I remember the first time I was abused at the age of 6. I was in the fellowship hall of the church with one of its elders. I can spare you the all too common details of what most of you know about the psychology of a young mind that is wrenched from childhood and transformed into survival mode. It is both devastating and amazing.
Looking back now, half a century later, I can see with the clarity of hindsight the wonders of my resiliency and compassion, not in spite of what happened, but in part because of what happened.
My story is just one story with its own nuances, but in my work as Founding Director of the largest justice enterprise run by women survivors in the US, I have come to believe in the power of seeing the strength and beauty in the brokenness. There is so much about us that is imperfectly perfect.
When I began working with women coming off the streets and out of prison, I quickly learned I was meeting myself. We had similar imperfect qualities that I found endearing and beautiful. I was free to laugh and share with them in a way I couldn’t with any other group of friends.
Early on, I knew I was doing the work alongside survivors, not for survivors. I knew, from the first time I shared a cigarette behind one of our smoke-free residential homes, that I was sitting with sisters. We were women who had what some call “thick skin” and could laugh stuff off that made other people feel a bit more fragile.
But, after time and trust grow, and that thick skin smooths out, there was a tenderness that feels others’ pain with an acuteness born out of pain on a cellular level. When I think of holy, imperfect perfection, a hundred women survivors pop up like a carousel of heroic images.
People thought Penny, one of the early graduates of our program, was tough because she was a survivor living under a bridge for seven years and used a CB radio to find truckers. If you had asked Penny what her imperfection was, she might say, “I am really just a softy that cries all the time.” In a voice laced with decades of smoke, she described how, since she was a little girl sitting at the beer joint with her dad, she’d cry if anything was hurt.
She reminisced about how she used to cry at night because she was scared she would be raped before the morning. She said she cried for others when hurt because she knew how hard it was. On the way home from a trip we were on together, at a Cracker Barrel store in Huntsville, she bought a package of butterfly magnets to give her girlfriend. She was a softy, and I believe that was her superhero power.
When the shiny vest of perfection is peeled off, talk is truth, and we all breathe deeper. It binds us to each other, knowing we need one another.
Penny and all her survivor sisters make it clear that the line between criminal and victim is blurry. I’ve met thousands of women with criminal records who were categorically victims long before we criminalized them. We can hold compassion for everyone, including women sitting in prison for violent crimes if we’re willing to hear the story and see our imperfect selves in that story.
Most of us are both broken and have broken others, to varying degrees, but we know both sides. When we admit it and forgive it, it is practically divine.
When we accept the beautifully imperfect all around us, there is the freedom to move gracefully from the past and into the future through the present. There are even freedom and gifts in some of the trauma we have known. I cannot speak to anyone else’s experience, but trauma gave me a different way of seeing the world as well as resiliency, courage, and compassion.
Because of what I went through, I can trust myself to persevere. I can read a room and trust my gut. Because I was broken open, I learned how to scour the world for clues and fellow pilgrims. I am brave; I am vulnerable; I am still searching for the missing pieces and answers to why, in woods, in community, in books, and in friends.
And I am still learning.
Peace and love,