Dawn Eden is the author of My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints. As part of her outreach to those suffering from the wounds of past sexual abuse, she has been taking her message to recovering prostitutes and others who have found themselves in prison in Philadelphia and elsewhere. The feedback is mixed, as you might imagine, but Eden believes no woman or man should be forgotten. She talks with National Review Online about what she has seen and is learning.
LOPEZ: How did you wind up speaking in a prison in the first place?
EDEN: The Malvern Retreat House, which is outside Philadelphia, wanted to hire me to speak about my first book, The Thrill of the Chaste, at a mother-daughter event they were planning. But in the wake of the publication of my second book, My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, I wanted to speak only on healing from childhood sexual abuse. At the same time, I greatly desired to begin sharing the message of My Peace I Give You with inmates.
So I told the retreat house that if they could get me in to speak at a local prison, I would speak at their mother-daughter event at no charge. They immediately connected me with Mary DeFusco, a public defender who co-founded the Project Dawn Court for women convicted of prostitution, and Father Matthew Palkowski, O.F.M. Cap., the Catholic chaplain for Philadelphia’s prison system.
Both Ms. DeFusco and Father Palkowski thought that the women they serve would benefit from hearing me speak, particularly since I speak about recovering from things that pretty much every female inmate has endured: the abuse and the misplaced guilt that its victims suffer, as well as post-traumatic stress and coping behaviors that do more harm than good.
The funny thing is, I never did get to do that mother-daughter event; it was canceled.
LOPEZ: Tell me what you could and couldn’t manage to bring inside when you spoke at the jail.
EDEN: Lockups are notorious for sharply limiting items from outside, and the Riverside Correctional Facility, the Philadelphia women’s jail, is no exception.
Before you can get past the front room of a jail, you have to show the guards everything you wish to bring in with you, including paper items. Personal effects such as your purse or wallet, and anything that you’re barred from bringing in, go into a locker. Since the stories of saints who found healing from the wounds of childhood sexual abuse are at the center of My Peace I Give You, I wanted to bring in poster-size images of some of the saints I would be discussing in my talk. However, the permissions form that the chaplain had filled out said I was bringing “Christian literature,” and the guard at the jail’s entrance said that the images did not count as “literature.” When I pleaded, she let me bring some of them in. One of them, however, she rolled up and gave back to me, saying I had to put it in the locker with my purse before she would let me pass.
I stuffed the image in the locker quickly in order to move on. It wasn’t until beginning my talk that I realized with regret that the one saint I could not show the women was the one I most wanted them to see: Blessed Laura Vicuña, a young Chilean girl whose story was the main inspiration for my writing My Peace I Give You.
LOPEZ: Who is Laura Vicuña and why did you want her there?
EDEN: When I discovered Blessed Laura in December 2010 through Ann Ball’s Modern Saints, I was amazed to learn that there was a Blessed of the Catholic Church — that is, someone worthy of veneration and very close to being canonized a saint — who was sexually mistreated by her mother’s live-in lover.
I had known about St. Maria Goretti, another young girl venerated by the Church who died of injuries sustained while resisting sexual assault. However, I could not relate very well to Maria, at least at first, because she came from a pious Catholic home. Blessed Laura, by contrast, lived from the age of eight in a home ruled by a violent man who, having her mother under his sway, tried unsuccessfully to make Laura his concubine as well.
Reading Blessed Laura’s story, I was struck by how modern her experience was, even though she died, at age twelve, in 1904. Today we know that children raised in a home where the mother lives with a man who is not their father are about 33 times as likely to suffer sexual abuse than are those raised in intact families.
But it was the end of her story that really brought me to tears. While on her deathbed, she revealed to her mother that she had offered up her life for her mother’s conversion. That act of forgiveness really hit home, because I needed to forgive my own mother for failing to protect me when I was a child. And it hit me: If this child saint’s heroism can lead me to deeper healing, wouldn’t it inspire others also?
LOPEZ: What have you learned about women in jail?
EDEN: I have only begun to learn about the experiences of incarcerated women, but already I see that there are far too few resources available for those who want to rebuild their lives. It was wonderful to witness how the Project Dawn Court helps prostituted women escape the revolving door of convictions, but few municipalities have taken such a treatment-based approach. Project Dawn uses the carrot-and-stick approach. Succeed in treatment, stay out of trouble, and you can have your convictions wiped off your record; fail, and you’re back in jail. Other efforts to prevent prostitution only use the stick.
Another thing I learned is that, contrary to popular belief, prostitutes who are addicted to drugs did not take to prostitution in order to feed their habit. In nearly every case, these are women who suffered sexual abuse in childhood and later became homeless and were taken in by a pimp. Once a pimp takes in a vulnerable woman, he abuses her, prostitutes her, and then gets her addicted to drugs so that she will become even more dependent upon him.
LOPEZ: Do you plan to give more talks in prisons?
EDEN: I want very much to give more talks to inmates and to others who are underserved, including Native Americans, veterans, and anyone in a recovery or twelve-step program. It doesn’t have to be to a female audience, either; in fact, the place where I most want to speak is the men’s prison in New Hampshire, where I’m told that inmates have already been helped by My Peace I Give You.
LOPEZ: Is anyone addressing men in prison on these issues?
EDEN: Some correctional facilities offer psychological treatment, and there are various Christian outreaches that bring in the occasional speaker to talk about healing in Christ. Truthfully, though, I don’t know of any other victims of childhood sexual abuse who are speaking about spiritual healing to inmates.
And I can see why someone who has suffered abuse, especially someone who is suffering from post-traumatic stress, would not want to walk into a jail. You’re at the mercy of authority figures who make seemingly arbitrary decisions about what you can carry, who have the right to pat your down and touch your private parts. And that’s just the guards! It’s like dealing with the airport TSA, only with more trauma triggers.
LOPEZ: You have been doing a lot of speaking since My Peace I Give You came out. How are people responding?
EDEN: Well, I’m a Jewish convert to Catholicism, and perhaps that’s why I take after St. Paul: “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.’” The truth is, I’m a writer before I’m a speaker, and people respond to My Peace I Give You better than they do to my talks. But I give talks because, first, they draw people to my book, which can have a real and lasting impact on them if it draws them closer to Jesus and the saints. Second, the talks help audience members to know that they’re not alone. And they learn this not just because of what I say, but because they hear the questions that their fellow parishioners ask me, and they realize there’s no need to carry around the misplaced guilt and shame that all too often surrounds victims and their families.
LOPEZ: We talk about sex all the time, and even, to some extent, sexual abuse, but we don’t necessarily do it in a healthy way. How do you talk about sexual abuse, including what you’ve suffered, without wallowing too much?
EDEN: In My Peace I Give You and in my talks, I avoid giving graphic details about abuse or dwelling on it at length. The focus is always on the journey of healing. Also, I emphasize that healing is ongoing. I think it is important to stress that, because I’ve found that many Christians are embarrassed to be seen as struggling with ongoing emotional and spiritual challenges. It’s as though we fear that, by admitting our struggles, we are admitting our own lack of faith, or even blaming God for our personal failings. On this line of thinking, if we were truly devout, we would not have as-yet-unhealed psychic wounds — or at least we wouldn’t complain about them.
I did experience a dramatic healing when I first received faith in Christ. The suicidal depression that had plagued me since my teens evaporated. But I retained many other effects of post-traumatic stress, including emotional flashbacks, occasional anxiety, and other kinds of unwanted sensitivity. While my walk with the Lord deepened with my entering into full communion with the Catholic Church in 2006, God has not chosen to give me a complete healing from those effects at this time. Instead, He has enabled me to ask for his grace, day by day, in dealing with them as they come up.
What I have learned from the lives of the saints, and what I seek to share in my book and talks, is that God is every bit as present in the wounds he doesn’t instantly heal — the parts of my heart where he works slowly and painfully, over the course of time — as He is in the areas where I have received healing. That is what Blessed John Paul II called the Good News of Christian suffering. And it’s news the world needs to hear.
LOPEZ: Is it really possible to have peace here on earth?
EDEN: With God all things are possible.
LOPEZ: You were the subject of a somewhat odd piece in the New York Times Magazine recently. What did you make of it?
EDEN: I loved it! Keep in mind that the intention of the reporter, Alexandra Molotkow, wasn’t to write about my outreach as a Catholic author. She tracked me down because she was interested in the work I did many years ago as a rock historian. It was very gracious of her to accept my suggestion that she find points of continuity between my past love of obscure musicians and my present love of obscure saints. Also, she was doing arts criticism, not hard journalism, so there’s a different set of rules than there would be for a normal personality piece. All in all, I thought she wrote a deep and nuanced article that was respectful of my faith and raised some thought-provoking questions on the nature of fandom.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.