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?
EDEN: Yes. I had the idea for it in December 2010, when, while looking at books at a friend’s house, I happened upon the story of Blessed Laura Vicuña in Ann Ball’s Modern Saints. I was stunned to discover that there was a young girl who had been declared Blessed by the Church — just one miracle away from canonization — who had been sexually abused, over a period of years, by her mother’s live-in lover, Manuel Mora. More than that, her mother even in some sense cooperated in the abuse, as she once tried to get Laura to dance with Mora at a party — fearful of what he would do if he were refused.
I had heard of other modern-day martyrs of chastity like Laura Vicuña, but they came from good Christian families. Laura’s story struck me because she knew what it was like to be without human consolation. More than that, she forgave on a level that was beyond anything I had seen in other saints’ stories. As she lay dying following a beating from Mora, she didn’t just forgive her abuser; she offered her life as a sacrifice for the conversion of her mother. Here was a saint who had emotionally suffered what I had suffered, and had the heroic virtues I so badly needed.
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.