A Book Review by Elizabeth McKenzie
Jane N Dowling: Child Arise! The Courage to Stand. David Lovell Publishing East Kew
ISBN: 9781 86355 153 3
The seemingly endless stream of sexual abuse cases being heard by the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has resulted in near despair in the community and a heavy-hearted questioning of ‘where will all this ever end?’ There is a corrosive sense that all of the social groups that we so innocently trusted were involved in these dreadful crimes. Of particular anguish is the number of such cases brought against clergy of the Catholic Church and the almost complete failure of several bishops in their duty of care to vulnerable victims. While testifying before the commission has brought some sort of closure for victims, it is very often not enough. Too often, both the perpetrators and those members of the hierarchy who protected them in their mistaken loyalty to the institutional Church have shown little (if any) remorse or shame for their failures. Healing of the situation seems at best remote, at worst, impossible.
So it was with some trepidation I picked up Child, Arise! The Courage To Stand and subtitled, A Spiritual Handbook for Survivors of Sexual Abuse, by Jane N Dowling, herself a survivor. How could a ‘handbook’ for survivors of sexual abuse alleviate the ongoing, corrosive suffering of the victims themselves and the ongoing despair of non-victims who are, it seems, completely helpless in redressing the situation?
I predict that Child, Arise! will quickly become the ‘go to’ ‘handbook’ for both groups.
It is acknowledged that victims/survivors of abuse and/or trauma need to tell their story, not once but many times. Coming to terms with what happened, getting it ‘out of their system is only possible if they are encouraged to express their deepest emotions of despair, anger, grief, bewilderment attached to the abuse/trauma. For those of us who are non-victims but have been assigned the role of listeners, this often, almost obsessive, telling and retelling of the narrative, can sorely try one’s patience – and good will.
In Child, Arise! we are invited by the author, not just to listen, but to walk with her on the journey she has undertaken from victim to survivor. We do not get explicit accounts of the abuse she suffered. But her vivid excoriating descriptions of the very real emotions triggered by her childhood experiences leave us in no doubt of the horror that she endured. These ever-present feelings of terror and revulsion are never very far from the surface of her life and can be activated by ordinary, everyday, domestic events and incidents. So how does she move beyond them? How does she achieve not just closure but healing?
Child Arise! is a brave undertaking to face her demons. She is intent on persuading other victims to face their own demons. Her reflections, on the effects the sexual abuse she endured had had on all aspects of her life, are a very important part of this book. The damage to her spiritual, emotional and social wellbeing would resonate with fellow victims and her measured and non-histrionic descriptions of these effects give ‘non-victim’ readers a real and compelling insight into the state of mind that victims have to live with, whilst endeavouring to live an ordinary, productive life – no mean feat!
At first Child, Arise! would seem to be yet another spiritual guide. In reaching out to her readership, the author uses the tried and true prayer formula used by most spiritual directors and those seeking spiritual nourishment and growth. In addition, most ‘chapters’ are introduced by the author recounting a personal story, not of a specific incident or event but of negative and sometimes terrifying emotions evoked by such an event/incident in the past and of the process of her overcoming such thoughts. This is followed by a scripture reading, a kind of homily on the reading itself and a list of ‘praying the scripture reading’ instructions.
‘Try to be aware of Jesus’ presence with you and, as you read the reading very slowly, image the scene unfolding’ (p 91)
– a very Ignation practice of meditation.
The scripture reading and instructions are followed by more input from the author, usually on how the particular scripture passage impacted on some aspect of her own trauma/struggle. Each ‘chapter is short and succinct. What makes it different is the problems she encountered in coming to terms with the conventional, traditional translations of scripture. How do you relate to a loving, caring God the ‘Father’ when the very word ‘father’ turns you to jelly; you break out in a cold sweat; you feel terrified to the point of nausea? How do you interpret ‘My yoke is easy and my burden light’ from the perspective of someone whose burden in a post-abuse world is overwhelmingly desolate.
One of the very real strengths of this book is how the author deals convincingly with this problem, never resiling from the real difficulties the victim faces in trying to come to terms with scripture readings – and an institution – which seem to mock the duty of care they should offer to ‘ordinary’ folk. Another strength is the accessibility of its format, not just to abuse victims but to any reader who on the one hand seeks to understand the anguish endured by child sexual abuse victims and on the other, who wish to deepen and nourish their own spiritual life.
Before a victim can benefit from this truly consoling ‘handbook’ there is one hurdle for the victim to overcome. From somewhere deep in their psyche they must find the will and the ability to lay down the baggage of victimhood and become open to the process of healing in their daily lives. Most victims are driven, obsessively in some cases, by anger and the need for justice to be done – not just to be seen to be done! The author of Child, Arise! has been there and done that. Her aim in writing this book is to be the light at the end of the tunnel. She is committed to convincing victims that there is a way back to sanity and self-empowerment through prayer, meditation, a reappraisal of the gospel message.
As I was reading it, I was reminded of the the title of the iconic book written in the 1960’s by Sebastian Moore – ‘The Crucified Jesus is No Stranger’. Perhaps, eventually, the only way forward from victim to survivor is not to depend on the outcomes of the Royal Commissions and apologies from persons of great importance in institutions. The author suggests that hopefully, salvation, a return to some sort of normalcy, is to be found in the well trodden paths of spirituality. For many, this access to consolation would be an alien procedure and they must find other methods to break the bondage of victimhood.
The author draws significantly and very effectively on the language and practice of ‘Transactional Analysis’ (the actions of our adult/child/parent personae in traumatic situations) although she does not reference TA specifically. The book itself is beautifully produced – plenty of white space and the font, though small, is clear and accessible. I predict that in my own case and hopefully in the case of a wide readership, it will soon become dog-eared!
Elizabeth McKenzie is a member of the Tinteán Editorial Team