We all know anger isn’t conducive to healing from abuse. But how do we stop being angry?
Sasha Joseph Neulinger is a rare kind of man—vulnerable to the core, so openly vulnerable that his vulnerability protects him like a cloak of courage. I honestly don’t know if I could find the guts to be the man this man is now after experiencing what the boy he was went through. I probably couldn’t. I haven’t been tested in that way, and I’m not sure I could survive it. I’d like to think the best of myself, but I fear the worst: that I would be broken, angry, bitter, resentful, hateful towards my abusers, and hell-bent on vengeance. And yet, in the article my colleague Edie Weinstein wrote about Sasha here on The Good Men Project a few weeks ago, he says most remarkably, “I believe we need to approach the conversation without anger.” To me, that is a starting point. It’s not where Sasha’s journey began, but it’s where mine begins as I try to comprehend the place of peace in which Sasha has arrived. We’ve all read books and articles about letting go of anger and forgiving, but Sasha is the first person I’ve met who’s ever explained in a compelling way why this is so critically important. Here are some excerpts from a recent conversation I was privileged to have with him. His words help me understand, and I hope they’ll help you, too.
Sasha, why aren’t you angry?
Anger and vengeance cloud the path to healing and moving forward. If you remain angry, and you decide you need an event to justify your anger and punish your abuser, the peace you need for healing becomes external to yourself and therefore unattainable.
Wow. I could stop here and contemplate these words for a long time, but I have to provide the rest of your answer.
Aggressive energy is at the root of the problem. Abuse spawns from pain, fear, and anger, so how can you stop it with negative emotion? Yes, anger is part of the healing process. I would never suggest you shouldn’t be angry. But we need to get past anger. Everyone has their own timeline and methods for processing anger and moving past it.
You’re a survivor of multi-generational abuse. Your father told police that his brothers had abused him when he was a child, and both you and your younger sibling we also abused. You’ve pointed out that the kind of help and resources that exist today for abuse survivors were not there when your father was a child. Abuse was often kept secret, hidden in families, denied, and left untreated.
Things are better now, but not nearly where they need to be. In our current generation, survivors are given support, love, therapy. Children can heal and reclaim their lives. And this healing can stop the cycle. Abuse is caused by wounded human beings not getting help. Anyone who abuses a child is 100% fully responsible for his or her actions, but if we come at the problem with openness instead of anger, with receptivity instead of dismissal, we’ll be able to hear, process, and work with the cause. And we’ll be able to shift it.
How do you channel the extreme outrage you feel over what happened to you, over what others allowed to happen to you, into constructive action?
I was a beautiful, innocent child. I had my sense of self taken from me. Yes, I felt anger, but the real emotion people feel when they are sexually abused is sorrow, the sorrow of a shattered heart, combined with the shock of how a beautiful child could be hurt so deeply. Sorrow is a complex emotion, a reflective emotion. Anger and its companion, rage, are simpler, more reactive and of the moment. And anger fuels energy, while sorrow drains it. It’s easier to turn to rage for energy than to sit down and cry for weeks and try to heal. I was suicidal every day for almost ten years. If we don’t process the sorrow, if we shove it under the rug, whatever we’re dealing with stays with us and eventually defines us.
Was there a turning point for you, a time you can pinpoint when you finally let go of your anger?
My greatest period of emotional growth came when I walked away from the last three trials with my uncle Howard. I was about to turn 17, and the legal process could have gone for another two or three years to go with no guarantee of a conviction. I had to decide whether to focus on getting aconviction on all the charges against my uncle, or moving my life forward, and I decided, I don’t want abuse to dictate my life. I decided to accept a plea bargain, and he plead guilty to 5 child abuse misdemeanors, while we dropped the two felony charges. That was huge for me, because up until that point, all I wanted was for him to be in jail- to suffer for what he had done to me. I had to let go of my anger to make my life start to be my life, a life about me instead of a life about him.
How do you address the outrage that survivors of sexual abuse feel in your film, Rewind to Fast-Forward?
The purpose of the film, beyond being part of my own healing, is to raise awareness of how much more we need to do to provide help for survivors. Every human being is born beautiful, and when we’re hurt that badly … when we forget our own beauty, life becomes dark, and we become capable of doing what has been done to us. Every survivor needs help immediately, but our systems for providing that help are slow and expensive. Therapy, which I was fortunate to have, costs a ton of money, and the legal system hinders the healing process by requiring children to relive their experiences countless times in front of countless people if they want to pursue a case. So one of the questions the film raises is, can we reform how we handle both prosecution and providing sufficient psychiatric help for survivors? Can we advance a model centered on three key elements: openness, understanding, and compassion?
The numbers on sexual abuse always stagger me: one in four girls and one in six boys. I try to put it in context by looking at old pictures of my grade school classes and thinking, some of these kids, children I grew up with, kids whose houses I played in and rode bikes around town with, some number of them were sexually abused. It’s scary when you think about it that way, when you personalize it. And it’s scary to me that with those numbers, there is so little conversation.
Exactly. That brings the discussion back to openness. We choose not to talk about child sexual abuse, because collectively we lack emotional openness. And the silence perpetuates the stigma and the shame. With understanding and compassion, we can create a healthy framework for having the conversation and bring the problem out of the darkness and into the light.
Did you choose film as the medium for your story for any particular reason?
Yes. First of all, I had access to all the footage from my childhood, over 200 hours of me before, during, and after my experience with abuse. The film is a visual archive of my story, both a walk into the past and an opportunity to speak from where I am now, and the chronology provides an arc for the story. Being able to watch myself on film actually removed my ego from the story and allowed me to look back with openness and come forward from the same place of openness to foster an active discussion about how being open and transparent will make things better and stop the cycle of abuse. I can’t project how the audience will respond, but if my film helps protect one child or helps one survivor find the missing pieces and reclaim balance in life, that’s enough for me. I will know that I’ve succeeded.
Click here to help Sasha reach his stretch goal on Kickstarter for Rewind to Fast-Forward.
You can also click here to join Sasha’s Army and participate in tomorrow’s Thunderclap for the film.