Most Catholics are already familiar with the name Dawn Eden, the rock-journalist-turned-devout-Catholic who made a splash with her bestselling book The Thrill of the Chaste. Eden has gone on to be a highly sought-after speaker and writer, especially on the subjects of chastity and human sexuality. Eden holds a master’s degree in theology and currently lives in Washington, where she’s studying toward a doctorate.
Her new book, My Peace I Give You, delves into the subject of childhood sexual abuse. She recently spoke with Jennifer Fulwiler about woundedness, healing and — for the first time publicly — her personal experience with this subject.
Your last book, The Thrill of the Chaste, was also on the subject of sexuality. How did My Peace I Give You develop from that one?
With The Thrill of the Chaste, I went public about my experience of conversion of life — receiving Christian faith and, with it, the desire to forgo a worldly lifestyle in favor of practicing chastity. I wanted readers to see that the virtue of chastity is intrinsically connected with life in Christ and that life in Christ is always joyful. So, although the book was marketed as a kind of “how to” on waiting until marriage, I actually saw chastity as a kind of hook to help people discover Christian joy.
Once I started speaking about The Thrill of the Chaste, people started coming to me with their problems and asking for my advice. I noticed that those who were in the most agony as they tried to live out Church teachings on chastity were very often people who had suffered abuse, particularly childhood sexual abuse.
Why do you think that is? What is it about being a victim of abuse that could lead to difficulty with chastity and other aspects of having a healthy relationship with sexuality?
I think that people who were sinned against sexually are much more conscious of lustful thoughts — by which I don’t mean simple feelings of attraction, which are not sinful in themselves, but lustful fantasies and the like — because they knew where those thoughts lead. They know what it’s like to have someone see them as an object of use. They understand that their abuse didn’t begin with the abuser’s physical sin against them, but earlier, when the abuser began to conceive of them as an object for his or her own pleasure.
Is childhood sexual abuse an issue with which you have personal experience?
Yes. After I entered into full communion with the Catholic Church in 2006, a part of the spiritual growth process for me was coming to terms with my experience of childhood sexual abuse. When writing The Thrill of the Chaste, I consciously knew that I had had those experiences — they were not repressed memories — but I had not “written” them in my mind as abuse.
It’s a very common experience of abuse victims, particularly those who experienced childhood sexual abuse, to fail to mentally categorize what was done to them as “abuse.” For various reasons that I go into in My Peace I Give You, children tend to blame themselves for what was done to them, as a psychological safety mechanism at the time of abuse.
Did these experiences of abuse create obstacles for your ability to find and come to know God?
Yes, I would say that the abuse that I underwent in childhood really made it extraordinarily difficult for me to discover the love of God.
Each of us has an individual identity given to us by God, our Father. Ordinarily, the child first discovers his identity by being beloved by his own parents. Then, having learned what a father is, what a mother is, and what it is to be loved and protected and sustained by his parents, the child learns there is a Father in heaven who loves him. Though the child’s identity is not created by his father and mother, he discovers his identity as a child of God through them. Without the love and protection of a stable family, it becomes very hard — not at all impossible, but very hard — to find your identity as a beloved child of God.
To be clear, I am not saying I was an utterly unloved child. But protection is part of love, and I was not protected as I should have been.
How did your conversion change that?
Partly through the help of a Catholic therapist, but largely thanks to going deeper into the Catholic spiritual life, with the help of confessors and a spiritual director, I started to confront the effects of abuse within myself and bring all those experiences to Christ.
One thing that came out of that was the need to be able to locate my own experiences within the experiences of the Church.
I didn’t want to feel as if the things I had suffered were completely outside God’s providence. Because I’m now a member of the mystical body of Christ, everything I’ve suffered is also part of the sufferings of the body of Christ.
God didn’t positively will the evil that was done to me, but he permitted me to suffer it — for the same reason he permits any evil: because he could bring from it a greater good. I realized I couldn’t change the past — not even God can do that. But I could find meaning in my past sufferings now that my life had become “hidden with Christ in God,” as St. Paul says. The lives of the saints were tremendously helpful in this regard, because each saint magnifies a different aspect of Christ’s life and of his suffering.
Abuse victims are sometimes resistant to seeking healing because they fear that it will involve reliving traumatic memories. Is that a necessary step for finding peace in Christ?
It’s very important to distinguish between what are appropriate psychological methods of healing to be done under the care of a qualified mental-health professional and what are appropriate spiritual approaches to healing. For example, for victims of post-traumatic stress disorder, there is a type of psychotherapy whereby a person relives certain traumatic experiences. For some people, that can be therapeutic. However, if done outside of a controlled setting with a medically qualified practitioner, it can be dangerous.
Moreover, there is a theological problem with telling people that Christ can only heal you if you relive each memory. You can see this when you look at how he heals people in the Gospels. When Jesus healed the leper in Galilee, did he touch every single part of the leper’s body? Of course not. The leper said to him in faith, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Jesus simply stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.”
The message in the Gospels is that our wounds are cracks where Christ’s light can get in. When we open ourselves to his healing light, we can trust in faith that he’ll reach all those dark places. Whether or not I can consciously remember every single thing that was done to me, all those experiences contributed in some way to who I am today. So when I offer my whole self to Christ, and ask him to enter in, I am asking Christ’s precious blood to bleed into all my past. Carrying that image of the Precious Blood and the light of Christ entering into my entire life is much more beautiful than trying to force myself to review every single wound.
You make an interesting point when you say that you felt “impure” because of what had been done to you; you realize, now, that you were “impure,” but not because of what happened in your childhood, but because of misguided actions you took to deal with the trauma later in life. Do you think this is common for victims of abuse?
I think it’s extremely common. During my teenage years and young adulthood, not having yet come to terms with the abuse, I was engaged in a search for identity and seeking it in things that were not of God. And I kept digging myself in deeper, thinking I was going to find myself through all kinds of rebellion, including sexual rebellion. I desperately wanted to be loved, but was convinced I was only lovable for what I did for other people and not for who I was.
For me, being able to seek healing from the effects of the child sexual abuse tied in with learning how to stop acting from the pathology of the wounded child and to start acting from the health that Christ was offering me.
Before your conversion, you went to a top psychiatrist in New York City, yet he failed to diagnose your post-traumatic stress disorder. How did secular society’s views of human sexuality impact that misdiagnosis?
He was following an overwhelmingly common belief among psychiatric professionals, which states that self-actualization can come through sexual activity, regardless of whether that activity is within marriage or a relationship. So the things I was doing that I now realize were damaging he saw as signs of health. He didn’t realize that I was acting out of my sickness and not out of my wellness.
Do you think that secular culture’s confusion about sexuality also impacts the way mental-health professionals identify and diagnose cases of abuse?
Yes. From my own experience, I personally believe that the emergence of the divorce culture, which started back in the 1950s and exploded during the 1960s and ’70s, lowered the bar in terms of what psychologists thought was an acceptable environment for children.
Before then, it was understood that children should be insulated from having to witness certain kinds of sexual behavior that are de rigueur now. I’m thinking, for example, of the child of divorce who sees his mother bring home a new sex partner — a man the child has never seen before, who then spends the night in the mother’s bedroom. Even if the man is not abusive, it’s still psychologically unsettling for the child to see a stranger enter into Mom’s most private space and then show up at the breakfast table.
I realize single parents may not want to hear that, but it’s worth asking people who grew up in that kind of environment how it affected them. Certainly, when a child’s mother has a man stay over who is not the child’s father, the child is at greater risk of abuse, statistically speaking. In this respect, it’s important to note that childhood sexual abuse does not only include physical abuse. It also includes sex talk and sexual inappropriateness — intentionally causing the child to take in something that he or she is too young to process, like social nudity or films with sexual content.
In the book you recount a beautiful moment in which you read a line from G.K. Chesterton and wanted more than anything in the world to experience “the poetry of not being sick.” Have you found that?
Yes. In Christ I have found that poetry that I was seeking.
However, it is always important to emphasize that our life in Christ is a journey, one that is not completed until we, Lord willing, arrive face-to-face with God. In talking about “healing sexual wounds with the help of the saints,” I by no means intend to canonize myself. My journey is still at its beginning. But each of us, through our baptism, has been given a message to share to lead others to Christ. I hope that by telling my story as an adult victim of childhood sexual abuse I might point others to the love of Christ by sharing my own journey of going from darkness into light.
Register blogger Jennifer Fulwiler writes from Austin, Texas.