When a teacher or mentor takes advantage of you, it is a commentary on your desire. It’s interpreting your eagerness to learn as sexual desire. Your intellectual openness corrodes into sexual availability. Your age gap corrodes into an opportunity. It’s the terrifying realization that anything you do—the mere presence of your physical body—can be revised, remade, negated by someone’s power over you.
Audre Lorde once said, “Your silences will not protect you . . . What are the words you do not yet have? . . . We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for language.”
We needed to speak our language as much as we needed to hear it. Our stories are the same kind of story—testament to how repeated, how familiar, how broad the dwelling place of this pain that makes us call out “me, too,” both within and beyond ourselves.
We are eager to heal. Heal and whole are of the same Germanic origin. We are trying with what we have, what we’ve been given. Hear our language.
One in thirty-three women who currently attends church is a victim of clergy sexual abuse and clergy sexual misconduct as an adult. They hide in plain sight in the pews Sunday after Sunday, hoping no one will get close enough to see the desperation in their eyes and telling themselves that they bear all the responsibility for what happened with their pastor. They aren’t even sure how to name what happened—how to give voice to it. One thing they do know, however, is this: They must never speak of this to another soul unless they want to be openly blamed, chastised, vilified. This secret they have buried keeps them low, far from friends and loved ones. They pull away from God. After all, they’ve been taught from the cradle that their pastor is a “man of God” and “God’s representative on earth,” so teasing out what’s God and what’s man can be as difficult as untangling one delicate cross necklace from a wad of fragile jewelry Sunday morning. Clergy sexual abuse and misconduct is akin to soul rape. Eventually, many of these women leave the church for good as they are worn out from battling PTSD and its after-effects: insomnia, anxiety, and depression, just for starters.
Tragically, I embodied this statistic as I approached my fiftieth birthday and was preyed upon by my seventy-five-year-old pastor. I kept silent for longer than I should have, and relationships suffered. I left the church and slowly, painstakingly untangled the mess and began talking about my journey through what I now know to be clergy sexual misconduct.
When I was applying to graduate programs several years ago, I met with my undergraduate professors—getting their advice, asking for them to write me recommendation letters, that kind of thing. One professor, a man in his seventies with whom I’d taken more than one course, suggested we meet up for dinner at a café to discuss my options.
It was a summer night in the South—a light breeze to enliven the humid air. He drank his way through two or three dark beers while we ate, a fact I’d noticed without much alarm. In my mind, I chalked it up to his being a poet, a creative type—the type of person I wanted to be. Just like I’d done in class, I was eyeing his behavior for tips on how to be a successful writer, as he had become. At least fifty years his junior, I was open to advice. All my senses were keyed in for clues. Between swallows, he extolled the virtues of a career spent vulnerable to the world in all its sorrows and joys and strangeness, and in sharing that kind of life with decades’ worth of university students.
My last semester in school, our class had taken a trip to this professor’s home. It was exactly what I had envisioned: an older, sunny farmhouse on several acres outside town, full of art and books—stacks upon stacks of books—collected over a lifetime, an enormous desk overlooking fields and forest, a backyard garden teeming with tender asparagus and delicate lettuces. I felt like I was on tiptoe through a living museum. It was a kind of promise. This man had built his life doing what I wanted to do, and it was beautiful.
What began as a six-month counseling and mentoring relationship ended as a jagged scar on my soul. Because I was raised in the church and taught to give automatic trust to faith leaders, I initially sought him out for guidance during a spiritual crisis on the recommendation of a few friends in his former congregation. “He’s so wise,” they said. “He’ll understand what you’re dealing with and won’t judge you,” they said.
Roughly my father’s age, gray and a little stooped, he approached my dilemma with the wisdom of a scholar and the compassion of a beloved friend, asking me what I thought I should do rather than offering me a solution. I valued his avuncular, Socratic style. It was plain to see that he was intelligent and proficient in both Old and New Testament, so I invited him to provide commentary on the weekly lectures I’d just begun writing for a women’s Bible study. He claimed he was flattered I’d asked. He said he was my “coach” and went on to call our time together “coaching sessions.” Since I’d been an athlete for one team or another for the better part of my childhood and even into my 40s, I knew how to respond to coaching and was eager to learn all I could. I was eager to jump through any hoop necessary to perfect my research and writing skills. I saw myself as Mary at Jesus’ feet—a sponge, ready to soak up all his teaching. I thought nothing of his wanting to meet alone with me and away from his church office; after all, he was an old man and seasoned pastor whom I assumed wanted to protect my privacy. But he was guarding his own privacy.
When he told me that I had “deep spiritual gifts” and that he was learning from me, I hoped he was discerning something about me that I couldn’t see in myself—something my parents had neither acknowledged nor honed. He gave frequent, glowing commentary on my insight, offering an answer to the unspoken question I’d always been reluctant—fearful, even—to ask myself: Do I have what it takes to _____? Research, write, teach, inspire—the list is endless. I wanted to believe him. I needed to believe him. The more he flattered me, the more insecure I became. I’d never been praised so much before—what did it mean? Could I trust it? I began craving his acknowledgment, using it as fuel to research and write.
He soon knew when to withdraw it—to “go dark” on me. Without it, I got shaky, scared—panicked, even. Only in hindsight could I see that this was his modus operandi: He was pulling out all the stops to make me emotionally dependent on him.
He admired my outfits and hairstyle, taking careful notice of the colors I wore. When he saw me from afar at a church service, he made sure to tell me at our next “coaching session” that he liked the red coat I’d worn that Sunday. He did this so frequently that I mentioned it to a mutual friend who told me that he’d said similar things to her, too.
“That’s just the way he is,” she offered. “He doesn’t mean anything by it.” Later, at one of our sessions, I caught his eyes moving slowly up my body from my thighs to my face when I stood up from my coffee shop chair. I felt like a girl behind the glass. White hot fear coursed through me, made the hair on my arms stand on end. Everything in me was screaming, “Get out—now!” But I froze, paralyzed. He’d never done this before. I fought my gut and placated my fear with insecurities about my own ability to see what was plain: Surely I was misinterpreting his gaze. He cared about me too much to sexualize our relationship. Only later would I come to realize he was leering at me.
More and more frequently he began to ask probing questions about my deepest insecurities, and I would divulge emotional wounds, believing that he, as my “coach,” needed to know intimate information to provide better counsel. When he shared his own deeply personal information with me, telling me that his wife wasn’t interested in theological conversations and that God had brought me to him to fill a gap in his life, I felt sorry for him but more flattered that he, an old man with so much experience and so many personal and professional connections, would choose me, someone young enough to be his daughter, to be his sounding board. He needed me. He needed me in a way my parents never had. I was more to him than his congregant. This set me apart from all the other people in his life—it made me special. But he was exploiting my trusting nature for his own pleasure.
One of my primary joys in writing is the process of construction itself. How to assemble, like planting a garden. Of course the materials themselves are essential—which seeds for which varieties, gloves and a spade and maybe a tiller, rich soils. In writing, this might translate to carefully studied knowledge and skill, vocabulary, of course a pen and paper. Before I studied creative writing, I often thought about writers as masters of detail. But the more I write, the more joy I find in the macro: what structure to take on, what order of stanzas or paragraphs, what recurring image or framing metaphor. Any tiny thing can disrupt the whole, be the force behind the poem taking shape. There’s a joy inherent in deciding what stays and what goes, in deleting entire pages, even: fertile ground with which to start over. Destruction as its own creation. I place the white space of a page break between two stanzas where before there was only one blank line. I like how powerful it feels to step back and raze a whole bed, tear out a season’s worth of weeds and transform, erect fences where there weren’t any before.
How powerful it feels to have vision, and to act on that vision, and to have readers experience this space based on that singular vision. How powerful it feels to have a space in which to create and destroy, to know that space, to have learned and studied the many ways to tear out, the many ways to fill in.
My body became an advertisement for the stress I endured in this relationship. He’d begun dropping sexual comments into our conversations. At first, I was certain I’d not heard him correctly. But, as weeks went on, I could no longer deny that he was actually speaking the words I heard: “I think you’re sexy; do you think you’re sexy?” “We’ve never talked about sex, have we?” “I wish I’d met you thirty years ago.”
My days began and ended with my heart racing so much that it was often hard to breathe. My nights I spent awake, never asleep for more than five hours—and yet, when sleep finally found me, I dreamt of drowning.
Dropping over twenty pounds hollowed out my cheeks, my clothes hanging off me like wet sheets on the line. Distracted and irritable, I found myself unable to complete any task involving multiple steps. It’s as if my brain got stuck on the spin cycle; my thoughts were jumbled, tumbling over themselves while they attempted to make sense of something foreign. I had little energy for much else.
Why was I emotionally bound to someone who was causing me so much strife? Physically, emotionally, and certainly spiritually, I felt like I was trapped in a plane in free fall, my body pinned to the seat by sheer force. But my mind was left free to process the horrifying realization that the ground was coming fast. When I finally hit bottom, I felt sure everything in me was broken.
That night, after dinner, we stood in the parking lot outside the café. It was that precise moment after the sun has set where the sky is still fully lit, tinged with warm color. I was thanking him for his promise to write me recommendation letters, thanking him for his guidance and help. The air seemed stiller, seemed to have stopped moving.
On his breath, the dark, sour heat of yeasted alcohol. He reached out to envelop me, leaned down and in to close the space between us, to press his mouth to mine like he’d been pressing it to the lip of a beer bottle all dinner—insistent, expectant, swallowing.
I lurched away, flinched, my torso convulsing with a kind of fear I’d come bitterly to know. The hot, prickling fear I felt in my neck when men grabbed me, leered at me, growled at me—the kind of throat-closing fear I knew from when a car of young men slowed to a crawl next to me on a run through my neighborhood, their comments loud enough to hear over the music in my headphones; or when a guy followed me on my walk to work to tell me how he felt about my body; or when one man ran his tongue along my cheek under cover of dancefloor darkness; or when another grabbed my ass at a party; or when….
I turned, stumbled to my car, said nothing. Said silence.
He persisted in his attempts to contact me long after I’d told him to stay away. My “no” didn’t mean no to him and never had.
My soul was broken.
The downward tug of doubt. Should I have said no to dinner? Had I been flirtatious? Had I said or done something? Did I signal him in some way?
That sickening moment spun into a compulsive hope for any explanation other than betrayal. I felt the doubt settle into a sour anger.
I knew this anger well; it was the anger of being silenced.
Victims of clergy sexual abuse and clergy sexual misconduct are consumed with shame, blaming themselves for the abuse. Most battle trust issues for months or years after they leave the abusive relationship. A tremendous source of wounding is that the place where an abuse victim should be able to go for help—her church—is no longer safe.
I razed the bed, uprooted all I thought I’d learned from him, and began again. In graduate school, I can’t help my initial suspicion of every heterosexual, male teacher. And after my trust is earned, the suspicion doesn’t fully dissolve. The hot, prickling fear waits at the base of my skull. It thinks that it’s saved me. And though it probably has, sleeping with it curled up around my throat every night is no way I want to live.
This is our language, our finding of words. We honor the story that has become ours, that has corroded our safety, that left us unwhole.
I endure comments about my body or size, inappropriate text messages or emails I’ve had to pretend I didn’t see when I go to work the next morning, invasive personal questions. I’ve heard licked lips, shouts of cunt! and whispers of uptight bitch, the ex-boyfriend who called and emailed and texted me for months—all my friends think you’re a bitch.
This language enters the body, tumbles in my blood, curdles my shoulders, curls up at the base of my skull like a coiled spring.
But there’s something uniquely devastating and insidious about a teacher or mentor’s betrayal. It corrodes the space you had such vision for. The power you thought you had over your mind corrodes into shame.
The slow climb back to wholeness consumed the better part of three years of my life, involving therapy, a supportive spouse, and all the courage I could muster to reclaim the power of my own voice.
I not only confronted my abuser, but also told my story to the Bishop of that denomination, who, after weeks of fits and starts, ultimately chose to suspend this pastor for two years. But that will never be enough recompense for me.
I lived in the shadows for years afterwards—my dignity stripped—hidden and mute.
I am sorry this happened to you, Mom. I am sorry for what happened to me. I am angry that this keeps happening—to people who are seeking, who are wanting, who are torn open just for wanting.
Terry Tempest Williams has said, “Without voice, we are not human.” You talk about the power of your own voice. I, too, know your voice as powerful. The first voice who read books to me, who recited prayers and sang to me.
This is the white space we’ve razed, the whole we’ve made. We are not done wanting.
Meredith Indermaur earned her BA in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The mother of six children, she currently works as a chess coach at a local elementary school as well as a volunteer at the Diaper Train, an organization that provides diapers (which aren’t covered by WIC and food stamp programs) and other supplies to low-income families, in North Carolina.
Katherine Indermaur is Meredith’s daughter and the author of the chapbook Pulse (Ghost City Press, 2018). Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Alpinist, Bad Pony, CALAMITY, Frontier Poetry, Ghost Proposal, Muse /A Journal, Poetry South, Voicemail Poems, and elsewhere. An MFA candidate at Colorado State University, where she won the 2018 Academy of American Poets Prize, she is the managing editor for Colorado Review.