Christian Living


Breaking Free: One Woman's Deliverance from Sexual Abuse

Chris Carpenter - Director of Internet Programming

You have probably heard of Elisabeth Fritzl, a woman in Austria who was held against her will in her father’s windowless basement for 24 years.  More recently, the horrific story of Jaycee Dugard, a young woman enslaved for 18 years by a man and his wife in a backyard compound, splashed across television and the Internet nationwide.  In Jaycee’s case, she even bore the man’s children.

When considering the fate of these two women a natural question arises – why didn’t they try to escape their captors when given the chance?

Chelsey Ann Davenport lived a similar existence in her own home.  A young girl trapped in long-term sexual slavery to her father, she eventually did escape.  But what is different about Chelsey’s story?  How did she find the courage to do so?

In a new book called A Girl Among Thorns, Dr. Linda Settles untangles the complicated, abusive life of Chelsey to explain why young girls and women are afraid of speaking out about their situation.  In doing so, her hope is to deliver young women to a life more abundant.

CBN.com Program Director Chris Carpenter recently sat down with Dr. Settles to discuss why abused children don’t try to escape, whether there is a surefire way to prevent it, and what role faith can play to set them free.  

This is a heavy topic. It seems that every couple of years we hear these stories, these horrific stories of children being kidnapped and being forced to live at the mercy of another for years and years.  Why don’t these kids try to escape?

The question that you’re posing here has been asked so much. And I know that people didn’t say to me, “Why did you stay so long?” I stayed 28 years. They didn’t say it, but it was there. It was that unspoken question. And the answer is so complex.  It is the sense of learned helplessness, that you can’t escape. It’s what you internalize, the lies you internalize when you’re really young, that make you feel like there’s all these reasons that terrible things would happen if you got away. For me, there were seven children in my family. Five were younger than me.

Just to set the record straight, you are actually Chelsey Ann Davenport, the girl whose story you chronicle in The Girl Among Thorns.

The secret is out.  That’s one reason I wanted to write the book. I wanted people to see that you can have a good life, you can be a normal—at least I think I’m normal—healthy person after you’ve been through the horrors of abuse. I wrote in the name of Chelsey, because God is good. God is faithful. I’m a testimony that God is faithful and that the questions we ask back in that dungeon, ever how that dungeon came about, can be answered, the questions of, “God, where were you?,” “God, if you’re all powerful and you’re all loving, you’re everywhere, why didn’t you intervene?” there seems to be such a conflict between those ideas. And as I’ve asked those questions and had the courage to really seek the answers, God has given me so many answers, and that’s why my faith is so strong today.

I wrote under a pseudonym, not knowing if I was going reveal my identity or not. But because so much of my story is also in my therapy book, then as I thought about it and contemplated what I should do, it just seemed like the right thing to do was to be able to let people make that connection. And if they look at the picture on the book, they kind of make the connection a lot of times anyway.

What is different about your story is that you were driven to break free? We hear so many where that doesn’t happen.  What drove you to get out of there?

I think one thing was I never completely lost hope, never completely lost the faith that some day I would be free. Sometimes I doubted it, and I had suicidal thoughts throughout my life from 13 on.  I thought the abuse started at 13 until I got in a safe place after I got away. And then the early memories, they were just so traumatic that traumatic amnesia had totally buried those early memories. Okay. So it was after I got away that I was able to remember the rest of it.

Why don’t victims in this situation speak out?

Society makes it so shameful. They don’t mean to. But I don’t know if you’ve noticed that when people are talking especially about incest. That word, it comes from two Latin words that mean “defiled” and “unchaste.” Who wants to speak out about being defiled and unchaste. And we’re not. That’s the person that did that to us. But even the language, there is a lot in the way we approach linguistically that affect whether we’re able to deal with it or not. So I propose that we completely get rid of that word. Let’s call it “intra-family CSA,” child sexual abuse. CSA is common. Child sexual abuse. Let’s talk about intra-family, layers of family child sexual abuse. And I think more people would be able to say, “Yes, that happened to me.” So I think the word itself—but not only the word, but the attitude. I grew up in a wonderful church. There were heroes of the faith in that church that I talk about in my book that, if they hadn’t been in my life, I really doubt that I would have survived. But the organization of church, whatever that mystical thing is of who is the church, it’s all of us, but the church didn’t intervene.

I’m glad you mentioned the Church.  Let’s talk about faith. What role did God and faith play in you to keep a sense of hope alive that one day you would be free from your captor?

Oh, my goodness. I had such a strong desire, and God gave this to me. I had such a strong desire to serve God that the thought of suicide felt to me like it would be a slap in God’s face. And I think that was the primary thing that kept me alive.  I felt like that He didn’t me, but just I wasn’t important to Him. But He was still important to me. And I didn’t realize that His love for me, it was like a mountain next to a pebble, His love for me versus how much I can love Him. But I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that, for some reason, He wasn’t answering my prayers when I prayed to be free. When I prayed to die, He never answered my prayers. So I thought, all these girls in the church that were taken to the parties by their parents, and their hair was taken care of and they wore the right clothes, those were the people that God cared about. And I still sought Him. I still read the Word.

Why do children and women sometimes just come to accept their desperate circumstances?

There’s a number of answers to that question. And it’s different for different people, but some common threads, whether it’s sexual abuse, physical abuse, any kind of abuse or neglect, the learned helplessness—you know the story of Martin Seligman's dogs. The learned helplessness is definitely a part of it, but there’s also leverage that the perpetrator has over the child. We’re dependent. If you look at intra-family child sexual abuse, we’re dependent on the perpetrator for our life needs, for support. In my case, my father was the only one that paid any attention to me, even though that attention was not the right kind of attention.

And I think that that’s part of what people sometimes, when they try to help abuse survivors—someone told me that even her counselor had said to her when her father was desperately ill, “Well, good, after all he did to you.” And she said, “But that was so hard, because I felt guilty for loving my father.” Well, we’re able to separate the father from the abuser, or the other person that we care about and is in our life as a family member, or whoever, from the abuser. And we love the family member, but we hate the abuser. And that’s part of the ambivalence.

A simple yet complex question.  How are you doing today?

I’m happy.  I have areas of sadness in my life, grieving, that I think, this side of Heaven, I don’t really expect that to be completely gone. But I do expect to put God’s power behind me that to give me the passion to help other people. And that’s what I’m seeing, is that, when I take what happened to me that was tragic, and I can turn that into a positive power to be used of the Holy Spirit, He can reach out. And I have a sensitivity to other people that I comes through what happened to me. There’s an empathy that comes through that. And I thank God for the treasures. That’s why my first book was Redeeming Our Treasures, finding joy in the shadows of that abusive past, is because I have found joy, even in looking back in the past at the things that God has done out of it that couldn’t be. There are strengths that couldn’t be there in my life if I hadn’t gone through the things that I did.

It seems like this book would be a great resource for recovery groups, churches, somebody to use as a study for people who have been going through these types of things.  Did you write the book with that in mind?

I really didn’t. I am planning a study guide, but I didn’t really plan that originally. It was just getting the child’s story out there, because I needed the dynamics that people would recognize intuitively in this story would help them connect with what’s happened in their own lives. But I do think a study guide is something that’s going to come in the future. I see it where my first book I see more for women who are maybe 25 and older. With this book, if a young person is 12 or 13 and they’ve been through this kind of experience, or even parts of this kind of experience, if they’ve been sexually violated, I think this book could be a very healing tool for them.  I would love for every counselor in every school, every Sunday school teacher, every women’s group leader, to have this book to be able to go into the heart of the person who’s been through abuse and understand what they’ve been through.

In your estimation, is there any surefire way to prevent such abuse? I realize this is a really broad question, but there must be some little things that can be planted in people before it’s too late.  Perhaps it is something that’s instilled before you can get to that point that could be used to get out of such a horrible situation.

Absolutely. There are more and more organizations like Darkness to Light. They are really good. And they have a program called Stewards of Children that can go into schools and corporate organizations and help people not only to understand for their own children, but when they see situations around them, to be able to start recognizing abuse. I think that every church ought to have a similar program. And I’m working on some programs that will help to do that. And I believe that it will even help the churches to have reductions, from what I’ve been told organizations do, in their insurance if they have that. Well, even more so than what you pay out for insurance. What about the eternal insurance of being able to help. In my church that I grew up in, there were so many godly people. What if they had had the tools to know how to recognize the child that’s neglected, who comes to church not dressed well, that comes to church—there’s interactions in the family that just don’t seem just right. There’s sometimes other forms of abuse. A lot of people knew my brothers were being physically abused. When you see all those things, it doesn’t mean that sexual abuse is occurring, but it’s a clue that it might be.

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