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Interview: Dawn Eden writer on sexual abuse

28 February 2014

'Chastity means living out my faith with my entire body'

I'm seeking to help readers who, like me, suffered childhood sexual abuse. In My Peace I Give You, I do this through the lives of saints who suffered abuse and found healing. The saints showed us that God not only wants to heal our wounds, but, if we let him, he will heal us through our wounds, making everything we have endured serves to draw us nearer to him in love.

I had the idea for the book in December 2010, when, while looking at books at a friend's house, I happened upon a book recounting the story of Blessed Laura Vicuña. I was stunned to discover that there was a young girl who had been declared Blessed by the Catholic Church who'd been sexually abused, over a period of years, by her mother's live-in lover. Here was a saint-to-be who had suffered what I had suffered, and had the heroic virtues I so badly needed.

I don't give many details about my own abuse in the book, or in my talks - not wanting to trigger painful memories in others who have had similar experiences. To put it in the most general terms, my first sexual victimisation was perpetrated by an adult man outside the home when I was five years old. Later on, after my parents' divorce, the abuse was perpetrated at home, by one of my mother's boyfriends. One thing my mother does acknowledge, and regrets, is that she permitted me to be exposed to what's known as "non-contact sexual abuse" at home - adult nudity and graphic sex-talk.

I was born into a Jewish family outside New York City. My parents split up when I was five. I have an older sister, who is a rabbi, and a brother by my father's second marriage, who is a doctor. In 1999, at the age of 31, I received the grace of Christian faith. The ball got rolling after a rock musician recommended I read G. K. Chesterton. I entered into full communion with the [Roman] Catholic Church in 2006.

I wrote my first book, The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding fulfilment while keeping your clothes on, out of a desire to help others escape the frustration I had experienced when, as a recent convert to Christianity, I tried in vain to find a book on chastity for people who are not virgins.

As a former rock journalist living in New York City, I needed a lot more guidance getting chaste than what the "teen purity" authors could offer. So, once I started to learn how to walk the walk, I shared what I knew, and was happy to find that it encouraged many people. The Thrill has sold more than 15,000 copies in English, and several thousand more in its various translations - Spanish, Polish, and Chinese.

I'm embarrassed to say that I first began writing about music for small fan publications, because it gave me the opportunity, as a teenager, to meet musicians upon whom I had crushes. But I began writing professionally at the age of 18 for rock-history publications, eventually becoming a regular contributor to the British magazine Mojo.

I was fascinated by great, obscure, mid-1960s acts, usually the more obscure the better, like Curt Boettcher, though I made exceptions for brilliant Baroque popsters like the Zombies, the Left Banke, and Village Green-era Kinks. It was partly because I admired the fortitude and integrity of those who would keep making music of high artistic value even when they were ignored by the general public. And partly it was cathartic to place myself inside the inner world of sensitive people who gave their heart to projects doomed to failure.

Yes, I do still listen to that music, but not much, because it takes me back to a time when I was suffering from severe loneliness. I do miss dancing, which I can't do any more because the only dances I know are the Sixties go-go moves - the Frug, the Pony, etc. - which aren't very chaste. I still catch myself doing them at home from time to time when a Dave Clark Five song comes on to the internet radio.

To me, chastity means living out my faith with my entire body, so that I am fully integrated, body and soul. If I am united to Jesus in my heart, it does not make sense for me to separate out my bodily actions so that I seek love or pleasure by means that Jesus says are reserved for a man and woman who are married to one another. Chastity is about much more than sex: it is a way of life for every Christian.

My main work these days is as a full-time postgraduate student in Washington, DC, completing a sacred-theology licentiate, which is a prerequisite for obtaining a doctorate in theology licensed by the Holy See. Once I have my doctorate, I hope to teach university-level theology. In my spare time, I share the message of My Peace I Give You in public talks, including to inmates and people in addiction-treatment programmes.

The fallout from the sexual revolution in a certain way forced the issue into the public. Children are safest when both parents live at home; so, as the number of intact families declined, the abuse rate went up. Now that the divorce rate is lower, fewer cases are being reported; but I suspect that government-sponsored sex education is inadvertently leading to less reporting, as children are led to believe that being introduced to sex at an early age is "normal".

If you have suffered abuse, the single most healing thing is to learn that you were not responsible for it, and it did not make you "dirty" or impure. Beyond that, it is extremely healing for victims to discover that they are not alone. That is why it is so important to get help - not only from a therapist, if need be, but especially from speaking to a trusted family member or friend. Victim-support groups can also be very helpful.

I know from male friends that, however isolating sexual abuse may be for women, it is even more isolating for men. Men tend to keep their painful memories to themselves.

Thomas Aquinas was not a young child when he was victimised: he was about 17. His story resonates with many survivors, because he was placed in a threatening situation by members of his own family, in his own home. Ignatius of Loyola and the Roman martyr Sebastian were two saints who, although not sexually abused, suffered traumatic experiences.

I included other saints because they suffered childhood trauma that affected them deeply, like Thérèse of Lisieux, who lost her mother to breast cancer when she was very young. There are other saints who, in addition to experiencing loss or trauma in their youth, made decisions as adults that caused them pain, like Dorothy Day, who had an abortion under pressure from a boyfriend, who promptly dumped her.

Forgiveness is, at its core, not something you do for the offender: it's something you do for yourself, to let go of anger and resentment. If someone is still abusive, the most forgiving thing to do may be to never give that person an opportunity to abuse again - so reconciliation may be out of the question.

Another thing I emphasise is that forgiveness does not mean forgoing the demands of justice. A great example is Maria Goretti. From her deathbed she both forgave her attacker and gave the policethe information that would convict him.

Back when I was a rock journalist, my favourite place to take holidays was London, and I still love it. Nowadays I like to make retreats at the Monastery of Our Lady of Mercy, which is run by the Mercedarian friars in Philadelphia.

The most reassuring sound for me is the bell that is rung at the consecration of the Host at mass.

Part of my healing has been finding positive ways that my mother influenced me, despite the abuse I suffered as a child in her home. For example, she always encouraged me to write, and she taught me to project my voice - and both writing and speaking are major parts of my life now.

Probably the most influential person on my life in recent years is Fr Francis Canavan SJ, a mentor of mine who died in 2009 at the age of 91, and who, I believe, is a saint. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be doing any of the things I am doing now. He believed in my abilities more than I did, and his faith changedme.

Other than the Bible, the books that have influenced and pleased me most are Lewis Carroll's Alice books; G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, which led to my conversion; and St Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica.

Apart from Jesus or our Lady, the person I would choose as my companion if locked in a church for a few hours would have to be Fr Edward Dowling SJ. He once said: "I don't think we should despise the negative. I have a feeling that if I ever find myself in heaven, it will be from backing away from hell."

Dawn Eden was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

My Peace I Give You: Healing sexual wounds with the help of the saints is published by Ave Maria Press/Alban Books, £11.99 (CT Bookshop £10.80 - Use code CT487 ). Dawn Eden has speaking engagements in Scotland from today until 6 March. She is speaking in Newman House, Westminster, on 7 March, and the University of East London on 9 March.

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