Over the years, while coming to terms with the fact that I was sexually abused as a teenager, I embraced three different identities in relation to the abuse. Then, after a profound experience of forgiving the man who molested me, I decided not to define myself in terms of the abuse at all.
My first identity was "adulteress." The man who molested me was married, and my coach, and he framed it this way: We were having an affair. At 14, I was too naive to realize that my 25-year-old "lover" was exploiting me. I believed that I was an adulteress and felt terribly guilty and ashamed.
In my 30s, it finally dawned on me that the experience constituted not "an affair" but molestation and statutory rape. My identity changed; I became a "sexual abuse victim." This involved a major shift in consciousness, as I realized that I was not responsible for what had happened. On the one hand, it was a relief to know I was not at fault, but on the other hand, to acknowledge that I had been a "victim" felt humiliating. Nevertheless, "sexual abuse victim" seemed more accurate than "adulteress," so I welcomed the new identity and found solace and information by talking with others who also identified themselves as sexual abuse victims.
|Regardless of how others may define us, we can decide how to define ourselves.|
A few years later, feminism helped me reframe my experience once again. I heard and mbraced the new preferred phrase "sexual abuse survivor." Designed to empower, the term "survivor" did indeed sound stronger than "victim," and I'm grateful to whoever coined it. Seeing myself as a survivor gave me credit for something, albeit if only for continuing to live.
Then I forgave my molester, and my identity changed yet again.
After not seeing each other for more than a quarter century, "Bruce" called to apologize and to ask me to forgive him. Wary, angry, and mistrusting, I initially refused. Forgiveness was on his agenda, I thought, not mine. But then I celebrated my 40th birthday and began to wonder if I was going to go through another 40 years of feeling enraged about something that had happened to me in my teens. Maybe something has to give, I thought, and maybe that something is me.
So I called Bruce back, and over the next six months we exchanged dozens of letters, spoke on the phone many times, and met in person twice. Ultimately, I did forgive him, and told him so. The process transformed me. I felt free, not only from my rage about the past, but from my intense interest in it. Having traveled far from my original "adulteress" guilt, and then far from the "victim" helplessness, I now found myself transcending the "sexual abuse survivor" identity as well. Sure, I had survived that, but I've survived many things. The experience no longer seemed central to how I perceive myself.
As I pondered my changing identity, I began to hear in a new way how other people identify themselves: environmentalist, recovering alcoholic, lesbian, failure, ex-con, entrepreneur, hopeless romantic, widow, Christian, vegetarian, Republican.
A rich, middle-aged African-American friend, a partner in his prestigious law firm, said in response to my question about self-definition, "I think of myself primarily as a husband and father." That surprising reply reminded me that identity is a choice. Regardless of how others may define us, we can decide how to define ourselves.
One "sexual abuse survivor" I know was raped by her uncle when she was 8. The term "survivor" seemed empowering to her for a while, she said, but she doesn't use it now. "I'm not sure I've forgiven him, but I've accepted it as just one of many things that happened to me," she told me. "It doesn't take center stage anymore. It doesn't dominate the way I think about myself and my body. It's not sitting there at my core, defining me."
Nor does my sexual abuse experience define me. So who am I now? A forgiver? Even that feels too tied to the past.
These identities seem more appealing: author; speaker; athlete; courageous, honest, and kind (usually); female; ambitious; committed partner; friend; lover; and daughter, sister, and aunt. More important than the labels themselves is this realization: I can define (and redefine) myself however I want, rather than letting sexual abuse, or Bruce, define me. Here's the most accurate way to explain how I feel now, and how I see myself: I'm free.