Social Issues

learning the words: abuse

into the light
Tamara Rice is an editor and write and a frequently loud-mouthed advocate for victims of abuse within the church who blogs at Hopefully Known. “Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or overly conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.

trigger warning for child abuse, sexual abuse, and spiritual abuse

Where I come from abuse was a term reserved for vicious violence. I’m not really sure why or how this protection around the word came to be, but I know that great care was taken to distinguish between parents who were abusive and parents who were merely … very bad parents. Between sexual boundaries being crossed in a way that was sexually abusive and in a way that was more … molestation. Between spiritual authority being misused in an evil way that was spiritually abusive and in a way that was simply … unfortunate. Abuse, in short, was reserved for what I now might put in the category of sadistic torment—the stuff they make horror films about.

Under these narrow definitions, abuse was rarely encountered in my growing up years (or so we thought), and maybe that was the whole point. Defined as such, abuse was kept at arm’s length, out of our circles. Abuse happened to people on the news and in salacious Stephen King novels, it didn’t happen to us, it didn’t happen in our fundamentalist Baptist church, it didn’t happen in the missionary community we were part of overseas.

~~~~~~~~~~

By the time I reached my 30s I had very little to do with the faith community of my childhood. I had married a man in ministry and had gone on to be part of churches and religious organizations where legalism was rare and the kind of fundamentalism I’d grown up with was rarer still. I got it out of my system and left it behind. And then in 2011, I got sucked back in.

I began to fight alongside several old friends to bring justice for the victims of a missionary from our childhood and to call into account the Baptist mission board who had been mishandling the pedophile’s exposure for over twenty years.

Even now, it’s hard to put this story into a few brief words. The pain is still thick at the back of my throat and the journey isn’t over. But from the moment I stepped back into that fundamentalist world, the term abuse grew to encompass so much more than violence. I grew to understand it in its fullness, as it was meant to be understood–as I wish I had understood it from a very young age.

abuse defined

The justice endeavor began as an effort to bring healing to a friend and her family who had been deeply wounded by the pedophile and mission board, but over time it became very clear that I suffered sexual abuse myself—something I had long pushed back and denied and reasoned away, despite it explaining decades of emotional instability. New information made it undeniable, and I had to face the things my mind had hidden. Then, as I fought for justice, I became the victim of spiritual and emotional abuse as well.

First came the e-mails and blog comments from total strangers calling me a tool of Satan and an enemy of the gospel. Verses were thrown at me—at us—and we, the victims,were admonished not to touch “God’s anointed.” The vile things that self-proclaimed Christians will say in anonymity is appalling. If self-righteous curses of “shame on you, you whore of Satan” could kill, I’d be dead from the anonymous e-mails of vitriol and hate I have read.

The harder we pushed for justice, the closer the abusers came. Now it wasn’t just strangers dishing out spiritual and emotional abuse on the internet, it was people we had called “aunts” and “uncles” in our youth. Verses, again, were thrown at us. We were reminded to forgive, reminded of the supposedly innocent family members who were embarrassed and hurt by the pedophile’s public exposure, but who—let’s face it—probably knew a certain amount but lived in denial all along. “What about them?” the emails would say. “You’re being evil and cruel. They don’t deserve this.” And they, the family, didn’t deserve it. That’s true. But neither did we, and neither did any other child.

False familial titles (the cult-like “aunt”/“uncle” monikers) and childhood nicknames were doled out in long e-mails, phone calls and voicemail messages from those whose were rightly being questioned. I stopped taking the calls, stopped listening to the messages, but not before a few left their mark. “This is your ‘Aunt’ ______. We’re hurting so much over all these accusations. We looove you, Tammy,” she said, her voice thick with emotion I couldn’t understand given we’d hardly known each other, hadn’t seen each other since I was fifteen, and she was using a name no one outside my family had called me in over two decades.

It was a poorly disguised attempt to guilt me into silence over a leadership “mistake” her husband had made. Her husband should have be shouting from the rooftops that he’d been wrong, done something criminal under the mandated reporting laws, done something morally shameful. But instead the wife was sent to sway me, to spare her and their grown children this sadness.

Her voicemail haunted me for weeks, not because she got to me, because she didn’t. It was because she had tried. Because she had invoked love and false familiarity and spiritual obligation in her desperation to silence me. I was shocked—utterly shocked—at the subtle insidiousness of it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The misplaced resentment against us, against me, personally, grew to epic proportions when a friend exposed a second pedophile a few years later—and by misplaced resentment I mean more spiritual and emotional abuse. I mean using scripture wrongly and improperly, using relationships and pasts and church authority wrongly and improperly, I mean hurting and injuring by maltreatment, I mean the continuation of corrupt practices and customs, I mean language that condemns and vilifies unjustly and intemperately. I mean all of those things above that Webster’s and Farlex tell us are the definition of abuse. I suffered these things publicly and privately from the mission board, from people I barely knew, and from people I knew well.

At one point, a man who grew up on the same mission field as I did launched a Facebook page vilifying me. His page banner labeled me a fascist, but the reality was he didn’t even know me well enough to use my married name of almost twenty years. One by one, I watched as adults and former friends of my formative years overseas “liked” his page, all because they didn’t like men they admired being exposed for the havoc they had wreaked in the lives of young women who were now middle-aged and grown and no longer being silent.

It wouldn’t have been so bad, really, except that then this Facebook group started in on my faith, mocking me, using my words against me, twisting who I was. Knowing I shouldn’t read their bitter words that came from a narrow view of faith I didn’t even subscribe to, I read anyway, sickened that I had become the target of hate and abuse when there were pedophiles sleeping as free men.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The spiritual and emotional abuse of these years, and the time I spent coming to terms with my sexual abuse—it’s all left me battered.

I retreated for quite a while after the Facebook incident, and I’ve never made a full comeback to that particular justice effort. I wish so much that I could tell you that justice and truth won out. That doing the right thing and exposing sin (no, make that crimes) paid off. But it didn’t and it hasn’t. It has been the most painful exercise in futility of my life.

My consolation, however, is this: I know what abuse is now. Sexual. Spiritual. Emotional. And because I’ve learned the word I can call it what it is. I can give it a name. I can see it when it happens to me or in front of me. And I can cry and grieve and hurt, but then I can get up and walk away and find healing in a safer place. Because the word has lost its power now that my vocabulary has grown.

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  • Eshet chayil, Tamara. Thank you for sharing this, and for your work to expose such evil. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Dani. That means a lot.

  • Though I was not abused, close friends of mine were, and I know from seeing what they went through how much it takes from you to expose these evil ass holes. One such friend was sexually molested by his father, and his father’s friends. He felt he had no one to turn to because everyone he was supposed to admire & trust had betrayed him. His Dad eventually became a (Mormon) Bishop, and then a Stake President. Everyone thinks he is such a great man, and it makes me want to vomit. I would love to expose these guys, but the fragile state my friend is in even though he is now in his late 40’s prohibits me from doing so. I admire your strength in the face of such evil.

    • Thanks, Daisy. It is hard. Getting justice for several friends, one in particular, was a huge motivator for me in this, my own story aside. I’m not sure I’d have done it just for me. It’s common for those who have experienced the most traumatizing abuse to not have the strength to fight for justice on their own, at 12 or at 52, even if they are ready to tell their story. Fighting for justice is almost a whole other level of discomfort and vulnerability that is too much for a lot of people. That’s why advocates are so important and that’s why–as hard as it was and is–I was happy to be one of several faithful advocates in this situation and I would do it all over again.

  • Thank you for continuing to speak out and expose church abuse.

  • Thanks for reading.

  • Wow. You described the environment in which I grew up so clearly, though it was another mission. There is something in these closed social structures and creating a leadership-regulated line of proper actions and attitudes that breeds abuse, I think,… not just “Christian” but also secular groups. Many of my friends were also sexually abused, alongside the dramatic overuse of “physical discipline” which I also endured.

    Even when leaving my husband, who raped me throughout our relationship and rarely had a kind word for me (until he finally started dating another woman, giving me the courage to leave) the term “abuse” wasn’t permitted. When our church kicked me out for leaving him … they were “acting in love” so I would “respect their authority.” I imagine it still hasn’t occurred to those leaders that they might have been abusive, too.

    I had never questioned the use of “Aunt” or “Uncle.” Until I read your description it didn’t occur to me how that element trapped us children just a little more under the twisted authority structure. Some of these missionaries actually were as close as family, and I still love calling them by those familiar titles, but some were not, and I’ve awkwardly progressed into calling them by first names. Odd how difficult that is, even when invited.

    • Oh, Mere Dreamer. First of all … thank you for sharing such hard truths of your story. I’m sorry for all you’ve endured. It sounds like a nightmare from start to finish. I hope you have found health and healing in a safer place.

      Second, as far as being “MKs” … I hear you. It was only the last few years, during this fight that I came to see those false family monikers of “aunt” and “uncle” for what they were, which is very damaging. Like you, there are a few (a very precious few that I can count on one hand) that will be my “aunt” and “uncle” forever. But because they EARNED those titles through their love and care and nurturing presence in my life. The damaging element of those labels is when we were forced to give them to strangers. (On my field, we were forced … even if the stranger/adult was only 22 and we were 15!) It placed strangers/adults who had not earned our trust (and didn’t deserve our trust) in a position of familial authority over us instantly. I now think it is one of the worst practices that exists on most mission fields and when missionaries ask me, “What can I do to protect my kids?” it is the first thing I mention. ONLY individuals who are beloved and trusted should be called by those titles, and that should be a very small few. In that context (earned love and trust and respect) it can help a child who is far from blood relatives to feel they are in a safe larger family. But without that context it is just an element of the grooming process that a predator gets to enjoy for free.

      Today I am almost forty and so many times over the past few years of this battle older missionaries would try to present themselves as “aunt” or “uncle” to me and I finally saw it for the manipulative “mind your elders” nonsense it was. It made me want to scream into the phone, “I am a middle-aged woman, for crying out loud. I have had two children. I have had cancer. I have been married for almost two decades. You do not have authority over me!” It was, in short, a trigger that made me want to throw a tantrum like a two-year-old. A “you are not the boss of me” level tantrum. (And maybe that’s why it’s done. Induce the tantrum … prove you are still the elder in control.)

      Ugh.

      Thank you again, for sharing your story.

  • sonatasintherain

    I’m sorry that the people you grew up with have been so cruel to you. I’ve been on the receiving end of this hate you describe, too. It’s tragic how many Christian people commit sociopathic atrocities or stand by justifying them and then judge their victims as unholy when we protest. Narrow circular reasoning and fear of contamination can drive fundamentalists to think in “us versus them” mentality, vilifying everyone who threatens their stability on the inside, and vilifying everyone on the outside because they’re outsiders. It’s a terrible mindset, but they can’t see how wrong it is, even when it destroys their relationships.
    Also…what’s up with all these “loving” letters of reprimand that are actually manipulative and spiteful? (It’s like 1984 doublespeak). I’ve gotten several as well. It must be trendy in IFB churches or something. Ironically, mine were all addressed using my childhood nickname that I hate and haven’t used in several years. Thanks for caring enough to know our names, right?

    • Yes! Stop calling us by our childhood nicknames, it betrays your lack of interest in our adult lives, for crying out loud.

      I loved this that you said: “Narrow circular reasoning and fear of contamination can drive fundamentalists to think in ‘us versus them’ mentality, vilifying everyone who threatens their stability on the inside and vilifying everyone on the outside because they’re outsiders.”

      So true! While my fellow workers in that particular justice effort were not as far removed as I was from the fundamentalist circles (and still didn’t get much more respect than I did), I couldn’t escape the feeling that I had been written off by more than one person involved in that debacle as a liberal, feminist, heretic, which–of course–meant that my hurts, opinions, requests, suggestions, etc. were WORTHLESS.

      Thank you for your comment and your perspective.

  • Kreine

    Tamara, I’m so sorry for all you’ve gone through. I read stories like yours & wish I could somehow shield victims of abuse from the horribly unjust backlash they receive when they speak truth.

    The best I can do is teach my children that loving our neighbor means meeting their needs. And if their need is to see justice, then stand shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand until that need is met.

    • Amen. I have great hope that the world will somehow be a better place for those who speak up against abuse in about 20 to 30 years when–I’m sad to say–those who grew up with abuse being something you didn’t talk about are fading away and no longer in charge of churches and mission boards and schools and the rest. It’s not my intent to judge that entire generation of people in their 50s and older. Some have been extremely supportive. But in general I find that it’s a generation that prefers not to talk about it, and I have hope that our children will do much better. Thanks for teaching yours well.

  • Authority run amok. What’s really sad is that the authority is not justified. I thought we were called to be servants of one another. The authoritarian model of church should raise red flags immediately. If the pastor is the beginning and end of what is deemed appropriate in a congregation, run far away in the other direction.

  • Thank you for sharing. It’s scary when you start seeing things for what they truly are. So many people turn back from the truth at that point. It’s courageous of you to continue speaking the truth.

  • Whether inside or outside of faith circles, abuse is abuse. Sexual abuse is rape of the body and the spirit. What is done to us by well-meaning strangers, family and friends in the name of protecting their good name or ours leaves scars that I think might be worse than the original abuse. I am so sorry you have suffered both. Thank you for sharing your story, thank you for having the courage to stand up for others.

  • Gabrielle

    I think your really brave putting your experience of this out there. Now tell me how do I get out? I’m trying to understand that sometimes adults are wrong to, but its a difficult message to understand.

    • You didn’t say what your current situation is. It’s hard to know how to help you get out without knowing about where you are. You are at the right place to figure it out. Send a private message to Samantha. (I hope that suggestion is okay, Samantha?)

    • Tamara Rice

      Yes. Please reach out to Samantha or you can reach me through the contact page of my blog also. (HopeFullyKnown.com) Help is out there, but it can be hard in the midst of a crisis to find it unless you’ve got … well, MORE help.

  • Azusa

    A while back, I asked a professional about how I could stop panicking every time I saw a random person in public who looked like my ex from years ago. The professional said, “You were so strong to get out of an abusive relationship.”

    I was so shocked and kind of embarrassed he said I had been in an abusive relationship. Yes, things were fine when we were dating and then went crazy after we broke up. But was all the craziness really abuse? I would never let someone abuse me, right?

    A couple weeks later, I started reading a description of different kinds of abuse. I realized I could check off quite a few. Threatening. Humiliating. Lying. Denying.

    I can honestly say now that yes, I experienced emotional abuse.

    • Tamara Rice

      First, I’m glad you got out and I’m sorry you went through that relationship to begin with. Normalizing what is happening to us (not wanting to call it abuse) is a common and natural response, but it isn’t very helpful to healing. I’m glad you learned the word too.