Tuesday, May 31, 2011

New JONAH article: Understanding the Effect of My Sexual Abuse

Understanding the Effect of My Sexual Abuse: A Weekend to Reconnect with Dad

Written By: Max Penn

(Posted April 2011) www.jonahweb.org


[Introductory Note from Max: I want you to know that without the help of Arthur Goldberg, who selflessly gave of himself to help me write this letter, this letter to my Dad would not be as complete or direct. I really like how this letter came out because I feel it's clear, powerful, educational, and totally expressive of my innermost thoughts. When I read this letter to my Dad, it was painful for me but I think the end result was powerful and positive for both of us.  As I worked my way through it, I was reminded me of the deep emotional work I experienced on mens experiential weekends that I attended. In crafting this letter, though I do not "blame" my parents, it helped me to recognize how some of what my parents did or didn't do contributed to my SSA. At the same time, I also realized and greatly valued their contributions to my character, particularly by fostering within me the qualities that allowed me to face and deal directly with the adversity of my SSA. Set forth below is first a copy of my E-mail to those who supported and encouraged me to proceed forward with such an exercise and secondly, a copy of my letter to my Dad.]


Hey All,

Let me tell you how it went with my Dad when I read the letter to him. Saturday morning my Dad and I jogged about a mile to the beach. There I walked with him while reading the letter to him. I think he may have been crying but it was hard to tell since he was wearing sunglasses. In the end, he said that it wasn't me that needed forgiveness but only him. I know he felt good about it. He suggested doing something like this once a year. I believe we've connected a little bit more emotionally. There's still more to build upon but I really think we've taken some steps to get closer to one another.

Sunday morning we had a ton of time. I really wanted to ask my Dad to hold me several other times on the trip but frankly hadn't asked him.  So when he asked if I was ready to go, I said, "Not yet. Just come sit next to me." He sat next to me and I put my arm around him. He asked, "Is there something you want to tell me?"  I replied, "No. I just want you to hold me." When he did so, I started crying ... because besides reading him the letter and attempting to get emotionally closer to him, having him hold me was the only other thing I wanted from my Dad during this trip. He held me for about 10 minutes or so. It felt so good to feel his physical presence and the energy of connectiveness. While he held me, I mentioned I had a lot of challenges yet to face but with his support I was confident I would succeed. His holding me and his empathy to what I was saying was exactly what I needed from my Dad. It provided me with a sense of completion for the weekend. The entire weekend with Dad had the net effect of making me feel a lot more powerful and confident in the healing direction I was taking. 


Here's the letter I read to my Dad:


Dear Dad, 


I need to read this important letter I have written to you in order to explain some important things about my life, the love and respect I have for you, and (in spite of that love and admiration) the disconnection I have felt from you throughout my life. I am so thankful we have this time to be together on this trip so I can share my authentic feelings with you. I am hopeful that this will be a powerful experience for both of us and lead us to a much deeper and more fulfilling relationship. Please let me finish the letter before we discuss the individual parts of it.  


Dad, let me start off by reminding you of the conversation I shared with you and mom two years ago when I revealed my sexual abuse as a child and alluded to struggling with same sex attraction (SSA). As you may, or may not, know there are several precipitating factors (or constellation of variables), which create the environment where a person adapts his romantic emotions toward those of the same sex rather than those of the opposite sex.  One of the essential risk factors leading to same sex attraction is sexual abuse, something that occurred to me at age of 4.  That event gave me a misguided understanding about love and actually directly contributed to something called "defensive detachment"—something I learned about in my healing work. "Defensive detachment" occurs when a child disidentifies from his father, based on actual or perceived rejection. Let me explain how this concept applies to our relationship.  


When my Uncle invited me to perform oral sex on him, as a 4 year old, I thought it was fun and thus internalized a belief that performing such an act on a man's penis is what love must be about. A few years later, I was with you and you were casually peeing in front of me. Seeing your private part exposed brought my childish mind back to the sexual abuse (which I did not perceive as abuse.)  I immediately went to you, hugged you, and said, "I love you, Daddy." Clueless as to why I was doing that while your private part was exposed, and obviously wanting to make sure that you did not pee on me, you pushed me away and said something to the effect of "not now son!" I misperceived that very correct behavior on your part as your rejection of me. In turn, that event was a contributory factor in my defensive detachment of you.  


However,  my misperception of your statement was not the only factor involved. Dad, while I was growing up, I never really felt truly connected or close to you. Indeed, being emotionally distant from you was not what I really wanted—I wanted to feel and be close to you. Unfortunately, I can't remember if I ever expressed that to you (other than at age 5 or 6 when I was pushed away). 


Objectively, you were never a "bad father." You spent a great deal of time supporting the family ... although I perceived your focus on work as a neglect of me. You were gone a lot from the home. Even when you were home, I did not perceive you as being there for me. You would be on the phone or paying attention to something else. Not perceiving your emotional presence, I further detached from you as a defensive reaction to avoid pain and perceived further emotional rejection or wounding.  Even when you had time to make it to the occasional camping trips we took, we still never authentically connected.  Eventually I stopped seeing you as my Dad, the person to whom I could go to for emotional support, and more simply saw you as just the man with whom I shared a house. 


We did share a handful of common interests so we could do something together that both of us would enjoy, but even then, we still had difficulty authentically connecting. And in many cases, your efforts to work with me or teach me masculine skills had the opposite effect. For example, because I lacked a great deal of interest in sports, your efforts to bond with me on a basketball court or on a golf course further separated us rather than bring us closer together. In many cases, your active and excitable personality (which in most cases may be seen as a positive characteristic) was mistaken by me for anger directed toward me. Thus in an effort to protect myself further, I detached even more, drawing further away from you. While I now appreciate how determined you were to teach me how to ride a bike, my timid nature made me afraid to do so and at that time I misperceived your behavior as disapproval directed toward me. 


I know you never intended to push me away.  You never intended that the lack of a deep relationship between us would contribute to the difficult burden I carry today.  This is not your fault because you didn't intend for this to happen.  What I want you to know is that I have been searching for something I felt I was lacking in every male friendship I've had.  I always said I wanted a best friend.  I have always (and in some ways continue) to look for that.  Sadly, the truth goes deeper; I wasn't just looking for my friends we left in Pennsylvania or someone I could trust, in truth, I was really looking for what I missed in you.  


Sometimes my heart was hardened towards you.  Sometimes I was just apathetic.  At this time, I want you to know my heart honors you and is open toward you.   I want the hills and witnesses to echo this truth: Dad, I forgive you.  I forgive you because I love you.  I forgive you because I've forgiven myself.  I forgive you because I honor you. 


To forgive you and to forgive myself is absolutely essential if we are to truly connect as father and son. It permits my inner child to make whole once again what was broken and to make clean what was soiled. Forgiveness is more than reconciliation. It permits me to let go of the resentment of either a real or imagined wrong or indifference. I pray that you in turn can forgive me so we can make a fresh start together as father and son and as best friends. 


Please understand that you raised a son who emulated many of his father's qualities. Your example made me into a mighty man. Your work ethic is something I will always admire. Your commitments to God Almighty have given me an inner strength and determination to follow God's will.  Without your example, I simply could not have carried on in this life. While you may have unconsciously fed and raised a dragon inside of me, you also provided me with an example of how a proud warrior gains the strength to slay the dragon rather than be consumed by it. 


I hope you fully understand the message of this letter.  Dad, thank you.  I love you.  I hope you can see this love that a son has for his father, one that you may not have seen before.  You have honored me for being a man of God, for my charity, for my dedication to truth, for selfless service, and for aspiring to be myself.  Although you may honor me, it is I who honors you.  I love you Dad.  


Your son forever, 




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