This year I’m doing full-time clinical work for my internship at a community mental health clinic. Internship year for psychologists is roughly equivalent to residency for medical doctors. As I begin working with patients and conducting interviews for the clinic, I’m struck by just how many patients have experienced early childhood abuse (particularly childhood sexual abuse). Recently my mind’s been on theodicy and childhood sexual abuse. Before I go further into a theological analysis, I want to describe how childhood sexual abuse creates problems for these individuals later in life.
First, we have to consider why childhood sexual abuse is so devastating and worse than non-sexual physical abuse. Both forms of abuse are harmful psychologically and emotionally. Adults who inflict physical and sexual abuse are attempting to deal with some internal conflict or discomforting emotional experience, which can then be discharged by acting out these desires on the child. However, I think children who have suffered sexual abuse often suffer more because they have to come to terms with the fact that the adult is getting off (jouissance) on the sexual abuse. In other words, the child has to confront the sadism of the adult and the child recognizes that the utter horror and pain they are enduring brings pleasure to the adult. Physical abuse is not quite as disturbing (and I don’t mean to downplay the horror of non-sexual physical abuse) because the sadism of the adult is not as manifest.
Moreover, the child who is a victim of sexual abuse has to try to reconcile the pain and horror with the unavoidable physical pleasure that in inherent in sexual contact. The child’s minor enjoyment of the sexual abuse creates all sorts of confusion, particularly feelings of extraordinary guilt. The child comes to believe that s/he is a monster for enjoying such mistreatment. Consequently, the child might imagine that this guilt makes them responsible or culpable for their abuse.
Another problem with childhood abuse is that the child believes that s/he is deserving of such punishment because of the internalization of the bad object. In Kleinian language, we would say that the child internalizes the bad breast to protect the good breast (external world) from contamination. Fairbairn, the famous object relations analyst, once said “it is far better to live as a devil in a world of angels, than an angel in a world of devils”. The child would rather imagine that s/he is a terrible person who is so bad and evil that the parent is forced to punish them rather than recognize the terrifying reality of their situation. The child’s assumption of responsibility is also an attempt to hold onto the illusion of control in the face of a world that is utterly terrifying. This is why victims of random acts of violence (rape, assault, etc) often cling to the fantasy that they could have prevented the violence in an attempt to comfort themselves about the dangerous unpredictability of the world.
The long-term ramifications of childhood abuse can be quite severe psychologically. Individuals who have suffered childhood sexual abuse are at risk for developing psychosis, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, depression, sexual conflicts (e.g. pseudo-homosexual anxiety) and personality disorders. One of the most upsetting possibilities is that the child who was sexually abused might perpetuate this abuse as an adult (through identification with the aggressor) and become a sadist. We also are aware of the masochism and repetition compulsion commonly seen in these individuals wherein the old situation of abuse is re-created with a sadistic partner in their adult life.
The psychological damage of childhood sexual abuse has been garnering some attention based on the case of Terry Williams, a convict currently on Pennsylvania’s death row. After years of silence, he finally admitted that the two individuals he murdered were his sexual abusers. He was honestly contemplating being executed rather than acknowledging the fact of his sexual abuse to avoid all of the pain it would produce.
I write all this above to outline the horrors of childhood sexual abuse. I’ve begun to think about how Christian theologians can possibly respond to such disgusting and depressing injustice. Obviously they had the opportunity to consider how to theologically respond when the secret of the abuses in the Catholic Church came out in the media. What resources do Christian theologians have to respond to such a frightening and all too common reality? Most Christian theologians will turn to the cross as some sort of comfort to offer the survivors of childhood sexual abuse, believing that Christ’s suffering and godforsakenness can be a source of peace to these individuals. If Christ suffered on the cross and was redeemed on Easter then certainly you too can take solace in your own suffering that God will never forsake you! But let’s be honest; God did forsake them. Jesus only suffered for a day. That’s rough and being crucified would surely be painful. However, that doesn’t even begin to approach the suffering caused by years of childhood abuse (particularly sexual abuse). Working with and meeting folks who have experienced such unmerited suffering that has devastating effects is making me lose my last ounce of faith. There really is no justice or God on this earth and heaven seems like a fantasy. Maybe process theology is right that God is just an impotent bystander who does not control the earth because that is not the nature of God. However, that seems convenient. In fact, process theology seems like a really cheap way to avoid the question of theodicy by claiming that God preventing abuse and injustice would violate the non-coercive nature or God. On the other hand, some theologians are psychotic and pretend that God determines all events on this earth, effectively making God Satan. It’s pretty clear that religion will never be able to answer this question so maybe it’s time for theologians to stop talking about things they can’t explain. Referencing the cross of Christ is a nice symbol but it’s cheap and quite frankly a waste of time. Perhaps, theologians could do something more useful like encouraging people to get involved in activism that attacks the societal structures that are responsible for such injustice. Either way, I’m losing my faith as I attempt to live out a Christian life.