Editor’s note: Our theme this month at the blog is “new interests, avocations, passions” to reflect the traditional focus on new beginnings that goes along with a new calendar year.
Not all new beginnings have to do with losing weight or beginning a new exercise program. PerGen contributor Beth Drechsel is writing for the first time about her #MeToo story. Her experience of sexual assault by a powerful leader is compounded by the fact that he was a leader in a Christian organization, making her account a #ChurchToo story as well. At the end of this piece, a few resources in case Beth’s brave words spur you to tell your own #MeToo story, or be an ally to those who have. We at PerGen are committed to sharing these stories as they come to us, no matter what month it is.
by Beth J. Drechsel
When I answered the phone and heard his voice, my body recoiled.
“I’m in town to visit my brother. I’d like to take you to lunch,” he said.
No! pounded through my head. But almost as quickly, peace soothed me. I knew that I had become a strong and outspoken woman who would not be silenced, and I wanted him to know it, too. “Sure,” I said, “I’ll bring my husband along.”
“And I’ll bring my wife,” he said.
Two days later the four of us met at a restaurant. I sat across from him at the table. He shared photos of his grandchildren. I shared photos of my teenage sons. He told how God was working in his ministry. I talked about my volunteer work. He was as charming as ever.
My husband, sensing my discomfort, patted my leg under the table through much of the meal. I was grateful for my husband’s gentle strength. It helped me to face this man who had sexually harassed and assaulted me more than two decades before, when I was a single woman in my early twenties.
I had been a secretary at a Christian organization. He had been my boss. He was warm-spirited and seemed to be loved by everyone. But I knew the times he hugged me too long, the times he leaned in too close, the times he brushed my breast, grabbed my hand, patted my bottom.
He would behave chastely toward me for days. Then when my guard was down he grabbed what he wanted—sexual liberties that didn’t belong to him, and that I had never once offered. When I protested, he played with my mind, twisting the truth and manipulating my emotions to cover his violations.
For example, he once called me into his office “to take dictation.” He told me to shut the door and come around to his side of the desk. When I complied, he suddenly pulled me onto his lap and wrapped his arms tightly around me.
I struggled to free myself. “Don’t do that!” I exclaimed angrily.
His response? “I’m just thinking of you as a father would.”
I retorted, “My father would never do that!”
“You have a dirty mind,” he said coldly, trying to make his actions my responsibility, but I knew he was out of line.
I also knew he was a wonderful father to his children, and was considered a good husband, a gifted teacher, and a respected man in the community. I doubted anyone would believe me if I told them what he was doing to me. It was my word against the word of a “godly” older man. Maybe I would have handled it better if I had been older and wiser, or if it had been a different time in society. But this was the late 1970’s, before the term “sexual harassment” was listed in the dictionary. And this happened in a Christian workplace where women were expected to be subservient and submissive.
Once in the company of an older woman whom I respected, I brought up the abuse. I used the proverbial, “I have a friend who . . .” and explained what was happening. She said, “When a man does that, it’s because the girl is asking for it.” Her judgment compounded my fears. It wasn’t safe to tell my story. If I made an accusation I could be the one to take the blame. It could cause a scandal. I could lose my job.
So I said nothing.
A few years later when I was no longer working at the organization, I was contacted by a pretty, young woman. She was my former boss’ new secretary and she wanted to know if he had ever been sexual toward me. I told her my story. She believed me because he was doing the same to her. I was flooded with guilt, knowing that my silence had allowed another woman to be assaulted. She was more courageous than me and had told this man’s superiors, but she was facing disbelief and criticism. She asked if she could use my testimony. I said, yes. A couple of months later I heard that the assaulter had quietly been forced to quit his job and to promise to get counseling.
Soon after that my former boss’ supervisor met with me. He said if I had anything against anyone I was to say so. I saw no point, as I no longer worked there and I was not comfortable sitting alone in a room telling a man the sexual things that had been done to me. He told me he didn’t want me to talk about this to anyone else as it could bring much harm to the organization. I agreed. For years I kept quiet.
And then I got married. And then I had kids. And suddenly, face-to-face with my children’s vulnerable innocence, I saw how my own had been stolen from me and how traumatized I was by the experience. I knew that unless I got help I would pass on the damage to the next generation.
I realized I didn’t owe anyone my silence.
First, I told my husband. His belief in me encouraged me to find a counselor. Soon I told my sister, and then a friend. Each time I voiced my truth I gained strength, and the assaulter’s grip on my life weakened.
Now sharing lunch with this man who’d once assaulted me, I was again too close for comfort. But I was a different person. Apparently so was he. He laid down his fork and nervously cleared his throat. Then, with his wife and my husband as witnesses, he asked my forgiveness. “I did things that were inappropriate,” he said.
In retrospect, I wish I had required him to own the specific things he did. At the time, though, it was enough to just hear from his lips an acknowledgement of his sin against me. His repentance validated my experience and the constant struggle to be free of its impact.
There are those who may say, “It happened so many years ago, why can’t you just get over it?” or “He didn’t actually rape you, so what’s the big deal?” What they don’t understand are the long-term effects of sexual assault. The consequences of this man’s lustful actions penetrated my life. They disseminated to the core of my thinking patterns and my reactions. And they came along with me into every other relationship I’ve ever had, most importantly those with my husband and children. This is the terrible legacy of sexual assault.
I am grateful for an apology. I know it’s rare. But “Will you forgive me?” cannot repair what this man so selfishly damaged; my trust, my dignity, my purity, and emotional well-being. Neither will it sweep away the ruins he left; betrayal, fear, a contamination of morality, shame, confusion, and rage.
Learning to recognize my destructive thinking patterns, replacing lies with truth, and seeking transformation by the renewing of my mind, has been a long and often painful process. Through it all I have seen God’s loving hand tracing my journey to wholeness. He blessed me with a kind and patient husband, and a happy, fulfilled marriage. He blessed me with wonderful children who helped bring me to a place where I could break my silence. And He blessed me with the knowledge and wisdom of others who helped me to recognize mis-directed shame, to understand the difference between reaction and response, and who taught me healthy boundaries and practical tools to cope with a hyper-active fight/flight response.
I am no longer a helpless victim, but I am hesitant to call myself a survivor. I see myself more as a warrior, daily fighting a pernicious battle against the remains of this man’s sin in my life. I didn’t need my assaulter’s apology to forgive him. Nor did I need it to begin healing. However, his repentance is evidence that God’s lavish grace can redeem the sexual predator’s life, even as He continues to heal and redeem my own.
Beth Drechsel is a homemaker and gardener living in Flora Vista, New Mexico. She is happily married to her husband, Paul, and they have two adult sons. She finds joy in her simple life and in her relationships.
Click here to add your name to a petition calling for action regarding abuse and violence in the Church because #SilenceIsNotSpiritual
The Wartburg Watch blog regularly tells well-researched stories of women (and men) who have experienced sexual and/or spiritual abuse at the hands of unhealthy leaders.
If you are a victim, survivor, or warrior after an experience of sexual abuse by a Christian leader, there are a couple of organizations designed to offer care, help, and connect you with resources:
Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash