Many years ago, just before my third year at University, I was raped towards the end of my year abroad on a US College Campus. As with many women, my rapist was well known to me. He was my ‘boyfriend’, at least, he kept telling me he was. Or rather, he was someone who had sought me out, obsessively followed, intensely pushed, emotionally manipulated and finally painted me into a corner physically. For many years (well, twenty, but what’s a couple of decades between friends), I assumed that I had been seduced and was guilt-ridden as a result. I even thought that it would have ended well if I had married this man. With an evangelical Protestant background it wouldn’t really do to say that you had not sinned.
That’s the power rape has. As well as totally silencing you, it also disconnects you from your self and your own body, your own needs, your own desires. It is a strange thing when the mind decides it’s just too damned painful to admit that someone actually doesn’t have your best interests at heart and that random acts of violence occur. Instead, that pesky mind decides it will legitimise, minimise, blame oneself and push on. It’s a coping mechanism that I now realise is ridiculously common and for some folk, it “works” throughout the rest of their lives.
My rape, resulting in my internalisation of disgust, shame and anger, neatly paved the way for me to drift in and out of relationships in which I thought my body and what I did with it no longer mattered. That *I* no longer mattered. Whilst living in England, a final abusive relationship (five years after the original rape) saw me slammed up against a wall, my boyfriend’s hands round my throat, explosive anger raging from his eyes. That’s the part that’s easy to state. A relief, even, that the coercive behaviour had given way to outright violence. It’s much easier to spot that someone hates you when they’re openly threatening you. In a rare moment of lucidity in my twenties, I quit my job and ran away home to Scotland, tail between my legs.
Twenty years later: a breakdown, depression, a panic attack (thankfully only one), anti-depressants, counselling. I have spent a long time over the last 18 months facing what happened to me as a 20-25 year old, thinking about loss, grief, rootedness, faith, our relationship with the land, with others and with our bodies.
I remember distinctly flying home from America, perhaps 10-14 days after being robbed of my virginity. While I had been abroad I had learned about homesickness and how it really is like an illness, a pain in the chest; palpably felt. As I flew in over Paisley to land at Glasgow Airport, it was the sight of those orange buses (remember those?!) that brought that bittersweet joy/sadness washing over me. Everything was the same; just how I’d left it, in fact. It was me that was different. Forever changed. But, as with so many things, my heart and soul understood what had happened to me long before my head and intellect could catch up. I was broken-hearted.
Our relationship with the land we call home is a strange thing. It’s ironic, perhaps, that my rape occurred in that land of America, the discovery of which has been compared with the exploration of the female body – and the conquering thereof. Land is there to be explored – by men – particularly in our colonial past. In the land of freedom, I became hopelessly enslaved. Returning to Scotland enabled me to be free, up to a point. I could always return to my same church, my same city, my same friends, and as long as I didn’t breathe a word about what had happened, I could attempt to revert to the person I had been prior to the rape and abuse. I was recognised, my family was known and three of my four grandparents were still alive at that time. I could wallow in security and put up some walls which looked strangely like a very open, honest personality.
Scotland, for me, has always been a place of rootedness, of safety, of refuge, of family. From birth until my departure to the US at age 19, I had even lived in the same house in Glasgow, attended the same church. Prior to my return home to Scotland in August 1996, I recall longing for the moment I would take the “transporter to reality”. That sense of place is strong, of being among my own people, feeling as one with them. As Donny O’Rourke writes at the climax of his poem, Great Western Road, “God Glasgow it’s glorious / just to gulp you down in heartfuls, / feeling something quite like love.”
Love of this land, this Scotland, helped me in my healing process, though I did not know it at the time. As would happen many times to follow, Scotland as my homeland has for me symbolised renewed hope and strength. It’s a bit like the end of the allegorical Paulo Coelho novel “The Alchemist”, in which (spoiler alert) a young shepherd boy called Santiago travels the world, including the Egyptian desert, to search for treasure before discovering his treasure is at home. “Couldn’t you have saved me from that?” he asks. “No,” he heard a voice on the wind say. “If I had told you, you wouldn’t have seen the Pyramids. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”
The Coelho novel has obvious parallels with the journey of faith, the notion of storing up treasure where it matters, not necessarily here on earth. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21, NIV).
Interesting, then, that one of the markers within my own journey has been the discovery of an album called “The Great Divide” by the wonderful Andrew Howie, Scottish singer and songwriter. In his song, “The Fury and the Sound”, co-written with Yvonne Lyon, he creates a personified Glasgow tenement – that sense of place again – that I could intimately relate to:
Your narrow streets, tenement walls
Your sandstone heart
That doesn’t fool me at all
Your darkened close
Cracks in the stair
Your burned out light
This is the armour you wear
Oh, let me show you what I’ve found,
The fury and the sound,
Tear your defences down.
Your measured love
This counted cost
Your fearing heart can still redeem what is lost.
Oh, letting go is not defeat
Give up on your retreat
The place where two worlds meet
Take a breath, take my hand
A few small steps
Into this no man’s land
The message was clear to me: I’m part of the landscape, the structures we’ve built together here in this land. I’m the tenement, but my walls must be torn down. It is scary to let go and to head into the unknown. For many of us who consider ourselves post-evangelical Christians, there is this no man’s land we arrive at in which certainty is replaced by mystery and our vending machine capitalist God gives way to something deeper, less formulaic. For me, God has gently, albeit painfully, begun the work of unravelling the knots this world has created in me, and which I’ve created in myself. As a former evangelical Christian, I am impatient to get to the end, to have a testimony that is complete and well-rounded. A kind of, “that was then; this is now”. Similarly, as an independence supporter, I am impatient to get to that Scottish nation-state in which the Scottish people are sovereign over Scottish matters. It is easy to look at what is wrong, what needs fixed, to look solely at the darkness, to anguish over it – and of course, there is a time for grief over the personal, the political, the national. However, it takes imagination and courage to step into the future.
But will we ever be done? Will I be healed? Like the Prodigal Son, do we have to go away (physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally) to come back?
In this past year I decided I wanted my faith life to be more rooted in my local community, having driven elsewhere to attend church for many years. As I entered a new church where I’ve now made my home, the first song to be sung had this lyric:
Come out of sadness
From wherever you’ve been
Come broken hearted
Let rescue begin
Come find your mercy
Oh sinner come kneel
Earth has no sorrow
That heaven can’t heal
Earth has no sorrow
That heaven can’t heal
So lay down your burdens
Lay down your shame
All who are broken
Lift up your face
Oh wanderer come home
You’re not too far
So lay down your hurt
Lay down your heart
Come as you are
There’s hope for the hopeless
And all those who’ve strayed
Come sit at the table
Come taste the grace
There’s rest for the weary
Rest that endures
Earth has no sorrow
That heaven can’t heal
In that same service, the passage being studied was in the book of Joel, in which there’s a hugely devastating plague of locusts which rape the land, steal it of its treasure, makes nations anguish and seems never-ending. An elderly woman was interviewed about her experience of domestic abuse at the hands of her alcoholic husband. Decades passed with her being unable to leave him. Eventually, he came to faith and experienced a radical transformation. Their twilight years were a joy and a restoration of all that had been lost. Her verse? Joel 2:25 – “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten. […] You will have plenty to eat, until you are full. […] never again will my people be shamed”.
It was incredibly powerful.
After my breakdown, triggered no doubt by facing redundancy – there’s a certain powerlessness in that situation, of having no control, that isn’t dissimilar to rape/abuse – I went through a year of counselling. It was 6 months before I could say, out loud, that I had been raped and abused. Now what? What of faith? Was God not there? Does he care? Where had he been? If he had been there, why wasn’t I aware of his presence? I can’t answer all of those questions. An answer to one leads to ten more questions.
But I do know this: Scotland has been my refuge and it will always hold powerful sway in my heart. I will never move away from this country again, though I know of course that terrible things are not confined to countries outside my own. But now I’m trying to let God be my refuge. There’s lots of stuff in the Bible about hiding in God, our lives being hidden in Christ. What’s not known will be revealed. Chains will be broken. Psalm 91 says this: “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.” There’s also a book called Song of Songs which I have immense difficulty with, since it compares the passion between lovers to that of people and their God. Interestingly, a recurring verse is, “Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.” You can’t rush sexual love, and you can’t rush faith. But the main thrust (if you will) of the passage is that the journey is important, “I will search for the one my heart loves. So I looked for him but did not find him”. The author even asks others where her lover is. Then, “Scarcely had I passed them when I found the one my heart loves. I held him and would not let him go.”
I strongly believe that the personal and the political are intertwined. When we become disconnected from our land, our communities, our bodies, our God, all is not well in the universe. Finally, in my forties, I feel comfortable in my own skin. And so although I have darkness in my past, I’m going to take it and own it and be brave and face the future, face the light, cheer on sovereignty for this land I love, knowing that there’s only one who is truly sovereign who can heal up the scars and brokenness we face together. I am going to pursue the one my heart loves and when I find him I will not let him go.
[the author has withheld her real name for privacy]