Posted by: Marie | June 22, 2011

(560) Guest Post: Love, Abuse, and Forgiveness

Post #560

Guest Post

Today, I am honored to publish a guest post written by Jane Rowan, a New England poet and writer. After teaching science for three decades in a private college, she retired to pursue the creative life.

Her new memoir, The River of Forgetting: A Memoir of Healing from Sexual Abuse, has been called “brave and inspirational” by Ellen Bass, co-author of The Courage to Heal. Jane has published numerous articles and the self-help booklet, Caring for the Child Within—A Manual for Grownups, available through her website and through Amazon (Kindle). An excerpt from The River of Forgetting was included in the book, Women Reinvented: True Stories of Empowerment and Change.

You can visit Jane at Jane Rowan. Her new memoir can be purchased at The River of Forgetting or at Amazon.

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Love, Abuse, and Forgiveness

It took me a long time to remember that I was abused. In the year after my father died, when I was 53, I finally woke up to a memory that pointed to abuse (see related excerpt). How could those memories be hidden so long? I think there was both a push and a pull towards forgetting. The push was my family’s secrecy and silence. Both when I was a child and later, there was no space for my feelings or disclosures that could threaten my parents’ already shaky marriage.

Jane Rowan

Jane Rowan

But in that eccentric leftist family I also received much love and attention. There was never a question in my mind (as there is for too many children) that both my father and my mother loved me deeply and strongly. I tagged along after my father into factories where he fixed equipment. My mother played endless games of Parcheesi with me.

When the memories, many of them vague, began to return, I did daily battle with myself even to begin to believe that my father could have abused me. It made no sense with my image of a caring family. Much of the struggle that I detail in my memoir, The River of Forgetting, is with self-doubt and the question, “How could they?” How could he ignore my terror when I was 3 to 5 years old, and go ahead and molest me? How could my loving mother refuse to listen to me and tell me to forget it?

As I move along in my healing journey, this question still troubles me, but I also begin to see that the mixture of love and abuse is common, in child abuse and in domestic violence. Perhaps you’ve read the novel, The Bone People, by Keri Hulme—it’s a beautiful and terrifying story about deep love and near-lethal violence, both co-existing in one man.

As I move past the crisis and into the resolution stages of healing, I also begin to find again the love that was there along with the abuse. As I write in The River of Forgetting, I first needed to experience deeply my inner child’s hurt, confusion, fear, and anger, which had been suppressed for decades. All these needed full expression and the support of my smart, caring therapist. And then, slowly, I found love. First the love for my own wounded inner child, and for my therapist, then a larger love that feels cosmic. Finally, gradually and on my own time, I feel the love that did flow between me and my parents. And still does, even though they are both dead.

So, does loving my parents mean that I forgive them? I see some of the forces that drove them to unacceptable behaviors. My mother always felt unloved in her birth family, scared and intimidated in life, so she could not support and protect me properly. My father was driven by a different strange family dynamic where his family’s religiosity and control issues drove him to rage and rebellion. I understand these strains and accept that my parents had to be the imperfect, loving people they were. Yet there is no way I can find the things they did acceptable. I cannot condone or support the abuse.

For years I have said that I cannot use the word “forgiveness” in connection with my abuse or my abusers. I cannot excuse the events or reason my feelings away. Yet I love the people who raised me. I’m still not sure I would call this “forgiveness,” in part because the word means so many different things to different people. “Love” is the word I’ll choose to live with and embody.

Reader, what is your experience of love, abuse, and forgiveness? What words would you use right now to describe where you are with these paradoxes?


Responses

  1. I am glad to say that I wasn’t abused. My partner was physically and sexually abused.

    She prefers ‘acknowledgement’ to acceptance and doesn’t feel the need to forgive (quite the reverse – the need to say that, “They were the baddies, NOT ME!!!”

    I am very glad that you talk about the mix of love. This is something that those who haven’t been abused have trouble understanding. Most clearly seen when those who haven’t been abused are puzzled when the abused person isn’t delighted when the abuser dies.

    Reading this post I did wonder how long it took you to move this process, from first vague memories to some sense of ‘cosmic’ love.

    Many thanks for sharing your story.

  2. Thank you for hosting Jane during her virtual book tour to share her memoir, The River of Forgetting. I just finished reading it the other day. It’s such a powerful story. I hope your readers are helped by her moving post.

    All my best,

    Cheryl

    • You are very welcome, Cheryl!

  3. Hello, Evan, and thank you for your thoughtful response to my post. Indeed it’s hard to find the right words for how we might feel, so I like your suggestion of “acknowledgement,” since it’s not exactly that I ACCEPT what was done. I accept THAT it was done, but not the abuse itself.

    It took me about five years of hard work in therapy before I felt times of great love; that wasn’t the end, either. Healing is an ongoing process. I honor you for supporting your partner and for engaging in the conversation about healing.

    Jane

  4. Hi, Jane –

    I really appreciate you publishing a guest post here . . . and your message is so applicable . . . this mix of love and abuse is something many of us, including me, deal with . . . thanks for your input!

    – Marie

  5. Yes thanks for this. I’m over three years into therapy and many times I feel like I am just starting out.

  6. Thanks for your messages, Marie and One Long Journey.
    I agree, it sure is confusing. I wouldn’t wish that I grew up without love! but the mix-up is difficult to deal with. And also yes, three years is a lot of work and yet at three years I was really hitting bottom and had a way to go. Soon after that, as I describe in my memoir, I began to feel the love in me and in my therapist that was bringing me along and leading to healing.

    Such brave journeys we undertake–I honor you and wish you the best.
    Jane

  7. Thanks for the response – not sure if I would describe it for me as hitting the bottom – I’m dealing with trust (and I guess love) for my therapist. A hard concept to accept. I will look for your book.

  8. Thank you to both Jane and Marie for this very interesting post. It’s given me so much to think about.

    Your story reminds me a bit about Shania Twain’s story: she identifies her step-father as clearly abusive, but at the same time felt love and nurturing from him. I think she’s endured a lot of criticism for not painting him as a one-dimensional monster. And I think that conflict/tension may be partially behind her dysphonia.

    This is such an important topic you’ve blogged about; one I rarely see discussed. It seems to be almost invisible at the level of standard mental health treatment protocol. I hope you don’t mind me commenting on it from another perspective.

    My situation was almost the polar opposite from yours, Jane. It was my mother who was my abuser, not my father. And in a way that’s both much worse AND paradoxically much easier to deal with than your situation, there was absolutely no love from her: only terrorizing. She was, I’ve recently come to realize, both a psychopath and a ‘tyrannical sadist’ (as per Millon’s categorizations).

    However, I think examination of both situations largely remain untouched by standard mental health treatment protocols: both your situation where there is a mix of love/bonding AND abuse, and my own situation where there is nothing but terrorizing, mind manipulation and fear.

    From what I’ve seen in my own experience, and from listening to others, this seems to be yet another area most therapists won’t touch. I don’t believe that most have any training, or any inclination, to get inside the minds of their patients’ abusers to help their patients understand what exactly it was they were dealing with.

    I’ve spent a good amount of time lately doing exactly that. Oddly, that has let me finally “acknowledge”, then ‘accept’, and finally (in a way that makes sense to me) to ‘forgive’ my mother, in a way that i suspect might be easier for me than for you because my case was so straightforward (at least once I realized the truth about it). That my mother hated me and would have killed me had she been given even half a chance was never in doubt. There was never any love – only hate and pleasure at my pain.

    For me, the question comes down to figuring out whether or not the abuse came out of compulsion or choice, and whether or not there was distress &/or remorse. Allowing myself to answer those two questions about each case of abuse or abuser is what allows me to categorize each in a way that makes sense to me, and gave me the possibility of keeping myself safe if similar situations were to arise in future.

    One concern I have when abuse is mixed with caring is that our feelings of care for the abuser will allow us to inappropriately minimize the danger and thus override necessary and appropriate self-protection.

    What I haven’t been able to forgive – and I’m not even sure that it’s appropriate or that I’m interested – is the society around my mother specifically, and around abusers in general, that know what goes on amongst them but choose to be so completely and willingly blind to it. In my own mother’s case, I finally came to the conclusion that she is more or less like a vicious wild animal who has no more chance to be a caring human being than I do of being a camel or a lamp shade. She may have, tragically, encountered abuse in her own life that contributed to her condition. And she also may have favoured this way of being as a way of protecting herself. However I also know that if the option were given to her to choose two ways of responding to a situation: one where there was an option to hurt someone vs. one where there would be no harm to anyone, she would almost invariably choose the former. In this way she’s more like a wild predatory animal or rabid dog let loose in a schoolyard (she was a school nurse btw); and I’ve come to realize that at some level it’s not really her fault. The responsiblity never lies with the dangerous animal itself, but always with its keepers who knowingly let it loose on an unsuspecting population.

    For instance, everyone knew what Casey Anthony was like, but it sounds as if everyone around her (except for her grandmother who wanted to report her to poice) enabled her and allowed her behaviour to continue without consequence, and completely overlooked the possible danger to Caylee.

    I’m sure that doesn’t help clarify your situation at all. I realize that in your case forgiveness is probably much more complicated precisely because your father was both loving and abusive. Sorry for the rambling here. Your post has given me much to think about, even though I can’t seem to get my thoughts straight about it. Thanks for sharing it.

  9. Anonymous_b,
    Thanks so much for your very thoughtful post. It is helpful to talk about different circumstances in order to tease out our feelings and reactions. Your abuse was, indeed, very different from mine not only in that it was your mother but also her extreme lack of love and caring. She does sound feral and it makes sense to regard her in that light. I am impressed that you have achieved a level of forgiveness about her.

    I particularly liked where you said, “For me, the question comes down to figuring out whether or not the abuse came out of compulsion or choice, and whether or not there was distress &/or remorse.” It’s really hard to draw the line between compulsion and choice and I wonder what I’d say about my father and choice. Maybe that’s the nub–I feel that he was sane enough and privileged enough so that he DID have a choice and he chose to be irresponsible.

    On the other hand, I think that he also had remorse although it was not expressed to me. If it had been expressed to me, then I think I could forgive him. Yes, this is a highly complex moral question, and we can, most of all, forgive ourselves for not having clear answers!

    All my best in your journey,
    Jane


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