Walking with Aletheia: A Survivor’s Memoir by Jean Wehner
Christine A. Courtois, PhD, ABPP
Reading this book brings up many emotions–ranging from horror and grief at the description of past abuse by the author’s uncle, priests, and associated other perverted men abetted by their enablers and of more recent mistreatment by the Catholic Church and its lawyers and other agents–to amazement, awe, and gratitude that she survived and flourished enough in her recovery to write this memoir. Treating adults who were abused as children (and often later in life) has been my primary area of research and practice as a psychologist for the past 45 years. As a result, I’ve heard many accounts of incestuous and other forms of sexual abuse and sat with hundreds of victims as they struggled to understand what happened to them and why, and to conquer their past and its hold on them. I have studied issues of dissociation, traumatic memories, discontinuous memory and delayed recollections and associated symptoms of PTSD, and developed treatment approaches and models which I have taught to thousands of therapists. And I have read numerous memoirs of sexual abuse victim/survivors. Even with this broad experience, I have yet to hear a story as shocking and harrowing as this recounting by Jean Wehner, and I salute her for deciding to write and share it primarily for her own peace of mind but also in the hopes of encouraging others with similar experiences to seek available help and support. Her stated intent is to assure them they are not alone in their experiences and their struggles.
Jean’s story illustrates many common issues that survivors of incest and other forms of sexual abuse and sexual harassment face that are now better understood by the public than ever before. The #MeToo movement has been enormously helpful in increasing understanding of the dynamics and aftereffects of repeated and chronic abuse perpetrated by others known to or responsible for the welfare or employment of others, i.e., those who have power and control over them. They include their relatives, friends, colleagues, co-workers, clergy, coaches, camp counselors, fellow service members, and so on. However, it also illustrates other less common issues that the public still struggles to understand, namely, sex rings, sex trafficking—including by parents–torture and other tactics designed to terrorize the (often young) victims and keep them quiet (including through the use of drugs, weapons, hypnosis and other methods of mind-control, misrepresentation and gaslighting, and threats of or actual physical harm or murder, as illustrated here).
The account in this book is particularly important due to issues that Jean details based on her experience. These include the following:
- Her history of abuse by her alcoholic uncle and an aunt who turned a blind eye and enabled the abuse due to her own pathology and selfishness, while telling Jean, her goddaughter, how special she was. This is a special type of second injury and betrayal trauma that adds to the burden of the original abuse.
- Her trafficking by her uncle to others in the Green Room Bar, likely for money or other favors.
- Her upbringing in a devout Catholic family that revered priests and their authority over parishioners as God’s representatives on early. Moreover, she had no other option except to attend catholic schools and she describes how her parents sacrificed dearly to send their ten children to catholic schools.
- The seeming hatred towards children exhibited by Frs. Maskell & Magnus, priests assigned to work with them in school and parish settings.
- The gross sexism exhibited by these priests, their primary victims being female but males abused by Maskell have also come forward.
- The total corruption of these priests who cooperated with each other in the abuse and in covering for each other. They meet the criteria for having run a sex ring and sex trafficking their victims.
- The deplorable ways they used their positions (as priests/pastors and counselors/teachers/administrators) and the sacred rites of the church, especially its sacraments, to confuse and blackmail their young victims. Their misrepresentation of the teachings of the church and a murder of a nun who dared to confront them became part of their coercive control over their victims, whom they further blamed for her murder.
- The corruption of members of other professions (police, politicians, and others) who participated in the abuse and its cover-up that continues to this day as described in the Netflix documentary The Keepers. Even the brutal murder of a beloved nun did not result in a successful investigation of her death which remained a “cold case” for years.
- The use of dissociation (defenses, processes, amnesia, depersonalization, self-fragmentation, and personality splitting) to cope with the ongoing and escalating abuse and to allow Jean and other victims to look normal to outsiders, although they later learned they were also observed to look shocked and spacey immediately after episodes of abuse. The extent to which Jean learned to use dissociation as a means of coping was illustrated by her response to the impending loss of her infant son Matthew, by initially denying his existence.
- Post-high school, when Jean was in a state of dissociative “not knowing”, she married, had a family, began a career and generally lived her life, albeit with some upsets that were difficult to understand. This trajectory is common in one cohort of survivors whose memories remain inaccessible while their focus and energy is on the tasks of that stage of life development.
- The inaccessibility of memory and inability to remember due to dissociation and the discontinuity of memories that began to return in fragments when Jean began to be triggered by various events and experiences, first regarding her uncle and then about the priests.
- The shock of the memories as they returned, creating a double trauma. Also, the trauma of experiencing severe symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (re-experiencing, numbing, self-blame and shame, hyperarousal and hypervigilance) and what is now known as Complex PTSD involving negative sense of self and self-worth, difficulty with emotional regulation, dissociation, and difficulty with closeness and intimacy with others, even those closest to the individual. She also suffered associated depression and ongoing anxiety.
- Her attempts at disclosure at the time and later.
- The steadfast support she received from her parents, siblings, and her husband (and later both of her children) when they first learned about the abuse by her uncle and then later when the extensive priest abuse and coercion emerged. This steadfastness was crucial to her recovery, as was the strong support of others, some of whom were priests, spiritual directors, and friends.
- Her disclosure to church officials who seemed only to be looking for names of other victims and their subsequent “lawyering up” and cover-up of her disclosure. She also reports how they led her to believe that no other victims of Maskell were known to them, when that was not the case.
- The lack of pastoral support offered by Diocesan officials to her and to her family, lifelong devoted and loyal Catholics. Some of them became disillusioned and dispirited and subsequently left the religion, and some lost their spiritual center if not their spirituality due to these experiences.
- Her decision to approach the church again to complain of Maskell and his removal from a church setting without explanation to Jean and other victims and to parishioners.
- Her Jane Doe lawsuit (along with Jane Roe, who she did not know at the time) that was unfortunately lodged at the beginning of the decade of the “False Memory Syndrome” that was used to disqualify victims whose memories had been suppressed for years or even decades (represented by Dr. Paul McHugh, an eminent psychiatrist at John Hopkins whose views on this issue have been challenged and rebutted since that time). She also disclosed at that time that Maskell had led her to Sr. Cathy’s body as part of his intimidation and silencing of her.
- Her loss of the lawsuit led to 20 years of silence during which she went on with her life including raising her family, career development and suffering the loss of her beloved husband.
- After learning of the investigation of Sister Cathy’s murder by a group of her students (Jean’s peers), deciding to “out” herself and go public as Jane Doe.
- Her decision to negotiate a settlement with the church and being offered a pittance which she accepted because she wanted no further contact or negotiations with church agents.
- Her decision to participate in the making of The Keepers documentary and how that stressed her but helped her as well. She learned the extent of the abuse of other girls, something she had previously feared knowing in the event that she had been made to procure other girls for abuse.
As compelling as these and other issues were and continue to be, it is Jean’s description of her health path and the issues she needed to confront inside herself that adds to this memoir’s significance. Although some readers might look askew at her process of discernment and reflective prayer, meditation, and journaling to do this work, she describes issues that are almost universal among survivors of severe child sexual and emotional abuse. These include self-alienation and self-hatred; intense confusion; profound guilt and shame for things she was made to do and that she did in response to being repeatedly abused (such as masturbating) and things she didn’t do (such as telling or warning others); her distance from and latent anger with her mother and Sr. Cathy who she believed betrayed her – and her later reconciliation with both (imaginary in the case of Sr. Cathy and in person with her mother); the love and ambivalent feelings of her teen age self towards Brother Bob who liked his attention and was brainwashed by him; her belief that Maskell protected her, all the while he was abusing her, among other issues.
I have learned that Jean is acknowledged by many who have come to know her personally as a strong and principled woman and one of integrity. That she survived all that she chronicles in her memoir and importantly how she survived it is a cause for celebrating her and her spirit. That she was able to love others fiercely (although admittedly sometimes from a distance caused by post-abuse mistrust of others) and to maintain a strong spirituality amidst all is a miracle. That “men of God” did the reprehensible things to her that they did labels them as “slayers of the soul” rather than as “shepherds of the soul” or as purveyors of “soul murder”. That they didn’t get her in the end, is a testament to her inborn perseverance and spiritual attunement. She was certainly deeply wounded and has recognized her grief and her righteous anger, but she is not bitter and has maintained a personal equilibrium and an obvious goodness.
This is a story of incredible pain over the course of a lifetime for Jean and, by association, for her family members. But it is also a story of ongoing work at understanding what happened to her, its impact and of integration, resilience, and hope. It is my strong recommendation that this memoir be published for purposes of education and outreach, but mostly for amplifying the voice and the story of this most courageous woman who walks with Aletheia. She and her story deserve this affirmation.
Christine A. Courtois, PhD, ABPP
Licensed Psychologist, State of Delaware; Board Certified Counseling Psychologist, Consultant/Trainer, Trauma Psychology and Trauma Treatment
Author, Healing the Incest Wound: Adult Survivors in Therapy (1988; 2010); Co-Author, Treating Complex Traumatic Stress Disorders (2013); Author, It’s Not You, It’s What Happened to You (2014; 2020); Co-Editor, Sexual Boundary Violations in Psychotherapy and Co-Author of Chapter: “Sexual Boundary Violations in Pastoral Counseling” (2021).