Facing the pain of abuse part 2

In my last post, I found that, in my enthusiasm for explaining the dynamics of narcissism, I was taking up too many words for me to describe very much about the pain of religious abuse. This post is to take the discussion on a further stage. The easiest way to start to explain a bit more about what people tell me about the experience of abuse in a religious context, is for us to imagine this scenario. The experience I want us to imagine is that of a child who has parents who constantly humiliate her and never let her stand on her own two feet with words of encouragement and support. From a rational point of view, the right decision might be for that child simply to walk away from the source of harm and find another environment in which to which to try and flourish. In practice, as we all know, this is not possible, because children are biologically and psychologically bound to the individuals who brought them into the world. The bonds that hold children to parents are in fact so strong that they continue inside us all even after the parents have died. When Winnicott said that ‘there is no such thing as a baby’, he was talking about these decisive invisible cords that that tie us, willingly or not, to other people. While most of us eventually physically leave our parents to live a different kind of life within marriage, the ‘ghost’ of both parents continues to live inside us as long as we live.

This enmeshment with others, in this case our parents, is a point of vulnerability for every individual. When the process of bonding with parents has, in fact, been ‘good-enough’, it can help direct us to pursue other relationships of a wholesome and sustaining kind throughout our lives. Nevertheless the tie with our parents is rarely completed without leaving some ragged painful edges. A particular period of vulnerability is the young person going off to college or leaving home in their late teens. One part in him revels in the new independence but another part misses the emotional support that home had provided. As many parents know, the entire teenage period can be a fraught rehearsal for this time of independence and the process is seldom experienced without some pain on both sides. A typical young person living away from home for the first time will oscillate between self-congratulation on being ‘grown-up’ and a sense of home-sickness and feeling abandoned.

It is no coincidence that recruitment to cults and extreme religious groups typically takes place among young people in their late teens and early twenties. I am sure that I have drawn attention to the fact that recruitment to these groups may have a lot to do with the way that this age-group is coping with their sense of bereavement and loss at leaving home. The new group offers to them a sense of family, of belonging and above the opportunity of ‘adopting’ a new parent in the person of a religious leader. It is my observation that countless young people are attracted to religious groups because they have the opportunity to be re-parented by an apparently benign father-figure in the form of the religious leader. There is nothing remotely unusual or even unhealthy about this dynamic in itself. The dynamic, however, can become extremely unhealthy if the leader, himself exploits the relationship or simply has no insight into what can go wrong. We all know about the phenomena of ‘groupies’ who surround pop-stars and are frequently exploited by them. Similar dynamics can be observed in many religious groups, particularly where the leader possesses facets of narcissism which I described in the last post. While sexual exploitation of religious followers may be rare, the dangers of linking young adults who are developmentally vulnerable with narcissistically inclined leaders, is a dangerous mix.

The dynamic that holds a young person in thrall to a religious group, whether a church or a cult, will not normally create emotional distress as long as the young person remains in the group. The biggest danger is that, while they are in the group, the process of emotional development involved in growing up is put on hold. By reverting to the safety of the family unit through the group, the typical cult member will not be working through the emotional task of separating from their family of origin which is part of the preparation for adult independence. Most however eventually emerge from the group and continue with the task of growing up. The worst that can be said of such individuals is that their process of maturity was delayed. Thus they survive unscathed and take their place as mature adults after their period of emotionally ‘treading water’ within some group or other.

A minority of young people are deeply damaged by their passage through a religious group. Some never emerge properly. Their need for attachment has become permanently focused on the leader or guru and his teaching, so that they cannot imagine life without this prop. At an emotional level they have remained a child, totally dependent on the ‘parent’. When this happens, the process of disentangling from these kinds of bonds is never achieved without enormous amounts of pain and emotional distress. The group has created in the follower a dependency on itself every bit as lethal as an addiction to hard drugs. The literature on drugs offers an explanation of the way that dependency is never just physical but it extends to the brain so that addiction is psychological, emotional and mental.

The ‘survivors’ of cultic groups are sometimes deeply distressed damaged people. Their desire to trust others and to attach themselves to an ideal has been ruthlessly taken advantage of or exploited in some way. It would not be untrue to see that religion generally appeals to the child part of our personalities. We could never understand Jesus’ words about faith and trust unless we had learnt these qualities as children. But it is these same ‘child-like’ qualities that are also the key to our vulnerability and open us up to be being exploited in a variety of ways. Those who do in fact exploit this child part of their followers are power abusers of the worst kind. They should remember the words of Jesus about taking advantage of children and the way that millstones were used to place such abusers into the depths of the sea.

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.

10 thoughts on “Facing the pain of abuse part 2

  1. The most common damage that I have seen first hand among those who have left the “church” I was raised in, is something closely akin to what you are describing when you speak of the exploitation of the child like part of the soul. I wrote somewhere else, that it is like poisoning someone and them instilling in them a fear of the antidote that is so powerful that they die as they sit and hold the cure in their hands. Ultimate healing comes through the balm of the Holy Spirit within relationship with Jesus Christ. When people are abused in His name, the path to true healing is contaminated because we have been rendered incapable of trusting it. The betrayal was not sanctioned or carried out by God, but because it was done falsely in His name, it is difficult for those so wounded to open up to Him again. The road back is not a quick or easy one, but it is one well worth the fight.

    1. Chris, I am please my comment resonated with you. It is a subject that I am passionate about, having experienced this devastation in my own life personally. I have been out of the cult for close to 15 years now, but there are times I still discovered very foundational beliefs I hold that are twisted just enough to cause me problems in my walk with God. I am reminded of a concept I learned when I learned to sew. If you are just a little bit off line when you begin to cut your fabric, by the time you are at the end of your cut, that tiny bit off has taken you way off the line. So it is the same here. They teach a biblical “truth” that is twisted just a little bit, then over time, with the addition of life experiences thrown in, you end up so far off the mark that actual truth is nowhere to be seen. By that time you are so brainwashed to believe you cannot trust your own heart and brain, you are not capable of understanding just how far off the mark you have really ended up. In my case, I was convinced that God could never actually love me. He had created me as a “vessel of dishonor”, a point of which I was often reminded. All hope was stripped away and life shrank down to include nothing but the church and the people in it. With no outside contact, all healthy perspective was removed. Abuse became normal because there were no healthy relationships to compare it with. When you have never known warmth, how can you really even understand that you are cold?

      You asked in another comment if I wanted to email. I’m sure you understand my need to remain anonymous for now, but if you would like to correspond through Stephen, if he is willing, then I am more than willing to do that.

      God bless,

  2. Thanks Gail, What you have said resonates with me. I am in constant correspondence with four other people who have had similar experiences. We support each other through times of crisis. I hope to one day to find a location where we can meet up for a weekend, because at present we live far away from each other.

    Peace, Chris

  3. The language of abuse resonates with those who have been bullied in if I may say this, a lesser way. Bullying is unbelievably common, in and out of the church. And it changes your life. Because it is so common, many people think it’s “normal”. I mentioned one incident to a Cathedral canon of my acquaintance. He replied, “That’s nothing, you should have heard the way my first Archdeacon used to talk to me when I was a new curate”. !!!! So that makes it alright then?!!! I was on a committee once where there was one individual who was rude and unpleasant beyond belief. One after another, every one of the other people who had been at that meeting sidled into my office to apologise. Later on, the chair, who had not been there, took me aside and said, “I don’t want you to take it personally. There’s not a single one of us that hasn’t been spoken to in exactly the same way.” Well, what can I say? Why didn’t they put a stop to it? I know of an incumbent who was allowed to get away with getting rid of a long serving Reader, the reason being gender issues. I happened to know a few people in that parish, and I said much the same thing to two Church wardens on different occasions. “When they came for the Jews I said nothing . . .” Both looked sheepish, one apologised to me. Neither found it had stiffened their spine. The same man has since got rid of another Reader, and at least one retired cleric. No-one has done anything.

  4. Thanks E A. What a tragedy that these people (snobs?) infect the place where the vulnerable and needy seek help.
    I am still, even after all these years surprised and sickened by their smug faced confidence.
    The victims fall to that place where “A thousand fears that visions face is grained”*

    Gail. Yes I am more than happy to communicate through Stephen.

    Peace, Chris

    *Wilfred Owen: ‘Strange Meeting’

    1. EA, bullying is indeed a serious problem in church as in any institution. I would, however, want to distinguish between a bullying that is an aspect of particular personalities and an institutionally sanctioned abuse which is a product of a theology or ideology. Obviously some bullies will gravitate to these churches or cults where bullying and power abuse are somehow sanctioned. The sanctioning of bullying in ‘the name of God’ or the Bible is the target of this blog much more because it is faulty thinking and so should be challenged as bad theology and leading to unbelievably wicked behaviour. Arbitrary power games by clergy with no particular theological agenda happen but have to be dealt with differently. I found myself far more exercised by people doing bad things in the way of abuse, while claiming it is God’s will. That as Gail points out is an assault on the soul. Thus it is serious because it undermines the possibility of faith. Bullying Vicars are part of my life too, but I did not see them as taking away my faith. The other, worse, sort of abuse might be described as ‘soul murder’. People who commit this are the people who need millstones around their neck. The others are common a garden sinners like the rest of us.

  5. Hmm. Not sure I agree. I’m riding my own hobby horse here, obviously. But what is done to people within the church, by people who work for the church, and who are permitted to carry on doing it by the church. Well, surely not so very different in kind from the kind of institutional set up you describe? I do know what you mean. A church that is basically set up with the express purpose of abusing people has to be different. Well, yes, to a point. Apartheid in South Africa was a great evil because it was enshrined in law. In this country that was never so. But we still had a great deal of prejudice. We still have the phenomenon of people not integrating and living in ghettos of their “own sort”. Not that different in effect. And still evil. And still needs to be addressed.

  6. All of this is very well put and to the point. Becasue I believed what they taught me about absolute obedience I learned to not trust my own inner compass. I was always wrong. I did not know myself. They knew me better than I knew myself, etc. etc. I have had four years now of being on my own. It has been a struggle at every new decision to learn to trust myself. and that if I did make a mistake it was not a catastrophe. buying a car was an example. I was in a quandry and put it off for months because I was so afraid of making a wrong choice. I ended up buying the first car I looked at and it was the right choice. I love it and it was a very good deal. Who knew I could make a good choice? 🙂

  7. Great to have you aboard Carrie. There is a dark hollow place that we the victims share. No easy road. If God is real and if He is Love, then we have hope.
    Peace & Love, Chris Pitts

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