Five women sat solemnly in a circle. They looked at their feet or fiddled with their purses. Tension flowed throughout the room. This was the first night of group counseling. Ruth, a professional counselor and minister, confidently entered with a smile. "I'm glad you're here. Each one of you possesses tremendous courage!" This group was special to Ruth. Each person attended five months of individual counseling prior to this gathering. Convincing the women to attend group counseling proved difficult. Their atomic-powered secret still overshadowed their chaotic lives. Humiliation. Fear. Anger. Guilt. Self-condemnation. With this group, Ruth would rely heavily on person-centered and humanistic paradigms.
Ruth gave the usual spill concerning confidentiality and group rules. She looked at Karen and asked, "Would you start by giving your first name and the reason you're here?" Karen, the most outspoken member of the group forcefully replied, "My name is Karen and I'm tired of my stupid life!" Louise spoke next, "I'm Louise and I'm here because I'm depressed." "I'm Kathy and I'm here for support." "I'm Elizabeth and I'm here because Ruth suggested it." "I'm Tammy and I don't want to be here." Ruth knew the first night would make or break the group. All members were voluntary. Ruth gently commented, "The real reason you're here is because you are incest survivors. You're here to share, to cry, to tell the truth, to heal, to pray, and to take power over your secrets and your lives." Tension fled the room like air escaping from an overblown balloon.
Karen, the first person to make direct eye contact exclaimed, "I thought I was a freak. I didn't know incest happened in other religious homes and churches." A few heads nodded. Eyes moistened. Karen continued, "The sexual abuse was not my fault and it was not your fault. I gave the blame to my stepfather." Louise despondently remarked, "My father is dead but I feel guilty for still hating him. I want to learn to forgive him. My insides feel like Jell-O." Elizabeth cautiously joined the conversation, "I confronted my father and he denied it. He called me a liar and said if I told the family I would be ostracized!" Tears streamed down her face. Kathy passed the box of tissues to her. Their gaze of understanding met and held. Pregnant glances with unsaid words. Ruth smiled to herself. The group showed signs of bonding already. One member, Tammy sat in silence and sulked. Two hours later, Ruth ended the group with prayer and a therapeutic homework assignment.
Tears visited the next several sessions. Elizabeth informed the group her father was the pastor of a large church. "I'm going to tell my mom what he did to me!" Elizabeth attempted suicide several times in the past. Kathy, the caretaker of the group, encouraged her to tell the truth. Kathy's father, a Sunday school teacher, admitted to fondling Kathy and her sisters during childhood. "My father confessed his sins to us and to the church. Our relationship is improving but I still don't like fatherly hugs and I'm uncomfortable around other men." Kathy shivered. Ruth remarked, "Your feelings are common to incest survivors. Many survivors dislike sexual intimacy. You will learn that God created sex and it can be pleasurable."
Karen shared her story. During childhood, her mother's boyfriend, an alcoholic, raped her on Saturday nights and attended church on Sunday mornings. "I prayed every night but God didn't make him stop!" Karen sobbed for several minutes. "I'm tired of the terrible nightmares!" Kathy looked directly at Karen. "It wasn't your fault or God's fault! God will punish him for what he did to you!" As an adult, Karen decided not to confront her perpetrator or to tell her mother. "Every person heals in their own way," Ruth explained. Many of the group members decided to confront their perpetrators but none wanted to become involved in the legal system.
Louise begins to speak, "My dad was a church deacon but he was cold and cruel. When mom died, he made me his surrogate wife. I cooked, cleaned, and shared his bed. I wished he would die so many times!" Louise grew up in a strict legalistic church. Her labile moods reminded the group of a roller-coaster ride at an amusement park.
Tammy remained silent. Her frozen tears would not melt. Poetry therapy written by other survivors did not penetrate her wounded soul. Ruth ended the group with encouraging words.
The next group meeting focused on inner childhood healing. Tammy cracked. Her hard shell broke apart and rage gushed out. "My brother forced me to have sex! When I told my parents, he stopped but it was never talked about again." Tammy cried hysterically. "My parents are the pillars of the community, but they live a lie." Tammy became sexually active after the abuse and she was now a single mother with two children. She smoked marijuana to deaden her pain. She dressed her girls in fancy dresses and drove them to her parent's church every Sunday. Kathy remarked, "You're a brave person." Tammy smiled half-heartedly.
Elizabeth shared the results of the confrontation with her mother. She learned her father was fired from several churches for inappropriate touching of teenage girls. "I am so relieved! I finally feel hope again." The women clapped. After the group, the women celebrated with pie and coffee at the local diner. Laughter visited their table.
During the next meeting, Ruth read the Bible story about the rape of Tamar by her half-brother, Amnon in the book of Samuel. King David, the father of Tamar, Amnon, and Absalom, hid the secret of incest. Eventually, Absalom took revenge and commanded his servants to kill his brother Amnon then he tried to kill his father, David. Ruth commented, "The Bible says Tamara dwelt, a desolate woman, in her brother Absalom's house. The unconfessed crime of incest grows until the entire family is infected." Ruth gazed at the woman in the circle with great compassion. "I feel ruined and dirty just like Tamar," Louise revealed. "What man would want to marry me?" Louise pointed to her obese body. Ruth explained that many survivors subconsciously gain weight as a protective mechanism to avoid romantic relationships.
Karen asked for prayer. "I believe in God but I don't trust him," she sadly commented. Ruth explained how incest survivors confuse their earthly fathers with their heavenly Father. The time was ripe for therapeutic change. Ruth gave the women a list of books to read about recovery.
Forgiveness was the topic for the next group meeting. "How could these men do such horrible things to us?" Karen asked. It was a hard pill to swallow. Teaching this group to forgive for their own sanity and serenity would be difficult. She knew conversation on forgiveness would produce gut-wrenching pain.
The next five months brought about many changes. Tammy met a new man and stopped attending the group. She left her daughters with her parents and moved to Florida with her boyfriend. Elizabeth's father resigned from his church and moved out of state and she started a support group at her church for incest survivors. Kathy was dating again. Karen and her husband renewed their wedding vows. Louise gained more weight and began abusing alcohol. She refused a referral to a psychiatrist for an assessment for antidepressant medication.
The day arrived for the last session of group therapy. Joy and sorrow mingled together. The group functioned as a safe haven, but it was time to move on. The memories did not go away but psyches began the process of healing. The women shared their personal journeys to spiritual, emotional, and physical wholeness. "I'm glad to be alive, both inside and outside," Elizabeth uttered. "Louise tell the group your plans," Ruth coaxed. "I'm going to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital. I'm still crazy." Louise laughed but it rang with a hollow sound. "I'm here for you when you get out," Kathy promised. Ruth replied, "Healing takes time. It's a process not an instantaneous event." The group members exchanged phone numbers and smiles.
After the women left, Ruth went into her office to meditate. She thanked God for her healing from incest and for her counseling ministry to survivors. Ruth filled out more paperwork. Five new incest survivors would start the group next week.
Melissa writes about the God and human connection and condition.