After a childhood scarred by abuse, 'Sarah' shares her story of recovery, moving through pain towards forgiveness and understanding.
'It's Sarah. I love you. I ask you to forgive me.' I whispered to the motionless old woman, lying in her hospital bed. I leant over and kissed her and a shudder went through her whole body. Then I sang Milarepa's 'Song of Meeting and Parting'. The next day the hospital telephoned to say she had died in the night. I had visited just in time.
The old woman was my grandmother. The moment I said the words 'forgive me', I felt everything that had ever troubled me about our relationship was resolved. It was as if the word itself had ritual power. Faced with her death, I had realised what was most important.
Six years previously, three years after I'd become a Buddhist, I had been sitting in my flat having just given up an almost-life-long habit of smoking cigarettes. I was replaying a recurrent memory, a television programme I had seen as a child showing a man sexually abusing a young girl. With an overwhelming dread I realised that no such thing would ever be broadcast. I rang a Buddhist I knew who was also a psychotherapist and he recommended me to a female therapist, who gave me exercises from a workbook to do.
A few nights later I woke up with a series of memories. The first was my grandmother showing me a newspaper picture of the Prime Minister bending down to speak with a young girl. At the same time she was violently manipulating my genitals. 'This is what he'd really like to be doing,' she said. 'This is what men are like.' The second was of being held up high and dropped onto the bed. It wasn't a fun game, I knew she wanted to frighten me, to give me a sense of her power. Another particularly distressing memory was of being in a disturbing physical condition, like being drugged or drunk, and the one I hate most was of her holding me onto the bed with my knees against my chest. I was saying I wanted to go to the toilet but she wouldn't let me. Looking back I find this particularly sadistic.
Of course when my parents had come to fetch me from my grandmother's, she was totally different. Then it was all sweeties and cuddles. When you see this you just know other adults would not believe the person to be capable of such things. You begin to doubt yourself. A voice in your head whispers, 'You're lying.' This is how we forget. For me it is the fear of not being believed, or of actually not being believed, that causes the most pain. In talking about my experience this was far worse than re-living the actual events.
When, as an adult, I told my mother about these memories she said that after one particular extended visit to my grandmother I came back changed. I walked with my head hanging down and had nightmares in which I talked about photographs. I was two-and-a-half years old. I remember at that time I was really scared of a particular tree in our garden. It had died of a disease so it had no leaves, only spiky branches sticking starkly out. I hated when the curtains were opened and I had to look at it and I would never play in the back garden where it was. Looking back I see this tree as an image of my damaged trust.
The period of time after having the memories was very difficult. I did regress to childhood behaviour: I was crying to go home and crying for my mummy. I remember one particularly horrible experience of going into a cafe and it resembling a vision by the artist Hogarth. Every time someone moved an arm or a leg it seemed to me sexual. The whole world had become sexual.
I put a lot of trust in my therapist and in the literature she gave me to read. I knew I was in pain and I wanted to be healed. The therapy made a strong link between anger and healing. I was encouraged to recover my anger and I tried my best to be a good client, beating the cushions or whatever. I am not saying that I wasn't angry. I felt a boiling rage that I could not enjoy my sexuality. Until this point I thought I was a sexual pervert that was even how I introduced myself to my therapist. I thought I had been born that way, just as some people are born physically handicapped.
Sexual encounters made me freeze up. The first time I spent the night with a boyfriend I ended up sleeping in the bath. Then I discovered I could go through with sex if I withdrew into my own world of fantasy, but this made me feel ashamed and abnormal. Until I went to therapy I felt depressed, and resigned to the fact I could never be normal. Therapy helped with this. My therapist would repeat to me that I was not abnormal, that she (my grandmother) had done this to me.
However I think, especially where relatives are involved, we can feel a mixture of emotions, sometimes anger and sometimes love. If we focus on anger and vengeance as the only way of healing, then we leave out love and forgiveness. But the literature I came across suggested that forgiveness was a weakness or, worse, could militate against the healing process. In one book there was a whole chapter on challenging whoever had abused you. So I wrote a curt letter to my grandmother, demanding an apology, or I would cut off all contact with her. I felt uneasy afterwards, but the book said to expect that.
The only acknowledgement I had was via my sister who told me my grandmother said she'd received a letter from me full of lies. So I stopped visiting her and, as I am the eldest, most of my family followed my example. My grandmother was in an old-people's home and I knew full well how keenly she would have felt this. As well as cutting off contact with my grandmother I also rejected other family members who didn't believe me.
Yet, because I was also practising meditation and cultivating spiritual friendships, it gradually became clear to me that cutting off from people did not work; it made me feel worse. At the time I had told myself that my actions empowered me. I'd convinced myself of this, so in a way they did. But in other ways I was deluding myself. Firstly, if I'd thought deeply about it, I would have known the letter to my grandmother would never get a response. It was such an irrevocable deed. All I'd achieved was a release of my own feelings at her expense. Secondly, I was, in effect, punishing members of my family for not giving me their support, belief and apologies. But these things cannot be demanded. When you aren't psychologically integrated you only feel your own suffering. You cannot consider the other person or even your own long-term needs. I saw that I had to allow people to make their own minds up and that I couldn't usefully issue them with the ultimatum, 'If you're not for me, you're against me'.
After this realisation I decided to engage in the process of forgiveness. Here I had another insight. I had used to think that forgiveness was a once-and-for-all action. Now I saw it was a process, and that the most important thing was my intention. My intention now was to get back into relationship with all those I had cut off from. With an attitude of forgiveness genuine communication becomes possible. It's not that I felt sexually healed and whole again and so could forget about anger and blame. In a way it was the opposite. I saw that the only possibility of healing was through forgiveness.
Even now I still feel pain and am still affected sexually, but that no longer gets thrown at someone else. I don't want to blame anyone. I see now that some of what I was doing was trying to take revenge. I called it healing, but the deepest healing can never come by that means. It may be important to experience fully difficult feelings around sexual abuse, but it is equally important not to see those feelings as the final stage of the process. When the Buddha declared that we need not feel angry even if we are being hacked limb-from-limb, he's not demanding the impossible. He's trying to tell us, 'If you think you have an excuse to hate, you have not understood my teaching'.
I began to think about my grandmother's own life. She had been born illegitimately, and at the age of two she was abandoned by her mother who sailed away to a new life in Africa. She was passed onto a foster mother whom she grew to love, only to be snatched away by her maternal aunt who discovered the foster mother drinking in a public house, which she thought immoral. Then, to her delight, her real mother called her to Africa. She set out full of hope, but she later said that she must have been a disappointment as she was sent away after only two weeks.
I also thought about what I'd gained from her. She made everything around her beautiful and was an exquisite needlewoman and cake-decorator. She also played the violin. I'm sure she passed on some of these aesthetic sensibilities to me. Reflecting like this I felt much more sympathy for her. It must have been terrible to have been treated like that and to have no family. In the end I concluded that she'd had a worse deal than me.
Usually we only care about things that affect us. But as I tried to understand the conditions that made up my grandmother's life, I began to forgive. I had heard the aphorism, 'to understand all is to forgive all' many times, but now I started to understand it. Happy people do not act cruelly. If someone has done a cruel thing, they were not happy. Although it may go against all our instincts, there is no sense in adding more hate to that equation.
I also reflected on the Buddha's teaching that none of us escapes suffering. If we've been treated badly then we can often feel that someone must be to blame. Defining myself as a victim gave me a sense of identity that had previously been absent, and that made me feel stronger. Some of the therapeutic material certainly encouraged this line of thought, but it was not so clear or passionate about what might lie beyond it. The danger of this approach is that it can lead to a vicious circle, in which to maintain that sense of identity, the anger and hatred must be kept alive.
In contrast, the Dharma tells us that life is like this, and the most important thing is to realise we are not alone. There is so much grief and suffering felt by all of us and caused by all of us. We can tend to stereotype people who sexually abuse children as evil monsters, and certainly not imagine that they could be women, who are meant to be caring and nurturing. But now I can see that they are ordinary human beings.
So although my grandmother caused me so much pain, when she lay dying it was me who asked her for forgiveness. If anyone had suggested when I'd just had the memories, or in the several years following, that this was the way to healing, I'd have thought it outrageous and probably got angry. It took patience and consistent practice to reach that point. Forgiveness is a process that cannot be forced.
A key practice for me is the Metta Bhavana (development of loving-kindness) meditation. It has been crucial to cultivate compassion and forgiveness for myself. Another aspect of this meditation involves developing metta for someone you don't like, or who has hurt you. Sometimes, especially early on, I could not put my grandmother in this stage. But I kept doing the practice and it began to work in its own way. I still struggle with forgiveness and with giving up grudges. But in my heart of hearts I know that holding on to resentment means holding on to my own pain.