Helping sex abuse survivors find peace and healing

Dawn Eden, best-selling author of “The Thrill of the Chaste,” recently spoke to Our Sunday Visitor about her newest book, “My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints” (Ave Maria Press, $16.95) and about her willingness to use her own experiences to help others heal wounds and achieve spiritual transformation. 

Dawn Eden
Dawn Eden

Our Sunday Visitor: Writing a book about this deeply personal and painful topic requires a real willingness to be vulnerable before your readers. How did you reach that point? 

Dawn Eden: Beginning to write “My Peace I Give You” was a challenge. In conversations that I had with friends and pastoral caregivers, it was painful to discuss what it was like to be a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. So how could I begin to share my experience with the whole world? 

The approach I ended up taking is, in essence, the approach I recommend for healing. As I write in “My Peace I Give You,” the aim is to act from your wellness, not from your pathology. What is hardest to discuss is the problem of evil. Why does God permit it? As I wrote, I knew from my theological training and from the Catechism that the Lord never positively wills evil. He permits it only to bring forth a greater good (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 412). But it’s one thing to know that truth of our faith on an intellectual level, and it’s another thing to internalize it. 

So it wasn’t until writing the book’s final chapter that I was ready to explore what the theology of suffering means to me personally, as one whose life was deeply affected by evil. What came out surprised me. I realized that, while some of my childhood memories remain painful, being able to help others who are similarly afflicted is a great joy. 

OSV: When did you first realize the saints could be your companions on this path? 

Eden: I am convinced that the saints chase us. We don’t find them; they find us, and they enable us to awaken to the ways their lives and prayers can help us draw closer to God. I didn’t so much discover that saints could be my companions. It was more like realizing that they already were. St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Josephine Bakhita, Dorothy Day and the others in “My Peace I Give You” — they all gathered around me, so to speak, and became companions on my journey. 

It was Aquinas who really surprised me. I knew something about his story, having read G.K. Chesterton’s biography. However, Chesterton completely misconstrues the incident during Thomas’ late teens when he was sexually mistreated by family members. His brothers — who, along with the rest of his family, were trying to get him to quit the Dominicans — pushed a prostitute on him, hoping he would break his vow of chastity. 

Chesterton, as a friend recently pointed out to me, treats this incident like a joke. And in fact, being normally trustful of Chesterton’s perspective, that’s how I took the story when I first read it. But when I went to the earliest biographies of Aquinas, I found it wasn’t a joke. It was a traumatic experience. The very people who were supposed to be protecting him were instead preying on his vulnerability. 

So I learned that Aquinas knew what it was like to be victimized. At the same time, discovering how he drew nearer to God in the wake of his trauma helped me to heal from the effects of my own. 

Dawn Eden

OSV: You say that “past pain is an integral part of present joy,” which may be difficult for some people to accept. What is the significance of learning to integrate painful memories? 

Eden: Sorrow in itself isn’t joyful. We need to be clear on that, because atheists like the late Christopher Hitchens have accused the Church of being in love with suffering. But, having experienced pain, we have to believe that we are yet capable of experiencing joy. And when we do experience joy, that past pain is part of it somehow, because it remains part of us. 

We are, in some sense, the product of our experiences. What happened to me in the past remains part of me, whether or not I can consciously remember it, because its effects led to the formation of my present identity. So I have to find a way to come to terms with past pain, if my present life is to have meaning. And the beautiful thing for us, as Catholics, is that the Eucharist shows us the way. The resurrected Christ comes to us in the Blessed Sacrament bearing the wounds he suffered on the cross — only those wounds are now glorified. God could have saved us however he wished, but he chose to save us through suffering… 

OSV: You have said that this book is not just for those who have experienced sexual abuse. Do you think many people are carrying deep emotional and spiritual wounds they have not begun to heal? 

Eden: Oh, there’s no question. Government statistics tell us that two-thirds of adults report having had at least one traumatic experience in childhood, and more than a third report having two or more. And that’s not even counting the wounds people have suffered as adults. So, yes, I do believe that nearly every one of us carries the effects of past pain. How we cope with those effects is largely determined by how deeply we are involved in prayer, the sacraments and the life of the Church. 

That doesn’t mean that being devout delivers us from all mental pain or disorder in this life. I think of the author Evelyn Waugh, who was known for being personally abrasive. Once, when the hostess of a party asked him how he could be so rude when he was a man of faith, he responded, “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I were not a Catholic.” 

OSV: You are careful to stress that forgiveness does not necessarily require reconciliation, but I’m assuming forgiveness is necessary in order to move forward? 

Eden: A wrong understanding of forgiveness hampered my own journey of healing. I thought that forgiving an abuser was something that had to be done through communicating directly with him or her. For a victim, nothing could be more uncomfortable, especially if the person is still abusive. 

What helped me was learning, through the Catechism and through the lives of the saints, that forgiveness is not our work. It’s the work of the Holy Spirit in us (No. 2843). Likewise, forgiveness doesn’t mean feeling forgiving. It means wanting God’s best for the offender, and praying for him or her. Reconciliation is ideal, and we should always be open to it when it does not put our physical or emotional security in jeopardy. But the commandment to forgive is fulfilled regardless of whether the forgiveness leads to reconciliation … 

OSV: What are your hopes for this book in terms of the people it will reach and the misconceptions it will set straight? 

Eden: Children who have been abused typically blame themselves for what was done to them. When they become adults and learn what the Church teaches about purity, that can lead to their taking on misplaced blame for things that were never their fault. Jesus clearly states that even if a child is persuaded by an abuser to participate in a sinful act, the sin of abuse is on the abuser (Mt 18:6). So my first hope for “My Peace I Give You” is to show adults who bear the wounds of abuse that the Church does not in any way judge them for what they suffered. 

That said, being abused in childhood does affect how a person sees himself or herself as an adult. In my case, I tried to compensate for feelings of vulnerability by creating a sexually aggressive identity. As a convert to the Catholic faith, I had to learn how to live according my true identity in Christ, as a beloved child of the heavenly Father. So another intention with “My Peace” is that people who feel trapped in damaging behavioral patterns will find hope for spiritual transformation. 

Last, I hope the book will help friends, family members and those who care pastorally for abuse victims to see how the saints show us the way to lead others to Christ’s healing love. 

Mary DeTurris Poust writes from New York.