The horrors of child abuse not only extinguishes the innocence of childhood, but so often defines survivors who spend a lifetime struggling to process such devastating childhood trauma. When abuse is perpetrated in faith communities and is rationalized with scripture and distorted theology, most victims come to understand God as the ultimate abuser. All too often, these precious souls get weary of processing what seems to be a forever dark journey and simply give up hope.
Last year, I was privileged to come into contact with an amazing individual who is walking that journey and has given up hope more than once. The life of Trudy Metzger is one that is both deeply tragic and remarkably hopeful. She was the one beaten and left to die on the side of the road in the parable of the Good Samaritan. She is also the one pursued, embraced, and loved by the ultimate Good Samaritan. Trudy’s journey is not unlike the painful journey of so many others who are weary and who have or are giving up hope. Her life is a declaration that there is hope.
In order to share this hope with others, Trudy recently wrote a book about her journey entitled, Between 2 Gods. This amazingly honest memoir doesn’t hide the truth about the deep physical, emotional, and spiritual pains caused by childhood trauma. It also doesn’t hide the truth about a loving God who crosses the road and gets down into the dirt with the hurting and brutalized.
I hope that we can all find some comfort in Trudy’s words that have been formed out of a life that for all intensive purposes should have ended long ago. I’m so grateful God had other plan. – Boz
Boz: Can you tell us a little bit about your family background?
Trudy: I was the 12th living child, of what would eventually be 16, born into an Old Colony Russian Mennonite home. With a history of unaddressed abuse and violence in my father’s family, and murder and unacknowledged sexual abuse in my mother’s family, we didn’t stand much of a chance at escaping abuse. Intertwined with this were deeply rooted religious beliefs that presented God as volatile and harsh, rather than a kind ‘Abba Father’—or ‘Papa’—who loves us and understands our humanity.
Boz: What was it about the culture you grew up in that you believe contributed to an abusive environment?
Trudy: This topic would produce at least a chapter, but more likely a book, if covered with any kind of thoroughness. Certainly male dominance was a problem—and I say that as someone who believes all are created equal, with something of value to contribute in every situation—and this robbed women and children of any voice. Contributing to this was the ‘elders are to be respected view’ that required younger children to submit to older siblings, giving older siblings almost the same authority as parents. While these older siblings were not necessarily the abusers, the mentality very much affirmed ‘voicelessness’ and demanded submission and surrender to the wishes of anyone older. This is a set up for abuse throughout life.
I want to add that our communities in Mexico were infested with sexual abuse on every level, and it was not only the girls who were victimized by fathers, brothers and men in general. Male to male violations were a tragic reality, leaving young boys devastated by the impact of rape, often from older boys or fathers. Teen boys raped teen girls and older girls seduced younger boys, and mothers molested their children. I wouldn’t have known all of this in childhood, and didn’t address its brutality in my book but it goes without saying that such depravity is the result of multiple issues, not only male dominance.
Another piece was little teaching about sex, and what was communicated was presented more in strict warnings to ‘not sin’, and warnings to protect against ‘evil boys’. This made sex an altogether horrid thing, feeding the unhealthy lifestyles and resulting in much sexual promiscuity on besides abuse.
Boz: What type of abuse did you experience while living at home?
Trudy: The main abuses I suffered at home were psychological, physical, spiritual and sexual. The physical and psychological abuse intertwined powerfully. My father’s violence and death threats messed with my mind, and the violence I witnessed gave those threats a visual context, bringing them to life in my imagination and causing deep and constant torment.
I touched on the spiritual abuse briefly already, but will add that using the ‘…you’ll go to hell if you…” teaching is cruel to the mind of a child. It wasn’t the awareness of an existing hell that tormented me—I was okay with knowing of such a place, and knowing Jesus died to save me from it; that was a relief. Using hell as a manipulation to induce fear to get people to comply is not only abusing that person, it is a dreadful violation of the heart of God, in my opinion. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the ‘Good News’ of the Gospel we have been called to share with the world. Being saved through Jesus, is the good news, but being condemned if you don’t align with church rules is the bad news of the enemy, to put it bluntly. And it’s all around inappropriate to throw at little children.
Sexual abuse was prevalent in our home and community, and though I experienced more than enough of it, I ‘flew under the radar’ in many ways, and suffered far less than some of my siblings. Watching a group of older teens sexually victimizing a group of my siblings —something I mention in my book—was very damaging as I struggled with whether my siblings would ever be okay. I could feel the impact, and the scene replayed in traumatic and graphic detail in my mind. Though I was also sexually abused by older children in our community and some siblings, what tormented me the most was the abuse I witnessed. There was also much ‘child to child’ sexual interaction in our home and community. Contrary to those who downplay the impact, this is very damaging for many, disrupting healthy sexual function later in life. I write openly about these things, but tried to honor the privacy and not cross lines to sharing the stories of siblings who suffered far more than me.
Boz: At what point did you decide that you needed to get away? Did you have any support in making that decision?
Trudy: I ‘dreamed and schemed’ of leaving long before I developed a plan to present to my father, the month before my 16th birthday, so the ‘deciding’ happened long before the execution. By age 11, if not sooner, I contemplated my options and wished for a way out, but being in a sheltered environment, and in a time and place when society had not recognized abuse as it does today, I had no awareness of options, so I waited. At 15 I actively planned and, knowing my father’s violence, running away was not an option. Instead, understanding our family’s financial needs, I presented a plan to help out financially, and in that way walked out of my father’s house with his blessing, and him not knowing my true motives.
It is important to note, to tell the story accurately, that my mother was also an abusive parent. All through childhood my interactions were more with my father, and his influence in my struggle with God—both good and bad—drew him into this memoir in a unique way. The ‘mom story’ may or may not ever make it into a book form, but I certainly couldn’t talk with her about these things at that time.
Boz: Did leaving home solve your problems?
Trudy: I wish I could say yes. My intent, when leaving, was not to become this dreadful rebel child who packed 20 years’ worth of sin into 2 years of living. I wanted to know God. Desperately! Being excommunicated from church, and abandoned with not one soul to talk to, at a heart level, with all those memories bubbling inside of me, pushed me over the edge. In my desperate desire for a place to belong, a place to be loved, I soon learned that I would have to give up my body to get that. If men want sex, and I want a place to belong, then it becomes a fair trade. But, instead of giving me that place to belong, it threw me into suicidal tendencies, into feelings of being used and worthless, and left me feeling empty and robbed. Instead of taking me away from the abuses I had seen and suffered at home, it threw me into the same thing in a new environment.
Boz: Did the abuse you suffered from as a child impact the decisions you made after leaving home?
Trudy: Definitely! The biggest thing was not having the ability to say ‘no’, combined with always wanting to make people happy… I had made a decision that I wanted to remain a virgin—though I only learned the meaning of that word at 16—but with the level of sexual confusion and that need to be loved and accepted, I was ‘destined and doomed’ for sexual promiscuity, so to speak. And with no one to talk to, and being ‘conditioned’ for silence, I didn’t stand a chance.
Boz: What kept you going amidst the continued suffering after leaving home?
Trudy: Other than one flashback, when I was raped at 17, I pretty much blocked out memories of home, family and childhood. I went weeks, if not months, without even thinking of that ‘other reality’, and I partied hard, drowning out any connection to the pain. In this way I closed God out, without even knowing it. Ironically, it was this ability to ‘live in another world’ and close out the past that made me function reasonably well in the day to day. It prevented me from putting down any roots, but it kept me alive.
Boz: Where was God during those dark and lonely moments of your life?
Trudy: If you had asked me then, I would have said, ‘What God?’; I didn’t really believe in Him. And, yet, in the loneliest moments, usually on summer nights, looking up at a star-filled sky, I would feel Him. My heart would get all warm, and I would look up and ask Him big questions, and weep. Those moments I knew He was real, I knew He loved me, and I knew He was not aligned with the harshness of my experience.
Boz: It must have been incredibly difficult to go back and write about some of darkest moments of your life? How did you do that?
Trudy: Truthfully, I went in a bit naively. The writing process took me back, immersing me in it at the deepest possible level. I had to enter in emotionally, to tell it accurately, and recall conversation bits. I had no idea it would throw me into a dark pit, where I would wake up, day after day, with one simple prayer, “I feel hopeless and empty, but I know You love me, and that’s going to be enough for today”. Besides praying for friends’ needs, and praying for wisdom, this was my life for a few months. Would I do it again? Absolutely! The feedback of how it is healing hearts is worth every tear, every gut-wrenching cry, and I would do it all again… because that healing is why I did it in the first place.
Boz: Can you explain the meaning behind the title of your book, Between 2 Gods?
Trudy: In early childhood I fell in love with nature, and throughout life it has been a place God speaks to me. I saw Him in it then, and I still see Him there today. (The heavens declare the glory of God…) I also saw Him in the kindness of and the God I saw in those times collided powerfully with the god represented by abuse and violence in a religious environment. The former drew my heart to Him, the latter scared the life out of me and I really wasn’t sure which one was real. Coincidentally, I didn’t write the title. Eric Stanford (my amazing editor!) read the book and said, “this is what I see” and suggested it and my publisher, agent and I all had this immediate sense about it being right.
Boz: How did your understanding of God’s character impact your daily life?
Trudy: When I was afraid of God, I lived out of that fear in a toxic way. Striving to measure up, but always falling short, left me defeated and hopeless and eventually I said, “Well, I’m going to go to hell anyway, so I might as well party here.” Discovering a God of love and grace has allowed me to focus my energy on living confidently with the knowledge that I am His, and His love and grace spill out around me. Suddenly sin has little grip on me, and I am free. When I do sin, I repent quickly because I already know He loves me. It’s not ‘earning’ love, it’s celebrating it.
Boz: How would you define spiritual abuse?
Trudy: Spiritual abuse, as I understand it, is using spirituality in any form to manipulate or control the mind or behaviors of any individual. It robs individuals of their God-given freewill, and turns them to serving humans, rather than knowing God. That says it all, right there.
Boz: Do you think there is a nexus between spiritual abuse and other types of abuse such as physical or sexual abuse? Is that something you ever experienced?
Trudy: Religion/spirituality hold power, by their very nature. So any time you use spiritual power to control, rather than to empower, you invite in other darkness and controls. And since spirituality was intended to serve as a connection with our Creator, and a conduit for relationship, to turn it into a human force is perverse, and leads inevitably to the abuse of power in general. In my own life, as a young mom, I was abusive in the discipline I administered—especially in the life of our oldest daughter—and in emotional ways. Some of this was the anger I had bottled up about my own life, some of it was feeling helpless and inadequate, and some of it was trying to make my family ‘fit the mold’ of religion. But all of it was sin. And I’ve repented of it. When we abandoned deeply religious controls, and grasped God’s grace, my parenting became grace-filled, gentle and redemptive, and continues more and more in that vein. Our home, as a result, is a safe place for us, and all who enter it.
Boz: Based upon your life experience, how do you think the Church is doing when it comes to addressing all forms of abuse within the home?
Trudy: I’ve been quite disheartened in the past, however, I am seeing a radical shift in the past few months. A church hired me to work with victims among them, paying for all expenses. Another church brought me in to share my story and do a Q&A session, so they can offer healthy support to victims, and there was no end to questions. More than that, the pastor sat on the floor and taught the children about protecting themselves, and in the service shared his own story of an attempt made on him. Other churches in our community and surrounding area have started assisting victims in their churches and communities financially with the process of getting help. This tells me that there is a shift, and God is restoring. I pray it continues.
Boz: What advice can you give to those who may be wondering if they are living in an abusive environment?
This is very complex. I wish I could say ‘talk to your pastor’, with the confidence that the church would do the right thing. And in some cases I can, but often that is not the case. Even if pastors cannot be ‘the mentor’ or counselor, they should have a list of community and mental health supports where they send their congregation. Unfortunately, if there is denial of it being a problem, the risk for damage done by the ‘get over it’ or ‘it’s because you don’t submit’ or, ‘if you’d have sex with him more often willingly’ mentality is as vile as the abuse. Instead, what I recommend is reaching out to medical professionals, local community service, women’s shelter or a safe online group, or someone who will guide you to getting good and redemptive help, without the risk of further abuse and condemnation.
Boz: What can you tell those reading this interview who have simply given up hope?
First of all, I’m so sorry for what you have suffered, or are suffering. It is not easy in that dark place, feeling hopeless. Pat answers, easy comfort, quick Bible verses and a ‘God is good’ hardly cuts it. What you need is someone who will sit with you, eye to eye, heart to heart, and hear your story without judgment. Someone who will affirm your value, and counteract the lies you believe about yourself and your worth, because of what abuse has done to you. You are worth so much more! Never give up! Press on and reach for help until you find that one good fit, that someone who will walk with you and be ‘Jesus with a skin on’.
Boz: In his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen writes, People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, but they choose not to live in it. They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness. They point each other to flashes of light here and there, and remind each other that they reveal the hidden but real presence of God.
As you look back on your life, what are some of the flashes of light that revealed the presence of God? Trudy: Ah… this brings tears to my eyes, Boz. It is so true. The flashes of light came from the little, ordinary and unexpected moments of grace: a girl in her twenties, with Downs Syndrome, who played dolls with me in Mexico when I was four…. my brother who was my best friend, and with whom I am still very close… from the pastor who smiled and nodded when I sang at the top of my lungs at song service when I was about 8… from the little girl who hugged and kissed me every time we met in childhood… from the little girl in the Mennonite church who snuck me a tic tac in Sunday school and who remains my friend to this day… from the Grandma in the Mennonite church who delighted in me and gave me kisses… from the pastor who looked beyond my sin and saw my broken heart… from the man who was going to use me but felt my tears and said, “I’m sorry” instead of following through… from the Grandma who prayed with me when I called a prayer line on 100 Huntley Street as a hurting 16-year-old wanting someone to pray, to care… and ultimately, the redeeming Light that I saw when Jesus knelt before me, to write in the sand, then looked on me with compassion and said, “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more”.
Learn more about Trudy Metzger and read her writings at her blog.