Mark Pendergrast

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Mark Pendergrast speaks at universities, schools of public health, business conferences, management seminars, and psychological meetings. His presentations are tailored to his audience but are always entertaining, thought-provoking, and challenging. Contact him to arrange an event. Click here for links to speeches, TV, and radio appearances. Click here for comments on his presentations.

Chapter 12: Survivorship as Religion

No one can understand mankind without understanding the faiths of humanity. Sometimes naïve, sometimes penetratingly noble, sometimes crude, sometimes subtle, sometimes cruel, sometimes suffused by an overpowering gentleness and love, sometimes world-affirming, sometimes negating the world, sometimes inward-looking, sometimes universalistic and missionary-minded, sometimes shallow, and often profound–religion has permeated human life since obscure and early times.
–Ninian Smart,
The Religious Experienceof Mankind (1969)

We see the bloodshed, terror and destruction born of such generous enthusiasms as the love of God, love of Christ, love of a nation, compassion for the oppressed and so on.
–Eric Hoffer,
The True Believer (1951)

Human beings are religious animals. We cannot exist, it seems, without finding a higher meaning for our lives. We sense that there is more to life than our five senses convey. Perhaps other species worship their unseen gods as well, but I suspect that we are unique in this respect. Every society or tribe ever discovered has its own brand of religion, complete with creation myth, ethical imperatives, rituals, and shamans. Many of our most sublime insights have come from inspired religious leaders, and their messages have often echoed one another. We are all one. All life is holy . Every major religion has taught its own version of the Golden Rule, urging us to treat others as we wish to be treated . Similarly, devotees have described the utmost bliss during ecstatic mystical moments in which they have been consumed by the Holy Spirit.

Yet religions also have their dark side. More people have been slaughtered in the name of ideological holiness than any other cause. As Blaise Pascal observed in 1670, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” This continues to be the case today in Bosnia and the Middle East, though at the time of this writing, there are hopeful signs in those regions. All too often, our faiths make us intolerant rather than compassionate, holier-than-thou rather than humble, filled with righteous anger instead of understanding, forgiveness, and love. If you’re not saved, you’re damned. The Manichean division of the world between God and Satan, pitting the forces of light and goodness against those of darkness and evil, has led far too many people to demonize one another, to search out the witch or the warlock.

It is this darker aspect of the religious impulse that I will explore in this chapter in regard to the Incest Survivor Movement. Survivorship, I believe, has become a pseudo-religion that provides intensity and meaning to people’s lives in a destructive manner. In making that statement, I do not wish to disparage any religious faith. In fact, belief in God has sustained many of the accused parents as well as the retractors who are trying to put their lives back together.

The Substitute Faith

“In a period of religious crisis,” historian of religion Mircea Eliade wrote in 1969, “one cannot anticipate the creative , and, as such, probably unrecognizable, answers given to such a crisis.” Indeed, no one could have predicted the particularly bizarre answer that would arise some 20 years after Eliade made that observation. As I pointed out in Chapter 11 (“Why Now?” ), one of the primary appeals of the Incest Survivor movement is that it serves as a substitute religion in an era of shifting values, uncertainty, and confusion. Being a Survivor provides many of the advantages of a born-again sect, including self-righteous indignation or pity for those who have not been saved, a warm feeling of communion with those who share similar beliefs, a strong spiritual/mystical component, and the opportunity to become a martyr for the cause. For therapists, the movement is a crusade against the forces of evil. They are valued priests who can unlock the secrets of the mind.

To identify the Incest Survivor movement as a religion, you have only to listen for the telltale words and phrases. It is astonishing how often the words “belief” and “faith” come up. “Letting go takes faith,” Bass and Davis write in The Courage to Heal . “You have to trust your capacity to heal yourself.” Therapists must believe their patients, or they will retraumatize them. Social workers and judges must believe the day-care children. It requires a leap of faith to believe the unbelievable . To doubt any of these stories or to ask for some sort of evidence is tantamount to heresy.

There is also a mystical, non-rational component to this religion. On a computer bulletin board for Survivors, for instance, Randy Emon, a California policeman who once appeared in videos warning about satanic cults, began to question his beliefs. He asked for some sort of proof and cited an FBI study that failed to find any evidence of such cults or the murders supposedly perpetrated in them. In response, another bulletin board subscriber took the skeptic to task for attempting to apply logic to ritual-abuse stories. “When you wish to speak of feelings instead of data and studies, I and many others will welcome your comments,” he wrote. “LIFE IS FEELINGS. STRUCTURE IS DEATH OF THE .”

Over and over again, I have heard Survivors speak passionately of their spiritual journeys. The search for memories, for the precious child within, clearly resembles religious meditation in some respects. “I sense that you are quite spiritual,” one woman wrote in 1992 to another on the same computer network, “just in the way you talked about sitting in the meditation (hypnosis) mode and burning your incense, while trying to reach your inner child. I have done that many times, and the memories do get clearer and clearer as you continue.” She urged her correspondent to find a wise, understanding therapist, then continued: “I guess when one goes in search of their true self and faces the demons that appear along the way, then nothing can get much more spiritual than that, huh? It involves so very much TRUST that we will survive and make it through. I want to share with you that my spiritual growth through this journey has made everything I have experienced–TERROR, nightmares, panic, depression, phobias–the WHOLE 9 yards, well worth it. I would do it all again just to be able to discover my true spirituality.”

[Continued… To order the book directly from the publisher, Upper Access Books, click here.]