It has been 25 years since Dan Allender wrote The Wounded Heart. It has become a staple among Christian counselors, and for good reason. While getting my Master’s degree I compared and contrasted it to another book on recovering from sexual abuse. It was, in my opinion, far superior. I have used the workbook in working with victims of sexual abuse.
After all these years he has written Healing the Wounded Heart. It is not an updated and revised edition. It does not replace it. It really supplements and compliments his earlier work.
He utilizes 25 more years of personal experience in working with clients as well as research to better understand the damage done by sexual abuse, and the general path of recovery for its victims.
“Chopin stirs up the dust.” Special Agent Frank Lundy
Allender’s book is like Chopin, stirring up the dust among the debris produced by sexual abuse in its various forms. Things that didn’t make sense begin to fall into place.
That is one of the things about sexual abuse: there is no one symptom. Most victims live in denial or minimization. They don’t see that the patterns and incomprehensible things are pointers to the can of worms they REALLY don’t want to open.
“But sex is more than sex, and sexual harm is more than a mere violation. It reverberates to the deepest parts of our humanity and returns with an echo that doesn’t stop even decades later.”
He begins by discussing how the “face of sexual abuse.” Technology has advanced greatly, and we have utilized that technology for nefarious purposes. Societal changes have had unintended consequences, resulting in increases in date rape, hook ups etc.., taking advantage of the unconscious etc.
Allender then talks about the role of Evil (a.k.a. the Enemy). His war against God means he wants to destroy those made in His image. One really good way is to mar sexuality and marriage which point us to the great mystery of the gospel. This theme is found in some of his other books. He draws some from his friend and former associate John Eldredge (who in my estimation has gone to some unhealthy extremes). Allender is tentative in talking about this. But he affirms some biblical truths including the reality of the Enemy, the finitude of the Enemy and that he loves to work in darkness and secrecy. Sexual abuse and it consequences are marked by darkness and secrecy.
“Evil doesn’t primarily want to kill us; instead, it wants us to spend our lives in worry or regret. Its design is to take life from life, or in other words, to kill hope.”
In this context he discusses dissociation, a survival mechanism God has given to protect us. Evil twists it by convincing us we can never deal with what happened. A main part of God’s work in us is to face our shame so we can be free of contempt and begin to hope again.
He then delves into the research about the damage done to our bodies. He wrote this chapter with Dr. Heather Mirous who teaches cognitive psychology at Northwestern. Our bodies have a natural response to stress involving our brains, chemical responses and more. Sexual abuse distorts these responses. The more traumatic the abuse, the more damage done to our stress response system. The system is overwhelm (like in combat), and discussing those events trigger similar physical responses. One result is overactivating our immune system leading to autoimmune diseases in some victims.
“The body remembers. It is chronically calling out to us that our allostatic load is too heavy. Often, rather than listening to our body, we sabotage or mute is through activities such as excessive drinking or eating (or not eating enough), exercise, busyness or shopping.”
We then can curse the body that, we think, betrayed us. It betrayed us by being alluring (as if it was our fault, not theirs). It betrayed us by being aroused or feeling pleasure. This adds confusion and shame twisting our sexual desires and responses in unwanted ways. To cover our shame, many victims resort to contempt. They can hate others, or themselves, but they pour out contempt rather than face the overwhelming shame they can experience. The contempt is an attempt to avoid the gaze of others. The contempt leads us to make vows (I’ll never be trust again) which curse us (our hearts are hard to real love).
The chapter on covert abuse is very important. He addresses issues like emotional incest (adulterization of a child, making them your confidant), subtle abuse (those moments that felt weird), and pornography (when you discover it, or are shown it by someone in authority or an older peer as a “rite of passage”.
He then moves to the rare and important chapter on men. The dynamics can often be different in men. I think this is the first chapter I’ve read addressing that. The relational consequences are quite frustrating, for the man and those who relate to him. Power struggles are nearly always present, for to not be in power is to risk violation. Male victims often struggle with rage and a sense of inadequacy.
Allender then moves into the drama of reenactment, the ways in which a victim can relive the event in the course of ordinary life: triggers, addictions, hopelessness, etc. These are some of the ways in which we see the iceberg sticking above the surface. These can be the reasons they seek counseling though they don’t connect them to past abuse.
The Healing Path is the title of the final section of the book. It is “therapy proper” so to speak. He handles the main themes of therapy rather than the nuts and bolts, precisely because each client and their story is different. They need kindness so they can begin to learn to trust. This isn’t to be confused with wimpiness. We delight in them so they can learn to delight in themselves (and God). As we offer, and cultivate, kindness and joy we enter their story. The difficulty is we enter that story many times discovering more each time. This is not an easy process, and recovery is not quick. You don’t address the damage of rape or grooming and molestation in 6 sessions.
“The truth is sexual abuse, like all trauma, must be engaged again and again as the heart matures and has new awareness, insight, and freedom.”
He describes the process of entering and caring for the other person’s story as similar hiking to a remote river to fish, and out again. There is an unknown time element, unexpected danger, and potentially great reward. We help them to connect ( or re-connect) their story with God’s Story. Along the way we will meet barriers as they protect their abusers, hide in shame and contempt and generally try to push you away using every strategy they have developed to protect themselves. You will discover the vows, and bring all these things into the light so God can deal with them. We point them out, but our job isn’t to carpet bomb them (though we will be sorely tempted to do so). Another landmine is arousal. These are sexual stories, and it is normal for the client to also experience arousal along with the shame and contempt. It is their original arousal that drives the shame. The counselor must remember that he/she may also experience this response, but is not to respond. Helping the abused is good, necessary and dangerous business.
“… spouses choose each other to some degree because their way of being in the world complements their spouse’s. … We find a partner who doesn’t threaten or disrupt the attachment history we have learned to unconsciously manage. This is what must change for both spouses.”
Allender is honest about the difficulty in this process for all involved (including spouses). There is a chapter on the latter subject as well. While past abuse will hinder the relationship, there is a reason they have chosen one another, and addressing the abuse destabilizes the relationship. When one spouse embraces greater health, there is no guarantee the other will.
Allender includes an appendix written by Linda Royster called The Implications for African-American Women. Like the chapters on men and marriage, this is one aspect missed by many authors. A helpful addition.
“Ignoring our stories of sexual abuse will not undo the harm we have suffered. The debris of our abuse will surface eventually. It affects our memories, aspirations, and relationships.” Linda Royster
This book itself is a helpful addition to The Wounded Heart. They work well together. Each has important information not found in the other. This is a great addition to the toolbox of those who help people who have been sexually abused, and for the people themselves and the ones they love. It can help them better understand what they experience. And the road forward.
[I received a complimentary copy of this book for the purposes of review.]