by Barbara Bolz
A large woman clutches a ragged teddy bear to her chest. An older woman caresses the arm of a man who watches his tears fall to the floor. A college-age woman sits alone, trying to calm herself with deep breaths. These people and hundreds of others have gathered in a midwestern high school auditorium to hear author Laura Davis remind them that healing is possible for adults who were sexually abused as children. Before the lecture, and over a bowl of chicken soup, Laura Davis, herself a survivor of incest, spoke about her own healing and about the process of healing others.
How did you come to write The Courage To Heal?
My own discovery that I am an incest survivor and my move toward being in the public sphere were tied together. When I remembered [the incest] I went immediately to my local feminist book- store, Old Wive’s Tales, in San Francisco. The only books available were / Never Told Anyone, Conspiracy of Silence, and The Best Kept Secret. They were saying, “This is a terrible problem; this is a horror; it is a political nightmare; it is inbred in the fabric of our society; and it’s a horrible, tragic crime.” But nothing about what I could do once I remembered it had happened. I said, ‘Well, I am a journalist by profession, I need this information, so I am going to write this book.” It was only six months after I first remembered I had been abused that Ellen Bass and I started to write The Courage to Heal.
How does the fact that you are a survivor influence your work?
I have something I want to say to people and I say it in a responsible way. When I do a lecture, I want there to be therapists in the audience or in a safe room where people can go. I don’t want to do a lecture unless a resource list is handed out at the door. I have a consciousness about what it means to be a survivor. I can talk from a peer level. A lot of therapists who go out on the road to do this kind of work are bound by the constraints of being a therapist. The fact that I’m not gives me a tremendous amount of latitude and freedom to be political in what I am doing.
How do you see what you are doing as “being political?”
I am raising people’s consciousness all the time. From the very beginning, Ellen and I made a decision that whenever we spoke publicly, we would come out as lesbians. It is one of the things about writing The Courage to Heal I am proudest of. We were able to write a mainstream book that included gay and lesbian lifestyles as just a normal part of life. I think that is a very radical thing to do. I made that commitment, but I don’t stand up and say, “Hi, I’m Laura Davis, I’m 34 years old. I’m a Jewish lesbian from California.” It is much more integrated into my presentation. And I talk a lot about the politics of the issue of sexual abuse. I don’t just talk about it like we should create a healing industry. Abuse is still going on, and I speak to that issue as well. I have tried to use the opportunity in what I consider an ethical way. I did not start this work because I wanted to be a self-help guru. I don’t want to be a selfhelp guru. I am a writer. And I am an activist. I followed this to its logical conclusion which led me to be public and political about it.
How has being public about such an intense issue changed your life?
It has been mixed. It is an incredible feeling to know that my work has saved lives. Ellen and I get letters from people who say, “I would be dead if it wasn’t for your book.” After lectures, I sign books for people and often a survivor will come up and open her book to the page that reads, “Don’t kill yourself,” and she will say to me, “I want you to sign on this page.” I write a few words knowing what I say may make a difference in a decision to live. It is also humbling.
You have been called “a model for survivors.” How does this role as “model” affect your healing process?
It has been hard for me. As a child subjected to incest, I was objectified and not seen for who I was. When I travel around the country and people only see me as that person on the stage, in many ways it is a repeat of that experience where I feel I’m not being seen as a whole, complex human being but as an icon. Yet I know that people need role models. It is just hard to be the role model because I know my life is more complex than that. People’s expectations are incredibly high. I feel sometimes if people could take my ribs, they would. I have had to learn about setting boundaries and saying no. I needed a balance so that I could not just be Laura Davis who is up on the stage, but Laura Davis who cooks chicken soup and doesn’t like to make her bed, and likes to go out for walks.
What do you think about the 12-step programs for survivors of incest (SIA and ISA) ? Do you find the 12 steps to be helpful for survivors? Do you see any difficulties or problems with a program for survivors modeled after programs for recovering addicts (AA, NA, OA, etc)?
The greatest value in 12-step programs is that they are a free resource, readily available to people all over the country. The greatest strength of 12-step programs has been in the area of addiction. Yet you can’t say, across the board, that every problem in life is an addiction. That is a mistake and it has weakened the integrity of the 12-step program. And being victimized is different than being addicted. There are certain aspects of the 12 steps, when taken in a traditional partyline way, that don’t fit for survivors. I don’t think a survivor should ever stand up and say she’s powerless about anything. Some 12-step programs push forgiveness, which I don’t think is appropriate for sexual abuse survivors either. What I tell people is pick and choose. Programs vary all over the country. Some of them have been flexible and have geared themselves to the needs of survivors. But others haven’t made those adaptations.
In the last two years, therapy groups and support groups have filled up with adults reevaluating their childhoods and labeling their families of origin “dysfunctional.” Do you have an answer to those who have called this trend an attempt by yuppies to avoid taking responsibility for their own lives?
I see both sides of this question. It is of great value that people are examining the injuries of their childhoods and are working to empower themselves, to change the patterns in their lives that are keeping them from getting what they want. When someone heals, it frees up tremendous potential for them to take action in the world. The criticism that’s been leveled at many of the healing movements is valid in that healing can’t stop with the individual. When we talk about healing, it is not just about the individual’s healing, it is about taking that healing and doing something with it. That includes looking at the political structure of our society that has enabled abuse to run rampant. The danger in self-help is when we start to think this is an individual problem with an individual solution. I would look for a political perspective that sees activism as essential in stopping abuse, and an activism that does not negate individuals who need time out and space to attend to their own healing and pain. Linking the two together is what will create a change in society. Just activism without self awareness leads to burn-out. But people who heal without paying attention to the politics aren’t going to change the world either.
Why now? Why are victims becoming survivors? Why are cycles that have lasted for generations now being broken? Why are adults molested as children breaking silences?
Anyone who is healing from sexual abuse or any other kind of abuse owes a great debt to the women’s movement, and particularly the rape crisis movement and the movement to create shelters for battered women. None of this healing would exist if it weren’t for the activism of early feminists. To me, today’s healing movements are rooted in that political structure. It is a mistake to forget where we come from. The liberation movements — for people of color, for gay men and lesbians, for women—have paved the way for people to do this work. That led to the awareness of violence and from there, this whole movement of healing has taken place.
I know you are working on a book for partners of survivors. What are the special needs of a survivor’s partner? How does a partner most often help or hinder the survivor’s healing process?
The book will be called Allies in Healing: When the Person You Love was Sexually Abused as a Child, and will be published by Harper Collins in September, 1991.1 have been interviewing partners, both men and women, in heterosexual, gay and lesbian relationships and have found them an inspiring group of people. Partners frequently have good intentions, are interested in being helpful, but are bewildered about what is going on. Suddenly the survivor whom they love just falls into this hole called child sexual abuse. The survivor goes through an incredible crisis that has nothing to do with the partner. Partners often ask, “Why me? How did I get in this situation? Why am I having to live with the effects of something I had nothing to do with?” The second question most often asked is, “Whataboutmyneeds?” Oftentimes when you are living with someone who is beginning the healing process, you are with an extremely self-absorbed person, obsessed with healing and sexual abuse, having wild mood fluctuations, perhaps actively suicidal, certainly struggling to find purpose in life. Ancient pain totally disrupts daily functioning. Partners come to a workshop asking what can they do to be helpful. An equally important question partners need to ask is, “What can I do to take care of myself?” One of the biggest mistakes a partner can make is to discount their own needs because the survivor’s needs are so enormous. One man in a workshop said the first six months he held his breath, waiting for it to be over. When he realized it wasn’t going away, he had to learn to live with it. I want partners to see themselves as allies with the survivor, focusing their rage on the abuser.
Is there anything you would like to say to someone reading this interview and maybe remembering h is or her own sexual abuse for the first time?
Get help right away. In most parts of the country there are good resources for survivors. Call your local rape crisis center and ask for referrals. Even if you are not sure it happened. Even if you think you are going crazy. You are absolutely not alone. There are millions of us who have been abused and many hundreds of thousands who are successfully healing. If you make the decision to face this in your life, although it will be an incredibly painful journey, you will be joining the rest of us who have gone before you and who have cleared a path to show you it is possible. It is absolutely worth it. Not dealing with it means it will follow you the rest of your life. Only by facing it head-on do you have the chance of leaving it behind.
Laura Davis, co-author of ‘The Courage to Heal, has recently written Allies in Healing: When the Person You Love was Sexually Abused as a Child, which is scheduled to be published by Harper Collins in September, 1991.
Barbara Bolz lives with her partner, Kath, and their two black cats in Bloomington, Indiana, where she writes, teaches and works as an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse.