Responding Redemptively: A Conversation With Sexual Abuse Survivor Mary DeMuth
Editor’s Note: This interview is one in an ongoing series of articles MinistryWatch has done on sexual abuse in the evangelical church. To see others in this series, including interviews with Rachael Denhollander and Kay Warren, click here.
Mary DeMuth is a writer and speaker who, as she describes it, “loves to help people live re-storied lives.”
What is a “re-storied life”? She says it’s a life in which we allow God to use the sometimes dark stories of our lives and turn them into something beautiful. She is the author of more than 30 books, and she’s the host of the popular daily podcast Pray Every Day, a podcast in which she prays through Scripture every day of the year. She’s also a wife and mother.
Mary DeMuth is with us today because of her recent book We Too: How The Church can Respond Redemptively to the Sexual Abuse Crisis.
I had this conversation with Mary DeMuth in Dallas, Texas, at the Caring Well conference hosted by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Warren Smith: To help us understand what we’re dealing with, could you tell us how big a problem the crisis is? The statistics you recount in your book are pretty daunting and overwhelming.
Mary DeMuth: Over the whole world, 35 percent of women have experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. That includes 57 percent of Bangladeshi women, 77 percent of Cambodian women, 79 percent of Indian women, 87 percent of Vietnamese women, and 99 percent of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment.
This is a worldwide problem. Hopefully, the church in America can be a leader in responding to the problem, but the problem is bigger than America. Whenever I’ve spoken in other parts of the world, I have long lines of men and women coming up to me afterwards, saying, “Yes, that’s my story.” It breaks my heart.
WS: What is the overarching message you want to communicate?
MD: It is that we have viewed sexual abuse survivors as problems. But they are actually a pathway toward Jesus. If we want to understand the heart of Jesus, we’re going to interact with them and see them as benefits to us instead of as a problem to be solved.
WS: That’s a beautiful sentiment. But it’s hard to understand. People, if they wanted to, could twist that and think, “Oh, so it’s a good thing. It’s a good thing we live in a broken world.” I don’t think that’s what you’re saying.
MD: No, but people who have learned their lack, and have learned how to marry their lack to Jesus’ strength, have a unique ability to understand Him.
WS: You begin your book with stories. One you call “A Tale of Two Cats.” Would you tell that story?
MD: I teach a writer’s intensive in Europe, and while I was there — in a medieval French village — I ran into a cat that was very mean. I tried to coax it, saying, “Hey, kitty, kitty, kitty” — and it tried to grab me and hit me with its paw. Then a couple of days later I took a walk and, in the middle of a field, there was another kitty cat. I called it and it ran to me and it jumped up into my arms.
We have to realize, when we think about sexual abuse victims, that sometimes the church can be to them like me approaching the scared, angry cat. They’re going to lash out — because they been accosted or hurt or misunderstood. Whereas the country kitty probably had a really good experience with his owners — so therefore he trusted me.
Having that idea has been helpful for me in the way that I interact with people, realizing they could be scared or hurt. Having a posture of listening and empathy will go a really long way with people who are hurting.
WS: Your subtitle—How the Church Can Respond Redemptively to the Sexual Abuse Crisis—implies that too often, unfortunately, we have not done so in the past.
MD: That’s right. When an animal has experienced bad owners or constant harm, they’re not going to trust: they become a feral cat. But if they’ve had a nurturing environment, then they tend to trust. If we’ve been that bad environment, it’s no wonder what backlash we’ll receive.
WS: It’s one thing to just say, “Be nice. Do better.” But you immediately dive into Scripture to flesh that out. You tell the story of the Good Samaritan. Would you unpack those stories a little bit for me? Why are those stories particularly relevant to us as we examine the sexual abuse crisis?
MD: It’s fascinating to me that, when Jesus tells a story, He places us in the victim’s mind.
In the story of the Good Samaritan, it’s a Jewish person who’s going down to Jerusalem, and his very own people walk by him, including his religious leaders.
And then we have the Samaritan come and do something beautiful for him. It’s such an interesting paradox because, as we know, Samaritans weren’t loved. I read recently in the Gospels that the Pharisees compared Jesus to a Samaritan. I thought that was fascinating. That was more or less the worst thing you could ever call someone.
In today’s culture, with this issue of sexual abuse, sadly, it has been the Samaritans, those on the outside — like the press and the legal system — who have been coming alongside victims in a profound and tangible way. The leaders who should have been there for them were walking along on the other side.
WS: Do you prefer to think of yourself as a sexual abuse “victim,” a sexual abuse “survivor,” or is there better language?
MD: I’m not offended by either one. I tend to call myself a survivor because I don’t like the word “victim.” It makes me feel like I have no volition, that there’s no way for me to get out of that situation, that I’ll be permanently victimized for the rest of my life. But I know some people think it’s a really good word because they truly were victimized. So I’m not really worried about the semantics of either of those words.
WS: Mary, would you tell a little bit of your story—as much as you’re comfortable with—and tell why it created such passion for you around this issue?
MD: Yeah. I was sexually abused as a kindergartener, for most of my kindergarten career, by older boys in the neighborhood — significantly older: 16 or 17 years old. There was no grooming for what they did. They just took me from my babysitter’s house and started sexually abusing me. They told me that they would kill my parents if I told. They were threatening in other ways, too. They also used a bad word to describe what they were doing, and I was a good little girl and I didn’t want to say that bad word. But eventually they started inviting more people — lots of different older guys — and it became untenable. It would happen sometimes in their house — with their mom baking cookies in the other room. I don’t know what she was thinking.
I knew in my mind that if I didn’t tell anyone I was going to be killed: I felt like my life was ending.
So weirdly, I didn’t tell my parents, I told my babysitter — the one who had pushed me out into their grips. And she said, “I will tell your mom.” The next day, I thought, “It’s solved. This is not going to happen anymore. It’s done.” I didn’t think about wanting them prosecuted or anything. I was only five. I just wanted it to stop.
But the next day when the boys knock on the door, the babysitter opens the door and pushes me out. So I’m thinking my mom knows but she doesn’t care, because I believed as a five-year-old that adults tell the truth always.
And so, at that point, I had to learn how to protect myself, because no human being in the whole wide world was ever going to protect me. The cleverness of my little gritty five-year-old self decided I would sleep. And that did save me for the last month of my kindergarten year. I would get home, or get to the babysitter’s, and I would pull the covers over my head and I would not be roused. And she was lazy enough that she didn’t want to push me out with those boys again.
That’s some of the background. I also had a father who was a perpetrator and had all sorts of terrible things that he was doing to groom me. So I had it in every kind of facet of my life. I eventually met Christ at 15 and started that healing journey at that point.
WS: I want to talk more about that part of your journey, but let’s back up to between 5 and 15. Through your wits, limited though they were as a five-year-old, you moved into a survival mode and you were able to make it stop, at least with those boys, if not with your father. But what impact did that have on you?
MD: I was devastated. I felt like no human cared about me. Looking back now, I know that there would have been physical evidence of what was happening, but my family of origin just didn’t care to look or notice — or maybe they noticed, but they just didn’t do anything. There was no intervention.
I also felt like everyone was finding me, that all these other predators would find me, and I had to fight my way through those years. They were years of pushing away, running away, screaming, yelling. I was trying to get safe all the time. I was hypervigilant for all those years.
WS: Looking back, do you think your babysitter actually told you mother?
MD: I’m not sure. I can’t confirm or deny. I just don’t know. But I also know that there would’ve been physical evidence. So I do think that my family of origin definitely knew. They just chose not to do anything about it. But because I believed that my babysitter did tell her, whether she did or didn’t, I thought my parents didn’t care.
WS: So at one level it’s irrelevant.
MD: I knew that I wasn’t going to get taken care of.
WS: The real spirit of my question, Mary, is that abuse can only thrive in an environment where either people don’t know — and the value of a conference like this is that we can educate ourselves — or know and don’t care.
WS: So often — in your story and Rachael Denhollander’s story and many, many other stories that I know about — once the story [of abuse] finally comes out, it’s amazing how many people knew. But they didn’t want to face the reality of it. They didn’t want to take responsibility for solving the problem. They were like the Jewish leaders who passed by the man on the side of the road. So we need to look for the signs. We need to know the signs. We need to take greater responsibility for the five-year-old kindergartners in the world. Is that part of what your message is here?
MD: It is, absolutely. I told you about the Good Samaritan. Another narrative, The Good Shepherd narrative, is powerful to me because a good shepherd takes care of his sheep. Part of that is understanding these kinds of outcries of children and young adults and adults. To really shepherd them means not pretending the issue doesn’t exist and not being so uncomfortable with it you won’t ever talk about it. To be a good shepherd means to address it with truth and love and authenticity and to say, “Yeah, this might open up the floodgates of a bunch of people crying and being sad and working through their issues. But isn’t that what a shepherd is supposed to do?” He’s supposed to lead us beside still and quiet waters. He’s supposed to restore our soul. He’s supposed to care for the souls of the people underneath His care.
I think this relates to the American system of churches, which can tend to be a little more corporate and less connected. I think there’s a revival that God wants to enact in our structures, so that we’re not thinking, “We must make this corporation thrive.” We need to think, instead, that we’re only as healthy as our weakest members are. We need to get back to, “What does it mean to be a good shepherd?”
WS: You just mentioned how the Good Shepherd “restores our soul.” A lot of your book is about restoration and restorative justice. You connect to another biblical story, the story of Zacchaeus. Say more about why restoration is so important in this arena.
MD: In the book, I quote Dr. Sandra Glahn, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary. She asks, if Zacchaeus were a sexual offender, and he was encountering Jesus and everything was going to be different, how would it look if he was going to give restorative justice?
True restorative justice in Zacchaeus’ case — he was a tax collector — was to give back money, more than what he had received. So restorative justice in the case of sexual abuse would be acknowledging what you’ve done and making reparations for how that might have damaged someone.
WS: What would that look like practically? How do you give someone back the years that they’ve been robbed of? How do you give children back the innocence in their childhood?
MD: Yeah, it’s a fascinating question and, to be honest, I don’t I have the full answer to it. But there’s a book by Catherine Claire Larson called As We Forgive, about the Rwandan Holocaust. In Rwanda, they had all of these people in jail, but they couldn’t hold them anymore. So they were coming back onto the streets. Rwanda partnered with the church to figure out how to integrate these people back into society. What do you do when the person who killed your husband now has to build you a house? What do you with the pain of it all and the fear of the victims?
It was a beautifully done thing. After I read that, I wept and I thought, “I don’t think I understand forgiveness quite as much as I should.” Or confession and repentance. I have not encountered a lot of repentance among sexual predators. I haven’t seen that very often. The stats are that it doesn’t happen very often.
WS: Is that because our criminal justice system is set up not to compel that kind of repentance? We don’t ask for it. There are very few opportunities in the criminal justice system for the victims to speak out or for them to hear, “I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?” from a perpetrator. The system is not set up for that. Instead there are plea deals and bargains and non-disclosure agreements and people are never held to account.
MD: We’ve also done it another way. A perpetrator and a victim are in a pastor’s office, and the pastor says to the perpetrator, “Are you sorry?” And the perpetrator will say, “Oh yes, I’m very sorry,” which usually means “I’m sorry I got caught.” Then the pastor will say to the victim, “You need to forgive now, because he’s repented.”
This is crazy cheap grace. It’s really mean. You’ve suddenly placed your expectations on a victim, expectations that they need to quickly forgive when they haven’t even processed their trauma.
WS: There’s another aspect of your book that I wanted you to talk about: the relationship between abuse and pornography. Why is that relationship important, and why is it so often overlooked?
MD: We have grossly misunderstood the prevalence of porn. It fuels the sexual abuse crisis. It certainly fuels human trafficking, and it also fuels rape. If you’re watching images of a person overpowering another person — with the woman, or victim, portrayed as wanting to be overpowered — then men who watch that, or women who watch that, think it’s OK, and they start to want it.
So you’ve got a lot of confused people out there thinking, “Well, she says ‘no,’ but she means ‘yes.’” Because that’s how porn portrays it. If you watch it constantly, you inevitably tend to act on it.
I recently heard that one picture of child porn on a computer represents at least a hundred touch-contacts. That is, if you’ve got one picture of child porn on your computer, you’ve had a hundred touch-violations. We have to wake up about this.
My father was a purveyor and a creator of porn. I struggled with porn addiction in my early teens through to my early twenties, both as a sexual abuse victim and from being exposed to it constantly as a child. It ruins our idea of the Imago Dei, of the image of God in each other. When we stop seeing other people as human beings created by God, then we can believe that other people are things to be used for our pleasure.
That’s the pervasive message of porn. And we don’t talk about how it’s related to sexual abuse.
WS: You mentioned earlier that you became a Christian when you were about 15 years old. But then you said that you struggled with pornography and your late teen years, early twenties. So, while we believe in the transformative power of Christ, and sometimes that transformation is immediate, for most of us things don’t change overnight.
MD: No, I wish they did. When I became a Christian, I thought my struggle with pornography would go away. I figured I’d be delivered of everything. I also thought I would be instantly healed from all the pain and all the trauma. That didn’t happen, either. So that made it hard for me to trust Christ.
I think that’s part of the evangelical message that we have gotten wrong. We want it to be a victory story. We tell people, “If you meet Jesus, everything’s going to be solved.” We don’t necessarily say it in those words, but that’s the impression we give. And that causes self-hatred, a feeling of: “Why can’t I get over this? Jesus is in my life now. I should have a victory story. And why do I still get triggered? Why am I still afraid when I walk down the street?”
It’s a process; it’s a discipleship journey. I don’t think discipleship is about memorizing a bunch of verses and meeting for coffee at Starbucks. Discipleship is training each other how to work through these kinds of questions. What does it mean to love Jesus in the midst of these kinds of struggles? What does it mean to love Jesus when you’re triggered? What does it mean to love Jesus and be healed compartmentally as you continue to walk with him?
WS: But you have experienced of a lot of healing in your life. What made the difference? What did the church do that helped? What did the church do that was not so helpful? What did you do that helped?
MD: I desperately wanted to be whole, and I knew that if I was going to start a new family in a new way — with a stake in the ground saying, “No longer on my watch” — that I had to pursue healing. It was something I had an insatiable need for, and therefore I had an insatiable need for Jesus. I kept chasing after it and chasing after it and chasing after it.
The church did well when I was in my college years. I had people who would listen to me and pray for me. That’s where a lot of that healing came from. The lion’s share of my healing came from people just listening and praying.
WS: You were able to talk openly with—
MD: Weirdly, yes, I was able talk about it. I think that’s part of the way God has made me. I’m a communicator, so he used my very nature, the way I was created, to be a part of my healing.
WS: You say it was weird because so many people are not able to talk about it. Talking about it takes them right back to that space when they were 5 or 6 or 10 or 20. So it’s important that we don’t turn your experience into a piece of glib advice, such as: “Well, go talk to somebody.” As you said, that was easier for you than it would be for others. But talking about it, naming it, really does help?
MD: Absolutely. I think shame flourishes in silence. Keeping things in darkness can pervade you. It causes suicidal ideation, depression, and anxiety, because you think you’re crazy, that you’re the only one with that story. Even though you could read online that you’re not the only one, you still intrinsically feel that you are. So it helps to find a safe person.
I wouldn’t do what I did. I started blabbing to everybody because I was so desperate to be well. Thankfully my words landed on safe ears. But I know there have been times where I have shared with an unsafe person. One of the things that’s difficult about the #MeToo movement is that it encouraged people just to say, “Yeah, me too,” without the context of community and safety and kindness, without someone there to shepherd your story with tenderness and compassion. If your first declaration is just coming out and saying it, if there’s no one to pick up the pieces, it can be a very lonely and scary thing to do.
WS: If there is any place that should be that safe place, it’s the church. But I know that’s not always the case for women who’ve encountered sexual abuse. You know Rachael Denhollander’s story. That wasn’t the case for her in a couple of situations where she was in church. How can the church be that safe place?
MD: I think it’s super simple. It comes down to empathy and listening. We shouldn’t jump to a Christian cliché, and try to put a band-aid on something that’s an open wound. We need to simply listen and ask, “How can I pray for you? How can I love you? What could this look like?” And simply listen. If someone’s sharing their story and crying, cry with them.
It seems like Christianity 101, but it’s true. Be kind. Treat others the way you would like to be treated, which is the golden rule.
WS: Your book suggests that at some point we’ve got to honest with ourselves. Pornography is not other people’s problems. Sexual abuse is not someone else’s problem. It’s not the Boy Scouts’ problem. It’s not the Catholic Church’s problem. It’s our problem, too.
MD: Yes. And to have the humility that Nehemiah had: to own your nation’s sins, praying before the Lord and asking for forgiveness on their behalf. It wasn’t Nehemiah’s fault, but he still prayed and asked for forgiveness on behalf of his people. He said, “We did this, we’re sorry.” He owned it himself. I think leaders in the churches need to say, “I didn’t personally do this, but we as a culture in the church have strangled their voices for far too long. We’re sorry, we’re not going to do that again.”
WS: You say that a lot of times the church is not a safe place because we have bad theology. Specifically, we have a bad theology of the Fall, of what it means to be fallen and broken human beings. We have a bad theology of who God is. Yes, He’s a God of grace and He’s a God of love—but He’s also a God of justice. It angers and grieves him when he sees this in our church and ourselves.
MD: We forget that love and justice hold hands. If we’re any sort of student of the old Testament — and I adore the old Testament — we cannot get away from the justice-nature of God. For some reason we’ve divorced the Old and New Testament, as though the Old Testament is justice and the New Testament is love. But both justice and love are intertwined throughout the narrative of the Gospel story.
So, yes, we have to have a robust theology of sin. What is separation from God? Why is God always talking about the “quartet of the vulnerable”: the alien, the widow, the orphan, and the poor? He’s always on their side. That’s a God of justice.
WS: If we’ve got a robust biblical theology, we should understand that God doesn’t merely erase sin: He paid for it. He doesn’t just say, “Well, this doesn’t matter. No big deal.” He says, “It really is a big deal. That’s the reason I had to send My Son Jesus, who is precious to me, to pay for your sin. Your sin is so great that any lesser payment would not cover the cost.” When you say we’ve got bad theology, is that what you’re saying: we don’t understand how consequential sin is, or the payment it requires?
MD: Yes. And we have to remember, also, that Jesus bears sin, but He’s also bears pain. He bore our sorrows. He bears not only the sin that is committed but also the fact that it has broken other people. He bears both of those at the same time.
WS: Mary, I’d like to bring our conversation to a close by asking you to tell a story that you begin book with it. It’s story of a man named Malcolm, and it encapsulates the idea of taking responsibility. Tell me about Malcolm and about what he did.
MD: I had the privilege of going to Cape Town 2010 — which was the World Evangelization Congress — and representing the United States. I was at a table with five other believers from all over the world. One of them was Malcolm, a man from South Africa. We all shared our stories, so he knew my story.
On the very last day of the conference he said, “Mary, I want you to look at me.” And he got on his knees before me and tears were running down his face. I felt from the Lord that, in that moment, I was supposed to pay attention. He said, “Mary, I ask for your forgiveness on behalf of all men who have ever done these terrible things to you. I am so sorry. Please hear me. I am so sorry.”
And it ruined me in the best way. Either before that time or since that time, I’ve never it happen that someone that was willing to say, “What happened to you mattered, and it was wrong, and I’m sorry.” It just deeply, profoundly ministered to me.
WS: Thank you, Malcolm. And thank you, Mary, for being so transparent and telling your story. Thank you for being on the program today.
MD: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.