I have spent most of my life trying to make sense of such things. The name of my blog draws upon a notion from the philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard (1800s) – that faith is living on the strength of the Absurd. Much of my healing has come through working out my faith with fear and trembling and grappling with these deep puzzles of human suffering. I think the church sometimes shies away from looking at these things and I hope to be part of changing that. The church has a long way to go – too many people like you and me have been hurt by Christians which to me is a double wounding – for faith is beautiful and much strength can be found in the absurd – but when a person of “faith” decides to deeply wound a person, they are hurting every aspect of the core of their being.

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