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How to Build Self-Esteem in Teens & Adults with a History of Abuse
10 CEUs How to Build Self-Esteem in Teens & Adults with a History of Abuse

Section 11 (Web #25)
Survivors of Childhood Incest – Part I

Question 25 | Test | Table of Contents | Self-Esteem CEU Courses
Social Worker CEU, Psychologist CE, Counselor CEU, & MFT CEU

Psychological and spiritual healing for African American women survivors of childhood sexual abuse are defined and discussed. A description of a support group facilitated by the author for African American women survivors provides clinical insight. Sexuality, which is undoubtedly affected by incest, is also discussed. Implications for counselors and recommendations for their self-care are presented.


It is a cold, rainy Saturday night, and African American women have gathered for a weekend church retreat. There is tremendous relief as these women, in a spirit of sisterhood, slowly release their burdens, share their personal stories, commune with one another, and partake of nature's beauty. In the telling of stories, silence is broken. The breaking of silence allows the women not to feel alone, bad, sick, or crazy. Trust is experienced which, for many, is a new experience. In the collective stillness, the women begin to inhabit spaces that had previously been deemed "off limits." The hurt begins to go away, which is what healing is all about (hooks, 1993). Of the 24 women gathered, 8 are survivors of childhood incest, or approximately 1 in 3, which is consistent with national figures (Bass & Davis, 1988). In 1986, Russell (as cited in Blume, 1990) surveyed a nonclinical, randomly selected sample of 930 women in San Francisco. Of this group, 38% had been sexually abused before they were 18 years old (Blume, 1990; Ratican, 1992).


This article explores both psychological and spiritual healing for African American women survivors of childhood incest. Although African American women are widely represented within the population of incest survivors, they are severely underrepresented in the psychology and counseling literature regarding treatment of and recovery from childhood sexual assault (Enns, 1996; Wilson, 1994). Given the salient role of the Black church, other expressions of spirituality in the lives of African American women, and the violating nature of incest to one's personhood, a discussion of spiritual and psychological healing is warranted.


African American women are the focus of this article. The convergence of their race and gender means that their issues differ from those of European American women and African American men. More specifically, all counselors, independent of their race and gender, need to be mindful of sociopolitical issues when working with African American women who are survivors of incest. These issues include the individual and collective impacts of historical and contemporary racism and sexism on the identity development of African American women; the centrality of the Black church in the Black community; images of Black womanhood; interpersonal relationships with African American men, other African American women, and European Americans; the silence of religion about sexuality; the stigma of receiving counseling within the Black community; and valuable resources available to African American women to assist them in coping with multiple forms of oppression, among them incest. These themes are discussed throughout this article.


Because group work is tremendously beneficial in "the rapid reduction of the survivor's sense of isolation" (Ratican, 1992, p. 36), I reference my experience as a group facilitator of two support groups for African American women survivors of incest over a 3-year period for practical and clinical insight. Note that this work is not a qualitative research study; thus, a method section is not included. Consultation with former group participants about the writing of this article did not occur, and the identities of group participants are not revealed. Each group was composed of approximately 5 women. The goal of these groups was to help group members resolve the problems associated with living as survivors of incest by providing interpersonal support, coping, and problem solving (Gladding, 1997). The groups were open, but new members were rarely added. The biweekly groups, which lasted from 2 to 3 hours in my home, became safe places of support and challenge where women could finally talk about, while being listened to, the profound ways in which their lives had been transformed by childhood sexual violence. Prayers, which were part of each group meeting, were written by me. Sample prayers are included as is poetry written by me to reflect some of the difficult dialogue that transpired. To address the impact of incest on a woman's sexuality, a separate section on sexuality is included. Implications for counseling with this population are discussed.


Definition of Terms

Just what is incest? Although commonly referred to as a father-daughter relationship, Blume (1990) expanded the definition of incest beyond both immediate family members and penetration to "the imposition of sexually inappropriate acts, or acts with sexual overtones, by--or any use of a minor child to meet the sexual or sexual/emotional needs of--one or more persons who derive authority through ongoing emotional bonding with that child" (p. 4). According to Gil (1983), sexual abuse occurs "when any person, adult, or child, forces, tricks, threatens, or coerces a child to have any kind of sexual contact with him/her. Showing children pornographic pictures or films, or telling them explicitly sexual stories can be a form of sexual abuse" (p. 17). Thus, both of these definitions include a variety of abusers: a school teacher, a family friend, a brother, an aunt, a babysitter, a mother's boyfriend, a grandfather, or the child's biological father or the stepfather. These definitions also do not limit incest to direct sexual contact. Finally, incestuous acts include events that have happened daily or just once. If the act prevents a woman from being close to herself and other people, makes her scared, depressed, or has devastated her life, then what matters is that it happened, even if only once, and therefore falls under the definition of incest.

The term survivor is used throughout this article because it commonly refers to individuals who have experienced childhood sexual assault and have lived through it. This term is also descriptive of the act of survival, which means "to continue to live or exist, to live or to exist longer than, to remain alive or in existence after" (Ehrlich, Flexner, Carruth, & Hawkins, 1980, p. 927).


Independent of what women have done in the past to survive incest (i.e., promiscuity, chemical and material addictions, prostitution, denial, control or overachievement), they are still here. Today, if their lives were touched by abuse, they may choose to survive differently, simply because they can. Spiritual healing is defined as moving from a place of brokenness, emptiness, and feelings of separation from oneself and others, to an awareness of one's infinite connection with a loving and caring Spirit or higher power, however the woman defines that power. Spiritual healing means being at a place of peace, acknowledgment, and acceptance, knowing that one's entire life has intrinsic worth and purpose independent of the survivor's past with childhood incest. Spiritual healing does not exist outside of the self and does not operate on a cognitive level but rather on a profoundly personal one. Knowing that one's life is meaningful and being able to coexist peacefully with it describes spiritual healing. Psychological healing means embracing one's life--not hiding from it or denying what has happened. It also refers to an ability to acknowledge one's damaged psyche and construct out of it a self that is free, self-aware, and healthy.


Spiritual and Psychological Healing

The lack of consensus regarding a definition of spirituality has been discussed in other counseling literature (Ganje-Fling & McCarthy, 1996). What is generally agreed on is that spirituality gives life direction and meaning (McDonald, 1990) and represents the essence of who people are (Fowler & Keen, 1978). Spirituality is internally and experientially defined, transcends the tangible, and connects one to the whole, which includes the universe and all organisms. In this article, spirituality is distinguished from religion. Religion tends to be associated with a particular denomination and "has come to represent an institutionalized set of beliefs and practices by which groups and individuals relate to the ultimate" (Burke et al., 1999, p. 252).


Spiritual healing does not assume psychological healing. Psychological healing is not disparate from spiritual healing. The two complement one another. Yet, it is possible to experience psychological healing without spiritual healing and spiritual healing without psychological healing. For example, a woman who has healed spiritually and not psychologically might have a communicative relationship with her higher power and forgiven her abuser but avoids her anger or depression. Conversely, a woman who has healed psychologically and not spiritually might be able to express her anger and have high self-esteem but not be able to forgive her abuser or to release him to a higher power.


Spirituality and religion can have negative and positive effects on one's life (Burke et al., 1999). This is understandable--expected even. The journey to spiritual healing can be conflictual and confusing (Ganje-Fling & McCarthy, 1996). Woititz (1989) acknowledged this difficulty and offered words of wisdom that might be helpful to survivors:


We do not exist without purpose. All of our life experiences help bring us closer to realizing that purpose. The abuse you overcame can give further meaning to your life in your service to others and in your acceptance of self. The loss you experienced needs to be acknowledged, grieved over, accepted, and integrated as a part of who you are. (p. 110)


One major barrier to spiritual healing might be the way many African American women survivors learn to conceptualize God and themselves. Within the discourses of racism and sexism, the depiction of God's holiness and purity has been synonymous with White people in general and more specifically with White female virgins. Dissimilar to this sacred image is the Black girl who has been sexually violated. She can never be male, White, or not sexually assaulted. These limiting images of the Divine can predispose Black women to feelings of powerlessness, marginality, and revictimization.


In some dominant Western religious contexts, the self is regarded as inherently sinful and unworthy of God's miraculous love and grace. For African American women, this concept of the self is again similar to the discourses of historical and contemporary racism and sexism that allege that African people and women are expendable, peripheral, and genetically inferior to White people and to men of colon Because the discourses of racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression are intersecting (Robinson, 1999), they often result in people being evaluated on the basis of how close they are to being White, male, middle-class, Christian, and heterosexual (Reynolds & Pope, 1991).


Reconciliation of one's history of sexual abuse with predominant teachings about God can be difficult. On one hand, God is a loving protector who seems not to be made in the image of the sexually violated Black girl. On the other hand, God is omnipresent yet apparently absent and inactive amidst trauma that transforms the child's life. Without spiritual healing, it might be nearly impossible to fathom this duality.


Questioning her higher power might assist the survivor of incest to heal spiritually. Queries such as "if God is my protector, why did God allow an act that was so violating, especially when I was an innocent child?" are crucial. If the woman believes that a higher power has the capacity to be everywhere at the same time, created the world and everything in it, yet failed to show up at the garage, bedroom, park, classroom, or other den of hell where she was victimized by incest, then a spiritual crisis exists and needs to be explored. Unexamined and fundamentalist religion is an impediment to spiritual healing because it leaves an African American woman survivor of incest extremely vulnerable to continued self-recrimination. Moreover, devout religiosity might also be an attempt to seek redemption from feelings of guilt, shame, and disgust.


As a survivor heals spiritually, her perspective of herself changes. Once, I asked a survivor "is God your friend." She quickly said "no," stating that God was demanding, punishing, powerful, and loving but not readily accessible. The similarities between many of the men in women's lives and the God of their understanding are sobering. On their spiritual journeys, some women might need to differentiate "religion from spirituality, choosing nonreligious methods of spiritual practice" (Ganje-Fling & McCarthy, 1996, p. 255). This woman decided she was uncomfortable with her image of God. In developing a different one, her image of herself improved, became less critical and more accepting.


A challenge to healing many African American churchgoing survivors of incest is the male-led patriarchy that maintains silence about incest despite a predominantly African American female congregation. Such silence erroneously communicates to a woman that her violation is a fugitive topic. Although a community of faith can promote the healing process, it can impede it as well. Ganje-Fling and McCarthy (1996) said, "religious commitment often means involvement in a community. This can be a source of great conflict for clients, in part because their abuse occurred within the community context" (pp. 254-255).


Survivors do not need to be patronized, which happens when both church and family members offer trite answers that trivialize a woman's pain. Survivors have been told by their church that if they had more faith then their past would not assail them. Being chided for not having enough faith can exacerbate a survivor's sense of alienation. Faith is important, but it will not result in miraculous conquest over chronic and debilitating depression, frigidity, resentment, bitterness, difficulties with intimacy, and night terror caused by incest. Survivors need a forum in which they can scream, shout, cry, curse, and talk without being condemned or glibly pacified. Coming to the end of oneself and into the arms of community is an act of grace that allows spiritual healing to happen. Although an arduous and uneven process, women learn that the ways they have been living do not work any longer and no longer need to.


Creating Spaces for Spiritual Healing

Jackson and Sears (1992) cited research that found prayer to be the most important coping response among African Americans. More women were found to use prayer than men. ... Prayer gives African Americans (particularly women, poor persons, elderly persons) a sense of strength with which to meet personal crises. (p. 185)


Prayer is a means for many African American women to deal with stress in their lives and to encourage feelings of well-being. When facilitating my support groups, I began each group with a prayer. The women gathered in a circle, holding hands. Pellauer, Chester, and Boyajian (1987) devoted an entire chapter to litanies, psalms, and songs for "ritual and recuperation" (p. 223). The following is an example of a prayer that I have prayed.

Loving Creator, we thank you for your presence and for bringing each woman safely to this place. We affirm peace, joy, and harmony for each present and we give thanks for the healing work that has begun in each and every life. We celebrate abundant life and are grateful for sisterhood. And so it is.


Incense and white candles create a reflective and calm atmosphere. Because the process of healing, sharing, and releasing old feelings and thoughts requires energy, refreshments were made available on the table--fresh fruit, raisins, cookies, cakes, ginger ale, cocoa, tea, and water. When they were ready, the women helped themselves. It was important to keep a comfortable temperature in the room. Sometimes women shivered because of their memories. Having a box of tissues was critical because there were always cleansing tears for the soul.


The process of gaining self-awareness is not without struggle; struggle should not be objected to, particularly in context of community. It is struggle apart from community that leads to despair. An effective group can support the process of remembering and healing, which on one's own may be too overwhelming. Acting ethically, counselors need to help clients understand and even anticipate the potential consequences of unearthing their memories. Not to do so would constitute maleficence, which is to do harm to the client (Daniluk & Haverkamp, 1993). It was essential to provide appropriate support when a woman tapped into suppressed and terrifying anger. Close communication throughout the week was also maintained.


Women need to know what they want and to learn to ask for it. Thus, one group rule was that a woman did not have to talk about something she did not want to; however, she had to let her wishes be known. A climate of respect for each woman's voice and developmental place was critical. Sometimes, there was systematic resistance to embracing the pain of one's past, which took the form of denial, intellectualization, or sleeping. Agitation, depression, fear, or other emotions might explain the silence. In such cases, gentle but firm probing might be necessary. Without minimizing the important work being done, levity and humor have a place in groups. Women discussed job promotions, graduations, wedding engagements, and exciting travel experiences.


After each woman had spoken (and women often asked each other questions or offered their wisdom), we gathered for a prayer that I led.


Loving Creator, we thank you for this time to heal our souls. We affirm peace of mind as each woman moves through her day. We affirm guidance for each step of the way. We thank you that our faith has been renewed.


Survivors of incest might ask where God was during their abuse. These women have had a lifetime of people evading them, and I do not want to do this. At the same time, I need to behave in an ethically responsible manner. I am not a survivor of incest, thus I depend on empathy to guide me. Because a woman's spiritual beliefs are essential, I have asked, "do you believe that Spirit is always where you are?" In answering "yes," I have said, 

Spirit did not fail to show up

and was aware of the violator's feet

as they moved stealthily

across the floor to you

heard the familiar yet wicked creeks

of the bedsprings

as he positioned himself

again for indecency

felt the pain

behind your eyes

was with you then and now


In confusion, rage, and sadness, women must grapple with deeply spiritual questions to heal. This process takes time and requires time in a supportive community as well as in the silence alone.

-Robinson, T. L. (Jul 2000). Journal of Multicultural Counseling & Development, 28(3).

















Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Çimşir, E., & Akdoğan, R. (2021). Childhood Emotional Incest Scale (CEIS): Development, validation, cross-validation, and reliability. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 68(1), 98–111.

Rudolph, A., Schröder-Abé, M., & Schütz, A. (2020). I like myself, I really do (at least right now): Development and validation of a brief and revised (German-language) version of the State Self-Esteem Scale. European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 36(1), 196-206.

Shevlin, M., Murphy, S., Elklit, A., Murphy, J., & Hyland, P. (2018). Typologies of child sexual abuse: An analysis of multiple abuse acts among a large sample of Danish treatment-seeking survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 10(3), 263–269.


Although incest is commonly referred to as a father-daughter relationship, how did Blume expand the definition?


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