Messy Faith,  Personal and Spiritual Ramblings

What the Larry Nassar trial can teach us about effects of spiritual abuse

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{Warning, this post contains brief but graphic depiction of sexual abuse. Proceed with caution.}

As a semi-avid follower of the sport of gymnastics for the last few years, it has been impossible for me to avoid being touched by the heartache of the Larry Nassar case. For those of you who know nothing of which I speak, I will explain the nutshell version:

Larry Nassar was a world-renown physician associated with both Michigan State University and the USA Gymnastics national team. In 2016, an exposé was released in the Indy Star recounting how USA Gymnastics had been ignoring accusations of Nassar’s sexually abusing gymnasts over the course of his entire career under the guise of “medical treatment.” At the end of 2016, Nassar was indicted on child pornography charges. Formal charges and investigations into the sexual assault claims began over the course of 2017. Over that year, more and more victims came forward.

It all “ended” last month with a sentencing hearing for Nassar who pled guilty to nine counts of sexual assault. As part of his plea deal, the judge opened her court so that any victims who were not included in the official counts of assault could share their story and address their abuser in open court. The reading of these victim statements lasted over a week, with the final number of “victims” (who fittingly prefer to refer to themselves as “survivors”) rising to over 250. 

Last year, as more and more victims came forward and included “big name” olympians such as Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney, and Simone Biles – I carried around a bit of skepticism toward the claims.

I did not doubt that this guy was a dirtbag. But it just seemed a bit suspect to me that everyone started coming forward now when the media attention was abounding.

It only took spending a few hours watching the first day of the reading of victim statements to completely change my tune.

Woman after woman – ranging from gymnasts, soccer players, volleyball players, and more – and also ranging the entirety of Nassar’s career came forth reading statements depicting the identical “procedure” – in which he inserted non-gloved fingers into their intimate orifices while blocking their parent’s view to “fix” all sorts of muscular “injuries.”

It wasn’t just one group of well-known-by-the-media gymnasts who had a collaborated story. It was accurate recounting of victim after victim who described the identical details over and over and over.

I was so shaken and distraught over what I saw and heard that my husband and I decided I not watch any more of the victim statements (which lasted another week).

One thing that was common in several of the victim statements was that they had a good relationship with Nassar, and it wasn’t until the news came out when the really realized to the depth that they had been abused. Many were embarrassed and hurt by what had happened, but as pre-pubescent or pubescent teen girls who were trying to do anything to succeed in their careers, brushed off their discomfort as abnormal. Those who DID realize something was very wrong and reported it were dismissed by their coaches and not believed. After all, what did these teens really know about medical procedures?

What these victims and their parents reported over and over was how their trust was so deeply violated. After all, even parents who desperately try to protect their kids from sexual abuse normally tell their kids, “No one can touch you there, except doctors.” We also know that there ARE medical procedures that involve the reproductive organs and are uncomfortable.

Such was NOT the case with Nassar’s “treatments.” Rather, he used legitimate medical problems to insert himself into the lives of naive young girls and defile them – many of them with their parents in the room with them – telling them that this was the only way for them to succeed as an athlete.

A few days ago, this article popped up in my Facebook feed: Larry Nassar’s attorney doesn’t believe all accusers were abused

Shocked, I clicked through, wondering how anyone who had even listened to ONE day of victim statements could come away unchanged and unbelieving. This is what his lawyer had to say:

Over the course of the 16-month scandal, the number of accusers has swelled from two to 265, with some saying they were in denial that they had been molested until they heard other women describe what Nassar had done to them.

In the interview, Smith seized on that.

“There were girls who had perfectly normal lives that never questioned the medical treatment done by Larry Nassar — and there is a legitimate medical treatment that involves touching sensitive areas and even penetrations,” she said.

“Some of those girls, to be quite frank, they didn’t even know what to think because they never felt victimized. He was never inappropriate to them. And because of everything they’ve seen, they just feel like they must have been victimized. And I think that’s really unfortunate.”

I get what she was saying, as many of the women recounted where they were standing when the news came over the radio or they saw the newspaper and realized that they, too, were a victim.

But just because someone is ignorant of abuse does not mean that the abuse was any less legitimate. 

That ignorance also gives the victim another layer of pain to work through. Not just “I was abused…” but also, “How did I not realize I was being abused?” 

These statements by Shannon Smith have been tumbling around in my head for the last few days. Until this afternoon, I wasn’t sure why they effected me so deeply.

But now, I irealize, that there is a STRONG parallel here to those who experience spiritual abuse, especially at a young age.

What the Larry Nassar trial can teach us about the lingering effects of spiritual abuse | But just because someone is ignorant of abuse does not mean that the abuse was any less legitimate.  That ignorance also gives the victim another layer of pain to work through. Not just "I was abused..." but also, "How did I not realize I was being abused?" 
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When I first began writing in 2013 about my experiences with the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement, I really went on the attack about ideas that I have come to since believe are harmful because they twist and taint how people view God.

It wasn’t until 2014 after reading several books and blogs where others shared their story of spiritual abuse of varying degrees that I really came face to face with the toll that spiritual abuse had taken on my psyche.

Ultimately, it got worse before it got better.

I remember that I had to stop part-way through reading the book “I Fired God”  because I felt so nauseated I was afraid I would vomit. This book (which is not perfect in all of its conclusions but I still recommend for those who came out of the BJU / PCC camps), more than any I have read, mirrored a lot of my own experiences and brought to mind things I hadn’t thought of in years.

So many of the girls at the Nassar trial talked about the toxic environment that propagated the abuse. How they were overworked, emotionally and physically humiliated in training, pushed to train so hard to the point of injury, and how they were then sent to Nassar who  was kind, tender, and “put them back together” in his own sick way. They trusted him because he felt like a friend when their coaches were the ones depriving them of food, telling them they were fat, and screaming at them to continue when they were injured.

I can attest to how gut-wrenching it can be. I realized how humiliated and torn down I had been and how I had lived most of my life in a chronic state of panic that I thought was completely “normal.” This only made me vulnerable to abuse by those who were strong and charismatic, those I idolized because I thought they were different. Then the sucker punch to the gut when I realized that those were the ones who took advantage of me the most.

I also empathized with the parents – some of whom were right there in the room when the abuse was happening. Others who had sent their daughters to camps, training environments, and meets – totally oblivious to the pain their kids were in because the kids were too terrified or downright embarrassed to talk about it. It wasn’t their fault. They were doing a good thing; they didn’t realize how toxic the environment was. They trusted a national organization like USA Gymnastics to do right by their precious kids – just as so many good Christian parents send their kids to Christian schools, purity balls, churches, camps, and more. Those things can be good. I personally owe my intense grounding in Scripture to this environment. I also owe my intense issues with guilt, shame, perfectionism, and anxiety to this environment.

I am going to be discussing this in an upcoming post, but I especially think that kids with pre-existing OCD or perfectionistic tendencies can end up being more damaged by toxic, performance-based environments than other kids might be. Sometimes, it’s hard to watch elite gymnastics for this reason (especially knowing what I know now about how many of these girls were abused). I relate to them so much: the desire for perfection. Their willingness to work for it. The accolades that come with it. And just how dangerous it can all be.

I am in AWE of what they can do and I love to watch it. But so many times I’ve wanted to grab them and say, “You are worth more than this – you don’t have to try so hard.” I imagine that these were the girls who stayed quiet the longest and yet may have been the ones most deeply impacted by the painful realizations they experienced a decade later.

I so related to a few of the women who were now mothers. After realizing in their 30’s that they had been abused as a teenager, they were filled with panic and anxiety about how to protect their own daughters. This anxiety was so crippling that it disrupted their sleep – some, their entire lives.

I remember that it was especially challenging for me to be confronting spiritual abuse that happened to me as a kid or teenager while trying to parent a kid who was incredibly challenging. There were times I was afraid to take him to church or sing Bible songs around him, because I was so afraid of doing it wrong and screwing him up for life.

I remember recently posting on Facebook about how I STILL struggle to wear blue and green eye shadow because of a message that my pastor preached from Proverbs 7 about how harlots painted their eyelids and mentioned eye shadow in passing. It stuck with me. My parents had no idea how far-reaching things like that were.

For every thing like the eye-shadow thing I’ve shared publicly, there are 10 more just like it that I haven’t shared. I’m constantly confronting abusive comments and situations as they come to my mind.

I was not sexually abused or molested. So I’m not going to dishonor these survivors by saying that my experiences are on the same level as theirs.

But I CAN personally attest to how it feels when you realize you have been abused and violated after the fact. When you realize that someone you trusted didn’t have your best interest at heart.

I can attest to how stupid and gullible it makes you feel for letting others push you around and assert power over you that was not theirs to take – because you didn’t know any better but to “submit” because that’s what good little Christian girls do.

I can attest to how hard it is to forgive yourself for not knowing, not seeing, not understanding what you were truly experiencing and just how wrong it really was.

So, a few years ago, I got really angry. Hurt. As I sought out more and more comfort from others who had been through the same thing, I found myself spiraling into an emotionally healthy place. I remember the day when I unfollowed all of the bloggers and put down the books because I had faced the abuse but knew I needed to move on.

(Which is what Judge Rosemarie Aquilina told woman after woman so beautifully time and time again.)

So again, I want to assert to Shannon Smith:

Ignorance isn’t always bliss. Just because someone is ignorant of abuse does not mean that the abuse was any less legitimate. 

I also want to reach out to those who might have wrestled (or may currently be wrestling) with the intense pain that comes with realizations of abuse after the fact and all of the emotional turmoil that comes with it:

Hope for those confronting past spiritual abuse:

You may never get “your day in court” like these women were so (painfully) blessed to have. You may never be able to confront your abuser(s) in person. But you can confront that it happened. Just because you didn’t know it was happening at the time doesn’t mean it wasn’t legitimate.

Healing takes time. There isn’t a set of steps I can give you to get through this. But you WILL get through this if you are gentle with yourself through the process.

Eventually, you will be able to talk about it. Eventually, your anxiety will decrease and not everything will be triggering to you. Eventually, you’ll be able to look back and not have the abuse color everything. You’ll be able to see the GOOD alongside the bad.

Eventually, you will be able to forgive. Not because that’s what a “good little Christian” does, but because you realize that there is freedom in releasing people from their debts – even without them apologizing or ever understanding the depths of your pain.

Eventually, it won’t hurt so bad.

Eventually, you won’t project your pain onto your kids or be hypervigilant in trying to prevent your kids from similar abuse.

Eventually, you will find a place where you are loved and cared for – just as you are, scars and all. Eventually you will be able to go to church and read the Bible and it will feel right.

You are strong.

You are brave.

And you are loved.

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