Three years ago, one of our case managers asked if I would see Colleen, a close friend of hers. For years Colleen had been suppressing memories of her father’s sexual abuse. She had done well in school, married a fine man, and built a successful business while raising two beautiful children.
Now in her early 30s, a trigger event had reduced her to "a basket case." I agreed to do an assessment interview, but I was anxious to refer her on to a more qualified sexual abuse recovery therapist.
Colleen, however, made it plain she had come to us for a purpose: "Your people speak the language of reconciliation," she said, "and while I have no intention of letting my dad off the hook, I still hold out hope for a healthy relationship with him. I need my dad."
I responded that, while I believed in victim-offender reconciliation, it was contraindicated in cases of sexual violence without strong public sanctions and a number of other interventions.
Colleen graciously reminded me that victims are capable of straight thinking and that helping professionals might do well to take seriously the clients’ sense of their own needs before suggesting what those needs ought to be and how they ought to be addressed.
"My mother died before I could address any of this with her," she explained, "and for both my sake and my dad’s I’m convinced that when I’m ready, I’ll need to confront him with what he did and its effects on my life.
"Ideally, I’d like to see our whole extended family reconciled. We’ve been estranged since the night of my disclosure almost 20 years ago. There were criminal justice proceedings which resulted in Dad’s conviction, discharge from the military, and loss of most of his military pension. As a teenager, I felt responsible for bringing our family to the brink of ruin. I needed release from that, but the topic has been a great taboo. It’s time our family began to bear its secrets into the light."
Colleen shared that the "trigger event" had been the sight, through the kitchen window, of her tiny daughter, swinging happily in the sunshine awaiting the arrival of her birthday party guests.
The abuse began for Colleen following her sixth birthday and intensified over the years until her disclosure at age 13. Dad had been unpredictable and volatile – now tender and attentive – now punitive and brooding. Colleen had felt that "If I gave him what he wanted maybe he would be happy and the rest of my family would be better off."
The theft of Colleen’s childhood began at age six; the sight of her daughter reaching that same milestone caused the terror to erupt.
Almost two years later, I asked Colleen to put some of her experience in writing. This excerpt is at the heart of it:
When I first began to seek help, most counselors advised me against trying to restore a relationship with someone who had committed such a heinous crime. I strongly believed, however, that in order for me to be completely whole, I would need to confront my father with his actions.
I learned of the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program, and after several months of counseling, we began to plan for a meeting with my father. Several months later, together with my husband, I confronted my father with the pain he had caused me as a child.
I began by telling him how the incest had affected my relationships with him and my mother, and eventually with my husband and children. I described to him how it felt to be left completely alone to deal with the aftermath because of his and my mother’s refusal to even discuss it.
I had anticipated him running out in outrage, but he stayed. Denial began to die the moment he stopped nurturing it. He hung his head and asked, ‘Why, why, why did I do it?’ He apologized. After 26 years, I heard the words I so badly needed to hear: I had been the truth teller and he the liar. The slow, painful process of healing had begun.
The reconciliation of father and daughter ultimately touched and drew in each member of this family.
Partly as a result of this family’s encouragement, Fraser Region Community Justice Initiatives developed two programs in conjunction with a local correctional facility for sexual offenders. These programs are proving beneficial for victims and offenders alike.
Yesterday Colleen called me to set up an appointment for a friend of hers. I asked how things were going and suggested that I’d like to talk to her dad about his view of their meeting and subsequent reconciliation. "Funny you should mention that – we were just talking about that possibility. He’s here just now helping me plant roses."
Colleen’s father, himself a childhood victim of physical and sexual abuse, is now willing to meet with me to work on his own issues.
The Greeks had a term, archegos, which means "way-maker, pioneer." It might be used of someone who swims ashore from a ship breaking up on the reefs to secure a line along which other survivors make their way to safety. The term aptly describes Colleen. Through her courage, her faith, her challenges, the depth of her love, and the breadth of her vision, Colleen will be archegos for many.
Dave Gustafson oversees thc Face-to- Face program operated by Fraser Region Community Justice Initiatives in Langley, British Columbia. This article first appeared in Interaction Newsletter.