Healing is not the same as… confrontation

A lot of survivors of sexual abuse feel they need to confront someone about it. Face down the perpetrator and tell him (usually him) – tell him what? That what he did was wrong. That it was hurtful and did substantial harm.

I imagine it’s amazingly empowering to do that. Even though the response may be further denial and anger. To hold one’s own against such responses is a big deal. And confrontation can provide a chance for remorse and repair of the relationship — I guess that would be everyone’s dream, that the perpetrator would have an opportunity to open and soften, to repent. And the survivor would be able to let go in a new way, seeing and feeling the new responsiveness in the other.

I didn’t have that chance, since my father was dead before I remembered what he did. But my mother was still alive. When she received the diagnosis of colon cancer that we knew was a death-sentence, I had to decide whether to confront her tacit collusion or let it be. I chose to let it be. It felt like a combination of cowardice and wisdom. The cowardice... of course I imagined she’d deny it all over again or minimize it: “What are you talking about? How could you accuse him of such a thing? He loved you.” or “Oh, he was just being a man.” or “But it didn’t really do you any harm — see, you grew up fine.”

The wisdom part... my therapist asked me, “What would you hope to gain?” In my dream, I said then, my mother would acknowledge the fact of the abuse. She’d acknowledge the hurt of it. She’d comfort me and apologize. She’d act like a protective, warm mother.

How likely was that? Knowing her, she might have been able to acknowledge the fact, but what would have followed would not have been comfort for me—it would have been her overwhelming guilt and shame. She was too scared to be protective as I was growing up. She never had been warm—too scared for that, too. So it wasn’t in the cards that I’d receive what the wounded child inside me so keenly desired — the lost love and protection of a good mother.

... and as I say this, it’s not with bitterness. She did her best, the best of a woman who was timid by nature and brought up to hardship and limitation. She loved me the absolute best she could and manifested that love in gifts and praise.

So I did not confront my mother. I still can’t tell you if that was the right decision, but it did make something clear to me: Healing is not the same as confrontation. The movement that needed to happen was inside me, not out there in the world. I had to soften towards my self, acknowledge that the hurt would always be a part of me, find comfort and love inside my own psyche. In a strange, paradoxical movement, my inner confrontation released me to freedom and joy.