Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.
Perhaps the most common question faced by victims/survivors of exploitation by professionals is why don’t you just forget about it? We hear this from friends, family members, subsequent therapists, other support professionals, and even from our perpetrators. It is a question that further undermines a sense of self already battered by abuse, and it cements our shame. Most of us grope unsuccessfully and defensively for an answer. Few of us come up with one that is satisfying either to ourselves or to our interrogators.
Some who ask this question do so in anger, disgust or denial. In all likelihood, these people need to distance themselves from their own vulnerability, impotence, or even complicity. Perhaps they cannot bear another’s anguish because it reminds them of their own. The subtext of their question is why don’t you just shut up and go away?
Why don’t you just forget about it? is not necessarily a hostile inquiry. It may reflect the well-meaning concern of people who care about us and who want us to come back to them the way we were before the devastation of our souls. It may reflect their frustration that little they say or do effects instant healing. The subtext of their question seems more likely to be why can’t I help you feel better? or why do you have to be in such pain?
With either group, those who would silence us or those who desperately, caringly want us to heal, the answer is that forgetting is perhaps the worst thing we could do even if forgetting were truly possible. To forget would mean turning our backs on life-changing events without learning and growing from their lessons.
There is a narrow emotional line between remembering the past and drawing on it for growth, and obsessing over the past and thus being controlled by it. An important, albeit painful step in healing comes not only from remembering what took place over the course of the abuse, but in canonizing our memories by writing them down. This is generally required as part of taking action. It appears that the act of writing pushes many of us to organize our thoughts. Reading what we have written may then allow us to reflect rationally on our memories. Elie Wiesel, in writing about The Holocaust, notes: Without memory, our existence would be barren and opaque, like a prison cell into which no light penetrates; like a tomb which rejects the living. If anything can, it is memory that will save humanity. For me, hope without memory is like memory without hope….
So when asked, why don’t you just forget about it? perhaps one should say to the inquirer, In doing so, I would deprive both of us of an opportunity to learn and grow, and contribute meaningfully to building a better world: Forgetting would doom us to repeat the past.
“If a man were to walk down a road and describe things as they really are, he would be killed. There are things people don’t want to hear or to see. Besides, if you tell the truth about important things, you interfere with power. Anyone in a position of domination and authority constructs a system of justifications. So, if you say things about an important topic, you’re either ignored or refuted. If you can’t be refuted, you are vilified.”
For more than fifteen years, I have been an advocate for women and men who have been sexually and emotionally exploited and abused by psychotherapists, clergy, and others in the health and “helping” professions. During this time, I have come into personal and often quite intense contact with more than a thousand people who, over the course of our relationship, have become determined to say things that “people don’t want to hear….” And yes, almost all have been ignored, refuted, and vilified by those to whom our society has ascribed power and authority and by those who find it intolerable to interfere with the prevailing power structure.
Despite this vilification, most of us who begin as victims of sexual and emotional exploitation by helping and healthcare professionals ultimately emerge as survivors. This is so whether or not we prevail in civil actions, with licensing boards, with ethics committees, or in other venues. By taking action and “bearing witness,” i.e., describing “things as they really are,” we shift the balance of power and concomitantly find strengths, deep within ourselves, that we never knew or would have believed we had. It is unclear, and perhaps not even important to know, whether it is this incremental discovery of our personal power that becomes an important part of our healing, or whether we discover this power through healing. Suffice it to say, the two appear to work together.
Healing is an ongoing process. It involves time and hard work. As with rape and incest, exploitation by a trusted professional is a life-changing experience that is with us forever. It shapes our world-view and our view of self. The effects of such exploitation do not just go away, but they can become reorganized and redirected into something healthy and strong.
We each heal at a different rate, but heal we do. For some of us, it can take years and sometimes decades to grasp what has happened, confront and interpret the damage, and find ways to turn our experiences and insights into something personally and socially productive.
Speaking out allows us to bring form to our pain and breaks the isolation and silence that is otherwise the best friend of the powerful who abuse. In finding our voices, in “bearing witness,“ in describing “things as they really are,” we take the power and make it ours. And, in speaking out, we help others do the same.
I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers.
Kahlil Gibran, Sand and Foam, 1926
Regularly, I try to assure victims of sexual abuse by clergy, therapists, or other helping professionals that there is life after abuse. “In the lengthy and often painful process of working through what has happened to us,” I tell them, “most of us find strengths we never knew we had and end up more whole than we had been even before the abuse.” Generally, this is good news. Some victims, however, grow angry. “So, “ they accuse, “you are telling me that what happened was good for me, that it was therapy, that I should be grateful to my abuser?”
There is nothing good or therapeutic about being exploited and abused. It damages us at our most primitive levels, and the effects are with us for life. But in the process of healing from the damage, we are forced to reach deep within ourselves to find resources for survival. Few who have gone through civil suits or licensing board complaints or taken other action would ever have believed they had the strength to advocate for themselves, to bear witness, and to make themselves heard.
If we are lucky, if we manage to find good support systems among our families, friends, and subsequent therapists, or havens such as the TELL network, and most important, if we can locate those places inside ourselves that are strong, then ultimately the lessons we learn from our abusers will not be those they set out to teach us. Instead, we will have learned honesty from the dishonest, sensitivity from the insensitive, mental health from the perverse, and kindness from the unkind.
And, we need not be grateful to those teachers.
Thanking my perpetrator
While I would be the last one to recommend being abused by a psychotherapist as a form of therapy, there are certain things for which, over the years, I have come to thank my perpetrator.
First, my experience with my perpetrator has helped me gain a sense of proportion about that in the world which is annoying or inconvenient and that which is truly painful and destructive. Missing a bus or breaking a fingernail may be irksome, but the invasion of my body and my soul is monumental.
Second, recognizing my perpetrator’s ability to manipulate me has made me conscious of the many ways in which I, like any human being, can be vulnerable. By coming to recognize my vulnerabilities, I have also come to better understand how to protect myself and to do so without building walls that exclude healthy relationships.
And, while I’m on the subject of healthy relationships, two other things come to mind for which I thank my perpetrator: One is that I have gained a keener awareness of who is safe and honorable and who is narcissistic and self-serving. I have come to recognize and value good, decent and caring people over those with glitz and empty charm.
The other is that, through my years of advocacy work on the issue of sexual and emotional abuse by psychotherapists and other health care professionals, I have met and formed close relationships with some of the most wonderful, strong, valiant, and insightful people in the world. They are my sister and brother victims and survivors. They have enriched my life.
Finally, my experience with my perpetrator helped me find a voice with which to demand justice, a voice that may otherwise have lain dormant throughout my life. Without that voice, I truly believe my life would have been less meaningful.
I’m not sorry that my perpetrator is dead. He was selfish and without empathy, and he harmed me. But I do thank him for the inadvertent contributions he has made to my life.
For more information, see Shahida Arabi’s article:
“What Abuse Survivors Don’t Know: 10 Life Changing Truths”
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