Amie Schumacher Keynote Address for Alumni Award Banquet - Reunion 2019
June 21, 2019
New Heart…New Spirit: Reconstructing Symbol and Identity in Trauma’s Aftermath
For I will take you away from among the nations,
Gather you from all the foreign lands,
And bring you back to your own land.
I will sprinkle clean water upon you
To cleanse you from all your impurities,
And from all your idols I will cleanse you.
I will give you a new heart
And place a new spirit within you,
Taking from your bodies your stony hearts
And giving you natural hearts.
When Ezekiel and I met through this passage, I was 33 years old, living in Ohio, and was 3 years into sobriety. I have no idea how this passage came to me: I had not been to Church in several years; I didn’t spend time with people who did; my only prayer was the Serenity Prayer, which I half mumbled at that; and I was not reading the Bible. I was working at a job I didn’t like, had just finished my Master’s degree in Counseling, and didn’t have a clue what to do next.
I had moved to Ohio after hitting bottom in Texas, after spending my 20’s intoxicated. I was in my 2nd year of a graduate-level counseling program in Dallas and had just begun my first practicum. I was halfway through my first session with my first client, when she began to talk about the sexual abuse she experienced as a child from her father and brother. I remember she said the words: “For some odd reason…,” and then I don’t remember what she said after that. Her story had triggered my own history of childhood sexual abuse. I didn’t realize it then but, Pandora’s Box had just been opened. The memories and emotions connected with the sexual abuse, which I had neatly stored in 2 separate compartments while growing up, now started to come together. I tried to continue in the program but just couldn’t, so I withdrew. I mostly just wanted to be dead. I felt embarrassed, ashamed, and stupid. I contacted an uncle in Ohio with whom I had a good relationship, and he knew exactly what I needed, since he had his own history of sexual abuse and addiction. He helped me move, took me to my first AA meeting, introduced me to a woman who would become my AA sponsor, and took me to my first counseling session. He probably saved my life. I was 30 years old and the last time my brother abused me I was 15. My therapist asked me to tell her what happened and I sat there…mute. I had never told my story before…I didn’t really know what my story was. And so the work began.
Fast forward to three years later again, working at that job I disliked, and I somehow meet up with that passage from Ezekiel. It meant so much to me that I wrote it down on an index card and placed it on the dashboard of my car so I could see it every day. It gave me hope…that somehow, I could be made new…and maybe I could experience the goodness of life again.
When I was asked to give the keynote this evening, I felt both honored and humbled…and then the fear kicked in. I thought: “What are they thinking? I’m from a little town in West Texas that’s named after a cow; I used to play Frisbee with dried cow piles…and got pretty good at it, by the way; and I became quite skilled at castrating bulls…which I’m still trying to figure out where to put that on my resume.”
But I do feel honored and grateful. St. John’s School of Theology means a great deal to me, and has played a central role in my ongoing self-discovery, healing, and growth. So tonight we celebrate this awesome place, faculty, staff, graduates, and alums. We celebrate in a special way the recipient of the Sister Mary Anthony Wagner Award: Dr. Nancy Dallavalle. Her work of empowering women to add our voice, knowledge, and perspective to the richness of Catholic thought and theology is critically important.
I want to share tonight some thoughts about how trauma can impact sense of identity and dearly-held symbols, thus leading to difficulty finding stable ground, meaning, or hope. I will be speaking primarily from my own experience, and will conclude by highlighting the power of ordinary people, within relationships and in community, toward mediating God’s love, lifting shame, and rendering new life possible.
At some point when I was a teenager, I realized my image of God was that of a mad scientist in the sky. This mad scientist God would look down at me like I was a rat in a maze trying to find my way out, then just as I was about to reach an opening, God would slam down a door and I would be trapped inside and have to start over; then God would laugh. That’s some God-image for someone who eventually became a chaplain. Of course, there’s a few steps in-between….
I have a good family and we love each other, and like many good families we have our share of problems. Both my parents knew of the abuse by my brother…they just didn’t know how to handle it. They had both experienced abuse as kids, and it is not uncommon for parents who have not had opportunity to work through their own abuse, to be unable to take effective action on behalf of their kids when it happens to them. My image of God was connected with my dad’s inability to protect me. I grew up thinking God was male, so for me, my dad symbolized God in some ways. This, along with other abusive experiences I had within the community, was the beginning of my anger toward God. I felt trapped…I wasn’t safe at home or in the community, so I turned my emotions off and went numb. I isolated in an effort to be safer…which means I didn’t learn much about social or relationship skills. Like most kids who are abused I blamed myself, and was angry with myself for not being smart enough to predict when it was going to happen, and for not fighting back. This impacted self-worth, identity, agency, and sense of value as female. However, in the course of my healing work I have since learned to view my adaptive behaviors as coping and survival strategies…and to see the resistance I practiced as a kid as courageous. I see now how these experiences made me very strong.
Being involved with our Catholic Church in town was a central part of our life as a family, and I’m grateful to my parents for their faithfulness and bringing all 8 of us kids to Church every week. This consistent liturgical experience and the example set by my parents played a key role in my coming back to the Church after I hit bottom. Brain development in childhood is not only impacted by trauma – it’s impacted by good experiences too. Being there with my parents and family was good; and the rituals utilizing smells, bells, and Catholic calisthenics engaged my senses and body. This ritual sensory experience was repeatedly wed with good feelings, and so proved to be a resilience factor for me. On the flip side, I recall as a kid gradually wondering why it seemed that the men and boys in Church were more important than the women or girls. Of course, this was a dynamic within the overall culture of our community as well. Back then, girls were not allowed to be servers, and for a long time women could clean the Church but not read the readings. As I got older, I wondered why the women in the readings always seemed to be prostitutes or possessed by demons, with the exception of our Blessed Mother, of course. But that’s a wide gap – weren’t there women in the Bible that were in the middle somewhere who did brave things? And, of course, God was male. This limited my sense of value and agency as female in the Church. This is yet another reason I’m grateful for the work of theologians like Dr. Dallavalle, to help expand in a healthy way the experience of Church. Although I have to admit, feminism is still a dirty word in my part of Texas and in my family. That’s probably why I felt like quite the rebel when I came here and bought Elizabeth Johnson’s book: “She Who Is.” I even resisted the urge to go to confession later…
I want to highlight how the experiences within family, Church, and community were mutually reinforcing where trauma’s influence on identity and symbol were concerned. For me at that time, being female was equated with lesser value and an object to be used…and God was a
Being who couldn’t be trusted. Now, I did a lot of things as a young adult that also reinforced trauma’s influence; I made a lot of poor decisions, I hurt people, and I stunted my own recovery through alcohol. Quite often, the mistakes I made simply added shame upon shame, thereby convincing myself of my unworthiness. That’s pretty common in survivors: we recreate and repeat what we know in terms of relationships and behaviors because it lends a measure of control. It’s hard to let go of what you know, even when you feel like a rat in a maze.
Pope Francis speaks to a pastoral theology and response that rejects minimizing the complexity of human situations and human limitations in favor of over-simplified moral judgments. He emphasizes the need to pattern our response to that of Jesus, which begins with an embrace of divine love, proceeds to the work of healing, and only then calls for conversion and change of life. This is compassionate accountability which serves to lift shame, empower, and remind people of their inherent dignity as a child of God.
When I first started focusing my work on trauma issues, I came across a question posed by Karl Rahner which continues to challenge me. I offer it as a challenge to you as well, in light of the impact of childhood trauma, which is now being referred to as an epidemic:
“In the intention of the Creator and Redeemer of children, what meaning does childhood have,
and what task does it lay upon us for the perfecting and saving of humanity?”
(Theological Investigations (8) 33-50)
We know that trauma influences brain formation and is connected to significant medical, mental health, and social problems later in life. We know there is generational transmission of trauma through stress-induced influence of gene expression in our DNA. And we know people can get stuck spiritually, as I did, due to distorted images of God, harsh core beliefs about self, and getting caught in an inability to forgive oneself for sins committed when trying to survive. I see this in the hospital a lot as a chaplain. It’s always a joy to see a person’s eyes light up, after they have told their trauma story and how they coped and they’re loaded down with shame…and then I ask them to ponder what God may be calling them to next. They appear dumbfounded…that God would bother with them. And I see that little glimmer of hope, and sometimes…I even talk to them about Ezekiel…and God’s promise of a new heart…and a new spirit.