A reader recounts a horrifying early childhood in which she was regularly abused—physically, sexually, psychologically—by her mother’s boyfriend. That suffering severed her faith in God:
I feel compelled to share my story because it illustrates a fundamental flaw in religion that is often overlooked. As a young child, I enjoyed Sunday school, and I learned to put all my trust in God. I was five years old when my mother, who had divorced my father when I was two, met a monster and moved him into our house. He was a violent child molester who tortured me for the better part of a year, and the abuse was too graphic to describe here.
I prayed constantly for deliverance, for help, for relief, for anything other than what was happening to me. He told me he would kill my mother if I told anybody what was happening, and he showed me a handgun to prove he could do it. My five-year-old self was convinced that he could do it because he was just so mean.
When I found a few baby birds that had fallen from a nest in our backyard, he fed them to his dog. When he entered a room and I flinched, he would slap me for flinching. He forced me to drink beer out of a shot glass, pouring more and more in until I got sick. He threw me into a swimming pool and held out a hook for me, but once I grabbed hold of it, he dunked me over and over. He did a thousand other horrible, inscrutable things to me.
But before long, my mom married him, and I couldn’t understand how God could let this happen to us.
She worked nights and I begged her to take me with her so I could avoid being hurt. She took me sometimes, but most of the time, I was at home, alone with him and vulnerable. He would tell me to take a bath and show up in the bathroom in his robe, and the sickening feeling was indescribable.
I kept praying for a long, long, time—to a suffering child, it seemed like an eternity, but I knew God sometimes tested people’s faith. God also punished people, so I tried to remember if I had done something bad that I deserved to be punished for, but I couldn’t think of anything. Nobody had ever done anything bad enough to deserve what was happening to me.
The only time I ever talked the monster out of hurting me was the night before Christmas Eve, and I said, “Please, no. Santa will see.” Many times he promised me he wouldn’t hurt me anymore, and I thought, maybe, that God had finally answered my prayers. But the monster always did it again, and I finally decided that God wasn’t going to help. What kind of God wouldn’t help someone like me?
After a whole lot of suffering and misery, I finally figured it out: There was no God. Everybody had made a terrible mistake.
Once I decided it was up to me, I told another family member what was happening and hoped that if she called the police fast, the monster wouldn’t have time to kill my mom. She called the police, and when they arrested him, he had illegal guns in his truck, and a collection of girls’ panties (they were trophies from his other victims, I learned later).
I had two grown brothers from my mom’s first marriage, and someone in my family said the monster would be lucky if they didn’t kill him. I was disappointed when they didn’t.
As it turned out, he was a bigamist who had a wife in another state, so his marriage to my mom wasn’t legal. The police took custody of me that day and brought in a lady—probably a child psychologist—who interviewed me before they gave me back to my mom. When she got me back, Mom told me I was lucky they didn’t take me away for good, and she wanted to know why I didn’t tell her about the abuse instead of telling the other family member. I didn’t have an answer for her.
The monster was violent and abusive toward her, too, but I could tell she loved him. To this day, I haven’t forgiven her for her poor judgment and I doubt I ever will.
We lived in a small town, and everybody knew what had happened. I didn’t care because I was too young to be ashamed, and it wasn't happening anymore. I was delivered from hell, as far as I was concerned. I was blissfully happy because the monster was in jail, and my family told me they would never let him out again.
There was a trial, and I had to recount the whole story, everything that had happened, so they could record it on tape for the judge. By that time, I was six years old, but they still had to teach me the proper words for private parts so my testimony would be legal. My mom and I were both sent to court-ordered counseling. I was never told how long he would be in prison, but for years afterward, we got an annual letter from the parole board, asking if we thought he should stay in prison. The answer was always yes.
He sent cards and letters and even a decorated T-shirt, and my mother stupidly gave these things to me. I wish she had thrown them in the trash. I think she still loved him for a long time, but she eventually married a terrific man, a friend of the family, who turned out to be a shitty husband, but he was a great father to me. He once told me he didn’t believe a word I’d said about the abuse, and that telling stories like that could ruin a man’s life. He was afraid I would tell lies about him, so he didn’t touch me at all—not a hug, not a pat on the head—and that suited me just fine. I didn’t want anybody to touch me.
Now I am a grown woman, happily married to a wonderful man who has helped me overcome my past, with kids of my own. My mother is not part of our lives. I still have occasional flashbacks of the abuse, and I doubt I will ever get completely past it, but that misery has the capacity to consume my life. I have plenty of good memories that I choose to think about instead.
I cannot understand how people think it’s a good idea to teach a helpless child that God, whose existence is entirely unproven, has the capacity to help them or save them from actual harm. I had no doubt that God was real and that he would help, and because I had faith, I suffered for a lot longer than I would have if I'd have known I was on my own. I wasted so much pain and suffering on faith. Children who have cancer and other terrible circumstances are no doubt praying, just as I did, for help that will never come. It is extraordinarily cruel to teach children to have faith, when it is possible to teach them instead to rely on themselves and on real things.
My children’s grandparents are vaguely religious, and my mother-in-law in particular is talking about taking my kids to church, but I won’t ever let that happen. Religious people don’t realize that some people have very good reasons for hating religion. Some religious people might be interested in helping me find God again, and to them, I would say, “Fuck off. You’ve done enough damage already.”
A previous reader in our religion series also contributed a story of immense suffering as a young child—a school bombing that left him severely disabled for life—but in contrast to the reader above, his faith in God endured into adulthood and to this day.
For a previous Notes discussion on theodicy—the age-old question of why a benevolent God would permit so much suffering in the world—go here. Here’s an unaired email from reader Joseph:
The responses from readers over theodicy are very interesting (and I’m always happy to see Sully [former Atlantic writer Andrew Sullivan] make an appearance as well). One thing I haven’t seen brought up is a resistance among many theologians to engage in theodicy at all. Questions of theodicy often end up trying to rationalize suffering or come up with some explanation for why it exists. In its most crass forms, that gets you Pat Robertson saying that Haiti made a pact with the devil. In its more common forms, it gets you ideas like “God uses all things for good.”
Karl Barth is probably the best representative of a school of thought that says that since evil exists and was not created by God, its existence is a scandal, an impossible possibility. The human response to suffering is not to try to explain why it exists, but to fight against its manifestation in the world. To explain suffering is to minimize it or justify its existence. The psalms of lament are especially instructive in this regard, in presenting prayer as resistance.
Some of your readers interested in how suffering is related to creation and the cross might enjoy a lecture that Barth scholar Bruce McCormack gave last year. The argument is basically that in Christ, God chooses to die on the cross as a way of taking responsibility for creating a world in which suffering is possible. It is as compelling as it is unorthodox.
Another unaired email from that point in the discussion comes from Bert Clere, a long-time Atlantic reader and frequent contributor to Notes (as well as the broader site):
Theodicy is the great question at the root of all religion, I think. Way back in 2007, you and Sullivan published this email from me on God and Einstein. That was nine years ago, and I can’t say that I’m any better or any worse with regards to my severe anxiety. Some days are good, other days not so much so.
I don’t know why we suffer. Sometimes you can tie it in with original sin and make some kind of sense of it. Other times it feels totally meaningless and causes you to question everything.
I always return to the Shadowlands [a 1993 film about C.S. Lewis and Joy Gresham]. C.S. Lewis thought he had answered the question. Then he watched his wife die of cancer and realized all the theology in the world didn’t take away the intense pain and senseless feeling of it. If C.S. Lewis couldn’t solve it, then I don’t think any of us will.
All you can do is to return to the mystery of the cross and say we see through a glass darkly. I realize for some that’s a cop out. But for me it is the only signpost to the resolution of suffering and divine goodness that we have. At the very least, what the cross tells us is that God chose to suffer as we do.
Bert followed up at the time:
Admittedly, I wrote that before seeing [reader Elizabeth write] “He’s the God who suffers with us. And I love Him for it.” I feel stupid repeating what others have already said, but at the same time it’s an example of how all we can do is circle back to the cross.
I find the other idea, that this world is actually in the hands of a devil, both terrifying and fascinating. It would explain a lot. But it still raises the same question about God’s omnipotent goodness. Because even if we let Satan in, why did God allow a world in which that could happen in the first place? And how do we square that idea with what we know of creation and evolution? There was no literal Adam and Eve, Tree, and Snake. Was there a set point at which we chose to embrace the bad and thus let suffering in? Science would argue pretty heavily against it, I think.
If you’d like to join the theodicy discussion, or share your story of religious choice, drop us a note. Update from a reader, Ryan:
No one who follows Taoism could even fathom the question that so perplexes Christians inculcated in the idea of an omniscient, benevolent, omnipresent, all-powerful God. The symbol of the East, the Yin/Yang circle, clearly demonstrates that good exists in evil and vice versa. The cross represents suffering, death and release ...