The Power of Revealing
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Oregon Abuse Advocates and Survivors in Service (OAASIS) Conference: “Revealing and Healing.”
October 13, 2012,
Kelly Clark, Attorney at Law.
To see how far OAASIS has come in just a few short years is such a testament to you, to your tenacity and your determination to make a difference, and it is so encouraging to me. Thank you for asking me to speak to you.
What I have been asked to speak about for the next ten minutes is the topic of “Revealing and Healing” for child abuse victims. Of course, most of what I know about this question comes from my work over the last two decades as an advocate for survivors in the context of civil justice. And so from that experience I have three observations about the process of revealing; and this afternoon I’ll offer you those observations. Then, I’ll talk about civil justice, the limits of it, and the role that it can play in healing. Finally in conclusion I will comment on something I have seen that seems to make the most difference in healing for survivors of child abuse.
I. Three observations about the Power of Revealing:
- We Are as Sick as Our Secrets.
This is a human truth as old as the great religions, and as new as modern mental health theories. We are as sick as our secrets. Now, by the way, since this is a day for talking authentically about our difficult experiences, I will tell you of my own experience with secrets: for a number a years two decades ago I suffered from the secrets of addiction and alcoholism. I tell you that because I believe that, having gone through what I went through during addiction and early recovery, allows me to share a profound similarity with my clients. For I know what it is to have a dark secret that I cannot even imagine breaking. And even though my secrets were almost entirely self-chosen, while those of a child abuse victim are foisted upon them, still that does not change the fact that I remain absolutely convinced that we are as sick as our secrets. And so it is that I have a real passion to walk with survivors as they break theirs. We are as sick as our secrets, which is to say that we must break these secrets if we are to live freely.
- Once the Genie is Out of Bottle, He Won’t Go Back.
Now, somewhat surprising to outsiders, but not, I expect, to you, is this: the feeling that one feels when she realizes that she has spilled the beans, that the secret is out, quite often is not one of relief, at least at first. It is dread, and a perhaps natural desire to go back to the way it was.
But this doesn’t ever work. After all—as we say in the recovery programs—it may feel good to sit in my own shit because it is warm and wet, but that does not mean that doing so is good for me; in fact it will kill me. For child sexual abuse survivors, once the story is out, it has got to stay out, the infection has been lanced and now it has to drain… (My, I’m just full of lovely images right after lunch…) But once the Genie is out of the Bottle, she won’t go back in. Like Cortez and his ships, we have to burn our bridges behind and cross the ones ahead, for there is no going back and there is no standing still.
- You Are Not Alone.
We hear this a lot—it is one of OAASIS’ main sayings—but to me it actually means two quite different things, one historical and one prescriptive. The historical fact is that you are not alone in being an abuse survivor: whether because there were others abused by your abuser, or others abused in the same institution—church, youth group, school, or even family—you were not the only one, you are not alone in what you went through. I have certain books on child abuse recovery that I give to clients, and they say: “I feel like that writer has been following me around for the last 20 years, so completely did I read my own story in his book.” Yes. You are not alone. Others went through what you went through. There can be incredible solace in this. I’ve seen grown men shatter into tears of joy, sadness and release to realize that they were not the only ones it happened to.
But, “you are not alone” also means that you don’t have to do this—this scary and difficult thing—alone. In that sense, “you are not alone” is a prescriptive, a recommendation, an urging, that you not try to do this alone. By the way, here I see another analogy to recovery from addiction. For the fact is, no one can recover from inner brokenness and emptiness (that’s the problem at the core of addiction, in case you’ve ever wondered) alone. This, too, is one of the great insights of the ancient religions and the modern mental health theories, the former having built shared religious traditions that have brought deep meaning and significance for most of the world’s people for most of the world’s history. CS Lewis, the much beloved and much maligned English Christian from the last century, said there is no such thing as an individual Christian. What he meant was that this thing that Christians are called to do is too hard to do alone, and besides that, some things we were never meant to do alone. So when we say you are not alone, in this sense, we are begging you survivors, and warning you: you should not try to do this alone, and you don’t have to do this alone.
II. After Revealing: What Justice Looks Like.
So now that we have talked a bit about revealing and healing, let me make a few remarks about the justice system in our society. I have three.
First, our legal system doesn’t guarantee justice, it only guarantees a shot at justice. Now, I’m going to let you in on an inside secret, one that only lawyers know: ours is the worst system of justice ever invented except any other system of justice ever invented. Let me ask you: if you knew you had to suffer a severe injury or horrible crime, where would you choose for this to happen: China? Venezuala? Iran? Or the USA? I say this not as some uber-patriot, but simply as a realist. In our system, we have a shot at justice. It’s not everything, but it is something, and it can be a very powerful something if properly understood.
Second, let’s not imbue justice with some false hope or expectation that it will take all the pain away. So often people walk into a lawyer’s office, and I expect to the DA’s office as well, believing that if they can just “get some justice” then it will all be okay. Well it won’t be okay. At least not because some legal case got resolved.
I tell our folks that you have to work as hard on the inside stuff as we work on the outside legal piece, or none of this is going to do any good. Our office has lost three men to suicide in the last 15 years, all after settlements reached. So don’t be under any illusion that justice is going to solve all the problems. Justice can be an incredibly powerful piece of accountability, and justice can give one back her sense of power. I wish I had time to tell stories of what men, women and children have said to me when the cases were over about how empowered they feel as a result of having pursued justice. But justice in and of itself is not enough for full and final healing. And if accompanied with false expectations the search for justice can be worse than futile.
Third. All this is not to say that there is no place for justice. And that leads me to some thoughts for those of you who are counselors and therapists.
I have great respect for you, as you are healers of souls. Still, I have noticed that many of you are not very comfortable with the legal system, and I often see that this discomfort bleeds over to your patients. Now I’m the last person to say that every survivor should bring a legal claim. But sometimes it is the right move for a survivor to decide to seek legal accountability. But so many times a client will say to me, “my counselor thinks a lawsuit is a terrible idea.” I say, “why?” and the answer is…”I don’t really know.” So, I talk to the counselor, and what I hear is some version of “I don’t like lawyers and I don’t think a lawsuit will solve anything,” To which I say, “I agree with you completely almost…. I don’t like lawyers either, and I don’t think a lawsuit will solve everything. But how about we let this courageous person we both are trying to help, who is engaged on this incredible journey of healing, have all the information she needs to make an intelligent decision, and let her make the decision. Let’s not take her power away from her. After all, she’s spent her entire life with other people taking her power and she’s finally learning to take some power back– so how about we give her the power and let her make the call.” See, more than anyone else a trial lawyer can tell you that lawsuits are not for everyone, and so a good trial lawyer will never try to sell anyone a lawsuit. Just like a surgeon can tell you what problems this surgery will and will not fix, so a trial lawyer knows in his knower the limits of his craft. I tell people you should not file a lawsuit if you have any other choice. Because it is long and hard and frustrating and there are no guarantees of success, and even success itself sometimes feels empty in the end.
But if you are one of those people who cannot find closure, who cannot move on unless and until you have done everything possible to hold those accountable who harmed you or who allowed it to happen, and unless and until you have tried to do everything possible to make sure that this does not happen again to someone else, then, maybe, you have to file a lawsuit. But, please, don’t be under any illusions that a lawsuit, or a big win, settlement or trial, will magically heal you. It can help, but you’ve got to do the inside work while we are doing the outside work or none of this will matter at all.
Conclusion: One Way to Meaning.
I hesitate to offer my concluding thoughts, because I am so awe-fully aware that I have never walked in your shoes—I have never been a child abuse survivor. So I am always reluctant to say much beyond my limited experience as an advocate for survivors. But I will offer an observation that I have come to slowly, over the years, as I have both done more work with survivors and also as I have done more of my own work in recovery from addiction. And that observation is this. It seems that it is human nature to want, to need, to take one’s worst suffering—whether self-induced such as through addiction, or other-induced such as through child abuse—and somehow to make sense of it, somehow use it to help others. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous puts it this way, “no matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experiences can benefit others.” And I have come to see this reality, in my own life and in the lives of other recovering addicts, but also in the lives of child abuse survivors. Many of you here have become active in the survivors’ movement—the child protection movement—precisely because you are finding a way to make meaning out of your loss, through trying to help others. And so I note this, and gently offer it to those of you who are still suffering greatly, as at least one idea for a simple way that you might be able to ease your pain: reach out to another survivor with a helping hand, whatever that looks like. It may just be that it is a very sacred step in your healing journey.
You survivors are incredible and amazing people, my admiration for you is immense, and I am honored to be in your presence.