Child sexual abuse is a silent and insidious cancer that eats away at the lives of its victims. It is conducted in silence and perpetuated in silence. Victims are often admonished never to speak about what is happening to them, and these warnings are often accompanied by threats of violence against the victim, their families, or their pets if they ever dare to tell someone about the abuse. Unfortunately, this silence comes at a cost. It is said that what is unspoken becomes unspeakable. In other words, the enormity of what a victim has suffered and the impact of the abuse on their lives grows and thrives in silence and secrecy. When abuse is not spoken about, healing is not possible.
A pastor acquaintance of mine recently told me a touching story of healing that speaks to this issue of silence. Years ago, Claire was conducting a movie theology group in her congregation. During one gathering, a film that portrayed an abusive marital relationship was being viewed by the group. Gradually, Claire began to notice that the behavior of one of the young woman in attendance was becoming more and more agitated. Her discomfort was evident. During a break, the pastor drew the young woman, Debra, aside and asked her if she was okay. After much hesitation, Debra finally shared that she had been raped by her grandfather when she was a young girl. Claire listened and validated her discomfort with the movie, then invited her to come by the church office the next day to talk more about this traumatic event.
Debra did come to Claire’s office as she had been asked and told her story for the first of many times. She shared with Claire that she was the first person to hear her narrative of abuse. Debra had kept this secret for many years until the impact of a movie’s portrayal of abuse unleashed her own painful story. This began a ritual that went on for several years. Debra would stop by Claire’s office and ask her if she had time to hear the story again. Claire would always respond with, “One more time.” Ultimately, it took forty times before Debra had purged herself of the cancer of abuse and received the gift of listening that led to healing. She eventually got married and had children and was able to live a normal and happy life.
Unfortunately, there are many, many stories about child sexual abuse that do not have happy endings. Statistics report that somewhere between thirty and fifty percent of incarcerated women experienced sexual abuse as children. Sixty percent of men and women in drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities likewise report episodes of childhood sexual abuse. This is corroborated by the seventy to eighty percent of adult survivors who acknowledge excessive use of drugs and alcohol as a means to cope with the aftermath of their abuse. In addition, a full seventy-five percent of prostitutes were victims of child sexual abuse. I have to wonder what would have been different for these hundreds of thousands of survivors had they had someone like Claire to tell their story to, someone who would listen without judgment and be a compassionate and loving presence in their lives.
The fact that it took Debra forty times of breaking the silence before she was done strikes me as a vital part of her healing. The number forty figures prominently in biblical narratives. The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years, and Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness for forty days and nights before beginning his earthly ministry. Certainly, the wilderness experience is an apt metaphor for the bleak and barren aftermath of child sexual abuse. It takes a lot of wandering to find your way after the trauma of abuse. It takes time. The experience may feel like fasting, where there is no sustenance or nourishment for body or soul. And the desert is a lonely place, often with no signposts to tell you where you are or where you’re headed. You can take a lot of wrong turns in the wilderness. And often, something that looks like it might be an oasis turns out to be a mirage. This makes it hard for survivors to trust anything that looks like hope. They might turn away from people who offer help, fearing that it will just be more of the same disappointment or abandonment they’ve suffered in the past. But Debra’s experience with Claire offers hope for something new, something that opens the floodgates of suppressed emotions that hold one back from healing and restoration. And in the sharing of the story, the breaking of the silence, healing can happen.
So, if you are a survivor of child sexual abuse, find someone to tell your story to. Tell it again and again, until you don’t need to tell it any more. Let their caring and nurturing spirit help you heal. And if you are someone whose vocation leads you to walk with those who have painful stories to tell, listen! Listen with compassion. Hold their story gently, offering no advice or platitudes, only your deep sorrow over their suffering and the assurance that they didn’t deserve what happened to them. Be patient, for it might indeed take forty times. And remember that sometimes, when you think you can’t listen any more, you’ll find, with the help of God, that you can do it one more time.
 Names changed.