An Open Letter To My Childhood Church On The Tenth Anniversary Of My Rape

phila1

I’ve been Internet stalking you for a while. It’s been easier lately. You’ve been in the news a bit, but that isn’t why I’ve decided to write this now. My life doesn’t revolve around you anymore.

In fact almost 10 years ago, on June 26, 2006, I was raped.

Eight years ago, I was suffering from PTSD, living on my own, working multiple jobs, going to college, and while driving home from an overnight stay in the hospital, I witnessed a horrible car crash. As I stood waiting with one of the women for the ambulance, I remember thinking, “This day is cursed. I’m just never going to step outside on it again.”

Of course that isn’t feasible. Five years ago this day saw me sitting in Texas, unemployed for about a year but looking forward to moving to Boston.

Three years ago it saw me about a month into a new relationship and closing in on my Master’s degrees.

Two years ago I was unemployed again and thought nothing good was ever going to happen.

A year ago I just started my second part-time job, both in my field.

So now as it comes around again, at a time where I have scary but exciting things looming on the horizon, I don’t dread it as much as marvel at all that can happen over the years.

The pain and the PTSD are there, but they are muted. They don’t manifest in the dramatic crises of the past, the flashbacks, the constant nightmares, the thoughts of suicide…and the things that caused people to back away slowly. It wasn’t so much that they were worried about me, but they were worried that my bad influence was catching. That’s not to say the hardships are gone completely, and I even let some people (OK, really only my boyfriend and hairdresser) touch my hair.

A lot of people got me to this point and a lot of them didn’t stick around to see the outcome. I used to blame them for that, but I realize now you can’t help others until you’ve helped yourself first. And each of those persons helped in the best way they could, for as long as they could, before allowing others to step in and bring new things to the table. The culture that I grew up with did not equip people with the knowledge of how to handle sexual assault or mental illness. And in many ways that traumatized me more. Rape culture exists in American society, and sometimes I think it is most prevalent in the fundamentalist Christian church. I know the people I grew up with might shudder first at the word fundamentalist with its connotations, despite the fact that the church I grew up was very much that. And also shudder because I sound vengeful. I’m not trying to be; there’s a reason it’s taken me ten years to write this, because I was so afraid of the being re-traumatized by the anger of those I hoped for so many years would once again become the close family they were once. But I now know this will never be, because I had decided to stop trying to make it happen.

But Church, the youth pastor we grew up with recently gave a short sermon that was aired on some news channels. He was probably very happy to reach out to so many people and he mentioned a girl in his youth group who was shy, reserved, and quiet. He was talking about an acquaintance of mine but I also very much fit that description at the time. I was a shy and quiet girl in his youth group who drank up everything the pastor said, but I was also mad. Mad at how he treated women. Mad at how every time we would play games he would give the boys two points to my one and take points away from me if I argued. So that although I won, I never got the prize. How he ingratiated himself with the teenage boys by doing such things as calling his wife up on stage by going, “Hey! Woman! Get up here!”

It’s all fun and games he would say. It’s not. There was more than one young quiet, shy, girl in your youth group who heard that along with your almost weekly sermons about how it was women’s responsibility not to be a stumbling block to men and internalized it and when she was raped she blamed herself, kept it to herself, although you told everyone you were there to help them. But were you? Every interaction this quiet girl saw between you and your wife, you and the girls in the youth group were teasing and demeaning, so how could she ever come to you for help? How could she ever even tell her parents that she had somehow caused a man to sin against her? You told her to follow the Bible.

And the man who raped her told her to follow it, too; it said that a rapist must marry the woman he raped if she is not already promised to another man. At least she had read enough to know that was absurd, but according to you, you don’t pick and choose which pieces of the Bible to obey, even though we all do. I can’t blame it all on solely one man, because it wasn’t him alone. The youth pastor before him, and the one before him were also the same: overgrown boys who wanted to be seen as fun, as a pal to the guys, but often treated the girls as an afterthought, or worse, as an evil. As I sat reading before Sunday School once, one of these adult men decided I should be interacting with other people and so he threw a ball at my head to get my attention. He had communication skills of a child.

The Church was my life. It was my school, my work, my social sphere. I was there Sunday morning for both services, there for the evening, there on Wednesday for Awana, there every day for school, and at 14, there every day after school for work. When I had my first flashback at work, in the church-run preschool, I sat dumbfounded on the floor of the closet-sized staff room. I didn’t know what to do. They didn’t call my mother; I’m not sure why. I was glad at the moment that they didn’t because she didn’t know the whole story at that point, but what made them decide that? Were they also trying to save my mother the shame?

They brought in our pastor. Of course he couldn’t hold a young girl crying in a closet. So he sat and observed, I suppose. My boss later told me when she closed the door behind her that he looked back up at her in a panic as if to say, “You can’t leave me here!” He never followed up.

I emailed him once begging for an explanation about those verses in Deuteronomy where it commands a rapist to marry his victim, where it says a woman raped in a town who does not cry out (as I had not, because I was so shocked) and deserves to be put to death. I got some short answer about “we now live under grace.” Which I interpreted to mean, you were wrong, but you are forgiven.

By this point I was super sure I had to keep this all quiet, that it was shameful, that I was shameful. The friend who took me to the hospital after my work breakdown sat beside me and listened to me call my mom calmly as if nothing had happened. I thought this was what was wanted, that this was what I was supposed to do. Churches, even more so then, did not parade their sorrows. Christians only had problems if they were a problem. A Christian counselor later told me I wasn’t praying enough, that’s why these intrusive flashbacks were still happening. But why would God see fit to take those away if I prayed when I had followed every rule until the rape, and it had still happened. The friend who heard the phone call told me later, when she cut all ties with me, that that was one thing that I influenced her decision, that I must not want help, I acted as if everything was OK. Of course I had overwhelmed her with my sorrows because how could I tell anyone else? It had to be a secret. Another cut me off when in a moment of desperation when I wanted love and acceptance and she offered me (and I know she thought she was helping) a Bible verse and I told her “Fuck the Bible!”

I had a miscarriage and part of me was (and still is) devastated over the loss, but I was also relieved. Another girl in our church had been raped, had gotten pregnant and had the courage to still come to church every Sunday, unmarried, with a noticeably growing stomach and all we did was whisper about her, talk about how stupid she must have been to get herself into that situation, same as the girl who had anorexia and was sent off to a therapy camp to recover. We were vile. A girl got pregnant in the high school; we kicked her out but not her boyfriend because even though it takes two, only one shows the proof of it. And how does throwing a teenage girl out of school, especially in this insular environment which was her whole world and contained everyone she knew, how did that help her in “her time of need”?

A woman was once brave enough to stand up in church and talk about postpartum depression. It was the first time I had ever heard of such a thing because it was not something we talked about.

If I had not been a voracious reader I’m not sure I would have even realized that what was happening to me was rape. There was no sex-ed, there were instead sermons on making sure my cleavage was covered, that my skirts reached my knees, that sheer sleeves weren’t sleeves, that my shirt had to have a collar, that it had to have a buttoned collar, that the buttons had to all be buttoned save for the top one, that I could wear jeans but not blue jeans, that later my sister could only wear navy and yellow outfits from one of two brands and was not allowed to wear a cardigan of the wrong brand when the heater broke.

I learned that it was OK for the music teacher to curse at us every concert rehearsal as long as he apologized later, but not for me to speak up to him when his habit of touching my hair freaked me out, or even to talk about that after he was fired for having porn on his computer. I learned it was OK for a woman to take on the role of the former music or children’s pastor as long as she wasn’t called “pastor.” That you have to keep an eye out and correct every other woman who might be going astray. A girl four years older than me let me know my shirt was too low. A woman chastised my mother for being overly friendly with a man she did not know was my mother’s own brother. My father was not allowed to serve communion because he was not wearing a suit.

The mentality is still there. You follow the rules. If you follow them, despite the fact that salvation “is a gift of faith, not of works” you will be rewarded. If you are not rewarded, you must have done something wrong. Prosperity gospel in reverse.

Those that suffer from PTSD may reenact their trauma. One morning I woke up to find my breast bleeding near the spot my attacker had bitten me so hard that I still have a scar. I panicked. I didn’t know how it happened. I didn’t think my own mouth could reach the spot. It was during one of my worst periods, haunted by paranoia and I thought perhaps someone had come into my room while I was asleep. I called my therapist, who told me to come in. I explained what had happened and she asked to see it. I felt like she didn’t believe me. I told her I couldn’t show her, it was by my nipple. She insisted. So I pulled up my shirt, pushed back my bra, and sobbed. When I told her I had slept with a guy who was a friend of a friend, she told me that I had screwed up big time. That the rape hadn’t counted, I could still be a virgin (it was one of my biggest shames since I had been resolved to wait until marriage like a good rule-abiding Christian girl), but now, now I definitely wasn’t. And yet I stayed because I had been indoctrinated to think that a Christian therapist was the only one who could help, who didn’t want to just fill me with drugs. Non-Christian therapists were for wimps, depression was just a falling out with God, something cured with Bible study and victim-blaming.

Then came a paradigm shift. I had spent my youth giving myself self-righteous pats on the back for following all the rules. Never getting detention in school, never doing any underage drinking, let alone smoking, drugs, or sex. They told us public schools were awful, everyone was doing those things, public school is where people got shot. Non-Christians were all horrible, selfish alcoholics pretty much. A rumor said a teacher had left another Christian school because the teachers there had offered her wine; it was then she knew they weren’t real Christians. So it was a shock, a complete shock, when I entered intensive outpatient care for “battered women” alongside women who had added drugs or alcohol to their coping mechanisms. They seemed all right to me; in fact, they seemed more than all right because they listened to me, they understood me, we were in this together, and nobody tried to entice me into witchcraft.

But why? Why all the misogyny? Why all the ableism? Can you not see it? Did you need someone to come along and write this missive? Or is it truly part of the religion?

I used to dream of the day that “I’d get my life together” and walk through those doors again, the doors I walked at minimum six or seven times a week but closer to twenty, for the first twenty some years of my life. I would somehow be taller, skinnier, would be wearing a short dress with my D-cups parading in all their glory. I would be famous of course, having just become the first female president or something, and you would all kowtow. The stereotypical breakup fantasy.

I don’t wish that anymore, maybe because I will never be suburban soccer-mom skinny and tan like most of your congregation, but also because I know I would never fit back in. Not only is it not the Church that I grew up in, where everyone knew who I was, everyone knew my grandparents, that of course has changed with time as all things do, but I am no longer the child that grew up there, either. But just to let you know, I’m a horrible sinner, breaking tons of commandments and rules both recorded and unspoken. I show a lot of cleavage, I live with a man I’m not married to, I fucking curse all the time, but I am content. I am happy. In fact, I kind of have to thank you for pushing me out. I could have stayed there forever. I’m a naturally nostalgic creature. I would have stayed and taken pride in the fact that I could say to every newcomer that I’ve been here since birth, change is scary. But I had to reevaluate everything and somehow it led me here, to Boston, and to a wonderful man I would never have met otherwise. You can’t always go back, but you can find home. TC mark

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