She grew up the youngest of four children during the Great Depression. Born in late 1929, she could not have been welcomed by her dad the way she wanted or needed to be. He didn’t know how he was going to feed her. And though her Mom was a saint, the family left the comfort of the Georgia to go West where her Dad could work, first as a laborer on the Hoover and Grand Coulee Dam projects, and then later in the Vancouver Shipyards during the War.
She considered herself to be unwanted, ugly, and fat even though she was never bigger than a size 12. She was a perfectionist. Indeed, she demanded perfection, not only of herself but also the world around her. If things were perfect, it meant that she stayed under her Dad’s wrathful radar and life was easier to control.
An exceptional student she graduated from Fort Vancouver High School at the age of 16 and followed her older sister to Bob Jones University where she majored in Speech and Communications. A year after graduating, she left her fiancé to go as a missionary to Europe, a single 22-year-old radio producer. She was the first to produce a weekly Christian radio show that broadcast across the continent. She was excellent in all that she did, and she was lonely, convinced that it was a sign of her holiness.
She met her husband, a rising gospel star in 1951 in London. Their first date was King George’s funeral and 9 months later they married. By all
accounts, they had a storybook romance and she and her husband were love birds that couldn’t get enough of one another. They lived a poor but Christian-jet-set life — living by faith and traveling the globe together — ministering side by side.
After eleven years of globe-trotting married bliss, she had two boys and her life turned upside down. Nearly everything she liked about her life disappeared and was replaced by the lonely drudgery of raising two rambunctious boys by herself while her husband traveled for the sake of the gospel. She went from loving her life to despairing that she’d ever regain it. Publicly she retained the air of a Christian dignitary, but privately she was majorly depressed, wrathful and abusive.
Growing up the son of an itinerant evangelist has perks: travel & a certain level of status within the Church’s subculture. It also meant that my Dad was away much of the time when I was little and I grew up with an image of God that, if true, still scares the bejesus out of me. We were at church Sunday morning, Sunday evening and, later when we were older, on Wednesday nights for AWANA. Our life was centered on our church rather than the community in which we lived. Though we only embraced the moniker, “inter-denominational,” we were truly conservative Baptists. This came more of my Mum’s demand than my Father’s, but she did go to BJU, right?
Conservative Baptists brought in a flurry of “Scare-you-straight-for-eternity” films in the 1970s, and my church showed them all. While Larry Norman sang, “I wish we’d all been ready,” people poured to the altar rail; scared that if they missed out on this promised glorious relationship with Jesus, they’d be condemned to her for all of eternity. I distinctly remember Mom saying, “We are commanded to use all means to save a few. And fear is one of the reasons people come to Jesus.”
When I was five, a singing group from Multnomah Bible College (now Multnomah University) visited my church on a Sunday evening. My five-year-old brain couldn’t handle it anymore. I knew if I didn’t do something I was going to go to hell. I prayed telling God I didn’t want to go to hell, asking him to forgive my sins and save me. I took out fire insurance. I did it alone because I knew my parents must think that I was a Christian already and I didn’t want to disappoint them.
As I grew older, the thought of eternal life continued to scare me. I was stuck in an existential crisis. I didn’t want to cease to exist and I didn’t want to live forever. It was all unfair! I couldn’t make any sense of it. It was far worse than the fear I got watching any horror film I could think of simply because I lived in this terror — I was a part of it, not a mere observer. Dad was away, I was alone with my fear, sweating, and couldn’t sleep terrified of life. It was worse than any nightmare, and there was no escape — one way or another I was going to live forever and I didn’t like that one bit. I didn’t want to go to heaven or hell, and I didn’t want to cease to exist. The very fact of my existence was my nightmare. It was in the middle of that crisis that I first walked into my mother’s bedroom alone, late at night so the isolation of my existence wouldn’t overcome me. It was the first of too many visits and unmistakable pleasure and guilt that I still can’t put together In my soul.
They say that victims of sexual abuse (particularly abuse by a parent) blame ourselves rather than our abusers. They say that we minimize their roles in our abuse…
I was always the one that walked to my Mom’s room late at night. I ran from the ennui of trying to sleep alone into my abuser’s bedroom, and I enjoyed being there with her. It was my salvation from an abyss I still can’t face. I chose abuse rather than loneliness. Anything is better than that dreadful feeling of complete abandonment, and isolation. Anything is better than the blackness that I still don’t know how to face.
I hate that part of me — the part that escaped to unmentionable and life sucking, forbidden pleasure. Cognitively, I know that is s silly stance. If, as an adult, with years of seminary and graduate studies under my belt, I still can’t emotionally handle the darkness; how could anyone expect that little boy to handle it any better?
As I grew up, the orgasms I learned at the hands of my mother became my solace from the darkness. Certainly, they weren’t all fueled by loneliness. Fury and hatred fueled them more and more as I got older. I disassociated from them completely. I was Jekyll and Hyde — Truth be told, the dissociation hides parts of me still. A part of my journey is to discover and integrate those parts, long hidden and still petrified of the dark in order that I can be whole; or, in the words of Pinocchio, “…learn to be a real boy.”
I wrote 18 chapters that detailed my fall into grace. They catalog my Grace-fall. As I continue my work, I realized that those chapters don’t exist apart from this prolog. They don’t exist apart from my drive to escape the spiritual abyss born of the union of an unhealthy theology, an absent Father; and a needy, depressed, and sometimes monstrous mother.
I’m going to go into eternity wondering why I chose to walk into abuse and into addiction. For those choices are on me. I carry the shame of them and am still not sure what to do with them. None of the words here or that I wrote earlier in those 18 chapters take any of the blame of my actions away. They may help me understand those actions better, but they don’t excuse them.
I write for myself. But I also write for the thousands of others who have and do walk in my shoes, finding escape and reprieve from their own pain in the pain of others.
There is no other way to say it: I, and maybe you, are offenders. At best we’ve objectified other people made in the image of God. At worst we’ve done untold damage to their bodies, their souls, and their psyches. Like leeches, we sucked the life from others to escape the death in our own lives. Some of us will choose to make amends for those choices for the rest of our lives.
We are guilty. But we don’t have to be shameful. As Brené Brown says so eloquently, “Shame can’t live in the light.” Here before you is my shame. May it die a grizzly death in the light as it comes out of the shadows. Maybe together we can shed some light, “Kicking at the darkness til it bleeds daylight.” I pray so.
~~Stephen G., May 2017