Just over 25 years ago, Christian therapist Dan Allender released The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse. For thousands of victims suffering the aftereffects of sexual trauma, it became a trusted guide. Now, after decades of clinical practice, Allender has published a follow-up: Healing the Wounded Heart: The Heartache of Sexual Abuse and the Hope of Transformation (Baker). Author Mary DeMuth, who has written widely about her own recovery from childhood sexual abuse, spoke with Allender about the spiritual contours of healing and the importance of kindness to victims.
What have you learned about the aftermath of sexual abuse since writing The Wounded Heart?
We now know much more about the brain. We know, for example, that trauma shuts down the left functional lobe where language resides. We have always known that trauma victims have fragmented memories, but now we have a clearer understanding of why.
The more we understand about the psychology of sexual abuse victims, the greater the potential for showing kindness. We can say, “This is what one would expect given the harm.” When clients have a better understanding of the neurology of trauma, it opens the door to greater kindness toward themselves.
What has struck you most powerfully as you’ve counseled clients?
It’s not enough to know the biology of trauma. We also need to know the spirituality of trauma. The natural tendency of victims is to turn shame and contempt against themselves. And this gets exploited by the Evil One. Satan is an accuser. He fans the flames of guilt and shame with whisperings, attacks, threats, or seductions.
The two greatest signs of a restored heart are increased freedom and joy. When you’re no longer in bondage to shame and contempt, you enjoy a greater capacity to be who you are and to delight not just in life, but also in the One who made you to be in relationship with him.
Someone once asked me, “Aren’t you tired of this? How can you handle these heartbreaking stories?” But I am more excited than ever about the potential for restoration where there’s a willingness to deal with spiritual warfare.
Kindness is hugely important to victims of sexual abuse. Why is it so hard for victims to accept kindness?
Abuse by someone you loved or trusted is a form of betrayal. We have certain expectations of what a teacher, coach, or neighbor ought to be. And when that trust is shattered, it destroys our world.
But there’s a deeper reason that kindness feels terrifying to someone who has been abused. In a sense, kindness “arouses” the body. When someone is kind, it rings the body’s pleasure centers. But victims of abuse can struggle with a sense of guilt and complicity in the way their abusers aroused them. And in those lies, they have come to regard their bodies as dangerous or repulsive.
If the Evil One uses kindness to turn our bodies against us, then healing must engage the heart, mind, and body with the same thing. But it’s easy to resist the very forms of kindness we most need. In Romans 2, Paul reminds us that it’s the kindness of God that leads to repentance. Then he asks, plaintively, why we respond with “contempt” (v. 4).
As a survivor, I’ve endured insensitive advice like “Quit rehashing the past” or “God makes all things new.” How can your book help someone walk alongside a victim with kindness?
We all need companions. Why? Because abuse is often done in private, under the cover of silence. Abuse has to be addressed in the light, in community. As I mentioned earlier, the memories are often fragmented. They will become more coherent only as you begin filling in the gaps by telling your story.
For the victim, telling the story begins to heal a portion of your heart. Telling it again opens a door to healing another portion. Some people tell their story once, and it doesn’t seem to help, so they stop. But you are meant to continue bearing the scars of this story just as Jesus bears the scars of his crucifixion through all eternity. His glorification didn’t take away the marks of the Cross.
Husbands and wives of abuse victims have a special role in showing where the scars still exist. In the context of a loving relationship, they can say, “This is where I see you shutting down. This is where I see you turning against yourself.” Truth telling in the context of kindness brings a revolution in healing.
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