FORGIVENESS or TRUTH: WHICH IS THE BEST REMEDY? by Carol P. Christ


What happened to you really was bad. This should not happen to any child. It should not have happened to you.

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

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17 replies

  1. Carol,
    Thank you for this raw and honest component of forgiveness. I agree that it should not be dispensed too quickly or without ones own interior excavation of its harm and pain. Having said that, I do feel it is an essential factor in the healing process, even if it is not accepted by the one who inflicted the harm.

    I, like many others, have struggled with the pain and dysfunction of childhood and its many forms of abuse. Because I am not a recovering (or even active) alcoholic or drug addict like the rest of my siblings, the wounds of childhood seem less pronounced, less obvious to the naked eye, but this is an allusion. Through the years I have had to give those wounds space and identity, even acknowledgment in order to come to terms with their power. But in so doing their power diminished, creating equal space for compassion and understanding and finally forgiveness.

    And now I must hold my own shadow side, what Thomas Merton called the False Self in its true light. The wounds and pain I have inflicted on others (and myself) must be integrated and held together with the good or True Self, creating a tension of truth for my life. In this alchemy I have come to hold myself responsible for the fractures in my life and not reflectively placing them upon my mother or father for their failures. The essential component has been forgiveness, not quick unexamined forgiveness, but the heavy lifting, even kenotic kind that places me in a path of truth, no matter how much it hurts.

    Thank you again for what I consider such an essential conversation.

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    • Cynthie, thanks to you too for open and honest reflection. I do agree with you that those who have been abused often abuse others. The sins of the fathers and mothers really are passed on to the 7th generation. In addition many in our culture consider cruel discipline to be necessary to “teach” a child how to behave. For me truth-telling about abuse is the beginning of recognizing that the way we were treated is NOT the way to treat our children or anyone else. This requires changing our own unconscious and conscious behaviors, repairing the harm we have done, etc.

      Still, I think “forgiving” a person who does not intend to change can be very confusing, because then there is a tendency to think, well all of that is now behind me–and hey presto, it happens again and you are unprepared again. Compassion and understanding and taking responsibility for one’s own behavior are possible for me without forgiveness. But then the bottom line is I am not a Christian.

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  2. Hi Carol, Thanks for another great post.

    For me, abuse goes deeper than teaching me that I can’t feel my feelings, it taught me to distrust my entire reality…what I knew in my body, emotions and intellect to be true.

    I have spent much of my life learning to take seriously and trust my own reality, and allow my inner knowing to guide me. I came close to annihilation of self, which I eventually unconsciously participated in.

    Absence of Goddess, Female Divine, Great Mother in our cultural mythos/ethos, especially for girl children, is the stark ground of this abuse and retards healing.

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    • Thanks for sharing Ann. I understand what you mean by distrusting “my entire reality.” The abuse I suffered at Yale which I do not discuss here created a kind of schizophrenia–either I am crazy or they are, and without support we tend to think the crazy one must be me.

      And you are so right that one of the supports we definitely need is a Great Mother who understands what we are suffering AS WOMEN and supports and inspires our healing.

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  3. Carol, right on target. “he really loves you” — this lie told to children is horrifying. It is quite hard for women to name the agent, because the agent is the father, the brother etc., and patriarchy requires the token tortureres in order to perpetuate itself. So the mother becomes the token torturer to the girl, because she is married to the patriarch.

    And as a lesbian, I have a hard time understanding hetero women, and what happens in their families. It just is impossible for me to believe that men can love women at all, given the structure of patriarchy itself. We have not my nigel syndrome, or nice guy syndrome… but I do know that if women are stuck in family lies, and no one wants to tell the truth, forgiveness is fake or deluded, or a survival mechanism. But it is not real.

    Truma bonding, stockhold syndrome, post traumatic stress— these are the illnesses women suffer with in patriarchy. Just don’t even tell me “he’s really a good guy once you get to know him” — don’t tell me lies. And how can forgiveness be possible in patriarchy? The patriarchs don’t see women as human, they see us as cattle, products to be owned, families to be controlled.

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    • Turtle woman, I do agree with you that some of these patterns can be broken more easily in lesbian relationships, but I think you know that is not always the case. A lesbian mom is just as capable of whacking her kids or of expecting them to conform to her wishes as a father is, expecially if she is “following” the patterns of her own upbringing when she raises her children. And I would suppose that a lesbian mom is also capable of telling her children, “your other mom didn’t really mean that” to cover up abuse. Sigggghhhh… These patterns can also be broken in hetero familes, once the wall of silence is broken, and once men begin to see women and children as human. after all, men are abused children too, and if they can deal with that, they can heal too.

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  4. Hi Carol,
    Thank you for this post; this is such an important issue. I was also told many times in my life to forgive those who had been abusing me… and like you, the offender never had to say they were sorry or make amends for me to be ‘required’ to do this. I agree– it’s total bullshit– though I usually ‘forgave’ because ‘forgiveness’ and sympathy (which to me meant: feeling bad for the person) was what I thought was my ‘Christian’ duty. Anger wasn’t an option– that would involve having to deal with, as you write about, the truth of the situation.

    What’s sad to me though, is how our feelings start to change because of abuse. The fact of the matter was, I DID feel bad for my abusers; as though my being upset with them was so hurtful that I was the one who was behaving badly. … I still catch myself falling into this feeling from time to time; but I work hard to “hold a space” open for my authentic feelings.

    I am always very wary now of granting ‘forgiveness’ too soon; because its really not forgiveness (which I now define in terms of healing) if it takes something away from you (or something ‘more’ away from you).

    Thank you again for your post.

    Like

  5. Thank you for sharing your story. I’d like to add that I’m sure many women have been in your situation and by that statement i don’t mean to dilute it’s significance but rather would like to examine the events from a systematic and macro level of analysis. The situation you have described singles out individuals. The victim, and two different types of perpetrators. When we examine the institutions that may be present, family, perhaps religion, and society we can see that there are factors reinforcing and encouraging the behavior that your mother has taken, your father, as well as yourself. The institution of a patriarchical family tells your mother to subdue any conflict, while telling your father that to apologize is weakness. Religion emphasizes forgiveness, rather than healing and community accountability which is a process. Society continues to encourage these behaviors while you may have internalized these ideas and lived them out in your own relationships. These institutions also encourage blame on individuals rather than systems of oppression that have molded individuals to behave in certain ways. This furthers a process of accountability. While I empathize with your feelings, I think it’s much larger than your parents’ fault.

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    • Dear Anonymous, I agree with you that these problems are systemic or culture-wide. Alice Miller writes eloquently about this. At the same time they are individual and personal. For personal healing we must deal on the individual level. To say tell a victim of abuse oh well your Dad and Mom were just acting out cultural scripts can be another way of saying: so it really isn’t that bad what happened to you on the personal level. Once the abuse has been acknowledged to be personal and painful, THEN is the time to look to the cultural patterns as well. And it is also true that these are systemic patterns in which all of the participants are victims. On the other hand, someone has to stop the cycle. In my opinion, clear acknowledgement of the harm that has been done to an individual child is the place to BEGIN but not to end.

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      • And of course we must deal with the roles institutions play in perpetuating abuse, whether that be the Church, psychiatry, social services or whatever.

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  6. Hmm, I thought I responded to Sara too. Maybe it will come up or maybe I didn’t press the button.

    Sara, I agree with you that we were told to be good girls and good girls understand and forgive. We tried soooo hard to be soooo good. But sadly forgiveness and understanding are not “magic potions” that make the abuser stop. Siggghhh.

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  7. Carol,

    Thank you for this honest and insightful message. I can recognize myself in both the mother and the daughter of your story. How true that having had confusing messages about what was okay or not okay to feel when we were kids makes it oh so difficult to be the kind of painfully honest adults that our kids need us to be! Its a good reminder for me as the mother of a 10 and a 12 year old. Recently, my 12 year old daughter and I have begun a practice of using a journal to write back and forth to one another. She is a deep thinking kid and sometimes the questions she poses to me are not easy for me to answer.

    I was a student in your Thealogy class at CIIS in spring of 2008 or 2009 (I forget which now). Your honesty and your willingness to challenge your students to know why they think and believe as they do is something I will always admire. I’m so glad your voice is out here on the web. Thank you!

    Katie

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  8. Hi Katie, the pattterns beaten into us are hard to break. Thanks for sharing how you and your daughter are breaking down the walls of silence. Sometimes writing can be easier than speaking, when difficult subjects need to be brought up. Take care of each other, Ca

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  9. Oh, Carol, I love your words and spirit. Thank you for your work and enCOURAGEment. ….And Alice Miller – a ‘voice’ from my past, having read all of her books years ago – she’s arising thru you, now….. ‘The truth’ and it’s shades are what’s most interesting, what I’m most curious and unabashedly courageous about now of late – so timely for me. And the forgiveness(?) is just sooo optional and not of concern to me actually, as I’m noticing happens naturally for me – thru all kinds of signs, blessings, dreams, serendipitous or synchronistic happenings that I hardly even notice when some seemingly big is ‘forgiven’ – as if by magic it is dis-SPELL-ed :c) into thin air – if this makes any sense…as it does, me.

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  10. Alice Miller is my hero. I read every book she wrote back to back after reaching a standstill in my therapy regarding forgiveness. I am finally healing because Dr. Miller’s books gave me “permission” not to forgive. I do not forgive my parents. What they did was wrong and has caused enduring harm to me. But by stepping back, and walking around forgiveness, I have been able to give them credit for who they are today, 40 years later. I no longer fear them, so I can find my compassion for them. I can even love them. I do, indeed. And I can do all this safely, because I’ve neither forgotten nor forgiven the abuse they doled out, and I have not allowed my experience to be erased or rewritten by them, or the psychotherapy community, or religion, or culture. Alice Miller is right about all of this. To heal, we need an ally to share our outrage. And we need respect for our experience, rather than demands to wash away all evidence. My therapist (who also employs EMDR for trauma recovery) is a brilliant, compassionate woman. She stopped saying “forgive,” or even “let go,” when she realized I would not. She followed me as my “could not” became “should not” became “will not, must not, ever.” And I am healing just fine without the forgiveness trap, not wallowing, not stalled, not estranged from my family. I’m safe in my radical honesty, comfortable with my newfound compassion, willing to rebuild (actively rebuilding) relationships, no forgiveness required.

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  11. Wyeth, thanks for sharing your story. I agree: we do not have to “forgive” in order to move forward. I personally do not intend to “forgive” anyone who does not acknowledge that harm has been done. However, by acknowledging and receiving acknowledgement from someone (friend, therapist, teacher, relative) for the harm that has been done, we can move forward to a clear place in which we can have compassion first for ourselves and only then for the person who did the harm–after that we can wish that person well.

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