Making a Difference

Last month I gave a keynote speech about making a difference in the fight against domestic violence and abuse. I was asked if I would be willing to share the transcript of my speech for the benefit of those who were not able to attend and I promised to share it on my blog. However, it was a 30 minute speech and I don't think many of you would stay tuned in for over 5,000 words in one blog post. So I'm going to share an abridged version. I'm going to remove a personal story I already shared in a previous post (3 Simple Things...) and I'm going to omit some of the longer quotes from Mending the Soul because you can read the book yourself and I urge you to!

After being introduced and thanking the audience for coming, I explained that I am not a professional speaker and I do not pursue speaking opportunities. I had quite a bit of anticipatory anxiety while preparing for the occasion because I always want to do my best and there is so much information to cover. But I'm passionate about advocating for abused women and children. I know how it feels to be abused. I know how good it feels to overcome abuse. And I know how rewarding it is to help others feel encouraged and less alone. That's why I wouldn't dream of not accepting the invitation to speak. And so, I began...

Tonight we honor victims who have tragically lost their lives to domestic violence this year. I can’t explain – even to myself – why the outcome for some is tragedy and the outcome for others, like me, is triumph. I’m so grateful to be living a completely different life today with a husband who loves and values me. But I can honestly say that I’m thankful for my past, too, because my experiences have enabled me to connect with other broken people who need to heal in the same ways I have needed to heal.
I'd like to talk about the role we play in our communities, especially our religious communities, in keeping women trapped in abusive relationships and how we can become more compassionate, and more sensitive to the victims who are all around us. I bring my faith to this discussion. I’m a Christian and my convictions flow from my faith. My abuse has not hardened me or caused me to reject God. But I know abuse has resulted in those struggles for some. Abuse undermines faith. So if you are here tonight and do not share my faith in a good God, I don't think less of you. I only hope I will say something that resonates with you and helps you to feel the reassurance and comfort of God’s love for you.
I’d like to begin with my early years, when the template for my life and my choices were being assigned to me by my parents and my church.

These are pictures from my childhood. The first is my kindergarten school picture. The second is from a wedding I was in (by far the best “dress up” game I ever played).
As a 5-year-old kindergartener, I was outgoing, expressive, and affectionate. Not so different from the fifty-five year old woman I am today. My first school boyfriend was Brett Barker. We had such a crush on each other, and were always together on the playground. We told our teacher we were going to marry each other when we grew up. She was amused and thought we were cute. So when my mom came in for her parent/teacher conference, my teacher told her about our little romance and our marriage plans. Her memory of this conversation came flooding back to her while reading my first book, Breaking the Chains. She said, “Your mom’s expression turned serious and she gently but emphatically informed me: 
‘Oh, no. Shari will marry in the church.’”
My former teacher went on to tell me, “I thought your mother’s reaction was a bit odd. After all, we were talking about 5-year-olds. I didn’t really think you would grow up to marry each other." She didn’t know much about our church or our beliefs back then. She said, "I thought your family was lovely and you kids were so well-behaved. But after reading your book, I understand why your mom said that to me.”

Well, I did marry within our church … eleven years later ... at the age of 16. My ex-husband was seven years older than I was, making him 23, at the time of our marriage. Sadly, marriage was the biggest thing in life I had to look forward to. And there’s only one reason I was even allowed to date this person. He went to our church.

I think we all tend to live our lives with certain illusions of safety and, on the other hand, a few irrational fears.
I’m pretty sure one of my parents’ big fears for me at that time was that I would have premarital sex. And that fear had to have played a role in their consenting to this destructive union. At 16, in the state of California, I couldn’t legally marry without my parents’ consent.  
I believe my parents’ most harmful illusion was that being in the church and marrying in the church offered some kind of protective covering from danger and the harsh realities of life. I’m sure there are other similarities, but I know one parallel between churches and the NFL is that you’ll find abusers in both.

Within one week of the wedding, my new Christian husband began to abuse me verbally, emotionally and physically. And even though he didn't hit me that first week, he was violent and intimidating; holding me against a wall and drawing his fist back as though he was about to hit me. He was six foot four and weighed over 300 pounds. More than twice my size. I was no match for him physically or verbally at that point. I was just a kid, as so many of us are when we make life-altering choices. Without any real awareness or understanding of what I was doing, or the consequences the next 27 years would bring, I began to play my role as enabler and protector of an abuser.
Afraid of displeasing God and being judged  by those around me, I kept my abuse a secret for many years; trying to navigate this turbulent relationship by walking on eggshells, not rocking the boat, lavishing praise on a narcissist, and attending church four times a week; trying to prove myself to God and other people.

I’d like you to think about something as you look at this next picture. This is my immediate and extended family at the wedding of my son and daughter-in-law in 2002. My abuser is standing just above me with a beaming smile on his face. Don’t we look like a nice, loving couple?
If you’ve read my second book, then you know what was going on behind the scenes. But if you don't know those details, you wouldn't have a clue that this was one of the toughest weekends of my whole life. I had to check into a hotel room to get away from the stress I was under at home. And you’d never have known - from the smiles on our faces -- the hopelessness and devastation I was feeling or what a mean, vicious bully this guy was.

I was determined our problems would not cast a cloud over my son’s big day. I was also determined I would not let my abuser rob me of the joy of this occasion. I was doing what I'd had to do so many times before. I was sucking it up and making the best of difficult circumstances, always trying to rise above.
You’d also never know from this picture why my son asked his dad to be a co-best man in the wedding. You couldn't have known he was manipulated into doing so, and he feared long-reaching emotional consequences if he didn’t bestow this “honor” upon his dad. His dad had been dropping hints for years about being his best man. And my son complied rather than deal with the repercussions that would accompany the wedding if he didn't. But if you didn’t know all that, you would think: Wow. They must be so close. He must be such a great dad.
You would have never guessed how abusive my ex-husband was by his behavior in a social setting. My in-laws didn’t know how bad it was. They always believed his version of events. And he’d been smearing me for years to his family. Some of our old friends who have now read my book have told me that even though they knew he could be a jerk, they were shocked at the extent of his cruelty. Although he had an explosive temper and was often caustic and sarcastic, he also had a charming, witty side to him. He could be generous - especially if there was glory in it for him. And the thing that helped me deal with the level of stress in our home the most was that we actually laughed a lot. Abusers are not ogres every minute of every day. They will usually have some positive traits too. And if you only see them at their best, you'll be in disbelief that they could ever actually harm someone.

It’s so important for people to understand this: You cannot necessarily recognize an abuser by his public persona. You can’t always detect abuse in the demeanor of those being abused either. We victims become experts at making the best of things. It’s not that a victim is trying to present a fa├žade or be phony. I was never trying to do that. It’s a coping strategy. And you become very good at it – because you have to.
Friends who recognized the abuse have told me I lived in denial. I may have been in denial, but it wasn't conscious denial. I knew he was mean. I wasn't in denial about that. But I tried to focus on what was good because I thought I was trapped in that life. For years after marrying John, I had nightmares that I was still trapped in my previous marriage.

Those who witnessed my abuser’s dark side certainly perceived he was difficult to live with. And many felt for me. But because I did such a good job of rising above my circumstances and was always trying to put him in the best light with others, you could have been around us frequently and still never suspected I was suffering actual abuse.
He loved to make fun of me. His jokes were almost always at my expense and I’d see friends look at me for my reaction to the putdowns, but I laughed rather than get upset. So they believed the jokes must not hurt my feelings. The truth is I hated being put down and made fun of all the time. It was embarrassing and hurtful. But those were the least of my challenges and I had to choose my battles. I was always trying to rise above the mistreatment.

We're hearing so much about domestic abuse in the NFL recently. And I'm thankful the topic is being discussed. But the discussion can focus so much on one subset of people that we lose sight of how widespread this problem is. And then the whole conversation becomes centered on the NFL instead of the real issue. Domestic violence is a problem that touches every segment of the population. Abusers are everywhere; in every race, class, economic status, and social environment.

¨ One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. And one in seven men. 
¨ "Family Violence" can include everything from cursing and verbal and emotional abuse to hitting and slapping, to more extreme forms of physical neglect. Breaking things. Slamming doors. It's not only about beatings.
¨ Abusers are everywhere and many of them attend church.
¨ Numerous studies reveal that abuse seriously undermines religious faith.
¨ We ask the wrong questions. We must ask ourselves why we are inclined to question, blame and shame a victim rather than confronting the evil behavior of an abuser. Sadly, this happens even in our church communities.

It's understandable to wonder why a woman stays with an abuser. But the question can be asked in a way that supports the victim. For instance, if you ask, "What are your fears if you leave?" or "What are the challenges you face in trying to leave?" the victim will feel your concern. However, if you ask the question in a way that makes a victim feel she must justify herself or defend her choices, she will probably feel shame and embarrassment.
Sometimes we continue on a familiar path because we truly cannot see the choices we actually have.
Empowering women to get out of abusive relationships will often require someone illuminating the path of choice they may not be able to see right in front of them. That is precisely what professional Christian counseling did for me. But I had to seek it outside my own church community. There were no qualified people in my church to give me the help or understanding I needed.
I can’t answer the why question for anyone else. But here’s the biggest reason I kept hanging in there:
As a Christian, I believed staying forever was what God expected of me. And my religious environment reinforced that belief. Today I know that God did not expect me to submit to abuse. But it took four years of Christian counseling with an educated professional counselor - someone who understood the destructive nature of abuse and my role in it - before I could even imagine that God might not expect me to stay forever. I had to learn that "While God can and does use suffering to build character, there is no virtue in enduring avoidable suffering" (Dr. Steven R. Tracy, Mending the Soul).

My counselor helped me to recognize that instead of being noble and self-sacrificing, I was enabling ungodly behavior. He defined my role in a way I couldn't embrace as positive. He helped me see that I could choose to respond differently if I wanted to be a healthier person spiritually and emotionally. But before I received intensive counseling, I didn't believe I had a choice. And if you don't believe you have a choice, you don't have one. So...
“Why do women stay?” is the wrong question. And when I hear it asked in a tone of voice that implies moral superiority, I sometimes think of the expression, "They brought it on themselves." I wonder if shaking our heads at a victim who doesn't leave, essentially blaming someone for their own problems, takes us off the hook in our own minds; we won't feel a responsibility to reach out and help. Since we're not really sure what we can do anyway, I think sometimes this can be an effective way to detach from someone else's suffering guilt-free. Maybe we do it unconsciously.
I'm a mentor and friend to a group of women in an online community of support. One of them asked a question I wasn't sure about recently. So I went to a few resources from professionals and ran across a Q and A forum where a victim asked a similar question. And to my shock, someone (not a professional) responded to her this way: "Why do you not leave? Are you dumb?"

Even though we might never dream of saying those words to a victim, the suggestion that only a fool would stay can be conveyed simply with a facial expression or tone of voice. And I can say this from my own personal experience: a victim already lives in a continual state of self-doubt, self-blame and toxic shame.
If you haven’t experienced abuse, all the explanation in the world probably still won’t make sense to you. And that can result in a victim feeling she is on trial in the eyes of others. When we look at a victim in disbelief and ask why she stays, more likely than not, she feels judged by the question. At best, we are over-simplifying her situation and her fears. But the biggest frustration for her is that a victim knows she can’t make you understand her circumstances no matter how hard she tries. If you've walked in her shoes, as I have, you just get it. If you haven't, you don't.
Take me for example. How could I expect someone with a healthy view of God to understand that I believed God would be mad at me for leaving an abusive husband? I'm sure that sounds ridiculous to some. But some of you understand because you know there are men and spiritual leaders in every community who are telling abused women that God does not allow them to divorce their abusive husbands. So, for a Christian woman who is concerned about pleasing God, the situation is even more complicated. Some will frown on her for staying, while others will frown on her for not staying. In religious communities, there is often spoken and unspoken pressure on the victim to tolerate abuse.
God hates divorce. Those are words I remember hearing as a young person. Of all the sins one could be guilty of, in my mind it seemed that the only unforgivable sin was divorce. It carried a life sentence. If you were abused, the only hope you had of freedom was if your abuser cheated on you sexually. God didn't make any other allowance for you to divorce is what I was always told. But doesn't the Bible also say that God hates liars? Who of us has He not forgiven for telling a lie? His grace is sufficient in all our brokenness.
Don't misunderstand. I still believe God's desire for marriage is a lifelong  commitment between the same two people. But I am so thankful I know there is forgiveness for a failed marriage. And God does not intend abused women to carry the guilt and shame for sins committed against them.
I mentioned that I had nightmares for years, even after being married to John. In my dreams, the emotional abuse I was enduring felt intolerable. But the heaviest, most suffocating element of every dream was the weight of how I perceived God. In every dream, I felt trapped in the sense that I so wanted to escape, but God was making me stay. Consciously, I never blamed Him. But that perception of His expectations had been deeply branded into my subconscious mind.

This book is one I can't recommend highly enough to anyone who wants to increase their understanding and knowledge of the wounds of abuse. The author, Steven Tracy, is a professor of theology and ethics, and his wife, Celestia, is a family therapist and abuse survivor. Together they are the founders of Mending the Soul Ministries. This book is comprehensive in its approach to understanding all forms of abuse. If you only read one book on this subject, I would urge you to read this one.
In his book Mending the Soul, Dr. Tracy explains...

“Abusive families (families in which abuse takes place) are identical to and yet radically different from other families. While abusive families typically blend in with all the non-abusive families in their neighborhood, they have certain distinct traits that contribute to and result from the abuse. It is imperative for us to understand these traits; if we don’t, we cannot minister effectively to abuse victims—in fact, we can ultimately create additional hurt and damage.”
“It’s vital for families and churches to focus on listening to, empowering, and protecting abuse victims. It often does little or no good to spend time reasoning with unrepentant abusers.”
Surely none of us would want to create additional hurt and damage for a victim. But lack of understanding and compassion does hurt and damage victims. Are we willing to invest ourselves in better understanding so that we can avoid damage through ignorance?
Abuse is rampant in society and you never know who you are unintentionally influencing or judging with your words. We may be having lunch or in a Bible study with a victim and not even know it. Unintentionally, our lack of insight, understanding and compassion may have a profound effect on a victim's life and self-image as much as any sermon she hears in church. And if we are in a position to minister to others as a leader, how much more should we want to avoid causing pain through a lack of understanding?
This question is before US: How do we as a community – in our churches, our families, our workplaces and neighborhoods – make a difference? How can we more effectively confront abuse and hold abusers accountable? How can we reach and empower victims instead of putting them under a microscope of shame?
I can't answer all of these questions in a thirty minute speech. But Dr. Tracy thoroughly addresses questions such as these in Mending the Soul and that's why I'm asking you to read his book. I'm hoping my conversation with you tonight will inspire you to read it.

At this point in my speech, I read a lengthy passage from Mending the Soul. I have not asked permission to reprint portions of the book so I urge you again to buy and read it.
Dr. Tracy explains that "abusers consistently demonstrate an extreme break with reality in their pervasive denial of responsibility." And abusers tend to harshly judge others.
"Christian leaders must recognize this dynamic, lest they buy into the abusers’ lies and contribute to victim blaming. Furthermore, abusers must be held to the highest levels of accountability. Nothing less than total ownership for their abusive behavior should be accepted by their churches; anything less contributes to their denial and in essence justifies their sin." ~ Dr. Steven Tracy (Mending the Soul)
In my second book, I chronicled many years of abuse at the hands of a person who could be intentionally cruel. I was not a perfect wife and I don't portray myself as that. I made a lot of mistakes. And I enabled my own abuse. But I did not cause him to abuse me. And that's an important distinction that needs to be made if we are ever going to hold abusers fully accountable for their actions and help victims to heal.

Abusers constantly shift blame to their victims. They are deceitful. And their hypocrisy allows them to be harshly judgmental of others. Their behaviors are largely a result of the abusers' own shame that they are unwilling to deal with, according to Dr. Tracy. Once you understand that, they are easier to recognize.
Dr. Tracy explains that "abusers are expert at manipulating people in order to justify their abuse to themselves and to others, as well as to maintain control and protect secret wishes and plans. They often apologize in order to minimize the abuse, be forgiven, and assuage any guilt. Likewise, they may want to gain sympathy from other family members or to appear remorseful in the eyes of a court.... They may want to maintain power and set up a scenario that facilitates reabuse."

Once their abuse has been exposed, abusers will often ask their victims' forgiveness. But Dr. Tracy cautions readers that it's important to remember "an apology is not a sure indicator of repentance, and it often serves to help them convince themselves they are good people who don't have a serious problem. Clearly, counselors and church leaders must be wise with regard to the characteristics of abusers and the dynamics of abuse, so they don't confuse a manipulative confession or apology with genuine repentance."
"The Bible repeatedly condemns covering up, overlooking, or relabeling evil" (Dr. Steven Tracy, Mending the Soul, based on the following passages of Scripture: Psalm 74:8-9, Isaiah 5:20, Micah 2:6-11).
All good and decent people should care about justice. For those of us who profess Christianity, we must not deceive ourselves that we are truly following Christ if we are not committed to opposing injustice. The opposite of love is not hate; it's apathy.
If we can be aware of injustice and not be moved with compassion to relieve avoidable suffering, where is the evidence of our faith? The Bible says we (His disciples) will be known by our love.
I saw a small independent film recently that spoke directly and movingly to the issues of injustice, integrity and apathy. It’s called CALVARY and it’s a very difficult movie to watch. There’s a lot of crude language and it’s gritty in its subject matter. It made me uncomfortable from beginning to end. But the message is powerful.
Most of you will probably never see this movie but I don’t want to spoil the impact of the ending for those of you who will. So I will limit what I share. Throughout the movie, there is a person who has suffered greatly because of childhood abuse. He is damaged to the point of seeking revenge on an innocent person; because he was innocent.

In an emotional scene, this victim of sexual abuse and violence asks a priest these two questions shortly after the priest has lost his beloved pet. First: "Did you cry when your dog died?" (The audience has seen the priest's reaction to his dog's death, which was quite moving.) The priest answers honestly, "Yes." And then the adult victim asks the priest, "Did you cry for any of the innocent children who were abused at the hands of priests?"
If you are watching this scene with any integrity whatsoever, you feel a knot in your stomach and have to ask yourself the same question. How many times have I cried over my own suffering? And how many times have I cried over the suffering and injustice inflicted on others?
These are questions that should make all of us uncomfortable; especially if our goal is to be salt and light in a dark world.
As I was working on this presentation, a friend shared these inspiring words in a Facebook post. I knew as I read them that these are the words I'd like to leave you with tonight.


One tree can start a forest;
One smile can begin a friendship;
One hand can lift a soul;
One word can frame the goal;
One candle can wipe out darkness;
One laugh can conquer gloom;
One hope can raise your spirits;
One touch can show you care;
One life can make a difference;

I hope each of us will become convicted and empowered to put these words into action.

Additional content from this speech: 3 Simple Things Anyone Can Do for a Victim of Abuse