Believing Women in an Age of Narcissism

(Trigger Warning: If you’ve been sexually abused or assaulted, please bear in the mind that this piece includes disturbing details of sexual trauma)

Step back from the political drama for a moment and consider a woman I saw for counseling years ago (with details changed). She’s 39, and I’ve just officiated her wedding to a really extraordinary man. She didn’t think she’d get married, but then he came along – the one she never expected. She’d actually waited; she was a virgin, though she’d rather say that many years before – perhaps around 7 or 8 years old – she felt a strange call to be a nun. She was quite content single, and single-mindedly devoted to friends and faith in a God whose love she experienced through the mystical lens of Song of Solomon. But then he came along.

I pronounced them husband and wife, we all celebrated, and they set off for an adventure among the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park. It was early fall – the colors were bursting and radiant – their hopes were high. That night, my phone rings. It’s 11:30pm or so…I’m about asleep. He is in a panic, “Chuck, something is wrong with Sondra. I don’t know what’s happening right now.” I hear moaning, howling…dark, disturbing sounds, and I realize it’s her. “We began making love. I was gentle. I was. We felt so connected. And then I touched her, you know…and her body went catatonic. She froze. And then in an instant she screamed ‘Get the fuck off of me.'”  

This isn’t Sondra if you know Sondra. My training as a clinician tells me she’s experienced a body memory, a memory not accessible by mere mental recollection but triggered often by a touch or sensation. Sondra and I spoke briefly, as I asked her to breathe and as we did a practice to get her reconnected to her core self. We decided they would stay and enjoy the beauty of that area, but wait on sex until we could meet again. Jeff was so tender, so understanding, so self-sacrificial. They returned a week later.

Fast-forward a year into therapy. Sondra’s memory was of a time when she was maybe 6 or 7, recalled from the feel of her surroundings and the room she lived in while their family weathered financial struggle and stayed with her Grandparents. That moment a year before had triggered a long-lost memory of a shadowy figure, the smell of cigar on his breath, touching and even penetrating the innocent little girl several times over months of living there. It was her Grandpa. Her favorite Pa-Pa. The gift-giver. The cuddler. A sexually violent and abusive man.

Fast-forward two years. She’s ready to speak. Grandpa is a legendary missionary in their denomination, still a frequent speaker in churches throughout their region. At their local breakfast establishment, he’s sometimes called “The Mayor.” By now, Sondra has told her mother, her older brother, and some close friends. She has support. We have a plan. With her mother and brother and me by her side, Sondra will confront her Grandpa.

“Liar,” he says. “You lie. Why? How could you do this to me?” He storms out. Sondra was ready for this, but she was not ready for the phone calls she’d begin to receive from Grandpa’s friends and allies.

Whore.

Liar.

Bitch.

Ungrateful granddaughter.

Apostate.

His pastor calls Sondra. He isn’t curious about her. Rather, he begins by talking about the many contributions Grandpa has made to the Kingdom and community. “Surely, you’d want to think twice about making dubious accusations from so many years back. Our memories are quite fallible, Sondra. And you’ve always had a penchant for the dramatic.”

Sondra is just one story of dozens I’ve held. As I said, I shifted details to protect her. I’ve seen this same scenario play out time and again, though. Don’t believe her. It happened so long ago. She’s not credible. 

I believe, because I’ve walked alongside women who hold these stories so tightly for fear that telling them would only unleash a torrent of accusation. When a woman tells a story, she often does so after slow and deliberate consideration. Many know the risks. But they feel like it is time…perhaps many years later…but it’s time for them. With that trauma, I don’t judge their timing. Who would?

Memories of sexual trauma from long ago can emerge in an instant. During sexually traumatic experiences, our psyches have an extraordinary defense mechanism – we can psychologically/emotionally disconnect from the moment. An hour later or a day later or even 20 years later, we might remember – that happened? Memories can surge back in a moment, triggered by a sight, a sound, a smell, a touch, a picture, a look.

++++

My policy is believe first. In 20-plus years of pastoral and clinical work, I’ve only seen one case of false accusation. The reality is – false accusations happen only rarely, and often under certain conditions. Thankfully, a thorough process revealed a self-serving lie by a cruel (false) accuser, whose lie came at no cost to the accuser personally, a reality almost every accuser can’t relate to. There is always a cost. As we watch the news unfold right now, we see the great cost to Dr. Ford, Judge Kavanaugh’s accuser. I’m also quite sure the accusation(s) must be jarring to the judge and his family, as well, but anyone walking into one of the most powerful, lifetime appointments in government ought to expect anything along the way. As I’ve said time and again to those who feel they are being falsely accused, participate (humbly!) in a process. One’s character is often revealed in these trying moments.

What do I mean by believe first? Would I deny due process? Absolutely not. But the problem is that we often do not DO process. We defend and self-protect and malign, but rarely do you see those accused humbly engage a process. As in the very public case of Dr. Ford right now, the response by many Republican defenders of the judge shows just how de-humanizing and humiliating this can be for a credible accuser. The lack of basic emotional intelligence and compassion is astounding. The politicization of a woman’s story on both sides is horrifying. I’d expect her to be asking: Is anyone really for me in this? Most engaging in this current judicial firestorm couldn’t pass a basic pastoral care class I offer.

By “believing” do I mean affirming her story with utter, infallible certainty? No. Often, those who accuse are themselves fuzzy on details and mired in self-doubt. No, belief begins with empathy. It means holding their story, their experience. In clinical work, it often does not mean bringing an immediate accusation. As in the case of Dr. Ford, a memory revealed years back will take time to process and unfold. The survivor will wrestle with all kinds of feelings – self-doubt, self-blame, confusion, rage, disconnection. It takes time to get to the point Dr. Ford got to. But, given the public details, hers is a credible accusation. And despite disagreements around timing, she deserves a thorough process. If we are not first human, what have we become?

Remember how the women who brought accusations against Bill Hybels were villainized? I suspect it’s difficult for us to believe that well-established “family” men are capable of these things. But as one who holds many “secrets” from many confidential sessions over the years, I’ve seen many, many men who’d otherwise be viewed publicly as saintly reveal past indiscretions and private battles. Even the most polished and put-together can be deeply broken. Have we not learned that lesson?

And a final word to wrap this up – I have seen more than a dozen men who’ve actually revealed to me an instance of abusing or assaulting a woman in the past. Through painful self-revelation, they slowly come to grips with their own brokenness and violence. We process, with grief and repentance, until they are ready to do the hard work of contacting their victim/survivor (unless I find myself in a case where mandatory reporting is demanded). In most of the cases I’ve been involved in, when the men called women who they’d hurt in the past they were surprised by the responses. In a few cases, the women had no recollection (and at least one entered therapy to deal with that, because this is how memory works). In a few more, the women remembered, but had minimized it or blamed themselves. Still, in others there was immense gratitude, relief, and even some measure of forgiveness. These were all painful processes which could not be microwaved, but required slow, thoughtful engagement.

Believing an accuser’s story is a tricky thing, in other words. We’ve got to be willing to move with patience and empathy into the slow process of disclosure, mindful that maligning or accusing only further solidifies a story she (or he) tells herself – that she’s the problem. And in this culture of narcissism, particularly in the ecclesial and political spheres, that’s even more tricky. If narcissism is characterized fundamentally by a protection of power and an absence of empathy, then we are seeing this on full display among those who are supposed to be wise leaders. And sadly, we are living in a time when it seems that only a few “wise people think before they act; fools don’t—and even brag about their foolishness” (Proverbs 13:16).

BETRAYED BY THOSE WHO WE THOUGHT ‘GOT IT’ – NARCISSISM AMONG THE “ENLIGHTENED”

Years ago during the Vietnam protests, researchers studied the level of consciousness and self-awareness of those engaged in protests. The assumption was that the protestors engaged this work out of a larger consciousness, a true love for justice, a global worldview, a sense of compassion. What they found was that the large majority were still highly egocentric, “pre-conventional” as some call it, and invested in the cause from a place of self-interest. In other words, their efforts were narcissistic.

Ken Wilber’s investigation into this phenomenon in Boomeritis and later in A Theory of Everything demonstrates how central egocentricity is in narcissistic people and movements, even those that appear more just, compassionate, even “right”! Wilber’s turn-of-the-millennium critique (which equally ticks off progressives and fundamentalists) targets the shadow side of their supposed enlightenment, and it was remarkably prophetic. As he argues today, the election of 2016 was, in part, an evolutionary corrective to the egocentricity of the enlightened. Hillary’s “deplorable” comment is the best example of it. He points to an inclusionary movement which contradicted itself in its often harsh, polarized practices. While we thought we were progressing toward justice and inclusion, in truth we hadn’t yet worked out our collective developmental shit (my translation). We have more growing up to do, individually and collectively.

While Wilber’s cultural reflections are helpful for our larger political conversation, I receive his insights as valuable for the church. I sometimes hear – “He preached so beautifully. His vision of the Gospel was so rich. I felt God’s love through his presence. How could he betray me?” Or I may hear, “He’s such a courageous warrior for justice. His story is so compelling. And yet he is so manipulative. Why?” What is important here is that Wilber frames this conversation developmentally. Again, if we haven’t worked out our developmental growth (our shit, as I translated it earlier), we’re prone to engage in higher level, important conversations from a lower level of consciousness and self-awareness. And that’s when the damage is done.

Consider a church planter whose vision, personality and story were compelling. I knew him as someone who seemed moderately self-aware. And yet, a year into his plant, his egocentricity began to show in technicolor. As the Seventh Day Adventist church they rented swelled to overflowing in time, so did his ego. You wouldn’t see it on Sunday mornings or during a visit over coffee. But it came out in cruel emotional abuse of his wife, condescension toward his mostly-volunteer staff, and inordinate spending of their limited budget. Confronted with these things, a healthy pastor would lean toward curiosity and humility. But he reacted in rage. For so many in the congregation who would be told the church plant was being shut down by the governing body above it, there was confusion. Some said that they’d never heard the love of Jesus preached more clearly, more powerfully.

Consider the young social justice warrior who appeared to be the only one speaking for a marginalized group. Seemingly brave in social media spaces and in his local contexts, he argued in ways that made you think, “If I’m not with him, I must be a terrible human being.” His pleas for justice appealed to God’s compassion and mercy, and he knew his Bible well. And yet, those closest to him, even trusted allies, began to wonder about his integrity. He’d lie, engage in manipulative self-pity, and make up stories of pain to raise money for the cause. When he was found out, he’d go ‘scorched earth’ on his previous community, leave town, and start again. Those he left behind, especially the marginalized group he befriended, wondered how he could so quickly abandon them.

Sometimes people mistake narcissism as an inordinate focus on the self. In fact, narcissism is seen in people who lack any self-awareness. The (false) self they inflict on the world is not a self they know or are aware of. In our early, pre-conventional developmental states, we simply act, without awareness, and often from a guttural urge or when blended with some tribal consciousness. In other words, we speak and act unaware. As the myth of Narcissus shows us, Narcissus was not connected with his (true) self, but an image beyond himself, ever-illusive, uncontrollable, and ultimately enslaving.

In 25 years of ministry (with two stints as a “Pastor of Spiritual Formation” in Reformed contexts), what I see so often in pastors is a profound lack of healthy self-awareness, what many throughout the centuries have called “knowledge of self.” Calvin’s doctrine of double-knowledge may not have been sophisticated psychologically, but it bears the honest self-reflection of his theological mentor, St. Augustine, whose Confessions represent to us an early example of pastoral wisdom. As my counseling professor in seminary might say, “Learn to tell your story well…and honestly.” Honest self-examination allowed 19th century London preacher Charles Spurgeon to confess to his congregants that he couldn’t preach as often as he’d like because of his depression. Honest self-examination led pastor Richard Baxter (author of The Reformed Pastor) to write a tome called The Mischiefs of Self-Ignorance and the Benefits of Self-Acquaintance. Or the 17th c. Presbyterian clergyman John Flavel to write in Keeping the Heart, “There are some men and women who have lived forty or fifty years in the world and have had scarcely one hour’s discourse with their hearts all the while.”

Enlightenment, as it turns out, isn’t about getting it. Perhaps, in the end it’s about not getting it. I see many pastors who can turn a phrase, cast a vision, or please a crowd. I’m looking for women and men who are humble, who follow in the way of a suffering servant. Today, we need disciples of Jesus, women and men who go on a journey of self-knowledge which, paradoxically, is a journey of self-denial, because who would not want to cast off their egocentric self to become truly human?

A quick story to end this piece…

When I was in Orlando, a student who most didn’t think had promise made his way from Orlando to Montana (I’m changing some details here, of course), to take a small, frustrating congregation. It was the only job he could get. He packed his family of five into their beat-up Ford Windstar and headed Northwest, hopeful to find some extra income to supplement the pittance he was offered. By day, he pastored. By night, he packaged eggs in a factory. He buried, he married, he baptized. And five years later, when several legends of the seminary were dealing with charges of adultery or pornography or theft, he was still pastoring. And ten years later, when his peers had left ministry to sell insurance, when the star of his class had to resign in disgrace, he was still preaching, and teaching, and baptizing, and packaging eggs.

He’s still there. Loving and leading, baptizing and burying, laughing and crying with his beautiful and broken people.

Eugene Peterson calls this a long obedience in the same direction. He stumbled in Greek class. He couldn’t keep up when we’d engage fast-paced, heated theological debates. And, he’s not at all concerned about social media, which kind of ticks me off…because to make my point, I’d like to link you to his church. But, that would be self-serving, of course – a monument to egocentricity, the ministerial idol of our age, the developmental roadblock which both confuses and terrorizes. I swim in these dangerous waters too. Lord, have mercy.

Noverim me. Noverim te. 

Those are the words of Augustine.

Let me know myself. Let me know you.

Let it be.