by Christina Enevoldsen & Bethany
Bethany: A few months ago, I got word from a family member that my paternal grandmother was found unconscious in the middle of the night and rushed to the hospital. She had suffered a brain hemorrhage and was on a ventilator as her heart rate began to slow. The doctors weren’t optimistic that anything could be done.
I didn’t know her well. I spent a summer visiting my father’s parents when I was ten but the rest of my relationship with them was quick phone calls throughout my childhood. As my grandma got older, she began to forget who I was, so our relationship dwindled in my teens.
Years ago, my dad told me that both of his parents had sexually abused him. When he was eight years old, they took him into their bedroom and taught him to have sex with his mother while my grandfather watched. What they did to him made me sick and angry with my grandparents.
My dad learned this sick addiction from them. The repercussions of their choices affected more than just their victim; it affected his victims as well. Because of them, my dad sexually abused me for the length of my childhood.
Every time I heard of one of my grandparent’s health scares, I hoped that they would die. I wanted them to finally rot in hell for what they did. When I first heard about Grandma being on her deathbed, I was thrilled that another child molester would be gone. I kept thinking, “Hahaha! One down. Just a few more to go!” Then she finally passed away and I was glad. I thought my mom would feel the same way.
Christina: In my twenty-one years of marriage to Bethany’s dad, I had a good relationship with his mother. The woman I knew was kind, gentle, generous, funny and hard-working. But I also knew another side to her. Early in our marriage, my ex-husband told me about the sexual abuse he endured for most of his childhood.
At the time, I thought of his abuse the same way I thought of my own sexual abuse by my father. I figured it was something that happened a long time ago and I tried to forget about it. With both my dad and mother-in-law, I reasoned that since they were nice people, they must be sorry. It seemed to make life easier to think about their better qualities instead of the horrible things that they did to their own children.
Over the years of my healing, I began to view abusers much differently. Healing required me to confront the truth. Before, I thought sexual abuse happened the same way hurtful words sometimes slip from my mouth. I never mean to cause any harm but when I do, I feel awful about it and take responsibility. But sexual abuse is never a “slip”. Through my new lens of truth, I saw that sexual abusers plan and scheme, seducing their victims to submit and to keep their secret. Not only do they blame their victims, but through their words and actions, they convince their victims to accept the blame. Child molesters are particularly interested in self-preservation and willingly sacrifice the child’s physical and emotional health to protect themselves. They are not “nice” people who simply do bad things.
If my mother-in-law was sorry for what she did, she never owned up to her abuse nor apologized for it. When she learned of Bethany’s abuse by her son, she never showed any concern for Bethany’s wellbeing. Even though she was abused herself, that didn’t change the fact that she destroyed her son’s life and nearly destroyed her granddaughter’s life. Being a victim of abuse doesn’t make someone a perpetrator, so her history is no excuse. Even though she had good qualities, they don’t cancel out the abuse.
I had an idea of what my reaction to her death would be. I thought I would see things rationally and logically with a little emotion (the “right” emotion) mixed in. In my mind, I would look on her death with a kind of satisfaction, knowing that she wouldn’t be hurting anyone else. I expected to feel relief that the Ruck Family had one less abuser in it. I thought I would feel detached from her death, as though she was a stranger.
Bethany was the one who told me Grandma Ruck had finally passed away. A wave of grief hit me in my chest. I was sad that her chance at life was over. I was glad that her suffering didn’t last long. She would be missed—not by me, but by her family—and I was sorry for them.
My grief was interrupted by the elation in Bethany’s voice and I wanted to get away from her celebratory mood. I understood her feelings, and acknowledged to myself how healthy they were, but I needed space to process my feelings.
Bethany: To me, this was a victory and I wanted everyone to celebrate with me, so I felt confused that my mom could feel sad about this horrible person dying.
Christina: I was confused by my reaction too. It certainly wasn’t what I expected. I was unsure if my compassion came from my old unhealthy belief system or if it was a result of my healing. Maybe I could feel compassion because abusers don’t feel like a threat to me anymore. Maybe working through all the fear and anger and pain allowed me to see more than just an abuser in my ex-mother-in-law.
My years of childhood abuse groomed me to identify more with abusers than I did with myself. I cared more about protecting them, taking care of them, guarding their feelings, much more than I did my own. Were my emotions an effect of my abuse? I was afraid that feeling bad for this dead woman was an indication that I was being sucked back into the abusive system that I’d worked so hard to escape. It felt like a betrayal of my daughter and of me and all victims.
Bethany: The next day I began to feel sadness—a sadness for the life that could have been. I couldn’t help but think that this sexual perpetrator was once a young, sweet, innocent girl, who was probably abused herself. I found myself asking, “Why did she have to choose that path? Why did she have to cause so much pain?”
Christina: My feelings alternated the next day too. I read on Facebook what other family members felt about her and it felt so unjust that they were praising her. I wanted to scream the horrible things she’d done and tell them what kind of a woman she really was. I hated that a person like her would be honored.
Bethany: My cousins’ responses to our grandma’s medical condition irked me, “Grandma was a wonderful person and I’m happy that she will be with Jesus soon. I pray she transitions peacefully.”
I was disgusted! I wanted them to realize that the grandma they knew as “wonderful” was actually a vile child molester. I was so angry that she would be remembered as a good person when her actions led to my childhood being ripped away from me.
Over the next week, I felt a flurry of emotions—sometimes alternating feelings came in little waves and other times they all came at once. It was confusing to feel both hatred and mercy for someone at the same time.
I had played out the scenario of her death in my head for years so I could process those emotions. What I imagined was both relief and indifference. My actual reactions involved a larger depth of emotion and that scared me.
The hardest part was feeling like I wasn’t supposed to have certain emotions. I shouldn’t be happy that someone died, but I shouldn’t feel compassion for an abuser. I wanted to be somewhere in the middle. Before I could get there, I had to feel both extreme emotions and not one way or the other.
Over the course of this emotional journey I began to recognize the emotional extremes as part of the process. Instead of being alarmed by how polarized my feelings were, I started to see them as indications of my process. There were many facets to my relationship with my grandmother, therefore, there would be a variety of emotions to go with them.
Christina: One of the ways I’ve grown in the past few years is in acknowledging and expressing my emotions. After so many years of being emotionally shut down because of my abuse, it was a luxury to feel even one emotion. Earlier in my healing, it never occurred to me that I could have two emotions at the same time, much less conflicting ones. As my feelings gradually blossomed, whenever I’d experience two seemingly opposing emotions, I’d go round and round, trying to sort them out so I could eliminate one and officially own only one of them.
Now I’m comfortable feeling a variety of emotions at the same time and I can accept them and express them without acting on them. The range of emotions didn’t bother me, but the softness I felt for a sexual predator did.
In my struggle to find the answers to this compassion question, I was forgetting that my healing isn’t about what happens outside of me. In typical abuse survival style, I was focusing too much attention on the abuser instead of on myself. Now I’m content knowing that even if I do have compassion for abusers, it’s how I feel about myself that is the most important. Even I if I discover some unhealthy motives for showing abusers compassion, I’m solid in compassion for myself and I’ll never act outside of that. I’ll never choose to protect an abuser over protecting me or anyone else. I’ll never think an abuser’s feelings are more important than mine. I may not be finished with this process, but I’m providing myself a safe place to work through it.
Now that you’ve heard our experiences and thoughts about this, we’d love to hear yours. Please comment below and don’t forget to subscribe to the comments so you can continue to partake in the discussion.
I’m Christina Enevoldsen and I’m the cofounder of Overcoming Sexual Abuse and the author of The Rescued Soul: The Writing Journey for the Healing of Incest and Family Betrayal. I’m a Strategic Interventionist and Certified Professional Life Coach with a specialty Life Story Certification. As a survivor of incest, sex trafficking and a 21-year long abusive marriage (now remarried to an emotionally healthy, loving and supportive man), I bring personal experience, empathy, and insight as well as professional training to help childhood sexual abuse survivors thrive.
Bethany, along with her mother, Christina Enevoldsen, is the cofounder of Overcoming Sexual Abuse, an online resource for male and female abuse survivors looking for practical answers and tools for healing. Besides helping abuse survivors see the beauty within themselves, she enhances the beauty of others as a professional make-up artist and has worked in television, film and print. She lives in Los Angeles.