Saints and Abuse

Teresa Pitt Green, Co-Founder

Book Review: My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, by Dawn Eden. $16.95. 256 pages, paperback. 2012. Ave Maria Press: Notre Dame, Indiana.

My Peace I Give You is a helpful read on the topic of saints and sexual abuse. It is accessibly written, richly researched and gently able to cover neuralgic topics. Additionally, Dawn Eden’s story of conversion to Catholicism as part of her own healing journey is inspirational.

Raised by her divorced mother in New York City, Eden refers obliquely to instances of what, I infer to be, direct abuse as well as prolonged exposure to hypersexualized social situations as a child and teen.* Eden spent her young adulthood as an agnostic, earning her chops as a journalist, rock historian and news writer when her hometown of New York City was punkish, beat and charmingly surly.

By her early 30s, Eden grew disillusioned with the entertainment scene, but her spirit remained restless. A few stages of spiritual change ensued—being “born again,” then converting to Christianity and, soon after, embracing Roman Catholicism. What is implicit here, and covered by the author in other writings, is how her conversion enriched her own healing from abuse.

One strength of My Peace I Give You is that it casts a broad net over Church history for its profiles of saints and holy people. Thankfully, Eden does not limit herself to saints most commonly cited when the topic of abuse arises. She adds other saints (e.g., Ignatius of Loyola) who suffered grave mistreatment, abandonment, but not sexual abuse. She includes historical figures and saints who otherwise contribute to her reflections; e.g., Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux.

Whereas many writers on this topic spotlight forgiveness, Eden weaves in broader themes helpful in recovery. Her reflections on how Divine Love might work in a survivor’s life (e.g., sheltering, soothing, purifying) are particularly wonderful. She doesn’t omit forgiveness; it is naturally a part of almost every profile.

As in the Church, so in this book there are numerous saints who chose death over being abused. Eden’s broad and diverse scope softens the edge of the problems I described in Abuse Victims Who Are Canonized Saints, but with the caution I advised then I would not recommend this book to survivors who have not moved beyond self-recrimination or who still struggle with impulses for self-harm. Stories of these saints may be helpful but are better related in-person, as one might find in the Maria Goretti Network.

On a personal note, the more I read of Eden’s book, the less I identified with her as a survivor. As I asked fellow clergy-abuse survivors for their reaction to her book, the feeling was fairly common. In unison, we were delighted Eden found our Lord and the Catholic faith we hold dear. However, we did not share her point of view–we could not.

Eden and so many others who have suffered found consolation from evil in the Church – as it should be! Yet, clergy abuse survivors found evil and danger in the Church and have often struggled, finding consolation nowhere else.

*

My Peace I Give You is an important work in a world where there are too many survivors of abuse and trauma. Sensitive writings that offer faith to recovery are too few. This is a good one.

However, simply because My Peace I Give You is about Catholicism and abuse, should not be enough for Catholics to hand it to clergy-abuse survivors. Simply because it is written by a Catholic abuse survivor, does not mean it speaks to the wound of abuse by clergy in our Church.

This critique does not diminish the importance of Eden’s insights or her healing, nor the power of saints in My Peace I Give You to speak to survivors of abuse, even clergy abuse.

It is a red-flag caution, however, urging Catholics to be aware of distinctions among spiritual wounds — and to seek further to understand and partake in the healing underway in our Church.

*

My experience reading My Peace I Give You reminds me of my first year in Manhattan, when I had just started working in publishing. My first job was on the wild and crazy St. Marks Place in the East Village where sporting a rainbow haircut was, by contrast to every other person, conservative dress. Entire buildings were painted glossy black. If it was a pile of garbage on the curb, it might be waiting for the trash pickup or it might be considered public art. One never knew.

There is a memory of one night that returns. It was Christmas and snowing heavily. I was too poor for a warm coat and too young to care I was cold. The contrast was a shock that night like every night as I crossed Fifth Avenue. Moving along sidewalks with Christmas displays in all the windows, I was merging with crowds hurrying through a wealthy neighborhood of brownstones.  (My destination was a crumbling apartment in a dangerous neighborhood of Jersey City at the far end of my PATH train ride.)

People one story above me caught my eye. I stopped and backed into a doorway so I could just stare across the street into a party framed in the tall, narrow window of a richly appointed home on East 9th Street. Revelers in cocktail attire were gathered around a grand piano, drinking from martini glasses and laughing as someone played. It was like a silent movie, but it was life–their life. And my life.

I realized in that moment I was homeless, and had been, for a very long time. Where I longed to go wasn’t to family for a Norman Rockwell homecoming; there were still predatory priests in the parish. All I wanted to do was creep into a church, light a candle, sit near a nativity, but the anxiety attacks had driven me out for over a year. And there were the ulcers. And nightmares. Yet, that moment is one I hold dear. It is one of the last memories from the time before, before I began therapy for anxiety and ended up revisiting hell.

What must it be like for someone, in that kind of moment, at that brink of darkness, to find safe haven and consolation in the Church? I had no idea, then.

Why did I keep going back? Trying to creep into a church for a visit or to light a candle? One therapist challenged me for acting on a repetition complex, seeking to re-wound myself. She wasn’t impressed with my response, but all I could say was that St. Peter explained it best: Where else do we have to go?


Editor’s note: such exposure falls within the clinical definition of child sexual abuse.

 

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