For years after, I withdrew from any touch—even the casual, familiar embrace of close family members. Every time I entered a church, I would break out in a cold sweat, my heart palpitating so rapidly I feared a heart attack. What was happening to me? I could not understand it. However I tried to rationalize, to tell myself I was safe at church, safe with men I trusted, my body would not rest in the assurances.
I feared I was losing my mind, until I had a conversation with my counseling professor. "Halee, this is so normal it has a name: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder." Knowing that I was not crazy gave me a foundation upon which to get well. Good friends, too, dug deep and challenged me to name that which had happened to me. "Halee, what happened to you was rape, and until you admit that, you will never be well." And I wanted to be well.
To Keep Choosing Life
We sometimes think that the choice of life and death is at the beginning of our walk with God, but this isn't so. The task of the Christian life is to keep choosing life, over and over. There were times when the way of the grave seemed preferable to the harsh light of truth, times when the darkness, like a tempest, threatened to engulf me. But I wanted to live, so I kept choosing life, sometimes daily. Again, in Ezekiel 16, God said, "Then I passed by and saw you kicking about in your blood, and as you lay there in your blood I said to you, 'Live!'" So I did.
I'd always skeptically wondered why victims of sexual assault blame themselves. But in the days following the attack, I took full responsibility for it. No longer do I wonder. It's because the should's, the would's, and the what-if's are persuasive illusions that trick you into believing that if you'd just done it all differently, the outcome would have been different. It's psychologically easier to bear false guilt than to bear powerless vulnerability. As long as you are responsible, you are in control.
And in my case, there was a third reason. It was easier for me to bear responsibility than it was to bear the truth: that a person of the clergy—a person I believed was entrusted by God to shepherd others—was capable of so great a violation and crime.
My story—and the stories of countless others who have been the victims of sexual assault perpetrated by pastors—is a story of how fairy tales have failed us. The Brothers Grimm taught us that good and evil are visibly discernible. Good is always beautiful, and evil (excepting Snow White's Evil Queen) is always ugly; heroines are flawless while villains are deformed and grotesque. But in the real world, good and evil are not so nearly apparent as we might hope.
As Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn understood, "The line separating good and evil passes ... right through every human heart—and through all human hearts." Yet we are reluctant to admit that monsters do not look as they do in our fairy tales and myths; they can look like us, like our pastors, the very people we believe God has entrusted to guide us. The world would seem safer and more controllable if beasts were sequestered to the Forbidden Forest, never lurking in our homes, our workplaces, and our pulpits.
I wish this weren't my story. With it, though, I hope to make all the good I can. My interest and vocational expertise in spiritual formation and leadership is not happenstance, nor did it arise out of mere intellectual curiosity. I write and teach on what it means for Christians, especially those in authority, to actually live and be like Jesus—through and through—so that maybe tomorrow, there will be fewer people with stories like mine.