June 2008


SUSAN GAMMAGE’S

BAHÁ’Í-INSPIRED LIFE COACHING BEST PRACTICES NEWSLETTER

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Healing Childhood Abuse


The following article originally appeared in “Parenting in the New World Order”, March 1993, and was published with the permission of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Canada. It is reprinted here with permission.

Note: This particular installment is a bit long because of its content. Print this out, find a nice comfortable chair, and learn how to heal from childhood abuse.

The following personal experience is explicit and may be triggering for some people. If you think this is you, please make sure you have some support when reading it.


Bahá’u’lláh’s version of a New World Order, with the family at the centre, as a nation in miniature was an exciting concept for me.

I understood instantly the importance of shaping such a unit, but being able to implement it is quite another thing.

I grew up in a middle class, professional family, in an environment of alcoholism, neglect and physical, emotional and sexual abuse. My father was an alcoholic but had a responsible position in a Western Canadian city. In his industry, he was highly renowned and respected for his integrity and high moral standards. At home, he was a very volatile, violent man, who beat his wife and children, sexually abused my brothers and I and took us on camping trips, which involved satanic cult activities including bestiality, murder, rape and cannibalism.

My mother also held senior positions in the companies she worked for. She was also extremely violent, sexually abusive and active in preparing me for participating in cult activities. I was terrified of both of them, all the time.

I was sent to religious private schools for my education and was sexually abused by the female teachers at two of the schools I attended. I was brought up in the . . . church and the Church of Satan simultaneously. It was very confusing because many of the same people were involved in both places.

I was also sexually abused by an uncle, a grandfather and the husband of one of our baby-sitters. In one way, I was fortunate because I grew up distrusting men and women equally. So now, as I heal, I can see the need for all of us to work together to overcome the effects of such oppression and abuse.

As is typical of people who have experiences such trauma, I developed many coping mechanisms which kept me alive through experiences which no adult could survive.

I’ve envied the martyrs in the Bahá’í Faith, whose torture was relatively short-lived and ended in death for something they believed in. The torture I endured lasted for seventeen years, but the effects have lingered another eighteen and will be with me for the rest of my life.

Rest assured in the protection of God. He will preserve His own children under all circumstances. Be ye not afraid nor be ye agitated. He holds the scepter of power in His hand, and like unto a hen He gathereth His chickens under His wings.

‘Abdul-Bahá, Star of the West, vol. 22, p. 248.

I was close to being killed at least three times – once in fact I had been bound and gagged and placed on a stone alter, “chosen” to be “fed to the fire.” I was only four years old, and had already been raped and violated by men and women many times. I was prepared to die. I was ready to die, but at the last minute, as the flames were getting closer, somebody came and I was thrown off and rolled away as the adults pretended they were picnicking and playing volleyball.

I married when I was eighteen, to a man who was thirty-seven; a man who brought his gun and knife collection into our bedroom. He never had to get angry with me – I always did what I thought he wanted. The guns and knives were a silent threat.

Having a family was always my dream. Having a marriage last was another I wanted more than anything else to be “normal”.

Several miracles occurred out of my experiences. When I was a child, I had a strong relationship with God, I prayed frequently – especially for the abuse to stop. When it didn’t, I stopped believing in God. God knows how I became a Bahá’í – I certainly don’t – but my son is now eight years old and I am raising him as a Bahá’í, and not in the cult, and I am not sexually abusing him. I’ve broken two multi-generational patterns, so my prayers were answered, just not in the way or in the time frame I had imagined.

I have been in therapy for the past four years trying to sort out my experiences and trying to use the Bahá’í teachings in my recovery. I struggle daily to bring my life into the standards of the Faith.

Concepts such as institutions as “loving parents” are difficult for me to understand (what is a loving parent?!) – but I’ve tested the concept twice and I’m beginning to learn. I went to the Bahá’í Local Spiritual Assembly of . . . to request their input into the terms of my divorce, and I wrote to the Universal House of Justice, asking what my obligations were to my family. Both consultations were very powerful, and have been tremendous forces in my personal growth.

I love ‘Abdul-Bahá’s writing:

My home is the home of peace . . .

And I try to use it as a guideline, but I’m not always successful. It’s hard to live life in the present when anything can trigger a frightening memory.

I’ve come to realize that I have lived most of my life from the perspective of a four-year-old, whose turn it is to die, wanting to die, and now it’s time to choose to live. Reclaiming memories of my childhood, committing myself to live life consciously, recognizing oppression when it is happening and choosing to deal with it head on instead of avoiding it, are all part of my healing process.

Much of the time I feel that my son is being parented by an adult body with the feelings and experiences of a four year old. Many times I am confronted with situations that my role models simply didn’t prepare me to deal with – so when my son was little and I wanted to take out my frustrations on him, I took him in my arms and held him close and said or sang the prayer:

Is there any remover of difficulties save God? Say: Praised be God! He is God! All are His servants and all abide by His bidding.

The Báb, Bahá’í Prayers, p. 28.

over and over while the feeling passed and an opportunity presented itself – and it always did.

So often I feel that my son is teaching me how to parent. He often can see a solution that just makes sense. Sometimes, when my self-esteem is low, I remind myself that the Bahá’í Writings are very clear that the parent is to be in charge, but I always trust the Bahá’u’lláh is guiding my life on the right path, and is teaching me through my son.

I pray for him and with him often, and although he has always vigorously opposed prayer and reading the Writings and calling himself to account daily, I’m hoping that these things will stay with him.

Recently I decided to write to the Universal House of Justice for their guidance. Their response has had a profound effect on my healing and I thought it might be of assistance to others in similar situations.

Holidays have always been difficult times for me, but since I confronted my parents with the sexual abuse two years ago, they’ve been especially difficult. They have chosen to deny their involvement and I have been unwilling to engage in a relationship with them that is not based on truth. I have no contact with them and until I got a letter from the Universal House of Justice, I assumed this meant that I was being a bad daughter, and an unforgiving Bahá’í. The Universal House of Justice wrote:

“. . . being prudent in deciding upon the appropriate amount of contact with your parents, in reaching your decision, you should be guided by such factors as:

· their degree of remorse over what they inflicted on you in the past

· the extent of their present involvement in practices which are so contrary to Bahá’í Teachings and

· the level of vulnerability you perceive within yourself to being influenced adversely by them.”

The statistics for sexual abuse are shocking. Some researchers claim one out of three girls and one out of eight boys under the age of sixteen have been victims of sexual abuse.

R. Badgely, Sexual Offenses Against Children, Ottawa, Ontario,

Canadian Government Publishing Centre 1984.

Many of us are reclaiming our awareness as adults. Many of us are parents. The Bahá’í Faith may even attract a higher percentage than these statistics to its fold. People who have experience great injustice in their lives will be attracted to a Faith based on justice. However, we as Bahá’ís are not talking about this. We aren’t saying out loud:

  • my family didn’t look anything like the Bahá’í teachings and I don’t know how to implement these concepts
  • I can’t trust so I can’t consult
  • God has let me down – so why pray? – or Fast? _ or give to the Fund?
  • Obeying loving parents resulted in injustice and oppression – so why should I obey laws that look oppressive?
  • My behaviour is moderate, or acceptable under the law of the land, so surely this Bahá’í law doesn’t apply to me
  • I am angry and I can’t instantly forgive.

When I first started my healing journey, I went to the Bahá’í Writings for guidance and found:

Thy name is my healing . . .

God is sufficient . . .

Seek no other helper . . .

So I felt guilty looking for a therapist. God wasn’t sufficient in the sense I thought it meant, but He was sufficient in showing me the right people at the right time. The Universal House of Justice confirmed this in their letter, writing:

“. . . you may well find it useful to seek the advice of experts such as your therapist.”

I used to feel that I was a bad Bahá’í for not being able to instantly forgive my parents, but the Universal House of Justice wrote:

“You are urged to strive to develop forgiveness in your heart toward your parents who have abused you in so disgraceful a manner, and to attain a level of insight which sees them as captives of their lower nature . . . “

For me, this means that I may never get there, and as long as I continue to strive, I’m doing the right thing.

Nowhere in the letter from the Universal House of Justice does it say I should stop looking at the memories and dwelling on the past, as I have been told by many well-meaning friends. Instead, the Universal House of Justice writes:

“You are truly blessed to have been enabled to accept Bahá’u’lláh as the Manifestation of God for this Age, and to have access to the limitless spiritual powers with which His life-giving Revelations is infused. You can draw on these powers by your prayers, as well as your participation in the work of the Faith and in the life of the Bahá’í community; through this effort and through your consultation with competent professionals having expertise in your area of need, you can promote your healing from the damaging effects of your past experiences, and can find happiness and tranquility.”

So I’m not sure what this has to say to parents looking for ideas on raising their children – except I know that there are many people out there who are struggling with similar experiences and are wondering what the Bahá’í approach to recovery might be.

I’m sure that because of the shame and the need for perfectionism that many of us just struggle with, we will continue to find the Writings to “beat” ourselves with instead of the ones which will heal.

Having had such a clear letter from the Universal House of Justice has validated my struggle and helped me to know that I am on the right track – and I know that if I work on becoming a better person, my parenting sills are bound to improve too.

None of use grew up in the kind of families Bahá’u’lláh calls us to create, and as adults, we need to take a close look at who we are and where we came from. We need to make conscious decision to change the patterns we don’t like. And we need to trust the guidance we’ve been given in the Bahá’í Writings. Sometimes this may mean having to create a family of choice as we leave behind our family of anger. God will guide us and protect us on our parenting journey. All we have to do is ask.

I believe that all of the answers we need are in the Bahá’í Writings and that we just need to learn to use them to assist us. Particular assistance came to me from the letter from the Universal House of Justice, for example the ideas that:

  1. healing is not expected to be instantaneous or absolute, but can be “promoted”.
  2. I am not expected to instantly forgive my parents “To strive to develop forgiveness’ seems to acknowledge that it may never be achieved in this lifetime.
  3. I am not obligated to see, spend time with or take care of my parents in their old age. I am encouraged to be “prudent in the deciding upon the appropriate amount of contact with your parents.”
  4. It’s OK to feel vulnerable and “to seek the advice of experts such as your therapist”

The letter from the world Center closes with the following:

“The House of Justice offers you its abundant sympathy at what you have suffered, it’s loving concern for your welfare, and its encouragement to you to look to the future with confidence and optimism. You are urged to ponder these reassuring words of Bahá’u’lláh: “O my Servants! Sorrow not if, in these days and on this earthly plane, things contrary to your wishes have been ordained and manifested by God, for days of blissful joy, of heavenly delight, are assuredly in store for you. Worlds, holy and spiritually glorious, will be unveiled to your eyes. You are destined by Him, in this world and hereafter, to partake of their benefits, to share in their joys, and to obtain a portion of their sustaining grace. To each and every one of them you will no doubt, attain.”

I am happy to send copies of the Universal House of Justice letter to anyone who wants it, and I’m happy to share my journey with anyone who needs to talk about being a Bahá’í and having less than ‘Abdul-Bahá-like responses to the injustices thy have had.

Local Assemblies who require guidance in dealing with cases involving abuse should contact the National Spiritual Assembly.


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