Last Wednesday, Feb. 22, guest speaker Maura Preszler came to the University of Dallas to deliver a compelling lecture entitled “Finding Yourself Before Your Husband.” Founder of the non-profit organization Made in His Image, she works, according to her website, “to help girls and women alike who have been abused, raped, suffered from mental illnesses, eating disorders, the effects of addictions and low self-esteem.”
Preszler discussed each of these issues in her talk, drawing from her own experiences with abuse and mental health struggles to tell her deeply moving story of trauma and healing and emphasizing forgiveness as the instrumental bridge between the two.
These are issues UD historically seems to have trouble talking about. There is such an enormous emphasis at our university on having faith — albeit an important and appropriate theme to preside over a Christian community — that the perceived lack of faith that sometimes accompanies the vocalization of one’s hardships often scares students away from speaking out, and our more secret struggles go undetected.
Dr. Judith Herman addresses this problem of silence among the suffering in her book “Trauma and Recovery,” writing:
“The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma. … When the truth is finally recognized, survivors can begin their recovery. But far too often secrecy prevails, and the story of the traumatic event surfaces not as a verbal narrative but as a symptom.”
Preszler touched on this issue as well, arguing that true healing demands that abuse be brought to light; concealment of these atrocities only perpetuates a pain of enormous magnitude that ultimately forgiveness alone can truly heal. For Preszler as well as Herman, forgiveness remains an important prerequisite for emotional convalescence, independent of faith or religion.
Preszler herself embodied this truth, testifying:
“If I was ever going to fully enter into my vocation, I needed to forgive my [abuser]. No matter where you are in your life, there is someone or a group of people that you need to forgive. When we don’t do that, we project our pain onto someone else.”
But just as forgiveness is an element of healing, so too is the breaking of a chain of silence an element of forgiveness.
As Preszler reminded her audience, it can seem impossible for survivors to finally formulate the necessary words to tell their stories. It can take years, even a lifetime, especially when perpetrators encourage the opposite. In order to avoid accountability for their atrocities, abusers will do everything they can to promote that their victims forget. If this tactic of secrecy fails, they will attack the credibility of their victims. And if they cannot absolutely silence those they prey upon, they will try to ensure that no one listens.
But the truth is, someone is always listening.
For Preszler, and for many, that person is God. For others still, that listener takes the form of a friend, a parent, a teacher, a sibling. Regardless of one’s choice of confidant, the imperative need for the presence of a trusted companion upon whom to lay down these burdens is indubitable. Only then can survivors fully begin to let go of their agony, and to move slowly toward a place where forgiveness can begin, even when it feels impossible.
Trauma destroys the strength of the relationship between individual and community. Those who have experienced these kinds of horrors often feel that their sense of self-worth or even their sense of humanity depends upon a feeling of connection with those around them. But there is hope, even in the most hopeless of circumstances:
“The solidarity of a group provides the strongest protection against terror and despair, and the strongest antidote to traumatic experience,” Herman writes. “Trauma isolates; the group re-creates a sense of belonging. Trauma shames and stigmatizes; the group bears witness and affirms. Trauma degrades the victim; the group exalts her. Trauma dehumanizes the victim; the group restores her humanity.”
The tight-knit communal element of UD I observed when I first visited was one of the most compelling aspects that drew me to the university. I have found it to be present in my own experience here, and I know that because of this unified community, it is one of the colleges most capable of establishing the welcoming and healing environment Herman writes about.
Our deeply pro-life campus, so concerned for the dignity and value of every human being present in our community and our curriculum uniquely situates UD to affirm, exalt and restore.
We have made suitable efforts to foster this environment; for instance, Preszler’s lecture was part of an important series of events for Dating Violence Awareness Month.
But we must continue to remind ourselves that violence does not just happen to nameless strangers on the news.
As independent thinkers dedicated to the pursuit of truth and justice, no matter our background or the details of our respective stories, it is our duty to listen, to love and to forgive, fostering everywhere a kindness and compassion for the suffering in our midst.