Wednesday, March 19, 2014

On Abuse and the Magical Power of Redemption

Sometimes deep insights come in the most peculiar places.* The other day, I was sitting in a hot tub at a friend’s house, and we were talking about our childhoods. The topic eventually got around to abuse I had suffered as a child and to how various Mormon doctrines of redemption had, over the years, affected how I had “processed” not only the abuse I myself experienced, but also the history of abuse in my family. 

As I was describing these doctrines to my non-Mormon friend, I experienced one of those moments in which I suddenly perceived, with stunning clarity, how doctrines in which I had passionately believed for almost 30 years were not only not true, but were mind-enslaving, soul destroying cancers that had eaten away at my sense of self for most of my life.

Such, alas, is the power of magic, the force of myth, carefully constructed. It dispenses the elixir of sanity, bewitches the believer, holds out the promise of transformation and proffers hope ~ but, alas, all is vaporous.  


As I have written about from time to time on my blog, I experienced physical and emotional abuse when I was a child.Without going into details, suffice it to say that my mother – who was twice hospitalized in psychiatric wards, who suffered from depression and debilitating migraines and who was addicted throughout the first 10-12 years of my life to both prescription diet pills (speed) and sleeping pills (barbiturates) – could be a short-tempered woman who was physically powerful and prone to violence.

The only picture I have of my father, my mother and me

My father, for his part, was largely absent during those years. It’s not as though I grew up on the “wrong side of the tracks,” however. We were, by outward appearances, a respectable, middle-class religious (Catholic) family. But appearances were deceiving. My father was absent because his sales job often required him to be out of town and because he was a workaholic; and though he knew about some of the abuse, and probably suspected more, he was happy, I think, to just try to ignore it. He had his own issues with my mother, and I think he willfully shut his eyes to much of what was going on at home. He may have even been afraid of her.

As I got older, I tried to forget most of what had happened in my childhood. What I didn’t manage to forget, I simply took in stride. To me, it was my “normal.” To the extent I held things against my mother, I justified her behavior in my own mind due to the fact that she had herself been abused as a child: her father was very abusive, as was his father before him. 


I well remember my grandmother, Nell, talking about my grandfather. She divorced him in the depths of the Depression and was turned away by her own mother as a result. Through sheer grit, she managed to make it through the Dirty Thirty’s with my mother and one of her brothers in tow, her older brothers being farmed out to other relatives. Grandma described to me how my grandfather had, among other things, pistol-whipped her, threatened her with a gun (until the neighbor lady came over, took the gun and threw it down the outdoor toilet), and otherwise abused her. 

Nell also described how mean her former father-in-law had been. “Herman,” she once told me, “was mean,” – her high-pitched nasal voice accentuating the word “mean” as she stared off into the distance, holding a lit Lucky Strike cigarette in her hand – “then,” turning back to look at me and pointing her hand toward me, cigarette dangling, “he turned nice … Then, he died.” Grandma flicked her cigarette into the ashtray as if to emphasize the finality of death, then turned away again, looking once more down the tunnel into the past.


Interestingly, late in his life, my maternal grandfather added another bit of knowledge and understanding of the curse of his family. I hadn't even met him until I was 16 or 17, and that was only because I made the effort to drive across southern Illinois to meet him. My mother had had nothing to do with him for who knows how long. I went to visit him after I had joined the church (he died shortly thereafter) and interviewed him. When the subject came around to his father, he laughed and made a comment about how mean he was to him as a youngster. Another piece of the puzzle.

My grandfather (with pipe) sitting with some of fellow railroad workers

I frankly never thought much about the abuse I had experienced as a boy (and the effect it had had upon me) until I joined the Mormon Church. It was then, upon being confronted with a deeply shameful past and family legacy in the face of what appeared to me to be picture-perfect Mormon families, that I first felt the need and sought ways to whitewash or otherwise excuse my mother’s actions (and my father’s inaction) towards me when I was a boy, as well as my family’s shameful history of abuse.

I think I also believed for a time (again, as a way to cover the shame that I felt when I joined the Church) that my mother’s abuse – along with my father’s emotional abandonment - was why I had “turned out” gay. I think I wanted – at least for a time - to believe this. It was perhaps convenient for me to be able to blame her in this way for a “condition” that I didn’t want.

The Magic of "Redemption"

When I joined the LDS Church, I saw in its doctrines and practices a means of (among other things) redeeming myself from my own homosexuality as well as the deeply shameful family legacy of abuse.

First of all, there were the temple ordinances I could perform for my deceased ancestors. I strongly believed the LDS doctrine that I could be a “Savior on Mount Zion” (see Obadiah 1:21) for my abusive forebears and be a means of redemption to them. Furthermore, as Joseph Smith taught, I could in so doing receive blessings myself (D&C 128:18).

This work helped me to feel special – that I was preordained to do this work, that out of all the many members of my extended family spanning generations and numbering into the thousands, I alone had been chosen because of pre-mortal valor to do this work.

It was heady stuff. But it was other-focused. And it wasn’t healthy. Many times over the years as I engaged in genealogical research and temple work, I would hear a nagging voice in the back of my mind saying, “You’re just doing this out of a vain attempt to create a sense of family that you never had as a child. You’re trying to make yourself, and believe yourself to be special, because you were never treated as special when you were a child.”

Whenever I would hear that voice, I would tell myself it was the voice of Satan, trying to deter me from doing my foreordained work. Under no circumstances could I allow myself to believe that voice, because the emotional and psychological costs of doing so were too great. I could not allow myself to feel I wasn’t special. I could not allow myself to examine my motives. I had to keep the focus off myself. I had to perpetuate the myth.

As important as this myth was to me, however, an even more important myth (which also arose out of LDS concepts of redemption) focused on other existential issues relating to abuse. Shortly after I was married, I read the following quote in the Ensign (LDS Church magazine) by LDS psychologist Carlfred Broderick:
“[M]y experience in various church callings and in my profession as a family therapist has convinced me that God actively intervenes in some destructive lineages, assigning a valiant spirit to break the chain of destructiveness in such families. Although these children may suffer innocently as victims of violence, neglect, and exploitation, through the grace of God some find the strength to “metabolize” the poison within themselves, refusing to pass it on to future generations. Before them were generations of destructive pain; after them the line flows clear and pure. Their children and children’s children will call them blessed” [Ensign, August 1986].
The concepts expressed in this quote were new to me and extremely powerful. Suddenly, I had an answer to one of the most fundamental existential questions that had plagued me since childhood – Why was I abused? Why did I have such a shameful family history of abuse? Here was the answer – again magical, powerful, mythical, intoxicating: I had volunteered for this assignment – to single-handedly take upon myself the sins of my fathers and mothers, to metabolize all the accumulated hurt, pain, anguish and shame that generations of abuse had created and to prevent it from being passed on to another generation. This both explained my past and charted my future. It was my responsibility to end the legacy of abuse.

I believed – passionately – in this myth for most of my adult life.  But, the other day in my friend’s hot tub, I unexpectedly gained such profound insights into the fallacious and evil nature of this myth that I literally felt like I had received a blow to the chest, opening a well of emotion and understanding (not unlike my reaction to President Packer’s October 2010 Conference address).


What were these insights?

First, I realized that I had allowed myself to believe that I was responsible for atoning for other people’s sins. The fallaciousness of this belief is crystal clear to me now: even in LDS doctrine, there is only one person who is capable of redeeming others from their sins – and he was able to do so because he is a God and led a sinless life himself. He had no “baggage”: He was not abused as a child and did not carry within him the legacy of a history of abuse. I, on the other hand, was and am a mere mortal, a frightened boy who was himself abused and mistreated. How could I possibly expect myself, or allow others to expect me, to atone for the sins of my abusive forebears? The concept is not only grossly unfair and doctrinally unsound, it is evil.

Second, I had allowed myself to take on the responsibility of “metabolizing” all the hurt, pain, anguish, grief, etc., of previous generations. And what qualified me to be able to shoulder this immense burden? Absolutely nothing – except the myth that I had been assigned this task by God in the pre-existence because of my valor, righteousness, strength and general all-around “special-ness.”  But what loving Father would lay such a task upon a son whom He knew would emerge from childhood permanently crippled by the very thing he was supposed to “metabolize”? Again, the concept is not only grossly unfair and doctrinally unsound, it is evil.

Third, I allowed myself to take on the role of redeemer, or “metabolizer,” to focus on the needs of others while ignoring the legacy of abuse within myself. In this mythical tragedy, I was no more than a tool, a facilitator. My true sense of self was sacrificed to the mythical persona of redeemer, of “special one,” of “metabolizer.” I would lay myself upon the altar of redemption for the sake of those who had come before me and those who would follow, trusting that someday, somehow, some way, somewhere over the rainbow, I myself would be healed and made whole.

Meanwhile, by taking on these roles, I only exposed myself more. When I failed at metabolization, which I inevitably would, I sank into despair and vowed to try harder, only to sink further and make myself a convenient target for others.

These magical doctrines of redemption, these myths of “specialness,” cost me dearly. I now see this.  The belief that one is “special” and can play God places an unhealthy and wholly unrealistic burden upon the self to perform magical, god-like, super-human tasks. It reduces the self to a tool, a means of facilitation. Rather than recognizing the hurt, the shame, and the brokenness (created by abuse) in all its humanity and seeking to honestly and lovingly heal it, these doctrines and beliefs instead impose new, additional layers of guilt, shame and self-hatred. They are debilitating, they are destructive and they are wrong. 

* This post was originally published as three separate posts on my Invictus Pilgrim blog (now closed) in November 2011.

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