Saturday, June 5, 2010

Internal Desecration

I’ve been looking at some of the earlier work of Carrie Doehring, a professor of pastoral counseling at the Iliff School of Theology. In her 1993 book, Internal Desecration, she explored the relationship between experiences of childhood and adolescent abuse, and the way women as adults consciously describe God.

The major finding of her work is that there is a strong correlation between severe childhood trauma and the way women perceive God in adulthood. Perceptions of God become significantly different when traumatization is severe. (p. 130)

Doehring’s research involved women who answered an extensive questionnaire in which they described experiences of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and witnessing domestic violence in childhood and adolescence -- i.e., before the age of 18. The degree of traumatization was scored based on such factors as the nature, frequency and impact of the abuse. The scoring system also included as a factor the surrounding support or lack of support for the victim.

The study quantitatively scaled the women’s childhood experiences into four categories: no trauma, trauma, high trauma, and severe trauma. Then it correlated those experiences with the women’s conscious descriptions of God.

Those who had experienced “trauma” and even “high trauma” did not show significant disturbance in their God-perceptions. However, those who had experienced “severe trauma” scored significantly lower on representations of God as loving, and they scored significantly higher on representations of God as wrathful or absent. (pp. 88, 130)

Repeated abuse over a prolonged period of time is abuse characterized as resulting in severe trauma. (p. 131)

Doehring’s work is dense, but well-worth sharing. It is quantified academic research that confirms what many of us have experienced first-hand and know intuitively -- the abuse and its aftermath forever altered our relationship to God.

I’ve already shared with you the conclusion of Doehring’s work. Now let me share with you some excerpts from her analysis.

“This quantitative study demonstrates how the life event of repeated, prolonged abuse resulting in severe traumatization is inter-related with one’s projected God representations…. Prolonged, repeated abuse… may (1) distort internal representations of self, perpetrator, others and the anthropocentric God representations formed out of these; (2) create projections and interfere in relations with others and with God; (3) create systems of meaning that destroy faith, confirm hopelessness and despair, and enhance negative God representations, making it very difficult to have a relationship with a divine being.” (pp. 130-31)

“When traumatic stressors comprise a single event, then post-traumatic stress disorder may be described as simple . . . If those who are traumatized are able to draw upon internal resources (available in the personality which pre-existed the traumatic event), if they are at a developmental level that gives them the most resources, and if they are part of a supportive community then they may be able to actively work on feelings, thoughts, internal representations and sensations present in flashbacks and nightmares and other experiences when traumatization intrudes. In this way, the experience of traumatization is worked through, instead of dammed up and frozen.” (p. 111)

“When individuals are repeatedly exposed to traumatic stressors, then post-traumatic stress disorder becomes more complex. The more the traumatic stressors are part of a system of totalitarian control over a prolonged period of time, the more the personality changes, with alterations in affect regulation and consciousness; alterations in internal representations of one’s self and the perpetrator; and alterations in systems of meaning. These alterations profoundly affect relations with others. Included in such personality changes may be alterations in God representations…, faith systems of meaning and one’s relationship with God and the community of faith.” (pp. 111-12)

“Representations of God as absent or wrathful are deeply disturbing and even those who were highly traumatized can effectively keep such representations repressed. Those who were severely traumatized cannot . . . .” (p. 113)

“Women who were severely traumatized may experience more continuous and less sporadic breaches in the repression barrier, such that disturbing images of God… are not an occasional part of their religious experience, but rather a more ongoing part of their religious experience.” (pp. 113-14)

“How can we explain the finding that there is a correlation between severity of traumatization and loving, absent and wrathful God representations, but that loving, absent and wrathful God representations are not significantly different until traumatization is severe? … Loving God representations remain an unshakable structure until there is severe traumatization. One way to understand this is through the metaphor of an earthquake. We might suppose that one’s God representations are like structures that can withstand mild and moderate earthquakes, but when an earthquake is severe enough, then these structures begin, not simply to crack, but to topple.” (p. 114-15)

“It could be that when trauma is too severe, either with too many traumatic experiences or too many abusers, such a system collapses. In other words, such a means of coping is no longer available when traumatization exceeds a certain degree. . . . The women in this study, when traumatized and even highly traumatized, can preserve or remake their experience of God as loving. . . . When childhood violence becomes catastrophic, it is not possible for women to preserve a narrative of God as wholly loving.” (pp. 120-21)

“To identify God with the violence may undermine the very foundations of the self, and one’s basic sense of trust in the world, both at an individual level and a cultural level. . . . Such memories cannot be pieced together into a narrative of a loving, benevolent God.” (p. 121)

“The church’s silence on childhood abuse has meant that traumatization was compounded by the church’s neglect of those who were abused. When the church is silent, then it is more likely to be associated with the experience of an absent, condemning, distant and wrathful God. When the community of faith is silent, it stands with the perpetrator. . . .” (p. 138)

In Doehring’s research, the strong correlation between severe trauma and an altered God-perception held true regardless of who the abuser was. When the abuser is a member of the clergy -- i.e., someone for whom the connection to God is very direct in the child’s mind -- it must surely become even more likely that the person’s view of God will be reshaped.

So Survivors . . . if you’re one of those for whom the “God-thing” just doesn’t work . . . if you’re one of those who cringe when someone says “God loves you” . . . if you’re one of those who would rather run from faith then turn to faith . . . at least know this: You’re normal.


The Good Tale said...
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Christa Brown said...

Sorry Val... this isn't the right blog for evangelizing.

the teacher's pets said...

Thank goodness I am normal! Ha! Ha! I never thought of myself as normal for a long, long time and I always felt quite different than others because of the trauma I've been through but I believe my experiences shaped me into what I am today!
I love all of your information and if I ever get a moment to relax (ha-ha) I will look into purchasing the book you referred to in this post.

the teacher's pets said...

Oh my gosh, Christa! Your response to Val's sermonette was hilarious and to the point! You are my hero of the day! You go, girl!

Anonymous said...

Just want to thank you for your blog. I've learned a lot from it. I grew up in an Independent Baptist Church, so I do know how they think, operate, etc. So many familiar names on your blog from my childhood!!

I was never abused by anyone, but my problem was I was a very serious child and took all that I was taught VERY seriously-more seriously than my parents. Just another way that fundamentalism causes harm to children, who then wrestle with it all their whole adult life.

Thank you so much for speaking out and showing real compassion toward abuse victims by taking them and their hurt seriously.

Unknown said...

Amazes me how some people think all we need is the right person to "evagelize" us to make it all better - and they're the right person.

Anonymous said...

I think people have been led to believe that applying the Bible to your life in the correct manner (theirs)is what's needed and fixes everything.

I didn't find the Bible to be sufficient for every problem Life is WAY more complex and complicated.