The providence of God in overcoming an abusive past.
by Sandra Carlson* as told to Calvin Burrell
At seven, I walked; at fifteen, I talked; at fifty, I began to live.
Everything about my childhood was painful – right from the start. I was born physically and mentally slower than my five brothers and sisters, so my parents assumed I was retarded. They never encouraged me to speak and never sent me to school, as they did my siblings; they never allowed me the same social development. My mother showed me little affection. I have no memory of her touching me or speaking kindly to me.
My father, widely traveled and well educated, expected perfection of his children. When I didn’t measure up, he criticized me and beat me. He got mad just seeing me and threw me around. Even worse, my father operated a porno ring on our family’s ranch in the California desert. I was one of sixteen minors made up of my brothers and sisters, cousins, and others whom my dad forced into his perverted service. Since before the age of two, I did all types of things for pictures.
* * *
Because of my childhood trauma, I developed slowly. I didn’t learn to walk until age seven and still couldn’t talk. My dad said I was too dumb to learn. Because I didn’t attend school, I spent time with dogs and cats and watched wild animals from our ranch. By the time I turned ten, I knew two things: Animals were my friends, and I was no more than a punching bag.
At age eleven, my dad punished me by forcing me into a dark bomb shelter. Hearing rattlesnakes but unable to see them, I cowered against the door while darkness crept into my bones and time stood still. When my father eventually opened the door, I tumbled out, crying hysterically. “Shut up,” he said, “or I’ll put you back in there again.”
* * *
I grew to hate everyone – my dad, my mom. At fifteen, they sent me to a home for those with severe mental and physical retardation. Outside my bedroom window, a few Baptists held church services in a garage. I overheard them worshipping Jesus and God. Because my only contact with these names had been when my abusers cursed, I thought Jesus must be meaner than any man I knew.
In time, over that fence, I learned the words of a song I liked:
Blessed Lamb of Calvary
Let Thy Spirit follow me;
Let the cleansing, healing flow
Wash and make me white as snow.
That henceforth my life may be
Bright and beautiful for Thee!
During one Monday night service I heard a lady speak on the theme “Jesus loves you.” I understood the words but didn’t believe the message. There is no such thing as love, I thought. If Jesus wants me, it is only to be a punching bag. Struggling with years of turmoil and hate, I spoke “Jesus” in my mind. Something – I wasn’t sure what – loosed my tongue in a torrent of cleansing, healing words – the first I had ever spoken. From that time on, I knew that Jesus loved me – but not as a punching bag.
* * *
After this, I made quick progress in the “retarded” home, and my dad picked me up. Riding back to the ranch, I told him I loved Jesus and received a backhand across the face in reply.
“I love Jesus, and I can’t stop,” I pled later, but it was no use. My dad forced me into the backyard until I recanted my faith. Encircled with electric wire, the yard offered only the support of shrubs for sleep, a garbage can for food, an irrigation ditch for drink, and dogs for warmth. When my father removed the garbage can, I cried out to Jesus. A patch of white wafer on the ground provided my food each morning; it tasted like every kind of good food I ever had. An invisible blanket warmed me at night. All I now knew about Jesus was this: He loved me, and He gave me food and a blanket.
* * *
When my dad later died mysteriously, my siblings blamed me. Taken from the ranch and placed in foster care, I lived with a German family, learning musical and handcraft skills and more about Jesus. This proved another time of refreshment in my life, but my inner struggles remained. Though I loved Jesus, I assumed responsibility for my father’s death. How could Jesus possibly love me now?
The German family moved away, and I was on my own again. Riding through Ventura, California, I noticed a black woman going into a small church. I felt compelled to get off the bus and tell her I needed prayer. It turned out that she was the pastor’s wife, and she prayed over me in a way that reached down inside me and lifted out the burdens and struggles. I ended up staying more than eight years with that family, learning that you can come to Jesus with everything.
And I did. All those years I prayed for my family, and God worked in them. For a time I was reunited with my mother and some siblings, and we lived in Washington. When my family decided to move across the country, I again returned to the familiar misery of homelessness. A brown bear licked me as I slept in a forest park near Seattle. Again, animals seemed my closest friends.
* * *
A stranger who worked at the park bought me a bus ticket to Dallas, Texas. There I lived with a caring woman before moving to a boarding house. Hoping to find God’s people again, I called churches in the phone book until one in Grand Prairie offered me a ride. When Pastor and Mrs. Coulter picked me up the first time in 1989, I was still struggling with low self-esteem and could hardly make eye contact with anyone. Nearing fifty, I could neither read nor write.
With the encouragement of my new church and the help of a teacher near the boarding house, I enrolled in a beginners’ reading class. “Slow down,” the teacher complained. “You’re going too fast.” Thus began my first formal education, at age fifty. I frequented a nearby library, took home books that were being discarded, and prepared for and passed the GED test on my first attempt.
I had grown to love children and decided to take additional courses that would certify me as a caregiver for handicapped children. When my name was called at graduation, my teacher recounted my efforts to read and improve myself and used me as an example of what a person can do with determination. At that moment, I watched as my classmates and the entire audience stood up and cheered.
I confessed to the Grand Prairie church a bitterness toward my brother and his wife for interfering in the living arrangements I had with my mother in Washington. Although this had left me homeless, I knew I had to overcome the bitterness and asked for prayer. In a few weeks I testified that God had removed all my hate and malice toward my brother, mother, and sister-in-law and that He even gave me a love for my father, though he was dead. Since that time, I have had positive contacts with my mother and siblings, and some of them have asked my forgiveness for their role in the wrongs of my childhood. Under Pastor and Mrs. Sweet’s leadership, the church presented me with a plane ticket to travel and spend some time with them.
* * *
I will turn sixty years old this fall. I now have a library of a few hundred books, teach a group of children in a Bible class setting, and teach English as a second language to my Asian neighbors. What a difference this is from three of my extended “family” who committed suicide years after their involvement in my father’s porno ring.
All of this happened because I learned and held tightly to the simple truth “Jesus loves me!” I seemed to be a throwaway child, but a gracious God rescued me, assisted by a German family, a black pastor’s family, and a loving congregation of saints in Texas.
* Name has been changed.