Listening In: Kay Warren

WARREN SMITH, HOST: Kay, first of all, welcome to the program. I’ve known your husband for a number of years. It’s great to finally meet you face-to-face. He always says great things about you whenever he is at events that I’m at with him. 

KAY WARREN, GUEST: He better. (laughter)

SMITH: Yeah, exactly right. So, the first question that I have for you, just really basic, why are you here? What are you telling this group?

WARREN: Hmm. Well, I am telling this group a story that happened a very long time ago, but has had long-term implications in my life. And so while the abuse was almost 60 years ago, which is hard to believe when I put a number on it, it has affected me in my whole life. And so to be able to be in a place where there are other survivors, to be in a place where our stories are welcomed and honored, where we don’t have to defend them or justify ourselves to anybody, but we can just say, look, this is what happened to me. This is how it affected me. And here’s where I found God. Here’s where I found hope and help. Here’s where I’m still struggling. That’s powerful. I want to be a part of that.

SMITH: Well, do you mind sharing a little bit of that story here with our listeners as well?

WARREN: Yeah. When I was about six years old, my dad was a Southern Baptist pastor in San Diego and I don’t remember the exact how it happened, meaning I don’t know what were the circumstances that got me to the back of the sanctuary that particular day. But somehow I was in the back of the sanctuary with the about 14, 15 year old son of our church janitor. And my memory really is just the clarity of being molested by someone that I knew and someone that I had seen. It was a small church, so I knew him and I was comfortable with him. But how I got there on that day, I don’t know. And I don’t remember how I got out of there, where I went from there. I know I didn’t tell anybody I had enough awareness to know that what happened was bad and it was wrong. And I didn’t have language for it and I didn’t know how to say anything about it to my parents. 

And as best as I can piece it together, I buried it in my head pretty quickly. I don’t remember thinking about it again. I don’t remember it being a conscious thought. I don’t remember reliving it. It was just, it was gone. But really from that point on, I developed a pretty insatiable curiosity about sex. And I have to tell you that the family I grew up in was a very sexually—I’m laughing because it’s not funny, but now at this point, thinking of the way that, like my mother couldn’t even say the word sex. It came out as about a 16 syllable words, s-s-s-s-s-sex, and she’d finally get the word out. Very sexually repressed household. And anything about our bodies was shameful and there was no, I mean, you were always completely covered up. And I was an only child until I was eight, so, you know, it was just me and my mom and my dad. But, anyway, very sexually repressed household. There was not a lot of openness about bodies maturing. And so I think that what I’ve learned since then that it’s not just what happens, it’s not merely what happens to us, it’s the milieu in which it happens, the context, the family. And so in my particular family, I somehow knew that it was not going to be a good thing for me to share, buried it. But I became very, very curious, but alternately repelled at the same time. It was like looking at a lizard. It’s the way I feel about looking at a lizard. I was attracted because it was interesting, but also repelled. 

SMITH: Let me just pause you and just make a couple—a couple of thoughts come to my mind. Number one is that while your story is your story, and it’s completely unique, and I don’t mean to diminish that in any way, shape, or form, it shares at least a few characteristics in common with many, many other women’s stories as well, that they’re abused by someone older than them. They’re abused by someone that they know. They’re often abused in an environment in which they don’t know, they don’t have the language to talk about it. And they certainly don’t have the language to talk about it with the people that they need to talk about it with. A lot of women can probably relate to your story.

WARREN: They can, unfortunately. Thousands—if not millions—of women can identify with at least parts of that story. And then, you know, from there, I hit my teenage years. I stumbled upon pornography in a house where I was babysitting and that curiosity that I had drew me to, I mean, the people left it out on their coffee table. Same way that my father left his counseling books, marriage counseling books. I mean the Masters and Johnson, you know, their study was in a book and it was in our living room in our bookshelf. And it’s only as an adult that I’ve looked at that and thought, why did my dad leave that in our living room? I don’t know. But, so I stumbled on that. I read his counseling books because I was fascinated. I had stumbled accidentally upon pornography—and the pornography of the 1960s that I had access to very different than the pornography people have access to today. So it was a different world. I didn’t have it easily available to me, but nevertheless, there was the attraction, the pull, then the shame and the guilt of, no, I’m a good girl. I love Jesus. I want to be a missionary. How can this have anything to do with my life? So there was some sexual experimentation and I in essence separated myself. I was disassociated from myself. There was a part of me that was the good girl. And then there was a part of me of which I was so ashamed and I did not know how to put those two people together. 

And then when in college I met Rick and I’m the good girl was who I wanted to be and that’s who he, Rick, saw me as. And I told him, I had this moment in a sociology class in which there was just this, I don’t know what triggered it, but suddenly the memory of the abuse—this decade, long ago abuse that I had experienced and had been buried to my conscious mind came back to my conscious mind and I didn’t know what to do with it. Again, who do you talk to? What do you say? I felt no emotion. I told Rick about it. He saw that I didn’t have any emotion and so we both just kind of figured in our ignorance, ah, a terrible thing. But it’s in the past, it happened a long time ago. This won’t have any effect on us. 

SMITH: She’s over it.

WARREN: Yeah, or just it won’t affect us. It won’t affect us. And what we didn’t know is of course that it would affect us dramatically. And became just a part of our lives that was so difficult. Sex was impossible. And then we argued about sex and then neither of us knew. And we just kept saying, what’s wrong with you? It never occurred to me that it had anything to do with the abuse. 

SMITH: So how did you discover that? How did it become clearer to you that that was the root of the problem and you began to face it?

WARREN: Yeah. I just over years, I think, just over years trying to read, you know, prayed, ask God for healing, read books, read marriage books, went to marriage counseling. And it became clear that that was part of an issue for us. Or at least that was part of the root. But I couldn’t talk about it. I couldn’t talk about it. I could talk about it in the sense of I have a problem and this is not working for me and this is not comfortable and I don’t know what to do. So I could talk about it at that level. And at that point, there had been enough relational trust build up in our relationship where I knew that Rick genuinely loved me and I loved him. And so after a few years I got pregnant with our first child, then our second, and then later on our third. 

But all along there was just this undercurrent that even as we grew this church and grew our family and loved God and loved each other, and we’re doing everything that we, you know, really had a good life in that sense. But there was just this part of our relationship that was not quite right. And at about when we were 40, right before we turned 40, Rick said to me one day, I love you with all of my heart and I am committed to you. I adore you. I don’t know what to do here. I’m so—I don’t know what else to do. I’m going to go to marriage counseling specifically for this and I’m going to go to a Christian sex therapist and I hope you will go with me, but, you know, you may not. And what would happen, you know, over those years was not only—I could talk to it at a certain level, but then it felt like there was an abyss that opened up in front of me. Now I know that was trauma. And the thought in my head was I’m going to fall into the abyss. Or it was the sense of like, there’s a black hole up in space and I’m gonna get there and I’m going to be absorbed in that black hole and I’m going to cease to exist or I’m going to lose my mind and I will lose it so badly I will never recover. So there was a terror and a dread of really exploring the damage and what had happened. So, we went. We went. But I’m telling you, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

SMITH: So, Kay, you and Rick ended up going to counseling. You were about 40 years old. And you talked about staring into an abyss. And I know one of the topics that you’ve been passionate about the last few years, one of the topics that you’re talking about here is the relationship between mental health and sexual abuse. Were those some of the issues that started coming out in counseling?

WARREN: Yeah. But, you know, it didn’t come quickly because that abyss didn’t suddenly turn into, you know, a park. It was hellish. It was terrible. I thought I was gonna lose my mind every single time that we’d go to counseling. We did about six months of very intensive counseling, which turned into years.

SMITH: Well, when you say six months of very—once a week, twice a week? Once a month? What does that look like?

WARREN: Two to three double sessions a week for a while. Because it was just so intense.

SMITH: Did anyone else—other than you and Rick and your counselor—know what was going on? Did the church intervene and say, no, you guys need to get some counseling? Did friends intervene or was this just something that y’all were dealing with yourselves?

WARREN: No, we were dealing with it ourselves. We did tell a few people that—I mean, I had talked to people. I had been open about the fact that I’d been abused, but there was just a certain level, you know, that I would go and there weren’t many details. So it wasn’t a secret by that time that I had experienced abuse, but I just didn’t really talk about it. So what we said was there is this that’s come to the place that Kay really in particular, Kay and Rick really feel like that this is something they need to focus on. There’s some healing that needs to happen. So we didn’t make an announcement to the church, but there were quite a few people close to us who knew. So it wasn’t a secret. 

SMITH: Yeah. So keep talking and walk us through what happened.

WARREN: Yeah. It just took such a long time to really understand that what had happened to me was not my fault. Saying those words, even after all this time—sometimes saying the words, “It’s not your fault,” is so powerful because I think we tell ourselves that really it was our fault in some way. If I hadn’t been a cute little girl, if I hadn’t attracted this guy’s attention in some way, how I did that, I don’t know. But I know some women feel incredibly responsible for the abuse that they’ve endured. And to have somebody say to you, no, it wasn’t your fault. What was done was evil. And you don’t bear responsibility for that. That’s a message that takes a really long time to penetrate into our soul and bring the healing. So that one took a long time. To also then move from that to, no, what was done was evil. That’s another level. Because then you have to grapple with the reality of evil and it’s not out there and it’s not in the news. No, evil was done to me. And that is a stark reality to begin to accept. And then to know that even some of the ways that some of the choices that I made—they were acting out, they weren’t even…when we use the word choice. Yeah, there was some volition to it, but those choices were really shaped by—

SMITH: They were consequences.

WARREN: They were consequences of evil that had been done to me and I didn’t have the cognitive ability as a, you know, 12, 13, 14, 15 year old girl to know all of that. And then grieving the losses, grieving the loss of innocence, grieving the loss of sexuality that’s not tainted by evil, grieving the loss of my own view of myself grieving the loss in marriage of, you know, we really believe—we were taught and we believed fully that if we saved ourselves from marriage, that sex was going to be mind blowing. And you know, the bells would ring and heaven would come down and it would—there was just this promise and we were virgins when we got married and it didn’t happen that way. And so grieving even the loss of what we thought was a normative Christian experience and a normative marriage experience. And so there’s just so much grief and that takes time to process, to feel, to recover, to heal. 

SMITH: Well, talk about that time and how much time it took because as you said, you’ve got three kids at this point. You’re now in your early forties. This church that you guys, you know, started in your living room is just, you know, kind of blown up. A lot of moving parts around you. How was it affecting everything else was going on in your life? 

WARREN: I took time off from ministry. I was a very active, full-time volunteer at Saddleback, taught Bible study, taught our systematic theology class with one of our pastors. We wrote that and taught that together and I just found I couldn’t put the focus on healing and continuing with life as it was. So I took six months from all of those responsibilities, really focused on healing. Rick took extra time off. He went with me on most of my appointments and we were driving 60 miles one way. It wasn’t like it was, you know, five minutes away. 

SMITH: Could I ask you why? Did you not feel safe to do it closer to home or was there, I mean, am I reading too much into that? 

WARREN: Well, two things. I probably wouldn’t have gone to just anybody close by because our lives are in the fishbowl as it is. But the person that we saw is a Christian sex therapist and there aren’t that many of those and particularly you know 1992-93, that long ago there weren’t that many. And I don’t mind telling their names—Cliff and Joyce Pinner—were just like the pinnacle on the West Coast for sure, of Christian sex therapist. And we just felt like we wanted the best and they were the best.

SMITH: Well that’s great to hear that there was actually that resource even 60 miles away, that there was any resource available, which causes me, Kay, before we kind of go back into your story just to ask this: during that era, one of the reasons this conference is happening is how can the church do better? How can the church be the safe place? How can the church facilitate the healing and be a place where victims and survivors can tell their stories? And I guess I want to ask you, during that period of time, how was the church for you? Was the church there for you? Did you want the church there for you? Did you want to push it away? Talk a little about that.

WARREN: Our particular church was there for us, but we have an extraordinary church. Just like they were there for us when Matthew died by suicide, I mean, our church has just stepped up for us, but I recognize that that’s an anomaly. Our church is an anomaly in many ways. I just have to listen to the stories of other people to know that that’s true. But our particular church was there for us in every way that they knew how to be for us. We weren’t telling, like I said, everybody a lot of details, but in what they did know, they were very supportive.

SMITH: So the church was there. You were getting some help. You and Rick kind of stuck back at least a little bit from ministry for six months to make space for that time. What happened next? I mean, my experience, and you correct me if I’m wrong about this, but there’s never really a moment—ok, I wasn’t healed, you know, you don’t get the cast off of your leg and all of a sudden you’re, you know, the leg’s not broken anymore.

WARREN: Oh, how I wish that were true. Ah, how I wish there was, you know, an expiration date on recovering from sexual abuse. But there isn’t. I mean, there are a few people, you’ll hear their stories and it makes it sound like, you know, I don’t mean it makes it sound—I believe them, but they—I prayed, God did this, I was healed. And I have to accept that to be true. That isn’t just normative. That isn’t the way it happens for most of us. Most of us go through a very long drawn out process of gradual steps, incremental healing. You grow and then you run into another barrier or a piece of trauma or reaction and then you grow through that piece. And so it’s really a start, stop, start, stop process. And that is normal. That is very normal. And that’s what happened.

I mean, that was almost 25 years ago when I first started going. And we went for several years regularly and I’m grateful that we had the financial ability to do that. I also know that many people just simply don’t have the financial ability to do that and they have to find other ways. But then after Matthew died by suicide, what I discovered was the traumatic nature of his death actually reopened other trauma experiences in me that had been quiet. You know, and what I’ve learned in that is just the nature of trauma. It waxes and wanes. Like grief. It waxes and it wanes. And you might think, Oh, I’ve already been down that road that I’m kind of maybe through that part and then something happens. Something stirs a thought or a memory and man, you’re back on your face again. And I guess, again, that’s normal. 

SMITH: Well I ask obnoxious questions for a living, Kay. So if this is obnoxious and too obnoxious, feel free to not answer. But since you brought Matthew up, I interviewed Rick maybe six months or a year after Matthew’s death and he talked at least in part of a long challenge and as many years of mental health issues that y’all dealt with with Matthew. And this is where the question gets obnoxious. Is there any relationship between what you were going through and what Rick was going through and maybe some of the trauma that Matthew was going through? Was there a family dynamic at work here that was—

WARREN: That’s not an obnoxious question. I think it’s a legitimate question. And I’d have to say, not that I’m aware of. He was seven when he first experienced clinical depression and he was—I knew he was different almost from the time he was born. And he probably could have been diagnosed earlier if we had known that children—I didn’t know that children could have a mental illness. I didn’t know. And so we really feel like his mental illness started very, very young. So I’m not going to say that the family isn’t affected by, you know, because there is a whole family dynamic, but I believe that his was more biologic in nature and rather than being a part of what was going on in our home.

SMITH: But his mental health and his depression and ultimately his death by suicide did, as you say, open up some of those wounds again. And that wasn’t, I mean, I don’t know how you measure time, but it wasn’t that long ago. And so once those wounds got reopened, you had to deal with that all over again, right? 

WARREN: Just in different ways because, as I said, things had quieted down. And the trauma of there’s, I don’t know, suicide and murder are two of the most traumatic events that can happen to an individual or a family. So his death by suicide was unlike anything that it made the sexual abuse feel like a walk in the park in comparison. And that’s just my particular experience. I would not say that for anyone else. That was my particular experience, just the devastation of his death by suicide was so traumatic and catastrophic. And so I felt like his loss ushered me into a giant room that, like over the door, catastrophic loss. And I was thrust into that room, not by my own choice. And in that room there were some other doors. And if I were to open one of those other doors in curiosity, it was like an overstuffed closet and stuff would just fall out.

And so within a very short space of time, I was dealing with all sorts of trauma from my past. And it’s like the incompletely grieved losses and trauma of sexual abuse had a room in that—had a closet in that room. And so, but there were other losses in my life. I mean those aren’t the only losses, but they were in that room. And so yeah, trauma can affect other trauma and they can kind of just stack on top of each other and it is so painful. 

One of the other things I’m learning about the trauma that I experienced now brought on by Matthew’s trauma and the reawakening of the other trauma is to realize that like we were saying, it’s not like there’s a cast that’s just going to come off my leg and I’m going to be okay. I have come to accept that parts of me—there are parts of my body, parts of my mind, parts of my soul—that are not probably going to experience full healing here on earth. And it just causes me to long for heaven because I know that the healing that God wants to give me is coming. The complete, the total, the restoration—as Tolkien says—that all sad things become untrue. And that will be part of my experience when I see Jesus face-to-face, that the sadness that was caused here by the abuse, it will become untrue in the presence of Jesus. And that is probably the strongest hope I have.

SMITH: Well, we long for that day for you and for all the rest of us, but until then, how you doing?

WARREN: I am doing, I call it wonderful-terrible. There is so much in my life that is wonderful. I have a rich marriage. I have great kids. I love the work I do. I love my church. I love my friends. My material needs are met. I mean, seriously, I have a wonderful life. And at the same time, there is this terrible gaping hole where Matthew should be and nothing and no one will replace it or fill it or make it better or take the tears from my eyes until I see him when Jesus comes for me. So again, I’m finding a level of acceptance of this is the way it’s going to be. Wonderful. Terrible.

SMITH: Well, Kay, we’re here in Dallas for this event. What do you want people to take away from at least your part of the presentation?

WARREN: I was praying as I was getting ready to give that message and then giving it, I was praying for the women particularly who were like me, you know, many years ago who as a young woman, as a young bride felt like such a failure who felt like, what is wrong with me? I’m not much of a woman. I’m not much of a Christian because if I were a Christian, I mean I’ve prayed and I’ve asked God to heal me and he hasn’t healed me. So not only am I damaged goods, I’m not even a very good Christian. And if I had heard other women talk about the length of time that it takes to get better, the fact that it’s not an easy healing process, that it’s start and stop, that there are parts of us that may not be fully healed until Jesus comes, it would have relieved so much of the guilt that I felt. And it would have made me feel like I wasn’t alone. I didn’t talk to anybody. So I felt like a freak. I felt like I was the only one on the face of the earth who was living through the terrible time that we were in our marriage. And to have heard somebody else say, it’s going to be okay and it’s going to take time and we’re with you and you’re not alone and it’s not your fault and there is help, I think it would have—Oh, I wish I had had somebody say that to me. And so I wanted to be at least a part of that for other women. And I’ve heard from several since I’ve been here who came up and said exactly that—I didn’t know. Nobody ever talks about this part of the abuse story and I didn’t know. And I feel I’m not the only one. I’m not a freak.

(Photo/Kay Warren)

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