[This is a reworking of an old essay from 2014]
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been re-watching the show Saving Grace for an analysis series about portrayals of alcoholism and other chemical addictions on television. I ended up thinking more about my own experiences as an abuse survivor. On the surface, I’m nothing like Grace Hanadarko, but I understand her character on a level that (I hope) most audience members will never have to.
The show deals a lot with questions of faith, specifically around belief in God and how the main character struggles to accept and reconcile the existence of God with her own experiences of personal tragedy, including sexual abuse by a priest who had taken special interest in her family.
One of the most evocative moments for me was at the end of the first season when Grace’s brother, John, who is now also a priest, discovers what had happened to his sister. Grace and John each arrive separately to confront her abuser, but Grace sees John punch the man in the face.
Grace later tells John that she didn’t want him or anyone else to know. I understand why, but whether Grace wanted it or not, there’s a lot going on in that scene beyond the visceral attack on the pedophile and affirmation of John’s real priorities. It was probably the first time since childhood that Grace could be sure that any member of her family was 100% on her side.
Normally, I would care a lot about the moral issue of whether John, as a member of the clergy, should have punched anyone, especially a frail old man. I’m usually troubled when I see religious characters put aside their beliefs for the sake of visceral satisfaction or even to protect others. In this instance, I don’t care, and I think the scene was handled with a level of class that is often missing from modern television.
I was thinking a lot about my own past and even recent experiences. Many abuse survivors, across the board from spousal abuse to child abuse and everything else, spend their lives feeling like there is no one on their sides. In the first place, the legal and social service systems are set up to place all the burden of proof and responsibility for behavior squarely on the survivor. Beyond that, if a survivor speaks out against a family member or close friend, he or she has to risk losing relationships with other members of the family or community. Even well-meaning and supportive people who believe the survivor don’t really understand what that means or the emotional toll that it can take on the survivor.
My experiences are not entirely comparable to Grace Hanadarko, but I still struggle to express to well-meaning friends why I don’t write under my own name, why I won’t go on book tours for my fiction, and why “sharing my story” with the world in an autobiographical book is not worth alienating people I love. The responses I get are, “You can’t be a successful author that way,” “If those people can’t handle what you have to say, screw them, they are just as bad as the abuser,” “that man was evil, you can’t let him control your life,” or “God gave you this incredible talent, you can use it to help people.”
The world would be a much better place if there were more people like John Hanadarko who took action against abusers and then just supported survivors without feeling the need to comment, impose value judgements, or try to bring “meaning” to a fundamentally incomprehensible behavior. I do think there are more effective actions than a punch in the face, but the story arc didn’t end there. One of the things I like about Saving Grace is how it avoids painting Grace as an “inspirational” figure. Faith is relevant to the show, and she struggles with the question of meaning and purpose in her experiences, but there’s no sense that she is a paragon or a poster-child for survivors of tragedy. She has her inspiring moments , especially as the series goes on, but she’s a real human being and she doesn’t wear her tragedies like a uniform and parade them around.
In my own life , the “God gave you…use this to help people” comments I hear are the most troubling and guilt-inducing. In the first place, implying that God somehow expects an abuse survivor to share traumatic experiences in public paints God as a petty, cruel being who treats his creations like chess pieces. Abuse survivors — particularly people who were abused by a parent or church authority figure — often have a lot of problems relating to or accepting the existence of a benevolent parent-God. For some of us, saying God wants to use our trauma is like spitting in our faces. Secondly, the idea that any abuse survivor has a responsibility to help and educate other people is fundamentally flawed. We live in an age of self-help groups, inspirational movies, and reality TV that is anything but realistic. We expect anyone who has gone through severe trauma to derive the same sense of meaning and purpose from exposing their pain in order to benefit others. It’s especially true for anyone who is a public figure or anyone who has the ability to write. There is nothing wrong with using our talents to help social causes, and self-help groups are great for some people, but they’re not for everyone.
Grace Hanadarko vacillates between not believing in God at all or being violently pissed at him. She clearly doesn’t trust him, and the show doesn’t shy away from that. I don’t have the level of problems she has, but God and I do have a semi regular appointment for one-sided screaming matches. I do believe that God can redeem any circumstance. I believe that God has placed the calling on my life, but the how and why are for me and God to work out.
If you know an abuse survivor and want to help, these are the things most of us need to hear:
- I believe you.
- I love you.
- You are safe here.
- This is not your fault.
- I am on your side.
- What can I do right now?
Leave discussions about meaning and God or helping others for when WE ask about those things.
- Braids, Bitches, God & Existentialism (jackandhill.typepad.com)
- ‘Covert Affairs’ Piper Perabo credits Kyra Sedgwick and Glenn Close, along with Holly Hunter for getting her on TV (zap2it.com)
- Can writing be sacramental? (floridawriters.wordpress.com)
- Holly Hunter Net Worth (celebritynetworth.com)
- Video: Pope Francis asks “who am I to judge” about gay clergy (cbsnews.com)
- The Roots of Pastoral Response (independent.com)