Dawn Eden is the author of My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints and the 2006 best-seller The Thrill of the Chaste. A victim of childhood sexual abuse, the Catholic convert tells of how getting to know saints who suffered abuse of various kinds has helped in her journey toward healing.
In an interview with Fathers for Good, Eden speaks from experience about the kinds of things parents need to be on the lookout for to protect their children from this modern-day scourge.
Fathers for Good: In your book, you interweave stories from your own past and stories of saints who have suffered abuse. What role have the saints played in your healing?
Dawn Eden: In 2010, four years after I had become a Catholic, I picked up a book called Modern Saints by Ann Ball, and that’s where I discovered the story of Blessed Laura Vicuña. Ann Ball describes Blessed Laura, as many people do, as another Maria Goretti. Certainly her story is very similar in that she died while still quite young, in the early 20th century. And she died following being brutalized by a man who sought to sexually victimize her. But in reading Blessed Laura’s story, I noticed a difference in that while Maria was brought up in a devout Catholic home so that the abuse she suffered was truly an intrusion upon her sheltered life, Blessed Laura lived with an abuser for three years. She was abused by her mother’s lover.
And this was very similar to my own experiences as a child. After my mother’s divorce, I was raised by my mother; I was made to live in what was a sexually porous environment where I was not protected from adult nudity, from pornography, from graphic sex talk, and where I too was molested by one of my mother’s boyfriends. I should add that my mother does not remember everything as I do, and she has since expressed deep regret for those hurtful things that she does remember. But my memories are my own, and the effects of the trauma remain.
That is why I was especially touched by Laura’s story. Whereas Maria Goretti, on her deathbed, heroically, forgave her abuser, Laura did something additional that was particularly meaningful for me because besides forgiving her abuser, she forgave her mother, who enabled the abuse. She actually offered her life for her mother’s conversion. When I read that, I broke down crying because I realized how relevant it was for me, as I was still needing to forgive my mother for not protecting me. Then I thought if Laura’s story was so healing for me, imagine how it would be for others.
FFG: What are some factors that put children at risk for sexual abuse in their own homes?
Eden: Statistics show that if a child is living in a household where the father is not present and where there is a man in the household who is not the child’s father, that child is 33 times more likely to suffer sexual abuse than in a household where the father is present. I should add that it’s not only men who abuse; it’s women too, sadly, and this is something that causes children, particularly boys, a great deal of pain, because of the societal prejudices that say that if a girl is abused by a man it’s abuse, but if a boy is abused by a woman it’s initiation.
FFG: Does divorce put a child at greater risk?
Eden: The safest place for a child to grow up is in an intact family. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible for abuse to occur there, but it’s far less likely than in a family that’s hit by divorce.
FFG: How did your family situation contribute to the problem?
Eden: My father deeply grieves over my having suffered abuse in my mother’s home. He said that if he were informed about it he would have protected me, and I believe that. And at the same time, my father was so put off by my mother after the divorce that when I would spend time with him on the weekends, he wouldn’t ask me what went on in my mother’s house. He wouldn’t ask me, “Do your mother’s boyfriends sleep over?” or anything like that. I think those are relevant questions for a father to ask. When I would speak about sexual topics with my dad, and say things that were inappropriate for someone of my young age to know, my father wouldn’t say, “Where did you learn that? Who told you these things?” He was just blind to it. So I think it’s very important for parents to notice the signs, that if a child is doing something that is sexually inappropriate, that this may mean that the child is being abused.
FFG: What advice would you have for parents?
Eden: Before you allow your child to visit any neighbor’s home, make sure you yourself have been inside that home, that you’ve been in the bathrooms, that you’ve seen that there isn’t pornography or other items lying around that might be harmful to the child. Make sure you know the people you leave the child with very well.
Also, talk to your child about abuse. The parents are the first educators of their children, so you need to tell your child that their body is their own, that it deserves to be treated with dignity and reverence, and that if anyone is seeking to play “doctor” with them or is trying to touch them in a way that their parents don’t touch them, then the child needs to have the strength to resist. And if the child doesn’t have the strength to resist, tell the child that he can always come to you to tell you what happened — that he or she needs to come to you, that the child must never keep any secrets from you.
And if the child does come to you, while naturally you’re going to be angry about what was done to your child, it’s very important that your first response not be a response that the child might think is anger directed toward him or her. Because if the child has the slightest idea that you are angry at him or her for being abused, that you think he let himself be abused, then that can severely wound the child and it can also prevent the child from telling you if he or she is violated in the future.
Learn more about Dawn Eden’s book My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints.