Charlie is a Methodist getting ready to graduate from an Anabaptist seminary. In addition to being a child abuse survivor himself, he is an activist for child abuse survivors, and we are thoroughly impressed by his commitment to resisting abuse and holding communities of faith accountable for doing the same. Preparing to be a minister himself, Charlie has hard-earned wisdom to offer the church. We are grateful he has chosen to share a bit of it here.

“Perhaps you have figured it out by now, but little girls don’t stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world.” 

 Kyle Stephens

I don’t recall when I realized what was happening to me was abusive. There was a time between the ages of five and seven that my grandmother picked me up to take me to school and asked me why I was crying. “Momma doesn’t love me,” she recalled in a conversation we would have in my teenage years. As she described the situation, I was wearing a jacket covered in snot. I had been crying so hard that my nose ran uncontrollably. “She beat you that morning for wetting the bed,” my grandmother continued as she took a puff of a cigarette.

I didn’t know it at the time, but bed wetting is common among those who are abused. Being close to the age of ten and having to still wear Pull-Ups was a self-defeating embarrassment. Having mattress protectors on my bed was a huge confidence killer. I held my water to avoid confrontation on the way to the bathroom and the result was confrontation regardless.

When childhood hurts

I don’t remember a time when abuse wasn’t part of my childhood and adolescent years. Sure, my family was just like many others in a lot of ways. We went on vacations, took road trips, and went out to eat every now and again. But those “good times” are a far too distant memory because assault was always operating in the mix of things.

As many a survivor of childhood abuse can tell you, there is not much in the way of processing that a child can do. It’s actually rather confusing. Where I heard stories of other children getting spanked for misbehaving, I was getting assaulted for either reminding my stepmother of my birth mother or for being a presence in the home. The beatings were always followed with “I’m sorry, I love you” from my stepmom and a “We’re doing this so you don’t turn out like your mom,” from my dad. By the age of thirteen I had already made excuses for their behavior and come to the conclusion that they were doing what they needed to do to make me a better person.

My family is interesting. Here’s the short of it. My dad married my mom and they had me as their one and only child together. I was named after my father and I am a third generation bearing his name. My mother was a drug addict. She was adopted by my grandmother from an abusive home. She slept around on my father. In his mind, she was a demon and the antithesis to my functioning. She did have weekly visitation with me on Saturdays which were considered by my stepmother to be a “privilege” for me until my mother offered me a beer instead of water when I asked for a drink.

My mother isn’t the only person with skeletons though. As children we tend to see our parents through rose colored glasses. My father was Superman. And before he started participating in the abuse with my stepmother, he was my hero because when he was around, my stepmother wouldn’t dare to harm me. But he isn’t perfect. He met my stepmother sometime in the latter 80s, and when he was still married to my mother he was having sex with my soon-to-be stepmother. That’s textbook adultery. So you can imagine the awkwardness of his 1988 divorce with my mother and walk down the aisle with my stepmother who, by that time, was already pregnant. That child turned out to be the first of their three together. They had a girl and my stepmother would lament often that she wished their baby had been a boy because, in her mind, that would replace me in the family dynamic.

She tried her hardest to come between the relationship that was happening between my father and I. I vividly recall playing with the original Teddy Ruxpin with my father sitting in his lap and my stepmother rushing in with their daughter to unseat me and replace me with her daughter. I was banished to the backyard.

My stepmother went out of her way to harm me whenever we were alone. She would often direct her other children in another room to shut their door. When she came near me I got this sense of panic in my gut that still haunts me to this day when I try to sleep. Thank God for sleeping medication. There were times when she justified her behavior in her mind and spoke it verbally: “You got a check instead of a check plus!” she shouted as she kicked me up and down a flight of stairs. There were other times where the reason for her assault wasn’t as clear, such as the time she punched me in the genitals and knocked me to the floor because I thought her call for “breakfast is ready” meant I had a seat at the table too.

The list of abuses towards me over the span of nineteen years is exhaustive, and it would take weeks to find the courage to put a voice to them all.

Getting out

I would be remiss if I did not mention advocates I had. My father’s mother was a fierce advocate for me. She would stay with us from time to time and confronted my parents over my malnourishment and their assaults on me. She quickly found herself kicked out by my parents for challenging the status quo. She was a “troublemaker” in an environment that relied on secrecy and assault to flourish. My other grandmother, who I spoke of towards the beginning, was an advocate for me too. She would lament to me that, had she had the funds, she would have taken my parents to court for custody.

The reason I like Kyle’s quote at the beginning of this piece is because of the courage and truth it holds. I am no woman, but I too was harmed as a child under the guise of “appropriate behavior.” And I soon found myself growing up and faced with an ultimatum at the age of 19 – “Go to college, the military, or move out” – with the assurance that no help would be given to me. The fact that I was working at the local K-Mart and being driven back and forth by my younger half sister because I was not “worthy” to have a license had no place in the conversation.

At the time I was seeing a woman who is now my wife. College was unaffordable because my parents made too much and I lacked funds. The military was a no go because of my stress-fed migraines. So I left my home and my wife’s family took me in. The simple act of leaving such a toxic environment was liberating to say the least. Breathing fresh air without fear of assault was new and felt awkward at first, but it grew on me.

Getting out again

A few years go by and I start community college and then Liberty University. My parents caught wind of this and where I was despite my best efforts to hide myself from them. In my family, nobody had graduated college, so it isn’t all that surprising that my father showed up at my workplace (a local truck stop) to reconnect.

According to my father I had “betrayed what it means to be a family” and “abandoned them.” The truth is far from it. My parents had long since abandoned any relationship that was possible with me through their assaults physically and verbally. Their idea of “family” was one in which it is appropriate to beat the holy hell out of a son for the simple infraction of coming from another woman’s womb.

“I don’t apologize for anything we did,” he went on, “we made you who you are today.” There it was. Two things: the beatings were justified because he went on to say that CPS was at our home nightly putting them under stress (CPS doesn’t operate that way). Second, he believes that because of the assaults, I was able to go to college and become a college graduate. To my father, my success was all his doing.

I was new to the whole Christian thing around the time this happened, so I looked beyond his remarks and extended the offer of relationship in a rushed forgiveness. We worked on my car together and my wife went with me to have dinner with my family three times. I began to recognize signs of being gaslighted into an unhealthy relationship again. “You’re a Christian now,” my father would say, “I don’t care much for the Bible but the Ten Commandments sound good. They say to honor your mother and father.” I retreated into my inner child and nodded. Then he went on to ask, “Your girlfriend doesn’t like us, does she?” I shook my head. “I don’t need her to like us,” he continued, “but she will respect us.” With that I stepped away from relationship once again with my father.

Flash forward several years. Last August, my wife and I were going to have a meal at a Texas Roadhouse here in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Harrisonburg is three hours away from my hometown of Chesterfield so you can imagine the shock of seeing my father walking towards our table as soon as we sat down.

“You never visit your own family,” he began, “why?”

“You know why,” I responded.

“You’re just like your mother,” he continued,” you’re weak.”

With that I stood up. My father jumped back several feet and it was in that moment that he saw the reality of the situation: I wasn’t his child to manipulate anymore and he had no power over me. No guilt to feed me. No shame to hold over me. Nothing. And he was terrified.

“I’m getting tired of your shit you weak old man!,” I let out as people started to stare.

I asked my wife to come with me, and as we leave my dad lets out, “That’s all you’re good at is running away.”

It takes courage to walk away. It takes strength to walk away. It takes the power of the Spirit to stand defiantly before my abuser refusing to yield ground again. If getting away from my abusers is all I’m good at, it’s a damn good thing to be good at.

The second part of Kyle’s statement is a shared sentiment in my life as well. The very fact that I made it out and type this on the eve of getting a Masters Degree, refusing to give my father credit, is destroying his mythical world in which abuse and manipulation are fair game. He has nothing to do with my successes, my marriage, or my new found life.

One thing he did teach me quite effectively was what not to do to another human being.

My journey comes with a few consequences though: flashbacks, nightmares, IBS, Prostasis, and chronic insomnia to name a few. My body that was subjected to unspeakable harm absorbed the entirety of each beating my father and stepmother gave me. It has believed every lie that was spewed my direction to harm me. And for now, I have to live with those consequences.

It’s not pretty, but it’s far better than enduring another five minutes in their house of horrors.

My message to the church

I have come to mature in my understandings around forgiveness and the fact that it is a lifelong process of “70×7 times.” I’ve come to understand that restorative justice isn’t appropriate in domestic violence issues. This is the idea that somehow and some way, a survivor of domestic violence can enter into a discussion with their assaulter with a mediator present with the assaulter voicing concern and accountability for their actions. These types of processes are frequently retraumatizing and unhealthy in the progression of personal healing. I now know that saying “I don’t forgive them” in honesty is infinitely better than rushing to say something I don’t and may never come to mean.

I was once told that when I get to Heaven, I may see my parents there. I’ve been told that one day I will be able to occupy the same space as my abusers in harmony and love. I’ve been told that if I don’t forgive my parents, God will not forgive me.

That’s abusive theology.

To suggest any of the above is to inadvertently (or perhaps purposefully) claim that God had a hand in the abuse and that God is holding the weight of forgiveness over my head as a litmus test of my faith in the work of Christ. Yet, the truth is that because of the work of Christ in my life, I can fall before the Cross seeking healing and a path towards forgiveness that is of a kinder load and an easier yoke.

I can handle the guilt and shame over forgiveness from others when they suggest I’m a bad Christian because I cannot forgive my parents. They haven’t lived my life. They don’t understand how deep nineteen years of abuse plants its roots in my soul. They don’t understand how cheap of a forgiveness it would be for me to both express and embody forgiveness while the wounds are still healing. Their condemnation is child’s play compared to what I’ve endured in my life.

However well meaning you may be (or maybe not well meaning), to have the audacity to come to someone who is recovering from nineteen years of abuse and shame them for a lack of forgiveness or demand they forgive their abusers is pathetic theology at best.

And most who read this would agree I hope. Yet, we find it everywhere. In our churches, in our institutions, in our news cycles, in our homes. No one and no place is perfect and therefore no one and no place is free of the responsibility of improving their theologies around domestic violence.

I cannot and will not entertain a God who operates out of a manipulative theology that shames survivors and turns perpetrators into faux victims. My parents are not innocent. My parents are not victims because they have a son who wants nothing to do with them.

My parents are monsters.

Are they above the saving grace of Christ? Absolutely not. And I struggle every day with the ways in which my thoughts and story sharing may get between them and Christ. But the truth is, God’s grace goes above and around me to them. It is up to them to accept responsibility for what they did.

No amount of restorative justice, no level of forgiveness I attain can do that. This is an issue of their hearts and their souls of which I bear no responsibility. I do pray that Christ reaches them, but I also pray He keeps them away from me.

Hear me:

To those reading this who have endured abuse, you’re not alone and I am sorry for your experience. You didn’t deserve it.

To those of you who are reading this and have never been abused, take a seat and listen as you count yourselves blessed to never know the pain of intimate atrocity.

Little boys don’t stay little forever, they grow up and they get away to shine a light for survivors everywhere.