Column: Rachel Dolezal is Acting Like a Child Abuse Victim Acts

In the wake of the Duggar molestation scandal and now the quirky case of Rachel Dolezal, one thing is clear: We as a public don’t know what child abuse looks like. The CDC estimates that one in four American children experience some form of abuse and yet we’re not quick to spot it or identify with it. Instead there’s a tendency to be irked that “this stuff” is even being discussed publicly. Or as we’ve seen with the Duggars and the Dolezals we default into our preexisting paradigms of partisanship: The Duggars are rightwingers and are typical of those people and Dolezal is a liberal Obama’s America “transracial” fruitcake.

But both these cases also feature fringe Christian movements protecting their ideals over their daughters.

The saga of reality show subject Josh Duggar, who admittedly sexually abused five girls (four of whom were his own sisters), was a grotesque display of what religious zeal conditions people to be able to rationalize. “They didn’t even know he had done it,” said Michelle Duggar during the soft-focus Fox News Megyn Kelly interview.

I’ve talked to sexual abuse victims who didn’t realize that was what had happened to them until decades later. They had fears and phobias and things they just avoided seemingly without reason—but they didn’t put two and two together. So the idea of child abuse being contingent on the victim’s memory, identification or understanding is just wrong. Being asleep, unconscious or blocking it out—doesn’t make one not a victim. And it surely doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Kelly, to her credit, repeatedly asked the Duggars about their daughters and they repeatedly answered by talking about their son, the abuser. To me it was Christian-based traditional gender-role activists valuing the man and his sexual proclivities over anything their own daughters might undergo.

And another painfully public tale of throwing your daughter under the bus is Rachel Dolezal. While the national discourse instantly tee-heed and tsk-tsked at a white woman identifying herself as black, immediately branding her as a freak, a fraud and a phony—we all missed the real story. Why are her parents on TV at all? Their daughter wasn’t hurting anyone. She had adopted a new persona. She had found another father who loves her—a community who embraced her. She didn’t get a salary from her position at her local chapter of the NAACP. She was fighting for the marginalized as an unpaid volunteer. She was trying to help people and further a cause of justice. Loving and compassionate parents don’t go on media tours calling their daughter a liar and a disappointment—especially when, by every measure, she was successful and just living her life.

Then it came out that this is yet another story hinging on child abuse. “Joshua Dolezal, 39, was charged in 2013 with four felony counts of sex abuse of a victim who was a minor at the time, sources and court records confirmed,” reported the NY Daily News. Rachel is, of course, supporting the victim and that threatens these home-schooling young Earth fundamentalists. To them, if Rachel is a liar, everything can go back to the way it was.

Rachel’s birth parents are abusive. Two of the other children in the family (so far) have corroborated Rachel’s claims of abuse: physical labor, forced isolation and physical violence.

Rachel is acting like an abuse victim acts. She’s estranged from her birth parents for a reason. And when she says she can’t prove that Ruthanne and Larry Dolezal are really her parents, she’s divorcing herself from them. She’s trying to move on and move past them. I haven’t called my neglectful and emotionally abusive birth parents “mom” and “dad” in over a decade. And if you ask me if they’re my parents, I’ll say no. I have parents; they didn’t give birth to me.

When Rachel says she identifies as a black woman and says she understands struggle, I think she does. Something about oppression resonates with her. Also, in seeing herself as black, she becomes the opposite of the people who hurt her. She’s running away from them—and she’s told us why.

Surviving is messy. It’s complicated and it compels people to do seemingly absurd things. Some recreate their trauma by acquiring different abusers; some pass on their trauma by abusing others. Some hurt themselves, or in my case blame themselves. One became Oprah. And some vow to protect others—advocate for others—and dedicate their lives to helping others sporting a spray tan and a weave to tap into a culture noted for strength, endurance and triumph in the face of adversity.


Photo by Steve Snodgrass