When Dawn Eden was five years old, she was molested by the janitor at the local Jewish temple. The janitor placed his hand on her pre-adolescent thighs in the temple's library. After Eden complained, her mother’s response was, “How could you let him do that?”
Her mother approached the rabbi, who in turn approached the janitor, who denied it ever happened. Eden not only felt like the rabbi viewed her as a liar, but that her own mother now saw her daughter as “that girl” who allowed sexually hungry men to prey on her. Five-year old Eden believed that she had no other choice but to keep her mouth shut. Her mother, then newly separated from Eden's father, never told him for fear of affecting her request for sole custody of their daughter.
This is merely one incident of Eden's numerous encounters with sexual abuse as a young girl living in what she calls a “sexually porous environment.” She mentions how she was exposed to the nudity of her mother's boyfriends, vulgar language, dirty jokes, and drugs.
Now an adult, Eden is ready to talk about the abuse in public. She has come far in facing up to the destructive effects that her experiences had in her adult life. Eden's latest book, My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, examines her personal path to healing from the traumas of childhood sexual abuse. Eden shares her religious conversion into the Catholic church and how she found confidence, forgiveness and reconciliation within an embedded network of saints.
By illustrating how the lives of saints and martyrs have helped her healing, Eden teaches readers about how they too can repair injuries from their childhood sexual abuses.
Saints were degraded and thrown into the dirt by their own families as unwanted children. Yet, they rose above their violations through a deep conviction of divine love in their hearts. The timeless message is that that although none of us are exempt from abuse and bondage, there is always a pathway out of those troubles to heaven.
Eden's path towards the saints
Eden describes how the saints brought her into the Catholic church. Her reaction to her childhood experiences led to a creative but chaotic personal life. She became a rock'n roll chick. In her twenties she was convinced of the “Sex in the City” truism that relationships were built in bed. However, her sexual encounters didn’t lead to anything after splitting the tab for breakfast. Lonely and feeling trapped in a loveless lifestyle, she drifted into a search for a better life. All her life she had been an agnostic Jew who had read the Gospels with appreciation for their values. Then, at age thirty-one she realized that Jesus was not just a good man but God’s Son.
In October 1999 she was “born again” and became a Protestant Christian. Consequently, she was wary of the Catholic devotion to saints. “I believed any recourse to the saints would take one's mind off God, and it could be very easily like idolatry,” Eden told A Journey. However, she was still sorting out baggage from her personal life. She felt that Protestantism’s singular focus on Christ as savior, helper and friend didn’t provide enough access to emotional resources like those developed in the Catholic Christian devotional tradition.
In 2005 she discovered an empathy with the life of a Twentieth Century Polish saint, Maximilian Kolbe. His story changed her life and drew her toward the Catholic church.
One night on her job as a copy editor for the New York Post, an article came on her desk “that had an obvious bias against the personhood of an unborn child,” Eden writes in My Peace I Give You. She decided to alter the bias, which reversed the angle of the story, and the article printed the following day. The reporter who wrote the story was livid and angrily complained about Eden’s change. The copy chief fought a losing battle with the head editors to keep Eden.
While Eden waited for the dreaded you're-fired call, she sat at her desk desperately wondering from where she could get help. She prayed to Jesus, but felt that she needed another friend up there and looked up the patron saint of journalists on her computer. As she searched, she found the story of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a twentieth-century Polish Franciscan friar. St. Maximilian substituted himself for a man condemned by the Nazis to a starvation cell in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Because St. Maximilian sacrificed his life, Pope John Paul II canonized Maximilian as a martyr for charity.
Eden knew in her heart that this saint was the one she needed, so she began praying to St. Maximilian like she would speak to a friend, asking him to pray for her while she was right there in the newsroom. Next thing, she felt a great rush that comforted and held her close to a source so deep that she believed everything was going to be just fine.
“That's what opened up the Communion of Saints for me,” Eden says. “They weren't what I had feared. They were human beings like me who were now perfect in Christ, united with him, and deputized by God to reach out to us and guide us to him.” Eventually, the Post fired her and a few months later she was hired by the Daily News. In between jobs, she made the decision to enter into the Catholic church. She formally entered the Church in April 2006. She catalogued how she was sorting out her personal life into a new form of lay chastity in her book The Thrill of the Chaste.
Eden’s tongue-in-cheek book was directed towards single women seeking other options than promiscuous dating. She gained a notoriety as a contrarian in New York City hip culture. At the time she was not alone lamenting the shallowness of sex without commitments. She received many invitations to debate, discuss and talk about her views with other advocates of “the new chastity.” As she received questions for advice on recovering from sexual abuse, she began to confront her memories of her own childhood sexual abuse. She suffered flashbacks of her childhood traumas.
In October 2007, she received a diagnosis for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Her therapist at the time helped her realize that she had symptoms akin to Stockholm Syndrome, also known as capture-bonding. In this psychological disorder, the hostages feel a deep connection to their captors, often having empathy and protectiveness toward them. That is when Eden first noticed that she had lived in an unhealthy co-dependent relationship with her mother. They enabled each other’s chaotic life.
While on her tour to represent The Thrill of the Chaste, she wasn't fully open with her readers. “I realized that many members of my audience were like me: they wanted to live in chastity and their difficulties in being joyfully chaste didn't stem from disagreement with the Church's teachings,” Eden said in a phone interview. “Rather, it stemmed from the emotional hole inside them, the longing for love and affirmation that resulted from abuse.” Eden paused for a moment to collect her thoughts. Then she continued, “I knew then that if I wanted to reach people on a deeper level, I had to speak to them openly about childhood sexual abuse.”
From her experiences of growing up as an abused child, Eden was well aware of how abuse makes children retreat into isolation, destroys their sense of safety, and may encourage a sense of misplaced guilt. Abuse breaks the family matrix, even if it's not perpetrated by a family member because it’s the family who deals with the repercussions. In the Catholic tradition she discovered the “Communion of the Saints,” the idea that all believers, living and dead, form a living communion with each other. Those saints in the afterlife offer a perspective on the troubles of the living.
“Discovering the Communion of Saints, I had a new family that extended to all times and places,” Eden said, “The saints were connected to me in a way that was even deeper than the connection I felt to some of my own family members, for they were united in Christ and united in me in Christ's grace.”
With the Communion of Saints, Eden found a new family and a realization that other victims of childhood sexual abuse would also benefit from having a sympathetic heavenly family of saints.
The saints come marching back
When I told Eden that I read her book My Peace I Give You as part of a Catholic revitalization movement to make the saints' relevant in modern times, her voice moved up a notch with excitement. “I'm thrilled to hear you to say that,” she said. That's indeed part of her intention.
She recalls how her interest in the saints was also kindled by a book, Father James Martin's My Life with the Saints. She discovered the work about five years ago through a friend. “When I read it myself, I was deeply touched and really in awe of how Father Martin was able to draw the reader through showing how individual saints inspired him in his life.” Eden quickly adds, “It wasn't really all about Father Martin. The reader was invited to discover which saints spoke to him or herself.”
Eden re-tells the lives of both famous and lesser known saints to show how Christ-like virtues can help victims of abuse. For example, she writes of St. Josephine Bakhita, the patron saint of Sudan who was sold into slavery at the age of seven. By the age of thirteen, St. Josephine had endured over a hundred whip markings from her masters on her breasts, stomach, and right arm.
Comfort finally came in her teenage years when St. Josephine was bought by kinder masters and moved to his native Italy. There, she served as a nanny for years. When her mistress had to relocate, she sent St. Josephine to live in a home run by the Canossian Sisters. From the convent, St. Josephine successfully advocated for her freedom and spent the rest of her life there as a nun. The former slave did not harbor malice towards her abusive masters. Instead, she believed that the horrible things that had happened had led her to Christ and a spiritual life. St. Josephine pointed out that goodness had unexpectedly come from the evil visited upon her.
Although St. Josephine is not well known in comparison to other saints, her story offers special solace to the victims of childhood sexual abuses. In fact because she has a slight presence in Catholic devotion, she presents the possibility that the abused can have their own special intimate relationship with a saint. Further, the abused can be part of the rediscovery of a saint’s story and the creation of a new tradition of devotion. The possibility interests Eden. “I was interested in these lesser-known saints because their stories seemed fresher.”
Eden also writes of St. Maria Goretti, who became the head of her household at age nine after her father passed away. Her mother had little option but to work as a field hand. Consequently, she had to leave her daughter Maria alone during the day, a situation that led to sexual assaults from a neighbor’s teenage son. When the young girl was alone, the boy attempted to rape her. After he was fought him off by Maria, he stabbed her multiple times. Right before she died, she forgave her rapist and expressed concern for his divine soul.
Victims of childhood sexual abuse can draw inspiration from St. Maria’s ability to consider the soul of her molester and grant him forgiveness. St. Maria is a prime example of how forgiveness points the way to heaven.
What the saints really mean
Eden firmly believes that one cannot find healing from the saints alone or initially. “You seek healing from Christ. All healing comes from Christ,” Eden said, “Saints are just instruments.”
Every year at the “Chrism Mass” on Holy Thursday before Easter, the pope gives a blessing for the oils that will be used by priests to anoint the sick as they pray for healing. This year during the mass Pope Benedict preached about how the saints can bring healing as “translations of Christ” to the sick. He emphasized that although we are called to emulate Christ, sometimes we may feel too distant from God to reach up to such a grand example as His Son. Benedict suggested in our times of weakness and pain that we can look to the saints as more reachable examples of being Christ-like. They are baby-steps to the life of Christ.
Being Christ-like doesn't mean that justice on abusers should not be served. “Justice is tied with forgiveness and mercy because it's part of God's best,” Eden said. At the same time “God doesn't want offenders to escape human justice. It is a divinely willed extension of God's own justice.” Take St. Maria. On her death bed, she expressed forgiveness for her attacker but also gave his description to the police.
“The most loving thing we can do in such a situation is not to give the abuser the opportunity to abuse again,” Eden said.