Behold, I Stand at the Door
Trigger warning: Sexual assault.
When we think of the needs of sexual assault survivors, medical care, both physical and mental, is typically the first thing that comes to mind. Such care is undeniably important, but there is another form of care that is all too easily overlooked: spiritual care.
During my sophomore year, a fellow Swattie sexually assaulted me, and he left me feeling spurned and abandoned by God. Through his actions, he set in motion my hardest spiritual crisis to date.
It is common for victims to begin asking “why?” in the wake of trauma. This question had a particular urgency for me as someone who grew up in a religion that taught me everything had a purpose. Was this mindless suffering part of God’s plan? How could it be? What God could be so cruel as to demand such pain from God’s own child?
In the aftermath of my assault, as I struggled to understand what had happened to me, the only explanation I found was that God must be punishing me. Although I was rather inexperienced at the time, I had made out with a number of boys, and I had been increasingly curious about sex.
When the “feelings” came back after the assault, I saw in them the confirmation of my “punishment hypothesis.” I was so innately depraved, I reasoned, so drawn to sin, that God had to destroy the temptation in my heart. The fact that even a soul-crushing encounter with the dark side of human desire was not enough to turn me away was just proof of how perverse and beyond rescuing I must be.
It was when I came across an article in the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) last May that I realized just how wounded my outlook was, and how deeply hurt I had been spiritually. Asked whether being at a religious, specifically Catholic, institution made it harder to open up about experiences of sexual violation, a brave Notre Dame alumna, Shea Streeter, said “yes.” She explained, “When there’s no language for yes, there’s no language for no.” I burst into tears upon reading those words because Streeter had articulated what I had been feeling for the past two years. How could I begin to talk about what happened to me when the Church in which I was raised would have considered these acts wrong in themselves, even if I had consented to them? I struggled to do so much as name them; just speaking those words felt too shameful.
Shortly after my assault, I was asked if I had been raped. I said “no” because what I thought of as “sex” had not occurred. I was told I should feel lucky that I was spared that experience, and indeed, I share the asker’s relief. Truly, my heart goes out to those people who have had to endure and process that specific ordeal. Beyond the obvious trauma, I know about the value sometimes invested in perceived sexual “purity,” particularly that of women and girls, and the stigma attached to “impurity,” especially in certain religious circles. I know how much a notion like “virginity” can complicate a survivor’s healing.
Yet, no matter how hard I tried to tell myself that I was “lucky” or how I labeled my own experience, I still felt a terrible sense of loss. I felt like my innocence had been shattered and something precious taken from me. I kept telling myself that “it wasn’t even real rape” and “it wasn’t a big deal,” but my body and mind wouldn’t let it go. I had panic attacks every time I so much as saw my assailant’s shadow on our tiny campus. I had restless fighting dreams every night. Everything was a trigger; I felt like I had so much fear that I was bound to drown in it. Even after those more apparent symptoms of trauma began to subside, my spirit wouldn’t let it go.
Where was God, I wondered, when I kept saying “no” over and over again, but my assailant just kept going? Where was God when I left my body and watched from above, paralyzed and terrified, as this person I thought liked me hurt me? How could anyone pretend that this God cared about me?
The very practice of faith made me angry. After all, my assailant, like me, was very involved in campus religious life. The way he passed for a model Christian and Swattie infuriated me, especially after I talked to several women with stories like mine. I learned the hard way that a person’s professed religious identity could offer no guarantee of that person’s values.
I did not think I had a right to turn people who knew both of us against him and did not know where to get the spiritual support and counseling I so desperately needed. The one person to whom I tried expressing my distress told me they could not believe me. I felt abandoned and betrayed by God all over again.
As my perpetrator and I started taking turns attending religious events, and the tension between us became more apparent, we were both urged to talk it out, forgive each other, and essentially, stop “disrupting” the religious community. I did not understand why I was made to feel guilty for another person’s actions. I thought God was on the side of justice and fought alongside the weak, but was it really so? How could God still love him? How could others stand by him? I found Christianity suffocating; I felt like I was pounding on the door of the Church, but no one wanted to hear me knock.
Over time, with prayer, help, and support, my anger has started giving way to forgiveness. Even as I struggled to forgive my assailant, I realized that I had been forgiving those people whose actions and reactions compounded my hurt. I came to accept that forgiveness is a process, not a one time thing I should hurry to check off my list. More concretely, I have had a hard time praying the Our Father because of the line “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” so I have been saying the prayer for another survivor who shares my difficulties, and she does the same for me.
I am slowly finding peace and healing. I now see that God never actually left me, even if it felt that way. Faith is still a struggle for me, but it has started looking up since I accepted two radical truths: (1) It’s hard and will probably keep being hard, but (2) I need God and the Church in my life.
On one hand, I feel like my particular religious background led me to an idealized vision of sex and did not give me the tools I needed to understand the realities of sex, coercion, and the difference between the two. On the other hand, however much I drag my feet, I always feel inexplicably, overwhelmingly at home at church. Nothing compares to the strength and grace I receive from the body of Christ, both as a sacrament and as a community. No matter how much I fight with God, even if I stop going to church or talking to God for a while, I keep coming back. Of course, I understand that it is not the case for everyone, but I feel deeply that the Church is where I am meant to be, even when I am at a loss to say why. If nothing else, I hope my persistence can serve as a reminder to myself and others that perfection belongs only to God, and it’s okay to struggle through faith.
I am sharing my story because I want other religious victims or survivors of sexual assault to know they are not alone. I am speaking up because I want Christians who think that there are no rapists in their midst or that sexual violence is an issue that only affects certain kinds of people to realize how different the truth looks. I am breaking the silence because I want clergy members and religious advisors to see that there are people out there with a tremendous need for healing and to recognize they have a role to play in that process. If Christian communities truly want to be the body of Christ, we must care for our hurting members. If we are not reaching out to religious victims of sexual assault, who will?
Over the past few months, I have been talking to a number of victims/survivors of sexual assault who were raised in religious traditions sometimes quite similar to and sometimes rather different from mine. I have heard similarly heartbreaking stories over and over again. Of course, our experiences vary. Some people decide it’s best for them to leave faith communities in which there just does not seem to be a place for them. Some stay and struggle, often quietly. Some have told me that their faith is stronger after assault than it ever was before. These experiences all warrant respect. I do not pretend to speak on behalf of anyone else here, but I am carrying quite a few people and their stories within me. I hope that my words will honor them, their pain, and their strength.
If you are a victim/survivor of sexual assault, whatever your challenges, I promise there is hope. If you are religious, and faith is one of the pieces of your former self to which you are struggling to hold on, you are not alone. Please know that there are others on and off campus, myself included, who are suffering and healing with you.
Quitterie Gounot ’13 is spending a year studying philosophy and law in Paris, and feels blessed for this opportunity to live closer to her family and learn more about French life. She is thankful to her friends and fellow advocates who inspire her to speak up.
campus, church, college, faith, forgiveness, God, healing, hope, justice, love, Notre Dame University, religion, sex, sexual assault, suffering, Swarthmore College