Sexual Abuse and the Shadows of the Fall

Certain segments of social media were dominated this spring by the daily courtroom duels between the teams of Amber Heard and her ex-husband Johnny Depp in the epic defamation trial between them. In brief, Depp sued Heard over her public allegations that he abused her (and Heard counter-sued). Celebrity gossip is, of course, routine grist for the social media mill. But what is particularly striking about the response to these lurid tales is what it reveals about how society responds to allegations of sexual abuse.

Striking, I say, but not perhaps surprising, for despite the seemingly immense momentum of the #MeToo movement over the last few years, Depp’s vehement supporters vastly outnumber Heard’s sympathizers. The star’s fans not only pledge their ardent loyalty to him, but also find even the smallest of reasons to belittle, demean, and defame Amber Heard for speaking up. Indeed, if one were to judge the case by how it is portrayed on social media, Depp is made to be the victim and Heard the abuser, rather than the other way around. In short, in the eyes of the fans, Heard must be lying.

I do not intend here to weigh the details of the case; suffice it to say that neither party was a saintly partner in their marriage. Instead, what I want to consider is why there is such a strong impulse for so many to seek to defend Depp and defame Heard. When someone brings forward a claim to have been abused, why is our first impulse to disbelieve them? Why do we defend the honor of the abuser ahead of the dignity of the abuser? These are questions that the Church has been asking herself a lot over the last twenty years.

We like to think that we have finally flipped the script when it comes to charges of sexual abuse at the hands of priests, where we put the dignity of the victims ahead of the impulse to “protect” the Church’s reputation. But the social media response to the Depp-Heard trial tells us that whatever lessons we might have learned about how to respond to abuse within the Church’s hallowed walls have not yet spread to our wider psyche.

In particular, the voices of women remain too often unheard and discounted, especially when they try to speak out against men of power. When those voices recount the truth of the graphic violence they have suffered, the violations and indignities should shake any human soul into outrage at the perpetrator and compassion for the victim. Yet still, women’s stories of the pain they have suffered are all too often met with indifference or even hostility. It is not long before many victims, like Heard, are accused of lying.

Though women have long offered to each other the hearing that society’s powerful cannot even seem to imagine (one remembers that #MeToo got its start with Tarana Burke’s work to build support networks for survivors), the larger indifference compounds the personal violence. The deaf ears can infect victims’ views of reality with doubt—about themselves, about others, and about the very nature of love itself. Meanwhile, even “good people” who would never lay a finger on another person without consent can find themselves unavoidably trapped within the strange and cruel echo chamber of rape culture, where the voices of powerful abusers are amplified and the voices of their victims diminished nearly to silence.

This is one of the lesser noticed consequences of rape culture: the undermining of our ability to discern the truth. Abusers themselves purposely distort their realities, to justify their abuse and even to render it forgettable. Men make deceitful claims, both in defining their own power and in claiming the power to define their victims’ realities. And because society so often indulges them in these fantasies, men eventually weaken society's ability to distinguish the true from the false and subsume the responsibility of discernment to the demands of power.

For many people, choosing to believe a victim’s accusations or the accused’s denials is an act, not of conscientious discernment, but of the will. Rather than following the particular facts of the case, that choice often conforms instead to celebrity, political ideology, concern for reputation, or the assumption of the status quo.

The Devil: The First Sexual Predator

The distortion of reality rendered by sexual abuse is so pervasive that the medieval visionary St. Hildegard of Bingen traced it right back to the beginning, by imagining the devil as the first rapist and Eve as his first victim. In a powerful exhortation likely written to clergy who had, perhaps, witnessed sexual abuse in their midst, she writes:

When the ancient serpent uttered his deceptive words to the first woman, and she did not resist his counsel, that serpent caused the foulest, most disgusting penis [venam] to issue forth from his mouth, in such a way that she swallowed it into her womb. From this, death came forth, and it cast a shadow over the light of mystical generation that God had created in Adam and Eve (Letter 375).

For Hildegard, the devil is the archetypal sexual predator. At the other end of Scripture, she sees the Woman Clothed with the Sun (Rev 12) as a cosmic feminine figure and turns the apocalyptic tableau into the universal #MeToo moment. There, the devil violently pursues womankind, “because he knew that in childbearing, she would be the root of the whole human race” (The Book of Divine Works 2.1.16). He then bursts out in rage when he realizes that it is through a woman—the Virgin Mary—that his plot to deceive humankind and undermine God’s plan would be brought to nothing.

Elsewhere, Hildegard envisions the rape of Mother Church leading to the birth of the leering, monstrous head of the Antichrist from her vagina (Scivias 3.11.14). Here, she targets clerical corruption—historically, it was simony, the buying and selling of Church offices, that topped the list of charges. But the rape metaphor hints that sexual abuse might have raised Hildegard’s hackles, too. Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI invoked another of her visionary condemnations in his 2010 response to yet another wave of clerical abuse of minors and its hierarchical cover-up. In her letter to the clergy at Kirchheim (from which the Pope quoted), Hildegard sees the figure of the Church arrayed as an abused woman who denounces the sins of priests for keeping “my Bridegroom’s wounds fresh and open.” No longer ministers of Christ, they are members of the devil, abusers in his service.

If the devil is thus the prototype of the rapist, what do we learn about the psychology of the sexual abuser as a result? Although we usually classify Lucifer’s primal rebellion against God, as well as its human echo in the Garden of Eden, in terms of disobedience and pride, the paradigmatic sin is also very much a matter of knowledge. The first angel’s choice to turn in on himself, to want to exist on his own, was a willful failure to acknowledge all creation’s utter dependency on the Creator. Lucifer knew that he was subservient to God; he chose to reject that subservience nonetheless. For Hildegard, recognizing God as Creator is a self-aware imperative of being a creature, and refusing that knowledge overturns the whole order of reality.

Hildegard continually notes that the entire basis for the Devil’s attacks on humankind are to accomplish through God’s work (i.e., us) what the Devil could not do on his own in heaven. The self-deception that led to the Devil’s fall thus becomes his primary weapon against humankind. Indeed, his first temptation of us is a rhetorical deception: “You certainly will not die!” he says to Eve (Gen 3:4). He constantly tries to convince us that what we know about God and creation is not really true. “None of you even know what you are!” he barks to the personified Virtues in Hildegard’s play, Ordo Virtutum (Scene 1, line 62)—wisely, the Virtues ignore the taunt. Elsewhere, Hildegard imagines the Antichrist giving a speech that specifically targets “the law of sexual restraint,” which he claims is “contrary to the way of nature.” His gaslighting continues:

So know then what you really are! For your first teacher deceived you and didn’t help you in anything. But I inspire you really to learn about yourselves and to know what you are, for I created you, and I am completely in all things (The Book of Divine Works 3.5.30, 467).

All of these are traits of the sexual abuser, too. He makes himself a god, thus perverting the order of reality rather than recognizing his mutual relationship and interdependence with others. In privileging his own power, he turns away from a true knowledge of how to exist and foists a deceitful subversion in its place, gaslighting his victims to convince them of it. And when their pretensions to power are called out for what they are—abusive and false—they react with outrage.

In imagining the devil raping Eve, Hildegard gives us an opening to allow the story of Eden to shed light on our own struggles to discern truth amid the shadows cast by abuse. Bypassing the vexed question of why it would once have been forbidden, Hildegard privileges the knowledge of good and evil as the most powerful tool of human rationality. As the conscience, it is our internal guidance system, allowing us to distinguish and discern right from wrong, truth from falsehood, and thus informing the will, in order to act upon those distinctions.

But as we plainly see, the abuse of sexual power throws this guidance system into confusion. The powerful discernment between good and evil that Eve and Adam would have gained by eating of the forbidden fruit was negated by the cloud of deceit and doubt that overshadowed it. Indeed, this was another of Hildegard’s striking reimaginations of the devil’s assault: a smoky cloud from the pit of hell reaching out to touch a brilliant white cloud full of stars—Eve, the mother of all living, lightened things (Scivias 1.2.10).

That smoky cloud cares not for the light he snuffs out—rather, the devil malevolently desires its destruction. Similarly, the abuser does not distinguish the evil of their actions—after destroying their victim, they just shrug their shoulders. This also mars the conscience of his victims, who often blame themselves, carrying in their own conscience the guilt that belongs properly in the abuser’s.

The Power of Virginity

How do we escape this quagmire? Hildegard’s eye looks to the light of the Incarnation. For her, the incarnate Christ reorients the horizon of human knowledge by reorienting human sexuality: he forges “a different way,” the way of virginity. Modeled on this “different way,” the virginity of Hildegard and her religious sisters gave them access to power they would not otherwise have had. She understood that for women in her society to be sexually active meant to submit themselves to a man, to put themselves in the position of Eve, and thus to be vulnerable to the abuse that created Eve’s inferiority. Following the other great mother of salvation history—Mary—virgins could instead escape the abuse and become powerful agents of God. No longer passively submissive to fallen men, they became active Brides of Christ.

Hildegard celebrated this freedom and power by having her nuns wear their hair down on high feast days, crowned with golden coronets. Conservatives looked askance at this seeming violation of scriptural propriety (cf. 1 Cor 11:3-15); one religious superior, Tengswich of Andernach, confronted Hildegard about it in one of the few critical letters kept in the visionary’s collection (Letter 52). But Hildegard responded with a fierce defense, invoking her theological hallmark of viridity, the fertile greenness and vitality of creation, of holiness, and of God:

Listen: The earth exudes the grass’s viridity, until winter conquers it. Then winter takes away the beauty of that flower, and the earth covers over its viridity so that it is unable to manifest itself as if it had never withered up, because winter has ravaged it. In a similar manner, a woman, once married, ought not to indulge in prideful adornment of hair or person, nor ought she to lift herself up to vanity, wearing a crown or other golden ornaments, except at her husband’s pleasure, and even then with moderation.

But these strictures do not apply to a virgin, for she stands in the unsullied purity of paradise, lovely and unwithering, and she always remains in the full viridity of the budding rod. A virgin is not commanded to cover up the viridity of her hair . . . . Virgins are married with holiness in the Holy Spirit and in the bright dawn of virginity, and so it is proper that they come before the great High Priest as an oblation presented to God (Letter 52r, translation adapted).

The serpent’s wintry, withering breath brings dark abuse and cold confusion into the world. But for Hildegard, woman’s primal light and saving, fertile mission can return glorious summer by the sun of Mary. Her voice was heard, because through Christ and his mother, she found a new paradigm for the power of truth.

Living in the Light of Christ’s Truth

While Hildegard found particular empowerment for women through virginity, the light of Christ’s Incarnation reorients access to truth for all of us. The “knowledge” with which we champion the powerful men of society and protect their reputations and interests against the accusations of the weak is what she would call “the flesh’s knowledge.” But the knowledge that comes to us by grace sees with the inner eyes: “For the knowledge of inner sight teaches a person about divine things, though the flesh opposes it, while blinded knowledge enacts the works of night according to the serpent’s sight, which does not see the light” (The Book of Divine Works 3.2.12, 377). The pure “light of living knowledge” that allowed Adam’s primal eyes to gaze perfectly upon God’s truth was dimmed by the Fall, but not entirely snuffed out. Instead, it shines as prophecy, the glimmer of inner knowledge that looks ever on, forwards or backwards, to the central moment of all history, when God became a human being. In that moment, the shadows of power’s abuse are dispelled:

For prophecy exists in humankind like the soul in the body, because as the soul is hidden within the body and the body is governed by it, so prophecy that comes from God’s spirit, which excels all creation, is invisible, and by it every failure is reproached, and all who leave the path of righteousness are led back (The Book of Divine Works 3.2.2, 360).

When we come face-to-face with victims of abuse and their claims against their abusers, it is this light of Christ speaking in our very souls that allows us know whom to believe, whom to help, and whom to succor. The evil of abuse cries out for justice, and Hildegard recognizes how dangerous it would be for it to go unchallenged: “For if such evils had remained unshaken in the shallowness and scandal of their practice, the truth would have been so clouded over as to rock the towers of the heavenly Jerusalem” (The Book of Divine Works 3.5.17, 451).

But such evils will not prevail. Instead, Hildegard offers us a vision that Justice, though battered and bruised for a time, will be restored, to flourish in the sunlight of grace. If only we have the humility and obedience to allow that light to shine for us, to show us the truth, then we can offer true justice to the victims of abuse. To hope for this may seem idealistic, perhaps even impossible on this side of the Last Day. Yet Hildegard’s powerfully prophetic voice holds out that hope, because it is founded not on the fallibilities of human institutions, but on the Incarnate Christ alone.

Featured Image:Ott Feres, St. Hildegard of Bingen in a stained-glass window of a church in Alsace, 1892; Source, Wikimedia Commons, taken by © Ralph Hammann - Wikimedia CommonsCC-BY-SA-4.0.


Nathaniel Campbell

Nathaniel Campbell is an adjunct history instructor at Union College in Barbourville, Kentucky. He published the first complete English translation of St. Hildegard of Bingen's The Book of Divine Works recently.

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