Prisoners of the Past

past wounds and forgivenessLast month in the county jail we were working on healthy communication, but we had one of those sessions where we never got to the class material because some issues needed airing out.  This is where group therapy gets its potency.  The women’s honesty and courage in sharing their experiences raise everyone’s self-awareness and understanding.  Here’s what came out.

Lauren (name changed) forgave her abusive mother.  It happened in a worship service a local congregation provides for inmates on Sundays.  Lauren described feeling lighter, as if chains wrapped around her ankles had fallen off.  Her mother died years ago, but Lauren’s experience was as powerful as if she had spoken to her mother directly.  Without the blinders of anger and resentment obstructing her view, Lauren could see her mother suffered the same kinds of child abuse to which she had exposed Lauren.  Lauren can now see the threads of both victim and perpetrator weaving through the complex tangle that was her mother’s life.

Lauren said something I lingered over.  Seeing her mother as an abuse victim didn’t allow Lauren to release resentment.  Releasing resentment allowed Lauren to see more clearly the reality of her mother’s complicated situation, and finally, to have compassion for her messed up life.  Forgiveness came first.

Christa (name changed) had a tough week.  With several new inmates in the pod, the environment gets loud at times.  It’s driving Christa crazy, and she’s struggling to contain her anger.  In the jail we talk about anger as a secondary emotion, like the visible part of an iceberg floating on top of emotions hidden under the surface.  Christa had no hesitation in identifying the emotion underlying her anger.  It’s loss of control.  In childhood, Christa endured rampant sexual abuse by her father, brother, uncles, “pretend uncles,” and anyone else to whom her family made her available.  It started at an age before she knew it was wrong.  There was no protection for Christa.  And no control.

Christa drags feelings about loss of control from her childhood like chains wrapped around her ankles into her present situations.  “It’s all connected,” she lamented wearily when examining the origins of her recent anger.  Indeed, it is a worthy lament.

We all do that.  Whenever anger flares, the source of the flame is rarely the immediate situation.  The present situation is merely a spark igniting something that was already there deep within us.  Unresolved hurts from our past – feelings of betrayal, abandonment, humiliation, or shame—lurk within us like invisible explosive gas.  For me it’s hurt pride—feeling put down, belittled, or disrespected.  Even being ignored can be felt as a form of disrespect.

We may think we’re hiding our feelings or that we have reconciled ourselves to past misfortunes.  Here’s the test.  If a seemingly innocuous situation can send us into a fiery fit of anger, then something lies unresolved within.  And we drag that tinderbox of past emotions into every new encounter.  Christa protested, “But forgiveness is hard.”  For someone with her past, I honestly cannot fathom how hard.  Nonetheless, forgiveness remains the only way I know to free us, once and for all, from the chains of painful pasts.

Join the conversation.  When your anger flares, what underlying emotions fuel the fire?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit


I’ve been saddened by recent accounts of sexual abuse in prestigious college sports programs. The comment has been made that people who gravitate to youth and to the physicality of sports might provide an environment where pedophiles fit in.  The comment has also been made that raging hormones and a fascination with sexual experience make boys and young men especially vulnerable targets.  Both lead one to wonder how isolated or pervasive the predatory activity is.  I imagine university presidents and trustees all over the country are asking themselves the same thing.

Regardless of how pervasive the problem is in college sports, I hope the news coverage brings people who have survived sexual abuse out of isolation. Perhaps the most insidious and lasting effect of child sexual abuse is the persistent shame saddled on its victims.  There is a kind of circular thinking in which the fact that the crime happened is interpreted as proof that it must have been deserved.  It takes the separation of many years to detangle that twisted perspective. It takes courage to confront both the lies and the hard underlying truth. It takes real maturity to overcome shame.  It is no wonder whatsoever that survivors come forward years or decades later.  I have nothing but admiration and respect for those who do so in their own time.

I also hope hidden perpetrators get caught.  The combination of survivors realizing they are not alone and nervous university presidents and trustees may heighten the exposure.  No one should be above the law, but it goes without saying that many—sports figures are joined here by politicians, clergy, and even police—have demonstrated a differing view.  The story of human pride and downfall is as old as history itself.  Icarus perished flying too close to the sun, and Pharaoh was the bible’s biggest loser.  It may be naive to hope high profile sexual abusers stop feeling entitled.  University financial self-interest (if not moral decency), however, is a reasonable place for hope.  I hope universities proactively search out and excise offenders (and those who protect them) in a way the Catholic hierarchy never did.

The twin keys to crime are motive and opportunity.  Universities can clamp down on opportunities if they choose to do so.  Motive is trickier.  Whatever sexually attracts adults to prepubescent and post-pubescent teenagers can be treated behaviorally (CBT) and chemically (“chemical castration”), but treatment efficacy is unclear and the human cost of recidivism is unacceptably high.  Child victims of abuse are more likely to be arrested for violent crime, to abuse drugs and alcohol, and to abuse other children.  It is for these three reasons—perpetrator recidivism, long term consequences on victims, and the long healing cycle—that statutes of limitations don’t fit this crime.  That’s just my opinion.

I imagine the sad revelations are heartbreaking to none more than to those high integrity individuals who have dedicated their careers to mentoring and guiding youth. Some people and institutions alike are driven by a mission to equip young people to be the best they can be.  It is unfortunate in the extreme that some in leadership positions, when confronted with alarming accusations, have blundered into choosing sides—disparaging the accuser in order to defend the accused.  The higher road is simply to defend the mission.

Join the conversation. What can you do to equip youth to lead us to a better future?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Learn more at