After reading the account of the Lourdes Torres-Manteufel abuse by Vision Forum founder, Doug Phillips, Cindy Kunsman reflects on her own sex abuse story.
Note from Julie Anne: I remember talking to Cindy Kunsman around the time the Lourdes Torres-Manteufel lawsuit was made public. Lourdes’ story greatly affected her in a personal way, reminding her of her own sexually abusive childhood. This sometimes happens when someone else’s story reminds us of our own painful experience. Statistics tell us that there are a lot of people who have been sexually abused. If you have been sexually abused, this may be a sensitive subject for you. Cindy does a wonderful job of sharing what went on in her head as she processed her own story.
If you have gone through sex abuse, it is our prayer that through sharing Cindy’s deeply personal story, you will know that you are not alone and there are people here who would love to support you through encouragement and prayer.
A special thanks to Cindy for being so vulnerable and transparent with us.
Part IV in a Series
A Personal Account by Cindy Kunsman, UnderMuchGrace.com
I didn’t see it coming. When I read Lourdes Torres-Manteufel’s petition to the Bexar County Court seeking justice for abuse she alleges that she suffered at the hands of Doug Phillips and Vision Forum, I didn’t expect to be so deeply affected emotionally. I faced similar sexual abuse at the hands of a caregiver, beginning at the age of eight, continuing regularly until I was about eleven. At the age of fourteen when I couldn’t avoid being in the same place with him and alone one day, I had to kick him to get away.
I ran to the kitchen to brandish a butcher’s knife at him to fend him away. That much action seemed nearly impossible for me, and it became a “flashbulb” memory of a different trauma. It was more disgusting then, for I fully understood what he’d done to me and was no longer so powerless. I felt shame for having been ruined by him, shame for not stopping him before I even understood what was happening, shame for defending myself that day, and shame for hurting him physically in that process.
And there was a double dose of shame and self-blame so I wouldn’t have to go against the perceptions of my mother. “He was such a good man. He was good to his mother (my elderly neighbor). He was good to me.” I was parroting my mother. That became my mantra when I finally wrapped my mind around what he was doing to me. I had to rationalize things somehow in order to maintain some kind of mental equilibrium around her.
No Boundaries, Yet Bound
My mother projected her shame on to me for as long as I can remember. Save from her loving labor of reading and reading and reading to me, my earliest memories of anything and of her are steeped in shame. I was like an appendage of hers that she couldn’t get to work properly, like a lame limb that she dragged around. Into that limb, she poured the shame that she felt towards herself so that the rest of her person could feel good.
When things happened to me that threatened or disappointed her, I served as her lame-limb cause. I had no choice but to internalize fault, something I don’t believe I really understood until my mid-twenties when a dear friend sarcastically asked me if I thought I was responsible for the Gulf War. That watershed moment gave me permission to consider that I might not be to blame for ‘everything.’ And I saw how my self-blame caused pain for those around me who loved me, hating to see me suffer so much – even about things that had nothing to do with me.
Any interaction that I had with anyone not in my mother’s presence was questioned – along with my ability to perceive or ‘test’ reality. Sometimes, she denied what she was there to witness, too, but I didn’t notice that and certainly didn’t trust it until I was a teen. “That couldn’t have happened.” “They couldn’t have said that.” “That can’t be true.” “You must have done something to provoke this because people don’t just do mean things to you without cause.”
Conditioning and Gaslighting; Doubting and Dissociating
I believe that I heard these words as often as I heard my mother speak my name. When I started kindergarten, I started dissociating from the stress of this regular, unavoidable experience of her interrogations. In my form of dissociation, I felt like my consciousness left my body and viewed situations from just off to my right side, as if a movie camera lens was poised just a hair below my eye level on my right cheek, allowing me to see the right side of my own face). I’d learned to compartmentalize myself. Although I was treated as an inseparable part of my mother’s psyche, I discovered how to separate “Me” from myself so I could survive the trauma of that particular internment.
An enduring example of my frustration, just before my fifth birthday, involved my mother’s insistence that I had to be pronouncing another child’s name improperly. At first, my parents laughed at me. Then, I was deemed defiant and dishonest because I reverted from their pronunciation of the name to how it was pronounced by the boy himself and the teacher. (Who would know better than him?) I knew that I was telling the truth and was repeating exactly what I’d heard at school. I was made fun of at school for mispronouncing the name as I was ordered by my parents. I learned that I couldn’t trust anything I perceived.
Depending on the circumstance, my mother didn’t trust me, even about simple and insignificant things, though she didn’t accuse me of lying when I was this young. Every day at school meant an evening of unmerited shame and intense confusion at the dinner table.
Survivor Guilt on Top of Grief
When I was six, just before Christmas, my godparents’ twelve year old daughter died – one of my favorite people in the wide, wide world. She treated me like a sister and embodied joy for me – a joy that I don’t believe I’ve ever recaptured since I was last with her. I for reasons that I explain in this post, I developed tremendous survivor guilt on top of my own grief which I was not permitted (or taught) to express.
A year and month later, my elderly neighbor’s husband died – the person I saw as my only regular source of reliable, unconditional love who never shamed me. (My grandparents lived hours away, and this precious man named Charles was the only person who was consistently in my life who gave me a sense of safety that allowed me to be a happy child. After he died, just after Christmas in the same season that I’d suffered loss a year earlier, his bereaved wife’s son started coming around, and I was often left in his care when he took his mother to appointments, pinochle parties, and ladies auxiliary meetings. I thought at first that God had sent him to me to replace Charles.
I knew that my mother would never believe me. She went on at length about how wonderful this son was to his mother, and she talked to me about obeying him. Maybe I asked her something about whether I needed to do everything that he wanted me to do, for I remember the mini-lecture about obeying elders and nice men like him.
I was so messed up from the regular experiences of abuse that I had profound dissociation as a consequence. I hit a point where I would dissociate – as I stepped up on to the stone walk at the end of the driveway, it was like “Me” left my body again, before I even entered the house. My projector/camera perched on my shoulder again to give Me some distance from re-immersion in the pool of damaging demands there.
Holding Children to Adult Standards
When I discussed this with my godmother a few years ago, she asked me why I didn’t tell someone and why I didn’t realize that it was wrong. I told her that to remember that she was talking about a very confused, grief-impaired little girl who was so freaked out by what was happening that even I didn’t believe that what was happening to me was real. I was a child who couldn’t figure out how to pronounce another child’s name. I was a child whose experiences were questioned and criticized daily.
I explained to her that I was not thinking anything, and she must consider that she could not hold me to the standard of an adult when I was only eight. What was I thinking? Nothing. I was thinking that it wasn’t real. My consciousness was floating about twelve feet away from where my body was, by the door, and all I remembered were strange sensations, pain, and still photographs of myself from across the room which seemed unbelievable.
How do the Harmed Envision Wholeness?
When I was nine, I’d learned to make hot dogs all by myself, heated sauerkraut, chopped onions, and melted cheese on the top of them after I toasted the buns. I remember seeing my molester drive in the driveway that we partially shared with the neighbor, the old lady who babysat for me who was now a widow. I was so excited about making these hot dogs that I ran down the path with one for him like an excited little girl would do. I still fantasized that he was my replacement for my dear, departed Charles.
He greeted me in the normal manner, but something horrible happened when my mother followed a few moments behind me – an unexpected visitor on a day that she took off from her job. He instantly changed and braced up when my mom entered the scene. It was one of the most horrible feelings I could remember up until that point. He acted like he’d been caught doing something dreadfully wrong, and he behaved so strangely from the way he usually was with me.
It was quite traumatic and very confusing. I knew something was very wrong, and I felt like a vortex opened up in my throat and whirled down-down-down to my pelvic floor like a terrible painful emptiness. That was the moment that I gave myself permission to think about what was being done to me. I wouldn’t understand what was happening to me in this moment for another thirty years. It was too horrible to think about. I felt abandoned by both my mother and my molester in that moment. I felt abandoned by my… What was he to me? Something was very wrong.
On that day that I defended myself with the butcher knife some five years later, I actually allowed myself to acknowledge with great disgust that I likely felt something much more like the rejection of a lover. How revolting! The day with the knife was the last day that I saw him, but I still felt so trapped by the utter disgust of that moment and my own self-loathing that followed that I wouldn’t think about it again for another twenty years. And it took a few years in recovery after that to understand that the horrible moment was actually a break in my dissociation. Instead of a self-divided through dissociation as a survival instinct, I’d actually given myself permission to be glued back together. From that day in my ninth year, it would take more than 30 years before I would realize it.
Not long after that, I watched one of those made for TV movies that used to be on network TV in the ’70s. I don’t know where my mother was that evening, but I watched the movie with my father. It was about a little girl with long raven hair and big brown eyes who was being molested by her father. I felt like every nerve in my body was lit up with electricity – as though I had been plugged into the wall. I finally understood what was really done to me, and I had to think about it now.
I turned and stared at my father when it was over, up long past what should have been a decent bedtime. I knew my mom would not believe me, but he would. Dad would understand, especially because I could talk about the movie to help me explain to him what had been happening to me for over a year. As I struggled to pull together my confidence to tell him, he looked at me, shaking his head in sadness. With a characteristic expression of disappointment that I knew well, he said, “Cindy, if someone did something like that to you, I don’t know how I could keep from killing them.”
My father was an avid hunter, and though he was taken by his uncle to Sunday services at a Presbyterian church as a child, he was not “born again.” This was a constant fear of mine – that he would die unexpectedly and would go to hell. With the reasoning of a child, I made an “inner vow.” I decided then that I could never utter this man’s name and what he did to me until he was dead. If I did, my father would kill the molester, he would turn himself in and go to jail because he was that kind of guy, he would get the electric chair for murdering a man, both men would go to hell, and my already struggling mother would be a widow. Telling anyone would send two men that I loved to hell. And I did love my molester then in a very confused kind of way at that point. I wouldn’t have wanted to see an enemy in hell anyway. I laid down my comfort to save the lives of two men and for the benefit of my mother. It was the only right thing to do.
The Magical Thinking of a Child – and a Range of Empty Choices, Each with Dire Consequences
I then spent the next several years praying that God would give my Assemblies of God pastor a ‘word of knowledge’ about what was happening to me. I knew, knew, knew deep inside that God would make it right. At the end of each church service and in the middle of every worship time, my heart would pound, have hoping beyond hope and half in terror at the prospect of the Holy Spirit telling my pastor about what had happened. I could have told my pastor. He would have believed me, but I had no idea how my mother would ever believe it. Maybe if the church heard it with her, she would have to believe it. That was my only hope.
But that word of knowledge never came to him. He moved away to take a new church when I was ten, and I didn’t have a good relationship with the next pastor who took over for him. But my heart would pound during revival services every year. God would know. God would help. And my heart would pound away.
I had no choice, though it seems like I did. I could have told my father that evening when I was nine – but that would result in two deaths and two souls, eternally lost in hellfire. And I would be the cause that sent them both there. I had the choice to brave my mother’s criticism, doubt, and shame – that with which I already could not cope. I had a chance to tell when I started wrapping my middle finger in band-aids until the flesh started to smell from rot. If they saw my fingers, they would know. I also started picking scabs and scrapes open, and I picked at my skin and scalp for a long time. I could have explained, when I was old enough to stay alone at our house, why I no longer wanted to go to the neighbor’s house, especially when he was there.
I had a chance to tell someone when I scrubbed my perineum raw and had to go to the doctor who asked me nothing. Maybe he talked to my mother, but I’m inclined to think that people didn’t ask questions about sexual abuse at that time. I clearly remember the grimace he made when he examined me, and I vowed that I would never do such a thing to someone else. I’m sure he did so because I looked so sore, but I felt that I was an object of disgust.
I could have told the doctor when I had a Barium Swallow test at age ten – years before they had fiberoptic scopes for looking for ulcers. I probably could have told, but dad would die. My dad would die. My dad would die. My mom might even kill herself. She often made suicide threats during times when she felt overwhelmed, describing very graphic images of how she planned to go about it. Are children capable of understanding the difference between an empty threat and a genuine suicide plan?
Maybe I would send her to hell, too? Or maybe I could go in everyone’s stead to solve the whole problem. With me out of the equation, there would be no more problems for anyone. At least, this is what made the most sense to me as a child – a child that never should have been faced with such decisions.
Coping, But With Only “Bounded Choice“
Did I have choices? Yes and no. My choices were bounded, and none were really viable. I was inseparably tethered by my thinking to the stake of my parents’ own problems and expectations. I was not truly free, I could only function within the short range of tethered options.
Bounded choices offer mostly bad bargains, but I never really thought of it as a bargain. I had only one possible choice which I didn’t really see as a choice at all — to go along with the abuse. I chose to make the sacrifice that seemed to me to benefit the most people by paying as much of that cost myself. I did it because I loved my parents, and I sought what was best for them (and for my abuser). None of my options were good ones, and they were beyond what many adults could face. But I wasn’t an adult. And due to my mother’s depression and her own issues of shame, I didn’t even have the resources that well-adjusted children had. At that point I chose to spare the lives of those most immediate to me, but at the continued cost of myself.
More to follow in Part II.