Trigger warning: sexual abuse
I've been thinking for months and months now about forgiveness, and how the expectation for forgiveness or the pressure to forgive is deeply gendered, and how this is particularly true within religious frameworks, and how this expectation for forgiveness is tied together with the expectation that women will be nurturing and accomodating and deeply concerned about the well-being of others, etc. etc. And of course, there's a context for these thoughts.
My uncle G, the molester, is now in prison. Not for what he did to me or (to a lesser degree) my cousins so many years ago, but for what he did to his daughter (E). Four years in prison for pleading guilty to incest. The other charges were dropped in order to spare my cousin E a court appearance.
As you might know, my family is very religious in a fundamentalist, conservative, protestant sort of way. And I have a big extended family that is both a loving network and a suffocating sort of machine that seeks to control you for your own good and keep you "in the fold." For your own good, of course. But also because when they love, they love intensely and completely and cannot stand the thought of someone they love spending eternity in hellfire and separated from the presence of God. And this is something I have to remember in every interaction I have with them. If I believed that my loved one was going to spend eternity in hellfire, I suppose I would be willing to violate their personal autonomy and risk alienating them forever in order to save them from that fate too. But I digress.
So, my uncle, the golden child and darling beloved of my grandmother, the cherished baby brother of my mother and aunts, the spiritual leader who was better than all of us, and a shining example to emulate, and always too damn good for whatever church he landed in, resulting in a string of churches he founded his own damn self based on ultra-conservative, ultra-patriarchal, ultra-legalistic interpretations of scripture, the smug, arrogant, hypocritical, judgmental, smirking serial child molester and (in my case) attempted rapist, who isolated his family from the rest of us so that his abuse of my cousin would go undetected and he could maintain the mind-control over them that was necessary... is now in prison.
But not because of what he did to me and my cousins so many years ago. Why? Well... I can't speak for my cousins, but in my case things were complicated.
I was six years old. I lived in a very religious world in which I already understood that a man's word was much more valuable than a woman's, and an adults word was much more valuable than a child's. He was both a man and an adult (from my vantage point - he was sixteen and fully grown). I also lived in a world in which sex and genitals were dirty and not something to be discussed. I didn't know the phrase "attempted rape." I didn't understand the things he did to me, but I knew they made me uncomfortable and sometimes scared and they seemed kind of naughty, and he didn't want me to tell anyone, and trying to explain it and convince anyone of the truth of what I said would be really difficult and embarrassing.
Embarrassing mostly because I didn't want to embarrass the adults I would have to convince. Because I was already socialized in a feminine role, and knew that it was better to live with something painful than to inconvenience or embarrass someone else. And I was socialized into a very patriarchal religious context in which men spoke and women listened and tried to find a way to be at peace with the decisions men made. I played with other kids on the floor during women's Bible studies in which my mom and aunts and their friends discussed submission and what it meant and how to achieve it and how to really be happy with it. So, needless to say I was nowhere close to having the tools to conceptualize and communicate my experience with G.
And anyway, I was right. At some point several years down the line my cousin J told her mother about the abuse (did I mention that my granddad, G's dad, also molested us all?) from both G and his dad, and the response was exactly what we had expected. My aunt was horrified and confused and had a really hard time believing it. Don't get me wrong; it's not that she accused her daughter (and then later both daughters) of lying. She just thought they must have misinterpreted some innocent behavior as sexual in nature. So she kept her own counsel.
Then when I was seventeen I got knocked up by that beautiful, sweet, but not a church boy boyfriend of mine that nobody knew a goddamn thing about, and I slipped up. I left the pregnancy test in the trash in the bathroom where my mother found it. I was a master of disguise and strategy, and normally would never have made that kind of rookie mistake. I was known for my smooth diversions and wide-eyed innocent front. Except in this case I was freaked the fuck out because I had just discovered I was pregnant by a well-intentioned but totally irresponsible boy who was so badly damaged by his own childhood I knew there was no way he could parent a child or be any kind of a support to me, and anyway, I had just gotten a national merit scholarship and I would be damned if I was giving that up. So I kind of panicked and slipped up just that one time.
And all hell broke loose. I came home from my after school job to find my mom waiting for me, pregnancy test in hand. There had never been any question that it might have been my sister's. She was the good girl who really was good, not just good at managing the flow of information. There was no getting out of this one, so I did what I always did - I created a diversion. Big time. I said "well, anyway I don't know how you expect me to act after what G and granddad did to me."
And it was on. Everyone was reeling. Confessions were made, fingers were pointed, aunts and grandmothers were called and held long intense tearful phone conversations. My dad - the most calm and reasonable one of the bunch - became public enemy number one for defying the will of the matriarch (my grandma) and insisting on disclosure and consequences and criminal charges and therapy and punishments. Except in the end he didn't win either. My mother was so worn down and stressed out from being pulled between her husband and her family (along with the stress of having a defiant and inscrutable, pregnant 17 year-old daughter) that my dad finally backed down just to prevent my mom from having a nervous breakdown, and to take a minute to deal with the problem of my pregnancy.
Of course, I had made up my mind that I was not having that baby, and had laid plans to terminate the pregnancy. Down to the bus route I would need to take if they took away my car keys. But as it turned out, it took care of itself. I was very athletic and still lacking the weight I had never regained after having mono (not to mention being incredibly stressed out the way you are when you're 17 and pregnant), and about 11 weeks (my guess) in I spontaneously miscarried. Which wasn't surprising given the fact that I frequently missed my periods anyway (which is why it took me so long to figure out I was pregnant...). So that little problem was solved by no act of my own, and I was spared the alienation I would have experienced had I gotten an abortion.
But... Now the cat was out of the bag, and so many questions had to be answered and discussions had to be had, and other cousins came forward, and my aunt who had kept the secret earlier conferred with my other aunt and my mom, and my grandma never really could believe it all, and my granddad, who was an elder in the church surely must be made to resign, right? And the story became that this had been a repressed memory for me all these years. Which wasn't true, but even at a fairly savvy seventeen years old I couldn't explain to them that I didn't know how to discuss it with them or make those kinds of accusations against these men who had been held up as larger than life both in my extended family and in my church.
Ultimately my mom and aunts, who were so terribly sheltered and still so intimidated by the patriarchal family and church structure, gave in under it all again. Some pressure was put on my granddad to confess to the church and resign. I should say that being an elder is a major fucking thing in that church. Elders must be blameless and have a perfect ("in the Lord") family. Like, if one of your adult kids skips church two weeks in a row people start talking about how you should resign as an elder. They are the ultimate leaders of the church in this context. So needless to say my grandfather should not have been an elder. But oh the disgrace that would bring upon the family! Oh how my grandma couldn't bear it. And surely this was just an isolated indiscretion that he could pray about and overcome through the healing grace of God, right? And G had been just a teenager when all this happened and it was just a curious phase. He promised to never ever do anything like that again. And so everything was safely buried again, and I just wanted to get the fuck out of there and go on with my life, so I wasn't going to press the issue any further.
So it remained buried for a few more years.
It occasionally occurred to me over the next few years that pedophiles don't just give up their predatory ways. I was much more worldly than my mom and aunts, and I knew better. I looked at the iron-fisted control G had over his family and wondered if it was possible that he wouldn't do that to his own sweet little girl. It didn't seem like it. I didn't believe for a second that you could pray the chimo away.
But - for several years I was so heavily invested in carving out my own space and dealing with my own issues (did I mention that the beautiful, bad-boy boyfriend referred to above went and got himself killed by a train the summer after we graduated from high school?) that I simply didn't have it in me to fight the battle that I wasn't even sure existed on behalf of my much-younger cousin. And G was very good at isolating his family from us and preventing the close relationship I had with my other cousins. And he taught them that we were worldly and not to be trusted. And he isolated them geographically.
I recognized with profound uneasiness the signs of abuse in all of this. But I was not the person then that I am now. At that point I didn't have my feet under me and hadn't fully found my voice and my confidence and even the resulting clout this has earned me in my family that I do now. Now, things would be different. And I know you can't hold yourself accountable for failing to care for others when you were still learning to care for yourself, but I still feel a little niggle of guilt when I think about how vulnerable and isolated my cousin E was, and how she had an older cousin who could have gone to bat for her. It's easier for me to cry for E than to cry for me. On the other hand, what would have happened if I had gone to bat for her? I'm already both the black sheep and the golden child of my generation in my extended family, and it would have been easy for G, who held (still holds) so much sway, to convince everyone that I was just a troublemaker who had been indoctrinated with worldly, liberal ideas off at my fancy college. That I was too big for my britches. Whatever.
The abuse of E came out a couple years ago. She had finished college very young and married right away and already had a kid when something prompted her to confess to her brothers that their dad had manipulated and drugged her and sexually abused her on and off for years. And the kind of manipulation she described to them was identical to my experience, even though she never knew anything about that. Her brothers felt terribly violated when they found out about how the earlier abuse had been hidden from them, and nobody had really done anything about it (my mom and aunts spoke to Gs wife when they got married and "warned her" about his "teenage indiscretions," but that was it).
So another eruption ensued, with more finger pointing and woulda coulda shouldas all around, and harsh words and alienated family members and hurt feelings. And Es brothers resolutely worked with the police and the therapist that G had tried to utilize as a last-ditch effort to avoid prosecution (his sons didn't go for it) and the church G had founded and headed dissolved, and his wife, who had been so totally under his control for years, left him, and he lost his job and the house he built that was so much better than anyone else's house and the garden he designed which was so much better than anyone else's garden, and he went to prison. With my mom (to some degree) and my aunts still defending him to the end. In their defense, they don't defend his actions (in their minds) but only the power of grace and forgiveness and keeping it out of the papers and the church and the courts. Cuz that worked so damn well for so many years. And he is their little brother and you can never really view your little brother as unsalvageable, can you? Even as I feel so deeply how their defense of their dad and brother silences and devalues all the female children in the family who were abused by these men, I empathize with the fierce loyalty that refuses to see your baby brother as unsalvageable. I think I get it, even as their actions are so very backward and indefensible to me.
So anyway... on to the topic I started with: gender and forgiveness. Now we're at the point as a family where everyone acknowledges the abuse and the errors in the way it was dealt with. My mom and aunts realize that they handled it oh-so-very-badly, and through the grace of Alzheimer's, my grandparents are beyond the reach of this whole thing. But, there's still bitterness between the cousins and the aunts (sounds like a Gilbert and Sullivan piece, no?) about how this all was handled. Residual, unspoken accusations of un-Christlike unwillingness to forgive still float on the wind.
The male cousins (also damaged by Gs sexual misbehavior, but less so) seem to be exempt from this expectation of forgiveness. They're expected to harbor righteous anger and not expected to talk about it. Cuz that would be sort of unmanly or something. But the female cousins are expected to forgive, were not supposed to push for his incarceration (not too hard, anyway), were not supposed to accuse the aunts of valuing their brother and father and family reputation in the church above their daughters' well-being. (This accusation is totally understandable to me but kind of oversimplifies the situation, in my view).
This expectation even extends to me, who was sort of the focal point of all this on accounta my getting knocked up and forcing this to the surface, and also experiencing the most severe and prolonged abuse (among the older cousins) from both men. In spite of this, I am still expected to want to hear about Gs well-being, his hardships in prison, the (you're gonna love this) prison ministry he's working so hard to establish, the physical threats he experiences, and how he's had to be transferred to a prison that's too far away from the aunts for regular visits. I am supposed to sympathize with him for these things and be impressed with his "ministry." For real. If I go home for a holiday I am supposed to be pleased to engage in detailed discussions of his well-being and his tribulations and accomplishments. If a stranger had sexually assaulted me, imagine the ferocity with which my extended family would have protected me from any discussion of the man that I didn't freely initiate myself.
Add to this the fact that I truly believe the prison system in our country is profoundly broken and perpetrates so much social injustice and lays waste to so many already-damaged lives. I don't particularly want any person to experience prison the American way, not even G. Even if I didn't have issues with the prison industrial complex, I don't see his incarceration as doing me any personal good, or making the situation any better, or righting any wrong. I find the idea that prison will somehow fix him absolutely laughable, even as I agree that he has to be prevented from abusing again. All of this is an added internal conflict to complicate the situation even further. In this case, prison is a patriarchal means of attempting to right a wrong that was only possible because of the patriarchal mess (exacerbated by religion) we live in to begin with.
So I guess I'm just realizing that one of the perennial projects of my life is sorting out the strange and tragic mess that results in the intersection of gendered expectations and religion and patriarchy and sexual misbehavior and the social norms governing forgiveness.