In our culture there is often a rush to forgiveness that precedes acknowledging the harm that has been done. When I was a child and my father yelled at me or withheld love, I was told by mother, “He really does love you. He just does not know how to show it.” She sometimes added, “Even though he will never say he is sorry, you should forgive your father, because he did not really mean what he said.”
As a child I “learned my lesson well.” I came to the conclusion that women must “read between the lines” of the behavior and words of men, because men cannot and do not express their true feelings. This “lesson” did not serve me well in my life. Quite the opposite. When I loved a man and he did not treat me well, I remembered my mother’s words. “He does love me,” I told myself, “he just doesn’t know how to show it.” My mother passed on a very good recipe for accepting abuse.
“Hold on,” I can hear you thinking, “Your mother was only trying to protect you.” Of course she was, but her words had exactly the opposite effect. Instead of helping me to deal with life, my mother’s words confused me. My mother taught me that where men are concerned the word “love” does not have its ordinary meaning, the one I learned from her love for me. Where men are concerned “love” is complicated and mysterious: what does not look or feel like love really is love. Sorry Mom, but that was bullshit! I know you wanted me to find love and happiness and were often puzzled when I didn’t. You wondered if it was anything you did. Despite your best intentions, it was something you did.
Psychoanalyst Alice Miller was in her sixties when she finally recognized the truth that set her free. In Breaking Down the Wall of Silence, she writes of “the liberating experience of facing painful truth.” She states that not only parents but also therapists and religious leaders are all too often afraid of facing painful truth. What is the truth they are afraid of facing? In my family it was simply this: “No father should treat his children like that. Your father should not treat you like that.” If I had heard these words, Miller explains, it would have been painful. But it would have been the truth. It would have been difficult for me to accept that at times my father really was abusive and cruel. It might have been even more painful for my mother to acknowledge that her husband really was abusive and cruel to her children. But the alternative was more painful and in its own way more abusive and cruel.
Where is the abuse in being told a “white lie” about abuse? The child who is told a lie about the pain she is experiencing is being told to suppress her feelings. She is being told that her valid feelings that “this hurts” and “this should not be happening to me,” are wrong and cannot be acknowledged or expressed. In other words “feeling your own feelings” is not OK. If all or most children are raised not to feel their own feelings, it is no wonder that adults who have been raised not to feel their own feelings continue to be afraid to face painful truths. We allow ourselves and those around us to be abused and then we cover abuse up with white lies. Alice Miller asks:
“Why should I forgive, when no one is asking me to? I mean, my parents refuse to understand and to know what they did to me. … [My forgiveness] doesn’t help my parents to see the truth. But it does prevent me from experiencing my feelings, the feelings that would give me access to the truth.”
Alice Miller was in her sixties when she finally discovered that “The truth about childhood, as many of us have had to endure it, is inconceivable, scandalous, painful.” She was not talking only about sexual and physical abuse—which we now know are rampant. She was also talking about a kind of psychological abuse that is even more widespread: parents who expect their children to do as they are told and not to do what they feel like doing are abusing their children. These children are being taught to suppress their feelings in order to please their parents. Often the feelings that are being suppressed are not even anger or resentment but simple joy and excitement about life.
I was in my forties when I began to understand this. I often thought that since I was rarely hit (though often spanked) and never sexually abused, nothing “really bad” ever happened to me. I now understand that being told not to express my feelings but to suppress them so that I would not upset my father or other adults really was abuse. It is no wonder that my feelings were a mystery to me as an adult and that it took years of therapy before I began to experience and trust them.
After my mother died, she came to me in a dream that had the force of revelation. In it she acknowledged the painful truth of my childhood and my brothers’ childhoods. She asked for my forgiveness and warned me never to love a man so much that I would allow myself to deny the harm he is doing to others. In my dream I thanked my mother for finally telling me the truth, and I did forgive her. As for my father, I do not hate him, in fact I wish him well. But I do not forgive him for something he has never acknowledged he did. This is the painful truth of my life.
As a teacher and as a friend, I hear and have heard many stories of abuse. My response is to look the person telling me the story in the eye, take her hand, and to say these simple words: What happened to you really was bad. This should not happen to any child. It should not have happened to you.
Carol P. Christ is a founding mother in the study of women and religion, feminist theology, women’s spirituality, and the Goddess movement. She teaches online courses in the Women’s Spirituality program at CIIS. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. One of her great joys is leading Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete through Ariadne Institute.