Molested & Raped:
Why Survivors Like Me Must Heal Through Forgiveness & Compassion
BY KIM WHITING
For the first half of my life I was such a trauma and pervert magnet that by the age of eight I had already labeled myself a freak. I was the one common denominator in a seemingly endless stream of situations with sexual miscreants.
But the sexual abuse I suffered as a child, and endured all the way through college, taught me that the way in which we respond to and address the feelings and actions that stem from these wounds are crucial to recovery.
I’ve never written extensively about this abuse, not to the extent I’m about to share. But I’ve decided to do so now, to reveal not only the prevalence of these types of occurrences, but to offer up the true power of understanding, compassion, forgiveness –and love.
Understanding leads to compassion. Compassion leads to forgiveness. Forgiveness leads to love. Love leads to healing — and a fuller, happier life.
But yes, it can be a very long and difficult road to get there.
Molested Beginning at Age Five
When I was five years old a married man (whose identity I have chosen not to reveal) made me his “mistress” – at least this was his take on his actions. In his dysfunctional and distorted perspective, he saw me as having an adult’s capacity to say “yes” to what I did want and “no” to what I didn’t want. As long as I wasn’t saying “no,” he surmised that my participation in what “we” did was consensual.
As is most often the case with child molestation, this man was close to our family. He was trusted and beloved by adults and children alike. He was the fun, playful, funny adult. He cheered us on, paid attention to us, noticed and complimented us on our strengths and talents and made us feel special. He was helpful, always ready to lend a hand, and especially calm in a crisis. His enthusiastic approach to people and life made it so that others felt good around him and liked his company. He was an exceptional man, the cream of the crop – and then he was also my perpetrator.
He began his molestation in the typical pattern; starting with very subtle gestures; affection that, over time, gradually stretched into the inappropriate and, ultimately, the illegal.
I adored this man (we all did), so although I could tell that what he was doing was wrong, I welcomed his adoration. I felt like the chosen one – except when he’d get a guilty conscience, reject me and “go back” to his wife. Obviously, his guilt was about much more than betraying his wife but I was five-years-old and couldn’t understand that. I couldn’t understand any of it. All I knew was that sometimes I was extra-special and sometimes I was not, but my assumption (because I was a child and he was an adult so he must know best) was that I was somehow the problem. I wasn’t loveable enough for consistent love or I possessed traits that were so abhorrent that a man who thought I hung the moon most of the time would sometimes take away his love – or perhaps both.
His abuse of me never caused me physical pain, which messed with my head even more than the cycle of adoration and rejection. If he had hurt me I could have said, “You are doing something bad because you hurt me.” As things stood, I assumed that since what “we” were doing felt wrong and I was (in the beginning at least) a willing participant, then I must be a bad person. He helped this belief along by sometimes saying such things as “We’ve got to stop doing this. I know it feels good, but it’s wrong.” He pulled me into a world of sexuality, deception and complexity of emotion that was far beyond my tender years. At the age of five he ended my childhood and dramatically altered the trajectory of my entire life –and yet, on an instinctual level I understood his pain, much like I imagine a dog feels the emotions of people.
Kim at age 5, shortly before the abuse began.
On a couple occasions, during the early stages when his abuse consisted mostly of having me fondle him, this man’s wife caught “us.” He told her that the way I sat in his lap and “flirted” with him was too tantalizing for him. Because it was far less scary and life altering for her to blame me than blame him, she convinced herself that a five-year-old had seduced her adult husband. Both times that she caught him, she told me to stop flirting with her husband and sent me on my way – but our lives were too intertwined to prevent us from interacting and so, after a brief break, his abuse would continue.
This woman’s reaction may seem outrageous but, unfortunately, it’s not uncommon — and was even more common when I was a child. During that era (late ‘60s/early ‘70s) many women felt they couldn’t leave their husbands because they were dependent on them financially, logistically and even for social rank. Divorce was still fairly rare and tended to make women social and family outcasts. What’s more, this was in the days before Oprah and pop psychology. What would it say about this woman’s judgment and her choice of men if she admitted that she had married a child molester?
The reason this response to child abuse still occurs today is that wounded people attract wounded people. One type of baggage attracts another type of baggage. Together they create dynamics that reaffirm their beliefs about themselves and the world, both feeling dependent on the other and both in denial because of their dependency, as well as their warped perceptions. This is how the cycle of abuse is able to continue when wounds are left unhealed.
I am not absolutely certain of the baggage that led this woman to marry this man, then blame me and deny that he had a problem, but my best guess is that the broader issue was low self value. She chose a man too wounded to be able to love in a full and committed way. If she could achieve the love and commitment of a man for whom love and commitment didn’t come easily, she could prove her worth – but what actually happened (and what normally happens in these scenarios) is that instead of earning his appreciation and, thus, a feeling of value, his lack of commitment to her reaffirmed her belief that she wasn’t good enough. (This is all theoretical, but I’ve met enough women like her in my psychotherapy practice to feel pretty confident that this was the case.)
When I reached an age where (propelled by my wounds) I was irresistibly drawn to relationships with boys/men who behaved badly, I developed compassion for my perpetrator’s wife and forgave her. It was then that I understood what a powerful hold our wounds have over our minds and how these wounds can render us almost completely blind to the damage we do to ourselves and others. This woman went out of her way to make people feel welcome and cared for. She was big-hearted and very giving, but like of all of us, she had her baggage. She too was a victim of my perpetrator and a victim of her psychological wounds as well.
Of course, as a child, I didn’t understand that this woman blamed me because she was too afraid to blame her husband. I thought she blamed me because she truly thought I was to blame. From that experience I learned that some people saw me as a “bad girl.” I felt misjudged and misunderstood (a feeling that still haunts me to this day) but it was hard not to wonder if I was somehow part of the problem.
I had spoken with the other kids who also knew and interacted with this man about what he was doing to me and they said he wasn’t doing anything like that to them. My reaction to this knowledge was two-fold: I again felt special, like the chosen one, and although I could sense that my perpetrator was at fault, I assumed that because he wasn’t doing this to anyone else, I must be somehow at fault as well.
As time progressed my discomfort with his abuse increased and I desperately wanted to say “no!” but was afraid of losing his love. The best that I could do was avoid being alone with him, but he would regularly find a way.
The psychological trauma I incurred from this “non-violent” crime goes even deeper:
Experts in the field of abuse recovery, such as Ellen Bass and Laura Davis who wrote The Courage to Heal (reputed to be the “Bible” of sexual abuse recovery work) say that nobody knows a perpetrator’s shame and pain or understands his/her actions more than the victim. This is the primary reason (besides financial dependency and fear of retribution) that abused spouses have such a difficult time leaving the relationship. It’s one of the reasons that children have a difficult time reporting their perpetrators. In an animal instinct way, I understood what was driving my perpetrator to molest me. I could feel his lack of control and I could feel his intense shame after losing control. On the surface, he (like most) was a master of denial, but I could feel his subterranean pain and turmoil. Despite how traumatized I was, I felt compassion and love for him. In a “gut feeling” kind of way, I saw him as a very good person who was out of control. Children are typically more in tune than adults to feeling this truth about people who are behaving badly and it can make the dynamics of abuse all the more confusing.
As for me, however, this abuse manifested into psychological and emotional wounds that created a snowball effect of dysfunction in my life. Sexual abuse victims live with rage, shame and/or self-loathing. The abuse we endured gives us a distorted view of the world and of ourselves. Our past negative experiences lead us to expect future ones. In some cases, we even subconsciously seek out certain kinds of abusive people and scenarios in hopes of somehow changing the negativity into a positive experience. But when the outcome is the same, our negative beliefs are simply reinforced.
The more we continue to act out our internal wounds, the more we dislike ourselves, and the more likely we are to do something else that is self-damaging and often damaging to others as well.
Until healing occurs, the psychological wounds fester and if serious enough can turn into something monstrous, and beyond our control.
But even the worst experiences have silver linings and if used right can help cultivate our greatest strengths. This experience was no exception. At the same time that I was learning my ABCs, I learned to see the good and the value in people behaving badly. I understood that bad behaviors come from a place beyond a person’s control. This understanding led me to develop compassion and compassion taught me to love and to believe in even those who have hurt me. Being able to love this way has made my life happier, gentler and richer. This kind of compassion is a gift both to myself and others.
Sexual Perversion Everywhere, Or So It Seemed
At the same time that I was being molested I also experienced the following between the ages of five and eight:
- I was with a group of children banging on a piano in a small hotel theater when an old man (old from my young perspective) appeared on the stage and asked me if I’d jump up and help him with something. He took me slightly out of view of the other children and I stood paralyzed with horror as he masturbated and (in what I now know was record time) ejaculated into a cup, told me it was ice cream and asked if I wanted to try some. I said, “no” and ran away, but from that man I felt the same tormented “vibe” as I felt from the man who was molesting me. I felt his shame. My reaction was deep sadness. I felt sorry for him. It was a sadness that made me feel sick to my stomach.
- A 13-year-old neighbor boy twice molested me. The abuse ended when he moved away.
- Walking home from school, a teenage boy who worked in my school’s cafeteria (who I had noticed was shy and uncomfortable, even with the little kids) approached me and asked if I wanted to see something cool. He wasn’t a stranger, so I didn’t concern myself with “stranger danger” – and anyway, contrary to my parent’s insistence that strangers could be dangerous it had been my experience that the real danger lurked with the people I knew well. (It is a fact that the vast majority of crimes against children are perpetrated by people whom the children know) The boy took me into a house that was slated to be torn down, pulled down his pants and asked me to give him oral sex. I was so accustomed to sexual advances by my elders by this point that I thought it was my duty to oblige him. I cried and said “no” in a way that meant “no, not again.” With each trauma I was coming to believe that the world was a very unhealthy place and that I had an unhealthy role in it. I actually felt guilty when I told him “no” and ran away. The boy followed me outside and waved goodbye to me with his penis, saying “bye bye” repeatedly, until I was out of sight. I felt the same shame and lack of control from this boy that I had felt from the others.
- Playing in a park, I looked over and saw a man masturbating while watching me
- Walking to school I saw a man masturbating between houses while watching the children go by
By the age of eight I viewed the world as being full of sad, wounded men with irresistible sexual compulsions that caused them shame and more misery. I viewed myself as for some reason magnetic for these wounded men.
As I got older, the experiences continued.
In my teens and 20s, I was the victim of more random masturbators than I could keep track of. At times it seemed there was a man masturbating behind every tree, on every beach and in every car. In all, I’d estimate that I was exposed to this kind of passive sexual assault at least 30 times. But was it just me? I’ve asked my female peers and most have had a brush or two with this kind of behavior, but nowhere near the number that I’ve experienced. I believe I witnessed so much more of this sexual deviancy because I was looking for it – the same dynamic as when you buy, for example, a red Volvo and suddenly red Volvos seem to be everywhere. I believed that the world was full of sexually unhealthy men and so I noticed them when others didn’t.
I would eventually learn that survivors of sexual abuse were, like me, much more likely to have other experiences with sexual miscreants and that those abused very young tended to have an even higher incidence of these experiences. I would also come to understand that people raised in neighborhoods where depression, addiction and low self-worth are rampant are much more likely to experience multiple incidents of abuse and trauma—in those neighborhoods it is much more the norm than the exception.
Kim at age 14.
I saw several different psychotherapists from age 14 to 23. All were ill equipped to handle my issues and some did more damage than good. One, a PhD specializing in children, was almost definitely a pedophile himself – he didn’t think it sick at all that a grown man had sexual relations with a young child.
What I didn’t know then, but do know now, is that pedophiles often choose careers working with children and that wounded people are attracted to the field of psychology — so there are a fair share of unhealed sexual deviants in the helping professions. I reported the man, but nonetheless, his comment hit a very deep nerve for me. In it, he confirmed my belief that the world did not understand me or my trauma. It did not understand how I felt.
A College Catastrophe
During my freshman year in college I was raped by two guys with whom I had been close for many years—again, I choose not to reveal the details so as not to reveal their identities. We had been through a lot together; parents divorcing, the drama of teenage breakups and many good times and youthful adventures. I was particularly close with one of them; he was a sweet friend who liked to make me laugh.
One night these guys gave me two wine coolers (not enough to feel more than tipsy) yet I found myself so “drunk” that I fell to the ground and over the course of what I assumed was at least a couple of hours, went in and out of consciousness. Each time I “came to” I found their bodies in varying positions in and around me and I cried and said, “No, please don’t do this.” At one point I remember hearing “It’s okay, don’t cry. We’re all friends here.” When I fully came to consciousness I found myself still on the floor. I jumped up, grabbed my underwear and sobbed, “Oh my God!” I ran out the door while buttoning my shirt. The guys, who had been sleeping near me, jumped up too and said, “Kim, wait,” but I didn’t look back. When I got home I saw that I was covered in semen from my hair to my knees. It was obvious that condoms hadn’t been used and I worried that I might have gotten pregnant.
These young men, who I thought were my friends, had possibly drugged me (although I imagine they saw it more as “loosening me up”) and had definitely raped me. To this day, it is the most dirty, horrible and ashamed that I have ever felt. But I wasn’t yet healthy enough to see it as rape or to see myself as not to blame. Having been the common denominator in so many sexually unhealthy circumstances (and having been blamed by my original perpetrator and his wife) I couldn’t see myself as not being at least partly at fault.
On the surface, I was a magnet for sexual trauma because I emitted a vibe that said, “I’m without healthy sexual boundaries. Have your way with me.” It was the equivalent of wearing a sign that said, “Kick Me.” On a deeper level, I was attracting perpetrators and recreating sexual trauma in order to: (a) act out my shameful self-image as a freak and a victim (b) reaffirm my view of the world as being full of sexual perpetrators and (c) hopefully obtain mastery of the situation and create a happier ending.
Kim, graduating from college.
The guys came to my place later that day. I don’t know if they came to apologize, check on me or see if I was going to press charges, but despite having said “no,” I was so traumatized and in doubt about my role in the night’s events that I couldn’t do anything but pretend that nothing had happened. When I opened the door they said, “Are you okay?” and I said (with a voice full of a cheer that I didn’t feel) “Yeah I’m good, but I can’t talk now so I’ll catch up to you guys later” and then shut the door.
I hated myself.
If I were to have asked these guys why they thought it was okay to do what they did, they probably would have said that they thought I was “into that kind of thing.” We had been out dancing earlier that night and they probably would have said that I was “a tease” in the way that I danced with them. They would likely say that, in their minds, what occurred was “just friends having fun” and that they weren’t fully in control because they were drunk.
These are typical date rape justifications and while they often hold grains of truth they are, for the most part, a byproduct of denial. The fact is that rape is fueled more by anger or a desire to overpower than by lust. At times the motive for rape has nothing at all to do with sex.
Therefore, I would say that the deeper truth as to the cause of these two young men’s actions is connected to the fact that I had rejected each of them sexually and/or romantically at previous points in our relationships, and the sting of denial never fully left them. There’s nothing like a wounded ego to light the fires of rage. They probably thought, subconsciously, that I saw myself as somehow “better” than them and sexual assault was a way to “put me in my place” and discharge their anger.
These young men had never performed very well in school. The father of one had advanced college degrees and the other’s dad was a successful businessman. There was pressure on these guys to do better than they’d been doing scholastically. After high school they floundered for a few years; both dropped out of college and became financially dependent uon their parents. They hadn’t yet found a way to feel successful and good about themselves and it was during this time of lower self worth that they raped me.
A couple months after the attack I spoke to the one with whom I was closest. I wanted to ask him “why.” As always, I wanted to understand. He was so relieved that I was willing to speak to him. It would be several more years before I could formally label what they did to me as rape, but I was able to tell him that I felt dirty and humiliated by what they had done. He said, “I’m so sorry. We thought this was the kind of thing you liked to do. We thought you wanted to be there.” I asked him if my crying and saying “no” had given him any indication that I didn’t want to be there. To this, he cried, apologized again, and asked how he could make it up to me.
Five Years with “Bob”
Shortly afterwards, I entered into a five-year relationship with “Bob.” He was the steadfast, loyal, loving friend who everyone knew they could count on and everyone adored. He was the one others went to for advice or support. He did everything from nurse people through breakups to fix their flat tires. He would drive to another state or out into the middle of the desert to help a friend in need. He had a witty dry sense of humor and a love of adventure. He had adorable childlike quirks, like wearing just one kind of nerdy shoes and only eating ice cream cones decorated like clowns. He knew how every technological and mechanical gadget worked and would patiently explain them to me – twice, three times, more. When he got ready to pilot a plane or surf he had the enthusiasm of a kid at Christmas. He had that kind of enthusiasm for a lot of things, and it was contagious.
With that said, you can perhaps see why I cared for him.
Problem was, I was still internalizing a deep self-hatred, and a tendency to enter into situations in which I felt stuck and victimized.
Bob wouldn’t allow me to socialize without him. I couldn’t even go to dinner with friends without fairly major repercussions and he’d regularly come by my work to make sure I wasn’t being too flirtatious with any of the customers. What should have been highly social, fun-filled college years were some of the worst years of my life. I was so often in fight or flight mode during those five years that I fried my adrenal glands and to this day struggle with chronic fatigue.
I spent the entire relationship trying to get out of it, but almost every time I tried, he would threaten to kill himself or me. These were not always idle threats. Twice he swallowed an entire container of prescription pills. One time he stabbed himself three times in the stomach with a knife. Several times he held a loaded gun to my head and told me that if I was going to leave him then I was going to die. I applied to graduate school on the other side of the country in order to escape him, but even 2,500 miles away, he would show up on my doorstep unexpectedly. He also had an uncanny knack for calling me on the rare times that I went out on a date and asking me “how it was.” It was highly unnerving. Our relationship ended with my roommate making a 911 call when he again pulled a gun, this time alternating it between my head and his own saying, “I can’t live without you so one or both of us is going to have to die.”
Against all logic, I talked the police out of taking him to jail. I handed the police his gun, asked them to escort him to his friend’s house and didn’t see him again for several years.
And that’s where my traumas ended, and the long slow healing journey began.
Kim in her 20s.
It wasn’t until the age of 26 (survivors are most likely to begin therapy in their late 20s) that I was ready to really dig deep and heal, and I found an excellent therapist who specialized in treating sexual abuse survivors. I began to work through my issues and changed my view of the world and my place in it.
Not long after starting therapy I mustered the courage to confront my first perpetrator. His response to my confrontation (via phone) was “I never held a gun to your head.” (Ironic considering that I’d been in a relationship with a man who had held a gun to my head.) His comment felt like a physical blow. Years of rage from having been blamed surfaced and in a voice as cold as ice I said, “Fuck you. I’m not going to speak to you again until you’ve gotten therapy and can take responsibility for your actions.”
He got therapy.
Without my asking, he also began paying for my therapy.
From Abuse Survivor to Abuse Therapist
As a result of having been victimized multiple times, I’ve felt compelled (impassioned, even) to understand what drives human misbehavior.
I became a psychotherapist myself, specializing in treating survivors of abuse and trauma. From this informed, experienced and more objective vantage point, I learned that I was hardly alone.
More recently, a 2014 CDC/Kaiser Permanente study regarding the prevalence of “Adverse Childhood Experiences” in the U.S. reveals:
- 28.3% of U.S. children are physically abused
- 20.7% are sexually abused (The longstanding statistic on sexual abuse is that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys is molested or raped before the age of eighteen)
- 10.6% are emotionally abused
- 9.9% are victims of physical neglect
- 14.8% are victims of emotional neglect
Added to these childhood traumas are other traumas that I’ve treated in my psychotherapy practice, many of which I’m sure you’ve witnessed or experienced yourself:
- The trauma of society’s perceptions; children who experience scorn, prejudice and even hatred because of their ethnicity or socioeconomic status
- The trauma of being poor: hunger, homelessness or the uncertainty that basic needs will be met
- The trauma of growing up in neighborhoods or families where violence is prevalent
- The trauma of being overweight, physically unattractive or physically disabled in a society that overvalues physical perfection and rejects and bullies those who do not meet its standards
- The trauma of being socially inept or simply different –of being a social outcast
- The trauma of growing up gay in a family, community or religion that disdains homosexuality
- The trauma of having an addicted or mentally ill parent (or other family member)
- The trauma of having a mental health disorder or learning disability
All these considered, the chance that a child will incur a psychological wound (or multiple wounds) is high. The victims of the “bad guys” who created these wounds can often, and easily, turn into “bad guys” themselves.
I’m not just talking about those who act out violently and criminally, I’m talking about types such as the “Scrooges,” narcissists, bigots and bullies who share their pain with the world in myriad miserable ways.
The issues that stem from these wounds ripple out further and further, through the masses and through generations. The man who beats the little boy is a bad guy and the little boy a pitiful victim. When that little boy grows up and is in some way aggressive or violent he becomes the bad guy as well – and so on.
What’s more, if these children don’t get the chance to heal, they don’t get to live a full and happy life, or mine the inherent treasures that are buried under the scars of their personal traumas. They are first victims of their traumas, then victims of our judgments, our shunning, and in many cases, our prisons as well.
How the Torment of Sexual Abuse Can Lead to Chaos, Crime & Prison
My work as a psychotherapist has led me, in recent years, to focus on the damaged souls that populate our prisons. Currently, I’m helping a 46-year-old inmate in a maximum security California prison write his memoirs. I’m hoping that his story will help others better understand how childhood trauma leads to adulthood chaos, crime, and violence — how unhealed trauma can turn a person from a victim into a bad guy –and how these wounded people can be healed and turned around.
Tay was a gang leader who oversaw almost 20,000 “comrades” and operated a multi-state narcotics business. Predictably, this man has wreaked just about every kind of havoc and committed a plethora of violent crimes.
But he wasn’t born a “thug.”
Tay, as a child.
As a child, Tay excelled at sports and in school, starred in plays and won a math scholarship for gifted youth. His favorite pastime was—and still is—fishing.
But he grew up in one of the most violent, drug-filled and dysfunctional neighborhoods in the United States and experienced trauma early and regularly. Kids in these environments become accustomed to seeing people shooting up heroin and performing sexual favors for drugs; then they must acclimate to everyday fights and shootings.
Add to this the fact that people fighting to survive in these communities also soon come to understand that the rest of society sees them as undesirables. As Tay writes, I lived in a world that preferred that poor black boys like me weren’t in it and it got to me.
He continues: Until I was about five, my life was pretty good. My mom was the warm and loving person that she is to this day and always my biggest fan. My dad showed love by taking me fishing and including me in his hobby of raising pigeons. But then, when Dad lost his job (and maybe he was losing my mom’s love too) he seemed to suddenly turn into a monster.
Starting at around the age of seven I became the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of my father and a group of his friends. One member of this group was a female police officer, which helped form my distrust of authority. My father justified the rape by telling me that he was preparing me for a world that would be even crueler to me.
I learned from that experience that people could turn on you at any time without any notice. I have never been trusting of the world and my lack of trust probably started with that time in my life.
By the time my father got started on me, he had already been abusing my mother for a couple of years. I would hear flesh pounding flesh behind their closed door. I didn’t know what he was doing to her but I knew it was painful and at times my mom would beg for him to “kill her and get it over with.” I would cry because I felt completely helpless to do anything to help her.
My father told me that if I told my mother or anyone about what he was doing to me, he would show me and my mom what real pain was. But even if my father hadn’t threatened me, I still wouldn’t have told anyone. In the streets we were taught that to expose yourself as having been a victim of any circumstance was to expose a weakness that others would take advantage of.
We never got the chance to take care of the pain that came with our trauma. Most of us got creative trying to hide that part of our lives. I know I did. I viewed everyone as my enemy and wouldn’t allow anyone to get close to me.
We all have our defense mechanisms and mine was always violence or keeping an aura of violence around me. I understood that by pushing people away I was not giving myself the opportunity to get to the core of what was going on with me, but I didn’t feel like I had a choice. I held it all in and let it fester into something monstrous. I had a lot of emotions bottled up, but anger was the only emotion that was acceptable for a boy in my neighborhood, so I channeled all of it: grief, sadness, pain and hopelessness– into anger.
By the age of 13 I felt a hatred for the world so fierce and violent that it hurt to look into another person’s eyes. I began acting out and was so totally lost and unyielding to my mother and everyone else that all they could do was pray for my soul.
Tay doesn’t believe that he has the capacity—at least at this point in time– to forgive his father. After almost two decades of acting out his psychological pain in angry and violent ways, he’s not sure if he’ll be able to forgive himself either.
Tay, upon entering prison.
But his healing is underway and it began nineteen years ago. Tay says: I met my wife Laura right after I was incarcerated for my current case. She was working as a prison clergywoman and was introduced to me when she delivered the news that my cousin had been murdered. Something about her made me willing to stay and talk with her for a while. Over time we developed a deep friendship and when she no longer worked as prison clergy she would visit me. Eight years after we met, we married (in prison) and have been married eleven years.
Since childhood everyone had preconceived notions about who I was. Laura didn’t come with those stereotypes and patiently let me show her who I am. She helped me see the underlying good in me and the same underlying good in others. It took me years to make the transition to a legit life — I had continued to manage the gang and conduct my drug business from prison –but the more it sunk in that I had something good to offer the world and the more I believed that others could recognize that good in me, the more I separated myself from criminal life. Eight years ago I left the gang with the promise that I would not reveal any of its secrets and was relocated to the Special Needs Yard of the prison where ex-gang members are put to protect them from the gangs that they left. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
I think it’s important to note that while love is healing, it’s the exceedingly positive way that we view those we love that is sometimes the primary remedy. Tay had others in his life who loved him unconditionally, like his mother and other relatives. What I think made Laura so impactful to Tay’s self-perception was that as an upper middleclass highly educated white woman, she represented the opinion of the majority. She represented the group that Tay believed saw him as “less-than.” Her high valuation of him helped him to value himself and believe that he was designed for something more than “thug life.”
Tay was gradually able to see himself as Laura saw him and this new perception was a platform from which Tay began the process of self-valuation.
Seeing himself as something other than a bad person inspired him to leave the gang and cease his very lucrative prison narcotics business. He now works full-time, making about 45 cents an hour sewing prison garments at the prison factory. He says he hates being poor and financially dependent upon his wife and mother, but has decided that feeling good about himself and being poor trumps having lots of drug money and feeling bad about himself. Tay also coaches the in-house softball and football teams and has been working on building a relationship with his long-estranged son.
It wasn’t our rehabilitation system that initiated Tay’s rehabilitation. It was love and positive regard.
You may root for Tay’s healing and budding self-value, especially if you acknowledge that life has dealt him some tough cards. But I wonder if you’d feel differently had you been a victim of his pain and anger — if you’d been one of his victims whom he brutally battered or attempted to murder with a gun. It’s much harder to feel compassionate toward those who have hurt us personally, but no less crucial.
Investigating My Abuser’s Past
In order to try to understand the man who abused me as a child (and with the encouragement of my therapist) I talked with his siblings and discovered the following: their parents had been emotionally unavailable, their mother was hyper-self-absorbed (probably suffering from narcissistic personality disorder) and had done little mothering, their parents had very loud sex when the kids were in the next room, their father had sexually abused the girls in the family and their mother had singled out one of their brothers (my perpetrator) to do things like scrub her back in the tub or help her hook her bra strap.
After one of his therapy sessions, my perpetrator shared with me that he had been molested at the age of 12 by a family friend who had come to live with his family for about a year. He said that what the man had done to him had felt good and left him ashamed and confused.
Knowing all of this, it would have been amazing if this man had not grown up to molest. He’d been sexually shamed and confused and been exposed to stilted and warped expressions of love and unhealthy sexual boundaries for most of his life. I once asked him why he molested me and he said, “Because I loved you.” The boundary lines on the expression of emotion, love and sexual desire had been so blurred for him that this was for him a reasonable explanation. It was the explanation.
From the beginning, I had understood this man’s pain and shame at the level of instinct or intuition. Learning his history helped me understand him on the level of logic and that understanding led to a stronger compassion, which led to forgiveness.
But, so that my powers of forgiveness don’t appear superhuman, let me add that this man, after much therapy, asked for my forgiveness. To his apology he added, “I have always prided myself on my ability to fix things and I can’t fix this. Tell me what I can do to fix this.”
That statement alone did a lot of fixing.
Why Punishment Won’t Stop the Pain
The reality is that hurt people tend to hurt people. Our traumas knock us out of alignment with our innately good natures and from there it’s a very slippery slope.
The ways in which we have historically reacted to the actions that stem from these wounds has not been to try to heal the wounds, but to judge and punish the person.
Spiritual author and lecturer Malidoma Patrice Some, Ph.D. is from a tribe in Southwest Africa that understands and practices love and valuation instead of punishment. In his book, Of Water and the Spirit, he describes the ritual that has historically been practiced when a member of his tribe breaks the rules.
The consequence for misbehavior is that the entire tribe encircles the man or woman, tells him what they appreciate about them and sings them a song, written just for them, that was assigned to them before birth. The goal of this ritual is to remind the person who they really are, to get them back in alignment with their true nature.
Malidoma says his tribe doesn’t believe in punishment, because “the wrong itself is its own punishment.” He knows that the shame and self-loathing of having acted from a wounded part of oneself is self-punishing and that love, acceptance and positive valuation is the solution.
My own experience has taught me that expecting healing and self-betterment to occur in the midst of punishment and negative valuations by self and others is like expecting a flower to grow in a toxic dump.
Finding the Good Person Beneath the Bad Behavior
I believe the reason that the man who molested me during my childhood was able to break through his denial and take responsibility (which is the first step in recovery) was that I continued to love him and see the good in him, even when I was enraged with him and even when I wanted nothing to do with him. I made it clear to him that I hated his actions, but that I saw him as being much more than his hurtful behaviors.
I didn’t do this intentionally. This was my natural perception of him and his actions, but the end result was that my ability to see who he really was under this bad behavior helped him to see who he really was. Without calculation, I provided the “warm rays of love” and the safety of compassion in which healing and personal growth can occur. These same “warm rays” did as much to heal and uplift me as it did him. That’s just how it works.
That’s not to say that love and positive valuation alone will always remedy misbehavior, nor is the healing process a quick fix. There are some abusers and perpetrators with enormous wounds and deeply ingrained dysfunction who require an abundance of help and therapy before they’re truly able to control their impulses.
The best place for these people, for whom outpatient counseling isn’t enough, is a prison (or secure facility) that focuses on compassion and healing, instead of punishment. Unfortunately, these types of places really don’t exist.
Prison recidivism rates, for decades, point to the fact that punishment and negative judgment do not rehabilitate and very often increase criminal behavior. According to a 2005 study by the U.S. National Institute of Justice, nearly 77 percent of released prisoners are rearrested within five years of release. Despite this discouraging statistic, there are no facilities that provide non-punitive, non-judgmental, healing-oriented programming. In fact, there are few prison systems that provide even counseling.
I believe that it’s important – in fact, essential—that rehabilitation be about providing the counseling and support that offenders need and, even more importantly, that it’s about treating them as people with value to offer the world — as good people who are worthy of love, care and healing. Because otherwise healing is not going to fully occur, if at all.
Norway’s prisons, for example, have a less punitive feel; inmates have their own dorm-like rooms and hold the keys to those rooms. Facilities are without bars and inmates are allowed to do farming work outdoors. No one in Norway is ever sentenced to life and there is no death penalty – all prisoners are eventually released. The belief is that the good in people will ultimately prevail, no matter who they are or what they did. As a result, Norway’s recidivism rate, at 30 percent, is the lowest in Europe and far lower than the 77 percent recidivism rate in the U.S.
A few states do have progressive programs, such as the sex offender treatment centers, inside prisons, in Minnesota. These offer offenders full psychological evaluations and provide them with counseling based on their unique needs.
A study conducted by the Minnesota Department of Corrections from 1990 to 2003 found that “offenders who participated in sex offender treatment within the Minnesota DOC reduced the risk of arrest for a new sex offense by 27 percent (33 percent for offenders who completed treatment). Participation in treatment also lowered the risk of re-arrest for a violent crime (sexual and non-sexual) by 18 percent.”
Still, these programs are conducted in facilities that are definite prison environments — environments clearly designed to punish and devalue those who live there.
Imagine how low the recidivism rates might be if our prisons provided the non-punitive environment and human dignity of Norway’s prisons and the focus on healing of the Minnesota Sex Offender Programs. Imagine how the world might evolve if we treated all of our wounded brothers and sisters with compassion and worth.
My forgiveness of my perpetrator helped him forgive himself. When I told him that I forgave him, he (a man whom I had never seen cry) broke down in sobs and choked out “thank you.”
Throughout the two decades since, this man has possessed the light heart of someone who has healed his psychological wounds, worked through emotional heaviness and experienced self-forgiveness. This lightness has been a blessing in my life and the lives of others, as has his love. Even with all the damage he inflicted upon my psyche and life, I attribute a great deal of the self-worth that I have today to his exceptionally positive valuation of me. Once he was free of his “demons” and damaging behaviors, he was able to focus his energy on being a cheerleader and big fan to the adults and children in his life.
I realize that to some this “happy ending” might seem inconceivable, but I assure you that my willingness and ability to forgive and the effect it had on all parties involved (especially me), resulted in substantive healing and satisfactory closure—something I don’t believe punishment and vengeance would or could replicate. I’m certain that if I’d insisted on the latter I would be dwelling in bitterness, anger, pain and sorrow to this day.
Backing Me Up: Buddah, Mohammed, Jesus…
Of course, it helps that I’ve been blessed with a predisposition toward compassion. For as long as I can remember I’ve been able to tune into the emotional and psychological frequencies of others—and it’s difficult to feel anything but compassion for someone when you feel the pain from which they’re operating.
Compassion opens the heart to love and love makes the heart happy. The Dalai Lama, a man who is the embodiment of happiness, shared the same philosophy when he said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
Many of you will agree, and say to yourselves, “Yes, that’s right. Love, compassion and forgiveness are what help people to heal and become better versions of themselves. That’s what has helped me.”
Yet when presented with specific examples of people behaving badly – and what’s more, behaving badly with a child or young woman – you may feel more compelled to send a lynching squad than wrap them in compassion.
Despite my explanations here, you might still be outraged by my responses of forgiveness and compassion towards the men who abused and molested me – you might see me as too wounded to know the right course of action in such circumstances. But what I’m presenting here is ancient wisdom. It’s the philosophy touted by the luminaries on whom the world’s major religions were established:
Mohammed said, “Reconcile whoever cuts you off, give to whoever deprives you, and pardon whoever wrongs you.”
Buddha said, “When you forgive me for harming you, you…unburden yourself of the weight of resentment and cut the cycle of retribution that would otherwise keep us ensnarled in an ugly…wrestling match. This is a gift you can give us both.”
And Jesus said, “If anyone has caused grief…you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.”
It’s this last recommendation by Jesus — reaffirming our love for someone who has hurt us that is especially challenging, but I’ve discovered that it is also the part that is the most healing for victims. It has been for me.
Luminaries in psychology also tout the psychological benefit of love, compassion and forgiveness — and the psychological detriment caused by the absence of these elements — but just because love and compassion are good for both the giver and the receiver doesn’t mean that they come to us easily.
Reconciling with My Rapists
As for the two young men who assaulted me in college, years later when in therapy I wrote them letters saying all the things that I didn’t let myself feel or think at the time that they raped me. In the letter I called what they did to me “rape” and that alone was liberating and healing. I also let them know how much their friendships had meant to me, how much I had cared about them and believed they’d cared about me — because it’s those elements that made the horror of what they did to me even more painful.
As I said before, one of them went a long way toward making amends with me by his willingness to take responsibility and acknowledge the wrongness of his actions. The other never directly apologized or made any mention of what he’d done, but over the years he did little favors for me, like finding people to help me start a business when he heard through the grapevine that that’s what I was doing. Was it done out of guilt? Maybe. Probably. And that’s OK.
A couple of times he called out of the blue to give me encouragement and once, when he heard I was in town, he came over and asked if I’d take a walk with him. I had the feeling that he was trying to muster up the courage to talk about the rape, but he didn’t. I didn’t muster up the courage either, even when he consoled me awkwardly over a recent relationship breakup by saying, “You‘re an amazing person, Kim. Some man is going to be very lucky to have you.”
I didn’t get an apology from him, but in his actions I felt his remorse and his desire to somehow make it up to me — and because I was coming from a place of compassion in the first place I found that I didn’t require anything more than that.
I truly believe that if I’d reacted to the rape with retaliation, public shaming or reporting them to the police, the fearful reactions of both these men would have amounted to nothing more than defensiveness and denial – responses that would have fanned the flames of my anger and hurt. Again, who wins when that happens?
Referring back to paragraph four (way) above: Understanding leads to compassion. Compassion leads to forgiveness. Forgiveness leads to love. Love leads to healing — and a fuller, happier life.
Both these men went on to have long-term marriages, successful careers and to raise happy children. I believe their time was better served this way than in prison, and my heart was happier with this ending to the story as well.
As for the boyfriend who kept me “emotionally hostage” for five years, Bob tracked me down about two years later to tell me that he had been seeing a therapist twice a week for the intervening two years. He wanted me to know how sorry he was for all that he had done. I told him that I had forgiven him the moment he walked out my door with the police and that maybe my forgiveness had been there all along – because I understood. My forgiveness allowed him to begin to forgive himself and over time we learned how to be friends.
What I didn’t tell you about Bob was that his mother died when he was not quite three-years-old. Bob’s father was an international businessman and spent most of his time in other countries, so his mother was by far the primary source of love and care in his life and three is an age when children are especially attached to their parents. When his mom died, Bob’s father quickly remarried a young woman who was in over her head with two grieving boys under the age of four and their father mostly absent. She resented her predicament and passed that resentment along to the boys, particularly Bob who was expressing his grief by physically acting out.
Bob suffered post-traumatic stress from the death of his mother and the subsequent emotional neglect and abuse of his stepmother. He had extreme abandonment issues and when he felt like I was trying to leave him – which was most of the time– his face would get very pale and his body temperature would drop to the point that he would shiver violently, even in a black car in the desert sun with no air conditioning. His stomach would cramp and he’d often spit up blood.
I was a sophomore in college when I first witnessed this and didn’t yet have psychological terminologies with which to categorize it, but it was clear to me what was going on. It wasn’t just threats of suicide or homicide that kept me in that relationship, it was that I knew that he was suffering and I didn’t want to see him suffer more. I took responsibility for his emotional well-being – and again, this is one reason why people often stay in abusive relationships.
Bob went on to live a good, contributing life. He too had a long-term marriage, a very successful career and raised happy children. He went on to be a good person who contributed value to the world. As with my other perpetrators, I believe his life was far better served this way than in prison, but more importantly, I believe that the world was better served this way.
Outrageous? Yes. But in a Good Way
I still have my issues and some of my psychological wounds from the abuse I endured will never completely subside. But because I chose to keep an open, loving heart instead of shuttering it with anger and bitterness, I’m a relatively well-adjusted person who is able to follow her heart and find joy in simple ways.
My love and valuation of those who have hurt me may still seem outrageous to you, but I am living proof that forgiveness and compassion pave the way for emotional recovery and happiness. They also paved the way for my perpetrators to heal and be the good people that they were originally designed to be.
Through love, outrageous love, healing happened for all. Forgiveness released us from the weight of the regret, resentment and self-loathing that fueled our dysfunction and misbehavior. Compassion and love burrowed through the fear that causes defensiveness and denial which then empowered us to get the healing support that we needed.
Love, outrageous love, enabled us to view ourselves and our lives with value and promise and to move forward in life with open hearts.
Kim Whiting can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kim today, with her husband and two children.