Dawn Eden has a new book about a difficult topic: sexual abuse. It’s called My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints. She writes as one who suffered from abuse as a child and converted to Catholicism as an adult. But what she presents, despite the title and what it might imply — something quite parochial — this is a book that tells the stories of heroic lives and the wisdom of their lived experience of faith. The book can serve as an inspiration for anyone, but it is a powerful aid for those who are suffering. Some of the men and women she covers are well known — such as Augustine of Confessions fame — but others, including St. Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese-born slave, are less famous than they ought to be. Eden talks about the book with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
LOPEZ: Did you find that writing this book was an obligation for you?
Then I thought about all the other people who had suffered childhood sexual abuse, and realized how much it might help them to know that they too had a kindred spirit in Blessed Laura.
LOPEZ: Why share about your own life?
EDEN: In proposing My Peace I Give You to my publisher, it was my intention to keep any revelations of my own life at a bare minimum. All I was going to say was that I was writing as a survivor of abuse; other than that, the book would just be stories of saints. The publisher insisted I put my own story into the book.
Although I make a point of not being graphic, just the same, it was not easy sharing about my own experience. But I’m glad I did, because victims are encouraged when they see other victims come forward.
I have come to believe that people who have suffered trauma as a result of the abuses that are widespread in secular society — the sins committed against the family and against the dignity of the human person — are going to be vital members of the next generation of Christian witnesses. Their witness will be particularly powerful because, having experienced their own Passion, they have risen to new life through faith in Christ.
LOPEZ: People other than abused children need the healing of “sexual wounds.” Is this a book for a lot of different kinds of sexual wounds? Some self-inflicted? Some cultural?
EDEN: I believe that the greatest wound caused by childhood sexual abuse is the wound to the child’s identity. John Paul II in his Letter to Families talked about how children need to develop their identity in an environment of truth and love. You can’t do that if you are subjected to lies and what John Paul called “the opposite of love,” which is “use” — that is, being treated as an object.
Being abused caused me to develop an identity that was founded not on truth but rather on the lies of my abusers — the utilitarian lies that made me believe I had no value beyond my usefulness to others. So, as a teenager and young adult, acting out of the lies I had absorbed, I compounded my pain by using people and letting them use me.
I tell readers in My Peace I Give You that they are not responsible for the abuse they suffered in childhood. We have that truth from the mouth of Christ when he casts woe upon those who would tempt little ones, and it has been affirmed again and again by the Church. But healing means more than recovering from the sins that were committed against us. It also means seeking and accepting God’s forgiveness for those sins we ourselves committed. I address both those issues in My Peace I Give You. For that reason, I believe its message helpful for anyone who is recovering from any kind of trauma or pain, particularly those in twelve-step programs, which likewise distinguish between healing from harm caused by others and ending harmful behavior.
LOPEZ: And it’s really a book for people who have no such memories — who have not been hurt in such a way — as well, don’t you think?
EDEN: I’m glad you picked that up, as I hoped in writing the book that readers would find it inspiring regardless of what experiences they brought into it. When I read Pope Benedict’s encyclical Spe Salvi — “Saved in Hope” — where he uses the story of St. Josephine Bakhita’s conversion to show what it means to have a real encounter with God for the first time, I felt it was a call to likewise use the power of storytelling to help people encounter God in their own lives. So that’s what I seek to do in weaving my own story with those of saints whose lives speak to me.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: How can saints help with much of anything, particularly anything having to do with sex?
DAWN EDEN: The saints don’t just give us help here and there; as one of the Eucharistic Prayers puts it, we rely upon their constant intercession for “unfailing help.” I write in My Peace I Give You that, in manifesting God’s design for humanity’s total vocation, the saints show us what it means to be fully human. To be fully human means first and foremost to love — to love God, and to love my neighbor as myself for the love of God. That is the highest virtue — the theological virtue of charity — and virtue by its nature is a power given to the entire person, which for human persons means body and soul. Therefore, if I am to have true virtue, I cannot just love in a disembodied way. I love as I love because I have a female body, and that body is part of how I love — whether I am engaged in a physical act of love or just thinking about a loved one.
Now, for the Church to recognize a saint, it is not enough that the candidate for sainthood have ordinary virtue. A saint has to possess heroic virtue. So we know that every female saint not only possessed charity, but possessed heroic charity, loving fully, as a woman, in every relationship, according to the type of relationship. If she was a daughter, she loved fully in the manner proper to being a daughter; if she was a wife, she loved fully in the manner proper to being a wife. And likewise with friendships — hers was not a disembodied friendship, but a fully present friendship, loving her friends as their sister in Christ. And likewise for every male saint — he loved others fully as a man, according to the type of relationship.
Why is all this important for victims of childhood sexual abuse? Because the problems faced by victims are not primarily problems having to do with the action of “sex.” They know how the marital act works: Everyone does, in my experience. Speaking for myself and for fellow victims I have met, what they need is help with the noun “sex”: learning how to be fully integrated as a man or woman. That’s where the saints can help.
LOPEZ: Isn’t the Catholic obsession with dead people, their bodies, and their things a bit odd?
EDEN: First of all, the saints, although dead in this world, are alive in the next. What’s more, they’re united to God, who cares about each of us individually. So, to call them “dead people” is misleading. It’s people on this earth who lack faith, hope, and charity — including myself at times when I fail to live up to the graces and calling of my baptism — who are the real “dead people.” Jesus told the Sadducees that, when we speak of God as being God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we affirm that he is not God of the dead but God of the living. So if anything, the saints are more alive than we are!
Second, we respect the body, whether living or dead, because the body is properly united to the soul. It’s the body and soul together that make the person. The saints in heaven await reunion with their bodies, which will be restored by God in a new way on the last day. So, the relics of a saint are very important in that they share in the holiness of the saint’s soul, and they point to the reunion of body and soul that will come with Christ’s return.
LOPEZ: You quote Hans Christian Andersen: “When once the conscience is awakened, it springs up in the heart spontaneously, and God awakens the conscience when we least expect it.” What does this quote mean? Could it take on particular import at this cultural and political moment?
EDEN: I employ a quote from Andersen at the start of each chapter of My Peace I Give You because his work, besides being beautiful on a literary level, is familiar to many people from their youth and so can help them recall something positive from their childhood. This goes to a running theme of my book: Memory does not have to be, nor should it be, the enemy. In Cardinal Ratzinger’s words, “Memory awakens hope.”
Andersen’s observation about the awakening of conscience points to the role of grace in giving us sensitivity to sin. It’s relevant to the chapter it introduces in My Peace I Give You, because that is the point where I move from discussing healing from the effects of other people’s sins, to seeking and accepting God’s mercy for our own sins. So I don’t use that Andersen quotation for a political end, but, yes, it is certainly relevant to today’s situation, when threats to religious liberty highlight the need for freedom of conscience.
LOPEZ: Why would anyone in the psychiatry profession be “trained to see sexual activity as an unqualified good”? And why would you dispute it?
EDEN: You’re referring to the part of My Peace I Give You where I tell about how, before my conversion, I saw a psychiatrist who failed to diagnose my post-traumatic stress disorder. Instead, he diagnosed me with major depression and proceeded to encourage me in my efforts to escape my mental pain by means of so-called sexual liberation. I don’t go into much detail about it in My Peace, and I won’t here, except to say that a therapist who follows such an agenda can do a lot of damage, especially to someone who has sexual wounds. Even if a patient genuinely is sexually repressed — and I don’t deny that such people exist — engaging in sexual activity outside of marriage is not a recipe for personal growth or healing.
LOPEZ: Why are you so concerned with voyeurism? Isn’t looking a lot less harmful than doing?
EDEN: The actions that constitute sexual abuse of children are not limited to physical contact. There is non-contact abuse as well, including exposing children to pornography or adult nudity, or engaging in explicit sex talk in the vicinity of young ears. In My Peace I Give You, I particularly criticize the practice of adult social nudity around children, as I myself suffered from growing up in an environment where my personal modesty was not respected.
LOPEZ: You mention St. Augustine’s writings on the virgin martyrs. Why were these writings so important to you?
EDEN: In his magnum opus City of God, St. Augustine, writing after Rome fell to the Vandals in 410, sought to answer those who said that, since God had failed to protect Rome, Romans should return to their traditional pagan worship. One of the arguments pagans put forth was that if God really cared about Christian chastity, he would not have permitted the invading army to rape consecrated Christian virgins. Augustine finds this argument ridiculous, because it assumes that being raped causes a stain on a person’s soul. “[What] sane man can suppose that, if his body be seized and forcibly made use of to satisfy the lust of another, he thereby loses his purity?” (City of God, Book I, chapter 18). Objectively, Augustine says, there is no reason a rape victim should feel ashamed, because chastity resides in a person’s having the constant will to remain chaste. It cannot be affected by violations committed by others against his or her will (City of God, Book I, chapter 16).
I am a convert to the Catholic faith and was sexually victimized in childhood. Before discovering Augustine’s teaching, I suffered from the impression that the Church, with its strong teachings on sexual purity, somehow blamed me for my own abuse. I thought that, since I was not untouched like the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Church believed I was stained by what others had done to me. That struck me as very unfair, and unlike anything taught by Christ — who, in the Gospels, condemns those who tempt children but has great compassion for children who are victimized (Matthew 18:6).
So, learning that no less an authority than Augustine said that being sexually abused does not affect chastity — and that his teaching was repeated by St. Thomas Aquinas, and remains the doctrine of the Church — was very healing for me. It helped me see that what I had suffered did not separate me from Jesus and the saints; in fact, if anything, it put me in closer communion with them, because every sin against the dignity of the human person is a sin against the Body of Christ.
LOPEZ: Does anyone really blame the victim, though?
EDEN: That’s a great question. Yes, I do believe society blames the victim, and this despite the well-intentioned efforts of some feminists and other secularists to raise awareness of abuse. And the reason is simple: You can’t build a culture of life on a foundation of radical individualism.
I’m thinking here of the Obama administration, which recently terminated the long-standing contract that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had with the Department of Health and Human Services to aid victims of human trafficking. The reason given for the termination was that the USCCB did not offer victims access to contraception and abortion.
I see the government’s action as emblematic of the willful blindness of those who uphold contraception and abortion as social solutions. They fail to see that, in treating sex as a consumer item — divorced from childbearing — and in denying the humanity of the unborn child, they are perpetuating a culture of objectification that enables the very abuse that they claim to oppose.
A bishop recently told me that he had begun reading My Peace I Give You and it reminded him of Francis Cardinal George’s observation that, in American culture, everything is permitted and practically nothing is forgiven. While we are all called to pursue every means of preventing abuse, including bringing offenders to justice, the victim’s healing is not complete until she can open her heart to the Holy Spirit’s work of forgiveness. Now, there can be no forgiveness unless there is an acknowledgment that sin is objective, not merely subjective. And secular culture refuses to do that.
One of Chuck Colson’s final columns was a perceptive analysis of how the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, overturning Texas’s ban on sodomy, opened the door to the legalization of incest. He was right — and the opponents of morality won’t stop there. The only major institution standing in the way of efforts to permit sexual exploitation, polygamy, same-sex “marriage,” and other cultural assaults upon children’s welfare is the Church. My Peace I Give You is my effort to help the Church fulfill its call to proactively witness against such cultural assaults, by giving it a language through which it can reach those who have been harmed by them.
LOPEZ: “How could I believe in God’s protective love, when my own family failed to protect me?” How do you answer a question like that when asked?
EDEN: That’s a question I used to ask before I was a Christian, and it still nagged at me after my conversion. But ultimately, as I write in My Peace I Give You, I realized it was a dead end. Like the questions that Job wanted to pose to his Maker, it followed a line of thought that folded in on itself. As long as I am focused only on the evil of the past, I am closed to the good that God is working in the present. The real question is the one St. Paul asks in Romans 8: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?” Because the ultimate reality is not that Dawn suffered. It’s that Christ suffered, and his suffering gives profound meaning to all the suffering that came before, during, and after his earthly life.
LOPEZ: “Abusers,” you write, “see children . . . not as gifts to be valued for the children’s own sake, but as objects for use.” How do we look away from this?
EDEN: We look away every time we click on an online advertisement that features a woman in a bikini. We look away every time we shell out twelve dollars to see a movie like Magic Mike or whatever is Hollywood’s latest effort to glamorize lust. We look away every time we buy a copy of a women’s magazine that has the word “sex” in five different headlines on the cover. We look away every time we watch the latest HBO drama that has three murders in the first five minutes. That is to say, we look at media messages that objectify or otherwise deny the dignity of the human person, and in doing so we look away from the real problem of abuse.
I know there are people saying, “What do you mean? I watch some violent TV shows, but I would never harm children,” or, “I put pictures of beautiful bodies on my Facebook page, but only of adults.” But the truth is that every time I patronize a media outlet that glorifies sex or violence, or glorify it myself, I am encouraging a media culture that profoundly disrespects the human person. In any culture where the human person is disrespected, those who bear the brunt of the disrespect are those who are most vulnerable — the children.
In 2004, when I was working as a copyeditor for the New York Post, I was given a news story about the investigation of the disappearance of a woman who had starred in pornographic films. It was believed that she had likely been murdered. There was little new information in the story, so the news editor let the reporter fill up space by describing a scene from one of the woman’s films in which she was subjected to an act of depravity.
I looked at the story and handed it back to my boss, saying I couldn’t copyedit it because it was offensive. He took me aside and told me, with a level of irritation that surprised me, that if I ever refused a story again, I would be fired.
That memory stays with me, because that boss was one of the more thoughtful people I knew during my experience working in the mainstream media. If his sensitivities were so deadened that he thought a description of a degrading scene from a pornographic movie was “news,” then how much more dead must be the editors and media moguls who only care about the bottom line? Believe me, there are many of them, and they don’t care what degrading garbage they put in people’s faces as long as there are consumers willing to read it, watch it, or mouse-click on it.
LOPEZ: “So long as our hearts long for union with Jesus’ Sacred Heart, our feelings about ourselves will not prevent such union, because God’s love is stronger than feelings. It is a presence.” What does that mean? Is it a delusion?
EDEN: I’m thinking of what the priest and the faithful say together at every Mass: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Whether God is with me doesn’t depend on whether I feel close to him, and it certainly doesn’t depend on whether I feel worthy. In fact, judging by that prayer, if I do feel worthy to receive God, I’m doing something wrong! To borrow a phrase from Blessed Karolina Kozka — one of the holy people you’ll meet in My Peace I Give You — all that’s needed for God to dwell within me is that I cooperate with his grace by making room for him.
LOPEZ: Why is the Sacred Heart so important? As someone who has written a book about chastity, do you think it is significant here?
EDEN: The Sacred Heart reveals to us the love of Christ, and in so doing, reveals the meaning of suffering in the life of the Christian. As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council put it, “Through Christ and in Christ, the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful. Apart from His Gospel, they overwhelm us.”
As for the link to chastity — well, chastity, although incorporating self-control, is fundamentally about loving rightly. The Sacred Heart shows us how to love.
LOPEZ: What has the reaction to My Peace I Give You been?
EDEN: I feel like I am living the parable of the mustard seed. The word is spreading slowly about My Peace I Give You, but when people find out about it and read it, they want to tell their friends and family members.
People often don’t know what to make of it at first, because there has never been a book of Catholic spirituality for adult victims of childhood sexual abuse. The only other works that mention Christianity and sexual wounds in their title are books on the Church’s abuse crisis, or books that take a Protestant approach to healing, or ones that put a Christian gloss on psychotherapeutic methods. My Peace I Give You is none of the above — it’s really about learning to find healing as the saints did, through praying in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
That’s why I sought an imprimatur from my bishop, Donald Cardinal Wuerl — so that Catholics would know that this is a book intended for the upbuilding of the Mystical Body of Christ. To my knowledge, My Peace I Give You is the only book on healing from abuse ever to have received an imprimatur.
I’m very thankful to be part of what I believe is a new moment in the Church. Having taken important steps toward our own purification, we can now become proactive in helping the culture heal from the evil of childhood sexual abuse. The overwhelming majority of adults who were sexually abused in childhood were victimized at their own house, at a public school, or at a neighbor’s house — not at God’s house. And the number of victims in the United States alone is in the tens of millions. The Centers for Disease Control found that one in four women and one in six men report having been abused in childhood. That amounts to at least one person in every pew in every parish. And that’s just contact abuse — it doesn’t even count those who were subject to other forms of victimization, such as being made to view pornography.
So, there are many Catholics carrying these hidden wounds and the tragically misplaced guilt that often accompanies them. Regardless of whether they need professional help — some do, some don’t — they all need something that no secular psychotherapist can give them: the assurance that their heavenly Father loves them, and the graces that flow from living in union with Christ. Only the life of the Church can give that to them. That’s what we have, and that’s what we’ve got to share.
LOPEZ: Is it awkward?
EDEN: You mean, is it awkward, when speaking about My Peace I Give You, to get up in front of a room of fifty strangers and talk about healing from childhood sexual abuse? No and yes.
No, it is not awkward, because I have come to believe that being a witness to this kind of healing is part of my Christian behavior. Yes, it is awkward, because public speaking on the whole is a purgative experience — at least it is for me — especially when the topic is likely to bring up painful memories for listeners. So I just do the best I can, trying to keep the focus on Christian joy and hope, and trusting that the Holy Spirit will make up for my own inadequacies.
LOPEZ: Why is it so important? Have you seen hearts open and heal?
EDEN: Yes, I have. Hearts of people I know and love, as well as those of people I have never met — like blogger Michael Barrick, who wrote that reading My Peace inspired him to bring his own childhood wounds into the light. And that makes it all worthwhile.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.