2 out of 4 stars
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All people were children once, but not all people had childhoods—in the fullest sense of the word. As a survivor of childhood abuse, Sherri Board knows this all too well. From victim to survivor and now a practicing counselor, Sherri aims to find answers to questions that have plagued survivors like her in the aftermath of their traumatic experiences. With the aid of worship director, Jon Fleetwood, and psychologist, Anna Jones, Sherri dedicates this 369-page devotional book to help Christian adults cope with their abusive pasts.
Published in 2016 by Circle Books, What We’re Afraid to Ask: 365 Days of Healing for Adult Survivors of Childhood Abuse promises to address the queries of abuse survivors from the frameworks of both theology and psychology. The book is rooted in a blend of spirituality and the study of behavior, resulting in a therapeutic process called Christian counseling. Sherri herself has undergone this program and is an advocate of its benefits. She notes, “I trust in the practice in using humanity’s psychological therapies as tools and God’s Word as the ultimate Healer.” Christian counseling is similarly described in my additional readings as a Bible-centered approach that makes use of concepts and tools of “secular psychology.”
With Christian counseling as the genesis of What We’re Afraid to Ask, Sherri, Jon, and Anna have set quite a high bar for themselves, as implicit in the use of this term is the promise of healing not only the mind but also the spirit. With the added time element of 365 days, the authors also convey the idea that healing requires a long-term commitment. The book itself is meant to be read on a daily basis during the span of a year, hence the adoption of a simple, reader-friendly format. In each page, Sherri asks a question, and Jon and Anna provide separate answers. This pool of 365 questions and answers serve as focal points for dialogue and self-analysis.
As a psychology major—and therefore, one who has been trained in the science of “secular psychology”—my curiosity about this book and what it has to offer knew no bounds. I’ve never heard of Christian counseling up until I picked up the book, and I was torn between skepticism (because historically, faith and science do not mix) as well as a readiness to learn something new. Will this spirituality-focused approach fill in gaps that the science of psychology has failed to address? Will the book be effective for the population it targets? Will it truly answer the questions that survivors of childhood abuse are afraid to ask?
After reading the book, I’d say the answers are “Yes,” “Maybe,” and “Not really.”
Yes, What We’re Afraid to Ask offers a perspective that could enhance the practice of psychotherapy. However, the blending of theology and psychology is neither seamless nor balanced, and Jon’s and Anna’s separate responses clearly demonstrate this dichotomy. Jon’s perspective is understandably purely theological, as he provides liberal quotes from the Bible to support his contentions. While Anna’s answers are mostly founded on psychological theory, nearly all are heavily speckled with her religious beliefs. As a result, the psychological aspect is nearly lost in most of the chapters.
For instance, in one of the many times where evil was brought up, Sherri asks, “Why does God allow us to experience such evil and pain?” The psychologist Philip Zimbardo, the mind behind the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, had a very interesting take on evil and hatred, one that could readily be applied to abuse. In What We’re Afraid to Ask, Jon makes a case of people gaining “endurance, character, hope, and respect in their lives” from the “manure of evil.” In contrast, Anna talks about “a chain of disturbing and dehumanizing circumstances,” which I believe refers to Zimbardo’s concept of the Lucifer Effect. However, she immediately segues into how “evil moves because the angelic fell” and how “abuse was created by the devil.” The impact is so jarringly dissonant. I felt that this was a missed opportunity to drive home a point that Anna has repeatedly stressed throughout the book—that abusers are humans too and very likely have been victims of abuse themselves.
Now, will the book be effective for the population it targets? Maybe. From the contents, it’s clear that the book will appeal to a very limited group of abuse survivors—that is, Christian adults. Further prerequisites appear to be a strong faith equal to Jon’s brand of religiosity, as well as good cognitive faculties to accommodate Anna’s rather technical writing style. Anna addresses her answers to a general audience, as demonstrated by her use of the indefinite pronoun “one” (e.g., freedom from one’s cycle of self-persecution, one’s uncontrollable emotions…) rather than the personal “your.” In my opinion, changing the pronouns will make the text less cold and distant. As it stands, the book tends to evoke unpleasant memories of a really tedious homily and an equally dull class lecture.
Finally, does the book truly answer the questions that survivors of childhood abuse are afraid to ask? Not really. If anything, most of Sherri’s questions don’t fit the category of what people are “afraid to ask.” Sure, some questions are indeed difficult for a Christian to verbalize, like, “If God is such a powerful and loving God, why does he let innocent, defenseless children be born to or be adopted by abusive parents?” More often than not though, the questions hardly fit into what the book is supposedly about. There are practical questions about the therapeutic benefits of music, taking a walk in nature, mindfulness, dancing, and even listening to the sound of running water. There are questions that merely call for the definition of concepts like faith, patience, and even defense mechanisms. There are several questions about the Holy Spirit, Jesus, and the Scripture.
The answers, for the most part, are a hit and miss. Jon and Anna are spot on in some; in others, they’re batting one out of two. In some, they’re not really answering the question; in others, the answers given can be quite unsatisfactory. At some point, being told to just pray “for the object of your hatred” and to forgive as Jesus would can be immensely frustrating for someone in need of a more concrete direction. This further narrows down the field of possible readers to include only those that have already healed and not people who are still on the mend. Readers who are in pain about their pasts may be less receptive about taking the high road where their abusers are concerned.
After due consideration, I rate What We’re Afraid to Ask 2 out of 4 stars. Despite its failings, it’s a well-intentioned book that—with the right counselor or therapist—could actually be instrumental in the healing process, albeit of a very specific type of client. I agree with the book’s disclaimer that it’s really more of a supplement to therapy and not as a substitute for it. In this sense, individuals still in the process of healing shouldn’t use this book as a self-help material to “self-medicate,” so to speak. Overall, What We’re Afraid to Ask will work best as a resource for those in the helping profession, to be recommended to—and processed with—their clients as they see fit.
What We're Afraid to Ask
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