Since I started writing, blogging, speaking, and just plain making noise about how trying to pray my way out of a bone disease as a child turned my life upside down, people have responded with compassion, often sharing their own stories of childhood emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Some are the result of religious maltreatment, some not.
I feel privileged to inspire this trust. I remember when I couldn't think about my own experience, much less tell it to someone I'd just met.
However, the person telling me his or her story often ends by saying, "Of course, it wasn't as bad as what you went through."
And I say "No! Stop! Childhood trauma isn't something you can measure or weigh or calculate on a graph. It's about something being too much for a child to handle. It doesn't have to lead to physical scars or emotional acting-out. Any avoidable trauma is unacceptable."
Here I go with another horse analogy, but bear with me:
My biggest epiphany with horses came only about a dozen years ago. It dawned on me that something startling, like a grouse flapping out of the bushes, can be taken in stride by one young horse, while another comes completely unglued. This sounds obvious, but what was new was the understanding that I had to accept the nervous horse's right to his reactivity. I had to respect that for whatever reason, a certain colt might be disturbed in certain situations. I had to find a way to increase his confidence in his "herd leader" (me) because I could no longer bring myself to strap harsh bits and tie-downs on the animal to forcibly control his instinctive (and dangerous) behavior to protect himself, usually by bolting home.
I stopped labeling sensitive horses "difficult" or "bad." One of the most sensitive and complicated Arabians I ever worked with could have been a disaster--but her owner worked through every single situation with consistent patience and discipline. As a result, this mare was one of the most focused, grounded and talented horses I've ever met.
My point is that too much for any child to cope with can be upsetting at a deep level. Traumatic. Religious doctrine can blind parents, relatives and teachers to the damage that occurs. I
'm reading a book called The Good News Club: the Christian Right's Stealth Attack on America's Children by Katherine Stewart, a novelist, journalist, and all-around wonderful woman I met on the panel at the AHA conference in San Diego. "Good News Clubs" are religious after-school programs thinly-veiled as fun bible clubs. They are organized by the Child Evangelism Fellowship, a national group that makes no bones about its goal: to form clubs in every school in the US and equip kids from 4 to 14 years old to convert ("save") their classmates--often with threats: "If you don't believe in Jesus, you are going to hell."
If someone says this to me now, I laugh. But when I was a kid, classmates would scare me by trying to find an injury scenario that would force me to a hospital because I went to "the church where they don't go to doctors." (Church of Christ, Scientist: Christian Science.)
Imagine four- and five-year-olds advising their peers about hell, a real place hotter than the pan they burned themselves on, a place where you'll burn forever. I would call this traumatic. It's the equivalent of some acquaintance saying to me, "What's that spot on the back of your neck? Have you had that checked out?"
So I ask a friend, who says, "I don't see anything."
Then I meet the first person again, maybe with another of her friends, and they both insist, "That thing on your neck is getting bigger. I know a doctor who's great with cancerous lesions..."
There's enough anxiety in the world already. Kids don't need more fear and false responsibility piled on at a time when they should be growing confident in their place in society. Any extra fear is too much. It took me more than thirty years to begin to admit the truth of my own life, and most of the last twenty to tell my story at a national conference. My prosthetic leg is an eye-catcher, but I will continue to say this: emotional damage is worst of all and far too many of us have experienced it. Any trauma is too much. We're all in this together.
Check out Katherine's book. It's a fascinating read.