Taboo, Toni Morrison, and sexual abuse.
I am still reeling from the experience we had at Renovatus yesterday, debuting Taboo by opening tough issues of sexual abuse, violence, and past wounds. While walking with unusual boldness against our enemy who trembles beneath me, I speak with fragility of such a sacred, holy experience. It is frightful and altogether wonderful to see so much pain unleashed in the direction of the wounded healer.
As I reflect deeper on the wounds of abuse that mar the body of Christ (as I shared yesterday, statistically every bit as much as the rest of the world), I am drawn again to Toni Morrison’s haunting novel, The Bluest Eye. Next to the horrifyingly elegant prose of Isaiah 53 we read yesterday, there is no more eloquent witness to the wounds that can be inflicted on human bodies.
There is nothing redemptive about the suffering inflicted on the young girl Pecola, the central character of Morrison’s 1965 novel. In the foreword, Morrison describes a childhood encounter with a friend in elementary school, who, though African-American, told her of her desire to have blue eyes. She was repulsed by this unnatural image, and puzzled by a world that could make a daughter of God despise the way that she was made. This memory evolved into a novel about a girl named Pecola who is ultimately “smashed” by everyone in her world.
The dismantling of this innocent girl makes us yearn for someone to blame, somewhere to dump our rage. But Morrison won’t have it. She refuses to demonize any of these characters, even (and perhaps especially) her father Cholly, who sexually abuses her. Cholly himself suffered a rape of sorts as a young teenager, when white men with flashlights stumbled on him in the woods having his first tryst with a young girl his age. In a grueling scene, they laugh and force him to continue to “perform” in front of them while they yell obscenities.
All of these characters remain rounded and complex because Morrison will not let us get away with blaming any one character. She wants us to see that none of them are innocent in the dismantling of Pecola. They are all complicit, in some form, in the smashing of Pecola. Within our culture where we give no place for the stories of the abused, instead contributing to a culture of silence and shame, perhaps we also are complicit. Perhaps in our inability to stare squarely at the terror of 1 in 3 women physically or sexually abused around us, even in the household of faith, choosing instead to live in a dream world—we are also complicit.
By the time we reach the end of the novel, Pecola’s friend and our narrator Claudia paints a heart-rending picture of Pecola, collapsed now from all the smashing. Her body survives; her sanity does not. Note the intentional interplay with Isaiah 53 language here:
And the years folded up like pocket handkerchiefs. Sammy left town long ago; Cholly died in the workhouse; Mrs. Breedlove still does housework. And Pecola is somewhere in that little brown house she and her mother moved into on the edge of town, where you can see her even now, once in a while. The birdlike gestures are worn away to a mere picking and plucking her way between the tire rims and the sunflowers, between Coke bottles and milkweed, among all the waste and beauty of the world–which is what she herself was. All of our waste which we dumped on her she absorbed. And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us. All of us–all who knew her–felt so wholesome after we cleansed ourselves on her. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used–to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength.
And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely liscensed; were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life. We substituted good grammar for intellect, we switched habits to simulate maturity; we rearranged lies and called it truth, seeing in the new pattern of an old idea the Revelation and the Word.
We mourn for the Pecolas among us, de-humanized and “smashed” as Jesus was in Isaiah 53. We repent of our neglect of their stories of pain and humiliation, and any part we have played in perpetuating their pain. We remember again the wounded healer, whose wounds are the source of such great healing for all of our own.
For those who have been abused and discarded, it is important to note that while Jesus did bear the weight of all the sin and shame of humanity…while He is the “lamb of God who takes away the sins of the word”…while it is the blood of Jesus that mysteriously removes both transgression and guilt…know that the conspiracy of the cross was an act of love by Father, Son and Spirit. Not an eternal good cop bad cop, the Father out of control with rage and contempt eager to strike us down—and the Son standing up to Him like a battered wife, pleading to take the blows on our behalf. What awful imagery we often give to those who have been abused, already suspicious of either flesh or deity that would bear the name “father.” It was the divine dance of love between Father and Son that allowed Jesus to hang on the cross, taking all of our sorrows into himself along with the spear that pierced His side.
We behold the scars of our brothers and sisters, those who have been despised and rejected of men, acquainted with grief. We refuse to hide our faces from those that we once did not recognize or esteem. We turn together towards the wounded healer, the one who reconciles the victim and the victimizer at the foot of the cross. We behold the one who was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities.
By his stripes…we are healed.