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Further Reading

COLUMN: Undercover

Soul Survivor

A Conversation with Dawn Eden

by Terrell Clemmons

Dawn Eden's parents separated when she was five years old, and her earliest attitudes about love and sex were shaped by what she observed growing up in her mother's home. Her first experience with sexual abuse occurred at age five when she was molested by an adult man outside the home. Later, there were more violations in the home by one of her mother's boyfriends, including one in her mother's presence.

Dawn believes that the greatest wound caused by sexual abuse is the wound caused to the child's identity—the utilitarian lie that says the child has no value beyond his or her "usefulness" to others. As a young adult, she acted out of this lie that she had absorbed. In her twenties she worked as a rock journalist by day and pursued an uninspiring Sex and the City lifestyle by night until a radical conversion from agnosticism to Christianity brought it to an abrupt end.

After her first book, The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On (2006), became a surprise hit, she discovered that many people truly wanted to live chastely, but found it difficult emotionally because of a hunger for love which drove them compulsively to seek affirmation through sex. Dawn knew that this kind of emotional vacuum is often the result of childhood wounds. In her second book, My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, she shows how the lives of the saints have given her hope and aided her healing.

You call the environment you grew up in "sexually porous." What do you mean by that?

A sexually porous environment means an environment where the boundaries between adults' sexual behavior and children's own safety zone is not made clear—in fact, there is no safety zone for children. So I as a child—after my parents' divorce, growing up with my single mother—was not protected from adults' nudity, from adults' sex talk and dirty jokes, from pornography, including X-rated adult art films.

In your adult years, you took on what you call a rebel "false persona" as a coping mechanism.

It's common in some, although certainly not all, victims of childhood sex abuse to take certain pathologies into their adult sexual behavior, such as what psychologists call dissociative behavior. In my case, inside I felt like a vulnerable, unprotected child. I had been treated by adults as an object, and so I didn't have an understanding of my own value as a human being, let alone the infinite value that I had in Christ. And so, believing that adults were going to use me, I created a false self. That was the dissociation. I became, in the false self, sexually aggressive and provocative, so that, given that people were going to use me, I might at least have some control over how they did.

You dutifully followed the Cosmo rule, which you say is really the Universal Single-Person Rule in our secular age: Sex should push the relationship. But in your early thirties, you abandoned that strategy.

I abandoned that strategy because of my conversion, because I discovered the love and grace of Jesus Christ and I accepted him as my Lord and Savior. And as soon as I received that grace of conversion, I knew that the way I was living was not the way that God wanted me to live.

It's very clear from the gospel that God has a plan for marriage and that all of our physical sexual expression in terms of sexual activity is supposed to be within marriage. Because the point of sexual intercourse is not just physical activity; it's not just sex. It was created by God to bond us in a lifetime, one-man-and-one-woman commitment that would image the love of Christ in his Church and that would be fruitful.

Before that point, you sought help for suicidal depression from a well-known, Ivy-league-trained psychiatrist. But not only did he fail to diagnose your post-traumatic stress disorder, he actually made things worse by encouraging you to become more sexually liberated.

This is very common for adult victims of childhood sexual abuse—to be misdiagnosed so that their real, underlying issues are not addressed. This particular psychiatrist misdiagnosed me as having simply major depression—and depressive symptoms are in fact among the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. So he simply put me on antidepressants, which I later found out are not indicated as the primary medical treatment for what I had.

And he gave me "talk therapy" in which he encouraged me to "actualize" myself. This actualization, he thought, would come about through my seeking what he called joy, but what was in fact mere pleasure. He thought that the key to coming out of this depression for me was simply to seek pleasure, and since I was already seeking it in sexual activity outside of marriage as a single woman, he encouraged me in this.

And I cannot emphasize enough just how dangerous it is for someone who already has a pathology that has its roots in a sexual wound to act out of that pathology, to act out of that wound. It only aggravates the underlying problem rather than healing it.

Therapy certainly has its place, but you also discuss the necessity of confession. Could you explain how the two are related and how they are different?

I think that in a culture in which we have glorified "confession" as in "True Confessions"—as in people going on talk shows and publicly confessing to the world their sinful behavior but not even calling it sinful behavior, or, likewise, in a culture where we've elevated psychotherapy to a quasi-sacrament where people can go see a therapist for decades on end, not really because they want so much to get well as because they find it simply comfortable to unload to someone—I think in that kind of culture there can be confusion about what sacramental confession is and how it differs from therapy.

That difference comes down to [the reality] that the priest stands in for the person of Christ, and Christ forgives me. As a Catholic, I found great healing through the life of the Church and the Church's sacraments, particularly through getting into the sacramental rhythms, so to speak, of confession and the Eucharist.

You make much of the integration of body and soul, and you say, furthermore, that the act of sexual abuse is more than just a violation of a victim's body. It is a violation of the whole person.

To abuse someone is really to mentally depersonalize them. Because if you take it as far as the line of thought goes, the line of thought of the abuser goes, "This person is really just an object for my use." So, for a child who was treated as an object, the challenge as an adult becomes to really reclaim one's personhood, to reclaim the integrity of one's body and soul. The abuser didn't literally steal it, but the abuse put into us lies, most damagingly the lie that we are not persons. As adults, we need to reject those lies and reclaim God's truth about ourselves and about the integration of our body and soul. •


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Articles from the current issue (Salvo 31: Winter 2014)

Desperately Disconnected

50 Shades of Grey & the Longings of the Female Heart

by Terrell Clemmons

School Deform

How Common Core Promotes Cultural Engineering by Killing the Imagination

by Robin Phillips

Wise Man on Campus

An Interview with J. Budziszewski

by Marcia Segelstein

 

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