When Your Thoughts Are Unthinkable

after sexual assault

I wrote this essay for the blog at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Albany, NY because I’ll be speaking there Saturday (May 20) and Sunday (May 21). If you’re in the Albany area, I would love to meet you there!

 

After I got raped, one of my problems was that my thoughts were unthinkable. This problem joined other, more pressing ones. Where could I be safe? Where could I sleep? And how could I get through the impending hours of darkness? I continually felt like I was jumping out of my skin.

I’ll admit that I’d never been terribly comfortable in my skin. I was raised by Calvinists, after all. Everything important was housed from the neck up. But after the rape I couldn’t just escape to my head. My very thoughts—such as they were—became heretical. They weren’t complete thoughts, just words lying in proximity to each other. Profanity. The divine name. Unanswerable questions. I tried to stop the words from lining up, but when I got tired enough, they did, and taunted me: “Where the eff was God?”

To back up — the rape occurred in 1978 when I was a senior at Calvin College. Two masked intruders broke into the home I shared with housemates. They held us hostage for hours, then took turns sexually assaulting us at gunpoint. After the criminals left and we got loose from our bonds, we debated whether or not to call the police. That conversation was a work of theology, although I didn’t realize it at the time. We were trying to reclaim our sense of agency because complete strangers had just taken something that we would never regain.

That semester I was taking Linguistics and World Religion. I was a true believer in the Reformed doctrine in which I’d been catechized. But the sovereignty of God was no longer a comforting thought. Had God willed this awful experience? Who, exactly, took away our agency?

“Put it behind you,” our professors advised. Yes, that was the response of our faith community — deafening silence. Meanwhile, the denomination was embroiled in a fight over the ordination of women. Male pastors debated: What does scripture say on this issue? But I knew what they were really debating: What’s a woman good for?

Eventually I found my way to the Presbyterian church, to seminary, and to ordination. I have been in ministry since 1990. When my own daughters became college-aged, I realized I had unfinished business about the trauma I endured. I wanted to figure out how, exactly, it shaped me. So I began to write. What message did I want to convey to my daughters about living in a woman’s skin? That writing became my memoir, RUINED.

I am passionate about the life of faith, which isn’t a thought exercise. Discipleship is living as God-breathed beings on a God-created planet. We live in bodies, and women’s bodies are too often in peril. The church can break its silence and become a powerful support to victims of sexual assault. There are more of them in your pews than you think.

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Why I’m Glad I Wrote a Rape Memoir

Sexual Assault Awareness Month -- You Are Not Alone

There are times when I feel sorry for myself. You too? I hate having the particular story I have. I hate that I spent years writing it down. Why did I go through all that agony? Then I get a letter like this one, and my self-pity washes away, like sidewalk chalk after a rain. What’s left behind are the stories that need to be told — in print and in pixels — words which will never completely disappear.

Dear Ruth — Thank you so much for sharing your story. I’m still sobbing after reading it straight through the last 3 days. Thank you for pouring out so much of your agony and fury onto the pages of your book. It is a perfect document.  I found myself, while reading, getting lost for moments as if I were reading journal entries of my own describing the pains, confusions, and piercing cries of “WHY” to God.  Thank you for not resisting God’s love, and for being willing to be used in people’s lives such as mine… used to offer a ray of hope to hang on.  Reading your words was the first time I knew I wasn’t alone.

You found me and I found you. We are not alone.

Speak it. Speak the truth of our stories.

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“Thirsty? A sermon on the Samaritan Woman at the Well”
by Rev. Ruth Everhart

 

The text is John 4:5-42, the story of Jesus’ encounter with a woman at the well in Sychar.

Thirst is real, and water is a justice issue. When Jesus spoke with the woman at the well, he implicitly challenged every cultural assumption about who is worthy of his time and conversation. But this shift has been slow to percolate through the cultural layers of church and society. Rev. Ruth Everhart considers the Samaritan woman’s story in tandem with her own, because gender still shapes a woman’s world. How did living water trickle through the layers of an oppressive church system and the horror of rape at gunpoint? Because the living water is still available, and still ever-fresh. (Year A, Lent 3)

Review of RUINED at the Englewood Review of Books

So pleased to tell you that Englewood Review of Books reviewed my memoir. What a great first line: What I love most about this memoir is that it is a gift, primarily for her daughters, but by extension to other young women and ultimately Christian culture in general. You can read the whole thing here. Thanks ERB!

My Recent Adventures in the Public Sphere

featuring the Washington Post & Breitbart

Almost two months have passed since my Op-Ed appeared in “Acts of Faith” at the Washington Post, and conservative media vilified me for it. I wrote up an account of what happened and sent it to my subscribers. But as Breitbart continues to be a cultural force, and “truth” continues to be at issue, it seems best that I should set out the facts for anyone who might be interested in them.

The title of the Op-Ed was this: “Our culture of purity celebrates the Virgin Mary. As a rape victim, that hurts me.”

(more…)

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Interviewed in Washington Post

Jim Barnes interviewed me for the Washington Post: Loudoun woman’s memoir tells of how a violent crime shook her religious faith.