Marilyn VanDerbur, author of Miss America By Day, is one of my heroes. She is an incest survivor, and she encourages other survivors to speak up and write letters to magazines and newspapers about this issue particularly when things are said that are incorrect or hurtful. I am taking her advice to heart and learning to speak up in a new way. Another survivor friend, suggested that I share this on my blog because people besides the Editors could benefit from it.
I’m writing to you because of something I read in the (magazine name redacted) that troubled me. I understand that it was not the intention of the author to give offense, nor of the editors. However, words can sometimes speak what is in our hearts, more than we had intended. It is my hope that discussing this will help avoid this sort of painful error in the future.
Recently, I opened the current issue and saw an article on the Atonement. I am working to heal from the impact of childhood abuse, and so with high hopes I started reading that article first. I was felt as if I had been slapped when I read the author’s’ words: “As a child she had often been abused, and this had led to years of therapy—and at times institutionalization—because she could not cope.”
The dictionary defines cope as “deal effectively with something difficult.” The implication appears to be that if someone cannot cope, it is because they are weak, or deficient. I considered that I was being overly sensitive and so asked a group of friends to fill in the blank, “He _______ because he could not cope.” The answers were things like: self-medicated, drank, quit and prayed. As you can see, three of the four are negative coping mechanisms, which seems consistent with a negative connotation of the phrase “could not cope.” Or in other words, supports the inference that the Survivor mentioned in the article was weak and deficient in some way. It is very common for survivors of childhood abuse to suffer from anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation, which may led to years of therapy, and sometimes institutionalization. This is not because they are weak, or cannot cope. It is because the damage of abuse during ones formative years, and the pain of healing is so great.
It may seem at first that survivors of childhood abuse are overly sensitive and writing for or about them is a veritable minefield. Yet, I believe that if two things are understood, much pain and misunderstanding could be avoided. Those two things are: survivors need their pain validated, and they need to know that people care. For example, in the article, “could not cope” could have been worded, “because she suffered a great deal of pain”. The later validates the pain, and gives a feeling of empathy from the writer.
Also potentially hurtful, are messages that emphasize forgiveness as the solution for the pain. Certainly forgiveness is important. However, before a survivor can forgive there is a lot of grieving and healing work that needs to be done. Cheiko Okasaki discussed this in her powerful talk, Healing From Sexual Abuse. Therefore, telling someone who is still healing to forgive is the equivalent to suggesting someone pray away cancer. It is just not that simple. Some survivors feel invalidated by the forgiveness message, and may also feel shamed by it. Shame is a very difficult thing for survivors to overcome, and being told to forgive may reinforce their idea that they are somehow inherently flawed as in, “If I had more faith I could forgive, so this proves I am bad and deserve this pain.”
Thank you for your time and consideration. Survivors can heal with the Atonement, but it is a difficult journey and we need validation and support..
Sincerely. . .
NOTE: I removed the names of the magazine, article and the author’s name because I felt it appropriate to speak with them directly about the matter (a copy of this has been sent). But because some newspapers, and magazines print letters to the editor, I felt it would be appropriate to share here to help others understand this important issue.
UPDATE: I received a response from the editor. I was not expecting one, so that was a pleasant surprise. The response was very kind and thoughtful. It was personal, not a form letter. It was very appreciated!!!