Saturday, January 25, 2014

Warsaw writer recounts journey from abuse to healing

Lifelong Healing

Reprinted with permission from THE DUPLIN TIMES

Todd Wetherington
Staff writer

WARSAW — The Southern U.S. has long been known as a region where family is honored as a source of strength and nurturing, where the ties that bind serve to both protect and maintain values and traditions developed over generations. But those ties can also serve darker purposes, ones not generally discussed in polite company—to cloak secrets and actions of the most heinous, soul-deforming nature.

Sandra Pope is living testament to the damage families can inflict with those secrets. Sitting in the living room at her home in Warsaw last week, her pale blue eyes reflecting the early evening light spilling in through the blinds, the 65-year-old mother of two discussed the events that led her, five years ago, to write a book detailing the sexual and psychological abuse she suffered at the hands of family members as a young child. The book also recounts the years of soul searching and recovery that would eventually lead her back to the community where so many of her most troubling memories still linger.

In her book “Growing Up Without The Goddess: A Journey through Sexual Abuse to theSacred Embrace of Mary Magdalene,” Pope vividly recalls her early childhood years growing up in Greensboro and the central Tennessee mountains in the 1950s with her mother and stepfather. The book  moves through Pope’s teenage years in the Duplin County of the mid ‘60s and continues on to describe her attempts, as an emotionally troubled adult, to free herself of the confusion and self destructive habits arising from her past. 

Pope’s story eventually leads her back to the land of her father’s family, Warsaw, and the decision to revisit her past by setting it down in book form.

 “I think I was drawn to write it because there was so much dysfunction and confusion in my life,” explained Pope. “I just reached a time, after I came here and I had revisited many of the places that had been a part of my childhood and a part of my wounding, that I just felt it was ready to be told, that my personal story had places in it that many people would intersect with.”

According to Pope, beginning at the age of seven she was raped repeatedly over a period of nearly four years by her brother, Arthur. As an adult, she would come to believe that she had been sexually abused at an even earlier age, by her birth father, who died when she was an infant.

The book also recounts physical abuse Pope suffered at the hands of her stepfather, known as Big Arthur, in the form of beatings that would leave her bloody and bruised.

Though the early chapters of “Growing Up Without the Goddess”  graphically detail the circumstances of Pope’s sexual and physical abuse, they also offer vivid and lovingly rendered evocations of the southern landscape — woods, rivers, favorite trees — where the budding bookworm and nature lover would seek refuge from her often harrowing family life.

In the book, Pope is also frank about the ambiguous nature of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her brother, who she admits to loving unconditionally throughout her childhood. “I was able to lose myself in school and nature during the day, but at night, I lost myself in him. By then, it felt natural,” she writes.

In the fifth grade, Pope found an outlet that would prove to be key to her future peace of mind and process of self-discovery — writing.

“I’ve always found that it’s a way to, not just tell a story, but to figure things out,” she commented.

At the age of 11, Pope was separated from her brother and sent to live with her paternal aunt and uncle in Warsaw — called “Wisteria” in the book — after a court battle in which her mother was declared unfit to care for her.

Pope describes her high school days as “the numb years,” a time when she attempted to forget the disturbing events of her past by focusing on academics and presenting herself as a “proper” young woman.

Though she strained to conform to the wishes of her religiously conservative relatives, the knowledge she had gained far too early in life as a result of abuse set her apart from her peers, leaving her uniquely aware of the suffering and hidden intentions of friends, family members, and strangers.

After graduating from James Kenan High School in 1966 Pope attended the University of North Carolina in Greensboro but dropped out after one year, turning her back on two full scholarships.

Having left college, Pope embarked on a life of political activism, working as a community organizer for Lumbee Indians and African American populations in  Greensboro and Fayetteville. Pope describes her persona at this time as “a hard core politico, not an alternative life style flower child.”

According to Pope, this period in her life was marked by an inability to form lasting relationships with men, and by the almost unconscious transformations she would undergo in order to better accommodate each new partner.

“What happens when you’re abused is you form other personalities, you dissociate, and I was quite clever at that all my life,” she explained. “If I was with a man who was a comedian, I could very quickly develop my talents that way; if was with a political activist, I was an even better political activist. But there was a hollowness that I wanted to fill.”

Pope eventually landed in California, where after several divorces and the birth of twin daughters, she would finally begin seeking answers to the emptiness she sensed inside herself.

Pope said the birth of her twin daughters, Ana and Dani, when she 32 coincided with her realization that something profoundly disturbing was beginning to rise to the surface of her consciousness. Shortly thereafter, she began attending guided imagery sessions, a form of therapy in which a facilitator uses descriptive language intended to psychologically invoke mental imagery, often involving several or all of the senses, in the mind of the listener.

She also became a practitioner of Jungian therapy, named for the Swiss psychiatrist who developed the concepts of extraversion and introversion, archetypes, and the collective unconscious.

 Twenty years after leaving North Carolina, Pope would reunite with her mother. “I was searching for the missing parts of my story that might explain my brokenness,” she writes.

She would also discover that her father had abused his own sister, Pope’s Aunt Dolores, when they were children.

“There were invisible forces at work in my life, suddenly pulling me in directions I had not planned to go,” she remembers.

At age 54, Pope reconnected with a man she had dated during her senior year in high school, Bill Rollins, and returned to Warsaw. Pope and Rollins would eventually marry, a bond that has provided a haven for her to delve deeply into the past, with all its attendant shadows and traps.

“It’s not the positive story that anybody wants to hear so that’s been hard, but I’m okay with that now because I know consciousness is medicine, it has been for me and I know it will be for other people.”

After a four year process of writing, editing, and rewriting, “Growing Up Without The Goddess: A Journey through Sexual Abuse to the Sacred Embrace of Mary Magdalene,” was published in 2008. Discussing the title of her book, Pope explained that the Goddess, as personified by the figure of Mary Magdalene in the Christian religion,  represents the sacred feminine energy that acts as a balance to masculine aggressiveness at work in the world. Pope argues that any society that does not value and respect that feminine image will ultimately accept and rationalize sexual abuse.
According to Pope, the act of recalling past events brought about many of the same feelings and reactions as the original experiences.

“I was lucky that I was and still am in therapy, because I would get to a certain part of the experience and start to describe it and I wouldn’t be able to breath easily. I would have to go do something else. The thing about emotional landscapes is that when you revisit them its as though it’s happening in present time, so I would remind myself that I wasn’t eight anymore, or 11 anymore.”

Pope describes the book as her attempt to unearth a certain aspect of male dominated culture that allows men to mete out abuse on the women in their lives with impunity. “That part of our culture is still active. It may not be as active but it’s still active and there’s still people, both the perpetrators and the victims, who are stuck in that dynamic.”

Pope stressed that her book is not meant as an indictment of any particular region or people. “I don’t think it’s a damning story. I think it’s a historical phase where there are parts of a culture that need to be exposed so they can die off and a new cycle can begin. And I don’t think it’s just limited to this area; of course it isn’t. But this is where it happened to me, this is where it grew from for me and this is where I am.”

Though she has held readings of her book across North Carolina in the five years since it was published, Pope said she has only now begun to feel comfortable publicizing  it in her home county. 

“I hadn’t been doing much writing so I went back to my book and started reading it, and I realized my story is everybody’s story, even if they haven’t been personally abused. I realized I was egotistical not to let this story go, to pretend that it’s just mine.”

While the raw details of the book read like a southern gothic novel, the facts as Pope recalls them are all too familiar to thousands of women throughout the U.S.

“According to the statistics, one in four women in the U.S. has been abused. There’s a really big cesspool there that has to be cleaned up.”

Pope said she believes society as a whole has made significant gains in educating its citizens about sexual abuse. She said many young people are now more aware of the potential dangers from would be abusers.

“It’s not as easy for perpetrators to groom their victims over time because of information about what’s appropriate that is out there. It still happens and it still happens way too much but I think the whistle might get blown a little sooner and there might be help available a little sooner.”

Pope said she has come to understand the perpetrators are often victims themselves. “That doesn’t mean I want to be around them. But it means that I understand that it has been a part of the culture that needs to be brought to light and needs to be changed.”

According to Pope, she has attempted to contact her brother since returning to Duplin County. Though she has spoken to his daughter, there has been no reunion with Arthur. “Does he fear me?” asks Pope in the book. “Does he feel the shadow of the past fall across the path of the life he has built so painstakingly since he closed the door on our dark deeds decades ago…”

Asked to describe her present state of mind concerning the trauma that was visited on her as a child, the strength of will that allowed a seven-year-old child of the South to carry on in the face of her own terrible knowledge rises just beneath Pope’s composed, seemingly fragile exterior.

“I’m in total non-acceptance. I’m in total recovery and healing and resistance to the ways of being that I learned in order to survive that weren’t right for me. I will hold my peace; I will hold my tongue most of the time. But there are times when I won’t. There’s no other way for me to be.”

Todd Wetherington may be reached at or 910-296-0239.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The "Righting" Process and No Place to Hide (Was there ever?)

Lifelong Healing

GROWING UP WITHOUT THE GODDESS was published five years ago, but I kept it secret in my hometown. I had readings in Raleigh, Greensboro, Wilmington, and an invitation-only secret reading in Magnolia, NC. I was afraid to go public locally, afraid I could not stand the scrutiny, the judgment, the misunderstanding, the denials, and the anger my story of sexual and physical abuse could unleash.

A few months ago after being unemployed and wondering about my life's purpose for months, I read GROWING UP WITHOUT THE GODDESS again. I was surprised at the writing. Yes, by its quality, for it is certainly well written, thanks to the muses that be. But the lessons the book taught me, the understanding that came through the writing/righting process surprised me most, and I wondered that I had ever known them. Grateful, then, to learn them again.

Grateful, too, to understand that those lessons were meant for more than me, that writing the book was truly about making right again a pattern that had been warped in my life from an early age because I was abused by family -- by those who should have protected, nurtured, and honored me. Writing the book showed me that what had been warped in my life and stolen my power had been warped in the culture as a whole, and certainly in my hometown Southern culture.

All of us who have been sexually or physically abused know that healing is a lifelong process -- one that recurs, perhaps on a higher level each time, but must recur, must be revisited again and again. Not the searing pain. We can leave that behind most of the time when it has taught us all we need to know or can bear to know in the moment. Healing the continued pain caused by the vibrational patterning that was set askew and has made us unable to be ourselves and use our talents fully -- that healing is lifelong. And any knowledge about ways to create that healing belongs to everyone.

Tomorrow an article about my abuse, recovery, and book will appear in our local paper, THE DUPLIN TIMES. My community is small. I am known as a teacher, a wife of a prominent writer, and as an old schoolmate to many of the 3,000 residents in my town. Tomorrow there will be no place for me to hide this other previously unknown Sandra, no wondering if others know my dark secret and the lifelong warping it caused me.

Fortunately, neither will be there be a hiding place for the shadow side of family values that de-valued me and allowed the men in my family to abuse me.

In that exposure lies my hope that having owned that piece of the culture that I, unfortunately, know well, that having brought its ugliness to light, others may speak out in their own time, find their own healing, and together we can howl out loud till fathers and brothers and cousins and uncles and strangers no longer find cultural training or support for their dark deeds, and what's wrong in the culture is righted.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Lifelong Healing

A Certain Refusal, Other People's Lives, and Wasps

In my daily work world I was assaulted twice in the last three years --physically by a favorite older student and emotionally by a trusted colleague. Now a certain, very specific refusal to work has arisen within me.

It is not laziness. It is not fear. It is not willful or intentional. It is almost paralyzing.

I simply cannot even imagine a job site without seeing danger everywhere and becoming unable to summon the old perfectionist, hyper-vigilant, appeasing energies that fueled my out-in-the-world work for decades. I look at my resume and wonder who that person is, who has those skills and talents, who held those jobs for decades.  I want to believe the refusal has purpose, allows a slow dissolving of false selves -- the secretary, the teacher, the tutor, even the writer. What will be left of me then? Will my work personas never rise again?

I don't know.

So, I fill up with other people's lives.  A critic of television and a mother, who years ago only allowed my daughters two hours of watching a week, I am now a detective mystery television show addict. I log many hours on Netflix with Luther, Rosemary, Lewis, Endeavor, Frost, Jane, Morse, Poirot, Columbo, and others.

There is one reprieve I have received that relieves the paralysis:  the old love of the inner world that Nancy Drew activated in my early years retains its power. Personal versions of these televised lives have begun to inhabit my dreams, and through them I can see what parts of myself have been cut off, separated, made vile and need re-integration. Each day I enter that dreamworld and speak with my fractured selves. There is much inner work to be done, to dispel the constructed selves, the destructive energies, break up the vibrational pathways set down by that early abuse and re-activated by workplace assaults.

Occasionally, I break away from both the inner dreamworld and the television world. I set a simple task in the outer world and eventually finish it. It may take months of looking at the same unfinished work before I can act -- like the bullet-shaped bird feeder that hangs from its metal staff by the Bradford pear tree that I see many times a day from my kitchen windows.

The feeder drew a wasp in the spring that built its nest inside. Once, in summer, I tried to oust her with blasts of water from the garden hose, my own serpent in her garden, but she returned. Remembering the bees, I left her to her work and watched from a safe distance as the weeks passed. The nest grew. Newborn, the wasps emerged.

Mid-January now. Cold. The water in the birds' dish freezes nightly. The feeder, glazed green with mold, is empty. No birds come.  Today I bring the feeder inside. Hot water and dish detergent, simple non-anti-bacterial natural dish soap, fill my kitchen sink where the bullet feeder lies submerged for hours. Gloved, I scrub it, remembering the wasps. Dry it.

Why did it take me so long to wash this feeder for its return to the birds, not the wasps? I suspect the wasps, some of whom arose from sleep during our last unseasonably warm spell, will swarm again in springtime around this remembered womb.  No matter how hot the water, nor strong the soap, I cannot dispel the vibrations that will draw those wasps again.

I do not know how.

But the birds, if they come, will know. I spill some seeds as I fill the feeder, leave them where they fall upon the ground -- a simple flirtation with fate, perhaps, a momentary conjunction of chance and will.