FALL 2007

Deconstructing This Self: One Black Woman’s Exploration of Childhood Sexual Abuse and Process of Personal Reclamation

Keywords: Black female sexuality – critique of a stereotype, child sexual abuse, feminist critique, Feminist Inquiry, healing journey, Heuristic Process – Moustakas, identity formation

Abstract

Self-identity and its formation shape the broad query underlying this exploration, while the specific area of focus is childhood sexual abuse and its impact upon one’s sense of self and one’s sense of agency. This exploration strives to understand the factors that contribute to the perpetration of childhood sexual abuse, looking at socio-cultural reality that is grounded in patriarchal theology, as well as particular historical views of black female sexuality that might have contributed to my own abuse. Evidenced is how internalization of the abuser’s regard leads to distortions of self-concept.

The first half of the exploration is an examination of concomitant contributors to childhood sexual abuse. This includes investigating the theological ground from which modern dysfunctional views of sexuality sprouted, the socio-historical and cultural determinants of the way black women’s sexuality is currently perceived, and the dynamics behind internalization.

The second half of the exploration details my personal journey (1) and process of reclamation, and employs the heuristic research paradigm developed by Clark Moustakas. (2) Here the reader is invited to attend the ongoing recovery of memory and personal power that were stunted by my experience of childhood sexual abuse. An earth-based spiritual tradition rooted in Africa and premised on respect for all life is at the center of my healing journey. Dreams are the journey’s epistemological core.

Introduction
Premise: The Constructed Self

“William James offered an alternative to the notion that self-identify is based in a mental or self substance. Personal identify is, he said, an idea that a person constructs.” (3) The personal self is constructed from the accumulation of experiences, responses, and feedback one receives throughout life.

The human disciplines attribute the development of the notion of personal identity and the self to symbolic and bodily interaction within the social environment. . . . The concept of self . . . is a construction built on other people’s responses and attitudes toward a person. . . . In order to come to a unified and concordant self concept and personal identify, then, the person needs to synthesize and integrate the diverse social responses he or she experiences. (4)

Early experiences are foundational in shaping our psyches and the way we interact with and walk in the world. (5) This exploration will address childhood sexual abuse (6) from the macro perspective of socio-historical and cultural factors contributing to its existence and from the micro perspective of its impact on women’s lives. (7)

Because this is also my story, I wondered if perceptions of black women’s sexuality are projected onto the black female child, and how these perceptions have been fostered. With this in mind I look at a common stereotype of black female sexuality that resonates in my own experience. Employing a structured research format has facilitated the telling of painful personal history.

Overview

Childhood sexual abuse leaves scars that are deep, and it invariably impacts adult functioning. (8) Accounts by women who have experienced childhood sexual abuse vary as to its impact in their lives. (9) But all have been impacted. The trajectory of their self-development was invariably altered by the experience and trauma of childhood sexual abuse. “Violence sends deep roots into the heart.” (10)

What are possible social and cultural contextual factors that contribute to childhood sexual abuse? As a black woman who was subjected to childhood sexual abuse, I echo the thoughts of a black woman who survived rape at the hands of black males: “how could they do that to one of their ‘own.’” (11) As I acknowledge the extent to which incidents of childhood sexual abuse impacted my sense of self and personal identity, Charlotte Pierce-Baker’s question echoes in anguished tones because I suffered abuse at the hands of male family members.

Indeed, how could they do that to one of their own? What in their cosmology, in their sense of relationship to self and the universe, enabled them to feel entitled to use my body for their gratification? And what was my cosmology that I seemingly acquiesced or would perceive victimization as acquiescence?

The process of deconstruction might take a lifetime, although a full deconstruction is highly improbable given the complexity of interwoven factors that constitute the individual. “Because sexual abuse is just one of many factors that influence your development, it isn’t always possible to isolate its effects from the other influences on your life.” (12)

However, in an effort to unlock the mystery, I turn to Elaine Pagels (13) to help my understanding of the theological ground from which modern dysfunctional views of sexuality sprouted. Severe attitudes towards women and children held by the early church fathers shaped philosophical thought and the reality of human lives for centuries and continue to do so. That being as it may, it must be recognized that sexual abuse of children predates the early church by centuries:

A man desiring a youth was obliged to abide by legal procedure. . . . When of age, a boy could be courted and often many admirers would vie for his favor in open competition with gifts, flattery and even cash. Once a suitor was approved, the lucky man was permitted to possess the boy by rape. (14)

For the even earlier Bronze Age warrior, women and children comprised the “spoils of war” to be disposed of as the warrior chose. (15)

In concert with the above consideration, as a black woman I try to understand the socio-historical and cultural determinants of the way black women’s sexuality is currently perceived. Views of the black woman’s body and sexuality, I learn, are rooted in the insidious institution of slavery. In this part of the investigation I turn to Dorothy Roberts, bell hooks, and Carolyn West for their insight and theoretical understanding.

The current exploration of childhood sexual abuse is also an excavation. I want to dig deep and extract the last vestiges of memory, the memory that clings to my cells and causes flesh, bone, and psyche to recoil from intimacy and trusting. This is memory that is only partially available to conscious awareness. Most of the memory is hidden from consciousness, but it has come to me in visions and somatic recall. I know of a memory’s truth by way of somatic confirmation that gives rise to emotional response. “Memory (and history) is an embodied phenomenon.” (16) I am learning that my aloof and detached mind does not always speak truth, rather it often obscures truth for the sake of effective daily functioning.

Investigational Approach

The advantage of remembering is that “the previously ostracized experiences can return to the fold, and the increased wholeness resulting from these new integrations favors greater well-being.” (17) Allowing the unassimilated aspects of self, stemming from childhood sexual abuse, an opportunity to emerge and be heard is a microcosmic take on the tradition of feminist scholarship, which provides opportunities for “other persons and other experiences that have not been valued or privileged within the dominant culture to speak their own stories with their own voices and opportunities for these voices to be listened to and honored.” (18) In the case of one’s own psyche, it is the intrapersonal politics of dominant ego and suppressed realities.

Accessing and honoring intrapsychic reality in scholarship is counter to the mainstream left-brain orientation to erudition and research. Answering this bias,

Harding (1987), in her analysis of the androcentric epistemological assumptions of science, argued that feminist epistemology, particularly feminist standpoint epistemologies, must “seek to epistemically valorize some of the most discredited perspectives of knowledge” that have been ignored. (19)

The perspectives of knowledge in feminist epistemology outlined by Ardovini-Brooker include women’s ways of knowing, women’s experiences, and women’s knowledge.

Subjective knowledge grounded in experience is valued. A woman’s personal experience has the power to speak to more than her individual encounter for it reflects the larger socio-historical, cultural, and political context of its occurrence. In this way, the personal is political. I believe the subjugation of women and children, and the exploitation of black women’s sexuality are formed in the same socio-historical and cultural aberrations spawned by patriarchy and supported by patriarchal theology, philosophy, and politics.

This resonates with the thinking of Patricia Hill Collins who states,

Viewing relations of domination for Black women for any given sociohistorical context as being structured via a system of interlocking race, class, and gender oppression expands the focus of analysis from merely describing the similarities and differences distinguishing these systems of oppression and focuses greater attention on how they interconnect. (20)

It is the interconnection of these systems of oppression that makes the task of self deconstruction – the finding of the essential self – daunting.

With this exploration, an important component is included that heretofore I have found difficult to make a central element of scholarship, i.e., my story. This reticence is due to many factors, ranging from traditional western academic indoctrination, to an unwillingness to honor the validity of my experiences, and the inability to face my memories. These are memories housed within my body shielded from my mind, only emerging intermittently in the form of somatic resonance to people, environments, or situations, and in the form of dreams.

Heuristic Research: Design, Methodology and Applications by Clark Moustakas, lays the ground rules and provides the methodological framework for my research. Heuristic research is research into the self, buttressed by traditional approaches to inquiry. “The self of the researcher is present throughout the process and, while understanding the phenomenon with increasing depth, the researcher also experiences growing self-awareness and self-knowledge.” (21)

At minimum, placing the self at the center of scholarship has seemed narcissistic in my estimation. However, a good friend recently reminded me of the dialectic that exists between personal and social transformation – you try and change the world you change yourself, you change yourself you change the world. It is not an either/or relationship. Moustakas echoes this when he writes,

the question is one that has been a personal challenge and puzzlement in the search to understand one’s self and the world in which one lives. The heuristic process is autobiographic, yet with virtually every question that matters personally there is also a social – and perhaps universal – significance. (22)

Using the heuristic paradigm, the journey of recovering wholeness is discussed. The central place of spirituality within this process is also revealed to the reader. For at least the past 15 years I have skipped along the edges of African-based spiritual customs founded on the West African Ifá tradition that was brought to the western Atlantic regions with the slave trade. I say skipped along the edges because unlike my eldest sister, who became initiated into one of the diasporic African-based religions, I had simply read books and attended workshops.

African-based spirituality is earth based; as such it is embodied and comes alive in one’s life through practice and application. Only recently have I committed to deeper study and practice. Central to my reclamation process is an altar that I constructed honoring my child self and asking for the guidance, love, and support of Yemaya.

Yemaya is the orisha (or deity) within Ifá who is associated with the nurturing of children and the affairs of women in general. She is also aligned with our dreams. She is the mother of the oceans, teeming with life. “There is no mountain of trouble that Yemaya cannot wear down; no sickness of heart that She cannot wash clean; no desert of despair that She cannot flood with hope.” (23)