When Your Thoughts Are Unthinkable

after sexual assault

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. These weren’t complete thoughts, just words lying in proximity to each other. Unanswerable questions. Profanity. The divine name. 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. Complete strangers had just taken something from us, something that we could never regain, although we didn’t know what that missing thing was, not yet. The first question was whether or not to tell anyone. Was telling or not-telling the stronger move? I realize now that these were the first steps of trying to reclaim a sense of agency.

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. If God’s will controlled all things, did that mean that God had willed this awful experience?

“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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I grew up in a conservative, churchy subculture until a traumatic event catapulted me into a new life. What a relief to discover that I could be furious about outrageous things, and still love Jesus. A Presbyterian pastor, I've been in ministry for more than 20 years and currently serve a church in Bethesda, MD. I've written two books which are both spiritual memoirs about pivotal events. I often speak about the subjects of Holy Land pilgrimage, and recovering faith after sexual violence.

I welcome your comments.

2 thoughts on “When Your Thoughts Are Unthinkable

  1. Hello Ruth. I am not sure your remember me. I was a spouse of someone who taught at Eastern Christian High School and knew your Mom and Dad. I am now reading your book Ruined and appreciate what you and your family went through. Your father told Charlie, my husband, of the attack shortly before we left for Dordt College. Charlie spoke of this incident in a very moving chapel at Dordt College. I am not sure of the year but I think it was long after the incident. I began to teach at Dordt in 1988 while my husband began in 1979. Charlie started the Engineering Program at Dordt and died two months ago after nine years of automobile injuries. I lost my job at Dordt also because I was also injured. However my injuries were minor compared with Charlie’s. So blessings from the Lord shower you and your family.

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