My Father’s Shadow, the profound memoir of a sexual abuse survivor, is the story of the hard, complex process of overcoming a traumatic past and starting a new, secure future. This honest, wise account captures the internal life of a survivor and the serious consequences of violence, which a lot of abused women face in their lives after. The author, Kara Rodriguez, speaks with me about her current life, psychological trauma, relationships, and ways of healing her wounded self.
Kara is Christian, devoted to her religion, a fact that’s very visible in her book. I asked her if she didn’t mind speaking more about her emotional and psychological experiences than about those connected to her beliefs. The reason why I asked that is because I wanted this interview to be as accessible as possible. Because it touches a subject which is extremely important to be spoken about, using language which appeals to people with many different beliefs. I’m very pleased with Kara’s answer: ‘Yes, I can speak about other angles of my story and abuse apart from my Christian beliefs. I do believe that God can use many things to bring about healing, such as therapy and relationships and I can speak about those things’.
Olga Plesinska: You’ve written an extremely bold, honest book. I’m deeply moved by it. What was your core motivation to share your story with the world?
Kara Rodriguez: My motivation to write and share my story was two-fold. There was an intense healing that was brought about by me learning how to articulate my story, reconstruct the timeline, and acknowledge the challenges that I faced. It was therapeutic. In putting my story down on paper, I felt that I no longer needed to carry the burden around with me. I also wrote with the intent that I would share my story with other women. If my pain can help other people, then it isn’t wasted. When I was dealing with the aftermath of abuse, I couldn’t find anyone (in person or on paper) who could provide me with the level of vulnerability that I so desperately needed. I wanted to fill a gap in the literature and provide women with a deeply honest and raw story. I hope that my vulnerability helps other women to know that they’re not alone in their experiences or wrong in any of their emotional responses to what was done to them. I hope that it also provides women with hope that healing is possible.
O.P.: You’re a confident, well-educated, and independent woman. You went a long, hard way to get to this place. Where are you now? How would you describe your current life?
K.R.: My everyday life is a fairly common one for someone in her late 20s. I currently work full-time as an engineer in Minneapolis. I have a cat and dog that I very much enjoy. I’m a runner and I find exercise to be very helpful in managing the anxiety I experience. I’ve been married for about four years and we’re expecting a baby in January! This doesn’t mean that my past has somehow magically disappeared. Rather, it no longer impacts my everyday life on a larger scale. I’m in a healthy relationship. I’m not stuck in the throes of addiction. And I have a community of friends that I can rely on during difficult times.
I would say that I am beyond my past, as much anyone could hope to be given the circumstances. I feel more “normal” now, in that I’ve learned to see pain and difficulty as normal. Many women never experience abuse and that fact is sometime difficult to swallow. But I’ve learned to not compare my story against the stories of others. Every woman experiences some form of hardship at some point in her life. It isn’t right, but it is normal.
I do still struggle with intermittent anxiety, but I go several days without explicitly thinking about my past and I often go weeks without thinking about my father. I never thought I would be able to say that.
Much of the healing has taken place because of the relationship I have with my husband. The deep level of trust that we share works to rewrite my thought processes and my belief system one day at a time. I have learned and continue to learn that men can be different, trust is possible, and I am lovable. The fact that my father abused me will always be my reality. But in gaining new, more positive realities, my past has become less of a focus for me.
On another note, preparing to have a baby helps me to continue to have hope. I now have the opportunity to take what was given to me and change it for the next generation. If I have a son, I will have the opportunity to raise him to respect and honor women. If I have a daughter, I will have the opportunity to teach her about healthy body image and how to respect herself. Either way, my husband and I are going to create a legacy vastly different from the legacy my father left me.
O.P.: Congratulations on the baby! As you’ve said, you’re married. I can’t even imagine how hard it must be to create a healthy relationship after being abused, after having so many harsh as well as abusive relationships with men. What’s most important for you in your marriage? What did you need to overcome in order to get involved in such a relationship?
K.R.: Ironically enough, getting married is what pushed me to seriously begin addressing my past. For me, there was no “honeymoon phase.” Immediately after I got married, I realized how difficult it was for me to trust my husband and how deeply insecure I was. First and foremost, I needed to become comfortable with my story and learn how to accept it, so I started writing my story about a month after our wedding.
I didn’t realize this until I got married, but I needed to be able to overcome my deep insecurity in order to have a healthy marriage. I used to believe that my husband had interest in other women, valued me only for my body, and would eventually leave me due to my fading beauty. No relationship can be sustained under such beliefs. I had to overcome these thoughts and learn to be secure with how I look and, more importantly, who I am as a person.
I needed to overcome my trust issues and learn how to trust again. Trust is the most significant factor in our marriage. Being able to trust my husband has grown from two things: Time and me recognizing the character of the man I married. I’ve come to realize that my husband is not like my father and that he is worthy of my trust. That recognition grows deeper with time. This does not mean that that my husband is perfect. It does mean that choose to believe that my husband’s intentions are honorable. I choose to believe that he intends to love and respect me. I have to trust that my husband is different and that, in general, many men are different from my father and the men I’ve dated. To hold onto the idea that all men are the same would be toxic to my marriage.
O.P.: When I was reading your book I had, especially at the beginning, the impression that you acted like an addict. You were psychologically dependent on your father. This dependence affected your whole life, especially with men. It is, as far as I know, a common occurence among people who were abused as children. Could you describe how this mechanism works?
K.R.: An addiction can be characterized by a fixation that is psychologically or physically habit-forming. Familiar addictions include dependencies on drugs, alcohol, and sex. An addict may be compulsive, dependent, and obsessive. I would describe beauty and sex appeal as having been my nicotine, my crack, my cocaine, my alcohol, what I used to ease the pain. I was really after love, but I was convinced that there was only one way to achieve it.
The nature of sexual abuse is absolutely devastating. Sexually abused children are taught early on that their sexuality defines their worth. These children are convinced that they’re dirty and defiled and often become determined to earn their importance through the only means they know how. Sex and sex appeal may be pursued at all costs in attempt to gain or maintain worth. Sex becomes only the means to an end.
These cravings can more appropriately be termed a love addiction, a form of incessant insecurity. Diane Roberts writes a couple of chapters in Pure Desire by Ted Roberts. In her chapter Accept No Substitutes, she presents the definition:
“A person addicted to love is fully absorbed in the pursuit of love, because love is the greatest need. The desire to be loved can push women into perfectionism, sexual promiscuity, and unhealthy relationships. Love is desired, demanded and pursued at all costs. The price many times turns into a compromise of moral values and devaluing of the person who pursues this addiction…”
O.P.: This is rather not common knowledge. Lack of social understanding causes stigmatization of the person, accusations of immorality, insults, etc. But in fact they are symptoms of trauma.
K.R.: That’s true. I believe that promiscuous and addictive behaviors are common among abuse survivors because these women believe that their actions are the means to an end. These women are after worth and love, the greatest needs, and so they become willing to sacrifice their own bodies in order to achieve these needs.
(I’ve expanded upon these ideas in Death by Beauty, available on Amazon.)
O.P.: You write that a symptom of being recovered was dancing alone at home, feeling good about your body, about your soul. You said you were dancing for God. Is it possible for you to imagine that non-religious people do similar things just for themselves? I interpreted this in terms of empowerment, self-love and acceptance. Sexual violence makes you reject your body, disintegrates you internally. In your opinion, could such an act – dancing – be seen as fighting for your integration, for being important for yourself? Would you call it therapeutic?
K.R.: Self-worth is based on where you believe your identity comes from. If, as an abuse survivor, you believe that your worth is dependent on what happened to you, then you won’t be able to accept yourself. But if you can view your identity in light of something else, then you can learn how to accept and not judge yourself. In the Bible, God calls His followers His children. As a Christian I believe that my identity lies in who I am as a child of God. My identity is dependent on who God is and what He’s done for me and not on what I’ve done or what’s been done to me. Non-Christians can also view themselves in light of greater truths. Perhaps that identity can be based in helping other people or being a part of another type of community.
An act such as dancing can be used to express freedom and self-acceptance. Lacking confidence and feeling shame are two things that would prevent a woman from accepting herself and therefore expressing herself. Dancing can be a way of not only communicating to the world, but also communicating to the self. By “letting go” physically she can realize the “letting go” she’s doing internally. I would definitely say that it’s therapeutic to find a way to physically express self-acceptance, whether it’s through dance, music, or other forms of art. For me, writing was another expressive art form that helped me to convey love and acceptance to myself.
O.P.: Did you participate in a professional help program? What did it give you?
K.R.: I did participate in a therapy program, though it wasn’t until after My Father’s Shadow was published. (As an aside, this goes to show that healing isn't a one-time event. It's an ongoing process, a process that continued for me even after I published my story.) I participated in roughly six months of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)therapy. EMDR is an interactive psychotherapy approach that’s used to treat various types of trauma. It’s most widely known for being used to treat war veterans, but it’s also been proven effective with abuse survivors.
A certain part of the brain is a storehouse for a web of sorts. Let’s call this location my "trauma holder." In this web lies a series of emotional memories. They are intricately entwined, so much so that the recollection of one may lead to a recollection of a whole bunch of them. Perhaps I don't recall them in the most fundamental sense—I may not see flashes of each of these memories all at once. Instead, I may remember them in my emotions and in my body. There's another part of the brain where other types of memories are stored. Let's call this place my "safe place." It's a place where I remember trivial, unemotional things like what I wore to work yesterday. These memories are facts. It isn't that my other memories aren't also facts; they are. But my other memories, the traumatic ones, are all tangled together. They carry with them unpleasant things like lies, fear, shame, depression, and anxiety. In essence, EMDR is the process of teasing out my traumatic memories from my trauma holder one by one and placing them into my safe place. I still remember everything that's happened to me, but I’m now able to recall them without simultaneously recalling the fear, sadness, shame, and feelings of intense "differentness."
Completing the therapy helped to ease some of the trauma associated with my memories. It helped me to become more confident and learn how to accept my whole self. I learned to see my child self as someone who had no control over what happened to her. I learned to have compassion for her. This helped me to reconcile any feelings of guilt or responsibility, grieve the loss of my childhood, and gain back pieces of who I really am.
O.P.: Sexual violence against women, at least in western societies, has its roots in social inequalities and male domination. According to current statistics, 1 in 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. You’re expecting a baby. Assume it’s a girl. What would you want to change in common mentality to make you feel that she’s safer outside? In other words – what, in your opinion, is the main problem in relationships between people that causes these horrific statistics of abuse? Do you have any ideas about what, on an institutional level, can help to decrease the amount of sexual assaults on women?
K.R.: That's a tough one! But here's what I can say...We live in a broken world filled with injustices, so I can only speculate as to what causes such horrific things to happen. I do think that historically women have felt as though they cannot speak up about sexual abuse. Beginning to speak up about such issues is only a recent revolution. And even today many women and young girls still feel trapped by what was done to them. They often don’t speak up out of fear of not being heard or believed. Unfortunately, I’m aware of several stories in which a child brought an incident of abuse to the attention of a parent, only to be ignored and not taken seriously. In order to begin to change these statistics, our society first has to commit to giving these women (and even men) the attention and credibility they deserve. Accusations of sexual assault cannot be so easily dismissed. I would assume that because so many sexual assault cases go unaddressed, the men choosing to commit these crimes aren't threatened by the idea of possible punishment. Ensuring that survivors are heard would not wipe out the issue altogether, but it surely would provide a platform for further change.
O.P.: I totally agree with you. Thank you that you’re part of this struggle. I’m very honored to have had the opportunity to have this interview with you.
Update: By the time we published this interview Kara had given birth to a beautiful son - Walter and even took part with him in 10 km run! Check her blog for pictures and details at KaraRodriguez.com.