Thoughts on Samantha Morton, Childhood Sexual Abuse and Co-dependency

I was pleased (if one can be pleased about such things) to learn of actress Samantha Morton’s interview in which she spoke of the way she was treated when, as a child in care, she was abused by her carers. Actually, ‘pleased’ is not the word. The interview is outstanding, or rather, Samantha is outstanding; she speaks the brutal (painful) truth with courage and dignity. Although her circumstances were very different to my own – I cannot claim to know what it is like to have been in care – the response Samantha received from the police and from those in ‘authority’ sounds suspiciously like the response I received. In essence, they were not interested, and the victim was made to feel as if she was the one at fault by both the abuser and those around her, who colluded by doing nothing about it. My heart goes out to Samantha in this interview, and to all those like her who were removed from abusive families only to be subject to round after round of abuse from countless different people. Samantha’s courage and ability to carve for herself a brilliant career as an actress is nothing but inspirational. In that sense she is like Wess Stafford, former CEO of Compassion International, who also experienced childhood sexual abuse and, despite everything, grew up to be a courageous, compassionate, intelligent adult.

Personally, I have made the decision not to pursue any civil action against the police (after they told me last year that there was ‘not enough evidence’ to take my case to court whereas there would have been plenty had they acted on the information they were given 20 years ago) because a family member said she couldn’t go through it all again. I have to respect that, despite the fact that sometimes I want to shout and scream and show the world how unjust it is while it pretends to be civilized. Jesus’ words to the scribes and Pharisees seem particularly apt for describing those who abuse, and those whose behaviour condones abuse (including those who look the other way):

You are like white-washed tombs, which look fine on the outside but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all kinds of rottenness. For you appear like good men on the outside—but inside you are a mass of pretence and wickedness.’ 

Matthew 23:27 (JB Phillips)

In addition to watching Samantha’s interview, I have been thinking about the effects of abuse and how victims can lose, or rather, never gain, ‘normal’ boundaries (by which I mean a sense of ‘self’ as separate from others, which is something we usually learn in childhood and it grows stronger as we get older). This lack of ‘self’ leads to co-dependent behaviour. ‘Co-dependency’ is one of those words that are frequently thrown about and oft misunderstood. I remember when I first came across the word I thought it must be to do with being an alcoholic – which it is, but that is just one of a broad range of behaviours that can be associated with being co-dependent. At this point I want to stress that being co-dependent is not just the result of abuse. It can begin in many ways.

Recent events (i.e. something that happened yesterday) have left me considering again the nature of co-dependency. It is a complex issue, but at its heart, in its most simple form, co-dependency consists of two things:

1. The belief that others are responsible for my feelings.

and/or

2. The belief that I am responsible for others’ feelings.

Of course, there are occasions when a person’s actions will deliberately and directly affect my feelings and in that sense the one ‘causing’ the situation can be said to be responsible for my feelings. Also, of course, there are degrees to which I am responsible for the way other people feel. I am responsible in no small way for the feelings of my children, for example. I also choose to interact with people in a kind and sensitive way (for the most part), which is a way of taking a degree of responsibility for others’ wellbeing.

So where does the line lie? When you’re co-dependent, this may seem an impossible question. Or, you may know the answer rationally, but fail to act accordingly (denial being a very prominent feature of co-dependent behaviour). Both of these were true for me, in the past. Childhood sexual abuse can take away your boundaries until you have no sense of ‘self’, and too much sense of ‘others’. This can and does last well into adulthood. Everyone around you may seem as if they have huge, overwhelming emotions; this is scary. Your own emotions were buried somewhere, a long time ago. In order to survive, the sense of ‘self’ became locked in a nuclear bomb-proof vault. I don’t know if this happens to everyone, but it seems to be what happened to me. My instinct, even well into adulthood, was to placate those big, scary emotions. Sometimes the other person doesn’t cause big, scary emotions, but they impose upon you all the same. I have family members who do this and I don’t think they even realise they do it. I believe this more subtle imposition is called passive aggression/manipulation.

Back to my question – where does the line lie? Well, if another person has deliberately set out to hurt me, they share some responsibility for my resultant reaction. But feelings are not behaviour, and the onus is on the individual to take responsibility for their own behaviour. When you begin to take responsibility for your own behaviour, particularly in the way you respond to other people, your feelings change too. First, you take responsibility for your behaviour, and then you take responsibility for your feelings. You learn to separate those things which it is reasonable to be happy/sad/angry/scared about, and those things about which it is not reasonable. You learn that, even if you have some big emotions from your past clouding your judgement in the here and now – you are still responsible for you. For clarity: feelings are not wrong. Anger, sadness, bitterness even, are not wrong; they’re all phases we go through in response to certain situations, e.g. abuse, grief, etc. If you’ve been abused you’re allowed to be angry! Jesus had some very strong words for those who took advantage of those weaker than themselves:

“…if anyone leads astray one of these little children who believe in me he would be better off thrown into the depths of the sea with a mill-stone hung round his neck!”

Matthew 18:6 (JB Phillips)

In conclusion, this is the most important lesson: you can’t change other people. You can only change you. If you’re a follower of Christ, you do this with grace. It is no longer ‘there, but for the grace of God…’ but ‘there, with the grace of God…’ and you begin the first, tentative steps on the most wonderful journey towards healing and peace. God is good. God is always.