samedi, décembre 05, 2009

Lancaster column December 5: the victims speak


Sometimes writers discover that the story they thought they were writing takes on a life of its own. I began what I originally envisioned as two commentaries on struggling clergy — but as people began to volunteer to talk about clergy misconduct, it became clear that I had a bigger story here.
I promise this won't be a yearlong epic, but I have a few more stories to tell in the coming weeks from those who were brave enough to share.
• • •
There's not a lot, on the surface, to link Anne Beiler and Kim Logan.
One woman is a white former executive of a global business empire whose family has deep Amish-Mennonite roots in Lancaster County. The other is an African-American administrative assistant at a medical graduate school in Kansas City, Mo., whose family has worshipped in Baptist churches.
But dig a little deeper, and some pretty fundamental similarities start to appear. Both women are deeply devout, convinced that God is in charge of their lives. Both suffered almost unimaginable loss that propelled them into times of anguish and depression. And both were, they say, enmeshed in abusive relationships with the very men who were supposed to offer them spiritual comfort and direction: their pastors.
"We were looking for a family-oriented church," Logan said of her family's decision to join a small Kansas City Baptist congregation. "I was very much into women's ministries, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity for the family to grow."
But Logan also was struggling with depression and the strain that losing loved ones (two brothers and a mother within five years) can put on a family.
The year after the Logans joined the church, her younger brother was sent to prison.
At her husband's suggestion, she went into counseling with her pastor. Their families became close, sharing children's sleepovers and birthday parties.
After five or so years, the clergyman invited her to become his assistant — and his attentions became very personal.
"He wanted me, and he did whatever it took to get me there" Logan said. "I believe in my heart of hearts that was his intention from day one."
Having given her a personal cell phone, he would awaken her in the morning and take her with him when he went to a doctor's office or functions with other clergy. Meanwhile, she said, he was counseling her husband in ways designed to alienate the couple from one another.
"This abuse continued for about four years," Logan said. "I was breaking down. You live a lie, you can't laugh ... you don't know who you are. He took me to a place of darkness."
• • •
Beiler is familiar with that dark place. A young mother with a loving husband, Jonas, her world had been torn apart by the accidental death of her toddler daughter.
"My husband and I were emotionally separated, and I didn't want him to know how badly I was feeling," she said.
Caught up in grief, Beiler was pleased when the charismatic Assemblies of God pastor came forward to pray with her.
"Come see me in my office," he said. "Your husband can't meet your needs, but I can."
Then he seduced her.
"They become your only lifeline; they put you in such a small world," Beiler said. "Then it turns into guilt, abuse, major control and manipulation when you feel like you can't get out."
When the Beilers and their two surviving children moved to Texas, the pastor surfaced again down there — and the sexual misconduct continued.
• • •
"God sent you to me; I need you. You are the only one," Logan's pastor told her, as he talked about his abused childhood.
And she believed him — until she came across e-mails and heard him talk to other women and realized he was telling them the same thing.
Beiler's pastor also was a serial abuser, she said, preying on other family members.
Overcome by guilt and a strong sense of failure, Beiler withdrew from her friends and family, shrinking down to 92 pounds.
"Our choices have consequences," she said of the six-year entanglement with her pastor. "My choice at that time was to keep a secret, and the secret almost killed me."
• • •
What broke the chain of secrets and lies and abuse for these two women?
In Logan's case, her husband came across explicit e-mail and texts. He had her quit her job and called a meeting with the pastor and congregational elders. But the pastor blamed Logan, she recalled, and the elders called her a liar with mental problems created by the loss of her family members.
Logan, who has been in counseling for the past few years, is now considering her legal options in confronting her former pastor.
The Logans have moved on to another congregation.
"Thank God that we are attending a church where we have received great support from the leadership, who continues to help us during our time of healing," Logan said.
In large part, she credits her husband for her continued move toward recovery.
"We still struggle, but we have a strong man of God in my house," she said of her husband. "This man is unbelievable. I did him wrong, but he thought about me and his family."
As for Beiler, she says that her healing began with acts of confession. By dropping the pretense that she was really doing "just fine, thank you," she began to feel stronger. Eventually, she broke off the sexual connection with the pastor.
After years of depression, Beiler was finally able to confess to her husband, who reached out to her with forgiveness and compassion.
"Christ sees my potential, and my husband saw value in me, that I was worthy, even though I couldn't see it myself."
After more than half a lifetime of struggle and years of counseling, Beiler says that she is now "free indeed."
Though her pastor was dismissed from his post and stripped of his license by his denomination, he moved on to another congregation in a different denomination. When the Beilers found out, Jonas Beiler traveled to Tennessee and alerted church authorities. The pastor was stripped of his license by that denomination, yet was able to move on to another pulpit.
"Most days I feel like I've forgiven him," Beiler said, "but these men need to be rehabilitated or put behind bars where they cannot harm women and children."
She and her husband have started a counseling center for troubled families in Gap — a mission that has been her "redemption" she said.
"If you have a cause, a purpose birthed out of this, that will give you great joy."
As we talked, there were times when Beiler's voice broke or she seemed to hesitate until she could regain her composure.
And that's a good thing, she said when I asked her about it.
"It's so interesting to me that the more whole I become, the more I feel. God created us for emotional health. I know now what it is like to live."

vendredi, décembre 04, 2009

Pick Me!!! Pick me???

When you were in high school or college, were you jealous of the popular girls and guys? Did you try to be like them? Or did you sit in the cafeteria watching them...just watching, wondering what it felt like to be the ones who got to give permission?

That's how I've been feeling.

At the moment I'm adrift on the edge of the vast ocean of men and women (well, vastly more women) who blog on a regular basis about their social lives, children, and dating.

I don't know if I have the idiosyncratic ability to stand out in a crowd like that -- and I'm egotistical enough to want to stand out. And I don't know if I want to compete...for your attention.

I mean, I want you to notice me, of course. But let's just agree that it's complete serendipity that you are here at all.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with date blogs, or parenting blogs, or virtual truck stops on the blogging roads where old Harley riders get together to recall some of the fantastic trips they had.

And I have some good reasons to join the stampede -- as a writer today, you are continually under the gun to raise your profile, and be current, witty, and very cool, in the hopes that someone, somewhere will see you -- and want to brand you.

OK, maybe that's not retirement income. But it might buy your daughter a jacket at Hot Topics.

Hey Mr. Ziegfeld, here I am!

But I'm not sure I'm cut out for mommy blogging. I am not cute enough. Being an introvert who doesn't get out enough (I'm working on it) sharing about my social life much more than I do already would be a stretch.

Some raisons I'm probably not going to veer solely into blogging about relationships --

1. In general, I get squeamish about blogging about people who might be reading my blog. Unless I am mentioning you as part of a story or a meditation on a theme, you aren't likely to find yourself here.

That's a rule that gets broken sometimes, but I don't think I could do it on a regular basis. If you recognize yourself, I'm not doing my job. Or I've given in to temptation, and I need to see you and confess.

2. While I am most definitely not a saint, and can bitch as well as the next guy, I have problems getting too snarky. In print.

3. I don't think what I have to say about dating, for example, is neccesarily helpful to you. And I'm afraid I was born with the "helpful to you" gene.

4. I like being able to vent about whatever crosses my mind. How can these bloggers write about the same subject all the time? Many of them seem to be smart, funny, successful people. Don't they ever get bored with their topic? Do they start to lose themselves in the brand?

6. When I try to ask you questions, I sometimes sound pedantic -- even to myself. I don't promise to stop, however.

6. I know its a way of making a living, and I am not being critical at all, but I find I can't advertise on my blog. Just saying.

7. I'm probably too old to be hip.

As you can tell, I'm way too ambivalent to market myself effectively in the world of relationship blogging.


mercredi, décembre 02, 2009

Palace of delusions

The rolling stone has gathered a lot of muck as it speeds down the hill.

This is really the first time in a long time that the story is leading me, instead of me trollling for leads for a story.

At this point, I can't even recall how I got started on the topic of troubled clergy. Possibly it was the Baylor study and its horrifying stats on clergy sexual misconduct.

But once I began talking to people, people started making suggestions and contacting me.

Now I'm like Ariadne, following the thread through the palace.

This palace is a disgusting place, full of creepy guys who think they are literally, God's gift to women.

But it's going to take a while. As I tell the stories of victims and perpetrators, I have a sense that maybe I'm making a small contribution to helping people understand how congregations can become dangerous places -- and what to do to help keep that from occuring.

I'm not sure if that's a delusion or not, but its part of why I'm continuing to follow the thread.

And increasingly wishing that, in a few weeks, it will lead me out of this building.

I never thought I'd look forward to writing about the Anglican wars again, but I much prefer the blood and gore of a good ecclesiastical fight to this shadowland, in which pretty much everything is not as it seems.

mardi, décembre 01, 2009

Mouths to be kissed...

This past Sunday, the New York Times Magazine section had a fascinating article on therapeutic work being done on low sexual desire in women.

Did you know that around 30 percent of young and middle-aged women (20-60) go through periods when they either have little desire or perhaps no desire to have sex? If this is indeed a disorder, then it needs to be defined -- and not only because it's a potentially lucrative one for the drug companies.

The article raises all kinds of questions. Does lust wane over the course of time in relationships -- and can anything be done to bring the embers back to life? Do most women begin with lust, or do they need to learn it? How much does your partner's health or dysfunction set the mood for lust? And is there even such a thing as "desire" -- or is that something we learned at the movies?

Oh, and let's not even look closely at the "romance" or "bodice-ripping" genre, responsible for half of the cliched sex in this country.

"His hard face softened as he gazed at her, this fire-breathing hussy who had stolen his heart. She was so witty, yet so innocent. He longed to pull that lissome body against him, feel those silken lips under his own, pull the fancy pins from her blazing auburn hair... Then she stuck out her foot and tripped him."

See where I'm going?

Nuts to that for the moment. The part of the article that really drew my attention was the possibility that mindfulness could help renew desire in women who might have forgotten what it felt like.

Mindfulness is being as aware as you can be of this moment, not the one you are about to inhabit. It's about observing, without judgement, what you are feeling and seeing now. There's evidence that it really helps all kinds of problems, from high blood pressure to anxiety.

Why shouldn't mindfulness help build intimacy that makes the present moment very sexy indeed? I can see all kinds of ways in which mindfulness could help not just women, but men, too, move beyond anxiety and defensiveness to openness and trust.

After reading this, I was more convinced than ever that emotional intimacy is pretty crucial for women to be fully present to sex -- or at least an open, and naked mind.

And on that note, this is the best excuse I can find for offering a Stephen Sondheim song I love -- one that is pure id. Let others moan about sending in the clowns -- Petra doesn't mind a little fantasy in the here and now.

Also, if decolletage offends you, don't watch the snippet. There's a lot of it. I mean, of her.

"And a girl has to celebrate what passes by"....

Of course, she probably does marry the miller's son. And ends up in therapy.

lundi, novembre 30, 2009

Tramps like us, baby....

Tell it like it is, Bruce. Are we "born to run?"
Or should we ask one of our other gurus, Bono?
A few posts ago, I said I'd talk about the effect of virtual reality on relationships. Then I got distracted by...the effect of relationships on relationships.

As I've said before, guys have tried to put the moves on me by telling me I think too much. But I gotta tell you, both clothed and in my right mind -- I do think too much. Sometimes.
Maybe all the time.

Here's what I've been wrestling with today. Why can't we face the ugliness in our daily lives? Do we hope that, by turning away, somehow it will go away? And if we can't do that, what hope it can be redeemed?

Last week I interviewed Diana Garland, who heads the School of Social Work at Baylor. In dissecting sexual misconduct among clergy (with adults), the dean made a comment that really rang true to me.

When something bad occurs in churches, people don't tough it out, or fight it out, or deal with each other and move towards reconciliation. Instead, they simply leave the congregation.

Generally, this is true of relationships outside churches that don't have other, pressing reasons to be -- we seem woefully unequipped to handle conflict and move towards some kind of resolution.

I don't know that this was always true. In the past, one's survival as a member of a community might have been affected by having a good relationship with the teacher at the one-room schoolhouse, or the pastor of the Lutheran Church. Now we shop around for schools, and churches, and new relationships.

And the Internet has only exacerbated this tendency to withdraw at the first hint of a challenge -- or to hang around, waiting to see whether someone or something better comes along.

How many times have you invited children to a birthday party, and then had to wait until the day of the party to find out whether little Susie is coming or not? At some point, you have to play the hand you have been dealt.

When I see this lens applied to congregations, it feels even more serious to me. Many churches and synagogues are just horrible at handling and resolving conflict. And if the church or synagogue isn't a witness to reconciliation, then why bother to go?

Similarly with marriage and romance. We grow through struggling with our own pride, and past hurts, and desire for love. How can it be constructive to run in the other direction? That doesn't mean that we can always make a relationship work -- but we owe it to the other person to engage with as much of ourselves as we can find.

Even when it gets gritty, even when we rage and rail and want to surrender, we have to act in faith that there is something we can take from our conflicts -- gold in the ashes, the flame of wisdom, the ethereal song of love...and forgiveness ...and rebirth.
Hey, maybe I'm a guru! Either that, or there's a moooon out tonight.

dimanche, novembre 29, 2009

Might as well jump

Here's the conventional wisdom on dating while you are separated: don't.

The reasons?

Well, basically it boils down to having unfinished business with your ex -- or should I say spouse.

Possibly you have financial matters that haven't been figured out between the two of you. Sometimes this can be a real source of acrimony. Or sometimes it's dictated by some cold financial realities. That was true for me and my ex and centered on medical insurance for me and the kids.

Not troubled by figuring out your finances?

How about the sensibilities of your children? Children often struggle with the idea that their parents are going to be living different lives -- it's not in their game plan. I can't tell you the number of times when I've recounted a child's learning struggles and heard (almost always from a married friend): is it possible they are having problems with your split? After I stop gritting my teeth, I tell them the truth -- while the children had some definite issues at the beginning, we haven't been living together for almost five years.

Now my daughter tells me she doesn't mind if I remarry -- as long as "he" has money.

But I digress. Already disoriented, kids do often see dad or mom's new friend/lover/sex toy as a rival for their affections.

Dating while separated can put you in legal jeaopardy, too.

Then there is the Judeo-Christian point of view, which views marriage as a sacred covenant -- and dating before divorce as adultery. My question about this view is -- does your marriage end when the state sends you a piece of paper? I don't have an answer yet.

And, of course, there is a pretty crucial question -- are you ready? Have you done the work needed to work through whatever unfinished emotional business you have, or are you going to take a few innocent bystanders down with you?

By and large, the majority of the separated guys I "met" online had unfinished business of one sort or another.

One was still living with his wife -- she had started dating, and he apparently felt the need to play catch up. That's a clear red flag.

Another guy listed himself as divorced, but was, and is still, as far as I know, separated. The way he talked about his spouse, she sounded like Nero on a good day. The monster ex-- she might be everything he said, but sorting it all out would take a long time -- maybe years.

Another man had been separated for only a few months -- and grappled with an inability to resolve financial problems between him and his wife.

So why do people date while separated? Well, sometimes it takes folks a long time to get things figured out.

Dating after six months or a year is definitely a different experience from dating three weeks after you put that first month's rent down.

And as far as I can figure out, people who leap into dating often do so because, to put it crudely, loneliness sucks. Men of a certain age, who often depended on their spouses to make social arrangements, are suddenly forced to find something to do on the weekends when they don't have the kids.

Or maybe the kids are gone -- which leaves an even larger void.

Either way, it's not a lot of fun to be by yourself.

My observation is that relationships based on that kind of intense need don't normally survive the emotional turmoil of untying the threads of the marital tapestry.

And this isn't just a "guy thing" -- women also struggle, but perhaps in a different way, with becoming less dependent.

If you want a fling, however, (though I'm not arguing for flings) and the other person is well aware that your contact might have a short shelf life, then dating while newly separated might very well be a fascinating walk on the highwire -- and allow you to experience things you haven't in a while.

Depends on what you are looking for.

I have come to believe, based on my own experience, that in general the conventional wisdom is right.

It is more effective to do the work you need to do to work through past hurts and conflicts and move forward.

And even if you have done a lot of internal work -- there is still something in the practical steps one has to take to take apart a marriage that clears the way, or can clear the way for other relationships.

I say that without judgment -- each of us has to figure it out for her or himself. And it is in our human nature to believe that WE are the exception that proves the rule, isn't it?

Go ahead -- prove me wrong. But just let me know how you reached your conclusions. I'd be intrigued to hear from those who are daring enough to share either experience or opinions.