Whether one follows the radio drama “The Archers” or not, the drama of the abused wife Helen finally “snapping” and stabbing her husband has gripped the nation with the storyline being seriously analysed on Woman’s Hour and now the flagship Radio 4 news program Today.
It is clever production, and they have plainly been well advised as to how emotional abuse is conducted, denied, and concealed. It has raised awareness of a problem that arises throughout the country, amongst all manner of peoples, and frequently the victims of such behaviours are children. Now, perhaps, people will better understand how victims are silenced by manipulative abusers who are very clever and skilled at it.
It might not be a bad thing if some of the lessons are applied in ecclesiastical circles, both in being alert and not accepting glib explanations, but also perhaps in being a little kinder to some bishops who , like Pat , the hapless mother of the victim. was taken in by the “kind concern” of her son in law.
The average vicar, and even bishop, is rarely a match for a skilled practiced abuser; it is uncomfortable to say it in the light of so many dreadful stories of clerical abuse, but we often have to learn to forgive ourselves which is the main thrust of this post.
We have seen the Archers explore one aspect of the drama, but will they be equally well advised to explore the aftermath? Will Helen ever forgive herself for her dramatic break out of the abuse, or for falling into it in the first place?
Let Brother Ivo share a true story, for he was once involved in an even more tragic event.
An elderly man whom we shall call W was a cultured, kindly, devoted family man. He was well known and respected locally and had had a heroic war, coming to the UK when his own country fell behind the Iron Curtain. He probably suffered a degree of survivors guilt which came out as his homeland became free. In later life he suffered dreadful depression
One morning he went downstairs, made his wife a cup of tea and returned to find her dead in bed. He called the undertaker – a family friend – who duly called the doctor to certify death. It was only when they moved her body that they discovered the dressing gown cord around his wife’s neck.
Somehow, inexplicably this loving husband had killed his wife. As the story was explored – the police were kindly and sensitive – it became clear that his deep depression had precipitated the tragedy.
Brother Ivo got to know him well over the subsequent months, and listened as he sorrowfully recounted the depth of the tragedy.
W had appreciated that his own depression was an increasing burden to the wife who he loved; he was desperately sorry for her, and did not know how to help.
In a striking phrase he explained ” I know that in the moment I did it, it seemed the right thing to do – but I can never recapture that logic”.
He was content for justice to take its course – though what justice is in such a case is problematic. He was content to co-operate with the judicial system which he valued and respected, he co-operated with all the necessary reports , but he wanted nothing out of the process for himself.
We would spend some of our time together discussing the nature of evil – he was interested in Arthur Koestler on the subject – and would gesture to his fellow inmates , who were a rough lot, but they liked and respected him and treated him well. He would say ” these fellows have had so few chances in life; I have nothing but compassion for them – but I can find none for myself”.
At his trial he was sentenced for manslaughter and the High Court Judges sentencing remarks sounded more like a eulogy; both he and the hardbitten lawyers in Court were visibly moved. A Hospital Order was made.
A year or two later, Brother Ivo was surprised to have a visit from W who had been allowed out under escort. He had been putting his affairs in order, and we had tea together; he offered thanks for the support Brother Ivo had given in his most difficult time; his family were supportive and things were as good as they could be.
Shortly afterwards, W was dead. He had hanged himself. He had put everyone important to him at ease and then executed himself.
Is this what happens when we cannot forgive ourselves? Does hopelessness triumph?
How many people are equipped in this modern age to handle this most complex of dilemmas? For all our emotional sharing, what can the mechanism be for those without faith when they are called upon to handle tragedy at this depth of sorrow?
In the “Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Oscar Wilde – who knew a thing or two about tragedy. self loathing and remorse – we find the line “For each man kills the thing he loves..” and in the two examples we have been considering, we see that being worked out, one fictionally , one in real life.
For all our modern emotional openness and self reliance, all but the truly psychopathic can lacerate themselves with guilt.
Yet those of us who follow the risen Lord Jesus have a clear pathway to dealing with this problem
. Giving one’s guilt to the suffering Christ may seem easy – almost like a “get out of jail free card” but the truth is that this only truly works for us when we first recognise, and own, our responsibility.
Jesus takes away the sin that we have first owned, as our own, though repentance. Yet once owned and offered to the crucified Christ, it is taken into the tomb with him – and left there , like the folded grave clothes. Only then can we rise with the risen Christ to live again.
Wilde understood Christianity better than many of his secular admirers appreciate.
In an open letter De Profundis, addressed to his ex lover Lord Alfred Douglas, he recognises that his own fall from grace was, in a tragically beautiful way, the necessary beginning of his own redemption. At the end of his life, he would not have had it otherwise. This is a long way away from the superficiality of much of the self help advice offered today.
Christianity offers an emotionally literate way to free ourselves from such tragic guilt, though we do not pretend it is easy.
It will be interesting to see if the Archers writers can explore this equally compelling part of such tragedies with a similar degree of depth and psychological insight.
Those who find themselves in real life in tragedies akin to that of the fictional Helen suffer a double tragedy when the outcome of their despair follows the path of the tragic W, who never found the path to forgiveness which was as close at hand as his his saviour’s love.