In his first session, Andy tells me a horrific story of abandonment by his mother and regular beatings and verbal abuse by his alcoholic father. He tells this story with a bland nonchalance that I find chilling. I ask him what happened to his hurt and rage. He responds with clichés: “That was a long time ago. I’ve learned to forgive them. They did the best they could. The past is the past. I’ve moved on.”
His body and feelings tell a different story. His rage and hurt, denied and banished from awareness, seethe in his body. He’s young, but he already takes daily medication for low back pain and chronic gastritis. He suffers from depression, panic attacks, and insomnia. Periodically, he goes on drinking binges, and when he does – just like his father – he sometimes flies into uncontrollable rages.
Genuine forgiveness arrives at the end of the process of recovery from abuse, not at the beginning, and it never involves denying or minimizing the reality of what happened. Andy’s faux forgiveness is an attempt to bypass the pain of his actual experience and preserve the connection with his parents, at the immense personal cost of losing contact with his own history and emotional experience. If he is to recover from his symptoms he’ll have to reconnect with the hurt child he once was.
But currently, layers of denial, shame, and guilt block his path back into himself. These are reinforced by powerful cultural, psychological and religious resistances to speaking the truth that his parents didn’t permit him to acknowledge. He “knows” he’s supposed to forgive and forget; he “knows” that it’s an act of betrayal to “air the family’s dirty laundry” to “outsiders”; and he’s the heir of five thousand years of adherence to the Fifth Commandment, which demands that he honor his parents, without conditions, no matter how they’ve treated him.
I sometimes wonder how different human history might have been if the Good Lord, in His infinite wisdom, had directed the Fifth Commandment to parents, not their offspring? What if he had sided with the weak instead of the strong? What if He’d commanded Moses “Thou shalt not harm thy children,”? How different might history have been if, right at the beginning of history, humanity had learned that children aren’t livestock; that they have neither the duty nor the power to make their parents happy; that authentic love and respect can never be given on command, but only in response to love and respect; and that when parents abuse a child the moral obligation lies with them to acknowledge and stop their wrongdoing, not with the children to forgive. But even today, in too many places all over the world, these principles are subversive and blasphemous. Child abuse will continue, and adult survivors of it will remain locked in confusion and suffering, until these truths become mere common sense.