What I learned about child sexual abuse and forgiveness.

Here’s what I have learned in 25 years of healing,  about the topic of forgiveness as relates to survivors of childhood sexual assault by a family member or other sexual predator.

1) People who rape kids are outside the range of what forgiveness cultural practices were designed for. People who haven’t survived childhood sexual abuse by a sociopath, caregiver or sexual predator, aren’t even remotely qualified to advise you about forgiveness. It doesn’t  matter if they are a clergy person, a yoga practitioner or kindly old lady, they just don’t have the chops. Remembering that will save you a lot of awkward discussions, where you try hard to make them understand, while awkwardly pretending to let them convince you a little so they’ll stop. Worse, you might let them make you feel guilty for not doing something clearly unreasonable. The best strategy is to just stare at them silently with a ‘suffering fools’ expression, until the awkward silence forces them to stop. It may make them realize that they have not walked in your shoes and are in no position to judge, but even if not, the social awkwardness will force them to change the subject. This is a favor to them, as it will prevent them from saying shockingly clueless and insensitive things they may be wise enough to regret later. [Here are some photos of the correct expression to use 1, 2, ]

Remember this: the forgiveness rules that might apply to people who hit you with a car, stole your money, or cheated on you with your best friend don’t even come close to applying to child sexual abuse.

Many non-survivors are so uncomfortable with the horror of what has happened to you (even if, like most of us, you only tell them the most tiny, sanitized smidgen of it), they want to tie it up and make it go away by making you shut up and make nice under cover of forgiveness. “La la  la la… we’re not listening, just forgive and shut up will you?”

Don’t let them.

Forgiveness is not a get-out of jail free card for the abuser, (or, unfortunately, you in your need to heal), and anyone who expects you to issue that card is not your ally, no matter how well meaning they are.

2) Acceptance is key. My favourite survivor-friendly definition of forgiveness is: “to give up all hope of a different past.” This type of forgiveness is the same last stage of the grieving process, acceptance. We accept that we were abused, accept all our feelings about it, and don’t try to pretend things were different than they were, even to ourself.

This type of forgiveness actually does make things better. People who don’t accept that the abuse happened or that it affected them, or that they have legitimate feelings about it, stay trapped in unsuccessful coping patterns. These can include getting or staying involved with people who hurt us, numbing out or controlling feelings with addictions among others. Grieving is the only thing I’ve found that actually makes a tragedy resolve itself into peace. This is a much more satisfying and productive kind of forgiveness for survivors, and it works much better at setting you free.

3) Be loyal to yourself. When abusers and complicit relatives ask you to forgive them, beware. This normally means “will you just shut up about it already” or “caretake me, I’m sorry already”. Know for yourself that this is what they are really saying.

You will know a real apology when (if) you feel one. Trust yourself. You don’t have to accept any apology with strings attached (or any apology at all). These strings will normally be: “I will say I’m sorry, and you will ‘go back to normal’ and behave as if nothing happened.” There is no way to go back to ‘normal’. There never was a normal, it was only a fantasy. Accepting this deal will be a raw deal.

And lastly –

Forgive yourself for loving the abuser if you did (or do). That love says more about you and the ways children work emotionally than it does about them. Forgive yourself for being a child and being unable to stop the abuse. Forgive yourself for being a teen or young adult and being unable to stop it. Childhood conditioning is tough to break. Forgive yourself for being a little eccentric compared to non-survivors. Forgive yourself for needing what you need and feeling what you feel. Forgive yourself for taking so long to heal, not remembering details you think you should, or continuing in confusing relationships with complicit family.

You deserve it.

32 thoughts on “What I learned about child sexual abuse and forgiveness.”

  1. Your answer(s) to Sam were soooo comforting — to me! When The Sperm Component (I refuse to call him “my father”) died, I didn’t know how to feel or what to do. Thankfully, I had a therapist who asked me the same questions you asked Sam. Instead of going to the services, I bought myself flowers and enjoyed them until they withered and died. Then I took them to the cemetery and stamped them into little brown pieces on the ground. In the meantime, I wrote to the state for his death certificate so I could be sure he was stone-dead and could never hurt me (or another little girl) ever again. I’ve never regretted it, but I will never forgive him

    When the The Egg Component died a few years later, a well-meaning niece risked her acceptance by my ex-family to contact me in case I wanted to visit TEC one last time. I thanked her and told her no, that my “mother” had died some time ago, on September 28, 1993 to be exact, and that having grieved her loss, I understood how hard it must be for her now to grieve the impending loss of her grandma. I’ve never regretted it, and will never forgive her, either.

    While I accept what happened to me as a child and understand that my parents were guilty of a heinous crime as well as the worst of sins, I am still having trouble letting go of how their shameful, evil actions affected my very existence. It led to a lot of poor choices, including a poor choice for a husband who was just as narcissistic and hedonistic and evil as they were, he just acted it out in a different way. My therapist(s) have tried to convince me that the only way out of this quagmire is “forgiveness,” but what they don’t realize is that “forgiveness” is what enabled my ex-husband to manipulate my children into estrangement. I can accept what happened, I can forgive myself for trying to “fix” the unfixable, but I just can’t seem to go on from there. In any event, I will never, ever forgive him, and I don’t regret it. Some people are just too evil to be forgiven.

    1. Hi Guy Noir,
      What you’re describing sounds like the anger/bargaining part of grief to me: “I am still having trouble letting go of how their shameful evil actions affected my very existence.” Yes, their actions affected you. You were badly injured, you were impaired in making good choices for yourself, and you have to heal the mess. It is not fair or right.

      My advice (which you haven’t asked for, but I’m giving it anyhow) is to grieve. Be sad and angry, be in denial a little from time to time, bargain with it and recognize that you’re bargaining and then grieve some more. Rinse and repeat as necessary until it doesn’t feel necessary any more. Eventually it will clear, I promise.

      Not grieving by trying to ‘let it go’ doesn’t help, in my experience for anything of this magnitude. Actual ‘letting go’ is what happens without trying when the grieving is done. Try feeling how you actually feel about it, rather than how you think you are supposed to feel. I find when I come back to how I actually do feel, it gets me in touch with the process and moves me forward. I have a lot of faith in grief.

      Blessings to you.

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  4. Did my question I asked yesterday get removed for some reason? I’m sorry if I offended anyone, but I was serious about wanting advice. Please let me know what I did wrong and I will reword my question, as I am desperate for opinions.

  5. Hi. I know this is an older post, but I was searching the internet for answers and I hope you can help me. I am 25 year old recovering alcoholic that was sexually abused repeatedly by my uncle when I was 14. My dad caught us and basically beat my uncle up and we never reported it to the police as long as he agreed to never come around us again. It’s been 10 years since I was abused, but ever since then I have become a sexually promiscuous, raging alcoholic. Recently, I found out I am pregnant so I stopped drinking and got back into meetings. I’ve been doing pretty well, but my past abuse still haunts me. Now, my mom has informed me that my uncle, the one who abused me, is on his death bed in hospice care with liver problems. He says that he will not go off life support until he can see me one last time. Initially, I said no. But, now, I feel like I need to see him just one more time so he can die and I can move on from my past. Not necessarily forgive him, but just move forward and forget. What he did was terrible and I sort of like the fact that he going through pain right now because of me by staying alive… But, not I feel like I just need to see him and get it over with so he can die. Then I feel like me and my family can move on and I can carve out a good future for my baby and my self. So, would you suggest I forgive him, which I don’t know if I can, or should I just choose to let him die and move on? Sorry if this seems confusing, and thanks in advance for any advice.

    1. Hi Sam, Your comment didn’t appear because I hadn’t logged in to approve it yet. Nice to meet you. Congratulations on your new sobriety.

      Ah, so your family is pressuring you (or your uncle is) to forgive him on his death bed so he can die? While you are in a rough place in your sobriety?

      The short answer is, do it for yourself or not at all.

      I’m sorry, I wish forgetting and moving on actually solved anything with sexual abuse healing. In my experience running from feeling and healing the abuse is like drinking your feelings away, it doesn’t work in the long run, you still have to clean up the mess, and it gets you more pain in the meanwhile. You can’t forget and move on from a broken leg and you can’t forget and move on from PTSD either. You have to actively heal it.

      I do know what it’s like to wonder what to do when your abuser is on his deathbed. I hope yours dies soon, as mine has been holding on for a lot longer than it looked like he was going to.

      Forgiveness isn’t something you can do on someone else’s schedule, and it doesn’t do anything to shorten the healing process, it’s the acceptance that happens at the end of it. You can’t fake it without lying to yourself, and that won’t be good for you. If you’re just starting working on healing the abuse, you have 5-10 years of healing ahead of you. That sounds like a lot, but it gets better every day, it really does.

      If it were me I’d be thinking this:
      – Is there anything I need to tell him or do before I die for myself? Anything that I will regret not saying to him? If so, then go if you can get some support person to go with you (your sponsor?) and stick to a script you come up with for yourself and then leave. It might be good to see him dying and in pain, it might be good for the child-self inside you to see him powerless and know he can’t hurt you any more. If not, then there’s no reason to go. His reasons are not important, he’s a child abuser and doesn’t deserve anything from you.
      – Will being around him and the pressure be so toxic to you that it will threaten your sobriety? If you think there is a chance of this (and it seems to me that there would be) my advice would be not to go. If it takes him longer to die, so be it. It’s not your problem, and if he’s in pain longer, it sounds like it’s his choice.
      – If for some reason he died right now, without you getting there, would you be relieved? If so, then don’t go.

      He gave up any right to gifts or family duty from you when he sexually assaulted a 14 year old child. You don’t owe him or your other family anything. You owe yourself and that 14 year old child in you everything. My advice is to focus on your own healing and put that first.

      It does get better. Getting sober will bring up feelings about your abuse, and that’s scary I know. If you can find yourself a good therapist you can afford, I recommend it. There’s also a 12 step program called SIA (survivors of incest anonymous) that I found helpful. Even if you can’t find a meeting, you could work their steps along with the AA ones.

      Good luck. I know this is hard. But you are stronger than you know.

      1. Thank you so much for the wonderful response. I really took it to heart and went to see my uncle before he died. I had a whole paper of what I was going to say to him since he can’t really talk that well anyway considering the condition he’s in. But, to my surprise he just looked at me and told me it wasn’t my fault. I started crying because I really didn’t expect that. Growing up, I always felt like I could have stopped him or I could have told someone but I didn’t. So, to have him tell me that it was a big thing to me. The next day he died. I feel like I can move on. I don’t think I can ever forgive him or forget, but I do think I am on the path to forgiving myself… What do you think of this experience and am I wrong for being happy that he said that to me? Also, do you have any tips for forgiving myself a little more everyday? I know I have only just begun, so any advice is great. Sorry to be a bother. Thanks again and I love this blog!

        1. Hi Sam,
          You’re never wrong for feeling exactly how you actually feel. There are always layers of these things. You didn’t do anything wrong, so forgiving yourself really is about recognizing that. You might find the 12 steps of Survivors of Incest Anonymous to be helpful for you, since I’m assuming you’re also working the 12 steps for your alcoholism? http://www.siawso.org/Default.aspx?pageId=158755 Working them in addition to your AA 12 steps might be a good way to learn self-forgiveness too.

  6. Sorry for blowing up your page.
    We are both believe in God. All religions put aside, she is the most forgiving person I’ve ever met, she still says her ex fiance is a good person. She sees the good in everyone, it truly is a beautiful gift.
    Me? I’m not so forgiving on some things. My attitude towards these people is “it’s God’s job to forgive you. Mine is to arrange the meeting” I will never forgive her father, nor ex, nor anyone else who ever laid a finger on her.
    But then there is her mother. She doesn’t know that I know. I know that I need to forgive, or at least accrpt, this woman. But I can’t. Honestly, how do you let that happen to your child? And where does a guy go with a situation like this?

    1. I think your partner may change her position over time. In order to truly forgive someone you need to ‘let in’ the grief and anger that the harm happened. From what you said, she is still in the beginning, and will need to get in touch with her rage to heal fully if she can have the courage to do so. I think forgiving prematurely, while tempting as a way to make the anger go away, is not effective or helpful. I think that bargaining with or denying the impact of the abuse (which premature forgiveness is) is a part of the grieving process, but so is anger, and that acceptance is the gift that comes at the end of all of that. I accept the abuse happened and am at peace with it, but my father is still a sociopath/psychopath. My mother was still complicit. I’m not interested in being in contact with them or having a relationship with them. I’m also not going to attack them or seek vengeance.
      My suggestion is to talk to God directly about your anger and whether God can help you resolve this. My religion is different from yours, but my belief is that God would not have invented the grieving process (which includes anger) if he didn’t want you to surrender to it and work it through. I also believe it’s okay to be angry at God for allowing this to happen. I have expressed that same anger to my God and it deepened our relationship to get that out, and helped me see the larger picture and make meaning of what happened.
      You are on the right track. Keep on grieving. It’s a process. It works.

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  8. Thank you so much for sharing this. It was wonderful to finally read inspiring words from someone who understands. I have been bombarded for years by well meaning but ignorant people who have told me that I must forgive to move on. I’ve moved on and I am comfortable not forgiving my abuser.

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  11. I am abuser. Someone who truly repents of what has happened. Who wants the victim to be able to live life again. I was 15 when that happened, and it happened once in form of molestation. Is taking revenge the only way of getting happiness for the victim? I am asking this because it will decide what step I should take next. Revenge will harm other innocents who depend on me and that is the reason I am asking this. Please help.

    1. Here’s my advice:
      1) Stay the hell away from your victim.
      2) Send a written, unequivocal apology. Don’t couch it in terms like ‘it happened’, use terms like “when I hurt you.” Once. Don’t expect a reply or forgiveness.
      3) Stay the hell away from your victim. If they want to talk to you, they will.
      4) Stay the hell away from your victim, don’t contact them, don’t talk to them, don’t write them.
      5) Never do anything abusive or creepy ever again. If you can’t, then get therapy and work at it.
      6) Report yourself to the police if applicable, for everything you’ve done. Be specific, complete and detailed. Take full responsibility for everything you’ve done, with the police. As 12 step program participants all over the world have discovered, taking responsibility for what you did can help reduce shame. Being accountable is the way to rebuild integrity for yourself.
      7) Stay the hell away from your victim, and don’t talk to other survivors about this. It’s not our job to make you feel better.

      Note: If you were a kid who was abused yourself, get therapy for that, and do all of the above. If you were coerced into abusing another kid by an adult or group of adults, forgive yourself and get therapy for it.

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  14. Hi Warrior – thank you for this beautiful post. I have long held a grudge against ‘forgiveness work’, as I too agree that it is generally meant as a nice way of saying “shut the fuck up”. I am NEVER a believer in forgiveness work if ANYONE but the survivor is the one who wants it. And even then, I think they need to think really carefully about what it is they are wanting.

    BTW – I wrote a post about forgiveness, and I think our positions on the issue match? (Reason #133): http://reasonsyoushouldntfuckkids.wordpress.com/2009/11/11/reason-133-forgiveness-bullshit/

    1. Yes, I agree. I went to read your post and saw the comment I’d made on it a year ago and found something I’d forgotten I said:

      “The other thing people say that I hate is “forgiveness is for you, not the other person”, like I’m this stupid person to withhold from myself the magic gift of shutting up and convincing myself that it’s all good now.”

      That’s what galls me the most, is people getting all condescending like they’re mother Theresa for forgiving people their petty little hurts. Now that I write about it, I think it’s another form of minimization. If they really got how bad child sexual assault is, they’d never make these stupid comparisons with their own experiences or beliefs about garden variety forgiveness.

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