*Note from the editor, Rachel Halder: Patricia Frisch first contacted me about her book, Polarized, a Bipolar Memoir. She explained her story of growing up Catholic, studying, and working in the Church as a lay individual woman until adulthood, including the damage and sexual violence she thought she could overcome until she “faced the full reality.”
Though Our Stories Untold is rooted in Mennonite tradition, I find Frisch’s story eerily similar to those I hear from Mennonite “clergy women” who were abused and manipulated by church leaders. In order to begin both prevention and healing work, it’s valuable to understand the roots of rape and sexualized violence. Today, Frisch has outlined for us a unique and needed perspective on the matter.
In traditional Christianity, men filled the positions of liturgical leadership. The male domination of ritual leadership meant, and often continues to be, the loss of a healthy outlet for women to express their spirituality. Our connections with the greatness beyond human life in the spiritual realm are blocked. Both genders suffer. Rather than learning from each other’s perceptions, we turn the lack of balance against each other.
The role restriction leads to is another opening for agitation and sexual violence. When anyone is denied healthy expression, the energy is turned inward and festers. The lack of release in meaningful expressions of our creation and creativity suffers seemingly beyond redemption.
However, women do have the capacity to courageously accept the rejection of their particular church, synagogue, or temple when there is denial of ritual leadership. In the process of accepting these sad realities, we free our minds and hearts to find other places to celebrate and worship. Our homes, back yards, and small gathering places for interdenominational prayer all become beginnings to loosen the hold male ritual leadership has had on women’s spirituality.
The movement involved in the process of ritual action such as dancing, singing, painting, and playing musical instruments, beckons others–including the men–to move their spirits, minds, and bodies in a healthier direction. If done in this positive vein, our expression can have untold impact. An unacceptable choice, from my perception, is to turn on the men with the same force of violence that the ghetto like mentality has crushed women.
Ancient Myths and How They Perpetuate Sexual Violence Today
Turning to the ancient past helps us understand the hurdles we have to face today. The influences on sexual violence have deep roots. Surveying some of the myths of South America, we see that violence only begets violence.
Many of the myths of the South American Indian tribes show the conflict between men and women more vividly than other world cultures. Part of the reason is that the differences between being a man or a woman are very pronounced in several of the myths. Some myths did state that men and women had similar origins. Some of the myths even mention that women raped the men as well as the men raped the women. John Bierhorst writes about this in his book, The Mythology of South America.
The Toba version of the Brazilian Highlands stated that men were created first, and then women came down from the sky as invaders. In the Chanacoco myth, during a moment in the past, women become full of too much knowledge and were put to death. Innocent women were created to take their place and the world received a fresh start.
In the Gran Choco region, the stories were male myths, including dangerous females. Men wore ceremonial masks and to share the secrets of the masks could endanger the male dominated society. Apparently the men always feared that their society was on the verge of collapse.
Hain was a ceremonial ritual of the Seldman Indian tribe of Terra del Furgo of southern Argentina. At first the women, once again, had the power and men were afraid of them.
The mythical quality is unique among South American myths because the Seldmans believed that women had human and supernatural powers. When boys were initiated into the men’s lodge, they were advised, “Be affectionate with your wives, but never let them know your intimate thoughts, for if you do they might regain the power they had in the past.” When each boy could handle live coals without flinching, he was told the secret that gives men the ability to control women.
They returned from the woods and danced with the masks on inside the community grounds. The dance with the masks is a story of male domination. The shaman could kill a woman if she openly recognized one of the masked men as a man (brother, husband, uncle) and did not reverence the masked dancers as spirits. Even today, Seldman men are cautious about what they share in front of women.
Such traditional myths from South America, like myths of other world cultures, still impact behavior among women and men today. Weariness may overcome our best efforts, but the effort is worth a try. Knowing where we come from in the past focuses our ideas for a brighter future, freer of sexual violence.
As Riane Eisler states in Toward a Gender Partnership:
In the dominator model (of men over women), someone has to be on top and someone has to be on the bottom. The model is still strong today, but “whatever privilege men have today is like a first-class cabin in a rapidly sinking ship.” In contrast, the partnership model supports mutually respectful and caring relationships.
My Personal Journey with Sexual Violence and Tradition
In my own personal journey as a Catholic female, which I write about in my book Polarized, a bipolar memoir, I experienced sexual harassment, abuse, and then an assault in the church community. I had to deal with these experiences through my efforts to educate myself for leadership within the Catholic community.
While I think the priests were not always given the resources they needed for their positions of leadership after Vatican II, I cannot excuse the way I was treated as a laywoman attempting to foster Christianity and my beliefs in my church. I will always be a Catholic in my heart. However, due to the damage, including the sexual assault by the priest who agreed to help me on my spiritual journey after psychiatric hospitalizations, I cannot function as a whole person within my church.
I am at peace about leaving two years ago and continue to contribute as I can from the outside. The distance does grant me mercy, forgiveness, and objectivity. The thirty years I worked inside the church were fueled by hope and blocked by discrimination against women to the point of sexual violence.
When I did try to write and publish in a Catholic press, I encountered interest as well as resistance. My work was always equated with a drive for Women’s Ordination. The Sacrament of Ordination, among the Seven Sacraments of the Catholic church that comprise the Sacrament of Jesus, is open to men only. We do not look like Jesus even though we belong to the Body of Christ. The similarity to the Indian myths of South America shows that women belonged to the communities, but were feared and seen as intruders.
As you can see, across eras of time women have been raised as victims and men as perpetrators. Self-awareness on the part of women means expressing our spiritual selves in liturgies without waiting for formal approval from the men. My hopeful thoughts rise like incense that men will enjoy our celebrations and join us as men, taking off their masks, in exchange for a dance of mutual spirituality.