Years ago, before my current husband Jeff and I were married, I asked one of my daughters how she would feel if Jeff officially became one of the family. At first she responded enthusiastically, about how awesome it would be if he lived with us, about how we can watch all kinds of spooky movies and he'll make us laugh and feel safe, about the midnight chocolate cake quest on that night when no one could sleep.
But then she added somberly, "As long as I don't have to call Jeffrey 'Dad.'" I assured her no one would ever make her call him anything she wasn't comfortable with. She nodded and said, "Good. Because dads are bad." Dads are bad. Her father, during the decade we were married, sexually abused a beloved family member for at least three years. His victim bravely disclosed her abuse when she was 12.
Last month's controversy over a Leadership Journal article written by a convicted sex offender included the criticism that the author barely mentions his victim, except to implicate her in her own abuse. Plus, his wife and children are mentioned even less. This emphasis on a sex offender himself over his primary victims (those groomed and directly abused) and secondary victims, such as his wife and children (those groomed and impacted by the predator's betrayals and deception) is sadly common amid cases of abuse within evangelical culture. My non-evangelical friends, both Catholic and secular, did not seem to have this problem. But now, thankfully, this trend seems to be shifting with more evangelical Christians encouraging victims to share their experiences.
When people found out about my ex-husband's abuse, I usually heard one of two responses. Many evangelical friends from our church advocated for me to stay married to him, to forgive him. It felt like they meant for me to somehow forget the devastating harm he has caused. As if that was possible. Others wanted me to hate him, dehumanize him, and claim him a monster. But it isn't like I had a switch I could flip to turn off loving someone. Plus, he is not a monster, but a human being bearing the stamp of God's image. And this truth, that he images God, makes his betrayals so much worse.
What neither side understood was, like many family members in this unfortunate, heartbreaking situation, I felt both love and hate, empathy and anger, and so much more.
One of the legacies of being groomed and betrayed by a sex offender is a horrific ambivalence. We struggle with experiencing and processing more than one opposing emotion at one time. I would feel love and hate in the same moment or pleasure combined with disgust and aversion. I would feel empathy for my ex-husband punctuated by horror.
It is like being ripped in shreds. Betrayal rends. It is an attack on one's integrity. I felt no longer whole. I was fractured. I was shattered.
And, reality took on a surreal quality. It seemed as if everything I knew to be true was a mere veil upon a dark writhing reality that lay beneath… lurking, waiting like quicksand for me to step in the wrong place.
In short, I experienced the psychological and emotional effects of significant trauma. I resonate with Nancy Venable Raine's description of life after rape, "Sometimes, when I am working in my garden, I look around at its beauty and feel for a moment that it is no more than a beautiful egg out of which a predatory, reptilian creature…will emerge, head first and slimy. It feels like something I know, not something I imagine." My life that had once felt safe and beautiful suddenly became ominous and threatening.
Most people do not understand how sex offenders function and therefore do not realize the depth of their damage. For example, many people minimize sexual abuse—believing that recovery is only about dealing with individual episodes of sexual abuse. However, what makes recovery much more complex is that any occurrence of sexual abuse takes place in the context of power and control, gained through the manipulation of love and trust. Sexual offenders groom victims, as well as their communities. They establish control to twist and distort their victims' views of reality.
In the healing process, I've learned that the families of sex offenders, the secondary victims, just like primary victims, must learn to do basic things even when all our beliefs and emotions scream it is not safe. We must learn to risk trusting, loving, and empathizing, even though these were the very things the abuser used to betray and violate.
Healing may look like courage but feels like fear.
And, we have been healing in spite of well-intentioned Christians who have shamed us because we have not healed quickly enough in the way they think we should have. We have not "forgiven" in a way that allows my ex-husband to continue to violate our boundaries. We have not "reconciled" in a way that will allow our abuser to coerce us to feel sympathy for him. We have not forgotten the destruction he's done, and we pray for God to restrict any future destruction he may cause in his new family and his community.
Thankfully, this healing has been facilitated with the prayerful support of Christians who understand. Within our church and the churches we were connected with, we were blessed with individual Christians who offered wisdom and comfort.
Since the abusive wounds were inflicted within relationship they must be healed within relationships with those who image God correctly. God has placed trustworthy people in my path to guide our healing, to provide the safety needed to learn to trust again.
After a long period of separation, and after I attended much therapy, my ex-husband and I divorced. Instead of risking a trial, he pled guilty to the lesser charge of a misdemeanor. He received no jail time. He is remarried, and his new family lives less than 10 minutes from mine. Over the last decade we have seen no evidence of any significant change, or of any lasting repentance. I also remarried. (And for those who are interested, no, my daughter has never called Jeffrey "Dad" but I have heard her introduce him proudly as her "parent." Sometimes healing and trust are revealed in the use of a single word.)
The people we were and the people we were becoming are gone. There has been significant soul damage, long lasting effects that we are still, many years later, discovering. We are new creations, shattered beings journeying on a path towards wholeness. Yet, shattered as we are, damaged as we've been, we still manage to reflect light.
Maureen Farrell Garcia loves biblical narratives, books, and tea. She's a mother of three valiant daughters, wife of a New Testament scholar, and a writer that teaches at a Christian college. You can read about her sex offender experiences at Converge Magazine. She would love for you to connect with her on Twitter @mfarrellgarcia.