By Jerri von den Bosch
Awake Leadership Team
I remember the first time you and Dad told me about your abuse. I told you that I already knew. I don’t know how I knew, other than it was just a child’s intuition. Your story of abuse by multiple priests has always been part of my life. The pain that your body endured has always been part of my psyche. Don’t be alarmed by this; in fact, the torment your body endured has built me and prepared me for the work in the Church that I do now.
Some days I feel so angry that anyone hurt you, and frustrated that we aren’t closer—especially when I hear how close other girls are with their moms. Some days I wish we had even more boundaries between us than we do now. Some days I question if the abuse I suffered in my marriage was a learned behavior; I wonder if I let myself believe that violence against women, against all the vulnerable, is unstoppable. Truthfully, my deepest anxieties about your abuse, about my abuse, are catalyzed by the thought: is it my fault?
Do you fear that your body is responsible not only for the abuse that you suffered, but also the abuse that I suffered too?
Well, there are some things you should know about your body and about mine.
I’m sorry that I boss you around sometimes. It’s only because I couldn’t handle seeing you hurt the way you were hurt as a child. I just want to protect you. It does make me angry when you hurt yourself by smoking or drinking. It makes me feel like you don’t value your body.
I value your body. Your body took care of me for nine months. Your body took me to Mass as a child when it was hard for you to be there. Your body took care of me when I was too sick to go to grade school. Remember when you taught me that rhyme, “Here is the church, here is the steeple”? Your body taught me that. From glow-in-the-dark rosaries to learning about Sts. Francis and Padre Pio, your body taught me, your child, about the Church that I love.
I know that it is hard to love a body that was used as a throw-away object, and you want to blame that body for all that has gone wrong in life. I sometimes feel that way about my own body too. We share that sense of being undeserving of health and happiness because of the abuse we suffered.
As an adult, I can understand your behavior when I was a child. I get it now. I see that you were hurt and running from ghosts.
As an adult, I can understand your behavior when I was a child. Sometimes I was confused by the way you acted when I was young. I hated that you would not let me sleep over at some of my friend’s houses, or that you forced me to dress so conservatively. But I get it now. I see that you were hurt and running from ghosts. I’m not mad about anything. In fact, you and Dad managed to provide my brother and me with everything we needed and anything we wanted. Looking back, you should be astounded at what your body has done.
I still have nightmares about my abuse; I struggle with depression, PTSD, and anxiety. I know you do too. I know that it seems like there is never going to be a day that you don’t think about this trauma. But there are gifts here. I wouldn’t be the determined and argumentative person who managed to get a master’s degree and thrive in a career I love without you as my Mom. I know we’ve both struggled in life. But there is no one I’d rather struggle with. Understanding the pain you carry, the way you mourn the past but carry on, has ordered my steps and given me a prophetic heart that motivates my work in the Church. I would not be the devout Catholic and servant of God that I am without you planting those seeds long ago.
I know our lives haven’t been perfect. Sexual abuse not only hurts its victims, but it also has ripple effects for the rest of the family. We are lucky that our trauma didn’t stand in the way of the mother-daughter relationship we deserve. Our relationship isn’t flawless. Still, I cherish our friendship, and I cherish being your daughter.
Jerri von den Bosch is the director of Youth and Adult Formation at Church of the Gesu in Milwaukee and a member of Awake’s leadership team. She graduated from Marquette University with a master’s degree in Christian Ethics.