Facing the pain of abuse part 1

It was last summer that I noticed something about my participation in courses and conferences for those abused by faulty religion. It was the fact that, unlike almost all my fellow attendees, I have never had to endure the experience of being abused and humiliated by religious leaders. That seemed to be the experience of everyone else, and it was particularly striking last summer in Washington DC. Participation in the conference almost seemed to require a story of pain, heartbreak and long slow recovery from an abusive situation in the past. Attendance at the conference was indeed, for many, part of this long process of returning to psychological health. Having pointed out this fact that, apart from facing parishioners who believed that they had all the answers to what they thought was wrong with my church, I am largely free of the pain that Chris and many others refer to in their experience of church. Any reader who wants to know more about why I choose to involve myself in this whole area, should consult the pages at the beginning of this blog. They may get some idea how I came to be in this place of wanting to help those who suffer pain because of religious abuse.

There is an argument for believing that I could be more effective in assisting others, who have gone through times of cultic or religious abuse, if I had suffered something similar. But there is also a strong case for saying that my freedom from this particular kind of emotional pain allows me to be clear eyed about the problem. As the followers of my posts will witness, I do understand a bit about the dynamics of religious groups which gives me some insights into these problems. Sufferers of religious or cultic abuse sometimes prefer to hear, not ‘I feel your pain’, but a more detached analysis of how person A. manipulated and plotted to take over a group in order to extract emotional and financial benefit for himself. (It is normally a him!) This objective comprehension of the dynamics of abuse will help some to rise up, even if only temporarily, above the emotional pain and take back a certain level of control. They now understand better why they feel in the way they do. It is my claim that new insight into a problem of a painful nature in your past will normally assist you to deal with it better. Sometimes it even helps to see the perpetrator of some evil against you as themselves a victim. What they did still hurts terribly years later but the insight that can be gained as to why they found it ‘necessary’ to damage others, will ease a little of the emotional pain felt now.

Blog followers will know that I am following closely the events taking place in Brentwood where an abusive church is being pressured to face up to its past. The former leader, Michael Reid, who was sacked (at massive expense) by the Trustees in 2008, continues to haunt the church, partly because no one wants to look back at the appalling history of his abuse. Ostensibly he was removed for an illicit sexual liaison with a church member but there is much more abuse hidden in the church’s history. My interest in the church is partly because I visited it during my research into abusive churches in the 1990s, but also the blog, that is run by one Nigel Davies, continues to throw up fascinating material both from current as well as former members. In my retirement, I cannot access case studies as rich as this for my interest in religious abuse, so this blog and its evolving story grips my attention. I find myself able from time to time able to offer comments and interpretation on-line. One thing that intrigues me, in particular, is that, to all appearances, Michael Reid seems to fulfil all the criteria for being a prototypical narcissistic charismatic leader. Lest this sound as though I am trying to level at Michael Reid an insult of maximum impact, let me say at once that this description from psychoanalytic language is as much about the damage probably done to him at an early age. In other words although the description of ‘narcissist’ sounds like an accusation, it is also a description of someone who may have had much evil visited on them first. Further the fact that a particular narcissist has been allowed to wreak horrendous damage on others, is a criticism of the culture that tolerates this kind of grandiose behaviour, as though it were acceptable. Churches, especially in the States, seem to love the larger-than life personalities that emerge within the charismatic evangelical world, but these places, where these personalities are allowed to lead and run amok, are ones best shut down. So to repeat, the prototypical narcissist like Michael Reid is often a victim of faulty rearing, so that, in adulthood, such an individual has a massive ‘deficit’ of self-esteem. He works hard to experience the self-esteem once denied to him as a child and consequently other people are ruthlessly manipulated to achieve an emotional ‘high’ which may fill a yawning emptiness within him. The literature suggests that, along the way, the narcissist has become less than empathetic to the needs of other people, because his need to be constantly affirmed is massive. Other people are ruthlessly exploited as the targets of his power games. The narcissist may dominate them or demand their slavish adoration, and these behaviours are both stock in trade for the narcissist. It is in noticing this dynamic that can offer an insight into the dysfunction and problems that pervade so many cult-like churches.

The pain of becoming subject to a malign narcissist can be terrible and life-long. The two aspects of the relationship that I have mentioned, demanding from people slavish adoration or subjecting them to abject humiliation, are both incredibly damaging. I realise from my word count that I need to bring this post to a close for now and leave further comments on the subject of the pain of victims for another time. But today I ask my reader to consider the damage that religious leaders can and do create in their followers. There is of course more to be said and I will return to the topic of the pain of abuse in another blog.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

16 thoughts on “Facing the pain of abuse part 1

    1. While this does help us to understand how “they” can be so abusive, there are also many people who have suffered abuse who have not become abusers. It has helped me to realize that the leaders of CJ were themselves people in need of therapy. However, it has also helped me to realize that for myself, because I have suffered abuse for so long does not mean I will be an abuser. On the contrary, I am training to be a helper to others who have been abused. My pain urges me to help others who are also in pain. So while we can understand and forgive, they still need to be accountable for their choices.

  1. That is a gloomy thought. Perhaps that is why so many of the ‘survivors’ at my conferences were training to be psychotherapists so that they could treat themselves first before treating others! Reading over my post I realise I should have emphasised that the attempt to fill up the emptiness (deficits) of a childhood marked by failure to receive enough attention for building self-esteem, is doomed to fail. The narcissist has an appetite or thirst for attention and power that is insatiable. This is what makes them so dangerous. They are truly addicted people and to that extent one should pity them. But it is hard to do so when they have so little insight into their problem and also do so much damage to other people.

  2. What I think needs to be emphasised is this; the sort of abuse that I and others experienced leaves one with idols and ritualistic thought patterns that are seemingly impossible to break free of.

    To explain this (To try) is very hard. Lets start with the word ‘God’
    This reduces things back to the simplest base level. I will try to explain.
    The reason such a word tyrannizes my mind is locked into my experience of working under a ‘Born Again Christian’ carrier psychopath for 14 long gruelling years. During the seventies and eighties if you had a job and were unskilled you would cower under any regime to keep it.
    The person I refer to was the deputy manager of a large care home who used the power of that position to create misery and absolute control. Not only did this wicked person wear their faith on their sleeve but also claimed to be carrying out the will of ‘God’?
    I was still trying to struggle with my educational problems at the time and my mind was fragile to say the very least.

    Fourteen years of cowering under this person’s agonizing demonstrative rule, led to a breakdown, and the thought rituals described above, are with me to this day!

    From a pure logic point of view I can see that this had nothing to do with the teaching of Christ however, keeping that conclusion in your brain is seemingly impossible amid the schizophrenic ghosting.

    So much more to say on this. We are in the infancy of uncovering this can of worms. The lone voice of Stephen Parsons cries out to indifference, that if God be true, then, HE is screaming in the silence.

  3. Chris, you are talking about a further stage of abuse which is known by the experts as ‘thought-reform’. It is a stage beyond the emotionally bullying which I am trying to describe which is the normal stock-in-trade of a narcissistic leader. You are describe a true cultic setting where the leader wants to change thinking processes for the long term. It is much more dangerous than the phenomena that I describe because it seems that the leaders involved actually believe the stuff they spout, rather than using it to obtain power in the shortish term. . My own reading has focused on the emotional manipulation end of things and I am a bit less clear how we are to understand, let alone deal with, the hard mental manipulation that you describe. My model says that it is bad news indeed but that is not much help to anyone suffering from it. At least your story draws our attention to what happens when individuals, for reasons of their own, mess up the reasoning processes of others in pursuit of some abusive ideology. It is on a par with what happens to citizens of North Korea.

    1. Straight from the shoulder, Stephen. What exactly is the difference between this kind of manipulation, as practised by the Moonies, and the JWs, and what the CofE tries to do to ordinands? The breaking of your spirit and then remaking you. It’s the arrogance of assuming that you, the tutor (not you Stephen), know exactly how to remake someone whose self respect you have systematically destroyed during three years of training. The same method is used on novices in religious orders. I have seen ordinand after ordinand come out of their final interview in floods of tears (do these people get off on making people cry?) saying that they feel wholly unsuited to any kind of ministry at all. It’s vile. But it is something the church takes pride in and says is essential. I, personally, would simply never believe I was qualified to rebuild someone. And I could never bring myself to utterly destroy them first.

      1. All I can say E.A. is that this was not my experience in being trained 45 years ago. I did not have an easy time in my curacies but that was due to the personalities of individuals rather that the ‘system’. Things may have changed but I have no personal experience of this. My limited experience of the younger clergy is that they have bags of confidence. My complaint, if I have one, is that there appears to be a somewhat ‘unionised’ approach to what the clergy do and don’t do. I remember many days lasting from 7 in the morning till 10 at night with minimal time for breaks. So E.A. I have to pass on this question of what the C of E does to ordinands. My focus has tended to be outside the C of E. That was where all my original stories in Ungodly Fear came from back in the 90s.

    2. Over time, the emotional bullying has the same effect as what is described by Chris. Many charismatic, bullying leaders do believe the stuff they are spouting and years of being under that does change your mental state. They have to believe it in order to use it truly effectively. This is why 30+ years after MR started there are still people who would take him back in a minute. From what I have seen, and from the women I have worked with, anytime you put yourself under someone as narcissistic as MR, there is going to be deep, long-lasting, psychological damage. I spent many years in therapy rebuilding my thought processes, my personal identity, my ability to make a decision and detect what is truth and what is not. It helps to have an understanding of how it all works, how people are drawn in, and what keeps us there. I am thankful that you, at least, Stephen, are shinning the light on the truth of the issue. In the states, there are many, in the UK, not so much.

      1. Thanks Gail. I have to confess that by making a distinction between emotional exploitation and ‘thought reform’, I may be making a totally artificial distinction. It is just that one can conceive of the emotionally battered victims of a narcissistic bully like MR and the zombies who worship the ground he walks on in two different categories. Chris’ experience is of course of both. To be bullied by a leader and have your ‘head messed up’ will take some recovering from. How any therapist deals with both aspects together, I have no idea. Would you consider writing a guest blog post of the stages of therapy when all these things are carried by an individual. ‘ I spent many years in therapy rebuilding my thought processes, my personal identity, my ability to make a decision and detect what is truth and what is not. ‘ If you could unpack something of what is involved in this process, it might be helpful for our modest number of readers. Even if not many people are reading here at present, there may may be an increasing number who find this blog in the future. The problems are not going away soon.

    3. Absolutely yes. I read Robert J. Lifton’s book on the “brain-washing” that the Chinese did to their prisoners. “AThought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism”. I would have sworn he was talking about The Community of Jesus where I was a memeber. It is possible to heal, but the way we were taught to think digs deep grooves in the brain, and it takes time and a lot of reassurance from others to retrain yourself to think rationally, realistically, and without the paranoia. That they were (alledgedly) speaking for God adds a whole other dimension of control that is hard to fight against, and takes a while to heal from. I have had to start from scratch – Is there a God? and if so, what is God like? What is my relationship to God? What meaning does God have for my life? Is God really something outside of myself, or just a figment of my imagination in order to make sense out of the craziness of life? All questions that have to be thought through. What I thought was Christianity turns out to not be it at all, so what is christianity? There are so many denominations and traditions. What gives with all that? Needless to say, it’s an ongoing adventure.

  4. Hello, Stephen and thank you for another thought provoking post. It is true that there are times when it is more helpful to hear from someone who can take the extreme pain and abuse and present it in a sympathetic, yet non emotional, way as you have done. It does help to see MR as someone with NPD, as you and I have discussed before. There is a need to have a clear headed, clinical view presented to the survivor of spiritual abuse at some point in the journey of healing and that point is different for each person. Of course, there is also the need to hear from the fellow Christian who has come out of it, found healing, and can say “I know your pain”. There is healing in having someone hurt and cry with you.
    I realize that MR must have been subjected to a less than ideal upbringing as I don’t believe people are born with a personality disorder. That being said, I know of many in my work with survivors who have been diagnosed with various personality disorders who did not go on to become abusers themselves. I take issue with those who would use this dx as an excuse for bad behavior instead of a contributing cause (I’m not intimating that you do this at all!).
    In the end, we are all responsible for our own actions, regardless of what drives us. Without God performing a miracle, MR will never see or understand the devastation he caused to hundreds of people or the pain so many carry to this day. Thankfully, we serve a God of miracles, so I will keep hoping, though not holding my breath.

  5. Thank Gail for your comments. I suppose the reason why I push out the aspect of ‘clinical understanding’ rather than empathetic identification is to do with the medium with which I engage with abuse victims. Even on the telephone it is hard to ‘weep with those who weep’ and the next best thing is this ‘clinical’ insight approach. The second fact is that until recently there are relatively few people who are engaging with this material on narcissism and charisma etc, so while finding genuinely skilled empathetic people is not impossible, the insights that I am trying to share are reasonably rare. I only know of two or three Christian psychotherapists who are engaging with this sort of material so my own studies do become important in the scheme of things. Both the emotional support and the intellectual insight are going to be part of overall the process of healing. You are completely right about that. In the absence of face to face encounters with sufferers, I will stick with the latter.

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