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
Is there anything that all healthy humans want in life? In other words, is there anything that crosses social, economic, and cultural divides that is a desire or longing for all humanity? I ask because if we don’t understand for that which we all long, we will never grasp how people respond, develop, and break.
Before answering, however, let’s quickly sketch the human brain using very broad strokes (like creating a picture using google maps from 30,000 feet). For the sake of perspective in our overview the brain will have three primary regions: the amygdala — also known as the reptilian brain, the limbic brain, and the pre-frontal cortex. The Amygdala is the part of our brain that keeps us safe. Typically it employs three responses: Fight, flight, or freeze. Additionally, it has the power to override the other areas of the brain to keep us safe. If it is fully turned on, the pre-frontal cortex is either turned off completely or barely activated. In those moments, we describe people as “acting on instinct.”
The limbic brain is a catch-all region of the brain that includes: most of our emotions, our long-term memories, and our motivational and pleasure centers. It also guides our intentional muscle movements and is involved in how we learn. It comprises most of our brain mass.
The prefrontal cortex is central to our personality, our social choices, and sophisticated planning and thinking. This is the area of the brain that helps us filter our behavior while simultaneously guiding our thoughts and actions so that the are consistent with our internal goals or drives.
While the above paragraphs contain the most general of outlines and are not comprehensive or complete, they set the scene. The main characters in the story, however, are our “right and left brains.” For they process life differently. Their interaction about how to get that which everyone wants becomes the human script.
The right brain is the originator of our dreams. It is intuitive, visual, seeing the forest before seeing a singular tree. It is artistic .and non-verbal, the place of imagination, creativity, emotions, and rhythms. The right brain allows you to sing in tune or stops you from carrying a melody. The right brain is where fetuses and infants start to think learning life. It is also the place that stores trauma for not just children but also adults. It does not require words to feel or see. In many instances, words only get in the way of creative expression. It is important to note that the right brain also contains what Freud called, “the unconscious.” And finally, to recognize that it is the birthplace of shame. Shame is a critical player in this drama because, at its root, it is the feeling or sense that one is undeserving of their longings and desires; that either, they are not enough or are too much. It has devasting consequences for us physically, emotionally, and mentally.
Physically, both the right and left brain encompass the prefrontal cortex that connects them, allowing them to communicate and the limbic brain. So as you think about our left and right brains, please simultaneously remember the limbic and prefrontal cortex functions.
The left brain is analytical, logical, and verbal. It is linear, likes math, facts, and learning languages and always uses words or numerals to think. While the right brain gives birth to shame, the left brain is the uterus for our guilt. This is a primary difference between guilt and shame: Guilt always begins with words, while shame always starts with emotions to which we later give language.
The above aids us as we consider humanity’s desire(s). As a Trinitarian, I believe God created people both corporately and individually In his loving, relational image; Therefore, every human’s deepest desire is for a relationship with another. However, this desire is not innate, but rather developmental. For early on, infants have no sense of “inside/outside” or “otherness.” Those concepts are learned. There is no way infants’ minds can grasp that everything “isn’t me.” They learn that there is me and you and that we are separate and other. That is only one of the billions and trillions of things that infants learn as they grow. How they learn to be other and relate to the other will make a huge difference in how their minds develop and grow.
The child’s prefrontal cortex isn’t online at birth. It is still under construction. The connection between the right and left brain is not operational. Dr. Alan Schore argues that the development of the prefrontal cortex and children’s ability to utilize it to regulate right-brain emotions is of utmost importance developmentally. In other words, our ability to integrate our right brain with our left brain is crucial. When it does not happen early in life, feelings overwhelm the child and trauma ensues.
20th-century theorists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth developed attachment theory based on these observations. Subsequent discoveries in the 21st-century of mirror neurons have made this theory almost as accepted as gravity. Alan Schore, mentioned above, used attachment theory as a foundation to create the 21st century’s version of it, calling it, Affect Regulation Theory.
Schore theorizes that mothers lend their brains to their children, using their mirror neurons to do so, allowing their infants to cope with overwhelming emotions swirling in their right brains. When parents succeed in doing so, the infant learns over time how to “contain” their feelings, creating neural pathways between the right and left brains that regulate emotions. When parents fail, they must work to repair the rupture addressing the failure with the child, thus allowing the child to continue to process their feelings and grow. Clearly, all parents fail, in this task and children are left picking up the pieces, needing to find other ways to live safely with emotions that threaten to consume them. (To be continued)