Remembering Aright – How Should We Think About Historic Abuse?

The film producer and sexual predator, Harvey Weinstein, is back in court. He is already serving a twenty three year sentence which was imposed in 2020. He is in his eighties. The anguished testimony of one of the women he raped, known as Jane Doe 1, makes one thing very clear: abuse is never ‘historic’ no matter how long ago it may have occurred.

Harvey Weinstein will surely see out his days in prison, but what of his victims? And what of the survivors of all historic abuse, abuse that may have taken place in times when these things were not spoken of, when it was just ‘men being men’ and that the victim was ‘asking for it’, as is still being maintained by the defence attorney in the current court case? The victim in the Weinstein case is saddled not only with the shame of the memory she is obliged to re-visit in a very public context, but with the added obligation of having to prove that the event was non-consensual, something that she will also have to prove to herself, again and again.

Being persuaded that you are lying is one of the subtlest and most cruel aspects of abuse, whether the abuse is sexual, emotional or spiritual. It is therefore very important that abuse survivors trust what they remember and be prepared to re-connect with the emotional pain that the event still causes them. The pain they are experiencing in the present moment through words or situations which act as triggers, or deja vue feelings of repeating something that it is hard to give a name to, is part of the abuse. So it is not just a matter of forgiving and forgetting. The abuser needs to be held accountable for the long-term effect of his or her actions or treatment of that person before anything like forgiveness can take place.

When a serial abuser cannot even remember a victim’s name, or denies abusing someone they know well, their feigned amnesia reveals the core of the sin itself, a callous indifference to another human being’s personhood and moral autonomy, in other words to their right to be believed. In not allowing them to be believed, they consign that person to oblivion, to non-being, but they also forfeit their own humanity as they deny the victim theirs.

How then are those of us who have experienced abuse in childhood, or in early adulthood, to think of men like Harvey Weinstein?  For the survivor, the challenge lies in remembering aright. Weinstein triggers our own feelings of shame, as well as the memories which cause it. Seeing him once again in court returns us, along with the victim who is testifying against him, to our own ‘sheol’. ‘Sheol’ is a word used in scripture as a depiction of hell. It is a place of darkness, a place where personhood holds no meaning.

Where personhood has been denied, our memories of abuse are hidden in a kind of suffocating darkness, and it can be tempting to leave them there. But burying memories, or denying them, does nothing to restore those of us who have experienced abuse to the persons we once were before the abuse happened. Nor does it enable abusers to face their own self and the truth about their actions. Both victim and perpetrator need to be restored to themselves, to the dignity of their own personhood, if remorse, reparation and healing are to be effected. Nothing good can emerge and grow in the darkness of Sheol.

Furthermore, being consigned to Sheol does not allow the abuser to begin to take responsibility for their actions and for their long term effect on the lives of others, because in this place of darkness they cannot see those victims as persons, anymore than they can really see themselves. Nor can they be made to face themselves through the vicarious revenge many of us unconsciously enjoy at the sight of a high-profile abuser being ‘outed’, even when ‘outing’ him is presented as long overdue justice. The public disgracing of old men has no power to heal, either them or their victims.

For those of us who experienced abuse at the hands of others, facing these particular abusive men with the fact that it is their victims’ humanity, their deepest selves, which was violated helps us to move a little further on from a desire for revenge, even when revenge comes in the guise of justice, after so many years of justice not having been done. Real justice happens when victims are finally believed and truth is admitted.

Not being believed about abuse makes it convenient, even obligatory, for the victim to be thought of as a liar in all other respects, because of the tacit belief that once a liar, always a liar. So the victim occupies a space in the minds of potential abusers, be they family members or others who hold some form of power over them, of not needing to be thought of as a person in the fullest sense. They are a ‘made up’ object to be moved and conveniently managed beyond the bounds of another person’s moral periphery, where no further questions need to be asked.

For the abuser, the victim, now identified in their mind as a liar or a fantasist, is relegated to the status of plaything, of not being fully a person, and this will affect the way the abuse survivor thinks of themselves for the rest of their lives. So those who have experienced abuse in childhood and adolescence have been sinned against twice over, first by the abuser, and then by those who choose not to believe, or not to notice what was going on in the past, and may still be going on in the present.

On the other hand, there are some who are blamed for ‘hiding’ or ‘protecting’ abusers when, in fact, they were known to have informed their superiors, or those in authority, to the extent that was required and possible at the time. They too are being judged and condemned as liars because they did not do more to protect the victim. But they are being judged in accordance with today’s expectations, as if the legislation relating to abuse and child protection, along with the more open channels for appeal and victim support which exist today, were in force and available to them then, which they were not.

So what are those who have suffered abuse in early life to make of this web of untruth and half truth and of their own enduring pain? It begs the question of how forgiveness and healing might work into these memories.

We have to take it one day at a time. For a long time I thought that the best most of us can do at present is to allow ourselves to see the perpetrators of these acts, and all those who wittingly or unwittingly condoned them, as persons who belong to a just, truthful and loving God as much as we, the survivors, do. This is true in one sense, but it can also be a way of denying or glossing over pain and the evil that caused it. So I think we have to be honest about what is involved when we struggle with notions of forgiveness and of the all embracing love of God.

It is not incumbent on us to forgive. Furthermore, when we try to do so out of our own meagre resources something tells us that whatever we think we are doing, we are not doing forgiveness in the fullest sense. Something else is needed, something that does not strictly belong to us. One of the greatest fallacies that has been taught by religions until now is that it is the duty of the victim to forgive unconditionally which, with the possible exception of a few saintly individuals, and there have been some, is impossible for most ordinary humans. Forgiveness needs to be sought before it can be given, and before we can experience its healing effect. This happened to me as my father was dying. He simply said the words “I’m sorry”. Nothing more needed to be said. I took his hand. He died in peace.

Much of this post draws on my latest book ‘Re-Building the Ruined Places: A Journey Out of Childhood Trauma’. It is available in bookshops and on Amazon.

Author: Lorraine Cavanagh

Anglican priest living in Wales, UK. Author. Books include 'In Such Times - Reflections On Living With Fear' (Wipf and Stock 2019), 'Waiting On The Word - Preaching Sermons That Connect People With God' (DLT 2017), 'Finding God In Other Christians' (SPCK 2014), 'Beginning Again' (Kindle e-book 2015) All books available from Amazon

One thought on “Remembering Aright – How Should We Think About Historic Abuse?”

  1. It`s one thing to track down living abusers, a totally different matter to go on about abuse from past centuries. Every country in the world has suffered from cruelty and slavery at some time. Slavery was going on all over the world long before the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians. The south coasts of Britain, Ireland and France were raided by North African Barbary “pirates” throughout the Middle Ages. West & East Africans were sold into slavery by their own people. “Slave” is a derivative of Slav, which is why the Russians conquered the Muslim lands to the South. Pushkin`s grandfather was a slave – I struggled to understand this until I found out about all this quite recently. Let the dead past bury its dead, but I`m appalled by the way Johnny “Rotten” Lydon was barred from the BBC for shaming Jimmy So-vile.

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