Two weeks ago I had the chance to hear Barbara Brown Taylor speak at a conference I attended. She was talking about her book Learning to Walk in the Dark which challenges the idea that darkness is a bad thing. She believes that as spiritual beings we need to embrace the darkness and learn that God is present in darkness as well as light. She suggests that our fear of the dark is really a fear of the unknown. I had already read the book and enjoyed it, but listening to her talk, I found myself getting annoyed. She herself acknowledged that she speaks from a place of privilege, which helped me pinpoint my resistance to her message. For victims of sexual abuse, darkness is not unknown. They know full well what happens in the dark, and nothing about it is good. It’s actually the light of hope and healing that is the unknown. They want it and are afraid of it at the same time. They actually need to learn how to embrace the light rather than the darkness. For them, walking in the light takes just as much trust as it would for one who hasn’t experienced abuse to enter into the unknown darkness.
As I was practically sitting on my hands to keep from saying something in this huge ballroom full of about 500 people, a memory came to me from my work with a former client. She was a woman who had suffered profound sexual abuse at the hands of a beloved family member and was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (also known as multiple personality disorder). She had upwards of twenty different alters, one of whom was a young boy named Timmy. Timmy’s only experiences of life were related to abuse at the hands of a satanic cult. The only world he knew was the box in which he was kept to prevent him from getting away and the work bench he was secured to where the cult members performed their “rituals.” He had no experience of the outside world, which he called “The Big.” The idea of “The Big” was both frightening because it was unknown, and longed for as a place of freedom and light at the same time.
One day, I decided to take him outside for his first exposure to The Big. He was hesitant but fascinated as we walked around the building in which my office was located. Eventually, we came to an outdoor staircase, the kind that has no risers, so you can see through the stairs to the walkway below as you climb. Timmy made it up the stairs with no problem, but when we turned to go down, he balked. The height was terrifying to him, and he was determined that he was NOT going to walk down those stairs. At this point, I got a little panicked too, as I had no idea how I was going to get him down and back into my office before my next client arrived. Then the thought came to me, sit down! So we sat on the top step, and we talked about random things to get his mind off of how far away the ground seemed. When he appeared to be calmer, I suggested we slide our butts down to the next step. I showed him how, and he reluctantly followed. We talked some more and scooted to the next step, and the next, and the next, until we reached the ground safely.
As I listened to Barbara Brown Taylor wind up her presentation, it occurred to me that this incident with Timmy was a great metaphor for working with survivors of child sexual abuse. It speaks to the importance of being fully present with them as they seek to make their way into “The Big,” that expansive world of light and freedom and healing. It’s about listening, honoring, and caring. It’s about noticing. It’s about not pushing or trying to convince them of something they’re not ready for. It’s about slowing down, joining them where they are and taking it step by painstaking step. It doesn’t require special training to do this, just a big heart and a willingness to set aside your own agenda and simply be present to their journey from the all too familiar darkness into the unknown world of the light. May it be so.