I'll say right off that I wouldn't have read this book if I hadn't been acquainted with the author (via the Internet--we have never met face-to-face) since somewhere around 2005 or so. Many or most who read this blog will be familiar with Dawn Eden's name because of her powerful conversion story, her long-running blog The Dawn Patrol, her previous book The Thrill of the Chaste, or her writings in the Catholic press. (If not, this episode of EWTN's The Journey Home is a good introduction. The Dawn Patrol is still active but more as a vehicle for announcements than as a typical blog.)
The book is a spiritual guide to healing the wounds of sexual abuse suffered in childhood and youth. And since I did not have that experience, I supposed it would not have any great relevance to me, and read it just because I figured Dawn Eden would have some interesting things to say. But I was wrong about its relevance; I soon realized that the counsel it contains is applicable to all sorts of other situations. It wasn't until after I'd finished reading it that I realized that the title doesn't refer specifically to molestation in childhood or youth: it simply says "sexual wounds." And don't we all have those, one way or another? Or, if not specifically sexual wounds, then wounds, period.
I can say in one sentence that the essence of the book is that love has the power to heal the past. In eight chapters, each bearing a title that begins with the words "The Love," Dawn describes aspects of this healing, using examples from the lives and thoughts of specific saints interwoven with her own experiences to illustrate specific ways by which that healing can happen:
The Love We Forget: Discovering the Father--with St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Josephine Bakhita
The Love That Shelters: Opening our hearts to the Sacred Heart--with Mary, Mother of Hope
And so on. As you can see from those two, the saints brought to bear on this problem are not necessarily ones who suffered from sexual abuse. Ignatius, for instance, might seem an odd one for the purpose. But he appears, and appears first, because he asked God to take, along with everything else of him, his memory:
In Ignatius's understanding of the human mind, the concept of memory refers to more than just particular memories. Memory includes everything that had entered into his consciousness to make him who he was--whether or not he could actually remember it. It forms the foundation of his present identity, including his hopes for his future.
To borrow a phrase from another Jewish convert, Edith Stein, this book can be fairly described as a science of the Cross. The emphasis throughout is not on conquering the past but on accepting it and, most importantly, being reconciled with it in the love of God, and I mean that in the reciprocal sense: God's love for the sufferer, and the sufferer's love for God.
One reads of people surviving terrible traumas (such as the one that recently came to light in Ohio, in which three women were kidnapped and subjected to rape and other mistreatment for ten years). And often the advice given to them, and the intention they announce, give the impression that they are to conquer their emotional damage by sheer force of will: to repress the memories, to adopt an attitude of conquering courage--to triumph by strength and endurance in the way that an athlete does. That at least is the impression that the vocabulary often gives. Now, far be it from me to suggest that I know better how to cope with trauma than those who have experienced it. But from the Christian point of view it doesn't seem the most appropriate or indeed effective way. Sufferers are advised not to let the trauma define them, and in one sense this is surely good advice--if it means not to allow one's whole identity to be reduced to that of one who has suffered a specific trauma. In another, though, it isn't the Christian way: we are to some significant extent defined by those things, and we have to incorporate them into ourselves rather than attempt to remove them surgically, so to speak. It is a necessary aspect of the reality of the Cross as it touches each life.
This perhaps is the truth contained in some of the saints' legends that have always struck me as grotesque to say the least, in which the saint is picture in heaven as still exhibiting some mutilation suffered in his or her martyrdom. I really find this hard to handle, and hope it is not literally true. But it is surely symbolically true.
Be that as it may, in Dawn's case the road of direct resistance simply did not work. Much of the personal story recounted here deals with her attempts to repress the memories and their accompanying emotions, with generally ineffective (if not disastrous) results. It was only by accepting--not "embracing," exactly--her experiences, and placing them, with the assistance of these saints' stories, within her personal salvation history that she has been able to reduce their destructive power over her. (I don't say "conquer," as if it were all over, because things don't generally work that way.)
Although much of the story has already been told in this book and her other writings, I found myself hoping that Dawn would eventually write an actual memoir or autobiography that would bring all the pieces of personal narrative together in one place. But then maybe this mixture of memoir and theology is the right one for her.
This book would certainly be a great tool for anyone engaged in counseling victims of sexual abuse, and it includes a number of resources for just that purpose. But, as I said before, it can be useful for anyone who has suffered, which is to say everyone:
Memory does not have to be, nor should it be, the enemy. Rather, as Pope Benedict XVI has written, "Memory and hope are inseparable. To poison the past does not give hope; it destroys its emotional foundations."
(Here is the publisher's page for My Peace I Give You.)