Testimony

A child of rape asks “Why?”

When your life seems like "a perverse cosmic joke," you need reminding that God wanted you.

I still quote Martin Luther’s Small Catechism explanation of the First Article of the Apostle’s Creed. I was raised Lutheran. It’s a habit for an ex-Lutheran to keep in mind some things the man said.

The First Article is of God and we say when reciting it, “I believe in God . . . who made heaven and earth.” The first thing that means, Luther points out, is “God made me.” It equally includes you. Point is, we are not accidents. We are wanted. God has always wanted one like you. Now he has one.

But a problematic conception tosses that around. For a child born of rape or incest, a harsh question: Maybe it is not so true that God wanted “me”?

Once I belonged to an online support group for persons born of rape and incest. The site is long defunct. Search for it – stigmatized.org – and you’ll find a website offering ghostwritten dissertations.

The name, though, was evocative: Stigmatized. It described the feelings of the founder, then a young mother of two in and out of relationships and always seeking love from her birth mother – the woman who was raped that she could have life – and being rebuffed in the effort. That is how she, a child of rape, felt — stigmatized. Many of the others felt the same way. They and those born of incest, they were accidents.

These were ordinary people in tune with the ordinary pulses of good and of matters less than good. All were adopted, all had been on a search for their birth origins, and all were shocked.

Discovering the circumstances of their conception and birth plunged them into a blizzard of blinding questions, mostly without answer. How could something like their birth be an occasion of such pain to someone else? “A perverse cosmic joke and,” as one guy put it, “there’s no punch line.” “God is such a kidder,” went one bitter reply.

I ended up as the informal chaplain, insisting: God made you. The Bible is filled with stories, I’d repeat, of good arising from evil. You are the happy ending God wanted.

I didn’t fit either category, not completely. My birth father may have raped his step-sister, my birth mother, or they may have just gotten drunk and fooled around one night, like my birth “aunt” told me. My “aunt” was the widow of my birth mother’s real brother. (Relational lines get awfully convoluted in stories of adoption.) Fooling around, that was her best guess. Given what I learned of my birth father’s personality I doubt it. But that was me, my conception and birth.

Questions about it nagged me intensely about once every twenty years. I’d learn a little and that satisfied me for awhile. Then the nagging started again. This last time I did a genealogical search, thanks to my original birth certificate, the one calling my birth illegitimate. I found my “aunt.”

My birth mother I learned lived her final years in the same small town where I taught Luther’s catechism as a pastor. She died in 1997 in a Jefferson City, Missouri, hospital, the same hospital in which I made calls on my Lutheran parishioners. She died in the hospital where, two months later, my youngest daughter was born. In that small town we would have walked the same grocery aisles, pumped gas at the same station, mailed letters from the same post office. No, she wasn’t looking for me — it was all an elaborate coincidence. Learning of her death strangely left me confronting yet another loss, another thing undone with no opportunity for resolution.

There are a thousand natural reasons why you shouldn’t be here, whatever your birth origins. If you know any biology at all you know the chances of your particular birth are unutterably impossible to calculate.

Absent a creator — absent God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth — your conception and birth is exactly a cosmic joke with no punch line. We live, die, fade from memory. But with God, the maker of heaven and earth, your body itself — your very being – is a living rebuke to those who regard human life as a mere matter of convenience.

R

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Russell E. Saltzman

Russell E. Saltzman is a web columnist at First Things magazine and lives in Kansas City, Missouri. Before entering the Roman Catholic Church he was a Lutheran pastor. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead.  He can be reached on Twitter as @RESaltzman and by email at russell.e.saltzman@gmail.com