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Help for the hurting

Lifestyle | Dan Allender emphasizes his own story as he seeks to help sexual-abuse victims

Issue: "The brain trust," June 30, 2012

Dan Allender tells his story of childhood sexual abuse to an audience of 105 in a beige side room of the Largo Community Church in Mitchellville, Md. His audience, half therapists, knows his favorite words: avoidance, ambivalence, violence. Above all, kindness. The kindness of God. He wrings the words like a wet towel, delighting to hear the homophonic endings drop.

Allender-his long hair curling past prominent ears, his gray eyes alternately sober and merry-engrosses his audience. During this 21-hour Abuse Helpers conference he inspires laughter every five to 10 minutes, his straight line of a mouth bursting into broadness. He cries three times. As he speaks, he runs a 101 degree fever. He has experienced worse: One time he spoke at a conference so high on the painkiller Demerol they had to tie him to the chair so he wouldn't fall off. He attributes his current illness to spiritual warfare. The Evil One does not want him here.

"I am a face," intones Allender, "which brings trouble." This Jewish-background psychologist, narrating wild tales with his hands, challenges victims to explore their own stories. He explains how human beings, designed to enjoy sex, often experience pleasure in the midst of abuse. For many in the room, he is the first to address this ambivalence and shame and to insist that in the shame and in the particulars of individual stories, victims can find the face of God.

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The audience is full of churchgoers. He lays out numbers: If you have 10 people in your Bible study, five women and five men, at least three women and two men have been sexually abused and feel the lingering effects of shame.

In The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse, Allender writes that many people would only consider their past experience abusive if it had been more severe or happened to someone else. He lays out an expansive definition of sexual abuse: "Any contact or interaction (visual, verbal, or psychological) between a child/adolescent and an adult when the child/adolescent is being used for the sexual stimulation of the perpetrator or any other person." According to Allender, abuse can span from sexual intercourse to the use of a child as a spouse surrogate, confidante, or protector.

Allender has critics. Some think he refers too infrequently to Christ as the route to redemption and the way to glimpse the face of God. Some object to Allender's emphasis on personal story and recovered memories. Others suspect that he sticks too closely to psychological categories rather than rooting his counsel directly in the Bible.

Allender responds to the sharpest criticism-that he is a wolf in sheep's clothing, leading people away from the gospel with gospel language: "If that's true ... then may I be anathema."

After stepping down as president of Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle (now The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology), Allender wrote the book Leading with a Limp. Now he meets clients in his office in Seattle, where he sits in a tawny chair in front of a brick wall, hears stories of abuse, and invites people not to methods but to a wrestling match with God.

Attendees at Allender events do not ask normal questions in the restrooms between sessions. They do not smile and inquire, "What brings you here?" They ask questions like, "When you read The Wounded Heart, did you throw it against the wall?" They respond, "Yes," or, "I wanted to throw it at my therapist," or, "Are you kidding? That book threw me against the wall."

Sexual abuse victims see themselves in the book, first published in 1990. They underline: Black lines march through almost the entire second-hand copy of one owned by a tenacious blue-eyed woman who flew to the Maryland conference from Bemidji, Minn. Names scrawled into the margins, identifying other victims, came from the guy who had the book before her. Everyone knows that if you have a copy of The Wounded Heart, you will always give it away to someone else who needs it.

Allender himself was sexually molested by a scoutmaster when he was 11 and abused by a camp counselor four months later. Allender grew up with a father, deeply kind but avoidant, who would go days without saying a full sentence. When with his mother, Allender never knew if he would be dancing on tables or fleeing people she'd offended. Left in a bizarre role as an only child, stronger than his father and acting as his mother's confidante, Allender had a deep sense of the world's disorder.

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