Last week I posted two articles related to the Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. Between 2001 and 2005, as many as a dozen teenage girls may have suffered sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse from a church youth director. This year, the youth director was long gone, but church leaders felt that the wounds had not be properly addressed and healed. So a few months ago, the pastor and church issued a public apology.
Lawyers for the church’s insurance company warned the church not to accept responsibility for the failings of the youth director. Doing so, the insurance company said, would jeopardize the church’s coverage in case a lawsuit was filed.
The Vienna Presbyterian Church ignored the demands of its insurance company. On March 27, Pastor Peter James preached a sermon that acknowledged the church’s failings.
“Let me speak for a moment to our survivors,” he said. “We, as church leaders, were part of the harm in failing to extend the compassion and mercy that you needed. Some of you felt uncared for, neglected and even blamed in this church. I am truly sorry … I regret the harm this neglect has caused you.”
Guess what—so far, none of the young women has filed a lawsuit.
Why not? The case would be a slam-dunk. The youth director pleaded guilty to contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The church accepted responsibility. Several of the now young women have trouble in relationships, because they are still seeking the fantasy that the youth director promised. If they filed suit, they’d win.
My guess is that the women don’t want money. They want to be heard. They want to be validated. And they want to be healed.
The problem with sociopathic entanglements is that so much of the damage is invisible. Even in cases where we lose money, jobs, homes, and are subject to physical violence, the big wounds are not readily apparent. Before all those obvious injuries occurred, the sociopaths softened us up with emotional manipulation, psychological control and spiritual abuse. These internal wounds not only eat at us, but they make it difficult for us to respond to, and recover from, the obvious physical damage.
After the sociopath, we need to purge our emotional and mental pain. We need internal stability. But when we reach out for help on this level, many of the people around us simply don’t get it.
They don’t understand why we need to talk so much about what happened. They don’t understand how, when we suspected that we were being used, we allowed it to continue. They don’t understand why we are still confused in our thoughts and emotions about the sociopath.
Get over it, they tell us.
These are the people, of course, who are lucky enough to have avoided a direct assault from a sociopath in their own lives. We often understand why they don’t really understand what happened—after all, we were once as clueless as they are. Still, their ignorance of the depth of our pain seems to increase our pain. We feel like we are not being heard, and our suffering is being invalidated.
Karin Huffer, in her book, the Legal Abuse Syndrome, describes this situation in detail in her chapter on “Debriefing.”
Debriefing, she says, is the first step in recovery. In the debriefing process, we tell someone exactly what happened to us, in all the painful detail. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find what Huffer describes as “quality listeners.” These are people who have the ability to hear what we have to say, overriding their own protective filters. She writes:
Protective filters are always at work. If an individual begins to share with another and the data threatens the listener’s feelings of safety, they may try to divert the data or simply not hear it at all …
The function of this protective filter is to maintain the equilibrium of the listener. Victims’ stories shake the foundations that we lean upon in order to feel safe. When it is impossible for friends or family to hear, due to their protective psychological filters shielding them from vicarious pain, the victim feels rejected and alone.
Huffer goes on to describe a formal debriefing process. It’s best done with a quality listener or support group, but an individual can do it alone if necessary.
Support at Lovefraud
I believe that we have many, many quality listeners on Lovefraud. I am always amazed at the thoughtful, comforting and patient comments posted in response to readers who are spilling their traumatized guts.
The reason Lovefraud readers can do this, of course, is because we’ve all been there. We know what it’s like to be deceived, betrayed and assaulted. We know what it’s like to sit amidst the wreckage of what was once our lives. We’re all on the path to recovery, and those of us who are further along help those of us who are just beginning.
Healing, in the end, is an individual journey. To fully recover, we must consciously excavate and examine our pain, and find a way to let it go. But the process is helped immensely when we are heard and validated. I am so glad that Lovefraud offers this to so many people.