Forgiveness: The Path to Restoring Your Emotional and Physical Health After Sexual Abuse

Editor’s Note: This Guest Blog was written by Dr. Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D., a professor in the Educational Psychology Department at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. It first appeared as Your Passport to Forgiveness” on And He Restoreth My Soul Project, a website for sexual assault victims. The site was developed by author, professional speaker, and forgiveness-advocate Darlene Harris.


“Just forgive her already.”
“Forgiveness is the right thing to do.
Forgive and forget.”

These are frequently heard statements after someone experiences a deep, personal, and unfair hurt. Although society encourages forgiveness, it does not often share with us what forgiveness looks like, the path to achieve forgiveness and/or the benefits of forgiving. These aspects of interpersonal forgiveness are critical and must be included in conservations about forgiving. Child sexual abuse and incest are some of the deepest hurts an individual can experience, and as a result, most abuse survivors are advised against forgiving these deep hurts. However, if accurately understood and practiced, forgiveness can be very healing for sexual abuse survivors. This blog will discuss some of the most important points regarding what forgiveness means, the process of forgiveness, and the benefits of forgiving.

For sexual abuse survivors to choose to forgive, they first need to know what it means to forgive. Forgiveness is accomplished when one experiences a decrease in negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward an offender, and maybe over time, a gradual increase in positive thoughts, feelings, and sometimes behaviors may occur toward the offender (Freedman & Enright, 2017).

Unfortunately, this process does not magically happen overnight. Enright & the Human Development Study Group (1991) developed a four-phase process model of forgiveness that initially included 17 guideposts and later expanded to 20 (Enright, 2001). Forgiveness is more than just letting go of anger, hatred, and revenge; it also includes accepting the offender’s humanity and value as a person, despite their hurtful actions (Freedman & Enright, 2017). Forgiveness does not mean that you deny or excuse the offender of the wrongdoing or deny or ignore your feelings of pain. Forgiveness includes the courage to face and acknowledge one’s hurt, as well as feel the emotions related to the hurt.


Although it can be too early to forgive, it is never too late to forgive.

Dr. Suzanne Freedman


In fact, the first phase of the process model developed by Enright (2001) involves Uncovering One’s Anger, which includes recognizing and naming one’s anger, identifying its cause, and expressing it in a healthy way. If we try to avoid or repress our feelings of anger and hurt, we are not able to move beyond them. If someone did something to us, which was totally unfair and deeply painful, such as sexual abuse, our anger is absolutely justified. Thus, despite society’s misconceptions about anger’s role in the forgiveness process, feeling and expressing anger in a healthy way is encouraged and necessary prior to forgiving (Freedman & Zarifkar, 2016).

Deciding to Forgive is the second phase in Enright’s (2001) model. Forgiveness is an individual decision that only the injured can make for themselves. Thus, although one can be educated and encouraged to forgive, it is always up to the individual whether they choose to forgive and when they are ready to forgive. Forgiveness requires great effort and hard work, even though we receive messages and expectations from society about quick forgiveness. As a result, people often perceive forgiveness as a shortcut to healing. This can be similar to thinking, if I say the words, “I forgive you” out loud, I have forgiven and am healed.

In the context of a deep hurt, such as child sexual abuse, forgiveness requires more than just saying the words. Incest survivors who participated in a forgiveness education research project took an average of 14.3 months to forgive (Freedman & Enright, 1996). Thus, asking individuals to forgive too early, or before they are ready, will lead to false forgiveness and negative consequences. Although it can be too early to forgive, it is never too late to forgive.

Identifying and naming the specific injury one personally experienced is also very important when working on forgiving. You can only choose to forgive for the way you were deeply hurt and affected by the offense. We cannot forgive for, or on behalf of, our father, daughter, brother or friend. For example, hurt my child, hurt me. However, I can only forgive the offender for the way I was hurt when my child was hurt. I cannot forgive the offender for the hurt my child experienced; only my child can do that (Smedes, 1996).

The third phase of forgiveness is the Work Phase and involves coming to a place where you are able to recognize the offender’s humanity and worth as a human being and begin to feel empathy and compassion for them. Learning more about the offender and their background is helpful in understanding the context of the injury, and expanding one’s view of the offender. This is not done to excuse the offender and their actions, but to better understand the offender as a complex human being, i.e. not just the monster who hurt you.

Forgiveness is not forgetting, condoning, saying that what happened was okay, or that justice cannot occur. Forgiveness is saying, I see your humanity, and that you are made up of more than your most terrible act. Sarah Montana, in her fabulous Ted Talk, The Real Risk of Forgiveness – And Why It’s Worth It, shares her experience forgiving the murderer of both her mother and brother. She passionately states, “I know what you did, it’s not okay, and I recognize you are more than that.  I don’t want to hold us captive to this thing anymore.  I can heal myself and I don’t need anything from you”.

Another common misconception about forgiveness is that you cannot forgive unless you receive an apology from the offender. This may be true for reconciliation but not forgiveness. Forgiveness is something a survivor can do all on their own, for their own well-being, without any response from the offender. Forgiveness can sometimes lead to reconciliation between the injured party and the offender, but it does not have to.

The Deepening Phase is the final phase in Enright’s process model and is characterized by finding meaning in the pain and suffering, the emergence of a newfound purpose in life, and the realization that one is not alone in their pain. These guideposts lead to an increase in positive feelings, as well as feelings of increased peace and freedom (Freedman & Enright, 2017).

With an accurate understanding of what it means to forgive, respect for one’s own timeline in forgiving, and support from others in one’s forgiveness journey, the forgiveness process allows one to heal. Research shows that forgiveness is an effective way of restoring both psychological and physical health following abuse and other deep hurts. Specifically, forgiveness is associated with decreases in depression, anxiety, and anger and increases in hope and self-esteem (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000; Freedman & Enright, 1996; Freedman & Enright, 2017). Physical health benefits of forgiving include decreased blood pressure and improved heart functioning (Enright, 2001).


“Forgiveness is the only path to freedom,” according to one domestic abuse survivor. “When willfully abandoning resentment and related responses, there is air that extends through the depth and width of my soul, leaving little room for the dark places that once consumed me.”
– Freedman & Zarifkar, 2016


I am often asked “why forgive”, and my response is always the same, “What’s the alternative?” Although forgiveness cannot undo the injury or damage caused by the injury, it allows us to move forward in our lives free from the negative effects of anger, hatred, and resentment. It offers us a way to heal while still acknowledging that what happened to us was wrong, unfair, and extremely hurtful. For more information regarding what forgiveness is and how to go about forgiving, check out the references below.

References:

  • Enright, R. D. (2001). Forgiveness is a choice. Washington, DC: APA Books.
  • Enright, R. D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2000). Helping clients forgive: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC: APA Books.
  • Enright, R. D., and the Human Development Study Group. (1991). The moral development of forgiveness. In W. Kurtines & J. Gewirtz (Eds.), Handbook of moral behavior and development, (Vol. 1, pp. 123-152). Hillsdale NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Freedman, S. R., & Enright, R. D. (1996). Forgiveness as an intervention goal with incest survivors. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64(5), 983-992.
  • Freedman, S. & Enright, R. D. (2017). The use of forgiveness therapy with female survivors of abuse. Journal of Women’s Health, 6:3 DOI: 10.4172/2167-0420.1000369
  • Freedman, S. & Zarifkar, T. (2016). The psychology of interpersonal forgiveness and guidelines for forgiveness therapy: What therapists need to know to help their clients forgive. Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 3(1), 45-58.
  • Montana, S. (May, 2018). Ted Talk: The real risk of forgiveness – And why it’s worth it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mEK2pIiZ2I0
  • Smedes, L. B. (1996), The art of forgiving: When you need to forgive and don’t know how. Nashville, TN: Moorings.

About Dr. Suzanne Freedman: A psychology professor at the University of Northern Iowa, Dr. Freedman earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Delaware and both her Masters Degree and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she studied under and conducted research with Dr. Robert Enright. Her dissertation was a landmark study that was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology: Forgiveness as an Intervention Goal with Incest Survivors.

Dr. Freedman’s areas of expertise include the psychology of interpersonal forgiveness, forgiveness education and intervention, moral development, incest and sexual abuse, eating disorders, early adolescent development, and at-risk adolescents. She has presented at numerous national and international conferences on the psychology of interpersonal forgiveness. At the University of Northern Iowa, she has taught a variety of psychology courses including the Psychology of Interpersonal Forgiveness. Dr. Freedman can be reached at suzanne.freedman@uni.edu

Permission to repost this blog was provided by both Dr. Freedman and Darlene Harris.

The Role of Forgiveness in the Process of Healing

Rome, Italy – At the direction of Pope Francis himself, 190 of the Catholic Church’s highest-ranking officials gathered at the Vatican in Rome last month for a 4-day meeting on “The Protection of Minors in the Church.” Participants included 114 presidents of bishops’ conferences or their delegates, representatives from 14 Eastern churches in communion with Rome, female and male leaders of religious orders, the chiefs of several Vatican congregations, victim advocates, and others.After an introduction by the Holy Father, the very first keynote speaker at the meeting addressed what the Church–particularly those in attendance–must do to help the victims heal from the effects of the abuse they endured: implement the healing process developed and scientifically-tested by Dr. Robert Enright, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the International Forgiveness Institute, Inc. in Madison, Wisconsin.

“For this portion of my presentation, I will rely heavily on Dr. Robert Enright, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States, and the pioneer in the social scientific study of forgiveness,” said  Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Archbishop of Manila (Philippines). “We are collaborating with him on the programme of forgiveness in the Philippines. In fact, in this very moment there is a session among Catholic School Educators in Manila on “Pain, wound and forgiveness”.

“According to Dr. Enright,” Cardinal Tagle continued, “one concern that we must address is: Once justice is served, how do we help the victims to heal from the effects of the abuse? Justice is necessary but by itself does not heal the broken human heart. If we are to serve the victims and all those wounded by the crisis, we need to take seriously their wound of resentment and pain and the need for healing.”

Demonstrating his remarkable comprehension of Dr. Enright’s 20-Step pathway to healing, Cardinal Tagle added, “Resentment can be like a disease, that slowly and steadily infects people, until their enthusiasm and energy are gone. With increasing stress, they are prone to heightened anxiety and depression, lowered-self-images, and interpersonal conflicts that arise from the inner brokenness.

“Yet, before we even raise the issue of asking the victims to forgive as part of their healing, we must clarify that we are not suggesting that they should just let it all go, excuse the abuse, just move on. No. Far from it. Without question, we know that when victims come to a moment of forgiving others who have harmed them, a deeper healing takes place and the understandable resentments that build up in their hearts are reconciled. We know that forgiveness is one powerful and even scientifically supported pathway for eliminating pain, resentment and the human heart.

“We as the Church should continue to walk with those profoundly  wounded by abuse building trust, providing unconditional love, and repeatedly asking for forgiveness in the full recognition that we do not deserve that forgiveness in the order of justice but can only receive it when it is bestowed as gift and grace in the process of healing.”

In an interview with America: The Jesuit Review following Cardinal Tagle’s talk, Dr. Enright said his research has found that survivors of trauma, including sexual abuse, report lower rates of depression when they include forgiveness in their healing process.

“Injustice is a wound,” Dr. Enright said, “but what happens after that wound is ever greater woundedness. The injustice leads to lots of complications, and the basic complication is what I’ve come to call resentment–resentment that can manifest itself years later in depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges.

While forgiving the offender can help those suffering from the fallout oftrauma, Dr. Enright cautioned that forgiveness can never be expected from those who experience abuse, merely offered as a choice.

“It is not excusing; it is not forgetting; it is not throwing justice under the bus; it may or may not be reconciling,” he said.

According to Vatican News, the goal of the Feb. 21-24 meeting at the Vatican was “that all of the Bishops clearly understand what they need to do to prevent and combat the worldwide problem of the sexual abuse of minors. Pope Francis knows that a global problem can only be resolved with a global response.”

One of the 16 books written by Cardinal Tagle, Archbishop of Manila (Philippines).

The 61-year-old Cardinal Tagle has been the Archbishop of Manila  (where he was born) since December 12, 2011, and became a cardinal less than a year later. He has worked with Dr. Enright, co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute (IFI), since the two met at the Jerusalem Conference on Forgiveness, organized by the IFI in July, 2017.

Cardinal Tagle is personally leading  an initiative in the Philippines to establish Forgiveness Education Programs in every Catholic school throughout the country’s more than 7,000 East Asian islands.  Curriculum Guides developed by Dr. Enright for students in pre-k through 12th grade will form the foundation of those programs.

Read the full text of Cardinal Tagle’s presentation – The Smell of the Sheep: Knowing their pain and healing their wounds is at the core of the shepherd’s task.


Learn more:

1) Dr. Enright’s Forgiveness and Forgiveness Education Programs:

2) The Protection of Minors in the Church:

The Idea of Forgiveness Lives On

Two recent experiences have prompted me to reflect on this: Forgiveness as an idea for all of humanity is powerful and so such an idea tends to persevere across time and not wither.

For the first example, I unexpectedly received on Facebook a message from a person who coaches people before they give Ted Talks.  His name is Brendan Fox and he had this message for me in the context of forgiveness for sexual abuse victims/survivors:

“Hi, Robert! Hope all is well. I just wanted to let you know that I read your book, and I watched one of your online lectures. I think your work is so good for the world. Recently, I coached a Ted Talk featuring a sex trafficking survivor. Your work was hugely influential in inspiring the talk and message (as you’ll see). I wanted to credit you, and share it with you, because I think this represents part of your legacy, and how you are making the world a better place (in many indirect ways!). I’m rooting for you in the Game of Life!”

Here is a link to the talk to which Brendan refers.  The video (10:21) is quite inspirational: Escaping the Pain of Human Trafficking Markie Dell.

I find Brendan’s message and the video very interesting in this: Suzanne Freedman, whose blog on forgiveness education we recently posted here, and I had an idea in the mid-1990’s that a forgiveness intervention might be helpful for women who have been sexually abused.  At the time, this idea was exceptionally controversial.  People thought that we were saying this, “Oh, you were abused?  Forgive and go back into that situation.”  No.  This is not what forgiveness is at all.  A person can forgive, rid the self of toxic resentment and hatred, and not reconcile.  Suzanne’s ground-breaking forgiveness intervention with incest survivors was important in helping the social scientific world see the importance of forgiveness interventions.

That study was published in 1996, almost a quarter of a century ago: Freedman, S. R., & Enright, R. D. (1996).  Forgiveness as an intervention goal with incest survivors.  Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64(5), 983-992.

After almost a quarter of a century later, Suzanne’s ideas live on and are helping people to heal from extreme injustices against them.  If we can get this far with forgiveness in the face of grave sexual abuse, perhaps there is a place for forgiveness in other areas of woundedness, such as helping people who have no homes, who are living on the streets, to forgive those who have crushed their hearts.  Will this aid their recovery?  Jacqueline Song of our International Forgiveness Institute is taking the lead right now on this question.

Here is the second of our two examples regarding the staying-power and influence of forgiveness.  In 2002, a team of us decided to start what we now call forgiveness education with children.  We reasoned this way:  If we can help children learn about forgiveness and how to forgive, then  when they are adults, they will have the tool of forgiveness for combating the potentially unhealthy effects of unjust treatment against them. 

These students at Ligoniel Primary School in Belfast, Northern Ireland, are learning about forgiveness at the same school where Dr. Enright’s Forgiveness Education Curriculum Guides were first used more than 17 years ago.

We developed forgiveness education guides for grades 1 and 3 (Primary 3 and 5 in Belfast, Northern Ireland) and we brought these guides to the principal, Claire Hilman, and the teachers at Ligoniel Primary School in Belfast.  Claire said yes and so we launched forgiveness education there as the first place in the world where there is a deliberate curriculum to teach forgiveness, about once a week for 12 to 15 weeks.  The program has expanded to include pre-kindergarten (age 4) all the way through 12th grade (this is a designation in the United States and includes ages 17-18).  These forgiveness education guides have been requested now by educators in over 30 countries. 

Just recently, Belfast had its almost 2-week annual 4Corners Festival.  The theme for 2019 was “Scandalous Forgiveness.”  The term “scandalous” was inserted as an adjective because, even in 2019, some people consider the act of forgiving others to be outrageous and inappropriate.  The point of the festival was to gently challenge that thinking and try to fold themes of forgiveness into the fabric of Belfast society.

I gave a talk on February 1, 2019 at this 4Corners Festival.  When Mr. Edward Petersen of the Clonard Monastery introduced me to the audience prior to my talk, he stated that the theme for this year’s festival was inspired by our 17-year presence of supporting Belfast teachers in their forgiveness education efforts.  We started in 2002 and an inspiration by community organizers blossomed in 2019, many years after we first planted the idea of forgiveness education in Belfast.  The idea of forgiveness lives on and now expands city-wide because of the vision and wisdom of the 4Corners Festival organizers.

Forgiveness: it does not wither.  It survives over time and grows.  I think it does so because forgiveness gives life.  Forgiveness unites people in families and communities where injustices could divide.

The idea of forgiveness lives on, and for good reason.

Robert

After Nine Agonizing Months of Captivity, Elizabeth Smart is Freed, Forgives Her Kidnappers

The Arizona Republic, azcentral.com – You’ve probably read or heard the story, but it’s worth repeating with a final twist.

In the early morning hours of June 5, 2002 — the day after she received awards for excellence in physical fitness and academics at Bryant Middle School in Salt Lake City, Utah — 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her home at knifepoint.  The next day, the FBI told her parents, “If she’s not home in the first 48 hours, she’s probably not coming home.”

Smart did not return home quickly despite a massive regional search effort involving up to 2,000 volunteers each day, as well as dogs and planes. The search continued for weeks.

Her abductors, homeless street preacher Brian David Mitchell and his wife Wanda Barzee, held her at encampments in the woods 18 miles from her home and in San Diego County, CA.  They kept her shackled to a tree with a metal cable to keep her from escaping.

Nine agonizing months of captivity

Mitchell repeatedly raped Smart during her captivity, sometimes multiple times daily, told her she would never see her family again if she tried to escape, and regularly threatened to kill her. He often forced her to drink alcohol and take drugs to lower her resistance, and he both starved her and fed her garbage. 

Elizabeth Smart (left) and her captors.

Smart endured the unimaginable for nine agonizing months before she was spotted with Mitchell and Barzee in Sandy, Utah, on March 12, 2003 by a couple who had seen Mitchell’s photos on the news. Smart – disguised in a gray wig, sunglasses, and veil – was recognized by officers during questioning, and Mitchell and Barzee were arrested.

After years of delays and mental evaluations, Mitchell was found guilty of kidnapping and transporting a minor across state lines with intent to engage in sexual activity. On December 11, 2010, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. For her role, Barzee eventually was sentenced to concurrent terms of fifteen years in state and federal prison.

Forgiveness is not acceptance

For Smart, the ordeal carried a heavy price tag but she says she has long since forgiven her captors and has not allowed it to define her life. During a recent presentation at Indiana University Kokomo, she explained it this way:

“When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a victim anymore. I see an activist, I see a wife, I see a mother, I see a friend, I see someone I’m proud to be. 

It’s not what happens to us, it’s what we decide to do next, how we move forward, how we pursue our lives.

It’s not the acceptance of the action done against you. I don’t think forgiveness is saying, ‘It’s OK that you raped me.’ It’s not saying, ‘We’re going to be friends now.’

I will never be OK with the act of rape. There is no circumstance on earth in which I will say rape is OK.

It is not that you accepted the evil that was done to you. It is an acknowledgment that it has happened, and that you have dealt with your anger, your grief, and your pain, and you are able to then move on.

It’s loving yourself enough to let go of your pain and move forward.

If I get to the end of my life, if I die, and I find out religion is one big lie, I still won’t regret it because it’s helped me to live a better life, to be a better person, to care about people, to believe in forgiveness, to believe in hope.”

Since her abduction, Smart has gone on to become an advocate for missing persons and victims of sexual assault. With encouragement from her family, Smart has stepped into the public eye, writing two best-selling books, and lobbying with her father for laws to protect children including the Protect Act of 2003.

Smart also founded the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, to raise awareness of predatory child crimes. She is now married to Matthew Gilmour; the couple has two young children.


Read more:

Kidnapped at 14, held captive and raped, Elizabeth Smart says now: I was lucky – The Arizona Republic, azcentral.com

Elizabeth Smart shares story of hope, triumph, forgiveness – Indiana University Kokomo 

Elizabeth Smart Biography – BIOGRAPHY.COM


Send us your comments. Tell us what you think of the Elizabeth Smart saga. Enter your comment below under “Leave a Reply.”

I recently read an article about “50 children under the care of the state were victims of substantiated sexual abuse.” I’m tired of reading about the sex abuse happening in our society. Is there a connection to anger, lack of forgiveness to sex offenders? If there is a connection what about forgiveness therapy for sex offenders; can it help in lowering the chance of re-offending? If so, can forgiveness therapy/curriculum in schools, anger management programs, prisons etc possibly lower the incidences of sex abuse?

It has been estimated that about 30% of sex offenders have been sexually abused prior to their crimes. Thus, your point that some sex offenders might benefit from Forgiveness Therapy is valid. It is valid for about a third of this population.  The other 70% may be suffering from narcissism, the failure to see the personhood in others, and other challenges.  Forgiveness Therapy may not be effective in these other cases, but if such therapy could aid a third of this population, that would be significant assistance.

I don’t want anyone to hurt like I did. . .

Even before she reached her 18th birthday, Darlene J. Harris had been raped twice and survived several other near rapes–secrets she carried around with her for years and years. As a result, she suffered not only emotionally but also physically. Medical problems caused her to undergo several surgeries including a hysterectomy at the age of twenty-eight.

“My boundaries were destroyed and my trust was violated. Out of my fear of being hurt, and not feeling wanted, I clung to fear, anger, and shame,” Darlene says. “These emotions became my constant companions.”

RestorethBookCoverBut through her faith, an enlightening counselor, and forgiveness, Darlene turned her world around. Her recovery has led her to a full-time life of providing workshops for women on sexual abuse and molestation. Read her amazing story (an IFI exclusive) in her own words at Your Forgiveness Story. 

Today, Darlene is a sought-after speaker, author of “And He Restoreth My Soul,” and the developer/leader of workshops and retreats for women. She writes primarily on the topics of sexual abuse and molestation. 

To learn more about those topics, visit the website she created and manages: And He Restoreth My Soul. Her compilation book by the same name includes case histories and contributions from physiologists, prevention experts in the field, ministers, and other professional counselors. The book offers the guidance necessary to protect the abused and to counsel the abuser. It is available on Amazon.com. 

Darlene J. Harris

Editor's Note: Darlene J. Harris is a sought-after speaker, author of "And He Restoreth My Soul," and the developer/leader of workshops and retreats for women. She writes primarily on the topics of sexual abuse and molestation because by the age of 18 she had been raped twice. "I don't want anyone to hurt like I did," is the mantra that drives her. This is her story in her own words.

Too Young to Have This Secret. . .
and Too Old to Still Keep the Secret. 

The Question – Would Forgiveness Help?

You see, rape was my secret, the secret that almost became my death.

I wasn’t able to stop playing the charade game with my friends and family for a year or two, waiting to graduate high school and move out on my way to college.

I am a believer in Jesus Christ, the lover of my soul, the lifter of my head, and the light of my life.  Nevertheless, I did not trust Him with the whole problem.  I remember making this statement the morning after the rape: “Lord if You keep me from getting pregnant, I will take care of the rest.”

I had made my first bargain with God! I didn’t know the magnitude of these words: “I will take care of the rest”, nor the effect it would have on my life.  “I will take care of the rest” meant I will control all future situations.  I will keep families from falling apart; I will keep members of my family and the abuser’s family from killing one another. I could do this.  And I wouldn’t let anyone hurt me ever again, ever.  Nevertheless, I didn’t have the type of control I thought I had.  My future held a second rape, near rapes, and a lot of pain.  I now know if I had known more about God, His power, His understanding, and most of all His love for me that my life would have been different.

Darlene J. Harris
Darlene J. Harris

Nevertheless, by the time I was 40 years old, I realized I was not handling life very well.  I had moved to California, running away as far as I could before I had to turn around and look at me. I looked at the tired me, and the hurting me, realizing that I could no longer escape. Yet, God met me with favor, mercy and love. He walked back through history with me and cleared a path for me to have a future.  Most of all, He took me through a journey of the “F word.”

The Affirmations From Rape that Affected My Life

  • My rapist was an African-American boy with a very dark skin tone. For years later, the sight of dark-skinned men represented fear, hurt, and pain to me. If they tried to get to know me, I distanced myself from them, whether a friendly or personal approach. For the next twenty years, I limited myself to associating with men whose skin tone was lighter than mine.
  • My rapist continued to ask me, “Is it good?” I now know this question set me up to believe I had to be good to keep from being hurt. This question became my question in my future intimate relationships.  I had to be good to avoid being hurt.  But deep down I knew I could never be good enough to take back those nights.
  • My boundaries were destroyed and my trust was violated. Out of my fear of being hurt, and not feeling wanted, I clung to fear, anger, and shame. These emotions became my constant companions. The decision I made that one Sunday night, determined the next twenty years of my life. They moved in and made themselves at home in my damaged spirit for over twenty years.
  • In my twenties, I also suffered physically. Various medical problems that caused me to undergo several surgeries that included a hysterectomy at the age of twenty-eight. I continue to suffer from irritable bowel and/or digestive problems.  Medically speaking, these symptoms are often reported by women who may have a history of sexual abuse or assault. 

“Vengeance is mine,” saith the Lord

But He, The Lord, didn’t act fast enough for me, at least in my eyes.  He didn’t take His fury out fast enough or long enough to justify my pain.

After ten years, I saw my rapist once again. He had come back home for his father’s birthday.  I stopped to visit with the family, and at that point I didn’t know what to call him. The charade was still alive while in the midst of the family. Nevertheless, he and his brother decided we would all go to the neighborhood bar and have a drink.  We were standing in the kitchen, and his mother was cooking, warning us to be home in time for dinner.  At that moment, I felt this “hot” hand on my behind, and it was as if another person suddenly rose up in me, a very (concealed) angry person.

We went to the bar, found a seat, and we begin to talk while his brother went off to talk to some other people he knew.  At that moment, remaining surprisingly calm, I asked him, “Why did you rape me?”  He answered, “Because another group of boys told me they had already had sex with you.”  Needless to say, I was surprised he just blurted out his answer.  He didn’t even have to think about an answer. I couldn’t believe he didn’t deny raping me and justified it by blaming others.  He had given this act of violation a “name”….RAPE, and had given it some thought during the past ten years and was able to answer as calmly as he did, without any remorse.

That angry person, that rose up inside me, set out to go on a mission—a mission to cause as much pain as possible because of the pain I had hidden deep in my spirit for so long.  Oh, and so this was my plan: I now had my own apartment, and later that evening I invited him to see where I lived.  I excused myself and dressed for the occasion, and now it was time to pay him back. I cannot tell you, how I thought my plan of seducing him would be a payback.  Nevertheless, that was how twisted my thought process was at the time.

I was out to seek vengeance.  My heart was hurting and needed healing. The mind, the thoughts that took over became very dangerous.  To my amazement, I didn’t feel any better—not the satisfaction I was seeking after seducing him.  If anything, I felt a deeper shame and disgust toward myself. No wonder God says, “Vengeance is mine….” God was the only real warrior in this battle.

Forgiveness?

I didn’t understand forgiveness.  I didn’t want to let the rapist off the hook.  First, from being a product of Christian teachings, forgiveness became the “F word”*.   My therapist urged me to at least consider the “F word”.  I researched it in an educational, mentally logical manner, and that didn’t help me.

If I’m truthful, I didn’t want to understand Forgiveness. However, during the time I was in therapy, I was also attending a church that understood and taught about the freedom that Forgiveness brings to one’s life; and I love my freedom.  I listened, prayed, studied, and talked to my therapist. My relationship with God became important to me, and most of all, I wanted God to know I was sorry for all the years and hurt I caused others and myself.  I want nothing that would cause separation between myself and the GREAT I AM.

For once now I understood that Forgiveness was not about payback for hurting me, but that it was about freedom for me. I asked God to forgive me and then invited Him into the healing process.

When I look back, I was in darkness for a long time.  I needed Forgiveness for the pain I caused myself by holding hate and anger in my heart.  I also needed Forgiveness for the pain I caused others.  I had to come before God because of the serious condition of my heart.

Revenge

Definition: The action of inflicting hurt or harm on someone for an injury or wrong suffered at their hands

I cannot write about Forgiveness without including my thoughts about Revenge.  I wanted to hurt my rapist.  In my heart, he deserved to hurt as he’d hurt me.  However, no matter what plan for revenge I thought about, it was never good enough.  Revenge backfired in my face, and if it is a plan you are considering, it would be prudent to learn from my experience.

God The Great Avenger

Romans 12:19 New International Version:  “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.”

Vengeance delays God’s intervention.  Vengeance delays Forgiveness, and it delays healing because it is a problem, deep in the heart.

Reminder:

Forgiveness can be immediate, yet it is your choice, but healing is a process.

Where was God?

Where was God? is always a question from survivors. “Why me? Why didn’t God stop him or her from hurting me?” For many survivors, it becomes a nagging, yet very important question.  It connects to your belief in God, and this is critical because it questions the foundation of your belief system.

What I know is God is ever present, and that God was present at the time and place of my rape.  He was my witness. God cried for me. God was angry. God felt everything I couldn’t feel and everything I did feel. God saved my life during and after the rape before I was forced to look at me and say,“Lord, I can’t do this by myself.”

Free will is a gift from God to you and me

Definition:  Free will is the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion.

Free will is what God gave to man at the beginning of time. God didn’t want to force a man to love Him.  God wanted to give a man the opportunity to choose Him, to love Him, to worship Him.

In my story, God didn’t take away the rapist’s decision to rape.  God could have stopped him.  He knew the thought was there. He knew the plan and set on the sideline watching once again, as it were, for the purpose of testing my faith.  Yet, God is true to His word, and will accomplish His plan, only to bring glory to Himself.

Romans 8:28 New International Version: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called, according to his purpose.”

I know in my heart this verse is tried and true.  God worked anger, hatred, and vengeance out of me.  When I tell my story now, my rapist has the beautiful smile he always had.  The picture changed, and so did my heart.  Forgiveness gave this to me, and my healing follows.

Where Am I Today and What drives me?

What drives me was quoted in the December 1995 Edition of the L.A. Valley Times and still holds true today:  “I don’t want anyone to hurt like I did.”

Through my adversities, God has provided me a ministry.  A ministry that includes a book project entitled, And He Restoreth My Soul.  This book serves as a resource guide for those helping abused survivors who are struggling to put the pieces of their lives back together in the wake of abuse.

Above all, I have a life and a certain peace I would not have if I had not forgiven my rapist.
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*The “F” Word was taken from an article by Dr. Suzanne Freedman entitled: The “F Word” for Sexual Abuse Survivors: Is Forgiveness Possible?

Visit Darlene Harris’ website.