Let's Talk About What Happened on Downton Abbey
Warning: This post contains spoilers from season 4, episode 2 of Downton Abbey.
I had to look away when the visiting valet attacked Anna Bates on Downton Abbey's recent episode. It's my knee-jerk reaction. Even people who haven't experienced sexual violation probably have the same instinct. Seeing a predator leer, then assault a victim should make us all recoil.
I keep recoiling, escaping into myself, and mourning my own crushing Anna moments, wondering how many people walk wounded on this earth, feeling afraid, alone, violated, never to be whole. I'm grateful they didn't show what happened, but Anna's screams and the noise of the valet's violent attack were enough to remind me of that terribly helpless feeling of not being able to escape a perpetrator.
After the rape, we see Anna's shame play out on-screen. Cornered, wild-eyed, and frightened, she begs the one person who knows to keep her secret. This same kind of shame has kept many of us silent, some for lifetimes.
Last year, as a part of a long process of healing and telling my story, I wrote two posts that went crazy on the web: The Sexy Wife I Can't Be and I'm Sick of Hearing About Your Smoking Hot Wife, published here at Her.meneutics. In each post, I talked about the difficulty for survivors of sexual abuse to develop healthy view of sex.
I've received many emails, including some from women as old as their 70s who were sharing their sexual abuse stories for the very first time. After such excruciatingly honest revelations and the myriad of responses of rape victims who thought they were the only ones who struggled, I decided it was time to write a book for those silenced by rape.
The real-life Annas of this world need to know they are not alone. They need to know that others want to help. They need to see a pathway through from silence to healing.
I kept my own story silent for a decade. When I was raped at five years old by neighborhood bullies, I kept their yearlong violation completely tucked away. Nightmares haunted me, and I spent my childhood feeling marked as I continued to have to run away from new predators.
I finally shared my story as a teenager, let it out into the world, only to be disbelieved or dismissed. A blessed few listened and offered counsel. The best thing I learned to do? Entrust my story to some safe people who dared to believe that prayer would help me heal. In college, a group of friends prayed me through many, many tears—the foundation of my healing today. I also sought out wise counsel, asking how I could heal, particularly enough to entertain the idea of marriage someday. (It sure seemed scary.)
But then I succumbed to the underlying message that once I became a Christian, all was well. The old memories, the nightmares, the gut-lurching fears had been taken away, and a new life awaited me. Denial of the past became my holy act (so I thought).
Although I told my husband of the rapes prior to marriage, neither of us really knew what that would mean for us as a couple. So I arbitrarily silenced myself, not wanting to face the shame and desperately wanting to believe that rape had no sway over my heart or my behavior. I put on my best game-face for sex, gritting my way through it, and dying a bit inside.
Once my first daughter turned five years old, I broke down again. I realized how very small I had been when those teenage boys brutalized me. I nearly collapsed under the weight of the memories and shame. I sought professional counseling. I prayed a lot. My husband Patrick and I had excruciatingly honest talks about sex. I hurt his feelings (so many times), and he hurt mine. We both got angry at the boys (now men) who sexually assaulted me.
The process of new wholeness took another decade of very deliberate work by me, along with the help and support of good friends and a humble, dedicated spouse. It was by no means formulaic. There were times I yelled at God, asking where he had been when those boys and their friends took their turns. I allowed myself to say it was unfair. I inventoried how sexual abuse had messed with my thinking, particularly that I had no worth other than to be used.
Once, when Patrick asked why I couldn't emotionally connect to sex (I often float above myself, detached, during the act), I just cried, then said, "Believe me, I want to be well. I want to connect. I just don't know how." I've felt the weight of despair that perhaps this is my lot in life.
In the trenches, I've worked my way toward health, learning that God loves me and is changing me, day by day. I've come to peace with myself, knowing I may always walk with a limp in this area, anticipating the day when I'll be blessedly free of the effects of the abuse in heaven.
Today I have hope. I'm less pessimistic, and I've started (finally) to grant myself grace as a wife who struggles. I'm in a better place now, openly sharing what happened, and telling the story in such a way that I almost feel as if it's someone else's story.
I'm curious to see how the next Downton Abbey episodes progress, dealing with the aftermath of Anna's rape. If the writers stay true to the time period, the silence and shame will continue. The valet will not face consequences. And Anna will slowly (or maybe quickly) fall apart. Her undoing is something I wish I didn't know.
Not Marked marks the end of my silence and quiet suffering. It's my declaration that shame need not recoil us from life. That it wasn't our fault. That we don't need to be hesitant any longer about our stories. And that healing, blessedly, comes in the light of sharing them rather than concealing.
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