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.

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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).