By Tresa Edmunds, Natasha Helfer Parker, and Dan Wotherspoon
The following is excerpted from Mormon Matters podcast episode 110, “The Abuse and Forgiveness Dilemma,” released on 4 July 2012. It can be listened to in its entirety or downloaded by visiting www.mormonmatters.org. The discussion was led by Mormon Matters host, Dan Wotherspoon. Short bios of the two panelists can be found at the end.
DAN WOTHERSPOON: Natasha, the seeds of our discussion today were planted when you told me about what happened in your mind as you listened to President Uchtdorf’s speech, “The Merciful Obtain Mercy,” during the April 2012 General Conference. Will you lead us off with that story?
NATASHA HELFER PARKER: President Uchtdorf’s messages are often very dear to my heart. I think he has a very good feel for how to address the issues that both men and women in the Church are dealing with, and he usually has a very optimistic and friendly way of presenting things. But as I listened to this talk, I found it very difficult not to hear what he was saying from the position of some of my clients.
In this particular talk, he spoke about the importance of being forgiving; he even seemed to imply that people who aren’t willing to forgive—or who can’t forgive—are sinful.
In many cases, that’s a great message. If you are judging somebody you don’t know, or if you are rejecting your homosexual child, or if you are struggling with somebody in your family who has left the Church, this talk could be really important. However, when I listened to it with the ears of some of my clients who have been sexually, physically, or emotionally abused, I realized that this talk could be extremely traumatizing, though I know that that would never be President Uchtdorf’s intention.
I could even see parts of his speech setting some clients back several months in therapy progress because they would now be holding themselves to a standard of forgiveness that is not applicable to their situation.
TRESA EDMNDS: I completely agree. Somebody who is dealing with abuse is overwhelmed with shame—a feeling that they have done something to earn whatever has happened to them. So they tend to be hyper-vigilant with themselves. Any discussion of forgiveness with somebody in that place is going to be problematic. They will most likely hear that message in a way that will cause them to internalize even more shame—even more of a sense of being a failure.
NATASHA: One of my hopes for this discussion is that we can re-frame the idea of forgiveness so that it can resonate with abuse victims.
For instance, President Uchtdorf said, “We too often justify our anger as righteous.” Well, in abuse situations, anger is righteous. If Jesus Christ can be angry in a temple because people are defiling it, imagine the righteous indignation of a body that has been deliberately harmed. There needs to be a time to express righteous anger, and there needs to be time for that anger to be validated. If we throw the forgiveness message at a person who hasn’t had time to process their anger, they might be led to believe that their anger is somehow evil or un-Christlike, which may lead them to reject themselves even more than they already have.
DAN: Tresa, what Natasha just said about victims needing space for emotional healing from abuse before ever worrying about forgiving their abuser reminds me of two scriptural stories you shared in a recent Exponent II essay. Would you share those with us?
TRESA: Reid Benson at BYU once suggested to me that in many ways Nephi was an abuse victim. Laman and Lemuel abused him his whole life, tying him to ships’ masts, beating him with rods, and so forth. Then, when Lehi died, Laman and Lemuel planned to kill Nephi. That’s when the Spirit came to him and told him to flee with his family into the wilderness. I was grateful to see that story as a precedent for my eventual decision to cut off contact with my abusive parents.
Later, through my own study, I came to understand Abraham (at least, as he is presented in the Pearl of Great Price) as a survivor of childhood abuse—his father attempted to sacrifice him to the god Elkenah. However, the Spirit intervened and told Abraham that he was going to remove him from his father’s threat.
This traumatizing experience sheds a whole new light on the story of Abraham and Isaac: it’s no longer a story about Abraham being blindly obedient to the point of being willing to kill his own child, it’s now a story of how an abuse survivor succumbed to the abusive patterns his father laid down. Luckily, the Lord intervened and healed Abraham’s emotional wounds so that he would stop inflicting his father’s violence onto his child. The Abraham and Isaac story can be read as a powerful example of an abuse survivor healing and breaking the cycle of abuse.
And let me add, too, that I don’t see it as a character flaw for Abraham to repeat these abusive patterns, because we all do it! We are all striving to overcome destructive patterns—wherever we got them from or however they’ve hurt us. So Abraham’s story doesn’t sully his character in my eyes; rather it’s a parable of the incredible healing power of the Atonement—not just its ability to heal sin but its ability to heal the very destructive psychological and behavioral issues that cause so much trauma.
DAN: Let’s go a little bit further into why it is importance for abuse victims to flee, to separate, to take themselves out of harm’s way—whatever is needed to find a safe space.
NATASHA: One of the things I like most about Tresa’s Exponent II essay is how it gives victims permission to create boundaries while still remaining inside a gospel framework. It tells me that I can be Christlike, that I can be forgiving, but still refrain from opening my arms to an abuser who incessantly causes me physical or mental anguish. Forgiveness has nothing to do with whether you’re going to maintain appropriate boundaries. Too often we seem to think that forgiveness means telling the perpetrator “Welcome back into my fold. Welcome back into my arms. Welcome back into my life,” when, really, that person is still a threat to you.
TRESA: So many people who preach the forgiveness lecture don’t comprehend the fact that some people can behave so egregiously—particularly toward children—that separating them from their victim is a legitimate act. They’ll say, “Well, there has to be another side to the story; there just has to be some misunderstanding, because people just don’t behave that way.” Well, I can tell you from experience that some people do behave that way. Well-meaning but naive people (and there are many who are constantly trying to heal the rift in my family) were the ones I was addressing in my article. I knew they wouldn’t believe my experience, so I had to couch my arguments in the scriptures in order to reach them.
NATASHA: Yes. It’s one thing to talk about the idea of abuse, it’s another to sit across the room from a client and hear about the atrocities that people can commit against each other. It’s gut-wrenching to listen to a client tell about how when she was ten she would hold her breath when she felt her father coming into her room; how she’d put curlers in her hair hoping they might keep him away, but how he’d climb into bed next to her, anyway. She wouldn’t know what to do; she’d feel terrified; she’d see herself floating away. When you have people saying those kinds of things, you begin to get a much more in-depth understanding of what we’re talking about here. Can mere mortals forgive these kinds of sins?
It hurts my soul to imagine such people hearing that being unable to forgive is a grievous sin. I tell these clients that forgiveness is not going to be one of our goals in therapy; we’re not even going to broach it. If forgiveness comes up, or if that person wants to talk about forgiveness later on, I’m always open to that. If it does come up, however, it is likely a result of the healing process.
TRESA: I think that approach is vital. People who have been abused develop a deep shame—one that is almost tangible. I felt like my shame actually marked my face—literally changed my countenance—so that people could tell I was defective or had somehow earned the abuse. When you are living with that kind of shame and you hear someone cavalierly say something like, “Not forgiving is a grievous sin,” or, “The greater sin lies with the person who refuses to forgive,” that cuts straight into the abuse survivor’s most tender place. And since we rarely have nuanced discussions about forgiveness, the abuse survivor often ends up feeling like the only way they are going to be a good person—the only way they are going to get out from under this shroud of shame—is to find a way to absorb the consequences of their abuser’s actions. It can push them to submit to further victimization. They try to pay for that forgiveness with their body, with their safety, with their soul.
NATASHA: Imagine what it does to the self-esteem of a person who’s been raped or who’s been beaten by their parent or who grew up being verbally berated to hear that they are the worse sinner because they haven’t been able to forgive. “I am worse than the abuser?” I see this idea cropping up over and over again in my practice.
DAN: Tresa, there’s a wonderful section in your essay where you unpack D&C 64:9–11. Will you take us through that?
TRESA: This is a scripture that has probably done a lot of harm in this context, even though it shouldn’t. It says:
Wherefore, I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin. I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men. And ye ought to say in your hearts—let God judge between me and thee, and reward thee according to thy deeds.
This is a scripture mastery scripture, so every teenager who attends seminary has to memorize it. The problem, though, is that we rarely discuss that last verse: “Ye ought to say in your heart, let God judge between me and thee and reward thee according to thy deeds.” In other words, the problem is not being unforgiving, but being judgmental—when you assume the role of judge over another person. That is God’s responsibility. Nowhere in this passage does it talk about healing relationships or spending time together or enjoying one another’s company or being friends again. It just says strictly that we should let God judge us and them and he’ll give us what’s coming to us. That is our only obligation to each other. Adding more than that is the greater sin—saying that the person is going to hell. Being unable to forgive is not the greater sin. Judgment is. It seems silly that we would think that someone who couldn’t forgive someone who raped her, or tortured her, or murdered her family would be a greater sinner than the perpetrator, but that’s how we seem to teach it. It’s a very destructive idea, not to mention doctrinally inaccurate.
NATASHA: Well, let me go on record and say that I personally will never believe that somebody who’s judging another or saying that a person is going to hell because they raped them is sinning worse than the rapist. Their sin is worse because they can’t get over the psychological trauma? I don’t buy it.
DAN: Building on that, would you both talk more about the psychological trauma of an abuse victim? Your example about the girl who put curlers in her hair, Natasha, was a gut punch to me. Can you help us get a little bit deeper into the psychological shift that happens with many victims?
NATASHA: Everybody has probably heard of the “fight or flight” responses to danger, but research during the last five years is suggesting that there’s a third which is being called the “freeze” response. This new category makes a lot of sense when you think about someone who doesn’t have power, such as a child or a housewife with an abusive husband. Neither can fight because they’re not strong enough to win. If you are a child, you can’t “fly,” because you can’t leave your home; where would you go? If you’re a housewife, you may not have the job skills to survive outside your marriage. So, you freeze.
The research is showing that this freeze response actually takes a physical toll on the body, both outside and inside. During traumatic moments, adrenaline courses through the body, and adrenaline isn’t good for you. It’s necessary for that moment when a tiger sneaks up behind you—it gives you an extra boost that allows you to run away. But if adrenaline is burning through your system on a regular basis—which is what happens to people who are chronically abused—your immune system starts to wear down and your body becomes used to responding to particular stimuli as if trauma is occurring.
So, on the level of the nervous system, it’s very difficult to simply forgive and go on as if nothing happened. For example, a survivor of sexual abuse gets married, and when her husband looks at her in a certain way or touches her sexually, her transmitters go off in pre-programmed, traumatic ways that she has no control over. And it happens with male survivors, too. Why do I have this response? Why can’t I let my husband hold me? Why can’t I let my wife hold me? Why can’t I get an erection? What does forgiveness even mean in that context?
DAN: How important is it to the healing process that abusers take responsibility for their actions?
NATASHA: That doesn’t happen very often, but when it does happen—when a perpetrator takes responsibility and validates the victim’s pain and apologizes—that can help the healing a great deal, though it does not make everything peachy keen or get everything back to normal.
TRESA: I did confront my parents, and my dad just kind of denied everything. He tried to turn it around in classic manipulative, grooming behavior. He framed it like, “Well, who really gets to decide? How is that fair to me? Maybe you’re just overly sensitive.”
I did cut off contact with my parents, but the rest of my siblings did not. Some of them have asked me why I’m still holding on to this. “The abuse was so long ago; our parents aren’t like that anymore.” As if my parents’ past behavior is okay since they’re not doing it right now. Maybe they feel like my parents have changed and wouldn’t be abusive now if they had young children at home, but I don’t believe that at all. And so my siblings do find me rather vindictive and uncharitable.
I’ve always said that I don’t need an apology, just a validation. Getting that would allow my parents and me to take a step forward together. I’d love to hear what you think, Natasha. Is validation necessary from a therapeutic point of view? Or is simple safety enough to start the process?
NATASHA: I think validation is really important. A good metaphor for the process is the justice system. How do we respond when somebody doesn’t take responsibility for their actions? We’re generally perfectly fine with them being in jail. We don’t have a lot of sympathy for those who aren’t willing to acknowledge their piece of the crime. But when they really do become penitent and want to repair things, when they apologize and show some level of emotional connection with what they’ve done, our heart strings start tugging for that person. We don’t excuse their behavior, but we start empathizing; we acknowledge their new courage.
Unfortunately, the level of dysfunction in abusive situations is often so high that the abusers don’t have the skills to gain the self-awareness they need in order to offer the kind of validation and repentance you’re talking about. So I can definitely understand your decision to not move forward with your parents until they provide some type of validation to you.
DAN: Let’s specifically address how we as friends, family members, ward members, and leaders might best serve the needs of abuse and trauma victims we come in contact with.
NATASHA: Studies have shown that pretty much a third of the population has survived some kind of abuse, whether sexual, physical, or emotional. So, it’s reasonable to say that a third of the members of your ward have gone through something pretty traumatic. We need to remember this when we’re teaching a lesson, or counseling with someone as a Relief Society president or bishop, or when we’re interacting with someone as a home teacher or a visiting teacher. We don’t know who we are talking to. We don’t know what they’ve been through. We shouldn’t be pushing premature forgiveness. We should be validating their anger or their grief; we should be giving them space to grieve or be angry.
But we tend to be uncomfortable with anger and grief. So instead of “mourning with those who mourn,” we might find ourselves self-righteously suggesting that they should just forgive and get on with life. Ideally, we should simply be attentive listeners; we should just validate the abused. We should say, “I can understand how that would make you angry.” Or, “That sounds like it was really difficult for you.” Even saying something like, “I don’t know what to say right now” is better than, “Well, why don’t you forgive that person?”
DAN: In a podcast episode a few months ago, the mother of somebody who’d committed suicide said that we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about what happened. We’re not going to hurt her more by talking about it. So in that spirit, how would you two—Tresa from your own experience, and Natasha from your experience as a therapist—advise the Relief Society president or the bishop if this kind of situation comes up?
TRESA: Since I’m not a therapist, most people approach me as a kind of comrade-in-arms. Sometimes I’m the first person they’ve ever told their experience to; I can tell that they’re measuring my response—just hearing it come out of their mouth for the first time and seeing if they will live through the telling. If they experienced the abuse as a small child, a deep part of them may be convinced that some catastrophe will fall upon them or a loved one if they tell since the abuser probably threatened them. Just saying the words out loud can be a huge act of courage.
DAN: So is a good response something like, “Wow, you are courageous! You are so strong!” Is that better than stunned silence?
TRESA: Well, if those are my only two choices, I personally would prefer your first response over silence. But I don’t really love the “You’re so strong” part. My best advice is to ask questions. Don’t be frightened. If I’m in a place where I can speak about my abuse to you, then you have my trust already. You don’t need to ask for graphic details or be totally nosy, but you don’t need to treat me like I’m made of glass, either. I would much rather you ask a question than give me advice or consolation. But don’t tell me that my parents are going to change. Do not tell me—please do not tell me!—that in the next life I will suddenly welcome my relationship with them! Don’t presume that you know how things are going to be judged in this life or the next. Don’t presume that you know my relationships better than I do. Don’t presume.
What you can do is offer expressions of love. Instead of marveling at my courage, just say, “I love you. I think you are a person of worth. You are important in my life.” Much more powerful than affirming a survivor’s courage is affirming that they are worthy of love.
DAN: What if you have heard about an abuse survivor second- or third-hand? It’s probably not good to try drawing that out of them, right? Should we just leave that for the people they trust?
TRESA: Yes, I would say that’s definitely true. However, it might be helpful to somehow let that person know that you know something. If they already have a level of trust with you, and they feel that you are empathetic and supportive, that might help their healing process. Other than that, I would say, no, no, no. This is sacred ground, and we should be very careful about treading upon it if we don’t hear it straight from their mouth.
NATASHA: I agree, and I think this also speaks to the importance of keeping confidences. If a friend shares something very personal with you and, without meaning to, you talk about it with your husband or best friend, that’s a betrayal on some level, even if you aren’t sharing it in a gossipy-type way. We need to learn how to keep our mouths closed so people aren’t hearing about a friend’s personal traumas second- or third-hand. And this is difficult in our church where we have ward councils and such—people with good intentions trying to help one another. If a friend shares with us, we’ve been given a gift, and we must be very careful how we treat it.
DAN: We have talked about how abuse victims might hear something damaging from President Uchtdorf’s talk even though their interpretation wasn’t on his radar. What about the message of “families are forever?” Tresa, how did you hear that message when you were growing up in an abusive household?
TRESA: I heard that phrase and teaching as a threat, and I know I’m not alone in that. Luckily, I did recognize that for many other people it was welcome news. Eventually, through my own healing and through the Atonement, I recognized that I could have an eternal family of my own where I was the mother, and that it could be a healthy family that qualified for these eternal blessings. But yeah, the thought that all my healing work, all the healthy boundaries I’ve established, all the growth I’ve done, would be destroyed as soon as I died because I was just going to be yanked right back into my dysfunctional family—that was terrible.
It took me a while to find this, but the scriptures are clear that sealings can be revoked based on our behavior. For instance, D&C 121:19, 21–22 says,
Wo unto them because they have offended my little ones, they shall be severed from the ordinances of mine house. They shall not have right to the priesthood nor their posterity after them from generation to generation. It had been better for them that a millstone had been hanged about their necks and that they drowned in the depths of the sea.
That image of the millstone is the same one Christ used when he condemned those who offend his little ones. But the two verses preceding specifically state that those who abuse spouse or offspring will lose their priesthood and temple ordinances. So there is support for those sealing powers becoming null and void in abuse cases.
However, I had to discover passages like this myself. There is no pamphlet with this kind of comfort that a bishop can hand out; and bishops receive no training on how to respond to the matter; there’s no discussion of abuse situations in any lesson or any manual. When we talk about eternal families, we talk about how we hope we can qualify for this blessing, but we don’t often talk about what it takes to not qualify—to lose those blessings. To my knowledge, there is no real discussion taking place that says if your parents or spouse abuse you, you will not be forced to spend eternity with them.
NATASHA: Quite a few of my clients have had abusive parents who are prominent leaders in the Church, and they wonder if there’s a chance that their parents will go to the celestial kingdom. Some of them have told me, “I want no part of that. I’d rather go to hell than be with them.”
TRESA: And if people are convinced that their abusive parents or spouses are going to the celestial kingdom, they might turn their back on their faith—completely leave the Church—because of these abusive relationships. I have found such intense healing through the Atonement, through my ward families, and through this community, but a lot of people aren’t getting that kind of care because we’re not really trained to deal with these issues.
Maybe someone in a healthy mind frame can easily see that we always have a choice about whether we will be with our families in the next life. But abuse victims are usually not in a healthy mind frame. These aren’t people who have the safety and freedom to examine everything logically. When we hear them say “I would rather go to hell than to be sealed to my family,” it’s because they think that that’s their only choice. Our rhetoric about eternal families can push abuse victims into believing that a literal, fiery hell is preferable to what we have to offer in Mormonism. And that is the deepest bastardization of what the gospel has to offer. We have to do better.
DAN: How can the Atonement be helpful in overcoming abuse?
TRESA: This is, of course, a very personal thing. I’ve really had to personalize my relationship with Jesus Christ, because—as I’ve said many times in this discussion—the Church doesn’t provide many resources. I’ve had to go on very tender walks with the Savior to find these resources for myself. Part of why I’m so public about my abuse is because I want to share those resources. This journey has made me feel bonded to the Savior in a very sacred, intimate way. It makes me want to be like him; to become a savior with a little “s.”
Someone has to pay for the consequences of abuse and violence, and that is what victims are called to do. Through the Atonement, the Savior has helped me bear up under that burden. It has been healing for me to learn to claim authority, to access the pieces of what he was called to bear. And even if I left Mormonism, I would still have my relationship with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, with no intermediary. I do not have to rely on the nearest priesthood holder to interpret these relationships for me. This deep relationship has helped me gain power to overcome the feelings of powerlessness I had as a child.
NATASHA: When I work with clients, our questioning always comes back to, “What kind of God am I going to worship?” Mormonism encourages us to think of Heavenly Father and Mother as parents. So, sometimes my clients and I will think about how we might send a child out into the world, hoping for the best. If our child returns scarred or bruised or raped, our first instinct is to hold that child in our arms and to let that child sob and beat their fists against our chests. We sob with them and rock them back and forth for however long it takes. Not once would it occur to us to ask, “Have you forgiven that person?” We just want to offer comfort and peace.
So that’s my answer: give the forgiveness package to the Lord, because forgiveness doesn’t apply in these cases. If someone disagrees with me and calls my position on this a sin, well, the Atonement covers sins. If you are someone who has been so hurt that you can’t forgive, the Atonement covers you.
NATASHA HELFER PARKER has been a marriage, family, and sex therapist for fifteen years, working primarily with LDS clients. She runs the blog, The Mormon Therapist, which is hosted through the Patheos website. She also writes occasional pieces for Feminist Mormon Housewives.
TRESA EDMUNDS blogs for Feminist Mormon Housewives and several other places, including for The Guardian (U.K.) and ReeseDixon.com. She is also the survivor of an abusive family.