The “F Word” for Sexual Abuse Survivors: Is Forgiveness Possible?

Dr. Suzanne Freedman

A Guest Blog by Dr. Suzanne Freedman

Editor’s Note: Forgiveness for sexual abuse survivors is a sensitive and controversial subject that is being addressed by Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D., Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Dr. Freedman has studied and conducted forgiveness research with Dr. Robert Enright, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute. Her dissertation was a landmark study that was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology on Forgiveness with Incest Survivors. This is a summary of a blog Dr. Freedman wrote that was posted earlier this month on the website “And He Restoreth My Soul.”
To view the complete blog,
click here.                                                      


The idea of forgiveness for sexual abuse survivors is often met with surprise, skepticism, and even horror. However, past research with forgiveness illustrates that forgiveness education and/or forgiveness counseling can be healing for those who have experienced past sexual abuse.

Freedman & Enright (1996) conducted an individual educational intervention using forgiveness as the goal with 12 incest survivors. Results illustrated that post intervention individuals were more forgiving toward their abusers, had decreased anxiety and depression and increased hope for the future as well as greater self-esteem compared to those who had not experienced the forgiveness education and themselves preintervention (see Freedman & Enright, 1996). Research with other populations who have experienced deep hurt also illustrates increased forgiveness as well as greater psychological well-being post intervention.

When discussing the topic of forgiveness for survivors of sexual abuse, it is important to be clear about what exactly is meant by forgiveness, specifically what forgiveness is and is not. . .  According to Enright (2001) and North (1987), forgiveness can be defined as “a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and negative behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and sometimes even love toward him or her”.

Notice in the definition that one has a “right” to feel resentment because of the way she or he was injured and that the offender does not “deserve” our compassion and generosity based on his or her actions. Forgiveness can also be more simply defined as a decrease in negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors toward an offender and perhaps, over time, a gradual increase in more positive thoughts, feelings and sometimes even behaviors toward an offender can occur.

Why Forgive? Many survivors of sexual abuse often ask, “Why do I need to forgive? Why do I need to do all the work? I didn’t do anything wrong.” Of course, this is true but when one forgives, they are personally benefiting by freeing themselves of anger, bitterness, and resentment. . . . Forgiveness allows one to free themselves of negative feelings as well as find meaning in the worst of life’s event. It is also a selfless and compassionate act as one who forgives is helping to stop the cycle of revenge and hatred. Using a compassionate and generous heart to meet deep pain and hurt is one of the most difficult things to do. However, by doing so you are freeing yourself from the prison of anger and power the abuser has over you.

The points below illustrate how forgiveness is not the same as accepting or pardoning the sexual abuse, reconciliation, being weak, denying one’s anger or giving up, nor does it mean that justice cannot occur:

  • Forgiveness does not mean that you deny or excuse the offender of the wrongdoing. . . .
  • Forgiveness takes time. . . .
  • Forgiveness is a choice one makes for her or himself. . . .
  • Forgiveness does not mean Reconciliation. . . .
  • Forgiveness can occur in the absence of an apology. . . .
  • Forgiveness and justice are not mutually exclusive. . . .
  • Forgiveness does not mean Forgetting. . . .

Research supports forgiveness education and therapy as an effective form of treatment for those who have endured deep hurts such as sexual abuse and incest. Forgiveness leads to decreases in stress, anger, anxiety and depression (Enright, 2001). People who are able to forgive also are more hopeful, optimistic, and compassionate towards others. Forgiveness has physical heath benefits as well. Research illustrates decreased blood pressure, muscle tension and headaches in those who have forgiven.

I wrote this blog to describe how forgiveness can be healing for individuals who have been deeply, personally and unfairly hurt by acts of sexual abuse and incest. Forgiveness is an individual choice, and as such, we need to offer that choice to survivors of sexual abuse by accurately informing them about what it means to forgive, including what forgiveness is and is not, as well as respecting and supporting them when they choose to forgive.

This is a summary of a blog by Dr. Suzanne Freedman that was posted earlier this month on the website “And He Restoreth My Soul.” To view the complete blog, click here.


For more information on how to go about forgiving and the benefits of forgiveness please check out the following resources:

Enright, R.D. (2001). Forgiveness Is a Choice. Washington, D.C. APA Life Tools.

Enright, R. D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2000). Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope. Washington D.C., American Psychological Association.

Freedman, S. & Enright, R. D. (1996). Forgiveness as an Intervention Goal With Incest Survivors. Journal of Clinical and Consulting Psychology, 64, 983-992.

Smedes, L. B. (1996). The Art of Forgiving. Nashville, TN: Moorings.

Malcom, W., DeCourville, N., & Belicki, K. (2007). Women’s reflections on the complexities of forgiveness. New York, New York: Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group.


 

“Become My Son”: A South African Mother’s Response to the Man Who Murdered Both Her Son and Her Husband

What we can still learn from the South African experience

A guest blog by R. H. (Rusty) Foerger
Originally posted on his website
 More Enigma Than Dogma on June 20, 2018

Truth and Reconciliation is a profound process that takes longer, costs more, and is messier than one can imagine.  Here is one story from the South African experience:

After Apartheid ended in South Africa, a white police officer named Mr. Van der Boek was put on trial. The court found that he had come to a woman’s home, shot her son at point-blank range, and then burned the young man’s body on a fire while he and his officers partied nearby. The woman’s husband was killed by the same men, and his body also was burned.

Unfathomable Cruelty and Indignity

I can’t fathom the source or the energy needed to fuel such cruelty. But more unfathomable is the surviving woman’s response (the mother of the son and wife to the husband murdered and burned). What must she have thought and felt as she sat in the court room being burdened and re-traumatized by evidence?

A member of the South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission turned to her and asked, “So, what do you want? How should justice be done for this man?”

How is Justice to be done?

That’s the right question, isn’t it? What is justice; how can it be achieved; how does it look different from mere retribution and punishment? But the judge asked “how should justice be done for this man?” – not – “for this surviving woman.”

What would this wife & mother say in the face of such murderous cruelty that further caused indignity to her husband’s and son’s remains?

“I want three things,” the woman said confidently:

“I want first to be taken to the place where my husband’s body was burned so that I can gather up the dust and give his remains a decent burial. My husband and son were my only family.”

Become My Son!?

 “I want, secondly, for Mr. Van der Boek to become my son. I would like for him to come twice a month to the ghetto and spend a day with me so that I can pour out on him whatever love I still have.”

This is truly a breathtaking request. We can finish her sentence starting with “I would like for him to come twice a month to the ghetto and spend a day with me so that I . . .” – fill in the blank!

  • So I can get him to feel the crushing poverty I live with.
  • So I can have him feel the full void of my loss with no husband or son.
  • So I can have him feel every distrusting eye scrutinize him as the minority in our community.

But no; she finishes her request with “so that I can pour out on him whatever love I still have.” How much love does she still have?

And I could not find if Mr. Van der Boek could possibly receive such love. Did he come out, as she asked, twice a month to spend the day with her for the sole purpose of receiving what ever love she may still possess?

Finally, Forgiveness

“And finally, I would like Mr. Van der Boek to know that I offer him my forgiveness because Jesus Christ died to forgive. This was also the wish of my husband. And so, I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I can take Mr. Van der Boek in my arms, embrace him, and let him know that he is truly forgiven.”

From Michael Wakely, Can It Be True? A Personal Pilgrimage through Faith and Doubt.

Forgiveness cannot be demanded

I am not naive enough to think that it’s all good in South Africa, or that forgiveness should be given because it is expected, or that forgiveness should be given because it does as much to release the forgiver as it does the forgiven (for a contrasting view, readYou may free apartheid killers but you can’t force victims to forgive). But as the woman in the above noted story alluded, forgiveness is possible when we recognize our own status as forgiven people.


This blog is reposted with permission from R.H. (Rusty) Foerger.
Visit his website: More Enigma Than Dogma

Related blogs by Rusty Foerger:


 

EVA KOR: “Let’s heal the world through forgiveness. Not bullets, not bombs. Just forgiveness.”


Editor’s Note: This is a guest blog by Eva Mozes Kor, a survivor of the Holocaust who, with her twin sister Miriam, was subjected to human experimentation under Josef Mengele at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. Both of her parents and two older sisters died at the camp; only she and Miriam survived. Her recent video, produced by BuzzFeed, has drawn almost 5 million views on YouTube:                                    I Survived The Holocaust Twin Experiments.


“My Forgiveness”

by Eva Mozes Kor

Forgiveness is a way of healing oneself from pain, trauma, and tragedy. It is a means of self-liberation and self-empowerment.

Forgiving is not forgetting. In many cases, it is impossible to forget events that deeply affect our lives. They shape our lives for better or for worse.

Eva Mozes Kor, a Holocaust survivor, chose to forgive the Nazis.

Forgiving does not mean we condone the evil deeds of the Nazis or other perpetrators. But in some cases, giving amnesty clears the issue for the victim and for society. The question of justice is separate from the issue of forgiveness. 

This concept of forgiveness has little or nothing to do with the perpetrator. It has everything to do with the need of victims to be free from the pain inflicted upon them.

This concept of forgiveness has nothing to do with any religion. All people yearn to live free of the pain and burden of the past. If it is confined to one religion, then some people will not be able to access it.

Each person can forgive only in his or her name. One cannot forgive in the name of all Holocaust survivors. Forgiveness is a very personal thing, but if we feel troubled and hurt by learning about the victimization of others, then we have the right to take action or forgive the perpetrators when the time comes to forgive.

Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp where Eva Kor and her sister Miriam were imprisoned.

When we live in a place where our lives are in direct danger, the mindset of survival sets in, and survival and forgiveness do not go together. We can forgive only after the violence has ended, and the victim is at peace with his or her surroundings and wants to heal that chapter of his or her life.

However, forgiveness can prevent future violence. If we can teach people that when they are hurting instead of acting out of pain they can heal themselves through forgiveness.

Forgiveness is more than just letting go. It is proactive rather than passive. We become victims involuntarily, when a person or entity with power takes away our power to use our mind or body or both. Something was done to us that put us in a position of feeling powerless. Thus, the conscious choice to forgive provides healing, liberation, and reclamation of this lost power.

I would like to share some more ideas about forgiveness.

Miriam and Eva (right) at the liberation of Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945

Forgiveness unclutters one’s mind and life, permitting us to view the world through unobstructed vision, see the beauty around us, be open to new positive experiences, and embrace the wonderful people in the wonderful world that we meet. If we did not forgive, we would not be able to experience these feelings.

Forgiveness is like a prescription or medicine for physical health and well-being. If we stay angry, this anger poisons our lives and our health. Some people say that the perpetrators don’t deserve forgiveness. That might be so, but if we can heal them and make them into loving, caring human beings, and therefore improve life for everyone in the world, I don’t see a problem with it.

Forgiveness in my opinion brings serenity, healing, respect, freedom, peace, and love. Let’s see what the opposition brings: pain, anger, revenge, and war. So I am puzzled that when people know all that, they are still willingly acting as victims, when they have the choice to live in peace and be happy instead.

Miriam and Eva (right) at the liberation of Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945

It would be nice if the great organization of the United Nations, with the upcoming anniversary in December 2018, 70 years to the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, would add an addendum. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a beautiful document, but it does not have anything for victims who have already been hurt. I think it should include that every human being has the human right 1. To be happy and 2. To live free of the pain and burden imposed on them by life or society. It would really help people if that came from an organization like the United Nations.

I would like to make an effort to use forgiveness in prisons. I believe that most of these prisoners were not born to spend their days in prison or to commit a crime. So my question is, were many of these prisoners victims before they became prisoners? I would say it is quite possible that every unhealed victim has the potential to become a perpetrator. (Read more from Eva Kor following the call-out text in the box below.)


I forgive you – In one of her many interviews following her release from Auschwitz, Eva told the anecdote of how she once sat in her room, imagining that Joseph Mengele was sitting right next to her. 

“I picked up a dictionary and wrote 20 nasty words, which I read clear and loud to that make-believe Mengele in the room. And in the end, I said: ‘In spite of all that, I forgive you.’ Made me feel very good, that I, the little guinea pig of 50 years, even had the power over the Angel of Death of Auschwitz.’ ” Source: The Vintage News


I also would like to help and have programs for veterans who have been trained to defend their lives on the battlefield, but they have never been able to heal themselves from that they have seen, experienced, or done. And the post-traumatic stress that they carry with them for years could be easily removed with forgiveness sessions and workshops.

I find it sad, and it pains me to know, that children who were born in the wrong place and the wrong time, who don’t get loving and nurturing families, end up in juvenile centers. We want to help them and teach them that it’s 1. Not their fault and 2. There is something they can do about it. We would teach them that forgiveness is a skill that will heal them. We cannot change their past, but we can teach them how to cope with it better.

And as I have been talking to Dr. Robert Enright in Madison, Wisconsin, he would like to start teaching forgiveness in first grade as a skill for life. And I agree with him 100%.

Let’s work together to heal the world through forgiveness. Not bullets, not bombs. Just forgiveness.

 

Seeing Beyond the Tears

Sometimes when we are caught up in grief and anger, it seems like this is all there will ever be now in our life. Permanent tears. Permanent anger.

Yet, please take a look at two different times in your life in which you were steeped in heartache or rage. The tears came…..and they left.

Today it may seem like these will never end…..but they will.

Take a lesson from your own past. The pains were temporary.

They are temporary even now.

Forgiveness helps them to be temporary.

Robert

Do I Really Want to Forgive When Traumatized?

Why would anyone want to forgive when another has traumatized you?

I would like to suggest a different perspective on trauma and forgiveness. It is not forgiveness itself that is creating the sense of fear or disgust or danger or moral evil. Instead, it is the grave emotional wounds which are leading to these thoughts and feelings about forgiveness. When people are wounded they naturally tend to duck for cover. When someone comes along with an outstretched hand and says, “Please come out, into the sunshine, and experience the warmth of healing,” it can be too much. We then blame the one with the outstretched hand or the warmth of the sun or anything else “out there” for our discomfort when all the while the discomfort is what is residing inside the person, not “out there.” And this reaction is all perfectly understandable, given the trauma.

If you experience a blown out knee while working out, and it is gravely painful, is it not difficult to go to the physician? There you face all the sharp white-lights of the examining room, and the nurses scurrying about, and the statements about surgery and recovery and rehabilitation. It all seems to be too much. Yet, it is not the physician or the nurses or the thought of the scalpel or the rehab that is the ultimate cause of all the discomfort. That ultimate cause is the blown-out knee. Isn’t it the same with forgiveness? You have within you a deep wound, caused by others’ injustice, and now the challenge is to heal.

Forgiveness is one way to heal from the trauma which you did not deserve. Like the blown-out  knee, the trauma needs healing. So, I urge you to separate in your mind the wound from forgiveness itself. My first challenge to you, then, is this: Is it forgiveness itself that is the basic problem or is it the wound and then all the thoughts of what you will have to do to participate in the healing of that wound?

Forgiveness heals. Forgiveness does not further traumatize. To forgive is to know that you have been treated unjustly and despite the injustice, you make the decision to reduce your resentment toward the offending person and eventually work toward mercy for him or her. That mercy can take the form of kindness, respect, generosity, and even love. Do you want that in you life—kindness, respect, generosity, and love? Forgiveness can help strengthen these in your heart or even begin to have them grow all over again for you.

– Excerpt from the book, The Forgiving Life, Chapter 2.

Robert

 

 

Reflections from Prison: “Forgiveness Saved my Life”

Security was tight.  Oh that….I had forgotten that I had the New York subway schedule in the winter jacket.  Sorry about that.  No paper allowed.

After going through two secured doors, we went into the courtyard.  It razor-wire8was night and so the floodlights were bouncing off the razor wire that wrapped each fence.  That wire looked almost festive as it gleamed and sparkled.  But, of course, it represented a darker reality than the dance with the floodlights let on.

A little farther on we met Jonah (not his real name), who was coming to attend the talk on forgiveness.

“Hey, do you remember me?” Jonah asked as he extended a big warm hug.

“Yes, of course.  How are you?” I said.  It had been a while and I was very glad to see him.

Jonah’s is one of the many success stories we hear once those in prison go through forgiveness therapy.  He went from max to medium because his constant anger diminished.  Forgiveness has a way of doing that.  As a person, as Jonah puts it, “gives the gift of forgiveness” to those who abused him, his inner world becomes healthier.

“Forgiveness saved my life,” he said with earnest and serious eyes.  He knows of what he speaks.  Anger landed him in medical facilities and eventually contributed to serious crime and long prison terms.  Yet, his anger was cured by understanding, through forgiveness therapy, that the abuse he experienced as a young man turned to a anger-1462088poisonous anger which was destroying him.

“No one cares how angry you are.  It’s yours and yours alone when someone gets to you in a big way.”  He had to confront that anger, struggle to forgive the one who was so unfair, and now Jonah can meet me with a warm, wonderful smile, a hug, and a vitality for life that is so unexpected in juxtaposition to the floodlights and the officers and the dancing razor wire.

Jonah is set free inside even though his body is imprisoned and for many years to come.  The past pain will not destroy him and any insensitivities, frustrations, and challenges that are part of max and medium security prisons will not crush him because he has an antidote to the build-up of toxic anger: forgiveness.

Forgiveness therapy is beginning to gain traction in prisons because counselors are beginning to see that it is one of the few approaches to corrections that actually works.  To forgive is to take the floodlight of analysis off of the self and place it, paradoxically, on the one who did the harm.  It is to tell a wider story of whom that other is.  Forgiveness therapy allows the person to see the abusing person’s vulnerability, woundedness, and anger that “put me on the hook” as one of my friends in prison describes it.  As the heart softens toward those who are cruel, one’s own inner poisons find an antidote in growing compassion. And it works.

One of the main insights I now see is this:  As those in prison realize that womenthey are capable of giving the heroic virtue of forgiveness to others, they understand that they, themselves, are stronger than they had thought.  They realize that they are givers, human givers, men.  “I am a man” not a number, is a common new and growth-producing insight, one that helps those in prison to stand tall in the face of grave challenges.  “I am a woman” will be next as we move soon toward a max facility for females.

Long live forgiveness therapy in prisons.  Oh,bird and by the way, did you notice that throughout this little essay, I never once used the word “prisoner”?  You see, the word “prisoner” is a sweeping term, encompassing a person’s entire being by their address, by where they reside.  Jonah knows he is more than “a prisoner.”  He is a man, one who  forgives.

Robert

Hello, Again, Nihilism: Do Right and Wrong Inherently Exist?

According to Wikipedia, “Moral nihilists assert that morality does not inherently exist, and that any established moral values are abstractly contrived. . .”

If you do not mind, Nihilism, forgiveness has a challenge for you. It is this:

Forgiveness is quite interested in whether or not you still hold to your view under the following circumstance [Warning! Graphic content…to make an important point]:

An 8-year-old girl was brutally kidnapped and repeatedly raped by 5 men who kept her hostage for one year. When she finally escaped, her right arm was so damaged from physical abuse that the arm had to be amputated at the elbow. She now is blind in her left eye and she is afraid to go out of her home.

Is there any person in the world who looks at this truthfully who would rose-colored-glassessay, “She deserved this”?  Or, would say, “There is nothing wrong in these men’s actions”? Or, “These actions are wrong only for certain cultures and historical epochs, but not for others”?

I know, I know.  Your rebuttal is this: You can show us at least one ideology in the world that would tell you that the men had a right to this.

I am not talking about ideologies, if you do not mind.

I am talking about looking this situation straight in its face and then looking within to one’s own conscience and then asking, “It this wrong?  restart3Is this wrong today and yesterday and 1,000 years ago and 1,000 years in the future…..across all cultures everywhere?”

Does the morality of this scenario “inherently exist” in you and in all people of conscience?  If you say no, then are you willing to keep the above image in your mind…..for the rest of your life?  Can you do it and survive?  If not, then are you willing to reconsider your nihilistic view?

Forgiveness, by confronting horrendous actions of others and doing so day after day across so many cultures, sees that some things indeed are inherently wrong, even if some people continue to deny as wrong what happened to that dear girl above. If you cannot answer—truly answer—forgiveness’ challenge in this example, then your philosophy needs to push the restart button.

Robert