Finding Forgiveness – Part One
Note: This blog is an excerpt from my book, Beyond Bound and Broken. Look for part two and part three in future articles.
According to some statistics, 1 out of 6 women and 1 out of 33 men in America have or will be the victim of sexual assault in their lifetime. And, those are just the reported statistics. I would imagine there are many others who never report what happened to them. Sadly, what happened to me isn’t that rare.
The secret I carried around with me was ugly. It was dirty. It was festering inside. I was too ashamed to tell anyone – my dad started sexually abusing me when I was 12 years old. I was innocent. He was not. He would wait until we were at home alone, and then, he would make me dress up for him, so he could take pictures of me. He would tell me it wasn’t a sin because God had given me to him to fulfill his needs as a man since my mother didn’t. He told me no one else would understand.
It progressed, as I got older. By the time I was 17, he was regularly sleeping with me and would bargain with me for sexual favors in return for something like an outing with my friends. He started sharing me with other men, whom he would connect with on the Internet, so he could help me find an “ultimate experience in life.”
An ultimate experience meant lots of things. One time it meant taking nude pictures of me riding my horse. One time, it meant tying me up naked and beating me with a riding crop until I was black and blue. One time, it meant watching while another man had sex with me. And then, they changed places.
Concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist who shared his experiences and insights from imprisonment in his book, “Man’s Search For Meaning.” It’s a profound story because of the depth of suffering he, and so many others, tragically experienced along with his realization that regardless of our circumstances, we have the ability to choose our response and attitude.
What struck me when I read this book was the realization that each of those survivors almost certainly had to learn to forgive his or her self. Frankl shares: “On the average, only those prisoners who could keep alive who, after years of trekking camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves. We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles – whatever one may choose to call them – we know: the best of us did not survive.”
I can’t imagine the depth of his experience or how he learned to survive and later forgive himself for doing so. But, I know an important part of my ability to move forward to healing was finding a way to forgive myself for my actions. It doesn’t mean I would do things differently in life. It does mean I realize I can’t change the past, and I can’t have peace if I can’t have forgiveness.
By age 17, I was living a life of sin and deception. Driven desperately to escape, I sought any outlet I could find. When I discovered the Internet, it was only a matter of time before that became a source of corruption. I started meeting with people whom I had met online, sneaking out at night to do so, and then sneaking back inside before morning. No easy task, since I had to climb out of my bedroom window, climb down off the porch roof to the ground, and then walk three quarters of a mile just to reach the county dirt road.
It became easier and easier to slip further away from the pure heart I had once had. By that point, I was playing the role of a surrogate wife every night for my dad, including intercourse, and I didn’t see any reason not to become sexually involved with someone whom I had met online, someone I thought might “rescue me.”
It didn’t last of course. This happened a few times – he would get what he wanted and move on, and I would once again be searching for a savior in the next man I would meet. When one wanted to take nude pictures and even a video of me, I didn’t say no. It was several months later when I realized why he pushed me so hard to participate in the video and pretend to be enjoying it. He was selling pornography on the Internet. He had been involved in trafficking and selling pornography for minors, including me, and the FBI tracked me down through him.
I reached a new low point when they contacted my parents and told them. The agents asked me to testify against the man, but I refused to say absolutely anything at all or even talk to them. They wanted to talk to me in private, but dad made it clear on the drive down to meet them he would be present for any and all interviews. I knew better than to go against him. The agents didn’t realize, of course, that my dad’s anger wasn’t the shocked feelings of a parent who realizes his daughter is sexually active, but the jealous and possessive nature of a man who felt like his “wife” cheated on him. I kept my sunglasses on and wouldn’t even look at them.
I was more than ashamed, I felt violated, betrayed, and guilty. I harbored unreasonable anger toward everyone – the agents for contacting my parents and destroying my life, the man for violating my privacy so completely, and my dad for punishing me for what I did. He sat me down in front of my mother and brother and told them what I had done. Then, he demanded to know when I had my next period, so they would know I wasn’t pregnant.
I found the whole experience humiliating. He was having sex with me. He knew I was on birth control because he bought it. He also took me to a clinic and made me get tested for HIV/AIDS and punished me for “endangering his life” by having sex with someone else. He would righteously lecture me, and then, go right on with his relationship with me.
There is so much from that time of my life I would rather just forget completely. I don’t think saying I’m ashamed of my actions really conveys the depth of pain, guilt, and worthlessness I felt. I felt like I was such a sinful person, and no one could love me for me instead of for my body.
I still find it difficult to talk about and admit the things I was doing. I would give quite a lot to be able to go back and change it. But, I realize I must forgive myself.
We can’t change the past however, and regardless of what bad decisions we have made, we have to move on and forgive ourselves. For me, that only happens when I realize God has offered me forgiveness. It doesn’t mean I will ever stop regretting some choices I made, but I won’t continue to beat myself up for it. Forgiveness of self comes before forgiveness of others.