“I transformed from terrified victim to a courageous survivor . . .Different than an ‘out of body’ experience, this felt more like an ‘in-body’ experience. I stood my ground and did what I had to do to get the hell out of there.”
Jean Hargadon Wehner (pg 89).
In 2017, a Netflix documentary came out called The Keepers. It is the story of abuse and torture that was not only allowed but protected by the Catholic Church. Jean was featured in the series as the linchpin who helped to uncover and bring to light the atrocities. Our own Carol Christ watched the seven-episode series when it came out and wrote a blogpost about it. FAR reposted that blog at the end of February to honor Jean who has now written her own book, Walking with Aletheia. In it she describes her own healing journey or as she calls it her “health walk” out of the wreckage of that horror. For more on The Keepers, you can read Carol’s post here. This book is Jean’s story which, while intricately intertwined with the Church, is ultimately about her own pathway to spirituality and healing.
It’s hard to imagine the emotional weight of the authority figures that bore down on Jean when she was a student at Baltimore’s Archbishop Keough High School in the late 1960s. Not only did two priests torture and abuse her but they drew in other Church officiants as well as the police. The legal system actively turned its collective back to her. It is a great gift that she has survived and a testament to her strength, inner creativity, and the love in her heart that she was able to navigate such an apocalyptic terrain. The instruments of the torture were horrendous including rape, sex trafficking, drugs, and mind control techniques.
In the end, this is a story about healing, and Jean’s ability to illuminate a powerful road map for others taking this same journey. I found it riveting. Here is a woman fighting to hold onto the best parts of herself, at first alone and then with a robust support structure of family, therapists, and trusted advisors. She takes us along with her on her “health walk.” To survive she had disassociated, walling off parts of herself as containers to hold her traumas until she was ready to face them. These “personas” were individual identities hidden within herself. This was a self-protective amnesia that allowed her to survive but came at the cost of losing pieces of herself. What emerged for me as Jean recovered these lost personas was a portrait of survival under the gravest of traumas. These experiences are hard to read but they are accompanied by moments of love, hope, and profound healing.
One of those personas, Jeannie, particularly caught my attention. Jeannie, as a persona, had been encased in armor and stood guard to protect both the outward Jean as well as the other personas created through the disassociation. As Jean began to embrace Jeannie, she peeled off her armor to find festering sores beneath. As Jean cared for those wounds with such great tenderness, I understood that she was also caring for her own wounds. When reading this I blessed Jeannie for holding those woundings in such sacred trust until the adult Jean was ready to face them. As Jeannie healed so did Jean. Together, they unlocked the secrets and the gifts that Jeannie was guarding with such steadfastness. Those gifts included Jean’s own strength, her vision, her drive to protect others.
Her quote at the top of the post refers to 1994 when Jean was in court pressing her case against the Church even though the statute of limitations had expired. Under the name Jane Doe, she testified that her newly recovered memories should have required the statute timing to reset. She endured terror in not only facing the powerful Church hierarchy which fought to keep her silent but also the risk that her abusers might show up in person (they did not). She also had to face an impervious legal system that protects the abusers. And yet through all that, she stood up for the right to speak her own truth.
She lost that case. Maryland determined that recovered memories were unreliable. It was a devastating decision. It took another almost 20 years before she was able to remove what she calls her Jane Doe “mask of silence” to reveal herself publicly in 2014. She kept fighting even when there were astronomical odds against her. I am in awe of what she accomplished. While her court work in the 1990s failed to exact accountability or legal justice, the seeds that Jean planted for herself and others who have been abused are remarkable. As a fellow survivor of abuse, I saw this as a benchmark moment in a long, arduous process. That early foray into practicing her voice in the world laid the foundation for her to continue to excavate, invigorate, and eventually reclaim, her own very powerful truths.
Aletheia is the Greek Goddess of truth. In Latin She is known as Veritas. Some of the definitions of Aletheia in ancient Greek are disclose, truth, and the state of not being hidden. Trauma and abuse are so common they are often invisible. Systems of our society are built to protect the abusers and silence those who have been victimized. Each case that goes un-spoken or un-heard encourages more cases and silences ever more people. The title of the series The Keepers honors the women of this story who have been holding on to all of those secrets and lies for the truth to one day be known. Let them be known far and wide.
Jean has relentlessly pursued the truth, all the while facing the deep wrenching internal pain that each discovery brought up. And for that Jean is remarkable. She has refused to allow the system to silence her even when it has come at great cost to her and her family. That is the definition of courage. Jean persevered and by writing this book has shared her journey for others. That is the foundation of compassion and love. I highly recommend this inspirational book.
Janet Rudolph – Moderator for Feminism & Religion