A Conversation with Kay Warren on Sexual Abuse, Mental Health, and Suicide
Kay Warren, co-founder of Saddleback Church with her husband, Rick, is a speaker, best-selling author, and Bible teacher. She is perhaps best known as an advocate for those living with mental illness and HIV & AIDS. Following the death of her son Matthew by suicide, in 2013, Kay Warren became an advocate for suicide prevention, and she serves on the board of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.
Kay Warren is also a sexual abuse survivor. As you will hear in my conversation with her, she didn’t keep her abuse a secret from her husband Rick and those closest to her, but it is only in recent years that she has “gone public,” you might say, with her story of abuse.
I had this conversation with Kay Warren in Dallas, Texas, at the Caring Well conference hosted by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Warren Smith: Kay, I’ve known your husband for years. It’s great finally to meet you face to face. He always says great things about you whenever I’m at with him.
Kay Warren: He’d better!
WS: Yeah, exactly right. So let me jump right in. Why are you here? What are you telling this group?
KW: I am telling this group a story that happened a very long time ago, but which has had long–term implications in my life. So while the abuse was almost 60 years ago, it has affected me my whole life. To be in a place where there are other survivors, to be in a place where our stories are welcomed and honored, where we don’t have to defend them or justify ourselves to anybody, but we can just say, look, this is what happened to me. This is how it affected me, and here’s where I found God. Here’s where I found hope and help. Here’s where I’m still struggling. That’s powerful. I want to be a part of that.
WS: Do you mind sharing a little bit of that story here?
KW: When I was about six years old, my dad was a Southern Baptist pastor in San Diego. I don’t know what were the circumstances that got me to the back of the sanctuary that particular day. But somehow I was in the back of the sanctuary with the 14– or 15–year–old son of our church janitor. My memory is just the clarity of being molested by someone I knew and someone I had seen. It was a small church, so I knew him. I was comfortable with him. But how I got there on that day, I don’t know. I know I didn’t tell anybody. I had enough awareness to know what happened was bad and it was wrong.
I didn’t have the language and I didn’t know how to say anything about it to my parents. As best as I can piece it together, I buried it in my head pretty quickly. I don’t remember thinking about it. I don’t remember it being a conscious thought. I don’t remember reliving it. It was just gone.
But from that point on, I developed a pretty insatiable curiosity about sex. I became very curious and alternately repelled at the same time. It’s the way I feel looking at a lizard. I was attracted because it was interesting, but also repelled.
WS: Kay, let me just pause you and make a couple of observations about your story so far. Number one is that — while your story is your story, it’s unique — it shares characteristics with many other women’s stories as well. Many women are abused by someone older than them. They’re abused by someone they know. They’re often abused in an environment they know. They don’t have the language to talk about it, especially with people they need to talk with. A lot of women can probably relate to your story.
KW: They can, unfortunately. Thousands, if not millions, of women can identify with at least parts of that story.
WS: So what happened next?
KW: I hit my teenage years. I stumbled upon pornography in a house where I was babysitting. That curiosity drew me in. I was fascinated. There was the attraction, the pull, and then the shame and the guilt. I’m a good girl. I love Jesus. I want to be a missionary. How can this have anything to do with my life?
So there was some sexual experimentation and I in essence separated myself. I was disassociated from myself. There was a part of me that was the good girl, and a part of me ashamed. I did not know how to put those two people together.
In college, I met Rick. The good girl was who I wanted to be and that’s who Rick saw in me. I told him I had this moment in a sociology class in which suddenly the memory of the abuse, long ago, came back to my conscious mind and I didn’t know what to do with it again.
I felt no emotion. I told Rick about it. He saw that I didn’t have any emotion, so we both just figured, in our ignorance, that a terrible thing had happened, but it’s in the past. It happened a long time ago. This won’t have any effect on us. What we didn’t know is of course, that it would affect us dramatically.
It became just a part of our lives that was so difficult. Sex was impossible. Then we argued about sex. It never occurred to me that it had anything to do with the abuse.
WS: So how did you discover that? How did it become clearer to you the abuse was the root of the problem?
KW: Over the years, praying, asking God for healing. We read marriage books, went to marriage counseling, and it became clear that was part of an issue for us.
But I couldn’t talk about it. I could say I have a problem and this is not working for me and I don’t know what to do. I could talk about it at that level. And at that point there was enough relational trust. I knew that Rick genuinely loved me and I loved him. So after a few years I got pregnant with our first child, then our second, and then later on our third.
Even as we grew this church and grew our family and loved God and loved each other, and had a good life in that sense, this part of our relationship was not quite right. Right before we turned 40, Rick said to me one day: I love you with all of my heart and I am committed to you. I adore you. But I don’t know what to do here. I’m going to go to marriage counseling specifically for this, and I’m going to go to a Christian sex therapist and I hope you will go with me, but I know you may not.
And what happened over those years was not only could I talk about it, but it felt like an abyss opened up in front of me.
Now I know that was trauma. The thought in my head was, I’m going to fall into the abyss. Or it was the sense of a black hole up in space and I’m going to be absorbed in that black hole and I’m going to cease to exist, or I’m going to lose my mind. I will never recover.
So there was a terror and a dread of really exploring the damage and what had happened. So we went, we went. But I’m telling you, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
WS: I know one of the topics that you’ve been passionate about the last few years has been mental health. Were there more general mental health issues that started coming out in counseling?
KW: Yeah, but you know, it didn’t come quickly. That abyss didn’t suddenly turn into, you know, a park. It was hellish, terrible. I thought I was going lose my mind every single time. Six months of very intensive counseling turned into years.
WS: When you say “intensive,” what do you mean? Once a week, twice a week?
KW: Two to three double sessions a week for a while. It was just so intense.
WS: Did anyone else, other than you and Rick and your counselor know what was going on? What I mean by that question is this: Did the church say, “You guys need to get some counseling”? Did friends intervene? Or was this something y’all were dealing with yourselves, alone?
KW: We were dealing with it ourselves. We did tell a few people. I had been open about the fact that I’d been abused, but there weren’t many details. It wasn’t a secret by that time that I had experienced abuse, but I just didn’t really talk about it. We didn’t make an announcement to the church, but there were people close to us who knew. It wasn’t a secret.
WS: So keep talking us through what happened.
KW: It just took such a long time to really understand that what had happened to me was not my fault. Saying those words, even after all this time – the words “It’s not your fault” — is so powerful. We tell ourselves that really it was our fault in some way. If I hadn’t been a cute little girl, if I hadn’t attracted this guy’s attention in some way. I know some women feel incredibly responsible for the abuse they endured. To have somebody say it wasn’t your fault, what was done was evil, and you don’t bear responsibility for that…. That’s a message that takes a really long time to penetrate into our soul. So that took a long time.
WS: How is what you’re going through affecting everything else that’s going on in your life at that time?
KW: I took time off from ministry. I was a very active, full time volunteer at Saddleback, taught Bible study, taught our systematic theology class with one of our pastors. And I just found I couldn’t put the focus on healing and continue with life as it was. I took six months off from those responsibilities and really focused on healing. Rick took extra time off. He went with me on most of my appointments and we were driving 60 miles one way. It wasn’t like it was, you know, five minutes away.
WS: Could I ask you why you went so far? Did you not feel safe to do it closer to home, or am I reading too much into that?
KW: I probably wouldn’t have gone to anybody close by because our lives are in a fish bowl as it is. But the person we saw is a Christian sex therapist and there aren’t many of those. Particularly in 1992 and 93. I don’t mind telling their names. Cliff and Joyce Penner. They’re just the pinnacle on the West Coast for Christian sex therapists. We just felt like we wanted the best and they were the best.
WS: It’s great to hear your main motivation was that you wanted the best, and not that you felt unsafe in your church. But one of the reasons I wanted to ask the question, one of the reasons for this conference, is the fact that the church often needs to do better. How can the church be the safe place? How can the church facilitate healing and be a place where victims and survivors can tell their stories?
KW: Our particular church was there for us, but we have an extraordinary church. They were there for us when Matthew died by suicide. I mean our church has just stepped up for us, but I recognize that’s an anomaly. Our church is an anomaly in many ways. I just have to listen to the stories of other people to know that that’s true. But our particular church was there for us in every way they knew how to be.
WS: But with this type of situation, there’s never really a moment when you can say, I was not healed yesterday and today I’m healed. A day when you get the cast off your leg or throw away the crutches and say it’s not broken anymore.
KW: Oh, how I wish that were true. How I wish there was an expiration date on recovering from sexual abuse. But there isn’t.
You’ll hear their stories of people who say, “I prayed, God did this, and I was healed.” I accept those stories to be true. They’re just not normative. That isn’t the way it happens for most of us. Most of us go through a very long drawn out process of gradual steps, incremental healing. You grow and then you run into another barrier or a piece of trauma or reaction and then you grow through that piece. It’s really a start, stop, start, stop process. That is very normal. And that’s what happened.
What I’ve shared with you happened almost 25 years ago. When I first started going [to therapy], we went for several years regularly. I’m grateful we had the financial ability to do that. I also know that many people simply don’t have the financial ability to do that and they have to find other ways.
After Matthew died by suicide, I discovered the traumatic nature of his death reopened other trauma experiences in me. What I’ve learned in is that trauma waxes and wanes. It’s like grief. You might think, Oh, I’ve already been down that road, I’m through that part, and then something happens that stirs a thought or a memory and, man, you’re back on your face again.
WS: Kay, I ask obnoxious questions for a living, so if this is too obnoxious, feel free not to answer. But since you brought up Matthew, I want to ask you about him. I interviewed Rick a year or two after Matthew’s death, and he said y’all had dealt with Matthew’s mental health challenges for many years. Is there any relationship between what you and Rick were going through and Matthew’s mental illness? Was there a family dynamic at work here?
KW: That’s not an obnoxious question. It’s a legitimate question and, I’ll have to say: Not that I’m aware of.
He was seven when he first experienced clinical depression. I knew he was different almost from the time he was born. He probably could have been diagnosed earlier if we had known that children could have a mental illness. I didn’t know. We really feel like his mental illness started very, very young.
I’m not going to say that there is not a whole family dynamic, but I believe his was more biological in nature.
WS: But his mental health and his depression and ultimately his death by suicide did, as you said, open up some of those old wounds again. How did you deal with that?
KW: In different ways. His death made the sexual abuse feel like a walk in the park in comparison. That’s just my particular experience. I would not say that for anyone else. That was my particular experience.
Just the devastation of his death by suicide was so traumatic and catastrophic. I felt his loss ushered me into a giant room. In that room there were doors. And if I were to open one of those doors, I would discover an overstuffed closet and stuff would just fall out.
So within a very short space of time, I was dealing with all sorts of trauma from my past, stuff that now felt incompletely grieved. Other losses in my life. It was so painful.
I have come to accept that parts of me are not probably going to experience full healing here on earth. It just causes me to long for heaven because I know that the healing that God wants to give me is coming. The complete, the total, restoration. As Tolkien says: all sad things become untrue. And that will be part of my experience when I see Jesus face to face. The sadness caused here by the abuse, it will become untrue in the presence of Jesus. And that is probably the strongest hope I have. Healing may not be complete here, but that is part of the hope of heaven.
WS: Kay, in closing, I have to ask: How are you doing?
KW: I call it wonderful, terrible. So much in my life is wonderful. I have a rich marriage. I have great kids. I love the work I do. I love my church. I love my friends. My material needs are met. I mean, seriously, I have a wonderful life.
At the same time, I have a terrible, gaping hole where Matthew should be and nothing and no one will replace it or fill it or make it better, or take the tears from my eyes, until I see him when Jesus comes for me.
So I’m finding a level of acceptance of this as the way it’s going to be: wonderful, terrible.
WS: What do you want people to take away from our conversation and your talk here in Dallas?
KW: I was praying for the women particularly, who felt as I did many years ago. As a young bride I felt like such a failure. I wondered what was wrong with me? I’m not much of a woman. I’m not much of a Christian because if I were a Christian and I’ve prayed and I’ve asked God to heal me, then I would be healed. But he hasn’t healed me. So not only am I damaged goods, I’m not even a very good Christian.
If I had heard other women talk about the length of time it takes to get better, the fact that it’s not an easy healing process, that it’s start and stop, that there are parts of us that may not be fully healed until Jesus comes.
It would have relieved so much of the guilt I felt, and it would have made me feel like I wasn’t alone. I didn’t talk to anybody. So I felt like a freak. I felt, I felt like I was the only one on the face of the earth who was living through the terrible time that we were in our marriage. And to have heard somebody say, it’s going to be okay but it’s going to take time and we’re with you and you’re not alone and it’s not your fault. Oh, I wish I had had somebody say that to me. And so I want to be at least a part of that for other women.