How God Heals Sexual Abuse: An Interview with Author Dawn Eden
Dawn Eden is a Catholic convert, author and speaker known for her work on sexuality and chastity. She is also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who seeks to share her healing process with others. Her second and most recent book, My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, was published by Ave Maria Press in 2012.
Ms. Eden recently finished writing a Catholic Edition of her first book, The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On, due in early 2015 from Ave Maria Press. She describes this new edition as a rewrite of the first text that she wrote during her conversion process in 2006, originally for a Protestant publisher and an interdenominational audience of single women. She says the new edition is aimed at Catholic men and women, offering a more comprehensive understanding of what it means to live chastely as an unmarried person in the heart of the Catholic Church.
She holds an S.T.L. in sacred theology from the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., and will be starting an S.T.D. doctoral program this fall at the University of St. Mary of the Lake. On July 8, I interviewed Ms. Eden by telephone about her new book and her own experience of healing from childhood sexual abuse. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
In the past eight years, since becoming Catholic and writing the first edition of The Thrill of the Chaste, what have you learned that you want to share with readers in this new edition?
At the time I wrote the first edition of The Thrill of the Chaste, I was writing as a single woman hoping for marriage, and I was writing it for other women because I was very new to chastity and had only just begun to see it as a viable option for me, and I didn’t feel I had the authority to speak to men’s experiences. After it came out, I was criticized for writing only to women, as some readers suggested that I was reinforcing the double-standard that only women and not men should be expected to live with self-control. That was certainly not my intention at all.
One of the advantages of rewriting The Thrill of the Chaste is that I now have several years of experience speaking to people about chastity, allowing me to revise the book to be relevant to the experience of both sexes. Obviously, my own perspective has also changed. When I started writing my second book two years ago, I began to feel the call to consecrated chastity, and in this new edition I write for both people hoping for marriage and for people who are discerning consecrated chastity. On my most recent birthday, I made a private promise consecrating my celibacy to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, in hope of being called by a diocesan bishop to formalize my consecration under a vow.
What does chastity mean to you and why is it important for ordinary people today?
If you simply think of chastity as meaning “don’t have sex,” or that as a married person you shouldn’t take pleasure in having sex, then you’ll probably have the negative impression that chastity is a downer. But that’s not an accurate understanding. The church calls all of us to chastity. For single people, it includes refraining from sex until marriage. For married people it includes engaging in sex, but it also includes being faithful and seeing your spouse as a person with his or her own needs, not as an object. But in neither case is that all there is to chastity.
My favorite definition comes from Paraic Maher, who says chastity means loving fully and completely according to the type of relationship and according to your state of life. So for me as a single woman, chastity means to love fully and completely as a friend, as a daughter, as a stranger, fulfilling Christ’s commandment of love. When you look at it that way, it becomes a challenge, an adventure that forces you to go beyond your comfort zone. For me, it includes not having sexual activity, and there’s no denying that it’s hard. But it also means that I have great respect not only for life, but for the act that generates life. And I respect it too much to make it simply an instrument for pleasure. For Catholics, part of the beauty and mystery of sex is that it represents Christ’s love for his church. Chastity means having great respect for the mystery of human love.
As a Catholic single woman, has your own experience of chastity evolved over the years?
As beautiful as chastity is in concept, we don’t live in an idealized world of Platonic forms, but in the real world where people have trouble living it out. So in both editions of this book, I talk about the agony of living chastely while being in the world but not of it. And I try to help readers be gentle with themselves. A sense of humor helps. I’m writing against a school of chastity literature that is humorless and tends to make perfect the enemy of the good. When we experience setbacks, they are a natural part of our growth as fallen creatures, and our job is to take them as lessons to help us move on to a higher level of virtue rather than to despair. In my writings, I want to translate church teachings for real people who live messy lives.
Do survivors of childhood sexual abuse experience chastity differently from others?
I would rephrase it to say that childhood sexual abuse survivors experience their bodies and their sexuality in a way different from others. At a time of life when they should have been treated with respect and protected, they were violated, and that experience of personal violation can cause people to mistrust their own bodies. The effects of the traumatic stress caused by the abuse can cause victims to feel a disconnect between mind and body. This can occur regardless of whether the abuse was committed by an adult or a peer. Sexual abuse causes different kinds of hormones to be released, both stress hormones and hormones released by sexual stimulation, for which children's bodies are unprepared. Studies are coming out now indicating that these hormonal reactions can have lasting toxic effects, leading to illness later in life. Moreover, just the violence of being violated by a trusted individual can harm a child's understanding of his or her identity.
Can chastity be a healing experience for survivors of childhood sexual abuse?
Yes, if it’s practiced the right way. Some survivors of childhood abuse practice abstinence rather than chastity. If one is simply avoiding sex, one is not being chaste. Chastity involves practicing love and loving others in a way that’s full-bodied and appropriate according to your relationship and state of life. So it’s very healing for people who have suffered abuse to learn to love in that full-bodied way. It’s not healthy if they’re just using chastity to avoid physical and emotional intimacy.
What are the biggest factors that have helped you heal from your own experiences of childhood sexual abuse?
I’ve gone through different stages of healing. A lot of the healing has come from immersing myself in the sacramental life of the Catholic Church—including the Mass, confession, spiritual direction and being around friends who pray for me and with me. I’ve learned that this healing takes place through God’s grace working in me over time. When hearing about abuse, we Catholics should be suspicious of anyone who promises a quick fix, because God meets us where we are and grace builds on nature.
Through Scripture and prayer, I’ve learned that God heals people gradually, just as the long desert experience of the Israelites was part of their salvation. The Catholic faith teaches us that there’s an end in sight and that this end is good. When I used to experience symptoms of PTSD stemming from my abuse, like flashbacks, anxiety, loneliness and tears, I didn’t see any good in it. But now those symptoms don’t make me feel hopeless, even though they are evil in themselves. They may make me uncomfortable, but they are no longer toxic. They can't really hurt me; they can only purify me. I can say that now because my faith has brought me to understand that my suffering is not meaningless, but has incalculable value in Christ.
In your second book, you mentioned how the saints can help people to heal from sexual abuse. What saints have helped you the most in your own healing process?
Blessed Laura Vicuña has helped me enormously. Laura lived with an abuser for years because when she was eight her mother became the live-in lover of an abusive rancher in the Andes Mountains. The rancher was grooming Laura to become his woman too, but her mother didn’t do anything to stop it. Her mother instead sent Laura to a Salesian boarding school, where she developed a great devotion to Jesus in the Eucharist, and on the advice of a priest made an offering of herself to God for her mother’s conversion. She caught pneumonia while rescuing some schoolmates from a flood, and then was further weakened from fighting off her abuser as he tried to kidnap her from her sickbed. She died when she was 12. The amazing thing is that she forgave both her mother and her abuser before she died. She forgave the mother who could have stopped the abuse but didn’t. I was crying when I read this story for the first time because it was a moment of personal conversion for me. Even though abuse occurs most often at the hands of a boy or man in a child's home where the father isn’t present, as when my mother’s boyfriend abused me, the biggest wound that the victim suffers is often not anger at the abuser. The biggest wound is often the hurt associated with the mother who could have stopped the abuse but didn’t. Blessed Laura's story is very helpful to abuse victims.
Your own experience of abuse came from your mother’s boyfriend?
Yes, but it wasn’t my first abuse. When I was five, I was molested by a janitor at the Reform Jewish temple my mom attended, so I can relate to the experience of Catholic abuse victims who were violated in a place of worship where they should have felt safe. My rabbi didn’t believe me and the abuser was allowed to remain in this place of worship that had a preschool attached to it.
Since Pope Francis met with clergy sexual abuse survivors at the Vatican earlier this week, he and many others have been calling for better accountability on the part of bishops. What is the most helpful form that this accountability might take?
I’m not an expert on the administrative fixes, but I’ve heard good things about a program called SafeNet in the Archdiocese of San Francisco and the Maria Goretti Network in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. The important thing is that they are victim-led support groups for healing done in conjunction with the local church. For bishops, the more you do to locate and encourage independent support networks for victims, the more victims will feel the church cares about them. When all of the efforts to help victims come from diocesan safe environment offices, victims get the impression that the church is just managing financial liability in a very top-down way. Outside of professional therapists, the best healers are the people themselves who have suffered. The two programs I mentioned allow the church to find help for victims without making victims feel like they’re under the control of the church, and so they answer the needs of both those who want to stay in the church and of those who do not.
Another good thing is that these victim-led outreaches are open to anyone who has suffered abuse, not just victims of clergy abuse, and that approach helps victims walk together in solidarity without feeling like they are alone. Although I don’t appreciate it when groups like the Catholic League try to minimize clerical abuse by talking about how other segments of society abuse people more than clergy, we need to recognize that the problem of abuse is exponentially larger than that which has been perpetrated by church representatives.
What do you say to people who tell you they have lost faith in the Catholic Church because of clergy sexual abuse?
I say that you should never put your faith in human beings. Your faith should be in God. It severely impairs the church’s witness when there’s not only abuse, but failure to be accountable for abuse. At the same time, we who have suffered need to be proactive about our own healing. Jesus is present in the sacraments, in Scripture, in the prayer and life of the church. Even if everyone in the church is sinful, Jesus assures us that he is still really present with us in our sufferings. With Peter, I say: “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” For victims, however much it may help you to distance yourself from the church in the short term, ultimately you’re not going to find healing in the rest of the world more than you will in the life of the church. No matter whose hands give us the Eucharist, those hands give us immediate contact with Jesus Christ, and that’s what matters.
What are some helpful ways Catholics might process negative feelings about clergy sexual abuse?
While I think it’s important to affirm the pain suffered by victims of clergy abuse, and to affirm the pain of family members and friends of victims who have suffered from the cover-ups, we need to remember that the bark of Peter holds saints as well as sinners. It may take one bad priest to send someone out of the church, but it only takes one good priest to bring someone back. I’ve been blessed to encounter a lot of good and holy priests in the church.
I think Pope Francis is showing us, through the things he’s said about abuse, how we might process our feelings. The pope is saying that the bishops who failed to act are not in union with the church in their hearts. They are rather idolaters, identifying themselves with a “sacrilegious cult.” The church and Jesus Christ are the same thing. We are the body and Christ is our head. If we’re going to have an authentic response to the abuse crisis, we need to realize that separating ourselves from the church isn’t going to solve everything, but that we need to look to ourselves to change things with the help of Jesus.
Why are you pursuing a doctorate in theology?
I’m pursuing a doctorate because a holy Jesuit who has since died told me to pursue it. Everything that Father Francis Canavan, S.J., told me would happen in my life if I followed the call to serve the church as a theology professor has come true. So I’m pursuing it as my vocation. I was originally planning to just get a master’s degree in theology and go into campus ministry, but when I sent Father Canavan my first paper, which was on St. Ignatius’s Suscipe prayer as a means of returning divine love, he told me I couldn’t stop at a master’s. I told him I didn’t have what it took to obtain a doctorate or to teach. I was 40 years old, I had been out of college for 20 years. But he told me that teaching theology was a true vocation that was needed for the church to thrive in coming generations. Before he died, he wore me down to the point where I promised him I would try to get a doctorate, and that made him very happy. Since then, my grades have gradually improved and I’ve developed a real love for learning. I have also developed a real desire to share this learning as a theology professor. God has miraculously provided financial help for me to study at times when I would have needed to quit. As long as God keeps up his end, I’ll do my best to keep up mine!
What do you want readers to take away from your writings?
I want people to know that Jesus, in winning the victory over sin, has won the victory over all the sins committed by us and against us. This is true for each one of us. The good news is that the evil we’ve suffered or that we’ve done in the past no longer needs to define us. We are defined by our union with Jesus in his passion, death and resurrection. The victory of Jesus on the cross frees us from all of the wrong or self-hating ideas we may have acquired from our abuse or from our mistreatment of ourselves.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a summer editorial intern at America.