She was thin and frail looking, with a mat of long brown hair, and freckles sprinkled across her dirty face. She held her burned arm across her chest, and held her opposite hand to her mouth like a reminder not to speak. I couldn’t help but think of Lisa Steinberg, and a heart-wrenching school picture that made the cover of People magazine after her tragic murder. This girl, whom I’ll call Tracy, had the same sad and far-away glance – the eyes holding far more trauma than her should have ever beared.
The history of abuse and neglect was staggering, including a broken cheek bone and eye socket, a displaced shoulder, infected welts, and malnutrition. The burn on her arm happened when Tracy was six, and attempting to make herself dinner. Tracy was the daughter of an alcoholic mother who spent much of her time on the streets, leaving Tracy to mostly fend for herself. The mother’s alcohol-fueled rages were the source of most of Tracy’s injuries. The other injuries, the ones Tracy tried not to remember, were inflicted by one of the mother’s boyfriends. Tracy had been in and out of foster care since birth.
Regardless of the injuries, the system which states “keeping families together” as its goal and motto, would keep giving her back. A retired social worker would be her seventh foster mother, and I would be there as Tracy was dropped off, with one grocery sack of torn and damaged possessions. I would be there, too, as the months turned into years. Tracy had found a strong advocate and ally in her seventh home; Carrie launched a vigorous battle and ultimately won.
I would like to say that Tracy turned out alright – that she went on to find happiness and all the good things in life, but I can’t. Despite the best counseling and therapists, and the loving efforts of Carrie and her extended family and friends, Tracy never accepted love or security as her right. She never thought of herself as beautiful, or worthy, and she was never able to feel connected to other people. As a teen, she began to cut into her own skin. By the age of seventeen she was dead. One long cut to each of her wrists, and a final one to her neck.
Many people, especially those who have never been close to abuse, seem to believe that the effects are fleeting. That people grow up, “get over it” and move on. That they hit a magic number, like 18, and make a total break from the terrors of their past. Many also believe that a rescue like Tracy’s almost ensures recovery; take the child from the environment, they say, nurture, teach and love them and all will be well. It’s just not that simple. The effects of child abuse, both physical and emotional, do not end with a magic number, a rescue, or an escape. It does not end when the fists stop pounding and the screaming stops, or when the hands leave the body of a child, or when the rapes end.
And it does not end with forgiveness.
In Tracy’s therapy, as well as the therapies of many other children, forgiveness of the abuser was a central theme. “Forgive others so that you may heal” is an often quoted cliche. It’s been repeated so often, for so many years, that it’s almost universally accepted as necessary to the healing process. Let’s look at what forgiveness means:
*compassionate feelings that support a willingness to forgive
* the act of excusing a mistake or offense
*a quality by which one ceases to feel resentment against another for a wrong he or she has committed
In the first definition, and by the logic of “forgive others so that you may heal”, the abused is supposed to feel some compassion toward their abuser. They are, perhaps, not only to understand that the abuse was in the past, or the result of drugs or alcohol, or the abuser’s own bad childhood, but to feel compassion for the abuser’s circumstance.
It may be one thing to feel compassion toward someone who accidentally injured us, but here we are to forgive even the most intentional acts. We are to forgive those who broke our bones in a fit of rage, or poured boiling water over our scalp, just as we would forgive those who accidentally shut the car door on our fingers. With compassion. With the attitude of “things happen” or worse, much worse – “things happen for a reason.”
In the second definition, one is supposed to stop feeling resentful against their abuser, no matter what pain was involved, and no matter how long-term the effects may be. The inability to get pregnant due to multiple sexual assaults as a child, or the lifetime loss of innocence, or the difficulty in trusting or forming close relationships, is not supposed to resented under the forgiveness paradigm. This burden of forgiveness is placed on the abused as if it’s somehow natural, or always the right thing to do, or the only way to salvation. It is not.
Andrew Vachss is one of my heroes, and one of the few professionals who understand that the forgiveness paradigm only adds one more weight to the backs of the abused. As an attorney, he has spent his career advocating for abused children, taking on hundreds of pro bono cases, as well as writing countless articles and many books. In a 1994 article in an article entitled “You Carry the Cure in Your Own Heart”, Vachss addressed the long-term effects of emotional abuse, and said that the only person the abused really has to forgive is themselves. They have to forgive themselves for whatever wrong thoughts they had about their abuse – that they deserved it, or weren’t worthy of better, or brought it on themselves.
This is the forgiveness that’s necessary to heal: the forgiveness of oneself. Any other forgiveness should not be a mandate, but an individual choice informed by what’s best for that person – and not what’s best for the abuser, or the rest of the family, or what’s expected by society.
As someone who carries a few scars from her own childhood, I know that my own resentment turned into resolve, and resolve turned into a passion for protecting the rights of children. The compassion I might have spent unwisely on an abuser turned into a productive – and often joyful – spending of energy and time on others.
I believe that, in part, Tracy turned to self-injury because she felt guilty about the resentments she held. She, who could dredge up no compassion for herself, was told in therapy that she needed to feel it for others first, and only then would her healing begin. While the physical damage done to Tracy in early childhood was extensive, I believe it was the emotional abuse that built impenetrable walls between herself and the world around her. I don’t know what might have torn those walls down, I don’t know what might have worked, but I believe the guilt that was imposed on her by the forgiveness paradigm did not help.
Editor’s Note: You can read Andrew’s article here. If you click “Home” on the page, you will have access to the library of articles and books he has written. Judith Moore is a writer who turned her bitter childhood into a life of knowledge, art, and compassion. You can read about Judith here.